Monthly Archives: October 2011

Thoughtless can be good too (Paris, Part II)

Keep running, because the view around the corner would take your last breath away anyways.  Wind isn’t the only thing that ought not be metaphoric; distance is good too.

It clears the mind.

Nothing gets rid of pent up exhaustion like an open invitation to a new city.  The last week has been….not fun.  I just wish I could explore Spain and forget classes.

I’ve tried to look at it from a little outside perspective, but I am really at a loss as to the purpose of the educational system here.  And that eats at me.  It’s not that I’m not learning things, it’s just I don’t know why what I am learning has value.

When I consider all the philosophers I’ve yet to study, the history I can barely explain, the economists whose names I only know, the speeches I’ve never read, the 40 book queue on my Kindle that just starts to touch on these topics, and the knowledge that I can only teach myself the things I know I should know (meaning there is a lot I don’t know enough to know that I should know),  I can’t help but feel a final paper requiring me to contrast one book with Animal Farm, a book I read as a freshman in high school, is an assignment that’s not worth my time.

Combine that frustration with the need to learn things that I know has value, but really stink at memorizing, like nitty-gritty Spanish grammar rules and thousands of new words.

By the end of last week, I had about all I could healthily bare, which made waking up in Paris with no plan for the day and the freedom to do whatever I wanted all the more welcome.

It felt foreign, but not because I was in France.  I’m just not used to having that much freedom and mobility.  I had no responsibilities and the time and resources to do just about anything I wanted to with the day.

And trust me, I made it so worth the while.

I folded the free map I picked up at the airport, stuffed it in my coat pocket, and set out for a metro stop that seemed to be near important things.  When I got there, I just picked a direction started walking.

It felt a lot like those first couple days in Santiago, when I would just step outside the dorm, look around, and realize that all the pictures I’ve seen of places like this were real.  When you hear so much and about a place, but never see it, it just doesn’t feel real.  And that’s because it’s not.

No photo, video, or story can ever actually portray reality.  For that, you really have to be there.

So it was a morning of slowing strolling through new streets, admiring architecture and coincidentally finding the Paris Opera, the Tuileries Garden, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and the Arc de Triomphe.


And that was all before lunch, which was awfully tasty.  I met Coralie, and while I haven’t actually the slightest idea what we ate (other than it was some kind of cheese and marmalade on toast), it was very French and delicious.

That afternoon, I set off to find Notre Dame, which took me awhile.  But it gave me a lot of time to contemplate all the assumptions I had made about France.  I must admit, I was never too fond of it, as a country.  I might not be a real scholar of French history, but I tend to side with Mr. Burke’s arguments when it comes to the French Revolution, I see nothing to admire in their government, I don’t follow the French political mindset, and I’d always heard the people were rude.

The first two are still completely true, the third mostly true, and, in my own experience, the last one’s not true at all.

From the guy who showed me where to run to catch the last train, to the guys who held the door open as I ran down the escalator to catch that train, figured out how to help me at the store despite not knowing a word of what I was saying (a situation made worse/slightly comical when I then immediately/instinctively began speaking to him in Spanish), to my friends’ hospitality, and to the people they introduced me to, people were always very kind.

Whenever people ask me where I come from, I usually just say Kentucky and Pennsylvania.  If they inquire about my family’s pre-American roots, I’ll boast my German and English history, but I don’t often say much about the French part.

I think I might mention that first now.


Love, luck, and a prayer (Paris, Part I)

How I struck old Murphy’s law from the books and got to Paris without ever getting lost.

From the UC3M campus in Getafe (south of Madrid), to getting to and from the airports, to quickly making my own adjustments to the metro directions Coralie gave me, recognizing the apartment I was to stop at from google maps street view, and knowing that when Coralie said 2nd floor, she really meant 3rd (Europeans and their zero floors,) I got to Paris without a single misstep.

This is really quite epic, because I can’t ever recall getting someplace on my own by myself without making a wrong turn…ever.

I was literally the very last person on the last train out of the airport in Paris on Wednesday night.  I only made it because some security officer saw me fumbling at the ticket machine and yelled at me to run (and where to run) and some blessed man held the train door open for me as I ran down the escalator.  The door closed behind me, and the train started moving.

When the train stopped one stopped running one stop short of where I was to transfer, I followed the mass of people until I found an information desk, and spoke with a man there who did not know English very well, but he managed to tell me where to go anyway.

I didn’t understand his directions, but his telling me which way to walk led me to map where I was able to figure out how to get where I needed to go on my own.

Having learned the DC, New York, Boston, and Madrid subway systems by myself, Paris’s wasn’t hard to figure out, but with my whole body nearly throbbing from exhaustion (a very full day of classes then 7 hours of travel), not having the slightest idea where I was at, and the realization that I understood absolutely nothing being said around me, I could have really freaked myself out.  But I didn’t.

I thought clearly, with a peace and calm I’m not used to composing in stressful situations (which are always exacerbated when I have to get through them alone).  This is completely new for me, but it felt so good.

When I finally arrived at my destination and Coralie opened the door (proving my hypothesis that though she was writing me in English, she would not convert European style floor naming 0,1,2 to an American 1,2,3), and I saw that I hadn’t knocked on some random person’s door in the middle of the night, I let out a sigh so deep that I physically leaned forward.

And with that breath, I closed the quiet prayer that started in Madrid and was felt so deep in my chest that there had been almost no words at all.  I was there, and it was awesome, but getting there, that was just the beginning…

at the Louvre

Symbolic, maybe; metaphoric, no way

Rural Extremadura

I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a window on the street yesterday.  Having ditched the thick black plastic glasses for a much lighter partially rimless frames, with my hair pulled back in a loose braid, an elegant black winter coat almost to my knees, and last weekend’s new scarf blowing against my neck, I looked…older.

I’m not sure if I actually am older looking.  If I didn’t take careful care, my face would be as break out like a 14 year-old, my nails are always worn and picked at like a nervous kid sitting for the SATs, and I’m not positive of the best way to care for my new long hair or make it frame my face in a professional way.  But none of that seemed to change the image reflected in the window.

Despite not yet knowing the best way to care for it, my long hair has become particularly symbolic for me.  I have been steadily growing it out since freshman year.  There were several critical reasons for this, none of which are particularly important, or for that matter unexpected, but in some Anne-like romantic way, the wispy, little curls that now reach my mid-back mean something else now.

Tomorrow, I’m going to Paris.  It’s going to rush to get from school to the airport on the north end of the city in time, then I’m going to fly alone on an airline I’ve never used, to a country I’ve never been to, where they speak a language I can’t even pretend to understand.  Then I’m using multiple forms of public transportation to find a friend’s home*

If that weren’t enough, I’m doing everything in my power to get myself to Normandy on Friday.  I think I’m going to take an overpriced train there.  I thought about just skipping it, but I’ll probably never make it back to France.  And I don’t want Normandy to my version of my mother’s Grand Canyon (she was 3 hours away, they kept driving, and she never made it back).

Of all the historic places in Europe, I honestly think Normandy is at the top of my list.

So even if it’s only for a few hours, it’ll be worth it.  I just want to stand on Omaha Beach and look out on the English Channel with the shadow of American soldiers in my mind, cold, pink cheeks, my scarf blowing behind me, and a soft braid falling out of my hair.

If I were in control of every detail and writing the story of my life, I wouldn’t be alone in a foreign country right now.  But then again, I would have never gone through all the really hard stuff at all, and that’s whats made me strong enough to be here in the first place.  And there’s something cool about that, because, this, this is so much better than anything I would have ever come up with on my own.

So they’ll be no the metaphoric wind in my story.  If now is the time to be alone and independent, I want to feel it in the north of France…blowing through my long, blonde hair.

town in Extremadura

*Mom/Dad/Oma/Papa: Don’t freak.  I have a safe place to stay with people I know well, and if anything were to happen to me, they would know instantly and help me out.

Eavesdropping and Motivation

Oh, geez, okay, you know it’s okay to believe people when they say your homework really is hard (as in it’s not just because my Spanish isn’t good) when Word’s Spanish dictionary doesn’t recognize multiple words in the question you are copying out of the textbook.

I love how I’m learning technical terms on the theory of law in Spanish before I even know what they mean in English.

tree at Yuste Monastery

On another note, tonight, we had a cocktail party with one of Wesleyan’s VPs and the director of the international studies office.  There were also former TAs, professors, alums in the crowd.

First of all, I would like to formally note how cool it is to be capable of eavesdropping in Spanish.  This is the antithesis of the feeling I had on that first day of school, when I walked in the building with a large crowd, and heard nothing but a jumble of noises, instead of voices.  Tonight, in a crowded backroom at a cafe in a nice, pretty historic part of town I haven’t spent much time in yet, I heard all kinds of conversations.

Secondly, I would like to note a little of what I heard.  The program director was standing behind me and speaking to a couple of young Spanish guys associated with Wesleyan, but I had no idea who they were.  He was explaining to them how, if a student is willing to branch out and find people here he or she is able to connect with,  a couple months really is enough to make a drastic difference in his or her language skills.  He used me as his example.  That made me feel really good.

I was thinking about that on the way home.  The same force in me that made my Spanish abilities more than triple in two months (a positive) is what drives me to, for example, obsess crazily over the law terms I don’t understand (a negative).

But here’s the kicker, I know that the same juice in me is creating both of those scenarios, which means I can control it.

This weekend, I forced myself to be more relaxed, keep things in perspective, and not go nuts over my difficult readings.  I didn’t let myself even crack the law book open until today, so I couldn’t think about it.  And I had a former student send me her notes, so I have something to look off of for the terms I don’t catch in that class.

I guess what I’m getting at, is that I’m learning to control what I can, let the rest go, and smile, keeping that mechanism that 180’d my language skills going, but just make sure it’s working for all the right things.

After all, I only have 8 weeks left.

landscape in Extremadura

“Four Queso,” she said.

Despite receiving very good instruction in my language class here about the best way to order food in different types of settings (for example, sandwich place vs. nice sit-down), I often bail on complete phrases by smiling and just saying the name of the food I want.*

…but at least I always order it in Spanish.  Veronica made our waiter crack a visible smile with her “four queso” pizza tonight, but then again, we laughed too.      #OriginalSplanglish

The food was bad, oh so bad.

*Important clarification: This does not mean I do not push/challenge myself.  It just means I don’t have to say or do anything for people to figure I’m out American, and in some settings, I acknowledge that, and to prevent embarrassment, because a lot of people are listening or something, I don’t test one of the new phrases I’ve learned to order food.

One of those (good) old days

Some days don’t need words.  They’re just good days that are.

Veronica and I at the Temple of Debod, an Egyptian Temple in Parque de Oeste

A tribute to study breaks

How to: not do homework, a reflection on the finer art of distracting oneself when there’s work to do.  I’m no procrastinator, but you really can’t just sit down and write a 15 page paper in one setting (well).

I have many’a fond memory of I’ve-been-working-on-this-paper-too-long-to-actually-write-anything-worth-reading moments, which is the reason study breaks were invented.

I remember quite vividly that Wednesday night last fall when we were all doing our reading  on 4th floor of PAC, and we tried calling 1-800-MyCustomSnuggie to see about getting snuggies with our yet to be designed CSS coat of arms.  (Turns out they’re only open during business hours.)

Then, there was that night when I found out that it only costs 60 cents more to get extra pineapple on your Dominos Pizza, and, perhaps more importantly, that PAC is listed as a delivery location on their website.

Back when I believed that I didn’t actually possess sufficient quantities of energy to make it to that 2pm paper deadline every Friday, I ran the 5 flights of stairs between the basement and the CSS lounge at about 3am.

I could never forget those moments when lightening strikes (which despite being supposedly random happened every Thursday night between 9pm and midnight).   I would run into the hall/classroom/lounge to tell someone, and inevitably run into my friend Joon (don’t know why).  I’d excitedly tell him my thesis, and he always told me it didn’t make sense/wasn’t true/I couldn’t defend it/etc.  Then we’d fight about it for somewhere between 5-45 minutes, which always helped me iron out my supporting points.  Afterwards, I’d go home write  🙂

With no lounge or friend like Joon to distract me, I’ve been left to my own devices here in Spain.  Last week, I took to memorizing all of the Spanish subtitles to my favorite youtube video, and today I tweezed my eyebrows (slightly less impressive, I know).

Point being, I’m 6 pages in, and the novelty of writing in English is melting away.  I think it’s good though.  It’s hard when you don’t fully understand the expectations, but something tells me that making it through Professor Elphick’s history tutorial has prepared me for whatever paper Spain is throwing me this week.

And so, on that note, I think my break is over…back to work….