Monday, June 26, 2017

Lost in Any Language, Part 3: City of Lights (and Late-Night Plights)

Our long day in Paris was about to get longer.

It was August of 2016, and I was traveling with my friends Jodee and Tim (or, as they suggested when I asked if I could use their names on my blog, "The Most Amazing Couple You Have Ever Met").

They also brought their kids.

We were quite a crew.

We'd been warned against visiting France; but so far, everyone's worst fears had proven exaggerated. Despite international tensions, the city was still packed with tourists, and although the very obvious anti-terrorism security did nothing to decrease our travel stress, we'd actually been having a fairly smooth trip.

Our time in Paris was brief, and we were trying to pack a lot in--too much, perhaps. On this particular day, we'd hit Eiffel Tower Park (a truly horrible experience) and canvassed two museums--Musee d'Orsey and Musee Rodin

It had proven too much for the younger members of our group, who were clearly flagging. 

They weren't the only ones.

We'd walked too much, eaten too little, and not had nearly enough water (or coffee). Despite Jodee's daughter E. trying to talk us into staying out late enough to see the Eiffel Tower light show, the rest of us just wanted a quiet evening in.

By the time we dragged back to our lodgings on Île Saint-Louis, we were ready to trudge up the winding stairs, break open the snacks we'd picked up at nearby mini mart, and fall into jet-lag-induced stupors.

When we arrived at our building, however, all was dark--and I mean dark. The entire building had lost power. Which would have been a minor inconvenience, except that the glass door that opened to street was operated by electronic keypad.

"It's fine," Tim said. He'd made the travel arrangements, and he would take care of it. Once he placed a call to the owner of the building, he told us, all would be sorted quickly. Never mind that he'd been using his cell phone for navigation all day and the battery was at 5%.  

Of course, it wasn't just one call, and it wasn't sorted quickly.

As Tim's phone battery rapidly depleted, however, a plan slowly developed. The building manager wasn't in the city for the weekend, but he agreed to send a workman--a workman who was currently off duty and would have to be contacted and dispatched to our location in central Paris. 

Which meant a wait. 

But no worries: we were in Paris. We were encouraged to enjoy the night life. Go, relax at a cafe along the Seine, have dinner and a bottle of wine--or six. Never mind that half our group was underage. Plus, we'd already eaten. 

The children collapsed on the sidewalk.

I joined them. 

While Jodee and Tim conferred in low tones, I let the kids take turns telling me things--who knows what. They were just talking and talking. 

Then I remembered the snacks. I pulled out a bag of fromage-flavored chips, flopped backward with my head resting against my bag, and stared up at the dark Parisian skies, mindlessly snacking. I offered to share my chips with the kids--half out of generosity, and half hoping that they'd talk less with their mouths full.

So there we were, lying on the sidewalk like homeless people, sharing a bag of cheap chips while tourists and sophisticated Europeans in their on-the-town finery quick-stepped around us, heading off toward glamorous evenings while we huddled under the eaves, hard-core jet-lagging and praying for salvation.

It was like something out Dickens, only with snacks. 

At length, E. pointed out that if we walked to the Seine, we could catch the Eiffel Tower light show after all. While Tim stayed behind to wait for the workman, the rest of us ambled down to the river. Along the way, one member of our group was nearly run down by an irate cyclist while another had a shifty-eyed stranger try to sell her beer out of an oversized murse. 

Marveling at these diversions, which seemed all in a night's work for Paris, we lined up along Pont Marie, watching the Eiffel Tower light up the sky.

In a small piece of luck, we arrived back just as a workman showed up. 

He pulled up to the curb and hopped out of his minivan, smiling and chatting in French. After the quickest assessment I've ever seen, he popped open the back of the van, and--with absolutely no warning--pulled out a buzz saw and started sawing directly through the door. 

Photo Courtesy of Tim
And so it was that we witnessed two light shows that night, neither part of the plan.

I have other memories of Paris--the beauty, the grandeur, the history, the food, the lights, the architecture, the stained glass, the café au lait, the church bells, the art--and of course the Eiffel Tower, lighting up the night.

All of that is Paris. 

But that's everybody's Paris.

It's not mine.

My Paris will always be cheese-flavored chips, the sidewalk beneath me, the lights above, and the kids on either side, talking the night away.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Lost in Any Language, Part 2: See Rome and Die (of Embarrassment)

All I wanted was to see the Colosseum. 

It was June of 2009, and I was in Italy primarily because I'd had a stressful school year and toward the end of May, I knew something drastic had to be done before I completely lost my will to live. So late one evening I came home from work, plopped in front of the laptop, googled "cheap airfare," and snapped up the first result. Knowing that I had a round-trip ticket to Europe in the offing helped me tunnel through the final weeks of the semester.

Which is how I wound up in Rome.

When I told my friend Lucy what I'd done, she decided to join me--thank God. Because clearly I was in no frame of mind to waltz around the world making independent decisions.

Although I hadn't given this trip the sort of care and preparation I usually invest in overseas travel (generally there are charts, graphs, lists, timetables, and post-its), I still devised a loose plan for each day.

As did Lucy.

On this particular day, my plan was to see the Colosseum, while Lucy's plans involved taking photos with "Fabio," a third-rate Gladiator impersonator she'd spied the day before.

Once she had him in her sights, there was no turning back.

"He looks like a creep," I told her, but Lucy disagreed. She thought he was hilarious, and she gladly tipped him a couple of Euros to pose for some photos. He picked her up in his arms, nibbled her cheek, and soaked in her adulation. 

Safely on the far side of the lens, I found the whole thing a little silly; however, given my track record in the areas of ridiculousness and public embarrassment, I was really in no position to judge.

Then he came after me.

Hair fluttering in the warm Italian sun, he strode over the cobbles, plucked the camera from my hands, passed it to Lucy, and wrist-dragged me across the street. Flapping my free hand and gobbling like a turkey, I found myself snapped into position and tugged forward.

He leaned close.

Only then did he sense how uncomfortable I was--not that it phased him.

He leaned closer.

"Don' worry," he murmured, "I no kees you!"

Across the street, cackling away, Lucy snapped photos.

Fabio eventually dropped his arms, stepped back, and studied me for a minute.

"Ah," he said. "This."

I'm sure he thought there was something wrong with me: this awkward, sleep-deprived female sporting the sallow skin and hollowed-out eye pits that only the tail end of a school year can produce.

I can't say I'd blame him for worrying. I mean, look at me. I'd obviously let myself get into quite a state.

Fortunately, there's no balm quite like ten days in Italy with Lucy. I flew home happy, tanned, well-fed, and well-rested.

Best of all, I was ready to regale everyone with a string of mild disasters and embarrassing encounters experienced along the way.

Because this was just the first of many.

* * * *

Monday, June 12, 2017

Lost in Any Language, Part 1: The Collapse of My Hindenburg of Hubris

Please enjoy this short series curated from years of travel and stupidity. 

During my twenties, I spent a year living in Shanghai, China.

Initially, I found daily life overwhelming; and though I eventually adjusted enough to get by, even after I felt "settled," I still often had no idea what was going on. I really missed my family, but because of the steep learning curve, I told my sister to hold off on visiting until I had at least a toehold in the language and culture.

Having lived in Shanghai for nearly six months by the time she planned her trip, and feeling quite the expert, I couldn’t wait to showcase the ease with which I had adjusted to the city. As soon as she booked the tickets, I hatched my plans. I'd breeze through public transit, flaunt my fresh Mandarin skills, and wow her with my fierce chopstickery.

Though we could easily have taken a taxi on our first day downtown, I didn't want to drop the cash. What's more, I was proud of my ability to navigate Shanghai's labyrinthine public transit system.

After a few stops on the subway, I directed us to a bus route I’d only taken a few times before. Unfortunately, I missed our intended stop, but hopped off a short while later (when the bus attendant started yelling at us for riding past our fare) and attempted what should have been a simple backtrack on foot.

How it’s possible to go so utterly astray within a few city blocks is still mind-boggling. 

But facts are facts.

Right on cue, a cold rain began to fall.

I had no idea where we were. Nothing looked familiar. We could have been on the moon for all I knew (assuming, of course, that the moon is a maze of noodle stalls, knockoff shoe stores, hole-in-the-wall tea shops, massage parlors, and fake-Rolex dealers).

I trotted out my Mandarin, asking passersby for directions, but nobody understood me. Even worse, I couldn't understand them. 

I had no idea why my language skills weren't working. (Maybe they don't speak Mandarin on the moon.)

Perhaps if we had ducked out of the rain and had a cup of tea and a plate of dumplings, I could have regrouped; but this was more than a decade ago, and what I lacked in wisdom, I made up for with a pig-headed determination to stick with Plan A.

So I stood in the cold drizzle listening to Bethany helpfully suggest that the next day, we pin our destination on the outsides of our coats, like children sent out into the countryside by rail during the London Blitz. 

My Hindenburg of Hubris was on its way down, imploding in a glorious ball of flame.

Knowing that enough was enough, I swallowed my pride and hailed a taxi. 

But the day’s humiliations weren't over.

The first taxi driver we flagged down refused us service. Though he understood my doubtful Chinese, he still shook his head, flapped his hands, and sped off into the rain, looking annoyed.

The next driver was more charitable, taking the time to explain something to me in slow, measured tones—tones that I couldn’t grasp no matter how clearly he spoke.

Eventually, sighing and rubbing the back of his neck, he waved us into the cab, popped it into gear, drove around one corner, and immediately I understood.

We’d been only a few hundred feet from our destination.

Oh, the humanity.

I shelled out the cash, tipped our driver generously, and shuffled out of the cab behind Bethany, making a mental note to set aside scraps of paper and safety pins for the next day's outing.

Just in case.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Fitting the Fragments Together

You're no doubt familiar with the type of artwork known as mosaic. Artists attempting this expression arrange bits of stone, tile, colored glass, or other fragmented materials in order to create a pattern. Often, these patterns create a larger picture--but only when viewed from a distance.

What a metaphor for life. 

We can rarely accomplish big-picture goals in single blocks of time. Instead, we find little bits here and there, fit them together, and arrange them in hopes that one day our efforts will construct a larger reality.

A few years ago, someone told me that if I were going to make it as a writer, I was looking at between three and five years to see a return on my investment--possibly longer. The odds weren't encouraging, but I buckled down and started fitting pieces into place.

I wrote two hours a day, five days a week. 

That was it. 

Some days I wrote a little. Some days I wrote a lot. Some days I did nothing but delete the previous day's work. Some days I felt inspired. Most days I didn't. 

But on all days, I put in time. 

These two-hour sessions were my little mosaic pieces, dropping into place. It was tedious work; and up close, it was hard to imagine what might come of it, if anything.

Fast-forward four years later, and it's exciting to step back and see those little pieces coming together.

The same principles hold true in many aspects of life, and I'm not just talking about career or creative endeavors. In almost every area, it's the small, daily steps -- the tedious, fragmented little bits -- that create the big picture.

* * * * *

By José Luis Filpo Cabana (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons