Into the Rabbit Hole

I had this whole entry planned about exposing yourself to bulk, positive randomness. It was outlined in my Moleskine. My Moleskine that, as I type in the sunny dining room of my apartment, is sitting in the office, probably under a pile of court opinions.

Nonetheless, I can’t think of anything more appropriate than taking a random approach to writing about randomness. Screw plans! Let’s freestyle this sucker.

I see your fingers inching toward the X. Resist. It will be worth it.

(Self, that was super convincing. You’ve dazzled them with your charisma! Stop slouching. And growling. Rar.)

So, uh, as we were.

This post really came about from a series of conversations with friends, work things and life things. When I take my experiences in totality, the ones I remember the most were largely unplanned.

For instance, when I moved to New York, as people who move to New York often do, I planned just enough to get me here. Everything else, I left up to the universe. But I know I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that had I not exposed myself to bulk, positive randomness beforehand.

That, to me, was Spain.

“Can you look up (insert something derogatory here)?”

I rummaged through my purse for my Spanish dictionary. “Fuzz on the lip?”

“That can’t be right.”

It was 2007. A friend and I had ended up at a random bar in Seville and, laughing about the day’s adventures, had attracted the unwanted attention of two men. They’d sat themselves down at our table and spouted off rapid Spanish. We pretended not to speak the language, hoping they’d leave us alone.

It didn’t work.

Instead, they spewed vulgarities, laughing to each other in self-congratulatory fashion.

Insert something vulgar. Cackle. Another something vulgar. Cackle.

After a couple of minutes of this, I looked them in the eye and, with a smile, said, “No me gustan los hombres viejos.”

“Y feos. FEOS. FEOS.”

I don’t like old men. Or ugly ones. (UGLY. UGLY ones.)

I refer to my study abroad experience quite a bit because while it was only for a semester, there has been no other time in my life when I experienced so many changes in such a short period of time. After all, I was in a different country, in a different culture with a different teaching style in close quarters with people from different countries.

Such a situation is pretty much an experiment in social dynamics. It’s so unnatural and out of your comfort zone that your emotions are heightened. You react differently to things there than you would if you were among the familiar.

Given this, I saw people mainly reacted in one of two ways: they clung to the familiar or at least the closest thing to familiar – by refusing to learn the language, eat the food and by sticking close to those who resembled their friends back home.

Or they dived right in.

One of my favorite adventures in Spain happened during the study abroad equivalent of spring break. Semana Santa, as it’s called, is a weeklong respite from diligent studies (I use diligent loosely), and gives you the opportunity to do whatever.  One option was the group-organized trip to Morocco. At first glance, you probably think the natural reaction would have been for me to say: Hell yes! Morocco! When else am I going to travel somewhere so exotic with an organized group of friends and age-similar group leaders?

But by that point, I was familiar with these group-organized trips. All I saw was itinerary after itinerary. Organized tours. Planned meals and meetups. Fun activities confined to specific timeslots.

It was exploration in bullet points, which, to a meanderer, is kind of like reading the Cliffs Notes version of a really compelling novel.

Screw that, homeslice.

Instead, I opted for the bulk, positive randomness route: backpacking through Southern Spain with a friend, a book, a Moleskine.

I don’t need to tell you it was amazing. I should probably tell you that I, still relatively new to this type of travel, had moments of – Oh my God, we’re going to end up sleeping next to Evil Brain-Sucking Tree Gnomes. It helped that my friend, a seasoned wanderer, was there to tell me things would all work out.

And they did. I’m certain I became a much braver meanderer as a result, moreso than had I gone the group route.

Whenever I feel trapped in a grand life scheme I’ve made for myself, I look back on that semester. I’m reminded that we have the tendency to plan things out – school, work, marriage, kids – and stick with the plan regardless of the variables that arise. The plan, after all, gives us the illusion of control over some linear path. But life isn’t linear. Success isn’t linear. Travel doesn’t have to be linear. We’d do much better preparing as much as we can while also giving ourselves the freedom to deviate from that plan.

To embrace bulk, positive randomness is to recognize that deviating from the plan isn’t a form of failure but an opportunity to create something new. Yet, it doesn’t mean venturing into the wild unprepared. In Spain, my friend and I armed ourselves with the language, sufficient street smarts and did enough research to know where we should and shouldn’t be. We recognized when people were being extremely creepy – two girls in their early 20s, believe it or not, had no trouble attracting the creepy – enough to abort conversations and when to trust that the people we met were truly as awesome as they seemed.

The funny thing is, as much as exposing yourself to bulk, positive randomness relies on trusting the uncertain and unknown, the ability to continually do it gets better with experience. Partly because our minds, unchecked, run wild. We imagine the absolute worst (Evil Brain-Sucking Tree Gnomes) to explain away what we don’t know, only to find that the anticipation of the unknown is actually worse than the thing that does occur. Even when it’s really bad.

Granted, the specifics of each situation are different. The effect, though, is the same: it hones your ability to adapt. It lets you know what it’s like to feel completely hopeless and lost and frustrated and beat. And, just as important, it lets you know what it’s like to get yourself out of it.

In a way, you become comfortable in the uncomfortable to the point that when you’re feeling your senses atrophying, you seek it.

The great thing about it all is while the change of scenery is temporary, the change in mindset lasts. I took that mindset home with me, to work with me, to moving back home with me. That kind of consistent exposure prepared me for what was next. Two years after Spain, bolstered by my previous random experiences, I moved to New York. Sure, I thought up worst-case scenarios where I slept in a cardboard box in Central Park next to Evil Brain-Sucking Tree Gnomes, but I didn’t let it consume me. It has worked out just fine.

As for the creepy old men, how did they respond, you ask? Unfortunately, we did not burst into spontaneous song about good versus evil (I imagine it would have gone something like this, and it would have been AWESOME.).

They simply picked themselves up, gathered what was left of their dignity, and left.

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