en ce moment – highlights this week

Continue reading “en ce moment – highlights this week”

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“The only goal is to breathe”

While positioned in a Warrior II pose the other morning, I felt inspired to write a blog about yoga. I’ve been going through a period of “writer’s block” or a case of “the blank page,” as they express this sentiment in France, and I needed something easy or obvious to talk about. The yoga teachers are always integrating narratives into the beginning or end of their class, and even the comments they make throughout the course of the ninety-minute class often strike me as funny or inspiring.

Continue reading ““The only goal is to breathe””

The road less traveled? – There are only roads

Killiney Beach, Ireland
Killiney Beach, Ireland

I’ve been thinking about roads and paths lately, maybe because it’s graduation season and everyone seems to be moving on with their lives in one way or another. Or perhaps because the long, cold winter has finally let up and its become both spring and summer at once. Anyways, I hear that expression a lot from Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, “I took the road less traveled; Take the road less traveled,” especially around this time of year. Almost always, its used erroneously to mean that “I chose the unconventional path; I did the thing that was not expected of me and that has changed the course of my life.”

Why is the last stanza of Frost’s most well-known poem so purposefully ignored? The irony is evident in it’s first line: “I shall be telling this with a sigh – somewhere ages and ages hence,” as Frost notes that in the future, when he tells his story about choosing between the two paths, he will say that he took the road less traveled, even though this is false. The reason he says it with a sigh is because it’s paradoxical: there is not such thing as a road less traveled, there are only roads that look very similar, and we are forced to choose between them.

So why do we say we “took the road less traveled by”? Why is this phrase from Frost’s poem a theme surrounding graduations and other celebratory milestones? Do we want to derive some meaning from the choices we make when none exists? Are we trying to convince ourselves that these choices weren’t really arbitrary, but instead we took a certain path for a reason?

After all, we never know exactly what lies ahead when we decide to go to graduate school for a certain subject, take one job as opposed to another, or move to one city versus another. We try to look down each path as far as we can and we attempt to find out as much information as possible before deciding. As the poem goes, “as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same,”: at the end of the day, both paths seem almost the same, yet we can only choose one.

In trying to derive meaning from our lives and our pasts, maybe we will tell the story at some cocktail party or reunion about how we “took the road less traveled.” Maybe that’s okay; we need logic and reason to explain our pasts and choices that don’t always make a lot of sense. There is no road less traveled, only roads, but perhaps it’s still okay to misinterpret the poem.

Killiney Hill, Ireland
Killiney Hill, Ireland

The Road Not Taken (By Robert Frost)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 20

stylish winter accessories

Winter’s essential accessories:

Quilted Leather cross body bags – I adore quilted leather. It’s so chic and classic, and its very in this season. These bags are both a stylish asset to the everyday wardrobe as well as an elegant accessory to complement a more formal ensemble. There are so many adorable options out this season. I’ll share a few of my favorites:

canvas
MK Sloan quilted leather cross body

I love this classic option from  Michael Kors. It’s the perfect size to hold just the essentials and it can easily be dressed up or down for either daily wear or for a special occasion.

 

These next two are by Donna Karan. The two-tone black and white leather of the one on the left is so elegant. It reminds me of a vintage Chanel purse; it has such a classic look.  The plain black one is also simple yet stylish.

r2411508_994_mainr4415701_001_main

 

there are no magic words

“Let’s say I submit a short story to a magazine for publishing? If it doesn’t get accepted, will the editor write me back with feedback on what I should improve?” says a member of the audience. He’s your typical “aspiring writer”; cargo shorts, unkempt hair, and zero sense of style.

“Hah!” spits the author on the panel, “No one’s going to give you the time of day to string three words together on what you should improve. Editors are looking for any reason not to read your crap! And that’s the truth.” The aspiring writer looks taken aback by this response. It’s like an answer to a Calculus problem which is undefined, or all non-real numbers; it simply doesn’t make sense to the linear mind set in thinking a certain way.

“So, I’m a first-time published author,” another audience member starts in, “What should I say in my biography on the back cover of my book if I don’t have any experience?” she says. She’s young, slightly more stylish than the cargo-wearing aspiring writer, with black curly ringlets hanging past her shoulders. But its hard to take her seriously with this concern, as it’s mostly a fake question with a hidden announcement in it. She has a very studious and concentrated air about her, as if she believes the panelists’ authority to be equivalent to that of God, or a world-renowned professor at Harvard.

“What genre do you write in?” says the author.

“Fantasy.”

“So you have a book deal?” he says skeptically.

“I just got an agent,” says the studious woman.

“That’s a big deal. It’s like the first dollar that a restaurant makes, which gets framed. You should be proud!” then he pauses, as if to reconsider the reality of the woman’s news, “Did they ask you for money up front?” he says, “If they ever do, then fire them right away,” he says.

The moderator of the panel talk, which only consists in two authors, tries to get the discussion back on track. In an attempt to maintain the feeling of a “writer’s community,” which is purportedly the objective of the event, he poses another question to the panelists.

“In your experience, have you found a community of writers when publishing work in literary journals or other small presses?” he says.

“Well, not really. I have a life. I’ve got a wife and kids. I’m not trying to make friends with people who publish in literary journals.” says the author. The moderator keeps posing questions of this nature, as if to make the audience feel like they are gaining some great secrets into the world of success as a writer, most of which are met with harsh responses by the first author. The other writer on the panel provides vaguely diplomatic responses, which seem more encouraging, as the audience members ask a couple more useless questions until the discussion peters out.

After the talk, Julie approaches the author. She tells him that she’s just starting out as a writer.

“Who are your friends?” the author says to Julie. Like a scientist; a researcher who collects information to piece together a puzzle.

“My friends, they do all sorts of things.. they’re in graduate school, looking for work-”

“Are they chasing money?” he cuts her off.

“I wouldn’t say that, so much.”

“Chasing fun? They’re the beer-guzzling, Ravens fanatic crowd?”

“That’s a bit closer…” says Julie. Weren’t all young people chasing fun to some extent?

“Here’s what you do,” says the author, “You watch them. You observe everything. That’s your job. Who’s hooking up with who, who is jealous of who’s boyfriend. Then you write about it. I don’t mean exactly what’s going on. You don’t watch them obviously. But you take a back seat, and observe.”

“What do you read? Not Twilight crap, or any of that vampire nonsense, I hope,” he says.

“No, I’m reading Edith Wharton and J.D. Salinger.” says Julie.

“Good, Great! That’s perfect, you can’t do much better than Wharton,” says the author.

“So, how did you first get published?” says Julie. Of course this was a silly question; anyone could churn out some piece of garbage about vampires or were-wolfs if the goal was simply to make a buck, or to be able to see one’s book on a shelf. The question was actually: how do you publish something that’s good.

“You know, getting stuff published just comes,” says the author, “There’s no scientific formula I can give you, or magic words I can tell you that will bring you success. But, I can say, that you don’t need to go to a fancy school. Just do your job. Watch the world and write,” he pauses, “There are only two things that are going to happen. A, you’re going to keep doing what you’re doing. Or B, you’re going to stop doing what you’re doing.”

This seemed like a fairly obvious summary of one of Newton’s laws of motion; an object in motion tends to stay in motion.

“You can’t worry about the cocktail parties and networking. Getting published will come to those who do the work, writers who accept that rejection is part of the process. Rejection letters are badges of honor!” But who even took the effort to send out rejection slips anymore?

“Thanks for the advice,” Julie says, sensing that the conversation is finished, “It was nice meeting you.”

“Likewise. Just remember: observe and write.”

girl’s best friend

doggy

A dog’s head hanging out of the car window, ears flapping recklessly in the wind and tongue tumbling lopsided out of his mouth, paints about as pure a picture of happiness as there ever was.  With little clue as to where she is going, other than the hundreds of scents her wild nose whiffs along the way, the destination doesn’t matter.  Anywhere she can race around in circles, discover new smells and encounter either four-legged or two-legged friends is a welcome terminus.  Whether it be a quiet suburban street, or a noisy park teeming with new sights and smells, most dogs aren’t too particular.

Of course, not all dogs are born adventure-seekers.  Some need a bit of extra encouragement to fulfill their breed’s ambition as a herding dog, or retriever, when this genetic instinct fails to kick in.  On a vacation in Maine, we went on a hike with our dog Molly and stopped at the water to see if she would swim.  As a labrador retriever, it seemed natural that she might go in the water, and that throwing sticks in might invite her to venture out and retrieve them.  My dad threw one stick close by, a few yards from where we stood in the sand.

“Come on, Molly.  Go get it. Atta girl, Come on Molly,” everyone cheered for her.  Her gaze shifted from her crowd of supporters to the distant stick, then she cautiously waded into the surf where her paws and lower legs got wet.  She was caught between wanting praise from her family if she could proudly carry the stick ashore and her distaste for the getting her body wet.  She was leaning toward the latter option when my mom had the idea of throwing bits of a granola bar into the water.  That got her attention.  As soon as a morsel of granola plunked into the water, she was off, not letting a second waste where she could loose sight of her treat.

After we’d used up our supply of granola bars, the water was no longer an enticing option.  Of course, some animals are more cosmopolitan, preferring to promenade along the bustling streets than to get their paws a little sandy.  Our dog was one of these; the type who would lick the insides of a yogurt container as you held it, or who more than occasionally was served scraps of eggs in her dog food dish.  She had no problem staking out her desired seat on the couch.  If I sat in her spot, next to my mother, she would just plop her ninety-pound body on top of me until I was forced to scoot down.

She was also blessed in having a good sense of logic.  Early on in her training as a puppy,  my parents had an “invisible fence” installed, consisting in an underground wire and shock collar for the dog to wear which would prevent her from leaving the yard.  A smart and sometimes obedient girl, Molly stayed in the yard for the most part.  She understood the workings of the invisible fence, but once in a while an extenuating circumstance would present itself.  For instance, an empty bag of potato chips which had been blown into the middle of the road was too delicious a treat to pass up.  On these occasions, she would bolt through the fence, probably thinking to herself that the shock would be worth that greasy plastic bag.

 

“Life’s hard without a dog,” said my mom.

“I know,” I say.

“You got through life fine before we had a dog,” my dad says.  One never understood the crazy obsessions of people until you became “one of those.”  Like the subculture of Dog-Owners Who Treated Animals Like Children, monitoring their pets at doggy-day-care on hidden cameras to make sure they behaved or purchasing gourmet treats for their pets from specialty “doggy boutiques.”  These behaviors might have seemed excessive, but you somewhat understood if you had a dog yourself.

“That’s ‘cause you don’t realize what you’re missing before you know a dog’s company.”  It’s hard to adapt to actually having to bend over to pick up a cheerio when it drops to the floor instead of waiting for her cleaning supply of a tongue to lap it up in one swift motion or not having an oversized yellow nose to rest in your lap while you watch TV.

 

Somewhere, a ways down the road, in the back of your mind, looms the day when that four-legged member of the pack won’t be around anymore.  Dog owners are sentimental folks because they know going in that their animals won’t last as long as they will.  Even after my dog is gone, there are still little yellow hairs on the sleeves of my black NorthFace fleece that don’t come off no matter how many times I take the lint-roller to it.  There’s fog from her hot, smelly breath still on the glass sliding doors from where she would sit and look out the window.  I’m missing something when I don’t see the pink tip of her nose creep through the front blinds, waiting, as the car pulls in the driveway.  Then once she spots us, abandon her post and run to the garage door ready to bark for a treat.

But people have a few things in common with their pets.  Just like a dog who hangs her head out the car window, surrendering to the smells of garbage, fast food, other animals, letting her ears flutter in the breeze; her owner seems to know as well that the end won’t matter as much as the ride did.

the ugly part of travel

One ugly part of travel which we all hope to avoid, but which inevitably will happen to everyone at some time or another, is all the crime that comes along with big cities.  More precisely, the scams that are geared towards tourists, who might be jet-lagged, tired, lost or to some degree out of their elements.  When I visited Budapest this in March, my mom was kind enough to research for me the “traveler’s tips” on Budapest, provided by the U.S. Embassy.  Of the plethora of scams and tourist traps of which the embassy cautions tourists against, one “classic” example on the list seemed particularly awful to me.  In this sketch, a seemingly friendly local woman approaches tourists on the street to offer a restaurant recommendation. It appears nice enough, but the woman then receives commission by the restaurant for recruiting visitors who are offered a special menu, with marked up prices.  Since the currency may not be understood by visitors who have just arrived, the unsuspecting tourists get ripped off.

It’s not just in Eastern Europe where these hoaxes occur. Even in big cities in France, England and the U.S., they still exist, presumably in higher volume in popular areas for out-of-towners.  Some of these situations should be obvious red flags anyone with an inkling of common sense to purposefully walk in the opposite direction. For example, the gypsies stationed along Champs-Elysées with their petitions, scanning the crowds for backpacks, cameras, or puzzled-faces staring at maps.  Once a marker of the tourist is spotted they go in… Do you speak English? (Always answer no) Russian? German? Spanish? I’m not sure who actually stops to talk to these people or pays money to sign their faux petitions.  

Another classic example is the Artists from Ghana. This sketch consists in men forming a barricade at the bottom of the Sacre Cœur in Montmarte (I’ve heard variations of this scam also occurs in other places). They wait for tourists to approach or descend from the hill, catch them off-guard and tie a bracelet around the wrist, as an accomplice goes in for the purse or bag of the distracted victim. It’s evident to anyone that these men aren’t any type of artist they claim to be (other than con). Additionally, it’s clear from first glance that you don’t want the cheap string they braid around one’s wrist that looks like a six-year-old’s art project.

So, is it all a scam? Should we assume that any stranger we encounter wants to misguide us or steal something from us?  A few months ago I was standing in line for the Louvre with my friend.  A woman approached the queue to give away her tickets because the rest of her party couldn’t make it to the museum.  She was talking to a group of young women behind us explaining the situation, but they wouldn’t take the free tickets.  Apparently, they thought it was some kind of a catch or they didn’t trust the woman giving them away.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t take the tickets! They were free!” the woman sighed in frustration after my friend and I had taken two of them, “I was just going to throw them away if no one took them.”

On my last trip in France, to the south, I was walking alone in Marseilles one evening at sunset.  Near the Vieux Port, the Ferris Wheel is all lit up, glistening in front of a harbor full of ships against the pink and orange glowing sky.  Tourists and locals congregate in front of the harbor, taking in the beautiful scenery.

“You’re shirt, it goes well with this ambiance,” says a voice, referring to the teal sweatshirt I am wearing.  I glance over my shoulder and discover that the voice belongs to a man sporting a straw hat and carrying a paper shopping bag, “You don’t think so?” he says, when I don’t respond right away.

“Oh yes, It’s gorgeous outside,” I say, “The sky and the port make for a lovely atmosphere” He agrees with me and keeps going on about l’ambiance magnifique.  As I keep walking to one side of port, skimming the menus outside of restaurants, another stranger approaches me.

“Vous cherchez un restaurant?” He says, quickly adding, “Parlez-vous français?”

“Oui,” I say in response to both questions, hesitatingly. I guess It’s not revealing too much to admit that I want to find a restaurant.

“Go to the other side of the port, to Chez Paul,” he says, “That’s the restaurant where I work. You can get a bowl of the bouillabaisse soup for fifteen euros. C’est moins cher.”

“Restaurant Chez Paul,” I repeat.

“Here, I’ll write it for you,” he says, as he scrawls the name of the restaurant and the dish down on a page in my notebook.

****

The reason the tourist trap of the lady guiding tourists to a restaurant with a “special” menu seems so awful to me is that these things make us doubt peoples’ good intentions.  After witnessing and hearing about enough of these scams, one begins to think that there is always an ulterior motive from the person who appears to want to help.  And it’s a shame, because we want to believe that the good people are still out there.  On the other hand, when we do encounter some honest, helpful folk when we’re in culture shock, far away from home, it’s a meaningful reminder of how important these qualities are. 

 

“We’re lucky in our lives”

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” Pat Conroy

 
IMG_1354

Seven blank, impressionable faces stared at Julie.  The faces belonged to her high school students, who were sitting quietly in their chairs, copybooks open and pencil cases set, ready to be told what to do.  She didn’t just see them staring at her, she felt their stares; they were like sponges ready to absorb whatever she might say or do next. 

Out of the corner of her eye, Julie watched them too while she wrote down the names of the absentees in the attendance book.  She shuffled through her handouts she was about to pass out, and noticed that some of them were actually whispering to each other.  They were whispering.  Was she too intimidating that they wouldn’t speak at a normal decibel?  

Some of the pencil-cases were covered in graffiti-style lettering, with the names of celebrities or boyfriends or girlfriends tattooed on them.  They had glue-sticks and little bottles of white-out too, with which they used to paste loose pages in their notebooks and meticulously cover up mistakes.  All the supplies of a student handy, they sat there quietly, ready to copy something down, glue, or white out a misspelling. 

Julie was just as much afraid of them, maybe even more afraid than they were of her.  She was outnumbered, whereas they swam in the safety of being in the same boat.  If they all thought her weird, then it was so; she was just some freak foreigner who had been appointed to stand before them babbling on in English. 

“Today we’re going to talk about cultural exchanges,” Julie said, not entirely believing this statement.  It was more likely that she would talk, presumably to herself, and fourteen eyes would stare at her absently, while glancing at the clock, counting the minutes until they were released from jail.  Once, when standing in front of the room, facing the class to give a presentation, one boy, Marvin, had turned around one hundred and eighty degrees, mid-sentence, to check the clock.  Apparently he had been turned off by the sound of his own voice, having been forced to speak for five minutes on “the notion of progress.”

“What are the challenges of visiting other cultures?” said Julie, commencing the discussion. She hoped that a hand would raise so she wouldn’t have to call on someone.  Whenever she did this the kid would begrudgingly read their answer in a barely-audible monotone, sounding and looking as if they’d rather be anywhere else in the world.  Then Julie would say something encouraging like “great answer” in a voice that was too fake which she despised. 

“We have to adapt,” said one of the girls, Léa, timidly, “When you visit other countries, it’s always more interesting than where you are from, but it’s harder too.”

“Everything is new and exciting; it’s not the daily routine that we’re used to,” added Mégan. 

These kids were from the tiny town, or perhaps even the surrounding countryside.  A girl, Louise, had told Julie that her village consisted in three hundred inhabitants who did not even have a Boulangerie at their disposal.  Perhaps this made travel all the more impressive to them.  Their daily realities were sheltered from instability and risk; safely tucked away on the outskirts of the beautiful, the interesting, perhaps even the dangerous sides of life.  That’s what the suburbs essentially were: communities whose purposes were to facilitate the daily routine.  

 

“Yes, I agree,” said Yann, “Other places are always more cool than where we’re from.  Like Canada. Or America.”

“I don’t think so,” says Nolan, “I’m French but I still love Paris and her monuments.  Big Ben, puhh,” he fills his cheeks with air and let’s out a short puff, in an expression of London’s less-than-thrilling effect on him, “but the Eiffel Tower… That’s spectacular.” He said the word spectacular with such conviction that it was impossible to forget it.

And it was spectacular.  There were not so many things which measured up to the shimmering, glittering Eiffel Tower after dark.  In a city where there was still poverty, ugliness and stress, there was also a bit of magic that awaited one at the end of his day.  The glistening lights droned out every hassle and made each person and his quandaries insignificant.

“But we see it all the time,” Florestan jumped in, “After a while it’s not that exciting to us anymore, like the same way it would be to some tourist.”

“I don’t agree,” said Nolan, “It’s magnifique.  I don’t ever get tired of it.”

It wasn’t difficult to see his point of view.  When the lights began, there was nothing else to do but stare for the first minute, and somehow they consumed all of the other senses as well.  Maybe that was what is was to truly appreciate something: to still sit and marvel at what had already wowed you tens or hundreds or thousands of times before.

 

“So what can we learn from cultural exchanges?” Julie asks the next discussion question.

“I think we realize how lucky we are in our lives compared with some other people,” Yann blurts out.

A generic version of this answer echoes around the classroom; everyone else repeats a variant of taking things for granted, not appreciating the rights we are lucky to have.  Julie senses that the first boy to speak has something else to say. 

“So who are you talking about specifically?” she asks, “Can you give us an example?”

“My older brothers are soldiers in Djibouti.  Over there, men have to pay to love a woman.”

“Like prostitution?”

 “Yes.  It’s very common, but the girls don’t like it.  Some of the men have three or four girls.  If he doesn’t have any money to pay for one, he has to love another boy.”

This wasn’t exactly part of the lesson plan.  No, it was better: a rare, pure occurrence was the moment when a student said something real rather than a sentence read out of a copybook.  Julie could picture his brothers coming home in all the heroic glamour of soldiers.  They were already the prized, older siblings idolized by their kid brother, and then they would tell him something like this, shattering all illusions that real life was just a cool pursuit of not having to do homework.  Horrific stories weren’t always a few degrees removed by the pages of a newspaper or a plasma screen TV: somewhere far away, they were actually happening.  These first-hand accounts from relatives or friends carried more weight.  They did not compare to the objective tone of a news reporter or emotionless black and white letters which bore the facts.

These kids weren’t so fragile; they were sixteen and seventeen years old.  Some of them worked hard, some were smart and original, but nonetheless they were limited in experience.  Spending one’s days in a gated-in school, in the middle of the forest, in a town which probably wasn’t even marked on most maps, was certainly a limiting, sheltered way of life.

Maybe she should say something more on comment, she wasn’t sure what, but it seemed like heavy thought to just allow to hang in the air.  Instead, she let the discussion continue as an entire two volunteers were already raising their hands to speak again.  Perhaps it was enough for these kids to recognize some of the injustices of the world.  As long as they remembered that they were lucky, they could do something to help later on.  For now, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to being going to school in the forest, living in a teeny town.

the invisible lions’ tongues

    “All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” – Paul FusselImage

They say that you can be alone but not lonely. It is also mentioned that one can be in a crowd full of people and still feel alone. Perhaps this is the most uncomfortable kind of loneliness: the type where you go to a party only to arrive and then wish you had stayed home. But galavanting around Europe by yourself does not usually result in loneliness. I don’t think many people regret making the journey either. The gypsies who did this sort of thing inevitably had a way of finding one another. If you want to leave a foreign city with a new friend or enjoy some friendly conversation and the company of fellow expats, participating in the free group walking tour is a practical solution. You’ll be guaranteed to leave with at least one new acquaintance if you want, as well as hit most of the main sights of the city. Just look for the people in the red shirts, or blue shirts, or whatever color shirts they’re supposed to be wearing. Usually the crowd of wide-eyed travelers holding takeaway coffees, conveniently stationed in front of the most well-known central square or basilica is a dead giveaway.

    ~ ~ ~

The tour guide stands in the middle of the circle, travelers from every which country in Europe surrounding her. She’s like the R.A. on your freshmen dorm floor, organizing everyone together for an “icebreaker game,” as she excitedly dishes the agenda to her herd. 

“So before we begin, I’m going to teach you a few Hungarian phrases. Hungarians are very proud of their language,” the guide, whose name-tag reads Judit, begins, “So here are the basics. Szia, pronounced like see-ya, means “hello.” Allo means “good-bye.” It’s sort of backwards from English.”

After the Hungarian crash course, she points to a statue of the old Hungarian policeman in his ancient uniform, mentioning how bored they often were before the wars.

“They would stand around twirling their mustaches during the time of peace” she says, “Because there wasn’t much else to do. It’s become a tradition now for tourists to twirl it for good luck.” Looking closely, the tip of the mustache is tarnished and not as shiny as the rest of the statue. 

“Maybe some of the ladies want to take a picture with this gentleman,” she says, “But I must tell you, it does matter which side the woman stands on,” she explains, “Back then, standing on his right side meant that you had a legitimate relationship. Maybe a mother, or a wife. But on the left side, well, only a lover or a girl who was some kind of professional would stand there,” she winks “If you know what I mean. Good girls, bad girls, choose your sides accordingly.”

Tour guides who are good at their jobs always seem a bit like actors; they have a talent for captivating an audience with their natural charisma and ability to calculate in the right amount of jokes and little-known facts to hold the crowd’s attention. Perhaps, the “quirky” character guides were the most engaging, because you were compelled to keep listening for curiosity of what odd sentence might spill out of their mouth next.

The pack meanders along to chain bridge over the Danube river, where Judit stops again and starts talking about Hungarian inventions, such as the ballpoint pen. 

“It wasn’t invented in Hungary, but nevertheless the Hungarian Laszlo Biro invented it.”

She points to the two lions statues, situated at the end of the bridge, whose toothy grins are curiously lacking visible tongues.

“The sculptor, János Marschalkó, who carved these lions spent a lot of time at the zoo observing them before he started. People said he forgot the tongues, but you just can’t see them.  He wanted to make his sculptures as true to life as possible, and he didn’t see the lions’ tongues in reality.”

The posse of young backpackers, snapping photos in every which direction, continues across the bridge in a messy line, like a group of school kids on a field trip, up the steep hill to the Buda side of the city where the castle district lies.  The scenery is something out of a disney movie: colorful ceramic tiles clothe the roof of the Matthias church, surrounded by the stone walkways and turrets of the fisherman’s bastion, which resemble a wall protecting a castle.  The view from the top of the hill is perhaps even more handsome.  One can peer through the stone archways to look back at the Pest side of the city and the exquisite old Parliament building. 

Judit pauses at the splendid view, giving the travelers a few minutes to take in the atmosphere of this city that she knows like the back of her hand, but is a mysteriously foreign place to them. The tour has now come to an end, and she briefs her group on the Hungarian gastronomic specialties before they part ways.

“What was the name of that dessert you mentioned with the poppy-seeds and walnuts?” says Julie.

“Flondi Cake.  I’ll write it down for you.” she says, “Where are you from by the way? I couldn’t figure it out from your accent.”  Julie felt a bit proud for a moment, for she took this as a compliment in disguise.  Wasn’t an accent that couldn’t be tied to a single place a mark of the worldly, well-traveled person?

    ~*~*~*~*

There is a French phrase which is often used as a salutation.  Waiters will casually drop this phrase after the check has been paid at the end of a meal.  It sometimes seems businesslike; a thing to say in good measure to customers, but friends and colleagues will use it convivially too, when saying goodbye.  As Julie and the other ex-pats she had met got up to leave the Parisian brasserie, the blonde waitress calls to them:

À la prochaine,” she waves them out the door. 

“Merci.  À la prochaine,” says Julie.

“Does that mean goodbye?” says James, an Englishman.

“Kindof,” says Julie, “It literally means ‘until next time.’”

They exit the restaurant and stand on the curb next to the shrubbery where someone had hidden their bottle of convenience-store wine.  In their youthful fashion, they each take swigs of the red wine as they pass the bottle off around the semi-circle.  It made a couple more rotations through each person’s hands until it was emptied.  The group dispersed and Julie found herself sitting next to James on one of the old metro lines lurching sharply and screeching to a halt at each stop until they exited at their hostel.

The next day, there was the lingering regret of not asking for anyone’s contact information.  In the midst of laughing and drinking, ordering soupe à l’oignon and croque monsieurs, one always took such a rendez-vous for granted.  There seemed never to be a shortage of merriment and a party never required any effort during the festivity itself.  Loneliness and boredom were immaterial feelings which one could not appreciate during such times and it seemed unfathomable that one would experience them again.

There had been a German girl who Julie had spoken to on the tour in Budapest.  The girl spoke perfect English and her accent had barely any German tinge to it that she could have passed as an American.  She and Julie went to a Hungarian restaurant after the tour and ate goulash soup. She said that she had just finished studying abroad in Italy.  Now, she was jet-setting off visiting all of the friends she had collected throughout Europe, pretending the days would never end when airports and train stations and cheap hotels were one’s home.

Maybe it was comforting enough to know that there were people like her out there who you might bump into again someday in Paris or Budapest or elsewhere.  One couldn’t say precisely when this would happen, but perhaps the spontaneity was what made it interesting.  As one traveled through Europe, many of the cathedrals and chateaus, even the conversations with fellow travelers, became strikingly similar after a while.  Yet, regardless of how far away one got from home, it was inevitable to run into seemingly familiar people.  However, the really unique monument, the best conversations, the moments attached to the strongest emotions were almost impossible to forget.

Perhaps these things were a bit like the tongues of the lion sculptures: just because you couldn’t always see them from head-on, didn’t mean they weren’t there somewhere, hidden and concealed from first glance.

the american dream

“Do you have those tall lockers in the high schools in the states?” says Emily.

Julie knows exactly what she is talking about.  It was the junior high school student’s fantasy to inhabit one of the floor-length lockers of the older kids.  Occupying one of these lockers signaled that you were almost “over” the whole high school experience.  The fact that the locker wasn’t divided into a top section and a bottom section to be shared between two students also seemed to imply that you were too cool to have books dropped on your head or to have to lean over the person beneath you to get your paper-bagged lunch.  It was one of the last privileges of seniority you got to enjoy before you really were too cool for the whole thing.

“What other stereotypes of the U.S. do you have?” says Julie, trying to keep them speaking in English.

“Those blonde pom-pom girls who make fun of the nerdy kids,” says one boy, Antoine.

“Cheerleaders, not pom-pom girls,” the girl sitting next to him corrects him.

“Do they really have those?” he asks, looking skeptical as if he cannot fathom such a notion as girls running around in short cheerleading skirts, snickering insults behind their peers’ backs, “Like how it is in the movies?”

“Like on Glee?” Julie says, “Well that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there are real girls like that.”  His mouth is agape and the students exchange fascinated glances.  It was hard to think back to the girls like that and picture how dramatic and cartoonish their whole persona was.  It was always weird running into one alone without the rest of her posse, as she would seem a little out of place when she wasn’t surrounded by ten of her clones.  They had seemed like such a normal part of a high school, an essential aspect upon which the social hierarchy was structured, but seeing it through these kids’ eyes and by Hollywood’s portrayal, it was bizarre how much attention they received.

 

“Anything else?” says Julie.

“In the suburbs, we think that everyone lives on a street where the houses look exactly the same.  And they go outside in their bathrobes to get the paper in the morning and everyone waves and smiles at each other,” says another girl, Myriam.

“And they all have big dogs in their yards too,” adds Antoine,

“It’s the American Dream, right?” Myriam asks.

“That’s actually true,” Julie laughs.  Maybe not all suburbia’s owned a golden retriever, but they were popular and most suburban residents seemed a eager to be friendly with their next-door neighbors.  Julie wondered how they had gotten to be so obsessed with this version of the “American Dream,” as it had never been something she held much of an interest in.  Maybe this so-called dream, didn’t just apply to Americans, she thought, as she remembered a similar version of settling into the American Dream in her conversation with Owen, from the the hostel in Paris.

 

“Where do you want to end up?” he had asked her, as if this were a perfectly normal comment one might make to a near-stranger.

“End up?” Julie echoed.  Even how he had phrased the question implied that there was some arbitrary end when settling was inevitable.

“I want to be a famous novelist, or a screen-writer.  But I want to be critically-acclaimed, rather than just a commercial success,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, as if this were a simple formula to achieve.

He looked like he was thrown off-balance by this answer and then Julie had asked him the same thing.

“Me? I’d be happy if I could sustain a life working in the creative fields.  I think I would be content to settle down in some little village in Europe,” he had said.

Julie remembered being distinctly unimpressed by this answer, as “settling down,” was a phrase she had long despised.  It conjured up images of sitting at home watching sitcoms night after night and it somehow implied that one was finished trying to be anything and was content to just stay put in a figurative sense as well as stay in the same place geographically.  She had tried to think of something nice to say about how cute, little towns are so quaint and charming, but in reality these settings bored her and the conversation had soon petered out.

When Julie’s old school friends had fantasized about this life, which included being a wife and mother, as well as big dogs, grassy fenced-in yards and friendly neighbors, Julie would discreetly remove herself from the conversation, as she would not want to appear cynical.  She thought this was a silly dream though, and that by viewing this comfortable way of contentment as the ultimate goal, her friends were cheating themselves out of all that life could offer.

 

That night Julie had a dream (or a nightmare) that she was back in the states and got a job working at a law office.  People kept telling her congratulations and using words like “lucky,” and “great opportunity,” but she didn’t really feel like she was lucky or that she was learning anything from this supposed opportunity.  In the dream she worked in a tiny cubicle, but there was a window by the water cooler that she would sometimes look out of and she could see a patch of green grass next to the sidewalk if she craned her neck at just the right angle.  

The people at her office were hopelessly dull, as their favorite topics of small talk were home improvement and their children’s extracurricular activities.  She would smile and nod in an effort to feign interest so her eyes wouldn’t glaze over when they spoke of little league baseball games or the new guest rooms they were adding on to their houses.  In the dream, she would walk outside during her lunch break and purchase a coffee and wonder if anyone would notice if she didn’t come back.  She knew she could be easily replaced in her job, but she always did come back and she would spend her afternoons reading more legal documents and drinking instant coffee which barely kept her awake.

 

But this hadn’t happened yet, and maybe it never would.  The next day, on Saturday, she went shoe shopping in Paris with Catherine, whose major hobby was staying up to date with the latest fashions, especially the European fashions which were always more glamorous than the U.S. versions.  Catherine had bought three paris of shoes; one tall pair of chocolate brown leather boots, black studded booties and a pair of nude heels, but Julie couldn’t make any decisions.  Every pair of shoes she saw she could either talk herself into wanting, but at the same time she found some kind flaw or imperfection that convinced her they weren’t worth the money, so she ended the morning empty-handed.  Sitting a café with her friend where they ordered croque-monsieurs, Catherine posed the typical question that made Julie uncomfortable and feel like her answer was never quite good enough.

“So what are you going to do when your internship is over?” said Catherine casually, “Go back to school? Work?”  She couldn’t give Catherine some vague notion about being an author.  Catherine would think it was silly, and she wanted a more concrete answer than that; she was asking for a tangible step that would either involve earning money or becoming qualified to do something which earns one money.

“I might work in a department store. Or a boutique, if my writing doesn’t work out right away” Julie said, only basing her answer off of the summer retail jobs she had worked, “Yes, I really love fashion.  Maybe I’ll just do that until I find someone to marry.”  This line was a complete joke but she knew that Catherine would take it seriously and would probably think it was a good idea.  She was asking for a feasible plan, so here one was.

“Ah, I hear you,” Catherine said, biting into her croque-monsieur, “I’ve always wanted to marry a doctor.  So where should we go next? Galeries Lafeyette?”