Tuesday, September 12, 2017

in transit

Last night I looked through the screen covering my open window to watch the sun set behind the city. In a moment, it had bundled together landmarks, old buildings, mountains and construction sites into one beautiful silhouette.

I thought of the people in cars driving to and from on the streets below me, wondering if they had taken a minute to notice the beauty that surrounded them, coloring sidewalks a rusty gold and blanketing dirty alleys.

Maybe it's because I don't drive, that I notice these things. When I get in a car, on a bus, on a plane, I am never the one in charge of controlling the vehicle, which leaves me free to think about and notice the world around me.

Looking through the window last night, I remembered a year ago, when I lived further north, and often caught the bus at this time of day. I rarely read or used my phone on these rides- I'd always look out the window, listening to music to alter my perceptions of things.

In cold and dreary rainstorms I would play Crystal Castles as the sky was dark and the sound of traffic hammered away at me. On sunny days I would relax to Charli XCX...

But I digress.

When we travel, we find ourselves in an ideal setting to look around. To notice.

In transport, we often learn more about a place than we'll have a chance to discover on our own. Due to the speed of travel when one is not on foot, more can be seen and experienced. Often, more places can be accessed. This is not to say I don't appreciate a certain kind of foot tourism (I walked all over Paris last year), but you can absorb so much of a place simply by looking our the windows as you go somewhere.

When your plane lands, what do you see? What does the landscape look like? Can you see the glimmering lights of city streets or small villages? Often you'll find swathes of farmland, patchwork quilts over the globe.

When you take the train between cities, what do you see of the countryside? Animals, people, gatherings, festivals. Cobblestone streets in Paris or old cars abandoned in bushes in rural Florida. Greenery; flourishing, long-dead or somewhere in between. Stately manors and homes where the roof shingles have fallen off one by one.

Traveling by bus, by cab in a large city, you become a witness to the millions of interactions happening around you. Watch the arguing couple kiss and make up, the family of tourists awestruck in Times Square. Listen to the old lady with the needle and thread on the seat beside you as she tells you how she was married in the park across the street underneath a white tent dripping rainwater.

We tend to focus on arrivals. On getting somewhere. But there's more to every trip than the promised bounty of a destination.

The journey is so beautiful, and can show us so much.

Remember, when you are in transit, to look, to listen, to absorb.

Remember to watch for the moments that will allow you to truly understand a place, its people... 

or yourself. 

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

essence citron jaune

I am impulsive and filled with wanderlust, and because of this often wind up in the strangest of places.


The journey by train from Gare du Nord to Nogent-le-Rotrou is only a couple of hours. If you spend the trip gazing out the window, you’ll see the beautiful facades of Parisian suburbs slowly turn into downtrodden buildings with graffiti on the sides. These eventually morph into scattered farmhouses and large expanses of grass. Each stop introduces only a handful of passengers, more casually dressed as you move away from Paris.

I mean to read on the train, but there’s something mesmerizing about scenery flying by in a foreign country. Even though the skies are filled with clouds today and nothing out the window is as devastatingly beautiful as Paris, I am enchanted. 

When I arrive in Nogent-le-Rotrou, I heft my heavy backpack onto my shoulders and manage to convince my oversize suitcase to follow me off the train. As the clack and rumble of the train disappears, the town is quiet, save for a few drops of rain beginning to fall from the gathering clouds. 

It is grey as dusk, though it is only noon.

All I can see from the train station is what seems to be the outskirts of a very small town. There’s a bar that appears to be open, but I don't want to go in and hang out at a bar with my bulky suitcase for 8 hours. 

So I walk.

After only a few paces and a turned corner I encounter what appears to be a circus. To my dismay, it's closed.

It's really raining now and I am shabbily dressed compared to these classic put-together Europeans, the few that are out and about. No one speaks to me, but a few give me questioning looks. I can imagine any stranger in a small town is easily noticed, but I am especially garish today in my American ripped jeans and electric blue, overstuffed suitcase, which nearly reaches my shoulders.

I walk over a river and into the center of town, ungainly suitcase clunking along the cobblestones behind me.

I feel lost. I am used to big cities where there is always somewhere to go, something to be done. As a result, I left Paris this morning and thought I'd be able to enjoy this small country town for eight hours until the farmer whose place I'll be staying at picks me up. However, not only is it a very small town with little tourism, it is also one of those days where everything is closed.

I am desperate and turn onto a street with a handful of hotels. I pick the nearest and startle the bespectacled man behind the front desk when I ask if I can rent a room for a few hours. Luckily, he speaks enough English for me to explain that I am waiting for a ride this evening and just want a place to put my bag, rest and shower. He is kind and accommodates my strange request with a smile and pleasant "bonne journee!"

I go upstairs and collapse on top of a heap of clean white sheets. Longing for the voice of someone I know, I connect to the WiFi, but instead of happy I feel lost and desperate at the distance that separates me from anything I've ever known.

I change into running clothes and start doing burpees and squats in the space between my bed and the window, too shy to go for a run but hoping exercise will make me feel better.

It doesn't. I take a shower and end up sitting on the floor with the water running over my body, reeling from the sobs that are escaping me. 

It was you who decided to live untethered, I remind myself, to move abroad without a plan or a job or a single person you know. You ought to have realized that this loneliness would accompany you.

But for some reason, I hadn't realized, and the surprise of the emotion doubles the pain.

But... I refuse to be taken over by this.

I put on my shoes and do the only thing I can.

I walk, I move, I do something.

I explore.

Nogent-le-Rotrou is old, ancient. I've never been anywhere with so much history. 

Every building is weathered, and many are repaired in patches. Colorful shutters line the streets and nothing seems to be more than two or three stories high. Sections of the road are paved, but there are stones lining the sidewalks and weeds growing up in the cracks. Signs on doors advertise only the basics, nothing fancy or extravagant. I'm curious what daily life is like for those who live here. 

There's a beautiful flower shop, with blooms and greenery erupting from every corner, positioned directly across from a church whose sign announces it has been there since the end of the 12th century.

I enter it's dark and cavernous space, move through it for a second, breathing in the dust and an aura of ancient times. Then I get out, feeling in awe and afraid of insulting it. Silly, I know. Instead I walk past more shuttered homes and shops and find one of the higher points in the town. I sit on the grass. Take a few pictures.

The sadness fades a bit, walking. It's hard to feel sorry for yourself when you are exploring such an old and beautiful place.

Eventually I make it back to the hotel. It’s only been an hour or so. I don’t know what to do with myself.

There’s a pharmacie open next door, so I go in. I don’t know what I’m looking for. The clerk manning this one-room store greets me and I think she’s asked if I need help so I shake my head and say, “non, merci,” but add “je ne parle pas francais” for good measure. She says nothing more, only squinches her eyes a bit and I assume I’ve muddled or mispronounced something.

I wander over to a shelf of essential oils, my face burning with embarrassment. I am overwhelmed. 

My eye falls on a tiny vial of essence citron jaune, which I know is supposed to be uplifting.

I decide I could use some uplifting.

I place the little container on the counter and wait for the price to pop up on the cash register- the clerk reads it off but I can’t understand her. I hand her a wad of Euro change and hope it’s correct. 

Back in my hotel room, I unscrew the lid and inhale.

It smells like a lemon. 

What did I expect? I laugh, and wonder why I had imagined anything more impressive. It's not a magic pill. I'm not any happier. I'm still lonely, and shy, alone in a country where I am out of place and have trouble communicating, sniffing a bottle of essential oil in a desperate attempt to feel better.

I don't know what's going to follow today. I don't know, here, in Nogent-le-Rotrou, that  in a few days time I will panic and fly to New York, figuring out my life with the help of an aura reader in Chinatown. I haven't yet analysed my sadness enough to figure out all of it's underlying causes.

But today, in a hotel room in the middle of a small town in France, I am choosing to do the best I can. I am choosing to walk, to see things, to explore, to sniff lemon oil... Rather than letting this depression control me. I vow to remember this, whenever I am tired of challenges, when I am alone or sad. I vow to put in the work required. 

Perhaps a little essence citron jaune did something, after all.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Live Like a Tourist, Act Like a Local

Be a tourist wherever you go.

You cringed just now, right? Even the word conjures up images of overweight folks clad in Hawaiian or "I heart NY" T shirts, toting gigantic cameras and shouting across crowded plazas for their kids to come and "eat their damn pizza" or something, leaning against crumbling ruins in Rome and not noticing when a few more chips fall from a pillar. We're not supposed to want to be tourists. We're not supposed to like them much, just appreciate the money they put into our local economies.

But what is the real goal of tourism?

To be awed. Amazed. To explore.

Shouldn't we reacquaint the word "tourist" with someone who walks new lands with wide eyes, an open mind and a sense of wonder?

To be a tourist wherever you go means to keep that optimism and sense of adventure, even in your home city. Do you plug yourself into headphones or bury your face in your phone on your commute to work each day? How often do you look at your surroundings and truly appreciate them?

Try it. Be a tourist in your own city. I swear to you that you have not seen everything. Take it from a Seattle native who used to think I knew absolutely everything about Seattle... until I started dating a guy who lived in the International District and realized how little I had explored that area and nearby Pioneer Square. Even now, when I think I've "done it all", I challenge myself to find a cafe or park I've never been to. As much as I've explored and blogged about this city, there is still always something new- as long as I open my eyes and look for it.

On the flip side, when you're travelling...

Act like a local.

I don't be all pretentious and act like you know everything about the culture and location, but delve into a place instead of just skimming the surface. Try to speak in the local language, even if it's only a greeting. Don't head straight for the Eiffel Tower when you're in Paris- explore some of the flower shops, bookstores and quiet cafes down streets whose names you can't pronounce. Stay away from Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park and hike a ways out to see sights less reliable, but more beautiful sights.

Wherever you go, never be the person that complains about how different/strange/unusual/uncomfortable anything is. Oh, but it is, you say?

Well, yes. You're not at home. You are somewhere else. It will be different/strange/unusual/uncomfortable. It's supposed to be!

But that doesn't mean you have to suffer. Get into it! Relax, embrace your tourist status (remember: adventure. optimism. exploration.). And...

Go where the locals are going. 

When you live in a place you know where to go. There's no way around it. The logic of following locals to find the best of anything is irrefutable. These days with so many social media platforms and chat rooms and travel websites, it's super easy to find recommendations that will change your travel experience from good to extraordinary.

Stay away from hotels and rent an Airbnb, so you can experience what it's like to take part in a new city instead of just being an observer of it. Take public transportation instead of a tour bus. Eat at places with none of your native language on the menu! This is often terrifying but very worth it- I did this in China and learned eel is delicious.

At the end of the day, whether you are travelling in your home city, a neighboring one or hitting up new towns across the world, remember to open your heart and mind to new stimuli and experiences.

Live like a tourist with eyes wide open.
Act like a local, and embrace places beneath their surfaces.

If you adhere to these attitudes, at the end of the day you will always be able to feel that you are home... wherever you are.

How will you bring these ideas into your life at home and abroad?