Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Where Do I Go From Here?

Perhaps here?

Down this way?

Maybe here again?

What I have taken away from my study abroad experience is the desire to really immerse myself in my surroundings. To sink my teeth and dig my nails into l.i.f.e. Carpe Diem may have too many associations with dead poets, but I can't think of a better term to describe this theme I have chosen. This is not an ending. This is a beginning.

I have started a research program with the University of Washington's Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities, and thus started a blog to record everything I experience and learn.

Sensory Seattle

I am very much a fan of alliteration.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

It'd Be Funny If It Weren't Me

I cannot stand movies like Meet The Parents. I hate seeing misfortune after misfortune happen to one person for the sake of a few laughs. It gets repetitive and the whole viewing experience just stresses me out.

The story of my journey from Dublin to Seattle, I think, is akin to one of these ridiculous money makers. I have had a couple of days to tell the harrowing tale of panic and confusion to a few friends, and at each retelling the narrative sounds more and more like something out of a movie. I've even perfected the delivery a bit, punching verbs and pausing at appropriate moments.

So imagine Ben Stiller as you read the play by play. I do. It helps me cope.


I bought my tickets for Dublin to Seattle in early March. On my STA receipt, I had a two and a half layover in London Heathrow. I approached the desk for British Midlands Airlines. Two blue-suited, blond women looked at me as I dragged myself, a purse, a backpack, and about 70 pounds worth of luggage up to the desk.

"Hi, I need to check in." I said.
"The self check-in is right behind you." Blue Suit One clucked, pointing to my left.
"Yes, but I need to check in baggage and I need my ticket for my connecting flight. Can't one of you help me here?"
"That man will assist you," Blue Suit Two clacked.

Yet another Blue Suit was to my left. He fiddled with the kiosks and my passport, sighing and saying, "These haven't been working lately." He moved from kiosk to kiosk, finally moving to the computer behind the desk, right where Blue Suits One and Two were still chirping away, and I moved back into the position I had been in not five minutes prior.

Blue Suit Three checked in my baggage and printed my tickets. He said he didn't have a gate or terminal number for my flight from London to Seattle, so I would have to check the computers when I got off the plane. I nodded, thinking, "I don't usually transfer planes, but how hard can it be?"

While waiting for the flight to London, I noticed that it's departure time was 12:05, not 11:15 like it said on my STA receipt. I knew I would be cutting it close. The minutes passed. 11:15 came and went. 11:30. 11:45. Still no plane. 11:50.

My gut reaction? To cry.

At noon, we finally boarded the plane. After a 25 minute wait, we took off. Me, still crying. I felt sorry for the man next to me. All he wanted to do as enjoy his early afternoon Carlsburg in peace. Instead, he had to deal with an "emotive" twenty one year old who kept sniffling and wiping her face with a seemingly endless length of toilet paper taken from the airplane bathroom, because she didn't bring a travel pack of tissues with her, because she didn't foresee this disaster.

The plane lands. My ticket said that the gate for the flight closed at 2:20pm. I had roughly half and hour to get to where I needed to be. I rushed off and down a flight of stairs. Someone in front of me says, "Oh, looks like we have to take a bus to the terminal."

Cue hysterical, expletive-filled reaction from me.

Get on the bus, rush off the bus, and into Heathrow. I start following purple signs that say "Flight Connections". Suddenly, the signs disappear. I get into a security line that says, "All Departures". I hand the woman my ticket and she looks at me.

"Do you know what gate or terminal you're supposed to be at?" She asks.
"[choke, sob, choke] No."
"I think you're Terminal Four."
"Wha-[strained breath, sniffle], what terminal am I in now?"
"Terminal One. You need to calm down."
"[Internally: YOU calm down!] How do I get there?"

She gave me directions and I went through security. Another man told me to follow the "Flight Connections" signs. So I ran, my eye catching every bit of purple within a two hundred feet radius. Yet again, the signs disappeared. I ran down two different hallways, hyperventilating and sobbing loudly. And yet again, I felt sorry for those around me. I found a British Airways desk. I approached the two people work and asked where I was supposed to be.

"Oh yes, Terminal Four."
"How do I get there?"
"Down this hallway, follow the windows."
"I've been down that hallway. All that's down there is Lufthansa Airlines. Please, there is no one else in line, can you PLEASE take me to where I need to be?"

The older gentleman sighed and said yes. He started leading me down the Lufthansa hallway. Sure enough, nothing was down there. We turned all the way around. He groaned. "Ever since they opened Terminal Five, everything has been switched around here." I didn't want to break it to him that Terminal Five, the project that ate up tabloid front pages and was declared a disaster by the general public, had opened three months ago, which might be enough time to find out which of two hallways contained the way to Terminal Four.

He took me through security again, and pointed me in the direction of the inter-terminal buses. I thanked him and ran yet again, still sobbing, challenging myself to see just how many gallons of tears I could produce in one afternoon. Once down there, I waited approximately three minutes for the next bus to Terminal Four. In those three minutes, I had three different people tell me to calm down.

Note: I understand that in this day and age of post-9/11 paranoia, getting hysterical in an airport is probably not the best idea, and I understand why airport workers would want me to calm down. However, I did not have the time to tell each of these people that I had been royally screwed by the Blue Suits at British Midlands, and as a result may have to miss my flight to Seattle, and after three months in their country I was ready to go home.

I made it to Terminal Four. 2:20 had come and went. It was now 2:40 as I ran through the Terminal and into another security check. I tried to tell the people working that I had been through security twice already, but no one was able to listen to me because they were, you know, preventing terrorism. The people in front of me let me go in front of them. I threw off my backpack, tripped over my purse, and yanked off my boots, ripping the lining completely out of the right one. I noticed, in a moment of sartorial genius, that I had paired my black dress, yellow undershirt and gray cardigan with a pair of bright purple socks. Unable to fix my boots, I grabbed them and thrust my ticket to the woman sitting at a computer.

"Gate 1 C."

I took off in my glorious purple socks.

When I got to Gate 1 C, the sign said Toronto. I ran up to the woman at the desk, who instructed me to go to Gate 1 A, but not Gate 1 A, the one behind 1 A. I ran down this mystery gate and was greeted by yet another woman behind a desk. She took my ticket, check me in, and directed me to go and wait in the bus down on the tarmac.

I ran down a winding hallway, still crying, still having trouble breathing. Once inside the bus, I collapsed on a seat.

"Are you alright, love?"
"[Internally: Is that you, Jesus?. Wipes eyes to find English business man sitting across, the only other person in the bus.] Oh yes-now-yes-I think-maybe-I mean...I broke my boot!"

The man laughed and talked me down. He listened as I recounted every step of my misadventure and made sure to get out of the way of my dramatic hand gestures. He smiled. "Well, the flight hasn't left yet. You're amongst friends now. And now you have nine hours to sit and relax. Good things happen to good people. You're fine."

I don't know if he knew, or if he'll ever know, how much these few words meant to me. Everything he said was exactly what I needed to hear. He didn't try and tell me calm down or give me a look like I was a leper. He just listened and offered his support. He even offered a mini-lesson on karma.

This respite was short-lived however. An American man and his wife came in and sat next to me on the row of inward-facing seats. I was moisturizing my face, trying to make myself look halfway decent, and held the pot of lotion in my hand. The American leaned in towards me. "They let you through security with that? My bottle of aftershave was not much bigger and they didn't let it through. They let Osama Bin Laden's number one guy out of jail today, and they wouldn't let me through with my aftershave!"

It took everything in me not to say, "So, because you're a middle-aged, white, American male , they should let you through with whatever you choose?"

But instead I said, "Huh."

He continued, listing every incident Number One Guy had been accused but not convicted of. He described bombings, weapons trades, the Tuesday morning slaughter that will always and forever be branded on my mind whenever I see, hear, or am in an airplane. He honestly believed the man could be anywhere, perhaps even on this flight.

After the manic episode I had just experienced, where I believe I had my first ever panic attack, I decided adamantly that the last thing I needed to hear about was terrorism. I looked the man in the eyes, smiled and toothless smile, gathered my things, and moved to the other end of the bus.

I made it onto the plane, and like the prophet on the bus said, I had nine hours to sit and relax. I read most of On The Road, watched the "Best of British Comedy" and Anthony Minghella's second-to-last film, Breaking and Entering. I landed in sunny Seattle (believe!), and would have cried with joy had I not been deathly afraid of risking further dehydration.

And then British Airways lost my luggage.


Friday, June 20, 2008

The French Are Following Us

Jenny and I arose early on Sunday morning and dragged our luggage through the deserted streets of Paris. On the way to the bus to the airport, we saw a drunk kid laughing uncontrollably about something having to do with Facebook, a man smoking a cigarette inside the Metro car, and a group of guys getting kicked out of a club. This was all before 6 a.m.

Once in Dublin, we explored the town. Our hostel was located in Temple Bar, described as Dublin's "Left Bank". The area was brimming with art, it seemed. We stumbled upon the Dublin Institute of Technology's Photography Graduate School show. We passed several performance spaces. We also saw this converted space telling of the dangers of heroin. A young man's body had been discovered here, and Dublin decided to use the plot as a warning. We saw someone climbing out of it for who knows what reason. I'd like to speculate, but my mind goes to dark places when I do.

One of our roommates in our hostel was French, a girl from just outside Paris who had been living in the hostel for a month, waiting for her friend to join her in Dublin so they could move in together. She was excited to have girls in the room, and told us all about the scandalous goings-ons with the boys that had stayed there previous.

Also in the hostel were about three million French elementary school kids. Because they were almost literally crawling all over the hostel, Jenny and I ran into them a lot. I spoke French with them, because I figure they haven't learned to judge harshly yet. Or perhaps they have and just didn't let on about how horrible my pronunciation was.

We went to bed fairly early, exhausted from the journey and the fact that we would never escape France (not that we really wanted to, but if you're going to be surrounded by French people, it helps to also be surrounded by boulangeries, pâtisseries, and maybe an architectural marvel or two).

At around 6:30 am, there was a scream and a banging on our door: "Aidez-moi ! Aidez-moi ! Je suis bloqué!" Of the three others in our room (sans French girl, she was at work), no one moved except Jenny and I. The cries continued until we opened the door. There we found a sobbing little boy, completely confused and looking terrified. It was too early in the morning for conjugation or gender agreement, so through various three-word sentences, we were able to construe that he was lost and didn't know where his room was. We told him we would take him to where he needed to be. He nodded, wringing his hands and wiping his face. We led him down the stairs, accidentally taking a wrong turn and ending up on a different mezzanine. For lack of a better term, the boy totally freaked out and started sobbing again. All we could think to say were idioms like "C'est pas grave!" and "Ne pleurez pas!". Finally we got to the main staircase. The little boy looked so grateful, and through his tears he managed a "thank you". In English, no less, so we figured he really meant it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Whim Deserving of a Longer Entry

I decided to visit my grandmother's cousin in Paris on a whim. This, I reasoned, was better than planning a visit. First, because had I arranged a meeting, I would probably have gotten too nervous and backed out. Second, I would have brought a translator, making the whole meeting entirely too formal. But while preparing to go the Louvre that morning, something told me to grab Claudine's address out of my bag, so I did.

In between Italian, Spanish and French 16th-18th Century Paintings and Greek and Roman Antiquities, I decided to look up her address on the map of Paris I had in my bag. I discovered that her apartment was in the same arrondissement that I was staying in. Not only that, but I had walked by her apartment while exploring the area two days before. I decided it was too coincidental, too serendipitous to pass up. So I took two Metro lines to her apartment building.

I had no plan whatsoever when I got there. The apartments in Paris don't have numbers, and I had no idea which apartment was hers, much less how to even get into the building. I thought maybe I would stand outside the building and wait for someone to go in or out and I would ask them, "Connaissez-vous Claudine?" But then I didn't know what I would do with the answer I got, or even if I would understand the answer. I stood outside for a good two minutes, staring up at the balconies with their perfect potted pansies and feeling a little like my on-a-whim adventure may have been a fruitless idea.

I then noticed her last name on the callbox. Now, this is lucky. I have yet to see another apartment building with last names written on the callbox. The people inside must be important enough and receive visitors on a regular basis in order to warrant a callbox, as not to continually run up and down the stairs to open the door.

I wrote myself a little script of what I wanted to say, and stood in front of the callbox thinking, "Okay, should I press the button? Would I regret it if I didn't? Is this the right button? I shouldn't press the button. I don't know who is behind this button. I should press this button. No, I shouldn't-oh, I guess I pressed the button!"

Silence. And then, "Oui?"

"Uh, bonjourjem'appelleNicholejesuislapetitefilledeMicheline."
"Je m'appelle Nichole? Poinski? Je suis la petite-fille de Micheline? Poinski?"
"Ah, oui! Nichole! Second floor!"

The woman I met at the top of the stairs looked stunningly like my grandmother. She welcomed me into her beautiful apartment, inviting me to sit on the couch. We spoke stilted Franglish, working together to convey what the other meant. She started telling me how she met me when I was six years old, and I started to cry. She looked worried, like she had offended me, but I said, "Non, je suis désolée, je suis..." But I couldn't find the word I was looking for in either English or French. It was a combination of fulfillment, missing my family, Stendahl syndrome, happiness, and possibly caffeine withdrawal. It was then the language barrier didn't matter anymore. She said, "Emotive?" I nodded. She handed me a tissue and smiled.

We talked about the family in the States. She showed me pictures of her time in Morocco. I spoke to her daughter on the phone. She gave me a tour of her apartment. We talked about her late husband the professor. I gazed longingly at the bookshelves. She showed me her map of Paris, pre-Revolution, that took up an entire wall.

When I took my leave, she said, "Thank you so much for visiting me. Je suis très contente." I said, "Non, merci beaucoup, je suis très contente". Several merci beaucoup's, au revoir's, and cheek-to-cheek kisses were exchanged.

When I left, I was reeling. Something had told me to look her up, and it was lucky I did, because she was leaving for Bretagne the next day.

Upon reflection, the whole exchange doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but I cannot properly describe what I was feeling before and after meeting Claudine. All my life, I have been told of my grandmother's life in Paris, my distant relatives in Paris, my father's adventures in that one club with the band in Paris. But to be in Paris, this pseudo-mythical city where all of this stuff happened before I was born but that defined who I am as a person, was wild. I don't mean to border on maudlin, but it was like a dream come true. I've been dreaming of Paris, creating it in my head for years, and to experience the city for itself, with Parisians and friends who knew the city, was amazing.

C'est tout.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Deuxieme Fois

Second time in Paris. Second time to feel overwhelmed and under-prepared, but this time for a whole week.

On our first morning out and about in Paris, Jenny and I walk out of our apartment complex to find a policeman whistling "La Vie En Rose". I half expected him to present us with some baguettes and cheese sur la maison.

The theme of this trip is to just be in the city. I am learning how to just be wherever I am. Part of just being is going with the flow and bringing a book wherever I go. For example, Jenny and I went with a couple of French girls she knew to study in the park. It was a beautiful day, but some stupid tower of obstructing my view of the encroaching sunset.

The next day, we went to watch the football match near the Sacre Coeur. After a disappointing draw game, we went to this small park near the cathedral and saw this beautiful, blue-tiled wall, on which was written "I love you" in every language imaginable:

And then these kids set the garbage receptacle on fire:

Jenny turned to me and asked if I had water. I reached into my bag and realized the bottle was empty. I ran to the fountain and told the kid in French to push the button for the water. I scurried with maybe a half liter of water, most of it ending up on my pants, and handed the bottle to Chris, who then threw it on the small but mighty blaze. The fire was somehow extinguished, and the kids said, "Il sent les burgers!" Chris was not happy about this.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Perhaps If I Click My Heels Three Times

The windows a Selfridges really reflect how I have been feeling lately. I've been living in a make-believe world surrounded by towers and spires and giant clock faces that shine like the moon. I've been running around ridiculous, and to quote a friend, "spinning in circles in love with the world." So I think it's time I construct one of my own jumbly-tumbly contraptions and fly back to the real world.

But first, Paris and Dublin.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Barack and Roll!!

I've been imagining this moment for a while. Before coming to London to study, I imagined following the campaign's every move, and rushing into my host family's sitting room while they were knitting or drinking tea or making cottage cheese or whatever it is they do here in England, and screaming "Obama won the nomination!!" only to be met with, "That's nice, dear."

Like my blog, I haven't been able to keep up with the campaign. My homepage on Firefox is NPR.org, and every time I opened the internet I would catch a glimpse of how Clinton was refusing to back down, or how Obama was collecting delegates. This morning during my breakfast, however, I opened Firefox and read the words: "Obama Claims Nomination, Making History". I took a moment and my mind shot back to one-and-a-half years ago I sent Senator Obama a letter asking him to run for president. I got a letter back, no doubt typed up by an aid but most definitely signed by him, saying he appreciated my support and that he and his aids were researching possible presidency-tendencies. It seemed that I wanted him to get the nomination so badly that it would, of course, never happen. But it has happened. Now what?

They should withhold all election results until the next morning. It's a really great (or possible horrible) way to start your day.

Monday, June 2, 2008

No Big Deal, and No Big Boxes

Apparently, shipping things larger than a coffee table book is an insane idea in the UK. I searched in vain for a box big enough to hold some things I am shipping home to myself, and nowhere could I find one. I went into six stores on High Street, each one of them repeating the following:

"Have you tried the post office?"
"Yes, they don't have any."
"Well, I can't think of anyone else who would carry something like that."

Really? Really??!! Maybe it is a reflection on American consumption that we can ship anything of any size, as long as we secure it with enough cardboard and packaging tape. So I ended up having to buy bubble wrap and paper. I wrapped it all in the post office like a belated Christmas present. Upside, I now have extra bubble wrap, which is fun. Downside, I now have a very suspicious looking package that I have to take to the post office:

This is my last week in London, and I have decided not to make a big to-do of it all. My time in London has taught me a lot about experience and how to really make the most of my time on earth. So this last week is not an ending. It's more like a beginning-transition-next-step time. What I have learned in London about using all five senses, cementing bonds, exploring, and being grateful for every moment I will take back with me to Seattle. Nothing is different except location. Even then, it's such a small world, does location really matter?

Look for more posts when I return to Seattle. I have thoughts-a-plenty I haven't been able to record due to time constraints.