Looking At Something

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When you spend a year doing one thing and not much else, you go a little nuts.

At least I do. If I don’t get to write or take pictures, I get seriously crabby. I start thinking of projects. I declare to no one in particular, with much defiance, I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY, BY GOLLY, I WILL MAKE STUFF.

It doesn’t even matter what it is as long as it’s something. Which is how I started a winter break blog about being on winter break, or a blog about pups in sweaters, or PROBAATD.

It’s how I, an aspiring copywriter, started Franco Looking At Something — a wordless, writing-free, un-captioned photo project.

The concept is simple. There are cool things everywhere. You just have to look.

Sure, that’s easy to say when you’re in an awesome city. Even then, though, we’re subject to Getting Used To Everythingitis.

Everything on FLAS is taken with an iPhone 4S and Instagrammed. I’d toyed with the idea of using DSLR pictures, but the iPhone’s portability allows for more spontaneity and, let’s face it, it’s the camera I have with me at all times.

Sometimes the city’s so beautiful I do nothing but press a button. Other times I capture the mundane. My favorites are often the ones nobody likes.

The most popular so far? This one.

Take a gander. Hang a while. Raise yo hands in the air and wave them like you care a lot.

Because it’s important.

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Chinese Takeout

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My favorite type of travel is the long, lingering kind. The kind that sees the best of somewhere as well as the not so best.  The kind that lets me sit, study and hang.

It’s how I ended up in Staunton, Bristol and Fredericksburg. Their one main attraction, aside from a guaranteed paycheck, was that they weren’t Richmond.

When you stay in one place too long, the awesome becomes the norm. I remember arriving in San Francisco a few weeks ago and marveling at the big blue sky. “Oh yeah,” Franco said. “I guess it is pretty blue.”

It’s strange to think you can get used to this. But you do.

You develop a routine. You find your favorite coffee shop. Your Chinese restaurant. Your greasy breakfast place. It’s inevitable and yet deceptively satisfying.

Look at those tourists, you tell yourself. You’re not one of them.

Because they don’t stay in one place long enough to look past the big blue sky. They don’t know you don’t walk until the light tells you to walk. Or to order first before finding a table. Or to know the difference among what’s trash, what’s recyclable and what’s compostable.

You notice the absurdity in finding system and order in a place the ‘60s became the ‘60s, where cyclists wear helmets and nothing else, where nudist communes are just around the corner.

But you suppose when you’re free in most aspects of life, you can afford some structure.

Back East, there’s nothing but that.

You live to work. You know the endless grind that frustrates and disappoints, so much so that you take it out on people you’ll never see again. You push and you shove, fighting to be first to sit on the train, to walk 4 seconds faster, that your line is better than theirs so they should get behind yours.

You know it’s never really about the dude slowly crossing the street so much as it is about that shitty thing your boss said or that shitty thing your landlord pulled or that shitty thing that happened on the subway.

Just a year ago, I was that person. I remember visiting law firms in San Francisco and being more dressed up than the lawyers. Lawyers who did things. Who went home to their kids.

Who had lives.

It fascinated me so much I decided to go back this summer as a jobless wandering wanderer.

Because here, a late night means dancing past midnight. A commute means walking under the big blue sky. And a hectic afternoon means having to go to three coffee shops on the same block before settling on one.

It’s a glorious existence because it isn’t forever. Soon, school will start, the days will run together, the nights will blur, the end will come.

And so will the grind.

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Bagnapper’s delight

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5 o’clock shadow. Chicago.

Just in case you were mystified by my lack of updates, let me direct you to my Twitter.

Long story long, I’ve been a tad preoccupied with a major research project at work, on top of being gone for nearly three weeks for Thanksgiving and meetings in Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, Silicon Valley and San Francisco again – in that order.

I just got back last night and have quite a few pictures to post. Much of them I’ve already tweeted (giving you non-Tweeters the side eye yet again). I’ll try to post the rest, stories attached, over Christmas break (Yes, I’m referring to it like I’m still in college).

For now, here are some highlights:

This experience aside, Torontonians are lovely. I’m told there’s this thing on the CN Tower called the Edge Walk, in which you’re suspended above the cityscape with nothing between you and the hard, hard concrete but a flimsy-looking cord. It’s only open in the warm months, and I’ve been invited to do it should I return in the summer.

I think I’ll pass.

Chicago is an awesome city.  This place is delicious, and the aquarium was fun. Jellies are always my favorite, because ain’t no party like a cnidarian party.

For my first stint in San Francisco, I stayed in the Tenderloin — a result of coming into the research process quite late and having limited time to book and schedule meetings. Upon dropping me off, my cab driver asked why the heck I was staying there. He also answered my questions of “Am I going to die?” with things like: You’ll be fine. Pause. If anyone comes up to you, just walk away. Pause.

Cab peels away the second I close the door and I’m left standing there with my luggage, a lone tumbleweed rolling by.

Silicon Valley is a neat, smart town. Lots of tech companies and charming downtown strips. There, I saw the Apple Store Steve Jobs frequented, Stanford in all its splendor, and the mighty HP shed where it all began.

I was almost the victim of The Great Bagnapping Disaster. Granted, half of it was my fault for not paying close attention to the carousel (My name is Karen, and I’m a Tweetaholic). But that had never happened before, even when I used a very generic black suitcase, so I figured: Why now?

Sure enough, I looked up from my phone long enough to realize I was the last one standing at baggage claim while a sole red suitcase that kind of but not really resembled mine rolled past.

I lifted the noticeably empty suitcase and checked the tag: Blank.

It was time to panic. I debated between running to SFO airport security and fruitlessly filling out paperwork or hunting down the bagnapper.

I decided to go a-hunting.

Potential Bagnapper #1 was a girl in her late teens or early 20s. I could tell she was creeped out by the little Asian girl chasing her down. “Excuse me?” I said. She walked faster. “Excuse me?” She stopped once she realized her ride hadn’t arrived yet. She was cornered.

Me: Hi, I can’t find my suitcase, and I just wanted to check if (looks down to see her identical red suitcase has a big black tag on the handle. Internal monologue: “Crap. That’s not mine. Or is it? She could have just added it really fast. But it looks like it’s kind of hard to add and remove quickly. Or maybe –“) you might have taken my suitcase by mistake.

Her, not amused: It’s mine.

Me: Yeah, I just noticed the tag. Well, thanks anyway; I wonder where mine went.

Her, still not amused: Well, this is mine.

I walk away, muttering expletives.

Potential Bagnapper #2. Mom standing by the curb waiting for pickup. She’s with some kids, possibly hers, and totally not the bagnapping sort. I approach anyway.

Me: Hi, did you just fly in from Chicago? (Looks down at suitcase. No unidentified tag to be found, and it appears as plump as mine).

Her, friendly: Yes.

Me: Well, my suitcase looks just like that, and I was wondering if it might be mine. Can I just see the tag?

Her: …

Me, not waiting for a response, already looking at the tag tucked into the backpocket: It’s mine.

Her: Oh my God! I’m so sorry. Here you go. We just bought a new red suitcase just like this.

Me: It’s on the carousel. I’m just glad you’re still here.

Her: I’m so sorry!

I run to catch a cab, aneurysm averted.

Now, I tend to be discerning of people and their intentions, and she very well could have been a tired mom. Except for one big discrepancy: The suitcase on the carousel was empty. Mine was nearly 50 pounds. There was absolutely no way she could have mistaken mine for hers unless she happened to possess Buffy-like strength with the inability to gauge weight.

Somehow, I doubt that.

Final Score —

Me: 1

Attempted Bagnapper: 0

The Undead: Eternity

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

Poor Man’s Shia & Other Things

I’d read somewhere Toronto had a thriving underground nightlife, and my friends were determined to find it. Luckily some Torontonians they’d met on another trip showed us the places to go to be seen. I went along with it, despite my usual desire not to be seen by anyone but the people I want to be seen by.

Among the recommended places was an upscale lounge frequented by pretentious sorts, a prime example of my aversion to places like it. For one thing, the bartender, a  poor man’s Shia LaBeouf, flirted with tall blondes and brunettes before serving drinks to the commoners. And when he did serve drinks, an attitude came with them.

“I don’t know what that is,” he said with an eye roll.
“But,” I said, “it’s on the menu.”
“No, it’s not. You can ask HIM how to make it,” said Poor Man’s Shia, referring to the other bartender.

It was big-city snobbery without the big city.

A cab driver blamed the recession for the lackluster nightlife. After I’d lamented the empty streets and muted energy, he said people had become more careful with their money, but “It’s not New York.”  I nodded in agreement, though I hadn’t expected it to be New York in the first place.

During the day, it was no better. At around 5 p.m. everyone downtown passed in a blur of suits and briefcases. A suited drone rammed into my friend and kept walking, barely missing a step. It’s a familiar sight in big cities, but the colorless backdrop made it seem even colder.

This isn’t to say there weren’t good things about Toronto.

I was surprised by the narrow interpretation some people took of my Kensington Market entry. Though I can’t control how my writing is interpreted, it’s interesting how people project their biases onto the situation, depending on how well they think they know the people in the story.

I highlighted the interesting parts of Toronto in pictures. But because pictures can be deceiving and it’s not always easy to capture frustration visually without going into abstract or extremely literal territory (cue picture of me scowling), I felt it necessary to use commentary to provide a more complete perspective. I’m not interested in reading the censored version of anything, so why should I write such drivel on my blog?

I aim to provide accurate accounts of my experiences — at least how I see things, which is the key element here — whether or not they were pleasant. I’m not going to say something was life-changing and amazing when it wasn’t, but I’m not going to portray someone negatively without merit either. Something less than adoration is not necessarily criticism of the person but an analysis of someone’s behavior and my reaction to it, which could just as well be a criticism of myself. And because I’m a writer who thinks too much and analyzes too much and deconstructs too much, I always try to learn from these experiences and, unfortunately (insert wink), try to share what I’ve learned with others. With that said, Poor Man’s Shia LaBeouf was a douche and certainly deserves the title.

Toronto reminded me that more often than not, especially when traveling, things don’t always go as well as you’d hoped. As with anything in life, it’s all about how you react to things. I reacted by taking an hour to explore the city alone and by dissecting the trip afterward. It also further reinforced that travel means different things to different people. Some trips you take to enjoy friends and to make them, some to get away from the drudgery of daily life, some to explore the unfamiliar, and so on. All of them, ideally, allow you to learn more about yourself and things outside of it. All of them hopefully don’t hinge on a solitary landmark or mishap, because if something ever goes wrong — and, chances are, something will — then it would all be a waste of time.

Of course I would have loved to come back with several tales of misadventures and glorious encounters (though there was some of that), but not all trips are like that, just as life isn’t always like that. If it were, it would condition us to grow accustomed to extreme highs; monotony would ensue. This way, the moment something amazing does happen, it heightens the senses and makes us all the more aware of its rarity.

More common still is the sameness of life, briefly interrupted by glimmers of things less ordinary. And that, to me, was Toronto.

These pictures are completely random and didn’t fit into previous posts.
Here, a dog actually was sniffing these statues but I sadly didn’t get a good shot of it.

The day S. and I went to the Cambodian restaurant, we also came across a grocery store called “Manila,” named after the Philippine capital.

S. laughs during one of our impromptu photoshoots.

Rush hour zombies.

Flashy Chucks.

This guy hung out at Tim Hortons. When we gave him change, he started calling us his girls.

First glimpse of C.! In this picture, she’s passing through an air-blowing security checkpoint at the CN Tower.

I really liked this walkway, which led us to the tower.

The ROM. I enjoyed ancient Egypt the most. Women were held in high esteem
and could rule the country. Ahead of their time or are we just backward?

At Casa Loma after the Princess’s exit.