Sunday, November 28, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: Get Lost in the Crowd

Call me crazy, but I love crowds. Not the shoulder-to-shoulder, shuffling-an-inch-at-a-time, can't-breathe-without-inhaling-your-neighbor's-hair kind of crowd, but the kind you find in most big cities, that pulses with the energy of everyone in it, pushes you to walk a little faster and says "Okay, what are we going to do today?"

That energy is one of the first things I notice about a city and, if one doesn't have a distinct feeling all its own, it's a good indication that I'm probably not going to like it much - not a problem for London, the location of this week's Saturday Snapshot.

This photo was taken from the steps of The National Gallery, overlooking Trafalgar Square, in late October 2005, when I was visiting London with a friend during the second half of our October break. We were only there for a few days and had slightly different to-see lists, so we decided to spend most of this day separately. Predictably, I spent a lot of it wandering the city streets, soaking up the atmosphere. After two months in relatively small Aix-en-Provence, being back in the rush and bustle of a large capital city with crowds of people on the streets felt like being a kid in a candy store. Everywhere I looked, there were interesting things to see: people, stores, taxis, landmarks, other tourists.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I reached Trafalgar Square and I was starting to drag a little, probably because I'm prone to forgetting lunch when I'm exploring a new place. I wandered through the square, then joined the crowd on the steps of the museum and just sat for a while, people-watching and snapping photos, happy to be part of the crowd.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Disparate Arrivals

Creative Commons, Phillip Capper
When I arrived at Marseille-Provence Airport to begin my immersive, year-long study abroad program, I had been in airports and on planes for something like 20 hours. I was tired from a sleepless Transatlantic flight and disoriented by the heat, since it hadn't occurred to me that, yes, the Mediterranean is rather warm in early September. I was reminding myself that this was it, I was in France and I'd signed a piece of paper saying I would speak French 100% of the time while I was there. (What's the word for 'luggage carousel?' I wondered as I stared at it, waiting for my bags. What about 'luggage cart?' I don't know anything!) And I was nervously repeating the introduction I'd rehearsed in my head, for after I had (hopefully) found my host mother, whose name and address I knew, but of whom I'd never seen a photo: Bonjour, je m'appelle Jessalyn. J'ai trop de bagages, je sais, je suis désolée. Because "Hello, my name is Jessalyn. I have too much luggage, I know, I'm sorry," is obviously the standard greeting for a stranger you're going to be living with for the best part of a year.

Fortunately, my host mom, Madame C., had been given a photo and spotted me as soon as I stepped out of the baggage claim area. I saw a thinly built, middle-aged redhead jumping up and down, waving a sign with my name on it and gulped as I made my way over, launching into my introduction. Madame C.'s first reaction, after greeting me with les bises (the traditional kiss on each cheek), was to exclaim at how well I spoke. Before I could protest that no, really, I was just a passable mimic with a good ear for accents, she had moved on to exclaiming about my luggage.

After a brief misunderstanding about how long I was staying and lots of internal panicking on my part, we were in the car and on our way, with me trying desperately to keep up with the historical facts about the area and tidbits of current events Madame C. tossed out. I fully understood maybe one sentence in three, but Madame C. seemed happy to relieve me of any need to speak during the drive, and I was grateful for the chance to gather my thoughts and look around.

I had half an hour or so to myself to unpack, and then it was time to tackle dinner. Madame C.'s cheerful questions about my background flustered me, but I did my best. Telling her that my dad was an engineer was easy enough, but explaining that my mom did both health and safety and development work for a national non-profit was a bit beyond the scope of my vocabulary. I settled for a convoluted explanation that her work helped support the doctors at a medical research facility in a roundabout way, and Madame C. happily took control of the conversation again while I tried to figure out how to swallow the plateful of tomates provençales in front of me, given that cooked tomatoes were high on my Foods I Do Not Eat Because They Make Me Gag list.

I fell into bed before nine o'clock, exhausted and faintly nauseated from forcing down three whole tomatoes.

Four months later, I couldn't keep a grin from spreading over my face as I power-walked through Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, heading from customs to the gate for the short flight to Marseille. That trip was closer to 30 hours than 20, thanks to a three-hour drive to the airport and a four-hour delay in Atlanta, but despite the exhaustion that made my arms feel like lead, saying Bonjour to the customs agent and hearing the PA system announcements in French felt like coming home.

I dashed out of the arrivals hall at Marseille-Provence just in time to catch the bus to Aix. Madame C. picked me up and we went to Sunday lunch at her daughter's house, where a spring semester American student had just arrived the day before. I recognized the dazed look on her face and the pauses in conversation as she tried to find the right words in her head. Don't worry; trust me, it gets easier, I told her as I took several tomates provençales, now one of my favorite dishes, from the platter being passed.

Arrivals in new places can be overwhelming, from struggles with the local language to disorientation from a long trip to cultural and culinary differences between you and the local people. But it's amazing, between an arrival and a departure or from one arrival to the next, how quickly a place where you thought you'd never fit in can start to feel like home.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Mexican Mishap Hat Trick

By Tanenhaus, Creative Commons
You know the saying that bad things come in threes? Well, apparently travel experiences aren't exempt. I've been pretty lucky in my wanderings to date and I sincerely hope my general pattern of positive travel experiences continues, but my first trip south of the border was an exception.

I was 12, and my parents wanted to take me somewhere I could learn to snorkel during my elementary school's spring break. They'd been to various parts of Mexico with my brother years before and had enjoyed it, so they thought, "Why not Baja?" And, not being the parents of a college student at the time, they decided San José del Cabo, next to Cabo San Lucas, was the perfect spot. I was thrilled. I'd been to Canada, but we'd always driven, so this would be my first international flight.

We took something like Super Shuttle from Los Cabos International Airport to our hotel the morning we arrived. My parents exchanged an uneasy look as the shuttle picked up three college students, probably 18 or 19 years old, each with a beer already in hand, who were also staying in San José del Cabo. I was trying desperately to look older than 12 and more worldly than I was, but I still felt my mom's what-have-we-gotten-ourselves-into alarm start to go off in the seat next to mine.

The next day or two passed fairly uneventfully. We drove around the area in our beat-up VW bug rental car, which I loved for its sunroof (without a pane of glass, so it couldn't be closed) and the fact that the backseat didn't have seat belts, so I was free to stretch out across it and read or watch the scenery fly by. My first snorkeling lesson passed without incident. My parents were still uneasy about the fact that they had clearly picked a spring break party destination for college kids, but San José del Cabo was quieter than Cabo San Lucas, so we didn't lose any sleep. I was disappointed that the men in the market wanted my American money more than the pesos I was so eager to spend, but I found a pretty silver and mother-of-pearl bracelet, so I was mostly appeased.

We decided to go out to El Arco de Cabo San Lucas (Lands End), which my dad wanted to see, so we joined a group of fellow tourists on a water taxi and sped across the bay. When the taxi driver ran the boat halfway aground and started yelling "Jump! Jump!" as we arrived at Lands End, I had to stifle a laugh. People "disembarked" over the sides until the waves started carrying us back out to sea, at which point the driver yelled "Stop! Stop!" until he could run the boat aground again and repeat the process.

My parents and I took our turn the second time the driver ran the boat aground. My parents went off one side, one after the other, and I chose to jump off the less crowded bow of the boat. As I landed, I heard my mom cry out and turned to go to her, but my leg was stuck. The bow rope had been hanging loosely from the underside of the bow and I had put my leg straight through one of the loops as I jumped. Struggling to hold the rope still enough in the waves to get my leg out of it, I saw my dad reach my mom and take her pack as he started to help her out of the water - she had twisted her ankle as she landed - neither of them aware that I wasn't already up on the beach.

Still stuck in the rope, I felt myself being dragged further into the water as the boat started to drift away from the beach again. The bow was too high for anyone in the boat to see me, and the steep angle of the rope from the bow to the water was making it difficult to pull my leg free. One of the other passengers, half of a couple on vacation, saw me and ran over to help, shouting at the driver. The driver didn't hear him over the water (but my parents did, and headed toward us), but someone else to hold the rope steady while I pulled my leg out of the loop was all I needed and I was free before the boat drifted much further.

After thanking our fellow passenger, my parents and I made our way up onto the beach, my mom and I hobbling, and sat down on some boulders away from the water's edge. The wind had picked up and was blowing sand into the rope burn on the back of my knee as I tried to inspect it. I heard a shout and looked up just in time to see someone's beach umbrella, freed by the wind, flying toward us. It looked like it would go over our heads, but it hit a pocket of air, bounced and smacked my dad in the face instead. We sat there, staring at each other. In the space of ten minutes, we'd gone from perfectly healthy to having a sprained ankle, a nasty rope burn and a bleeding fat lip, one unpleasant injury for each of us.

There are other places in Mexico I'd like to visit, but I don't think I'll be going back to Cabo anytime in the next 60 years. I'd really rather not give Baja a chance to repeat its hat trick of injuries; I still have the scar from the last one.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: Perfection Provençale

I miss Provence at any number of random moments, but a lot of them seem to hit in November. I think it has something to do with the crisp, clear fall air in the French countryside and the excitement of the winter holidays that starts to creep into the marchés, even before the Christmas markets open.

Back from the October school break, families go for evening walks, bundled up against the autumn chill in the air, and cafés turn on outdoor heaters to let their patrons continue the unofficial national pastime of people-watching.

This photo was taken just outside the town of Lourmarin, in the Luberon region, in November 2005. The Luberon is further inland than Aix-en-Provence, and is home to some of the things we consider distinctly provençal: olive groves and lavender fields, not to mention beautiful skies and charming villages. And, because I couldn’t pick just one photo of that perfect, if chilly, fall day, here’s another – this one of a cottage so picturesquely charming I actually laughed when I saw it. If I lived there, I’d curl up in one of the windows with a book, watching the world go by as my garden prepared itself for winter.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How did I get here?

What lies ahead?

Tracing back the paths you've taken (or onto which life has shoved you) to see how, exactly, you've arrived at your current destination can be an interesting and eye-opening process. What might have happened if you hadn't taken that job? Where might you be now if your parents hadn't moved when you were a kid?

Sitting on the floor in the middle of my bedroom, with guidebooks, the travel stories of others, maps and lists spread out around me, it's interesting to think about how I wound up here, planning for a two-year graduate program in Australia and all the travel I can fit in during study breaks.

It was reading Srini Rao's post on The Skool of Life yesterday, "How I ended up with The Greatest Job In the World," that got me thinking about all of this. Here I am, in my sixth month of living with my parents, more than five years after accepting that I'd never live under their roof again. And I'm enjoying it! I like living in a house again, rather than an apartment, I like being able to look outside and see trees and birds, rather than city streets, and I love being able to spend so much time with my parents before I head off to the other side of the world. And, thanks to the internet and the ability to tele-commute, I'm still at the same full-time job I've had for the past three years, so I don't feel like I'm taking advantage of my parents' generosity.

But it was an entirely random amalgam of discussions, decisions and dissension that brought me here, and I so easily could have missed the chance for this adventure. Here are just a handful of the twists and turns that have brought me to this point:
  • My parents moved from Florida, where I was born, to Southern California when I was still a baby. If I hadn't grown up in SoCal and decided that I wanted to experience something beyond the beach bubble, I might never have become interested in international issues and I might have headed to California, instead of away, for college.
  • My sophomore year of high school, I was torn between two summer programs, one at Northwestern and one at Georgetown. It was while at Georgetown that I stumbled (literally) onto GW's campus, which led to its becoming my alma mater. If I'd picked the Northwestern program, I might never have applied to GW and I'd probably have majored in psychology at Bucknell. (Which might have meant not studying abroad, and never discovering my passion for translation.)
  • It wasn't until I got into a relationship with a guy considering law school that I started thinking seriously about going to grad school just a few years after college. And the fact that he was considering Stanford and called northern California home made me quick to put the translation and interpretation (T & I) program in Monterey on my list. When we broke up, the program was still at the top of my list, but being in California suddenly wasn't quite so important anymore.
  • One evening in 2007, I uncharacteristically went to the awful, rundown gym in the first building I lived in after college and had a conversation with a woman who'd run her first marathon the year before. Eight months later, I was training for my first marathon and now, more than three years after that conversation and having completed six marathons of my own, I'm much more in tune with my own strength - physical and emotional - and am more willing than ever before to embrace my sense of adventure.
  • I applied for a Fulbright scholarship - and didn't get it. If I had, grad school would have been pushed back and, since the scholarship I applied for would have taken me to France, might have ended up being in Europe.
  • I did a random search for graduate T & I programs and came across one in Australia. Mostly joking, I sent the link to a friend. He was the one who found the dual Masters program I'm starting in February (T & I, plus international relations) by digging a little deeper on the school's site, and kept after me to apply until I gave in, did the math and figured out that it would actually be less expensive - and infinitely more fun - than the program I was planning to attend in Monterey.
There are countless things we do - every year, every month, every day - that influence, on some level, the places we end up in the future and the courses our lives take. I know there are other directions my life could have gone that would have made me happy. But right now? I'm thrilled that this path is the one my life has taken. And I can't wait to see where it leads me next.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tales from a Hostel Bunk: Prague

I walked into the four-bed room and frowned. Nothing had changed since I'd swung back to the hostel to drop a few things off mid-afternoon: there was still only one bed other than mine occupied, and the things on it still didn't look the least bit feminine. Coed dorm rooms, as long as they were small, weren't so bad, but me and just one guy, in a room at the end of the hall? That was a little weird, and potentially creepy.

The Astronomical Clock in Prague's Old Town Square,
a 10-minute walk from my hostel and one of my
favorite parts of the city.
My roommate of the night before, a very sweet British-American woman a few years older than I was who had been teaching English in the Czech countryside for two years, had left to catch a flight before dawn. The pair of American guys, also on spring break, with whom I'd shared a van from the airport to the city center the day before and who had turned up at my hostel after realizing the one they'd booked was a disaster, were apparently already out for the evening. Since breakfast had revealed the other occupants of Apple Hostel to be mostly quiet pairs who didn't make eye contact, I wondered what other solo traveler had shown up. And hoped he was short, with less muscle mass than your average 12-year-old.

Don't get me wrong, meeting other travelers is the best part of staying in a hostel, but the idea of sleeping in a room with an unknown man and no one else had my internal solo female traveler alarm clanging a warning. I try to stay in female-only rooms whenever possible, but Apple Hostel didn't have any rooms designated as such for the time I was there.
My first full day in Prague, during the boat portion
 of a walking/boat tour of the city center, with Karlův Most,
Malá Strana and the Hrad behind me.

A key turned in the lock while I was contemplating putting my shoes back on to head out for an hour at a café before dinner, and I bargained with myself: if he set off any "creepy guy" signals in my head, I'd ask about switching to another room, but it was unfair to judge a fellow traveler without even exchanging a few words of conversation. I took a deep breath and fixed a cautious smile on my face as the door opened.

Rather than short and frail, my new roommate turned out to be a tall German with a proclivity for skiing, mountain climbing and hiking. Oops. But he also seemed to tune in quickly to the fact that I wasn't entirely comfortable and set about making casual conversation. We discovered common interests in our mutual love of the outdoors and languages (although his near-native English was light-years beyond my limited German), and spent a pleasant hour talking about places we'd been and others we hoped to visit. We didn't spend much time together during the few overlapping days of our respective stays, but he was a pleasant roommate and seemed careful to respect my personal space and to avoid doing anything that might make me nervous, which I greatly appreciated.

I loved all the colors used in Prague's architecture, like on
these buildings, seen through an arch of Karlův Most.
I can't say the experience made me any less wary of sharing a room with a solo traveler of the opposite sex, and I still look first for female-only rooms when I'm traveling alone. But sharing a room with a solo male traveler who turned out to be one of the most respectful, polite and easy-going guys I've ever met was a good reminder that, while it pays to be on your guard when traveling - solo or otherwise - you never know who you'll meet or what interesting conversations you might have if you give the people around you a chance.

(For those curious about Apple Hostel itself, it's a decent-enough hostel within walking distance of both Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square. The rooms are clean and spacious; the only thing that made me a little nervous was that the top bunks didn't have rails around them or anything to keep people sleeping there from falling out. The breakfasts provided when I was there were fairly stale and I preferred to seek out my own. The communal bathrooms were kept in decent shape, although the showers were slow to drain and the shower setup will give Americans pause: three beach-style shower heads along one wall of the shower room, with no dividers between them or between that section of the room and the sinks. I'd stay there again because of the location, but if I found something in the same price range that seemed nicer or more welcoming, I wouldn't hesitate to try that instead.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: Wandering Waterways

I've always had a thing about water. Whether it stems from the soothing sound, having grown up by the ocean or maybe being born on the cusp between Aquarius and Pisces, I have no idea, but it's a good bet that, if there's a body of water around, I'm near it (or in it, depending on the season).

One of my favorite ways to find my bearings in a new city or collect my thoughts in a familiar one is to wander through it on foot, usually by the river - the fact that large cities are usually settled on or near one has become one of my favorite things about them. The Seine is an integral part of the path I always walk through Paris shortly after I arrive; when I needed to get off campus in college, I walked along the Potomac; my favorite running trail in DC after college paralleled that same river; I got lost multiple times in Prague, but as soon as I found the Vltava I knew where I was; I can't get enough of the Embarcadero in San Francisco. The list goes on, much the same for nearly every city I've been to.

Today's photo was taken in London at about this time of year in 2005, when a friend and I decided to take the Chunnel up from France during our fall break. I had expected that, after speaking nothing but French for two months, speaking English would be a relief. Instead, I found myself confused by the unfamiliar accents and struggling to figure out a lexicon that wasn't quite the same as the one I was used to. I felt sluggish and stupid every time I had to ask someone to repeat himself, which was often. After buying tickets for a museum or ordering food in a restaurant, switching back to French to speak with my friend was a relief.

Linguistic difficulties aside, I felt comfortable in London the moment I set foot in it (as long as I wasn't required to speak, at any rate). Something in the air, something about the pace of life there, reminded me so much of Washington that it was impossible not to feel at home. And the moment I set eyes on the Thames, London went from being a nice, mostly comfortable place to be to a city I loved. I took a ridiculous number of photos looking over the Thames, of bridges crossing the Thames, of double-decker buses on bridges crossing the Thames...fully half of my pictures of London, like this one, involve the river.

I spent hours on the catwalks of Tower Bridge, watching the river and the city speeding past on its banks. I spent an afternoon walking along the banks of the Thames, watching buskers and tourists alike. One of the first places I took my parents when we all went to London several months later was across the Wibbly-Wobbly Bridge (the Millenium Bridge, if we're being precise), to look at the river. Despite the fact that I was across a continent and an ocean from the place I considered home, I looked at the Thames and thought that - at that moment - there was nowhere I'd rather be.

So if we ever happen to be traveling together and I wander off, listen for the sound of waves crashing, water lapping or a river running, then follow it, and you'll almost certainly find me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Profiles in Transit: Antonio

Creative Commons, guillenperez
The walls of the buildings around the piazza diffused the afternoon sunlight so that it flowed over the cobblestones, gilding them with that spectrum of light that is so uniquely Tuscan. The sun's rays spilled over my skirt, drawing me into the picture-perfect Florentine afternoon as though I belonged there.

I smiled to myself as I wrote my postcards, pausing often to look around the piazza and bask in the October sunshine, happy just to sit and enjoy the afternoon while my friends explored a museum I hadn't had energy left to gear myself up for after spending hours at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Galleria dell'Accademia.

An elderly gentleman walked into the square and took the seat adjacent to mine on the circular bench where I was writing. After several moments, he spoke and, since I was the only one around, I looked up and said "Scusa?" He repeated himself, gesturing toward me, then tapping his left arm. I caught the word sinistra and assumed he was commenting on the fact that I was left-handed, so I nodded. My limited Italian didn't offer any clues about his next statement, so I shook my head and said, "Non parlo italiano, signore, scusami." He grimaced, nodded and went back to watching the few people wandering through the piazza. Two or three minutes later, I saw the man turn back toward me out of the corner of my eye and heard, "Parlez-vous français, mademoiselle ?" I turned toward him, grinning, and said, "Oui !"

We spoke about trips he'd taken to France, how I was enjoying my second visit to Florence and how much I had loved San Gimignano on a trip a few years before. When I mentioned that I was actually American, not French, he told me he thought it was wonderful that I was taking advantage of my youth by traveling. It's impossible not to learn something new about life when we travel, he told me, and learning about life is how we come to know ourselves and the people around us. As he got up to leave, he took my hand in a warm, strong grasp that reminded me of my grandfather's and asked my name. "Enchanté, Jessalyn," he said, "Je m'appelle Antonio."

I spoke with Antonio for no more than ten minutes on that afternoon in Florence, and our paths haven't crossed since. I don't know what made him think to ask if I spoke French - if he saw the postcard to my French host mother, or if it was just a hunch. But the truth of what he said has stayed with me and, whenever I think of Florence, the first thing that comes to mind is a man named Antonio and the advice he gave me on a sunny October afternoon.