Notes from the road


Traveling for work is just like any kind of travel. You’re in a strange land, in a different time zone perhaps, and sleep in a bed that’s perfectly adequate in all other respects except it’s not yours.

But instead of spending nights painting the town red, you’re painting your spreadsheets with highlighters.

Meals are usually spent alone and cramming your head with facts about the interviewee and the subject matter at hand.

Days and nights are spent churning out material with (hopefully) lightning efficiency.

Dinner might look something like this.

And your last vestiges of consciousness are spent with your favorite Wonderer.

That pretty much sums up my week.

There was barely time to catch up with friends, though I did catch up with the characters of my book of the moment.

After Washington, I made a pit stop in Baltimore to see Lola and Phil.

We took Lola to the dog park, where she observed the other pups from the bench without getting too close (she takes after me, I guess).

Pretty soon, it was time for me to head back to the city.

Insert silly joke here cursing the Amtrak police for barring non-passengers past the door, forcing me to carry my own bags to the train.

The train, a convenient and spacious alternative to other modes of transportation, gave me a few hours of solitude.

The weekend was much too short.

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Writing & Drawing from Life Abroad

The months leading up to graduating from college are kind of terrifying.

I, ever the wise one, decided to do it in a different country.

In January 2007, I threw my stuff into a suitcase (in 30 minutes, I kid you not), said goodbye to my weeping parents and spent my last semester of college abroad.

I skipped the rituals that typically go along with the end of something: the final look at my surroundings right before it all gets quiet, and I leave with my husband and children only to return upon remembering to take down the family portrait above the mantle and, with a bite of my lip, turn on my heels and close the door[1].

I missed a lot of things that spring, including my graduation. But I didn’t care. For the first time, I was going to be away from home for a long time (I lived at home in college), and it didn’t involve toiling away in rural Virginia.

There’s an abundance of romanticism that goes along with living abroad. Some hope it will involve a tall, dark, dashing Spaniard (or the –ish –ench –an equivalent of whatever appropriate country) ready to whisk them away from their mundane existence. Some think it will involve lots of booze, lots of dancing the night away, lots of beaching and the incredible mastery of a language they formerly only knew in relation to where the bathroom was or how much something cost.

There can be that, yes, but – and this is the part revisionists neglect to disclose – there’s quite a bit of loneliness, too.

There’s the alienation of being somewhere that doesn’t eat, speak, celebrate or dream in the only way you know how. There’s the lack of people who get you in a way that doesn’t need explanation or polish or fakery. There’s the rude awakening of getting to know a version of yourself you never knew existed and, now that you do, don’t like.

And, if you’re me, there’s the culture shock of being around people who are used to money, spending it, and are in pursuit of travel not so they could learn the culture of the country they’re in, but to be able to say they’ve been there.

I, for the most part, didn’t fit in.

There weren’t too many people like me in that group. When I say that, I mean people who were born and spent much of their childhood in a third world country, moved to the Bronx and at some point lived in a studio with the family, and got into college probably because of the special your-siblings-go-here-so-I-guess-you-can-too loophole.

To put it simply, it was quite a leap. The disparity dawned on me pretty quickly within my first days there.

On one of our guided tours, a few of us headed over to an ATM  before eating at a restaurant somewhere. I checked my balance: $1,000.

That should last me a while, I thought, totally relieved.

“Don’t you hate that feeling…” said a guy from our group, who apparently had been hovering over me, “… when your balance is low?”

I think I uttered a sheepish response of agreement and withheld my bewilderment.

The next few months were going to be interesting.

In spite of it, or perhaps because of it, the experience really changed my life. I ended up making friends with people within the program who did get me, friends outside the program from around the world, and sometimes even scrounged up enough money to venture elsewhere. I eventually learned that that guy and the others were actually good people who just happened to exist in an entirely different world from mine.

And ultimately, wasn’t that the kind of out-of-comfort-zone experience I was looking for?

Afterward, I felt like I could do anything. It’s partly why moving to New York was never as daunting as it could have been. It’s also why I recommend that kind of discomfort-oriented introspection for anyone in search of something more.

Below, I’ve posted snippets of entries I made in my paper journal during that semester.

Inspired by this book (the source of the image above), I even drew a little. I had no sense of scale or proportion, shape, shading or realism, and I never did learn how to draw a straight line.

Don’t laugh.

***

February 11 | Barcelona
Waiters here are so rude sometimes. I’m sitting in a cafe on Las Ramblas — the hub of touristy things. The menu is only in Catalan (no Spanish), so I had no idea what’s on the menu. I went only for the pictures, and they didn’t even have that.

“Solo jamon!”
“Solo jamon!”

The tables nearby gawked at me, and I could feel them silently thinking they were glad they weren’t me.

March 13 | Villa Olimpica
I realized I was silently critical; I always find fault in others, possibly to deflect criticism from myself. So, as I sit on the beach marinating in the sun, soaking up this beautiful environment, I’m debating whether to be silently critical on paper. Or maybe I should just acknowledge my flaws and accept people for what they are. But that’s not what journals are for, are they?

March 14 | Arc de Triomf
My trip is already halfway over, and I can’t believe it. I still have so much to see of Barcelona; I want to see more of Spain. If only I had money, I would stay here the whole summer. Perhaps I’ll take a creative sabbatical and live in a foreign country for a few months. Who says I can’t, right?

March 26 | Sants (my neighborhood)
The hair salon is off Sants on a tiny street. It’s an interesting culture. My senora brought us just before it opened, and we were the first ones here. Soon enough, a legion of women came in. Old ladies kiss the hairdressers upon entering. They all seem to know each other.

April 1 | La Clandestina
Life’s nothing if you can’t share it with anyone who matters. That’s something I’ve learned while I’m here.

April 5 | Plaza de Espana, Seville
What I love about traveling is the people I meet along the way. In one night, we met someone who has hitchhiked through Spain, someone who won “Jeopardy” and someone who encountered Iraqi expatriates in Sweden and Scotland.

Boys have an easier time traveling. They can go anywhere and do anything with minimal fear of being abducted or raped. I’m sure that stuff happens to guys, but they’re not quite as vulnerable as girls. As I was sitting last night listening to everyone’s stories, I wished I had equally crazy ones of my own. Unfortunately, theirs involved traveling on foot at night in the middle of nowhere, asking strangers for rides and sleeping in random houses.

If I were to do that, well, let’s just say this would be an very short entry incomplete journal. This part would be quoted and deemed ironic: “Life imitates art!” But really, everyone thinks about it, so it’s not so ironic. It’s just that not everyone writes it down.

April 8 | On a bus from Seville to Barcelona
My trip ends with less than 10 euros in cash. I spent some last night at booths on the boardwalk and got two scarves, two necklaces, earrings, two bracelets for less than 30 euros. Not bad. They should be presents for friends, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to give them up[2]. I’m so glad I did Semana Santa my way. Just aimless routes, random encounters and many laughs. Best of all, void of guided tours and forced conversation.

April 11 | Barcelona
Last night, [my senora’s husband] said I was getting fat. His exact sentence I can’t remember, but it contained the phrases (in Spanish):

“She’s getting fat.”
“Turning into a square.”
“She should go on a diet.”

Needless to say, I was less than thrilled to sit across from him at dinner. His words turned into a Peanuts-like adult drawl. After some forced conversation and sitting through his rants about the value of the euro and the dollar, I excused myself from the table.

My roommate had to deal with him.

April 23 | Amsterdam
Amsterdam is such a neat place to live in. Bikes populate the city more than people. There’s a vibrant nightlife and a wealth of culture.

April 25 | Barcelona
The program ends in about two weeks. This experience has allowed me to grow up, think about myself and what I have to change about it. I’m a more experienced traveler now. I’ve grown increasingly independent from my parents, whom I still rely on financially (but I hope that will change soon). And I’ve learned to put it all in perspective. Everyone changes, but at a much faster rate when overseas and around 20 potential friends. High school never ends. And a little bit of positivity goes a long way.

I get home at the end of May and will have almost a month to get acclimated to the US, unpack, repack, move to Fredericksburg and get back into journalism.

I’ve missed the writing, the pace, the newsroom.

May 23 | Valencia
Locals tell me I speak Spanish well — the cab driver in Barcelona, the waiter in Valencia. Just imagine how much better I’d be in a year.

FOOTNOTES
[1] Relevant
[2] I wasn’t

The Most Exciting Thing


“So, how do you guys survive working and being out all the time?”

It was a serious question, one that I didn’t need much time to mull over. My college journalism partner-in-crime was in the city for the weekend visiting another former Richmonder. She was much calmer than the last time she was in town, when she greeted me at my apartment with a small bottle of tequila.

“We just don’t sleep much,” I said.

The funny thing is, Other Former Richmonder and I had just exchanged stories at dinner about New York’s not so mystical powers to drain every ounce of our energy. Weekend getaways to quieter places, we’d decided, aren’t so much luxuries as they are necessities.

Last year, I hoarded all my vacation time until the end of the year, all the while watching my editor take extended weekends every so often. At the time, I thought I could handle it.

Coming from a newspaper background, I was used to not taking a lot of time off. Christmas was the only holiday that was guaranteed for most, while Thanksgivings and Fourths of July meant covering parades and fireworks, and spending afternoons scouring the mall for shoppers with gift cards. I actually got quite good at sitting on benches, waiting for someone to sit by me so I could creepily turn to them and say, “Did you buy that with a gift card?” Their expression was of immediate regret as it dawned on them they were about to be featured in the local paper not for some great achievement, but for their shopping habits.

But those days were different. I was in sleepy towns where The Most Exciting Thing that happened involved bears getting caught on video scampering across someone’s backyard.

Here, there are visitors upon visitors. Strangers upon strangers. Activities upon activities. In the rare instances I have a weekend to myself with no plans on the horizon, no visitors to meet or house, no work that bleeds into my Saturdays and Sundays, I rejoice.

A year into working in the city, I realized why my editor cherished his long weekends and quiet getaways. Actually, let me edit that to say I – a burned out, fatigued, irritable version of myself – realized why he cherished his long weekends and quiet getaways.

For someone who demands copious hours of time alone to counter the copious hours spent with people, such a loss of autonomy to dictate what to do with my weekends had made me that way. After all, New York, for a twentysomething with a penchant for doing The Most Exciting Thing, never has a lack of things to do and people to do them with. Rather, it is time alone that must be set aside and filled with purpose.

Of time, I’ve become fiercely protective. Suddenly I am Gollum, so consumed by this elusive force that I am compelled to whisper to it and to myself that it is mine. And it is precious.

I’ve started planning my months according to these weekends and looking forward to them as much as I do to momentous occasions. On Friday, I jot down in my imaginary planner, I will surf the interwebs after work with abandon. On Saturday, I will Zumba in the morning, grab coffee and bagel in the afternoon, and read or write into the evening. On Sunday, I will sleep until I can sleep no longer, read or write some more, eat a well-balanced meal, and possibly schedule that doctor’s appointment I’ve been putting off.

This ambitious itinerary is flexible, of course, subject to change should something amazing (like “The Wonder Years” becoming stream-able on Netflix) happen. I feel as accomplished finishing a load of laundry or a blog post as I do when I’ve finished a major work project.

I can’t say that this has been effortless. It’s much too easy to get caught up doing The Most Exciting Things than dedicating time to solitary pursuits, whether they’re spent creatively or not.

After nearly two years of living here, I’m still learning it’s OK to be selective about the things I do and the people I do them with. It’s OK to not want to see this exhibit right now or take pictures of that major thing. It’s OK to turn things down if fulfilling them is at the expense of maximizing naptime.

Above all, I’ve learned that my physical and mental well-being is what’s at stake. And New York, no matter how dynamic it may be, especially in its so-called Once In a Lifetime moments, will not stop when I do, albeit temporarily.

On looking and being a certain age

It’s something I hear so often I’ve amassed a list of pre-selected responses.

“That’s because I’m 12” is one.

“I’m sure I’ll appreciate it someday” is another.

Or the simple and straightforward “So I’m told.”

I’ve thought of coming up with something outrageous since people who don’t know me well often take my deadpan delivery as gospel. It’s as if they’d never think that such a dry retort could come from someone seemingly so nice and, well, young.

“I actually am a prodigy,” I’d say, “and am looking to get my Ph.D. in astrophysiologicalbioinformaticalitics.”

I imagine them raising their brows in amazement and, more gratifyingly, fear. Everyone, after all, fears kid wonders and the mighty powers they haven’t yet decided to assign to good or treacherous deeds.

This time, though, I opted for a variation of the very generic (and truthful) third.

“You could pass for a sophomore at NYU,” he said.

At first, there had been nothing extra about that ordinary Tuesday. I got to work at the usual hour, ate my usual lunch (well, usual as in I get obsessed with a particular spot and eat the same thing every day until I tire of it) in my dark corner, comforted by the glow of the computer screen and the funnies of my usual geeky messageboard.

Having just finished a major project, I was leaving the office early (in my world, 6-ish in the evening) for the first time in weeks. I was further bolstered by the fact that I was free to do whatever with the rest of the night, so I had to think of something wild. “I know,” I said. “Barnes & Noble!”

And that’s how I ended up talking to Bob.

I’d serendipitously decided to go to B&N the very same night John Lithgow – the Trinity Killer himself – was signing his memoir. The seating area was surprisingly half-filled at about a quarter ‘til, and I was alone in my row, perfectly positioned so that the podium was sandwiched between the heads of the two people in front of me.

“Can you do me a favor?” I heard someone say.

I looked up from my BlackBerry to see Bob holding a framed caricature of Lithgow.

“Depends what it is,” I said.

Whenever I tell people about my random encounters, they sometimes look at me all wide-eyed: “And you didn’t run?” There was a time in my life when I would have. After all, my parents raised me to be distrusting of the world and the people in it, never to mistake someone’s offer as devoid of expectation. But while walls of that nature protect you from life’s dangers (or at least give you the illusion that they do), they also keep you from everything that makes life, well, happen. I soon learned that in order to experience things, one must be open to uncertainty and the horrors – or wonders – it provides.

Couple such ingrained (or inherited) skepticism and assertiveness with childlike wonder and curiosity, and you get someone like me. It also doesn’t hurt that I look 12. People are generally nice to me and have no qualms striking up conversations – a great thing when you’re a journalist who has to talk to strangers all day. It’s as if they sense they’re in the presence of something fragile that must be protected (or exploited).

Though I do encounter creepy oddballs from time to time, for the most part such pleasantries have the potential to evolve into something interesting. There was the businessman passing on his parental wisdom on a flight to Spain. There was the young art dealer, who, while not so discreetly drinking PBRs on the bus, talked of his perfect brother who played perfect baseball at Stanford. There was the girl from Mumbai who told me that even though we were in line to see Letterman, she actually preferred Leno. And then there was the guy on the train who, after asking me if the dress I wore was from a certain place, told me he was among the people who helped designed it.

On this night, there was Bob, who started taking pictures of flags after 9/11. He travels across the country in search of variations of the red white and blue – something he’s found on houses and trucks and gravestones. For fun, he draws caricatures of famous people.

“He has a great face,” he said of Lithgow, who, by the way, was fantastic. He read the crowd a chapter of his book, answered questions with such wit and flair, and talked of his love of the theater.

Afterward, Bob lined up to get his book signed and hand over his caricature. I, fulfilling the favor I’d deemed reasonable, waited in front of the stage, just steps away from the man who so brilliantly played one of my favorite villains, ever (a title he shares with Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa and NPH’s Dr. Horrible).

They exchanged a few words; I took a few pictures.

When he was done, Bob handed me the autographed copy: “This is for you.” The pictures, he said, were enough.

On my journey home, with the shiny, new book in my hand, I at once was the cool 27-year-old I was, and the giddy 12-year-old I sometimes seemed to be.

(Photo Credit : dans le rêve on flickr)