Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Endings and Beginnings

“It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realize what’s changed is you.”   
            -The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

At the end of a long journey, it can be difficult to decompress and figure out what you’ve actually learned. Change is inevitable, growth is almost certain, and at the very least you’re returning to a life that has progressed without your daily contribution.

It’s been three weeks to the day since our return from Paris, and Jay and I both are already noticing the changes. ...

“Have you ever thought about how many clothes you have?”

“Yeah, it’s weird. Are you still waking up at 5:00 in the morning?”

“Sometimes. I keep feeling like I have a train to catch.”

“I miss the French. I miss the way they talk. I miss their bread.”

“I miss Ireland. I think about those stupid wind bushes all the time.”

“Yesterday I went out with my friends. Their work lives sound miserable. Is that what I sounded like before?”

“Pretty much, yeah. Do people keep asking you what place you liked best?”

“Yep. I say the same thing every time -- ”

“Ireland for the people, France for the history, Eastern Europe for the landscape?”

“France for the people, Eastern Europe for the history, Ireland for the landscape.”

“Agree to disagree.”

“Doesn’t it feel like everything between high school and the trip never really happened? Being back in your hometown, I mean?”

“Seattle was definitely a dream. The particulars of how we met are Greek to me.”

Sigh. “Greece....”

And on it goes....

And on it still goes. The above was obviously composed a great deal of time ago, as Jay and I have been home for over three months now. In fact, this is my last night on the west coast for a while; tomorrow I relocate to New York City. (Jay is kicking some serious Shakespeare ass in Seattle right now, but he’ll be on his way next month.)

So, once again, my life is tetrised into airplane-friendly luggage, awaiting its new home, and once again I'm contemplating what travel, change, beginnings, and endings ultimately teach us.

With Jay in Portland/Seattle and me in Spokane, this summer left little opportunity for co-reminiscence. Still, our readjustments to life in Pacific Standard Time were fairly similar. For a few weeks our trip was the main topic of conversation with friends, family, and even strangers around our respective towns. Everyone wanted to know the itinerary, our favorite places, and (with surprising candor) whether certain Eastern European countries' economic crises were “apparent” in their tourism. (??!) Then, as all things do, our journey faded into the background of our respective lives. We reconnected with some semblance of normal routine.

I say “some semblance” because of course things changed. You can’t just uproot your life for three months and expect time to stand still. Friendships shift, careers progress, people cut their hair, buildings are torn down... Someone you've lived with for a year and a half becomes someone you’ve spent every waking moment with for three months straight, and suddenly (when you return home as a long-distance couple) your otherwise independent souls have become embarrassingly weepy at the mere thought of spending time apart. Yes, things change.

But returning to my sleepy hometown, living with family again, reconnecting with old friends, hopping back on the “What’s next for me?” train -- arguably the things that were most at variance with the life I’d made for myself in Seattle -- oddly enough, these circumstances seemed to wash over me without ceremony. Even reunions with Seattle friends and coworkers were astonishingly effortless. Psychologically, it felt like I’d imagined my entire life since college. Functionally, it appeared that no time had passed at all.

What I came to realize through it all was this: The changes that result from an extended adventure -- a break from reality, a journey abroad, a quarter-life purpose-quest; whatever you’d like to call it -- have little effect on the world you leave behind. Few people are going to regard you differently than before, America won't seem like a different planet on return, and if a work sabbatical is part of your experience (it wasn’t part of ours) your company and employees are unlikely to change much in their own right. And yet these are the exact anxieties we entertain when we weigh the possibility of leaving.

“Oh, I could never catch up on my life again.”

“I need to focus on my career.”

“I’ll miss out on everything.”

This simply isn't the case! If you have professional focus and a good work ethic to begin with, there’s no reason you can’t be back on your feet in the mere time it takes to recover from jet lag. If you haven't developed these qualities in your career yet, face it: you probably don't have much to sacrifice anyway.

Obviously money is a factor here, and setting a reasonable budget for both the duration of your journey and a month or so after your return is a necessity. If you can afford to do that, though, chances are the other excuses are just sour grapes.

Here’s what did change during my three months away from home and “real life”:

    My appreciation for and desire to show generosity.

    The way I handle stress.

    My perspective on teamwork.

    My confidence in my own resourcefulness.

    The way I think about money.

    My perspective on fear.

    The amount of energy I spend analyzing The Past.

    The amount of energy I spend worrying about The Future.

    My ability to connect with strangers.
    My interest in negativism and my tolerance for defeatists.

    My relationship with my personal belongings.

    My conversation and listening skills.

    The ways I purchase and consume food.

    My thoughts on marriage and parenthood.

    My interest in the seemingly mundane.

    The value I place on new experiences.

So what’s the through-line here? What do all these alterations have in common? Simple. All of them were internal. They happened in my head, heart, and soul. They affected and continue to affect my behavior and habits, not my appearance or resume or even my Five-Year-Plan. They go deeper than my datebook.

As I prepare for my move to New York, a large part of me is terrified. There are the obvious concerns (of which many people have graciously reminded me these past few months): making/keeping enough money, finding a comfortable apartment, persisting in the face of great rejection, noise pollution, never-ending crowds, cockroaches... But beyond all that lies a greater fear: The possibility of this new-found wisdom being lost in the rush of a new, frantic, ambitious environment. I returned to this previously abandoned final post (I knew it stayed on my desktop for a reason!) to bear witness to my own dawning sense of self; to publicly preserve a moment of clarity which I hope will continue to inform my future habits and ultimately pave the way to better personhood. If it exists here in writing, perhaps it will carve itself into my heart as well.

Much appreciation is due to those of you who followed Jay and me on this journey -- especially for the kind words of support we received throughout the process. Stories serve little purpose in the absence of ears, and I humbly thank you for lending me yours.

Until next time,


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Two Days in Paris

DISCLAIMER: This post is far longer than 1000 words. There is nothing I can do about it. It's Paris.
When it comes to the City of Lights, there never seems to be enough hours in the day. Perhaps that's why Paris is such a night city... people are never quite ready to double-kiss it goodbye!

While I certainly share this opinion now, the first time I visited Paris I found it terribly underwhelming. I was a senior in high school, going abroad for the first time with my family, and alight with images of Gene Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, bicycles and baguettes, and armed with three years of high school French, which I was just dying to try out on real-life Parisians. 

This was in 2008, at the height of the second Bush Administration's second go-around. (I shouldn't need to tell you how French people -- or in fact, most European people -- felt about George W. Bush at this time, let alone the foolish Americans who somehow managed to make the mistake of "electing" him twice.) Needless to say, our loud-mouth "nucular" family of five (tailed by my impishly irreverent younger brother, who spent the entire vacation in a U.S. army jacket) were quickly surveyed and dismissed by most everyone we encountered in Paris. Confidence in my foreign language abilities immediately waned when my patisserie request (Bonjour, avez-vous des tartes au citron?) was repudiated with an English response.

April in Paris, circa 2008. Doing my damndest to maintain a level of "Euro chic" beside these clowns.

A lighter moment on this trip.

Thus, a follow-up visit to this tricky city was at the top of my travel list.

During our time in Lyon, Jay and I stayed with two college-aged women who granted me much more grace in stumbling through my French repertoire. (I should note that my speaking skills have remained more or less unchanged since 2008; with the exception of the occasional DuoLingo refresher, my French studies ceased after high school.) At any rate, seven years of work on general self-confidence must have made an impact: I found myself understanding and slipping into French conversation with more mettle than ever before. It was with renewed faith that I boarded the train to Paris, and that faith laid the groundwork for a fantastic final two days in our grand adventure.

The journey began at the Hôtel Eldorado, a guidebook-recommended budget hotel near Place de Clichy. I'd greeted the concierge and described our reservation in French, and she continued speaking French to me long past the point where I could fully grasp what she was saying. I took a private joy in this -- I'd managed to pronounce words and form sentences enough to convince her of fluency. Even if she was privy to my Americanness, I'd earned her benefit of the doubt. As far as I was concerned, I'd just been admitted into an exclusive society. There was nothing to say but Merci, merci beaucoup!

Our room proved tres adorable with its attic-like ceiling, colorful decor, and provincial shuttered windows, but the world outside awaited. It had been a while since our croissant-and-coffee train breakfast, so Jay and I walked along the Boulevard de Clichy in search of dejeuner. We ended up at a cafe near the Moulin Rouge that was bizarrely dubbed "La Marmite." (I still don't know why.) There, we feasted on generous portions of quiche and chicken, green salad, and frites, as well as a carafe of red wine. Throughout France, but in Paris especially, the food is no joke. There is a reason these people spend two hours at lunch.

People-watching is a favorite travel pastime of mine, and it's particularly satisfying in a place like Paris. Long considered the fashion capital of the world, its pedestrians never fail to disappoint. From trendy dungarees to colorful bowties to the classically French Breton stripes and tailored pants combo, everyone looked dressed to perfection. For myself, having just fostered an obsession with The Daily Connoisseur, it was like being at a holiday parade.

Anyone familiar with Scott's Madame Chic series will appreciate this significance of this photo!

The rest of the day was spent on foot, with me urging a very-tired Jay "just one block further" for the next five hours. We passed the unmissable Palais Garnier (cue Phantom of the Opera overture), window-drooled at Ladurée (does anyone really buy $4 macarons?), and strolled along the Rue de Rivoli (which always makes me think of "ravioli" when I see it typed out....) At the Tuileries Garden we paused to admire well-dressed passersby and relax on the surprisingly comfortable green metal lawn chairs. We then waltzed our way across the Seine and into the quietly stunning 6th arrondissement. After walking through this area for some time, we found our stomachs rumbling and popped into a nearby grocery.

You've surely heard the odes to French bread, but you can't quite grasp its divinity until you've walked into an unassuming shop (really, just about any one will do), plucked a STILL WARM baguette off the shelf, and discovered that it's half gone upon arrival to wherever you were going. It's true the French regard meals at a sit-down affair, but you won't be hard pressed to find a Parisian nibbling their baguette en route. Try walking anywhere with a hot, delicious-smelling piece of soft-baked holiness in your arms and you'll quickly understand the deviation here.

With the bread, sliced salami, a small wheel of Camembert, and a pear in tow, Jay and I made our way to the southeast base of the Eiffel Tower. Picnicking here is a fairly standard tourist activity (just say no to the vendors who pester you with wine and roses), but there's a reason for it: everything from the tree-lined path to the awe-inducing tower is positively romantic. And even grocery food is unbeatable in Paris.

On day two, Jay and I headed to Le Marché des Enfants Rouges, the oldest market in Paris. The vendors appeared to be setting up for lunch, so we had our breakfast at a nearby cafe instead. Somehow the rich combination of cafe au lait and croissant sustained me until mid-afternoon, when I settled my appetite with another baguette and yesterday's Camembert. Jay skated by on dark coffee and a large omelette. I'm convinced this kind of light eating can only be managed in France (I seem to have a much bigger appetite at home), but it's something to celebrate when you're on a budget!

After brunch it was off to gift-shop for our respective families. A shop called Merci in the Marais district had been recommended by several sources, but Jay summarized it best as "a French and more overpriced Urban Outfitters." We had fun browsing there nevertheless. Nothing caught our interest for the rest of the boulevard or Rue de Rivoli, but on route to Notre Dame we came across the loveliest stationery shop called Mélodies Graphiques. It was run by a smiling, gray-haired man who took great care in wrapping up our journals, pen nibs, and hand-painted cards "just so." Jay and I reemerged into the world as though we'd spent the last forty minutes in a Dickensian time portal.

I had a hankering to visit L'Occitane, convinced (and correct) that I could score a better price here than in the States. This meant descending into the tastefully-concealed Carrousel de Louvre, an underground mall beneath the museum's iconic glass pyramid. In spite of all the tourists, the experience was disarmingly pleasant. The subsurface location separated the flashy shop windows from the history-steeped streets, allowing one to float between the two worlds without aesthetic conflict. Once again, I felt like a time-traveler. I'm now convinced that the US would benefit from converting their mall rats into mall moles!

At mid-evening we metroed back for a hotel siesta before taking our dinner downstairs. As it turned out, the Eldorado's adjacent restaurant was quite the local hot-spot, and we were lucky to have gotten there early. Jay and I treated ourselves to wine and dessert with our meal, and everything was, of course, perfect.

Paris isn't called the City of Lights for nothing, and I wasn't about to let its landmark finish pass us by. The two of us walked the 50-some minutes back to the Eiffel Tower around 10:30pm, once it was finally dark. We were rewarded with a breathtaking glow of yellow light against the inky curtain of sky. Just as we walked away, it began to glitter. Quelle finale!

In the morning, I awoke to the sound of birds outside our window. It was the final day of our incredible journey. By this time tomorrow, Jay and I would be back home and 5000 miles away from the lights and sounds, the Breton stripes and delicious baguettes. I tried to relish every second of it -- each breath of Parisan air that flowed through the curtains. As Jay stirred beside me, he smiled in melancholic understanding.

We breakfasted in the downstairs cafe. Jay ordered a coffee and orange juice, and then the waitress turned to me.

"Pour vous?"

"Un cafe au lait, sil vous plait."

And then, for some reason second-guessing myself: "Just coffee, I mean. With milk."

"Mais oui!" replied the waitress with a reassuring smile. "You said it perfectly. C'est un choix tres Francais."

I glowed across the table at Jay. It took me seven years, but I had finally united with the tres Francais.