The truth about pineapples

“Why do you call it a pineapple?” Lukas asked as the tram rumbled gently along a blue coast.

“Because of the spikes, I think,” I said, giving the fruit in his hand a concentrated stare. “And because it’s a fruit like apples are, I suppose.”

He laughed at me and shook his head.

“It’s a silly name,” he said. “Ananas is much better.”

We had already established that pineapples are called ananas in both Spanish and Czech but our tram was taking its sweet time in getting the crew to our destination, so the pineapple kept coming up.

“What is it in Farsi?” I wondered aloud to our companions.

“What is what?” asked Samir. One hand gripped a bag full of groceries and one eye followed the bouncing energy of his young son, *Samaneh.

*(For their privacy and protection, all names in this post and those I will post about while in Greece have been changed).

“What is the word for ‘pineapple’ in Farsi?” I asked.

“What is a pineapple?” he asked me.

Lukas held up the pineapple by its foliage and said in his native German tongue, “Ananas.”

Ananas,” Samir repeated. “We call it that also.”

I glared at them both incredulously and tapped Ali on the shoulder. “What do you call this fruit?” I asked, pointing to the subject in question.

Ananas,” he assured me, smiling.

I didn’t believe any of them.

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Saturday, January 9, 2016. By 1:30 that afternoon, about the time we were rolling past sloping beaches along a smooth, steel river, I had been in Greece exactly three days. It seems like a lifetime already.

I came to work with an organization that reaches out to refugees, primarily Syrians, Afghanis and Iranians, but I have been told that the center has hosted Nepalis, Nigerians and more when occasion necessitates it.

The team is primarily Greek, German and Finnish, with the notable addition of a Dutch girl – ‘Kiwi’ as the refugee kids call her – and several American women. For an ametuer linguist like myself, this is heaven. Most of our time has been working at the center, but Saturday is a day off and the interns decided to take a trip to the beach.

Lukas, Johannes and Doro, our German contingent, had led the charge. On Thursday, after our work at the center was finished, they invited me out for coffee with Kiwi to make plans. Sitting at a little table in the middle of a square beneath the shadow of the Acropolis, we sketched out the weekend.

In the morning on Saturday, we girls would take the metro to Neos Kosmos, getting lunch supplies on the way, and meet the boys at the tram. The boys would go to the market to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables (hence, our peculiar pineapple) and invite some of our Afghani and Iranian friends to join.

While waiting for the group to collect at the tram stop, Lukas asked me to guard the pineapple so he could buy a volleyball from a nearby vendor. Thusly, our discussion about the name of said fruit began.

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It took us several false starts to find the perfect beach spot to settle at. We got off the tram three times before we all agreed, “Yes, this is where we should spend the day.”

“We have nothing but time,” Ali reminded us after our second attempt to find a patch of sand to set up camp. We had landed upon an empty beach, only to find that it was empty because of the stench and garbage. Dragging our feet and our empty stomachs back to the tram stop, we waited for the next carriage.

But it was worth it. A pebbly shore and brown-sugar sand with room to bounce the volleyball and several jetties to isolate us from the crowds was just a few stops further down the line. We spread out blankets and unloaded our lunch.

Samaneh took off in search of little rocks. He is five years old. His mother and brother are both waiting for him in Sweden. When the paperwork goes through, Samaneh and his father, Samir, will join them there. Today, he was content to search for pebbles in the sand.

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Kiwi and Samir’s friend, Hassam, both played an active part in watching and playing with the little guy whose unending well of energy and distraction was both commendable and inspiring.

Kiwi studies Farsi at university. As far as I can tell, she speaks beautifully. At the very least, her interactions with those who speak Farsi are beautiful to behold, but so many human interactions are when they are sincere. And hers are sincere.

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Drinks were poured, bread was sliced and passed around, cheese was fought over with friendly aggression and the pineapple sat in the middle of it all like a king among his royal subjects.

I thought for a moment how strange it was to be sharing lunch with people from four different nationalities (myself representing a fifth). On the surface, we don’t have much in common. We only met through mutual connections with a church and church-related ministries.

So Christ. We have Christ in common.

Ali, a prankish kook, gleefully gave Doro lessons in Farsi in exchange for some German vocabulary while the rest of us watched and laughed and ate. When the language lessons petered out, Doro and Johannes grabbed the volleyball and instigated a game that I made a point of staying out of.

Kiwi and Samaneh were busy collecting rocks and building walls, so I took a walk along the beach.

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If you have never seen a beach in Greece, let me describe it to you. The sand is thick and soft but speckled with colored rocks. Water laps the shore in modest waves that barely break, like the continuous breath of the bay as it sleeps. In fact, between our shore and the one on the nearest island in sight, there doesn’t seem to be a single disturbance on the surface of the water. Only the island rising out of the sea interrupts the smooth horizon. And it is quite a sight. It, and the islands behind it in varying shades of shadow-blue, is a monster. It is a mountain birthed from the sea. It is the nose of a sleeping giant lying just below the surface of the water. Boats pass by it and birds fly over it and no one seems to notice it but me.

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By the time my feet were ready to return, the sky was dimming and the volleyball game had ended. Kiwi pulled out a guitar and we sang songs in German, English and Farsi.

The languages we share in bits and pieces, but the content unites us completely. Only with the Word of God can strangers be brothers and enemies be friends.

Ali grabbed a knife and assisted Johannes in slicing up our pineapple as Hassam and Samir helped the girls maintain a decent chorus. Occasionally, Ali would jump into a song with a round of “Happy Birthday” just to throw us all off course.

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Before the last of the light left the sky, we took selfies and group pictures in front of the waterline. Johannes and Ali were brave enough to jump into the water and swim around for a bit. (“Okay, I was wrong,” Ali admitted as he shivered next to us fifteen minutes later. “That was a bad idea. We should not have gone in.”).

Then we all watched the sun slip behind those islands like a drop of gold blazing a path through the velvet sky.

We munched on the last of the food and divied up the remaining chocolate, bread and fruit. Collecting blankets and bags, we marched back to the tram stop in the dark.

I watched my companions as the tram slinked its way once more into the heart of Athens. What different roads we all have taken to lead us to this spot. A cynic would say it was chance. But we know better.

We know that it is God who has charted our course, and for many on this tram, only a faith that He will bring us to its end will sustain us during stormy seas.

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Samir said to me when the day was finished, “I will forget my own name before I forget this day.”

Fellowship is sweet. It is precious. And to see brothers and sisters in Christ drink it up with such fervor is a joy I am not likely to forget either.

Three days in Athens and I have been humbled. Humbled by the courage of people who have faced tremendous adversity. Humbled by the kindness I have been shown by people who did not know me when the week began, who speak a different language, have a different history and use a different word for a fruit I have always known as a pineapple. Humbled by the greatness of the God who has brought us all together as heirs to a promise we do not deserve.

The truth about flying

“Never again,” I promised myself as the wheels touched down on a snowy tarmac in Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport. “I will never fly again.”

I spent a good six months trying to find a way back to the States that didn’t involve an airplane. A bus across Europe, a train across Russia, a ferry to Japan, a cargo ship to the West Coast. It would have taken weeks and been tremendously expensive, but in my mind, it also would have been very, very worth it. I hate flying.

It isn’t just that it’s uncomfortable and strenuous. It’s that I will wake up mid-Atlantic in a minor panic attack, sobbing hysterically while some stranger snores next to me. It’s that I can feel the cabin pressure before I even board the plane and ascending and descending feels a little bit like losing my soul through my ears. It’s that I will have a headache for days afterwards and not be able to eat anything until the last of the jetlag completely wears off.

It’s that flying is literally the worst.

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I don’t know where I was flying over at this point. All I know is that I probably had a massive headache and a nose bleed.

Why it didn’t occur to me that by going to Athens I would have to get back on a plane, I am still not wholly sure. But it didn’t and here I am, once again reliving the nightmarish experience that is flying in the 21st century.

A lot of glamour is associated with travel, perhaps unduly. We no longer live in the age of Pan Am stewardesses and steamer trunks. The Wright brothers may well have cringed if they could see the cattle drive our airports have become.

As a kid, I knew I wanted to fly. This was in part because of a book about two children who go to visit their grandparents. They are served delicious meals on the plane, they are taken to the cockpit, they get to pick their suitcases off the luggage carousal. Their teddy bear comes along for the whole adventure. What a time!

Let me tell you now, it’s all a lie.

The truth about airports is that it is much more of an ordeal than anyone will honestly tell you.

So let’s be honest.

Firstly, you need to know that trying to rush through an airport is the hardest, most awful experience you are likely to have in the first world. This is mostly because airports are created to slow everything down to a third their usual pace.

Want to check your bags? Let’s weigh everything you own and sticker it to death.

Want to get to your gate? Take off all your clothes and put them in a box so we can x-ray them. And it doesn’t matter how quickly you can strip off your belt, shoes, jackets, watches and remove liquids, laptops and cell phones from your baggage, we will take our sweet time getting you through that metal detector.

Want to board the plane? Wait for two hours in the terminal for no reason.

You cannot be late to the airport because there is no way to make up for lost time. You cannot speed up this process.

So when I got off the train at Union Station, Los Angeles, with the choice of taking an $8/1hour bus to LAX or getting a cab for half the time and three times the price, I chose the cab. I regret nothing.

We had a nice chat, the cabby and I. That is something I will say for travel – you meet nice people (Unless you end up in the Moscow airport, in which case, sucks to be you pal).

I practiced a little bit of my newly acquired Farsi on him, which he then helped me correct. He, in turn, told me the entire religious history of Armenia, Turkey and Persia. When we got to the LAX departing terminals, he groaned miserably and said, “I have airport tomorrow. I am to be here all day.”

I know how you feel, sir.

He pulled up to the curb, unloaded my bag from the back and shook my hand warmly. “God helps those who help others,” he said to me, a sparkle in his eyes. Thanks, cabby.

A slightly magical moment quickly dissolved into a half hour line to get through security. I was directly behind twenty Japanese high school marching band players who had come out for the Rose Bowl. They proudly wore their uniform hats and chattered loudly across the roped off lanes.

For some reason, they security guard held up the line on my passport and I sweated like crazy for 90 seconds thinking, “Am I a terrorist? What if I did something on accident that could be taken as a security threat? How will I explain to them that this is all just a huge mistake?” I do not enjoy having my patriotism questioned by people who make me walk around in socks in a public area.

The truth is that airports make communists of us all.

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Chilling in a terminal. Trying to make the best of it. You know, the norm.

I once spent a night in the Zurich airport. The first thing I noticed was how unaffordable everything was. Walking through an airport can be a charming adventure as you hurry past duty free shops with perfumes, chocolates, fine liquors and an assortment of super fancy stuff you’d probably never buy. Being STUCK in an airport for an extended period of time is less fun because then you have time to meander around and look at all the things you will never be rich enough to purchase.

Don’t be fooled by the primly dressed girl stacking chocolate bars like some kind of ad from 1961. THAT CHOCOLATE WILL EAT YOU ALIVE. It is so EXPENSIVE even the Queen couldn’t manage. It’s a dream of mine to one day be able to afford something (anything) from one of those stores. More specifically, I’d like to be able to drop sixty bucks on those gourmet chocolate boxes that are listed as “buy 5, get 1 free.” I don’t know what I would do with six boxes of chocolate, but I’m sure I would figure something out during the flight.

The truth is, even if you can afford to get inside an airport, your pocket book still probably can’t handle the boutiques and specialty stores. Heck, mine can barely tackle the pre-packaged sandwiches and water bottles in the little corner shops where poor people try to find food so they don’t die of mal-nurishment before getting to their gate. Airports are expensive. Especially that one in Zurich.

I could feel the headache building before I even got on the plane to Moscow (this may have been early-onset dread at the thought of spending an 18 hour layover in the Moscow airport – without a visa they won’t let you leave).

After finding my seat and discovering that Russian airlines doesn’t really “do” English, I prepared myself for a long, long flight. Mentally buckling up is crucial to the flight survival process.

So is being careful what you eat. In-flight meals are a hit or miss. Anything with fish is automatically a miss – I don’t care how good it sounds when they give you the choice. Beef over pasta. Pasta over chicken. Avoid eggs.

Both meals I got on the Russian airliner were rough. The first one had a seafood salad. I am not entirely sure why I even bothered to eat it. At that elevation, your head will tell you to eat things your stomach knows you shouldn’t. Between the flakes of wilted lettuce and uncooked shrimp, there were pieces of smoked fish (unidentifiable) that resembled what I image dragon flanks must taste like.

Another meal had a salad (I think?) with both chicken slices and a hard boiled egg. I’m sorry, it’s bad enough that we’re going to kill a chicken in the prime of its life and serve it in a poorly composed salad, but to neighbor it with a chicken that wasn’t even given the chance to break out of the shell is just so morbid. I couldn’t. I was so close to tears it’s almost humiliating. To add to the sad irony, this death trip for them is the only time these flightless birds will ever get to fly.

Everything on the food tray comes in little packets or containers. I had finished clearing out each little compartment when I found a packet of mayonnaise. Those discoveries are stressful because suddenly you start wondering, “What was this supposed to go on and what the heck did I eat instead of it?”

The only thing you can really count on is the bread. The bread will always be bad. The butter is unspreadable and the roll is brick-like in both texture and taste. I used to feel bad not finishing mine. What a shame to put an uneaten portion back on the meal tray for the stewardesses to dump. Then again, if they had wanted you to finish it they should have served food and not stones.

The truth about airplane meals is that they will most likely cultivate a dislike for food in general which can last up to several days. At best, they are an opportunity for the person next to you to invade your personal space and judge you for the amount of butter (or mayonnaise) you put on your brick-roll.

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Finally getting real food in Moscow and a.) not knowing how much anything costs and b.) not feeling like eating anything but lightly-salted fries and green tea because your stomach is STRESSED OUT.

What I dread most is falling asleep. Or rather, not falling asleep as is generally the case. It’s like the movie Rocket Man where the monkey steals the dude’s sleep machine thing and he has to stay awake in space by himself for like a really long time before they get to Mars and he goes nuts.

A day before I left, I ran down to the pharmacy section of Target (where I get all my cheap meds) and debated whether or not to get a sleep aid. You see, I’m slightly terrified of taking a sleep aid and not being able to fall asleep because I have the longest limbs in the universe and I simply do not fit comfortably in a plane seat, making rest an unattainable goal. Being exhausted but not being able to sleep because it is literally painful to curl into a position that might give one’s head a chance to rest against something would be my Rocket Man equivalent. I would go nuts. I have gone nuts. I’d rather not do it again.

I popped an Exedrin (I think?) right after we took off but it didn’t really help the headache. I took a ZzzQuil right after the evening meal. It didn’t work either.

By the time we landed in Moscow, I was a hundred percent over it. Somewhere past hour 10 I found myself folded into a mess on my seat asking myself things like, “What if I lose the tweezers I borrowed from mom?” and “Can babies get sucked out of plane windows? Should someone make sure the mom in 2B is not letting her kids get too close to the them?” All of these seem like rational concerns when your brain is literally melting out your eyes as you plummet through the atmosphere in a tin can.

The truth is, it’s going to take more than one heavy dose of over-the-counter druggage to get you through a flight, and it’s likely that at some point you will still look out your window to see a breathtaking stretch of Arctic ice laying flat across the horizon as far as the eye can see, glowing beneath the moonlight on top of a murky blue sea…Only to realize as the sun comes up that you’ve been looking at the tip of the wing all night and you are probably nowhere near to polar ice caps. Disappointment is unavoidable.

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Raining in San Diego. Snowing in Russia. January across the globe.

I arrived in Russia around 3:30 for the longest, most heinous layover of my life. The airport in Moscow is nice enough. It feels like walking around the inside of a snow globe, except that half of it is covered in white wrap, like how they cover things at Disneyland when they’re under construction. Also, no one looks happy to be there. So yeah, a Disneyland-esque Soviet snow globe.

If you visit enough places around the world, you come to realize that, while stereotypes are limiting and silly, they are also not entirely without basis. I did not meet a single friendly Russian in the airport (granted, they do work in an airport which is DMV equivalent, so we’ll extend a little grace before judgment). I was barked at to sit down in a restaurant, whistled at to get a check, and glared at while trying to pay my bill. It was like they were all part of a cool, exclusive grumpy club that I couldn’t be a part of because I don’t work in an airport in Russia.

And yet I loved them. Maybe it’s the middle school teacher in me, maybe it’s the masochist in me, but Russians are basically my favorites now and one day I will meet them when I am not brain-dead between flights.

Also, Dora the Explorer in Russian is the number one way to start a new day.

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Moscow airport, the snow globe filled with little Russian children and rude Russian waiters.

I spent most of the flight to Athens reading. Sleep was out of the question. I was headed into my third time zone change in 36 hours and didn’t want to throw my sleep schedule off anymore than necessary. And as we’ve discussed already, I don’t sleep well on planes.

We began our descent and I looked out the window. Beautiful blue water speckled with gorgeous islands lay below us, basking in a soft winter sunshine. What a welcome.

The islands struck me especially, given the stories we see about refugees fleeing to Greek islands on dangerous seas. This last week, dozens of bodes washed up on Greek and Turkish shores. It’s hard to imagine crossing those expanses of water at night, wondering whether you’ll get to land safely. How spoiled we are to have the promise of safe travels in the relative comfort of modern transport. And somewhere to go.

I think the journey by plane to Athens didn’t cross my mind when I decided to go because the destination was so important. For most of us, sending money and prayers is all we will ever be able to do for these people fleeing their homes (never to return?). So what an honor to be able to serve personally, even if it is doing no more than giving them hot cups of tea while they wait for their transports to the border.

The desire to help our fellow man is perhaps one of the greatest attributes of our innate humanity. As our plane landed in Athens and I reeled from the quick change in altitude, my steadying hope was that it would all be worth it. That coming here I can do good, even if in just a small way. That I can be one of the faces that greets people who have left horrific tragedy and be an ambassador for humanity and a glimmer of hope for the future. That they might see there is good in the world even if the road to get there is long and dark, and it is worth it to try.

The truth about flying is that it is beautiful simply to have somewhere to go and a way to get there.

The truth about New Years

This time last year I was 16 hours into one of the worst years of my entire life. Sick, exhausted and extremely rumpled, I was lying on a wooden floor in an apartment that belonged to a stranger I hadn’t met yet. My sister Sarah and two Czech friends were making the best of a saggy couch and the German girl with us was nodding off on the edge of an unmade bed. It was a small apartment.

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Berlin ate me whole, that week. For the two-ish days that we were there, I felt miserable, physically and emotionally. The physical I could understand. Sarah and I had stayed up till 3 a.m. the night before to celebrate the new year on the icy flanks of Petřín Hill. We shivered on a wet bench for three hours to watch the city below fade into an ever-growing cloud of smoke till we could no longer see the fireworks that were popping off all around Prague. Our cider tasted like dog food, our jackets were insufficient and both of us are much more comfortable with 10 p.m. bedtimes. Only the countdown, which the crowd around us shouted out in four or five different languages, and the slippery hike through snow and ice back down to the trolleys (during which we were given a free sparkler by someone we didn’t know) redeemed our frigidly wet adventure.

We got up the next morning at 6:30 to catch our bus to Berlin and I was dreading the return to a city I knew loathed my existence.

We have never been friends, Berlin and I.

Our friends met us gleefully that afternoon at the bus stop and fed us waffles. We walked through the confettied, fire-crackered streets. I hadn’t booked a hostel because they promised their Indian friend had room for us at his flat.

He didn’t. I realized this as I rolled in and out of moody consciousness on his hard floor. When I woke up fully, he was sitting on the edge of his bed next to our German friend. As far as first impressions go, I have made better.

He had not been expecting us, but was taking it all in stride. When you’re twenty-something and life throws you a sticky mess and a headache, the answer is nearly always pasta. So we went to the Italian place down the way and procrastinated on our decision about housing.

Sarah began to wane in the seat next to me surrounded by a pile of pizza crumbs and pasta plates and I finally insisted we figure something out.

We didn’t. We just went back to the apartment and watched a Bollywood film. Most of us fell asleep before the film ended and we ended up sprawling over the couches and bed of the very tiny apartment, only to be woken at 6 a.m. to help him clean it so he could get to the airport on time.

By 7 o’clock, we were on our feet and out in the cold again, looking for somewhere to eat.

Over the course of the day, I was dragged from parks to monuments with stores and souvenirs in between. I wanted to die.

The emotional misery I have less of an explanation for. I tried not to be a downer, but I certainly wasn’t maintaining my normal level of cheer. Life is peaks and valleys, and while my peaks are high and often, my lows can be a long, long way down.

Looking back now, the trip is one of my favorite memories from 2015, even if it was dreadful to live through. I think I knew even then that it was a precursor to the twelve months ahead of me, though I couldn’t have known how familiar I would become with the valleys of my mind.

It’s been a year, folks.

Last night, I rang in the new year with friends I didn’t know six months ago, people who have become very dear to me. There was a lot of bitterness in my voice when I said farewell to 2015, but I don’t think there should have been.

This year has shaped me. Sometimes I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. If I hadn’t been there the whole time, I may not have believed just how much I have changed.

I am so anxious about the next twelve months. Actually, for the first time ever, I am so anxious about the rest of my life. I am no longer the girl with the plan, another part of the aftermath of 2015.

I decided as I drove home last night in the early hours of a year in the making that I wouldn’t be scared this time. To live in Christ is to live boldly. If I truly believe that there is a God who created me with a purpose and has a plan for my life, why should I be anxious?

We make promises for the new year, like going to the gym, drinking more water, reading more books. The goal isn’t to drink more or read more, the goal is to become healthier and to broaden our minds.

My goal is not to be unafraid, but rather that my lack of fear will be a reflection of my conscious decision to trust the Lord with my future every day this year, just as he has taken care of my past.

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Berlin was not kind to me, but if I could go back and choose to avoid our first few meetings, I wouldn’t. It uniquely prepared me for a journey I did not realize would ask so much of me.

If 2016 is another 2015, I won’t complain. I don’t need the years to be better if I am the one changing.

What happens when you clean your bookshelf

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Months before I made the dreaded move from Prague back to the United States, my mom called to tell me she was redoing my room. “Spring Cleaning,” she called it.

“It’ll be all ready for you when you get home,” she said. And as the weeks dripped by, each one revealing to me something else I knew I would miss terribly when I left, Mom would give me an update. “I bought new sheets for your bed! Aubrey’s agreed to give you the bottom bunk. We’re cleaning out the garage so you can set up an office down there. We found you a bookshelf for your things when you come home.”

Coming home is a lot less glamorous that people will let you believe. Firstly, there is no dramatic soundtrack playing when you step off the airplane. It’s just you and the white-noise of a tired airport. Exhaustion takes you by the hand and holds it tightly as you wait for your suitcases to make their way around the luggage carriage. And by the time you’re pulled safely into a car that is speeding you home, towards family and pizza and a warm bed with new sheets, you can’t feel your own face, let alone make sense of any emotion that has the audacity to interrupt your desire to sleep.

After a slice of real pizza with real crust and real pepperonis, Mom and assorted family members walked me through the house, showing me the additions to the bathroom (including but not limited to a curtain rod that works and a new cup for our toothbrushes), changes to the bedroom I share with my youngest sister (they were all very excited about the bookshelf they got for me), and the cleaned-out corner of the garage where someone had already hung up several pictures for me. Eventually, the Call of the Pizza became too great and they all meandered back downstairs, leaving me to unpack a few things from my suitcase onto my new bookshelf before flopping into bed.

It’s been five months exactly since I came home. It doesn’t feel that long. Life, in truest form, dropped me off in the middle of a rushing current that took me around the country and back and then deposited me into a full schedule of work and school and family.

After that first week, when I had time to carefully place precious mementoes from my two years in Prague onto various golden-brown shelves, life reached out a hand and started shoving odds and ends into the free spaces. Receipts, bottle caps, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, books I haven’t read, gifts from friends, make-up and enough bobby pins to rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge – they all found their way onto my bookshelf.

Five months of apathy took over.

So this week I cleaned it out. It needed to be done and in wave of Prague-sickness, I figured it would be the most productive thing to do with my afternoon.

The top shelf is mostly make-up and jewelry, not that I own much of either. Frankly, if society allowed women to show up to Life without all the war paint and bangles, I wouldn’t own any. But I was surprised, as I untangled necklaces and earrings, how many of the little gems in my pink box were gifts from friends and students in Prague. The week I left Prague is still a haze, but I vaguely recall sorting through my collection of jewelry and giving most of it away (I be-gifted most of my belongings to friends before I left on account of airport weight limits). All this must have made the cut because they are more than belongings, they are tokens of affections that once were mine.

I dusted off the frame of the year-end school picture of all my fellow teachers, wonderful Czech women who adopted this little lost American and taught her how to teach English and take coffee (with chocolate. You always take coffee with chocolate).

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The next shelf down was half trash, half Czech CDs and ornaments I collected in Prague. None of the CDs play on US machines and I definitely cried for a solid twenty minutes when I found that out in July. It’s amazing, though, how much trash can build up when you’re not paying attention. When did I fall back into the habit of letting life run me? When did I become careless with where I put my things? When did my actions lose intention and how do I get it back? There should not be trash on this book shelf.

There is only one shelf which actually has books and it was the easiest to straighten up. One half is comprised of my Czech literature. They’re books I’m not sure I’ll ever finish because Harry Potter is a lot harder to read in a second language than one might originally assume. The other half has all my journals and notebooks. Every memory I recorded in Europe fits on six inches of bookshelf.

Three shelves down, two to go. I looked at the bottom one, my paper dungeon, and realized that some things are too far gone to change. Besides, where else am I going to throw papers that have ambiguous purpose and questionable sentimental value?

So that just left one.

I hate this shelf because it has all my pieces of Europe. Every stupid collector’s spoon that I bought in every stupid souvenir shop in every stupid city I went to.  A pile of homemade hot pads from a Czech friend. An extremely creepy rabbit that I bought from a student at our Christmas market my first year in Prague. And a stack of letters.

I never counted how many I got, but I knew I couldn’t leave them behind. How could I? Those were the voices of people from home who cared enough about me to take the time to write me a physical letter, buy a stamp and drop it in our much underused mail system without any promise of getting one in return. They just did it.

In those letters I found comfort and flavors of a world that felt very far away. When Prague got lonely, and it would from time to time, almost on cue, a note would appear in my mailbox with a scrawling American address and a red, white and blue stamp.

It always amazed me how much closer I felt to people through letters. They didn’t even always write about anything they considered “significant” – just the daily routine of existing in their corner of the world.

So when I came home late one night this week to find a letter waiting on my pillow with a Prague address, my heart surged up into my throat.

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Carefully, I unfolded the crinkly white pages and reveled in the inky heart someone had poured onto that page, entrusted in an envelope, and sent to me. In beautiful dips and curves of a silky-black ink, she chatted about her summer and its adventures. She asked me questions and puzzled over how different things had become since I left. And there I was again, in that letter, sitting next to her in a coffee shop talking about life. It was as if the grand ocean and the insurmountable distance between our two paths in life disappeared completely. And when the letter was done, it was like saying goodbye and catching our separate buses back home.

Except that I’m a lot farther away now than I was then.

I folded the letter back up, wiping away tears (and no one should be surprised to know that I was absolutely gushing), and added it to the dozens of letters I received from people I missed while I was in Prague.

Now I have people I miss while in San Diego.

It will take me a good month and a half to find the time (and the emotional energy) to sit down and write out a response. I’ll think about what I want to say, and what I wish I could say but can’t, and it will be a long time before those words make it to paper.

But for now, I want to share with whoever may be reading this what I learned from that letter, and from cleaning out my bookshelf. It’s something I’ve been needing to be reminded of.

There is no end to the capacity of the human heart to love and be loved. And if we use our souls as vessels to carry genuine care and affection for those who wind up in our lives, it is likely they will be put through the mill. But how beautiful it is to cradle our aching hearts on the floor, swaying gently to the realization that friendship is not limited by time and space, nor are we creatures made of glass which break and cannot be put back together again.

It has taken a long time for me to realize this, but my mom is an incredibly brave, admirably selfless woman. I left home for two years and she supported me, encouraged me and sent me an appreciatively large amount care packages. She is a woman who knows how it feels to set free a piece of your heart and trust that someday it will come back.

Leave it to me to make cleaning up my bookshelf an existential adventure in self-discovery. But everyone has to get their kicks somewhere.

My lesson has been learned, though. I promise to keep my bookshelf cleaner. I promise to keep writing letters. I promise to treasure the precious people in my life. And I promise, no matter where we are or where we end up, I will find a way to redeem the love that has been invested in me by so many people in so many places.

Six Stages of Reverse Culture Shock

The very idea of reverse culture shock sounds laughable. Frankly, it sounds a little like something a traveling yuppie would make up as an excuse for not having their life together when they return home from wandering abroad. I may have read a total of two articles about the topic before coming back to San Diego after two years in Prague. I don’t think a journal-full would have prepared me for the arduous process of taking the person you’ve become and assimilating them back into the place belonging to the person you once were.

But I’m getting there and, more importantly, others have gotten there already, which gives me hope. It took me the whole summer and several weeks into a new semester, with multiple trips around the USA, to figure this all out. Honestly, my Kimmy Schmidt-esque stories of rediscovering a culture I left for 24 months could fill several blog posts, but I’ve gotten lazy so we’re condensing this into six basic stages of reverse culture shock.

Here goes.

1. HAZE

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a plane home.

Jet-lagged, weary and inexplicably hungry (if you’re me, you’re always hungry), you stumble out of the airport in a blur of vaguely familiar sights and sounds. Some things stick out like finely stenciled pictures – the palm trees you never noticed, the size of the masts looming out of the shipyard, the feel of the new seat covers in the family car. Others play out before you like a foggy, black-and-white film. The bend in the road you’ve driven over a million times or the creak of the back gate leading into a softly lit patio. Home.

People and faces, voices, sounds and space all take on a new life and in your travel-tired stupor, they seem like strangers.

I remember the first night back in my own bed. It didn’t feel like mine. It was uncomfortable and unfamiliar and I missed my bed tucked away beneath a slanted wood roof somewhere in Prague. Homecoming is not what you expect it to be.

2. LOSS

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a walk through a Czech forest.

If going to sleep on a strange bed in your old home is hard, waking up to your childhood room is heart-wrenching. Immediately, two kinds of loss sink deeply into the conscious layer of your beating heart: what you missed and what you’ve left behind. It’s not like you expected life to stand still while you were away, but you hadn’t really intended for it to take off without you either. It did. And instead of being able to take comfort in the things around your room, suddenly you feel out of place. Your thoughts will drift to safe spots in your other ‘place’ and you will think of what you’ve just left behind. Forest paths to your home in the village, friends to drink coffee with, quilted blankets and familiar sunrises.

As the haze begins to disappear and the days turn into weeks, you’ll feel more acutely the loss of the world you left behind and catch glimpses and shadows of the life you missed.

That first morning, staring at the blue walls covered in papers and posters my youngest sister had put up in my absence, I swear I felt my heart ripping in two pieces as it tried desperately to be wholly in Prague and wholly here, at home. And, of course, it couldn’t.

3. DISCOVERY

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a skyscraper in New York City with a very good friend.

Expect to be surprised every day by something completely ordinary. Expect to have a thousand questions about things that have changed in the months or years since you’ve been gone. What is Uber? Who the heck is Ariana Grande? Exactly how long have fleeked up eyebrows been a thing, and what does “fleek” mean anyway?

Some of this will be rediscovery. Yes, water is free in restaurants. No, you don’t have to take your shoes off every time you walk inside. Being able to drive yourself places will be liberating, having to buy your own gas again will feel like a death sentence. Pandora? Netflix? Hulu? Little Caesars? Real Mexican food? Heaven.  

The radio hasn’t lost its magic yet. I’ve been home for four months and every song on the radio still sounds new to me. I’ve been getting down to Uptown Funk like nobody’s business. It’s a brave new world.

4. INDIGNATION

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a sunset in Dallas with my long-lost brother.

As the shimmery layer of sparkle wears off your newly rediscovered home, you begin to see things you hadn’t noticed before. Things like the entitled attitude your friends or neighbors have about things like owning cars or getting an education. The narrow views and set ways of family members regarding political issues will drive you up a wall. And when you walk past your fourth unused drinking fountain in a day, covered in spider webs and gunk, you want to shout out, “you have to pay for this stuff in Europe! Free, clean drinking water right here, folks! They’ll walk all day to find water in Africa and here it comes out of a spout!”

But no one will listen, because no one has been where you’ve been or seen what you’ve seen. You’ll be lumped in with every other traveling yuppie who has ever come home and said, “they do it better over there.”

Two weeks after I got home, I was people watching at the food court in the mall and it struck me how confidently Americans take their seats. They walk and talk and sit and stand like they own whatever ground they’re touching. And while they occupy that plastic chair, it is their throne. Europeans do not come close to exuding this air of confidence and control. I think that’s when I realized how hard it would be to ‘come home’ all the way because I no longer identified with my own people. Folks were going to think I was nuts. Who would ever understand the mental battle I was fighting every day just to make sense of the home I used to know? Just to keep things together.

5. ISOLATION

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a piece of my heart in San Francisco.

This may be the worst part, and honestly, it may not come in this order. You may feel alone the day you arrive home or a month later when you finally realize why things aren’t clicking the way they used to. But eventually, the frustration you feel at your own culture for their blindness to their faults and the welling sense of loss toward wherever it is you’ve left will isolate you. It’s like a breakdown in communication. Because people around you can look at the same situation and not see it the way you now do. You will feel disconnected and alone.

It’s discouraging to be back around family and friends who should know you better than anyone, but suddenly they can’t seem to grasp why you feel strongly about water fountains or why you sometimes have to stop in the middle of what you’re doing to process a painful memory.

I came home right before our family reunion. I got to hold my nephew for the first time ever. I went out for a night on the town with my brother. I got ice-cream with an assortment of siblings in an illegal takeover of an abandoned baseball field. But the people who made me feel most at home were the random friends who would come up to me out of the blue and ask, “how is it being back? What can I do? Want to get coffee and talk about it?” They were the ones who’ve been there and back. They’ve all had a ‘place’ and left it to come home again. They knew. And they reached out with human connection and empathy, and it helped me move on to Stage Six.

6. ADJUSTMENT

a new friend.
a new friend.

At some point, you have to accept that life is moving quickly and you need to jump on the train or get left behind again. Working back into crazy American eating patterns (so much grease, so much store-bought food, sooooo late at night) or re-learning how to drive a car (which I was never very good at to begin with) will come with time. Eventually, you’ll stop waking up every morning wondering what the weather is like in your ‘place’ and the hole left by the friends you miss so dearly will begin to fill with new people.

And the scariest part about the adjustment phase is the thought of losing your experience. So let me be clear. Moving on does not mean forgetting the past. It does not mean abandoning your friendships, erasing your memories or sinking back into old ways you’ve grown out of. It just means adopting this new person you’ve become and making a space for her in your old world. Both you and it have changed and the fit may not be perfect yet. But that’s how you’ll continue to grow. You’ll be challenged. You’ll be tested. You may be lost for a little while. But, believe it or not, that’s the road we’re all on, culture shock or not.

Congratulations. You’ve caught up to the rest of us. Now, onward and upward.

A New York Moment

Niall’s Irish Pub, 52nd Street – Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.

“That’s a lot,” Ernesto said with a soft exhale of breath. I could tell he had something to say but he was allowing a moment of silence out of respect for my situation. I fiddled with the Ironman toy he carried around with him, which had previously been leaning against my beer glass like the sherif of a dirty town.

“But you know,” he finally began, “You’ve already done this.” He scratched the stubble on his face and continued in an even tone. “You’ve served your time at The Sun. You’ve learned all you can. Other people will need a chance to do what you’ve done, and you need a chance to move on. And it doesn’t have to be doing what everyone else does. You get to choose your own life. And you’re certainly too different a person to let other people’s ideas of what your life should be dictate how you live it.”

We were both quiet for a moment. It was my turn to say something. This was, after all, the talk I’d been expecting (hoping?) to have all day (summer?).

Disappointing people is one of my larger fears, even to the extent that if the barman suggests I might like the New England Pale Ale, doggone it, that’s what I get. And I tell him I like it.

Now imagine that on a major-life-decisions scale.

I wanted to tell him (Ernesto, not the barman) that I know, that all this makes sense in my head, but I didn’t. I just made Ironman lean against the sweaty glass with his head in his hands.

“I’ve got to go, Mary,” he said (Ernesto, not Ironman). “But let’s meet up again when I’m back in San Diego.”

He paid for the bill and then stepped into the restroom to change into his new sweater before heading off to catch his Broadway play. I stuffed my things back into my bag, the stem of my umbrella popping up unexpectedly for the eightieth time. He chuckled at me (Ernesto, not the umbrella) and gave me a hug ‘goodbye.’

“Take care of yourself, Mary York,” he called before the door shut him onto the street, leaving behind nothing but the tinkle of the doorway bell. I knew two years was a lot longer than the time that lay between us now, but just the tiniest bit of anxiety splashed around in my stomach next to the small seed of hope Ernesto had planted. Good advice from a friend is a treasure, but the presence of a friend is priceless. And when, in this crazy world, would I see this one again?

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Rite Aid, Manhattan – Tuesday, 3:00 p.m.

“Where have you been, Mary York?” I dropped hand sanitizer and some Haribos sweet and sour peaches onto the checkout counter before looking up, the afternoon glare from the window blurring my vision slightly.

“Ernesto!” I blubbered excitedly when I saw him todder up to the front of the short check-out line. “I talked to the most incredible woman!”

“When?”

“Just now!”

“You mean this whole time you’ve been talking?” he asked me skeptically as he surveyed the aisles of the drugstore for any trace of a human matching the description of an ‘incredible woman.’

“She’s a publicist in the city and she gave me all her contact information and said she can help me get in touch with people about my writing!” I went on, enthusiastically. ”She had all this great advice!”

“Your writing?”

“I mean, she thought I lived in the city because I said I’d been turned around since I got here – you know how I get lost – but I couldn’t back out of the conversation once we started.”

“What writing?”

I signed the receipt and put away my card.

“Maybe I could live in New York…Maybe I need to scrap my plan and just move here. I’ve been rethinking the whole thing anyway.”

I grabbed the plastic bag from the counter and stuffed the receipt inside. Ernesto was staring me down.

What plan, Mary?”

I brushed him off and hurried outside, trading the sanctuary of the air-conditioned drugstore for a humid whoosh of cars, humans and leaky air vents.

“I’ll tell you when we get to the pub!” I called over my shoulder as we rushed headlong into the flow of New Yorkers, a rare breed of creatures who neither see nor care about any other moving objects around them.

Our plan was to find a department store where we could purchase some cheap clothing. He had a Broadway play to attend and I had a dinner date with an old family friend. He didn’t feel comfortable going in a T-shirt and I didn’t feel comfortable going in shorts. So there we were, at the foot of a two-story, glass-walled H&M.

“Ten minutes, ten dollars. And don’t let that umbrella of yours hurt anyone,” he said, before disappearing into the racks of clothing.

A New York department store. Now this was an experience. And I had thought Central Park was a jungle. I shuffled through jeans on sale and looked at some black slacks. Part of me wanted to buy something snappy and practical, something distinguished and forward. Something I could wear to work or to university classes. That was what I had always wanted, right? That was the plan. That’s what I had told everyone. Finish the degree. Get the teaching credential. Live long and prosper.

I felt empty even thinking it.

A stack of pants came crashing off a shelf and I bent down to scoop them up before someone judged me for not knowing how to walk in a straight line.

The pants, I noticed, were $9.99. Definitely in my price range. Time was ticking and my companion is nothing if not punctual. Several semesters of meeting deadlines with him at the college newspaper followed by years of him showing up precisely when needed had led me to believe that Ernesto may in fact be the White Rabbit (which would make me clueless Alice, and frankly, that fits pretty well too). I grabbed a pair and tried them on for kicks.

They fit.

Well, one can never have enough jeans, and I don’t have any right now, I reasoned as I walked away from the slacks.

The girls in front of me had racked up more than $600 at the register before they opened a second line. By the time I met Ernesto by the front door, ten minutes had gone out to pasture. But he had spent more than $10 on his sweater, so we called it even.

“We could compete on those reality shows,” he said. “We’d be awesome.”

We would be awesome, I thought as my umbrella stem popped up under my arm with a shink. And, at this rate, cheap TV shows sounded a lot better than my plan anyway.

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The Met, 5th Avenue – Tuesday, 12:00 p.m.

“Is there a real dead person in here?” I asked as we stared down at the canoe-shaped mummy box. Our clothes were still damp from the walk over. My umbrella had ceased to function and then nearly popped an old man in the face when we were safely inside the museum (“It keeps doing that,” I tried to tell him as I stuffed it back down into my bag, but I don’t think he understood English. He just stared at me with a terrified expression).

“Of course there’s a real dead person down there, Mary York,” Ernesto chortled. “They don’t keep fake dead people in The Met. This is a world-class establishment.”

We had just found our way out of the costume exhibit, which was a special display of Japanese runway clothing and communist-era dress uniforms. We were happy to be back among the dead. Hieroglyphics and crusted pottery lined hall after hall. We wove between the awed visitors, muttering things about Egyptian Macklemore’s and pigmy hippos and taking pictures of Ironman with papyrus people. I kept a tight grip on my umbrella stem. The last thing I wanted to do was set off an alarm or break a four-thousand year-old chamber pot.

Finally, we came to a room encased in glass that jutted into the park, allowing a soft, natural light to spill into the high-vaulted chamber. A pond had been fashioned in the center and a pyramid rose out of the water at one end. We stood there for a moment, taking in the view with breathless silence.

“I’ve seen bigger,” I finally said, shattering the moment into a thousand ridiculous pieces.

“I bet you have,” Ernesto said with a snort.

“No really, in Madrid,” I pushed back as we walked alongside the pond to the line leading into the ancient assemblage of brick. The third little piggy really went to town on this thing. “It was bigger and cooler because it was outside on the edge of this cliff and when the sun went down you could see the reflection in the water.”

I must have drifted off into my travels because when I looked up, Ernesto was several feet ahead of me.

“Should we go in?” he asked. “Is it worth it?”

I don’t know what it was about that question, but the thought of my plan – of living in the same city for five more years of education, spending money I don’t have on a degree I’m still not sure about, for a job I don’t know if I want anymore – that thought felt like a bucket of cold water. I grimmaced. Is it worth it? I felt foolish even thinking those things about my decent, practical plan.

Decent.

Practical.

Plan.

“Let’s wait till we can do one that’s still in Egypt,” I suggested.

“Deal.”

We spent the next three hours getting lost in Parisian apartments, medieval armor, armless statues and a bunch of weird, unexplainable hats.

“If you were riding into battle, Mary,” Ernesto would ask me as we walked into a new exhibit, “Which of these banners would you choose to go with you?”

Then we’d both stare for a while before offering up our answers. The blue and white one with the two-headed lion, duh.

-If you could use this French drawing room for any purpose, what would it be?

-If you could have one of these statues in your garden, which would you choose?

-If you could pick one of these helmets… except obviously not the gold, dragon-spined one because it would weigh a ton and you’d die. I wouldn’t let you pick that one.

These questions are my favorite. Hypothetical. The answer doesn’t really matter.

Life doesn’t work that way.

“I need to sit,” I said finally. “I need to sit and consume a food of some sort. Want lunch?”

“Yeah, you’ve been awfully quiet,” Ernesto said. “And you still haven’t told me what your plans are for this semester. We never got around to it at the bagel shop.”

“Okay, as soon as we find food, I’ll tell you,” I promised.

“Then let’s do it!” (Ernesto is a bit of an enthusiast). “Let’s go to like an Irish pub or something. Hang on, I’ll find us a good one.”

He pulled out his phone and I looked around the exhibit we were in. Someone at the end of the room was making an inappropriate joke about a statue (his girlfriend didn’t seem to be appreciating it). An elderly couple was sitting on a lone bench. A flash – people are always trying to take pictures of things they can’t capture.

If we must take impossible pictures, I’d rather take pictures of people’s thoughts. I wish I could see how a person feels in all the color and vibrancy of our deepest emotions.

For a moment, standing among artifacts that have been lost in time, I felt like the costume department that allowed someone to display a montage of Communist Propaganda films alongside dynasty-themed runway dresses so that when people came by they wouldn’t think, “Gosh, the Met really needs to get its act together. Look at all this blank space!” But maybe there are some things worse than blank space?

“Okay,” said Ernesto, coming back to me with a satisfied smile, “The lady said the quickest way out of here is down the hall and then a left turn at the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa.”

Finally. Some straightforward instructions.

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(this is the pyramid from Madrid. it's real. i took this picture).
(this is the pyramid from Madrid. it’s real. i took this picture).

H&H Bagel, 2nd Avenue – Tuesday, 10:00 a.m.

Rain pooled in golden, early-morning puddles around my bare ankles as I splashed through dirty gutters. Of all the days to wear shorts in New York City, this must be the worst. It had been hot and I was tired of walking around the muggy streets of the late-summer city in jeans. Locals gave my bare legs and sandaled feet shoddy glances as they hurried past with umbrellas.

My own umbrella, which my friend had forced me to take before leaving her house that morning (because New Yorkers can sense when it is going to rain), had a popping problem. As in, the stem would pop up when I had it folded away neatly. So far, it hadn’t done anything more serious than startle me several times in succession on the train, but I had a bad feeling about this.

I waited under the awning of H&H Bagel for several minutes, watching the streets whir past in a blur of wet color. Taxis. Girls in yoga pants. Tank-sleeved workers hauling produce off a truck. Flowers lifting up their silky petals towards the falling rain as their florist shuffled pots around. I could get used to this city.

Ernesto was late. This, being uncharacteristic of him, I could forgive. But as ten o’clock became ten-thirty, I felt myself getting antsy.

Ernesto is one of my best friends. We have been dabbling in each other’s schemes and dreams since college. Saying ‘goodbye’ as I left for Europe was hard, but we had pizza and that made it easier. He was the one who helped me set up my first blog. At some point, I’ll probably ask him to help me with this one (how come it doesn’t email me notifications, Ernie??).

We hadn’t planned to both be in New York City at the same time, but we were. So we picked a time and place and here I was.

Here I was in the complete mess that is myself. The last week had been a tough one. Like, not from the outside. A week hiking in the mountains followed by a trip to New York for a wedding – that’s the life. It’s all the other stuff that makes me feel like . . . Well, like my umbrella – ready to pop my top at any moment. It’s the age-old questions like, “What is my purpose now?” – “Where do I go next?” – “What do I do with this life I’ve been given?” And the thing about good friends is that they’re apt to answer boldly those questions we timidly skirt. Tell Ernesto that I had lost confidence in myself, in my purpose – that I was back at community college? He’d have something to say about that, I knew. And I didn’t want to disappoint him. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I came back from Europe promising people that I had a plan, that I was moving forward. I promised myself that I was moving forward.

Sometime between stepping onto the tarmac in San Diego and standing on this sidewalk in New York City, I realized that I was lost. But at this point, it was just easier to pretend that I still had a plan.

At the end of the sidewalk I could hear the slushy sound of wet footsteps.

“Mary York!” called out a voice I recognized immediately.

“Ernesto!”

We both ran, dropping our umbrellas in the process, and met in the middle of that New York City sidewalk, with a hug and a spin that would make the best in Hollywood smile (and more than one patron in the bagel shop grin at us sheepishly). We were soaked in seconds, shivering with laughter and chills.

Two years, a long summer and a thousand questions slipped from my mind for those few, beautiful seconds. It was just us, a glistening street, and the looming adventure stretching before our feet – the adventure that is a day with a good friend.

“It has been too long, Mary York,” Ernesto said as we walked into the bagel shop to start our morning. “You’ll have to tell me everything.

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Duck, duck, Buffalo

Miss? Excuse me, Miss?”

My head jerked away from the window to look into the deeply black eyes of our shuttle driver who was navigating through a river of honking vehicles, most of whom didn’t seem to understand how traffic lights work.

“Miss, you should walk. It is only three blocks from here. Three blocks and to the left.”

He began pulling the shuttle over to a dirty curb and the British couple next to me shuffled awkwardly as I tried to crawl over them to get to the door. When I reached the trunk, the driver already had my suitcase out.

It will take me all night to get to the Port Authority with this traffic. You will not make it by six o’clock. But you go three blocks, back to Times Square, and then left, okay?”

I had already begun weaving through the crowds when I heard the shuttle honk its way back into the flow of traffic, its captain plunging the vehicle forward confidently from the helm.

Several blocks up, Times Square rose out of the garden of tall buildings and noisy streets. Everything was colorful. Everything smelled. And the Square, dazzling as I suppose it was, didn’t differ greatly from the surrounding blocks. I was too preoccupied trying not to be crushed by the wall of humans to feel the pang of disappointment at the underwhelmingness of Times Square. I had expected it anyway.

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New York City was never on the top of my destinations list. Mostly because I figured the New York City in my mind – the one shaped by the crooning tones of Sinatra and the daydreams of Hollywood writers – didn’t actually exist in real life. It was the same assumption that kept me away from Paris, led me into Rome with the lowest of expectations, and muttered a disgruntled “I told you so” on the plane back from London. I’ve dreamed of visiting a thousand places, but I typically only go to the ones I’ve never heard of before. Things never look the way you expect them to. And once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, the dream is replaced by the reality, no matter how much grayer the reality might be. There’s no going back.

The Port Authority was right where the shuttle driver had said it would be. My phone buzzed in my back pocket.

“Hey Sam,” I said, stepping into the dark, dirty entrance of the Port Authority to avoid the excess noise from the street. “I’m here. Where are you?”

“I’m still at work,” he said. I could hear his usual smile over the phone. Sam always smiles. “If you meet me in lobby I can take you up and show you around my office before we go.”

My suitcase felt heavy in my hand – I had taken the wheels off to make it fit the regulation carry-on size.

“How far is your office, Sam?” I asked, hesitantly. Walk more? No thank you.

“Right across the street. Do you see the Times building?”

“Yeah.” It was hard to miss.

“That’s where I work.”

My jaw dropped as I pushed open a door and stumbled onto the sidewalk again under the shadow of the skyscraper which thrust out its chest into the golden afternoon still visible above the tops of the buildings. The New York Times Tower is supposed to be the most significant piece of new architecture in the skyline, reaching 52 floors.

The lobby was spotless and immaculate, and empty except for the columns of elevators, an electrical art display, and two symmetrical security desks positioned on either side of the floor. I could see Sam waiting as I walked up to the glass doors.

“Hey,” he said with his big grin. Sam is a friend from high school, although we’re much better friends now than we ever were when we were teens. He and I met through our Speech and Debate League back when kids still drank SoBes and flip phones were cool. The summer before our senior year, we met up at a friend’s birthday party. We sat on the ground watching Disneyland’s summer-night firework display with our buddy, Evan, and the three of us decided to start a club for losers. Not that we were losers, exactly. We just definitely weren’t the kids who won tournaments and paraded around with lots of friends. We weren’t success stories.

But senior year was kind to us all and we never needed to assemble the Losers Club. It wasn’t until halfway through college that we reconnected. I was on my way to Prague and they were both neck-deep in university work, but we stayed in touch. Once every few months we’d do a group-call and make sure everyone was still alive and well. When Sam took a semester abroad in Oxford, I went out to visit.

He looked different now, standing in the lobby of the fifth tallest building in New York, an ID tag hanging off his shirt, proving that he belonged there.

“You look like Ms. Frizzle,” he said, taking my suitcase and walking up to the security desk. “They’ll need to see your ID.”

I am channeling a slightly more wind-tossed and wild look these days. I had also just gotten off a plane. I handed over my drivers license to the man behind the desk.

The elevator let us out on the 44th floor and I got the full tour. The view was phenomenal, but my favorite part was hearing people talk to Sam in polite, ‘office’ voices. He’s someone to impress, someone to admire – I could tell just by the way they’d say hello. He was definitely someone here.

People will always be more magnificent than buildings.

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We grabbed a slice of pizza on the way to the bus. I struggled to keep up with Sam’s New York Stride. And then we waited between some Afghani street vendors and the High Line to get on our bus to Buffalo.

You see, Evan is getting married and we decided that we couldn’t miss this excuse to get the Losers Club back in the same place one last time.

So it was Buffalo or bust, and despite having just come back from the Sierras the evening before (and pulling an all-nighter to pack and shower before hopping on a plane) I was excited. Jittery, even?

“It’s just like a rom-com, Sam,” I said several times. “Old friends reuniting at a wedding.”

“It’s probably good that you didn’t sleep last night,” said Sam, unable to relate to my vein of pop-culture references. “You’ll be able to sleep better on the bus.”

A third person joined our party – a friend of the Groom’s family. We greeted each other and shared introductory information. We joked about how much my feet had swelled on the plane ride over (or maybe it was the week of hiking in the Sierras just before). We Googled items on the street food cart that we didn’t recognize. And we waited for our bus to arrive.

Public transportation in Europe is flawless. It’s organized, timely, dare I say ‘almost comfortable?’ Not so in the States. When our bus finally arrived (an hour late), no one sat in the seats they had reserved, resulting in a chaotic search for space. Sam and I got split up. He found an aisle seat halfway back and I shared one-third of a seat with a very large woman who didn’t fit entirely in hers (she did, however, have a very fluffy blanket that kept falling into my lap, which -given how high the AC was cranked up- was actually sort of nice). But at the 2 a.m. rest stop, she bought a bag of sour cream and onion chips and between the crunching and the aroma, sleep became a lost cause.

We arrived in Buffalo around 5 a.m. and the Best Man picked us up. He excitedly described the wedding adventures up to that point as we drove through dark, deserted streets.

“This feels like a rom-com,” I said again as we pulled into a quaint apartment complex where the newlyweds would be living. “You know, like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ or basically anything in the early 2000’s with Hugh Grant.”

The guys nodded but I’m pretty sure they don’t even know who Hugh Grant is. We were all so tired at that point, we’d become extremely agreeable, especially as the prospect of sleeping in horizontal positions became a closer reality.

“Guys on the floor,” the Best Man told us as we walked into the livingroom. Several members of the Groom’s family were already crashed on couches. It was a tiny, one-room apartment, but even in the dark I could see some of the pretty picture frames and artistic mirrors. A well-feathered nest.

“Mary, there’s a mattress for you on the floor of the bedroom,” Josh whispered to me as Sam flumped onto something soft on the floor and our third friend walked into something solid in the dark with an “Oohf!” I peered into the dark room. Evan’s parents, who I’ve known since I was a freshman in highschool, were sleeping on the bed and a mattress and sleeping bag were stretched out on the floor beneath the dresser. The room was dark. It was after 5 in the morning. I couldn’t exactly say, ‘hello there, don’t mind me. I’m just going to sleep on your floor here.’ So for a moment I just stood in the doorway. Then, seven days of sleeping on Sierran rocks, a night on a plane, and a night on a bus all hit me at once like a brick to the back of the head. I crawled into the sleeping bag without brushing my teeth or using the bathroom, and without a further thought to the awkwardness of the sleeping arrangements. The Queen of England could have been in that room and I just don’t think I’d have cared. 

The Mother-of-the-Groom woke me up around 8:30 the next morning. Her cheery face and blonde curls were blurry as I tried to focus my morning-vision.

“Don’t get up,” she told me. A bright blue dress hugged her neatly and she held a purse in one hand. “Sam is driving us over to the church now, so you go ahead and get ready at your own pace. He’ll come back for the rest of you later.”

I was still too tired to be embarrassed about any part of crashing at the Groom’s family’s place for this shindig. A real mattress? I’d have eaten every left-over bagel in New York to re-sleep those last three hours.

The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate. -Douglas Englebart

She insisted I wait a few more minutes before getting up and I heard the wedding party filing out of the apartment in a flurry of keys, cameras and half-buttoned jackets.

When the sounds closed behind the front door and disappeared down the stairwell, I got up and started making myself look like a human again. The family friend was sitting at the kitchen table nibbling at pieces of donut from a large, pink box. We joked about ties and heels and the fact that my ankles had gotten worse on the bus. The pressure in my toes was extraordinary, but I really just couldn’t handle looking like I’d been attacked by a colony of bees with a fetish for feet.

“Unbelievable,” I said several times as we rotated between the many mirrors in the house. “My first wedding in years and I have fat ankles.”

It was a pretty place. The Bride had done a wonderful job making the space look homey and inviting.

“The Best Man says she’s really sweet,” said Sam as he drove us to the church. Evan had gotten engaged so quickly, we hadn’t even known they’d been dating, and because I was in Europe and Sam was working in New York, neither of us had gotten to meet her.

Sam pulled into the lot of a McDonald’s.

“Quick cup of coffee before we go to the church?” he asked. We all agreed with typical morning moans that only come from a decaffeinated mind.

“What time does the service start?” the family friend asked from the back seat.

“10:30,” said Sam, casually navigating us toward the Drive-Thru. “I think.”

“You think?” I asked him. The family-friend raised an eyebrow. “Can we double-check?”

“Yeah, maybe that’s a good idea,” Sam said, reluctantly stopping the car. “Anyone have an invite?”

We scrambled around for a minute, checking purses and pockets. The friend finally pulled up the online registry and a small hiss slithered out from between his teeth. He looked at us with a pained expression.

“It’s at ten o’clock.”

I groaned loudly and Sam screeched the car out of the lot and down the road.

“Can we make it there in six minutes?” I asked.

“If we hit all the lights right,” said Sam.

“I cannot believe we’re going to be late for this wedding,” said the family-friend in the back seat.

“We won’t be,” Sam promised us, calmly swerving down a neighborhood lane, his usual smile glazed with a definition expression of concern. “We won’t be late.”

We weren’t, but it was close. I did my best impersonation of a Renée Zellweger sigh-of-relief as we walked through the tiny front doors of the rustic little chapel. She, at least, could rock chubby ankles.

Most of the church was occupied by the Bride’s family – Evan is a California boy and, except for a few university friends, we were his only pals from back home. We slipped in quietly and monopolized one of the many empty pews on the Groom’s side of the church. (“We have the whole place!” Sam whispered with amusement and triumph).

Just like it had seemed strange to see Sam at his glamorous new place of work, it was strange to see Evan standing at the end of the church, face beaming as his bride floated down the aisle. When I met him, he still had braces.

The ceremony was short – 23 minutes, to be exact. It was over before ten-thirty.

“We’d have missed the whole thing if we had stopped this morning,” Sam said as we stood in the breakfast line at the reception. “Can you imagine coming all this way and missing the wedding for a cup of coffee?”

I snorted. McDonald’s coffee, no less.

We sampled the yogurt parfaits and the DIY waffle bar. Some of Evan’s college buddies let us join their circle and we talked about bits and pieces of life.

At some point, Evan and his wife came over to greet us and then Evan circled back around to us again later.

“Thanks for coming guys,” he said, checking his watch to make sure he didn’t miss the grand exit to the getaway car of which he was fifty percent.

“We wouldn’t miss this,” said Sam. “We probably won’t all be together again until the next wedding. And by the way, did you know that Mary has caught four wedding bouquets?”

“Really?” Evan looked at me with an impressed lip-curl.

“Not that it’s done me much good,” I quipped. “You’re the first one to officially graduate out of the Losers Club.”

“Getting married will do that?” he asked as a flower girl bounded up to us, handing out ribboned wands for us to wave at the departing newlyweds.

“Yes,” Sam confirmed with his usual smile. “We’ll send you your certificate later.”

I couldn’t help but feel like maybe we’d all graduated and just didn’t know it. And also like maybe we’d all always be honorary members anyway. Life doesn’t really have winners and losers. Just people who will fly across the country for you, who will show you off to their co-workers, who will let you sleep in their house on the night of their own wedding.

When the newlywed car drove away, Evan’s bride stuck her head out the window and waved back to us. I heard a couple behind me say, “She is the sweetest.” And I believe it.

We spent the afternoon driving up to Niagra Falls (the American side), and then driving back. I was much more impressed with the original Buffalo wings we got in town than I was with the falls. Underwhelming. It was one of those expectation things again.

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Nine hours later, Sam and I were walking through puddles colored with neon reflections of New York City. The sun hadn’t risen yet and we were stiff from the bus ride. Just another night without a bed. I’m getting used to this.

The city surprised me in the wee hours of that Sunday morning. Thoughts of a couch to crash on for a few hours kept me walking. Breakfast. Church. All good things were visible in the Near Future.

But the Now is what took my breath away. New York City is a strange fellow in the dark blue of the pre-dawn hours. Mysterious. Enchanting. He leans against a lamppost with his fedora cocked over his eyes, hands in his pockets. And he grins, daring you to go down one more street, drink in one more curb-side song. And we do. Because he is very persuasive.

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“I don’t think life is going to be what I expected it to be,” I told Sam when the train dropped us off in Brooklyn. “I think there’s going to be a difference between the life I dreamed of when I was younger and the life I’m really going to meet. It won’t be Sinatra, and it won’t be Hugh Grant. But I’m ready to be surprised.”

Sam didn’t say anything, but not even the New York night could hide his usual smile.