One Month

The roosters wake before 5, and I, at 5. The sun rises at approximately 5:20, as do the taxi-moto men who whizz by my window on roads that swallow dump trucks and semi-trunks when the rains come. I lace my shoes at 5:15am, and walk to the entrance of our compound to greet Ablagan, my host mom.

“Il fault faire doucement, eh? Il faut aller revenir vite,” says Ablagan every morning as I leave the house for my morning run. “Be careful, and safe journey,” or literally, “One must do so gently. One must go and come back quickly.”

Out the door, I take a left, turning onto a side street where water is pumped into 60lb. yellow bidons for 25CFA each, that small-framed women hoist onto their heads and transport in flip-flops on the same roads that capsize construction equipment. How can ones neck possibly support that much weight safely?

“Bonjour, maman. Bonjour, monsieur.”

“Woezo loo!” Welcome!

“Yoo!” Ok.

I pass a trash burning pit at the center of an intersection. Chickens, goats, and pigs, belonging to anyone, pick through black plastic bags, unusable sections of decaying wood, unidentifiable bottles, and discarded bits of clothing the color of red dirt for anything edible. On my left is a sign for Madame Joie’s couture business, one of the many in the area for all your tailoring needs. On my right is another mama clearing the debris in front of her home. There is a baby wrapped in colorful panya on her back and a large palm branch in her hands.

After another few “Bonjours,” I make it to the end of the road Chez Monsieur D where Will lives. There is a footpath at the end of this road which leads to a slew of more tin-roofed concrete homes with thatched outdoor cooking areas, families fanning charcoal and relaxing on stools while breakfast is being made. Bouille à la… I can only imagine. Hot cereal, perhaps some bread. Past a small garden of corn, I cross another side street and take a right at the next one, turning towards the main road I have yet to see a sign for.

On the corner, a woman is making beignets, delicious balls of dough fried golden-brown in  red palm oil. They taste like doughnuts, slightly sweet with a crunchy exterior. Innumerable empty stalls on my right stand skeletal, awaiting Thursday market day when all of the village congregates in one area: farmers, teachers, students, carpenters, electricians, and roughly 16 Peace Corps Trainees. We are twenty-year-old infants able to comprehend, at most, basic Ewe that rolls effortlessly off the tongues of everyone around us.

We walk cautiously, huddled together, arms outstretched and fingers cloying to feel new textures and taste new foods. Our ears catch everything, the hisses and kisses often only meant to grab our attention, the Yovo Song that gaggles of babies burst into before they even learn French or Ewe, or to speak in full sentences.

“Yovo yovo, bonjour! Ça va bien? Merci!” White person white person, good morning! Are you well? Thank you!

“Yovo Yovo, bonsoir! Bonne arrivée, Yovo!” White person white person good evening! Welcome, white person!

They see us before we see them, popping their heads around corners 50 yards away, racing towards us with treasured marbles in their hands, the spoils of their last game. They come rolling tires with sticks, on old steel frame bicycles too big for them, with babies in their arms while they themselves are oftentimes only a few years older. They come butt-naked. They come clothed in worn panya and that of freshly made by Madame Joie. They come with few words of French, sometimes just “manger,” pointing to their stomachs, other times with rust-colored hair and distended bellies. They come with curiosity, smiles, and outstretched fingers wanting to touch your hair. They come cautiously, as if to see how close to you they can get.

Our ears sometimes catch harassment, in my case, Jackie Chans, Hee-Haws, and Ce n”est pas possible que vous êtes américain (It is not possible you are American). For women, it comes in the form of catcalls, marriage proposals, and hisses and kisses meant to grab their attention. It can be Yovo as well, depending on how it is said. When my host father and I are talking in front of our home and someone asks him a question about me he does not like, he comes to my defense. “Why do you feel the need to ask such a question?” he says to them.

Our eyes are seeing things they are not accustomed to, dogs and goats being kicked, a woman shoving her umbilical cord into her panya as she races on the back of a motorcycle to the hospital, public corporal punishment. The other day on the way to school, we saw a man with his wrists bound behind his back, writhing in the dirt as the village gathered around him. Another volunteer was kicked by him as the man said to him in English, “Help me, my brother!”  Another volunteer observed him running over to a lady preparing fried beignets and saw him stand barefoot in the boiling pot of oil. He did not even scream. “Today was a day,” said Jonathan, “and tomorrow will be another. Some will be weird. Some will be awesome.”

Yesterday, I was biking through the village as quickly as I would in Minneapolis, and a young boy, maybe ten, on a bike that would have been large for me, began pursuing me with an enormous grin on his face. I encouraged him to follow, and we raced to the market. When Togolese children begin the Yovo song and you wave at them, there is nothing but pure joy in their smiles and waves. They ask me everyday, “Comment t’appelles tu?” What is your name? Instead of calling me Jackie, I now get “MA-CHOO! Ça va?”

Ablagan spent the better part of two hours this past weekend peeling peanuts, roasting them over a fire in a bowl with sand, and took it to have them milled into two cups worth of delicious peanut butter. “Merci mille fois!” I said, ecstatic to have peanut butter and bananas on toast for breakfast. “Oh, c’est gratuit,” she says. It’s free.

***

Up ahead is the roundabout filled with red flowers and another taxi-moto station where a young apprentice greets me everyday with oil-slicked hands and a big grin on his face. I take the first right down a road that narrows as it leaves the village. Flies chase me as I pass farmers and women carrying baskets on their heads. It is light enough to make out all the cracks in the dirt, the weave of the women’s baskets. Drew’s house is on the left, and no doubt, his buddhist father is chanting away in his prayer room. I turn around as my watch reads 15 minutes, before the road descends towards the next village, and return to my compound.

“Akkodé!” says Ablagan, Tuesday, as she is known in Ewe. Komlan, my host father and male Tuesday, is preparing bouille, hot cereal, accompanied by his favorite, an egg sandwich with tomatoes, onion, and piment vert, hot green pepper. He slices the vegetables with an old pairing knife in his left hand. Rachel, my one year, three-month-old baby sister is sitting on the ground in a faded peach-orange Tigger sweater playing with a 50 CFA coin. She looks up when I enter, feigning indifference. “Elle est en grève,” Ablagan often says. She is on strike against you. Ablagan has begun to give her things to hand to me, and today, as she gave me bread for breakfast, she smiled and waved as I said, “Bye-bye!” Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid. Little by little, the bird makes its nest.

I stretch in our yard as baby goats BAAA for their siblings, their mamas, and eat the leaves off the okra plants that have yet to bear fruit. Les bêtes, they are called, beasts, for the damage they do to crops. I pour water into my bucket from the bidon, taking my time before school begins. Looking up, the shower is open to the elements. At night you can see the stars and hear funerals raging till the break of dawn. It is funeral season, and you can tell by the amount of sleep that you will not be getting every Friday and Saturday evening. Two men with microphones near my house rapidly scream back and forth to one another as if commentating a 90’s arcade fighting game. Drums and chanting can be heard throughout the entire village in between the chirping of the one cricket in your room you cannot find and the light scraping of men passing by your window in their tapettes.

***

It has been one month since arriving in Togo, and I have begun to question many things: how paradoxical Togolese society is with its corporal punishment and the prevalence of cell phones, my role as a Peace Corps volunteer, what it means to be in a country where many of the things you identified with back home are no longer an option, how circumstantial that makes identity seem.

I will end this post with something my host mom said to me last night. I told her about the journal I keep for reflecting, and she told me, “Every morning, before I leave my room, I ask myself, what can I do to not do any harm to anyone, and what can I do to bring the most joy to others?”

“If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses me, what pains me – everything that makes me react, in short – I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words

Togo, d’accord! On y va!

Salut mes proches!

Quelques nouvelles (Some news):

On June 6, 2016, I will be leaving Minneapolis to serve as an English and Gender Education (EGE) Volunteer for the following 27 months in Togo, West Africa. My responsibilities, en bref, include teaching English, bien sûr, and promoting gender equity and academic success through, though not limited to, partnering with teachers to co-plan lessons and improve teaching methods, running after school programs, etc. I could not be more excited for the opportunity!

The past five months have a been a flurry of shots, brushing up on French, paperwork, and time with friends and family. I have been savoring the change of seasons, the variety of restos in the Twin Cities, the convenience of a shower, a dynamite mini-van, and access to all the good wine my current place of work affords me. I know that all of these will soon be far from reach for a considerable amount of time, but on that note, I am looking forward to the heat-heat-heat of Togo, trying Togolese fare, bucket showers, a dynamite bicycle, and curing my short-term memory loss with crocodile/monkey head powder.

The Peace Corps has been on my mind since my first year of college. There is so much to learn about the world, and I am excited to move into my village and build relationships while teaching. Thank you for reading. I will do my best to keep you all informed on village-integration, local language learning, and pooping my pants for the first time since adolescence. From what I have been told, this is a near-guarantee, so stay tuned!

 

Quelques informations (Some information): 

Où est le Togo? (Where is Togo)

Sub-Saharan W. Africa wedged between Ghana to the West, Burkina Faso to the North, and Benin to the South. Voici une jolie carte: 

togo-map

Profil du pays (Country profile)

Population: 6.3 million

Capital City: Lomé

Official Language: French

Religions: Indigenous beliefs, Christianity, Islam

Current President: Faure Gnassingbe Eyadema (2005-present)

Main industries: Phosphate mining, agricultural processing, cement, handicrafts, textiles, beverages

 

Music in the Mountains

Hitchhiking is easy when you have a friend with a broken arm and you can play the sympathy card. If you are not in the mood to talk, it is also convenient if your travel partner is fluent in French, German, Italian, and English with a knack for telling stories. Honestly, Will, my hitchhiking companion, was born to faire la pousse. We made it effortlessly from St. Andre to Col de Boeuf as quickly as anyone could have without their own car.

The road from the cirque of Salazie to Mafate winds sharply and steeply, back and forth and up and down the mountain, as if the road plans were drawn by a five-year-old given a crayon and a shot of bourbon. The views are breathtaking and always changing. Clouds, some like enormous dollops of whipped cream topped the distant peaks. Others were just wispy apparitions, there and then gone. New waterfalls sprung up where there had not been any before. I would just focus my eyes on a particular point and one would appear, as if through my own efforts they would materialize.

No matter how stressed you are when you go to the mountains, all mental chatter becomes muted. Your attention is diverted to views so astounding that your brain says, “Shut up and look!” And you catch yourself with your mouth agape, your eyes transfixed despite your own inhibitions, your own skepticism to being awestruck and how much of a cliché that can be. You find yourself staring blankly, all of your senses heightened, nothing else coming to mind but wow. 

As we began hiking from the parking lot, spirits were at an all-time high. Jokes were doled out like food at a Thanksgiving feast. Our laughter was raucous and drew attention. We were a loud, colorful posse of anglophones, scream-laughing our way down the scribble of dirt trail. Whether it was the thin mountain air or the anticipation of a music festival in the mountains, I could not say, but it was to be a full moon and our backpacks were weighted with as much beer and rum as camping equipment. Needless to say, we were feeling good.

***

Night had fallen and the soft glow of the moon traced the ridges of the mountains around us. Lines of little gold dots could be seen slowly zigzagging back and forth in the distance, the headlamps of hikers still arriving. As the moon rose, details of the mountain slowly came into view until you could see everything perfectly. We had plunged into a black and white horror movie where we, the unsuspecting youth having too good a time, would soon be ravaged by the werewolf.

I cannot remember who said it, but one aspect of being content in life involves surrounding yourself with people whom it is easy to be good to. I would say that they are in abundance here on the island. People I have known for six months I would consider friends, which is encouraging to realize that you can go to a place as remote as Reunion Island for such a fleeting amount of time and still surround yourself with a good community of people.

I crawled into my tent somewhere around midnight. It had gotten dark around 6:30pm, so it felt quite late. The pitch was so steep that I could not lie in my sleeping bag and on my sleeping pad without sliding down to the bottom of the tent near the door. I fell asleep feeling like a bag of soup that had been thawed and frozen too many times. A harmonica was playing like a broken record. I slept well nonetheless.

Three weeks left. See you soon, Minneapolis!

Koreanese

When I am being harassed for being Chinois or the way I look, it is hard to feel grateful for this experience, to want to be where I am. Despite everything that is positive about Reunion Island, it is difficult to embrace a culture that does not always seem to accept differences.

According to my professor, the fact that les Chinois are stereotyped as being rich, cheap, and accused of thievery could be to blame for certain treatment. Auchan, Carrefour, and some of the other major supermarket chains on the island are owned by ethnically-Chinese individuals. They are still Réunionais, still Créoles, but of Chinese descent, and from what I have gathered, less integrated than les Malbars (from southern India), les Malgaches (from Madagascar), and les Yabs (white Creoles). As for the origin of being thieves, when the system of buying on credit came to the island, there was constant mistrust between the customer and Chinese shop owner as to whether the amount to be repaid was higher than it should have been.

Although the reason is not quite clear, the harassment here is unrelenting and likely the product of being more than just Asian. The combination of also having tattoos, perhaps, and longish hair sets me apart from other Chinois – Asian, excluding Indians. In a nutshell, “[I] don’t fit their concept of being Chinese,” Jean-Mick, my contact here on the island, told me.

I want to be clear that being called Chinois is not necessarily upsetting. There are other Creole labels used to simplify and are not meant to be degrading towards ethnic groups. Rather, what is bothersome are those who who treat me as less than which seems, in part, to be connected to being Chinois as well as different.

Creole Ethnic Labels:

  • Gros Blanc – A descendant of slave-owning families
  • Petit Blanc – A descendant of poor white landowners during times of slavery
  • Cafre/Cafrine – Black, a descendant of slaves
  • Yab – White Creole
  • Malbar/Malbaraise – Indian
  • Malgache -From Madagascar
  • Z’oreilles – From mainland France
  • Chinois – Asian, excluding India
  • Mahorais – From Mauritius

When walking on the sidewalk, I get yelled at most days from car windows. Passing motorcyclists and those on suped-up scooters will do double-takes, and Reunionese men and women, young and old, stare unwaveringly. I am not a spectacle! I want to yell. One day when I was running near my apartment, a student lobbed a half-empty can of pop through a bus window that hit me square in the chest. In my experience, when you look different here, you are treated as such, and part of this has to do with how you conform to what is stylé.

Some of what is stylé for men at the moment on Reunion Island:

  • Track pants and Nike Air Max kicks
  • Leopard and flower print everything
  • Anything emblazoned with NYC
  • Technical sunglasses
  • Blaring, external music players, often mounted to one’s mountain bike handlebars
  • Mountain bikes (and being able to do a wheelie)
  • Spiky, gelled-up hair and designs shaved into the sides of one’s head
  • Really loud, suped-up, 50cc scooters

I really like some of these trends – the retro Nike sneakers, androgynous flower/leopard print, and the fact that there are a fair number of people who commute by bike. However, this list is also a delineation of what is required to be cool and considered manly. Thus, it is hard not to view these aspects of Reunionese culture in a negative light – as one uniform, leopard-printed social box of masculinity to force oneself into. The pervasiveness of what is stylé is also representative of France’s collectivist society and the social pressure of looking and acting like everyone else.

What frustrates me most about being different here, apart from the “Jackie Chans,” “Bruce Lees,” the assumption I do combat, and the subsequent provocations to fight is that I thought it was a part of a past I had moved far away from – the chingchong-ese and other racial slurs of adolescence when being mean won you the attention of your peers. More often than not, thankfully, the intent has not been malicious. Regardless, I am having a difficult time accepting the name calling and stereotyping as some sort of icebreaker. In the States I have had much fewer problems, if any, but I have always been reminded of my race.

The first person to point out that I was different was a boy from church who made Asian eyes at me when I was six. There were the stupid, recycled Family Guy jokes during high school about being good at math and poked like the buttons of a calculator. At one of the restaurants I worked at this past summer, the cooks called me over to the kitchen within the first week so that I could open their newest special, the Fortune Burger. Infused with traditional Asian flavors, it was a bun with a folded slip of paper inside. My fortune read “Fuck You!” and they all burst out laughing. To this day I still do not get the joke. One of the cooks happened to be the sous chef at the restaurant, which was even more appalling.

When you are young, it is hard to understand why someone would make a racial joke at your expense. You shrug it off because you do not want to be the sensitive one, or the one that makes a big deal out of things that everyone else seems to find funny. As you grow older, you become more aware of the underlying arrogance, the injustice, and better-than hidden within the words.

Even now in my 20’s I am still being reminded in the same narrow-minded ways that I am Asian. I am beginning to accept that the difficulties of being Korean outside Korea are as much a part of my life as is being assumed a terrorist for many practicing Muslims, or as threatening if you are black in the US, or objectified and catcalled if you are a woman. On the other hand, the silver lining of this whole experience is a heightened awareness of my ethnicity that has forced me to reflect on my own identity as an adopted Korean American.

My roommate from freshman year was Chinese, not a fob, but he spoke Mandarin and his parents owned a Chinese restaurant in St. Paul, MN. He was the first Asian friend that I ever had apart from my biologically, older, half-sister, Lauren. I have never eaten Korean food, although I did do Taekwondo for a month. As you can see, my experience of Korean culture as an adopted Asian American is as limited as any other American.

Until this point, I never really cared, honestly. I was content where I was. Adopted at three months old into a white, middle class family, I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and had great friends who were all white. My roommate told me that I am one of the whitest people he has ever known. Personally, being told you are adopted, that your biological parents reside thousands of miles away renders itself as an abstract story that cannot be fully grasped. Thus, you brush it away and stick to your reality, what is currently in front of you.

Being here has made me care, though – to want to better understand my experience and those of other Asian Americans and adopted Korean Americans. How do they feel about being adopted? Do they feel a strong pull to go back to Korea? What would it feel like to be surrounded by people whose facial characteristics mirror your own? What would it be like to meet the person who birthed you but did not raise you? Do you share a small pen-dot mole on your left eyelid? Do you have any brothers or sisters that you do not know about?

Culture is difficult to define without oversimplifying. There is a fine line where talk of culture starts and stereotyping begins. Not everyone conforms to what is stylé, and given my four-and-a-half-month experience thus far, confined to mainly the west coast (St. Paul, Plateau Caillou, and St. Gilles-les-Bains – Z’oreilles Land), it is possible that I do not have a fully accurate picture of Reunion Island, nor the degree to which ethnic groups and social classes mix.

For all the uncertainties concerning this experience on Reunion Island – the gray area between culture and stereotyping and what it means to be Asian American, there are two things that are certain: for every negative experience here, I have had ten positive ones, and if you are not sure, it is safe to assume that no one wants to be called Jackie Chan over their real name.

GR R2: Days 3 and 4

Day 3: Bourg-Murat (BOG-MAN-RAT)

More rocky terrain on day three, the soil was reddish this time as we followed the white and red trail signs passed cloud-covered mountaintops and bucolic fields of cattle fit for a postcard. My legs still were still working somehow and, despite the rain, I felt at peace moving one wet boot in front of the other.

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I walked mainly by myself for the majority of the third day. Sometimes you need that, which is the beauty of hiking for hours on end in a group because you always have the choice of getting really philosophical by yourself (What am I going to do with my life?!) or allowing yourself to be pulled along by the spirit of the group, and poo banter.

As we reached the road to take us into Bourg-Murat, a 45-minute detour from our path, to resupply our food stocks and say goodbye to the three, three-day hikers, we noticed that Alex (small sleeper, tall otherwise), who was in front of us, had not arrived with everyone else. He had missed the partially concealed right turn towards Bourg-Murat, instead going left.

I selflessly volunteered to go back for him, setting my fears and concerns for personal safety aside. Fueled by paternal adrenaline, like that mother from that one urban legend who lifted up a car to free her pegged son, I ran and thought of nothing but his potential tears and confusion. Alex, I’m coming!

“ALEEEEEX!” I yelled periodically along the trail. After 20 minutes of running, I heard a reply.

“MAAAATTTT?!” he cried.

“ALLLLEEEEEXXXX!” I screamed louder this time.

“MAAAATTTT?!”

“ALEEEXX! HEEEEEY! YOU TOOK A WRONG TURN!”

“WHAT?!”

“TURN AROUND!”

As he limped towards me in his makeshift garbage bag rain jacket, I began to make out defeat written in the hard lines of his face. As many who know him would agree, Alex is a shining 60-year-old man in a 23-year-olds body. He is paternal, well-read, and interested in getting to know everyone, that sweet old man you’ll move in next door to someday that’ll bring you tomatoes from his garden every week. For the first time since meeting him, his physical appearance matched his internal age, 60. Taking his pack, we made our way back to find the others who had taken shelter from the rain in an unoccupied cattle barn.

Leaving the cattle barn, we walked towards town waving our thumbs enthusiastically as the rain poured. Can you not see by the energy with which we’re waving our thumbs in the pouring rain that we have entertainment value! At least take pity on us! I thought. In the end, two of our companions caught a ride, Alex being one of them.

The three, three-day hikers of our group caught buses back home while the five of us, Marta, Will, Cora, Sam, and I, continued on to our final destination, St. Denis, the end of the GR R2 trail.

We set up camp an hour or two outside of Bourg-Murat in an open space along the trail, laying out garbage bags beneath our tents to prevent rain from coming in the bottom. Huddled in our sleeping bags, we ate a dinner of cold canned food, did our best to massage the tension out of one anothers’ shoulders, and fell asleep.

Camp
Camp

Day 4: Xmas Eve

Cilaos. Destroyed knees. Rain. Rain. Rain. Thermal baths. Magic gîte!

After a long day of hiking, we made our final descent into our first cirque, Cilaos. It was the first day I truly considered giving up. My knees felt wrecked, a sharp pain stabbing both kneecaps with each footfall. By the end, I was taking each step sideways, gently lowering myself down as if I were landing on the fragile surface of a crême brulée.

Cilaos
Cilaos

We had a delicious lunch of gourmet canned food at a picnic area, cursing the happy French family nearby for no apparent reason other than wanting to blow off some steam.

“Fuck the French!” we said happily to ourselves, cursing their motorized transportation and decadent picnic meal. I bet they even have wine! The nerve! Was our manner of dealing with our personal problems healthy? Probably not, but it worked.

After hitchhiking into the main part of Cilaos, we stopped into the thermal spa for a sauna and massage bath. The interior of the sauna was bizarre. Rounded white plastic seats that became slippery beneath our sweaty bums extended through to the ceiling, giving one the impression that the florescent red numbers indicating temperature and remaining time were actually coordinates for a day in the past. The bath was a single tub with brown stains and a bar across the top to help you get out. The room was bare. I attribute the questionable bottom rash that persisted for three days to that bathtub. Other than that, I was warm. Victory!

Stench is one of the realities of backpacking/travel that gets pushed out by the stunning views and freedom from the day-to-day grind. It should be given it’s due credit, as it truly plays a large role in any hiking story. It walked with us along the GR R2, sat with me while I ate tuna, and slept in our tents. A greedy and stubborn bastard, it wore all of my clothes, even. Thankfully, we never allowed it to come between us, and for the first time in four days, it left us for a time. The gîte, La Roche Marveilleuse, gave us a chance to wash all of our clothes, hang out wet sleeping bags, tents, and properly clean the trail off our bodies.

Gîte Roche Marveilleuse
Gîte Roche Marveilleuse

Later, we celebrated in town with a 20 euro meal and experienced the forgotten joys of hot fresh food prepared by someone else and served to us without any effort on our part. I had a salade exotique, a rougaille with potatoes, sweet potato cake drizzled in caramel, a rum and coke, a rum punch, and another shot of rum that accompanied the dessert. It was the best 20 euros I have spent since coming to the island. It was as merry a meal as merry can be. It was Christmas Eve, and all was right in the world.

Marta and I
Marta and I
Sam and Cora
Sam and Cora
Will and Marta
Will and Marta
Cilaos by night
Cilaos by night

GR R2: Days 1 and 2

Day 1

We found ourselves trekking uphill for five straight hours from Basse Vallé where it all began to the flattest spot we could find as the sun fell from view. Over a thousand feet up, surrounded by winding moss-covered trees with vines hanging from them and clouds seemingly close enough to touch, we stripped pine branches from the nearby shrubbery, laying them down to lessen the impact of unforgiving stones on our tired backs.

IMG_2526
(Top left to right: Alex, Will, Eva, Marta; Bottom left to right: myself, Sam, Cora, Jasmine)

Sleep came fitfully. The large amounts of quick-burning sugars throughout the day – spoonfuls of nutella and bites of tortillas, handfuls of peanuts, granola bars, and gulps of letchi juice – that kept my unconditioned legs from collapsing beneath the ten-day home on my back successively strung my eyes wide open to the point of vacating my tent for need of a different view. Fetching my headlamp from a bottomless bag, the same one that lit every sundowned moment during the motorcycle trip a year and a half prior, I walked to a nearby rock, opened my journal, and scribbled down the words that follow:

“Incredibly tiring but amazing first day. Five hours of ascending. Felt so tired I was beginning to stumble. Had trouble staying upright. Had to recall worse, more painful experiences to keep going on. . . . can barely remember the last time I went camping. Feels amazing to be back out in nature.”

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Leaning against that rock and looking upwards, I thought about how different the stars look beyond the reach of the City’s light and that first full view you get when you’re seeing them again as if for the first time.

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For me, I was with my best friends from high school in Arches and Canyonlands National Park. I remember climbing to the rim of one of the canyons at night, a stone’s throw from our campsite, and feeling weightless, shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends, completely pulled in by the night sky like floating in a body of water. That’s how I felt at the end of Day 1, 1,000 feet up, 6 years, and 10,000 miles from that first experience of the stars.

Taking one last look at the summit before climbing into my tent, we still had a ways till the top. My head hit the inflatable pillow, and as my eyelids began to droop, there was nothing but the soft snores of Alex and the thought of how incredibly small, at 6’2”, he could make himself.

Alex
(Alex)

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Day 2

The terrain changed dramatically from the steep muddy incline and rainforest-like surroundings we experienced the day before as we came closer to Piton de la Fournaise. Trees disappeared and gray volcanic rock replaced a lot of the greenery from the first day.

We had only room to pack three to four liters of water each, if that, an amount that can be comfortably drank at home let alone walking up a mountainside with weight for hours on end. Around five hours into the next day, I was rationing a liter of water. We crossed a stream, and I dipped an empty bottle in, taking a large gulp. I was fairly sure that it would be alright, no large animals to contaminate the water, but I wasn’t certain. Eva, a German assistant whose dad runs an outdoor shop, told me that I’d know within the first 30 minutes whether the water was good to drink or not. Thankfully it was.

We’d finally reached the top where everything was flat as we made our way to the Gîte du Volcan. The signs that would pop up at trail junctions few and far between directed us with an arrow, nothing more. It’s the not knowing that made it the most difficult. As the rain continued coming down and the wind ran unchecked across the flat terrain, the knowledge that we had no idea when we would arrive at the gîte sunk in with the cold, compounding the soreness in my legs and feet, the emptiness in my stomach. Retreating as far into my rain jacket and wet shirt as possible, I fantasized of thick wool hats.

After another hour, we came to a sign that read .4km to the gîte. It was the 400m dash from high school, and with that, I took off, wet boots squelching, oversized backpack flopping around awkwardly, a manic, desperate look in my eyes like a crazed kindergartner racing for the bus on his first day of school. I most likely set a personal record.

Upon arriving, I stripped off everything wet, and fell overjoyed in a heap on top of the couch next to Marta, Will, and Jasmine. I ordered two coffees, sipping them carefully and touching the warm ceramic cups to my cheeks. Nothing beats a warm drink after coming in from the cold.

We stayed for over an hour before pulling our wet clothes back on, filling up our bottles, and heading back out into the rain towards our final destination for the day.

My watch read 10 hours by the time we had arrived at our campsite. A vacationing couple from Massif Central, France invited us over to their fire where we warmed up cans of ravioli and cassoulet in metal camp bowls and coffee cups. We strung up our boots to dry and roasted steaming wool socks over the fire. Afterwards, five or six of us crammed into a single tent for shoulder rubs and a small amount of Haribo candy gifted to Alex for his birthday.

Thinking only of Maslow’s first tier of needs, and grateful for every one of them, I fell into a deep sleep until the sun rose.

“Sanksgeeving” in Réunion

I spent the week before Thanksgiving, or “Sanksgeeving” as my French kids say, teaching a lesson on the holiday – it’s ties to the Battle of Gettysburg, American football, the Macy’s Day Parade, and the horrors of Black Friday. I showed them videos of the latter via YouTube that bewildered and terrified, apocalyptic-like scenes of consumer-hungry Americans forcing their way into stores, tearing through metal gates, and trampling one another for 50% off.

They were most interested in the food. When you’re so habituated to something, like baked sweet potatoes and marshmallows or pumpkin pie for that matter, it’s strange to see someone try and wrap their head around it for the first time. Seeing It from their perspective makes you think, Yeah, slicing a can-shaped, gelatinous wad of cranberries to eat with my turkey is a bit weird. What is also quite amazing is how you can spend a full hour dissecting the components of pie, green bean casserole, and gravy.

“It’s like a tarte, but not…” I can’t really tell you why, so I’m just going to say it confidently. “It’s pie, and it’s different… and green bean casserole, you take french-fried onions…” How do you explain what french-fried onions are to a French person? The situation felt so ironically convoluted I just trailed off when explaining. Before arriving, I was hoping to live the French version of Dead Poet’s Society. A bit ambitious in hindsight.

What else I find strange is being left to one’s own devices for the holidays. The most I have ever been asked to do to help out with Thanksgiving is to eat more food so that less would have to come home. Christmas has entailed buying gifts, helping set up the tree, and holding the ladder for my dad while he strung all the lights given that I was home. Seeing as I was away for college for four years, my actions were to come home, open presents and enjoy the delicious food that my family made. Don’t worry about gifts; “You’re a poor college student and your company is the present!”

So, when some of the assistants put together an American Thanksgiving event, the concept of organizing a holiday was weird, especially being away from home on a tiny French-speaking island that nobody has ever heard of. What does this mean? I thought. Am I becoming more of an actual adult, contributing to Thanksgiving and not just benefiting? Here I am, looking up recipes to bring food to a holiday get-together, and I still can’t grow facial hair to save my life, I’ve sold basically everything to come to the island, and my dad still files my taxes every year.

Plans to make sweet potatoes and marshmallows fell through as the only ones I could find were blue and smurf-themed and no sweet potatoes. Thus, Will, Alex and myself came with breakfast-y things – Nutella, jam, bread, juice, and oatmeal – to set out in the morning.

I had my doubts about whether or not it would actually feel like Thanksgiving, and they were proven wrong. There was a moment when people were walking in with grocery bags of Thanksgiving dishes they had made, bottles of wine and rum punch, greeting everyone with a hug or the bise, and I thought, this is quite amazing what we’ve succeeded in creating. The atmosphere was warm and jovial. We shared what we were most thankful for. Wine flowed. There were five different pies to follow an enormous meal that somehow all fit on Julia, Isabella, and Tim’s single table of their minimalist apartment. Little rotisserie chickens purchased from street vendors, casseroles, mashed potatoes, gravy and more made up the menu.

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We went for a midnight swim at the beach in St. Pierre after waistlines had somewhat receded. 12 or so of us retired to Tim’s room at the end of the night, furnished with only a double mattress on the floor and air-conditioning. It was so crowded the only open space was to allow the door to swing open fully. Most of the couch from downstairs had been disassembled to sleep on, a cushion for everyone to assuage the effects of bare tile. In keeping with the strangeness of Thanksgiving in-general, it was one of the weirdest places I have fallen asleep, yet one of the best I have ever experienced.

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T-minus 20 hours before our 10-day trek across the island. We’ll spend Christmas in tents in the most isolated the cirques. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year, and a belated Happy Sanksgeeving!

Culture Shock, A Meteor Shower Birthday

Culture shock can be shitty, simply put. There are a few different models that map out the emotional roller coaster, but they all begin with the honeymoon stage. Then there is a fallout as differences turn into irritations and irritations turn into homesickness, sometimes depression. After that one learns to cope, and by the end, hopefully, accept. A week ago, I woke up truly happy for no apparent reason. Without warning, I realized I was coping. All of it, the depression included, is a beautiful reminder that I’m truly immersed in a different culture.

Two, three weeks ago, I would have given anything to be heading back home. This is too much for me, I thought. I miss my friends and family, the pace of Minneapolis, autumn, winter, ordering a full 12oz cup of coffee, the speed of MetroTransit! Yes, it is extremely fast and efficient in comparison to Car Jeune. I missed wearing sweaters so bad I was turning up my a/c full blast just to do so. Slowly, but surely, I had nothing to write about other than I had finally arrived at the final season of Breaking Bad and that I felt closer to the dark, meth-entangled plight of Walter and Jessie. What a waste, right?

Thankfully, a week ago was Marta’s birthday, and every year, wherever she is, she “drags her friends someplace in the wilderness to watch the meteor shower,” she told me. This year happened to be a beach just outside of St. Joseph in the south of the island called La Grande Anse. We pitched our tents and strung hammocks like rebels next to a camping interdit (no camping) sign.

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The day we arrived there were at least six different weddings taking pictures. “We’re by the green one,” our friends texted us (there were two we found out). Once everyone had arrived, we feasted on a picnic banquet of chicken and brie sandwiches, Pringles, cookies and cake, a can of sweet corn, Julia’s couscous concoction, red wine, and, of course, rum punch (my water bottle still smells of it). As night fell, so did our clothes in tiny piles by the water’s edge as we stepped nudey into the ocean.

With every movement that disturbed the water, bioluminescent organisms swirled around us as stars fell overhead in a shower of meteors. It was something out of a movie. We lied in a pile like Max and his friends from Where the Wild Things are atop a blanket on the beach and stared up at the night sky trying to name constellations. There were elbows in faces and heads resting on stomachs like a human funnel cake. We swam some more, doggy-paddling as close to the surface as possible to avoid the minefield of sea urchins lurking below. Scavenging wood, we made a fire in the pit next to our tents, passed around a bit of Reunionese Zamal, and fell asleep somewhere around 3am.

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Five of us crammed into Marta’s car mid-afternoon the next day and drove to Bassin Langevin where we jumped from cliffs, ate several kilos of letchis, and practiced pulling each other up from the sides of large rocks (au cas où…). If the situation arose, Marta and I would most likely have to let each other plummet to our deaths or go together. Either way, now we know, so maybe it wouldn’t be as bad. I asked Will to pull me up, and he did it in two seconds. Thus, our survival depends on Will if ever we find ourselves dangling over the edge. A detour at Piton de la Fournaise led to us picking up a stray kitten we named “Volcano” so we could find him a home. What a moral dilemma! It was Marta who took on the responsibility of not leaving him behind to starve despite the impossible problem of stray animals left to their own wits on the island.

Samoussas at another waterfall for dinner, Marta and I drove back to her apartment in St. Denis after dropping off the others near St. Andre. We bathed Volcano twice, doing our best to rid all the flees from it’s dirt-encrusted white coat. Around 10pm, I borrowed a motorcycle from another assistant and drove the 30km back to St. Gilles.

I arrived home exhausted but content. It was an amazing, full weekend that dragged me from the cold dark confines of the cave that I had created. Standing with the bioluminescence swirling around me, looking in awe at Piton de la Fournaise, the motorcycle ride along the ocean-hugging-cliff-hugging road so amazing I was crying out, I could go on about the multitude of experiences that balance Reunion’s slow buses and impossibly small coffees. I would have loved to have come home, but I know that staying here will bring a lot of good as well.

A group of us is leaving Saturday for a 3-day/10-day hike from the south of the island to the north. We’ll pass by the three cirques, Mafate, Salazie, and Cilaos and hopefully Piton de Neige, the other volcano. It took time, is taking time, to adjust, but I am beginning to really enjoy this island experience.

Full Moon Party: Where am I?

In college, you have your favorite places to study that you can undoubtedly be found at at particular moments of certain days. Maybe it’s a tiny nook hidden deep within the library’s bookshelves of pages published before your parents’ parents’ parents were born, that you emerge from after countless hours have passed indicated to you by the stiffness in your ass and, when you finally emerge, by the remembrance that other people existence, an aversion to light, and what fresh air feels like in your lungs.

In my case, there was a rounded table for three that I would sit at before classes to study and observe the herds of students going by. One of those students was a girl named Casey who transferred in with me to Concordia College. We got along well from the beginning, and as the year went by and that rounded table became a place of frequency, so did our meetings. I was an English and French major, she, involved in the sciences. Our inability to fathom the work the other one did was something that drew us to one another.

Her science classes were awful, she would tell me, and she was often unsure of whether she would pass them and, if not, have to retake them at one of the other two colleges in the Fargo-Moorhead area. I remember trying to discuss anything interesting I was learning in literature, Stephen Dedalus in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for example, or some concept in American Philosophy that, to this day, I’ve never really grasped. We also had some really good life talks, you know, where you get all deep and stuff.

More than a year after graduating, we’ve just begun to rekindle our conversations and what she recently said to me is the point of this seemingly directionless tangent: ”18-year-old me would have laughed at the thought of me now,” she wrote. Currently living in Nova Scotia, on her way to grad school in a year’s time, and involved in a good relationship, it goes to show what can transpire in say, four years.

This is the thought that I had last night at a full moon party dancing to music in French and English from the 80s and 90s played by my physics professor who’s also a DJ, talking to a French girl with an Australian accent because she “fucking loves Australians and they don’t give a shit about anything!” and drinking glass after glass of wine and champagne from a jovial, floral-shirted Frenchman’s wine cave who bore an uncanny resemblance to Austin Powers.

It all went down in a town called Saline les Hauts way up in the mountains. “Have you got any food?” Anne asked me. “Could you just bring a pizza or something?”

“Well, yes I have food, but no pizza. I have a pineapple…” I replied uncertainly. Party, pineapple, pineapple, party? Pineapple party?

“Okay, sure sure, fine! No problem!” she said. “So, you’ll cut the pineapple or something and then we’ll pick you up at your place!”

She honked twice. I ran down the staircase with my pineapple and a bar of high-quality dark chocolate from U Express that came in a packet of three, and hopped in the car. Anne, iPod (Isabel Podzinsky), two of my English professors from the collège (middle school) and Anne’s daughter, Rosalie, holding a Royale pizza (white sauce and ham), were waiting for me in the car.

As I said before, a bunch of people (professors, students’ parents, people from the community) get together to make party every 29.5 days beneath the full moon.

“Monsieur Basil (his name isn’t actually basil, but it sounds like Basil which makes me like him more) is the best DJ. He’s really fun! Whenever I have a party and I want someone good, I always call him,” Anne said.

Basil’s table was old school, equipped with what looked like the world’s first turntable, stacks of CDs, and one of those revolving, multi-colored disco balls. His body was pulsing to the music, his eyes closed with one hand on his headphones. As I was admiring his table, particularly the disco ball, the floral-printed, French wine shop owner strutted out of his cave to faire la bise, the traditional French greeting of kissing on each cheek, with everyone. All of it was so weird, but in the best of ways.

Where am I? This must be a dream…

The place quickly filled, bottles of wine and champagne flowing as if the full moon was a benevolent god whose presence we were honoring. The small circles of conversation eventually disbanded giving way to an energetic mass on the dance floor, my professor, Anne, easily the best dancer and the most fun of the bunch.

That early stage when no one’s dancing you always have that one fearless soul who understands what the night will eventually progress to when everyone’s assez bourré (drunk enough). They’re the one to make things happen. I admire these people. They’re living manifestations of the phrase let’s skip the pleasantries/formalities and cut to the chase, you know? They have their cake first, aren’t afraid to break with convention, and make fools of themselves with grace.

“I need to find someone who can dance rock n’ roll!” she told me with an urgent look in her eyes.

I watched her search through the crowd until Monsieur Basil vacated his post and heeded the call. When I was in Tours I came to the conclusion that French people are awful dancers because at the clubs I would go to no one would be dancing, or if they were, they were just monotonously swinging their hips from side to side with their arms bent at 90-degree angles. When I went to Cubana Club with some other assistants on Réunion, I noticed the same thing happening and the addition of some creepy dudes eyeing the female assistants as they revolved around our circle. I felt like a sheep surrounded by teenage-boy wolves. If you’re looking for a good time, I found out, go to a full moon party.

“So do you like this, Matthew? This is really an example of French community!” Anne said embracing me in a hug.

“Yeah, this is isn’t it?” I replied.

It’s the sort of thing I read about in the culture books for our pre-study abroad course before Tours, but indescribably better because it was the real thing.

I talked to a 6-foot tall bearded man who took off his shirt and showed me the tattoos he’d gotten all over the world. He told me about his job renting out vans, where he wanted to travel to next, places that he’s surfed at, and also made sure my glass was never empty.

Apart from him, I listened to a French girl speak with an Australian accent which left me completely speechless. I wish I could program my car’s GPS to her voice or have a program to convert audiobooks to a French girl with an Australian accent. Perhaps it was all the fucking’s that she threw in, or the way she said just shit in a punk-anarchist way that made everything she said so fucking cool! I don’t know what she does for a living, but she should consider doing voice work.

Where am I? I thought to myself as the wine continued to flow, surprised that I found myself air-bassing and tossing my head to French rock songs. And then Where am I? changed from being all deep and stuff to “Where the hell am I?!” as I woke up pants-less this morning on a beach with Voulez-vous coucher aver moi? inked onto my forehead.

Just kidding. But honestly, Reunion. Where am I? It all felt like a dream, Mr. Basil, Anne, iPod, the bearded dude, floral-shirt guy, and that cool Fraustralian representing different aspects of my subconscious.

18-year-old me would certainly be laughing right now as well. He thought he would be a doctor or something.

Two Weeks Vacation: Magic Waterfall, Bob Dylan, Wine Expert, Small Animal in My Bathroom

Quick Update:

Back at school after two lazy weeks of vacation. It feels quite good to be getting back into the swing of things. Vacation was great, don’t get me wrong. We went to a couple different waterfalls, befriended the driver of an ice cream van who offered us all free ice cream because his wife was not present to make the crêpes. I ate an enormous sandwich called a lord au bouchon for the first time, an enormous circular sandwich larger than the surface area of my face with lettuce, tomato, little bouchons (sort of like dumplings) and french fries inside the sandwich. I also found a type of Dodo beer that is really good, la blanche (white) with a bit of citrus added. The other day I cracked open a rotten coconut and drank (spit up) it’s chunky filmy contents…

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Cascade (Waterfall) de Langevin
A group of us drove to St. Joseph in the southern part of the island to a waterfall called Langevin. A short walk from the side of the road, we found ourselves alone romping through the ravine to uncover the most surreal waterfall basin with water so clear you can see every detail of the stones lining the bottom. There was a small chamber with dark, rectangular rocks forming a rough staircase that made it possible for us to climb to the top and jump 20 feet into the pool below. It was so beautiful, none of it seemed real. We explored all three basins, and as it began to drizzle, we made our way down to the city of St. Pierre while listening to the words Bob Dylan, the cliché bohemian feel of it all enhanced by the enormous dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror. After a lazy dinner set against the seaside and a setting sun (romantic, right?), we stumbled upon a dear old ice cream man who, after apologizing for not having crêpes (his wife makes the crêpes but she was out) or hot chocolate, gifted us all free italian ice cream.

Back to the Present
Vacation went by paradoxically slow and fast. We went to the beach nearly everyday, on a fait la fête (made some party), and hung out on each others’ terraces. Every day was blissfully slow, mostly (aside from moments of being harassed by locals at bus stops), but by the end of the two weeks I was definitely ready for something more.

I received my professors bike a couple days before school restarted, and I have taken it twice from St. Gilles where I’m living to Collège Plateau Caillou, roughly 10km and an enormous hill away. The base of the hill begins near the city center of St. Paul and continues climbing until Zeus’ feet which you’ll gladly kiss if you ever reach the top. It’s extremely steep with switchbacks that have taken ten minutes to climb and three minutes to descend which could be faster if it weren’t for the congestion cars and buses. As with the waterfall, I can’t help but remark on my commute to and from school. The road I take hugs cliffsides and the coast. Although I miss the most bike-friendly city in the States, the biking here is not half bad.

At home, I cook mostly with vegetables from a really nice woman at a market stall in St. Gilles and serve them with couscous, jasmine rice, or pasta. I see the woman from the market every few days to replenish my stock of carrots, eggplant, kiwis, bananas, etc. and often see her just slipping items back into my bag without ringing them up. In the evenings and at midday I’ll run to Ermitage beach via the coastline or the road, or I’ll hang a left at the end of our driveway and head straight up the hillside which leads to an incredible overlook of the St. Gilles.

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Teaching
My kids are learning about Bob Dylan. Honestly, I had never listened to him before nor had read anything about him. So inspired by his music in the car on the way to St. Jo, I printed off his wiki page to learn that he went to Hibbing HS, was a gopher for a year before dropping out (it’s rumored that he used to live above the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown), and won countless awards including a Pullitzer Prize Citation in 2008 for the “poetic power” of his lyrics, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 for his influence on the Civil Rights Movement and American culture as a whole. Thus, my students and I have all been listening to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Like a Rollin’ Stone”. In hindsight, I probably could have picked an artist easier for my kids to understand, but hey, it’s Bob Dylan, right? said one of the few Minnesotans to previously know nothing about him.

In addition to planning lessons on anything of interest, I get to drink wine during my classes at the vocational school for bartenders, servers, cooks, pastry chefs, and restaurant/hotel managers, Lycée Hôtelier La Renaissance. Thus, today’s lesson was about wine service, and seeing as I have a full 4-months of experience serving wine, who better to educate an entire class of budding service-industry professionals than myself?

Monsieur Cassard: “And you smell the cork and consult your sommelier to verify that the wine is good?”

Me: “But of course!”

Monsieur Cassard: “Okay then. Now show us how you would taste the wine, please.”

Me: (Confidently): “Well, you need to swirl the contents of the glass and hold it up to the light to verify that the color is good, that there aren’t any sediments from the bottom of the bottle floating around. Then, when you taste the wine, you need to pull it through your teeth to aerate the wine and better release the grape’s flavors.”

In actuality, I cracked the lip of the first bottle of wine I ever attempted to open in front of a guest and had to go back to the bar and fetch a new bottle. I have never worked in fine dining. At the restaurants where I’ve worked, we set out wine glasses on our tables, rolled our silverware in black linens, and dimmed the lights. But fine dining? No. There was no time to verify with a non-existing sommelier nor wipe the lip of the bottle between each pour. 90% of the time you’re precariously run-walking with 9 wine glasses in your right hand, a bottle of wine in the other, and 12 tasks that need to be done written in the creases of your stress-induced, visibly-aging face.

Nonetheless, I’ve been assigned to the best lycée and collège on the island. As I was writing this, a student popped into the teachers lounge to inform me that I could come by the restaurant d’application, the student restaurant where they can apply what they’re learning to a real restaurant setting, and have a cocktail, a glass of wine, a cup of coffee whenever I want. Not to overemphasize this detail, as great as it may be, the main takeaway is that my students are great – eager to learn more about the US, speak in English, and make sure that as the language assistant, I’m feeling welcomed here on Reunion Island. I receive on average 27, sing-songy, French “helloooos!” everyday.

Next week I will give the vocational school students a lesson on the local, niche coffee shops of Minneapolis and the concept of latté art, barista battles, and coffee shop culture in the US versus cafés in France.

Additionally, I caught the end of Le Grand Raid (a 100-mile race through the mountains that traverses the island), gave practice balls, water, and a towel to an internationally-ranked Dutch tennis player by the name of Robin Haase, went sailing for the first time on a catamaran, and found this guy last night by the toilet.

Cheers!

1-Month Recap: Jumping in Waterfall Basins and Eating Dakatine

How do you summarize what happens in a month? There is a line from the film Frances Ha where Frances, an aspiring dancer whose closest friend moves to Japan, says to her best friend, Sophie, “It’s just that if something funny happens on the way to the deli, you’ll only tell one person about it and that’ll be Patch and I’ll never hear about it.” I love this line for its honesty, and that it illuminates how many small things worth telling someone are often said only once. For the sake of this post, “On my way to the deli…”

Birds fly fearlessly through our open doors and windows to eat the crumbs left on the countertops and floor that hordes of well-organized ants haven’t already carried away. There is also a family of small yellow lizards I often see hidden amongst the chocolate-squares-cereal boxes. If you let your eyes unfocus and your mind drift into a daydreamy state, the pile of breakfast fare in the corner begins to look like Tokyo, all the more natural to see if you’ve been reading anything by Haruki Murakami for 2 weeks.

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The mail persons on Réunion come by bike, scooter, motorcycle, van, and air, and by air I mean flight. They float around the city, dropping packages attached to small blue, white, and red parachutes. I have this recurring flying dream where I’ll be sprinting, often through the halls of Ridgedale mall in Wayzata, Minnesota, and jump into the air and glide for a while. I can only do it for a few seconds before coming down hard on my elbows and kneecaps. The people who deliver mail here don’t have that problem.

Our mail arrives more or less between 9:00 and 9:30 by a postman on a dijon-colored motorcycle who is undoubtedly getting to know me by name because I’m almost always there when he comes. Our Internet is unstable which has forced me to stabilize myself on the railing of my landlord’s terrace, right near the router. Before leaving my apartment to camp in front of Jacque’s, sometimes leaning off our second-story balcony and waving my laptop around will get a signal.

The best place to be at night is the beach. Seven of us went there two nights ago around 10pm with delicious island rum and played mafia atop a large, Indian blanket. If you’re not familiar with the game mafia, I’ll explain it quickly:

Mafia:

There is one narrator, the mafia, a doctor, an investigator, and the townspeople. The narrator hands out cards privately designating to everyone their role. After everyone (the town) sleeps (closes their eyes), the narrator asks the mafia to wake (open their eyes) and point at whom they would like to kill. After the mafia goes to sleep, the doctor wakes and soundlessly indicates to the narrator whom amongst the town they would like to save. After they sleep, it is then the investigator who wakes and chooses someone to investigate. The narrator indicates to the investigator if the person the investigator pointed to is mafia or not. The narrator tells everyone to open their eyes informs the town who died, that is, if the doctor didn’t save them. The town then proceeds to discuss amongst themselves who they believe is mafia and subsequently hang them with a majority vote. If all the mafia are still alive, the narrator tells everyone to go to sleep and the process repeats itself.

Long story short, it’s a game of deception where the mafia’s goal is to kill off everyone in the town and the town tries to root out the mafia and hang them. Alex’s body was found at the glacier (ice cream shop) after hours lying in a pool of strawberry and chocolate. While Henry was narrating, everyone died by bombing. Others were found buried up to their necks in sand, ghost crabs having picked at their eyeballs and nestled in their sockets. So many tragedies, but more often than not, the townspeople triumphed. We stayed till midnight playing categories, my favorite being characters from Harry Potter. Even alone, the beach is still nice. I wandered there last night and sat watching whitecaps elongate, shrink, and collapse from view. The ocean and sky were melded together seamlessly the color of a faded black-grey-more-black-than-grey crewneck.

This morning I opened up the first of what will be many Dakatines, half-thinking Eisenhower was going to pop out of the can to mess my hair while I ate it with teeth that hadn’t yet fallen out. Lo and behold Dakatine is delicious and saves one an hour of making artisinal stoneground peanut butter.

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I live within walking distance of Les Trois Bassins, three waterfall basins each with their own advantages. The bottommost is hardest to reach and therefore less populated. There are enormous tree roots hugging the side of the cliff that are fun to climb up and jump from. The middle basin is the most beautiful. See for yourself.

Finally, the uppermost basin has a really amazing cliff jumping spot. Also within walking distance are a handful of fresh fruit and vegetable vendors, snack bars that serve cheap, delicious Créole food, and amazing boulangeries with fresh bread that you can sprint home with.

Jumping

One month in, so far so good. Lots of not teaching (apparently we’re contracted for 30 weeks and, due to unbearably hot summers [by French standards], only work during 20 of them), running, reading, passing out in the sand next to large HELP! signs with empty bottles of rum in-hand. My hair is now long enough to secure myself from falling while gathering coconuts high up in the palm trees and I’ve become adept at starting matchless fires to flail-dance sinewy, tanned, bare-handed-fish-catching limbs around naked.

The Man With Flowers

Today I chose to go to St. Denis, the capitol of Reunion Island, to go to a giant department store called Carrefour to buy a pair of flip flops, a garbage can, and other essentials you feel guilty spending your euros on when converting that number to pain au chocolat or some other delicious French pastry. “That’ll be 12 pain aux raisins, please.” Carrefours are everywhere in France, as ubiquitous as Walmart in the United States. To my knowledge there’s only one here, in St. Denis, and as I found out, a two-hour bus ride (on Sundays) from St. Gilles-les-Bains where I’m staying.

What I learned from living in France is that you don’t necessarily need to know exactly where you’re going before setting out. The world is your Siri. If there is one stereotype I have found to be very true about the French, it’s that when it comes to giving directions, the moment you ask is the moment you become family. Unless the person you’re asking flat out doesn’t know or is in a rush, they will walk you there or give you more precise directions than Google Maps, making sure you understand. It’s a lot easier than memorizing directions, bus transfers, and store hours.

Not knowing where in St. Denis Carrefour was located, I asked the bus driver who directed me towards the bus stop I needed to catch the 5 from. I walked from the bus terminal along the ocean (where I took the photo at the header of this website), beneath a bridge and up the street. After arriving in general proximity of the stop, I approached a man walking towards me to confirm that I was in the right place.

“I’m not exactly sure which bus, but Carrefour is quite a ways away” he said. If I wanted to accompany him to the market so that he could pick up some roses, he told me that he would drive me there. “Sure,” I said. “That’d be very nice.”

I accompanied him to the market and ate a banana while he picked out his flowers. As we sat down in the car, I asked if they were for his spouse, and he said yes. I presumed that it was his anniversary or he was engaged, marrying later in life.

“Félicitations!” I congratulated him, hearing only the words “13th of July.” That must be the date he asked her to marry him, and he buys her roses from the market on a regular basis. His response was emotionless, and as he continued talking, I recognized another word, tombe, and finally pieced together what had actually happened: his wife had passed away three months ago. The roses he bought were to be placed at her headstone.

I didn’t know what to say. Overcome with embarrassment and ashamed at my mistake, “I’m sorry,” came out unnaturally. Nonetheless, he accepted my apology, and we continued talking. I asked how he was doing, if he was still grieving. “Yes, he said. “Forever.”

In fifteen minutes, a stranger told me the hardest thing he has ever had to deal with. Imagine though, walking around with so much grief everyday and not having someone to talk to. Sometimes, the easiest people to open up to are those whom you only meet once. Sometimes the best ear is a stranger you meet on the street, someone sitting next to you at the bar.

He was 60-years-old with four kids, born on Reunion Island, a widower, on his way to drop roses off at his wife’s grave. Myself, 24, unmarried, childless, oblivious to many things, in search of a beach towel and yeast. We didn’t meet at a bar, but somehow we found ourselves in the same car on the way to a giant department store.

When I left him in the parking lot, I thanked him and told him that he would find his way onto this blog. We shook hands as he held my gaze. I could see it in his eyes. Something. Appreciation, maybe.

 

 

Little Victories

The challenges of moving to a foreign country leave one feeling like a child. Your tongue fumbles over the simplest words, “C’est Jean-Mick qui va m’amener au lycée aujourd’hui!” (Jean-Mick is bringing me to the high school today). Carless and without so much as a bike, you do your best to familiarize yourself with public transportation, learning quickly that there are actually two bus companies, national and local, for an island only 30 miles at its widest point, and that the man giving applause next to you isn’t senile but wants to get off at the next stop. Your body takes a while to adjust to the time difference causing you to wake up at 3am every night to use the bathroom and to fall asleep around 9:30pm (like a child) and wake up at 6am. Eventually, however, you become smart from the challenges, you adjust, and slowly but surely, reclaim your adulthood.

So far, the little victories have included learning to sew a button on the waistline of my pants, finding the cheapest 1L container of lait soja (soy milk) in town, coming to understand the values of a rice cooker with a streaming tray, and finally, making peanut butter for the first time.

***

I had one hour of cours (class) yesterday at 4:30pm, after which I came home and removed my sheets from the balcony I left to dry. I went running to a beach called Ermitage a little more than a mile away, afterwards washing myself in our tub equipped with a tiny, trickling hose that you just get yourself wet with before running soap over your body and rinsing yourself off; it’s essentially the same as washing in a big sink. I prepared steamed vegetables with rice for dinner accompanied by half a baguette muliticéréales for 1,20 euros from the boulangerie on the corner.

After dinner, I huddled over a large glass bowl shelling an enormous bag of peanuts for half an hour. I could feel the skin on my thumbs and forefingers becoming raw as I fished out the tiny jewels from their hard little cases. After finishing, I dumped the bowl into a blender, added a little bit of salt, sugar, and oil. Done. Peanut butter! Thank you, wikipages. Making peanut butter was much easier than I would have imagined, but it left me feeling empowered nonetheless, if only to a small degree.

At the end of the day, I’m finding that the quickest way to adjust is to keep those small accomplishments in mind – getting “va m’amener” (vah-mah-muh-nay) down, catching the bus on time (and getting off where I need to), finally learning how hard it is to sew on a button. I’ll keep you posted when I make my first successful loaf of bread using the ingredients here. Everything is different by the way: the flour is milled differently and the yeast is a mystery. Fifth time’s the charm, right? I have enough flour bricks at the moment to stop every door in our apartment.

Finally, a very happy birthday to the most interesting guy I know, Matt “Hairball” Harrison. You should all message him “Happy Birthday” for the hell of it and then become friends or something :)

Cheers!

I’m a Bailer

I’ve been asking myself often why I’m here, on Reunion Island of all places. In fact, the reason I chose to come to this island instead of the others, or France for that matter, was because of 2 pages in my 2nd year of French classes at Concordia College. One of those two pages was occupied entirely by a picture of a typical surfer, tanned with long golden hair and the name of the island emblazoned in the wave: La Réunion. The second page was a 1-page description of what one can do on the island. It was a number of years ago, but I remember well that the passage spoke of the beautiful hiking trails, that it was a paradise for rock climbers, runners, and mountain biking enthusiasts. So, when I was writing down my top three choices of where to be sent, I chose Réunion as my first.

Beforehand, I memorized only the basic facts on Wikipedia to answer the questions that people would ask me about the island: Where is it located? What is the population? Which religions are practiced? How many people are there and of what ethnicity? As excited as I was to go to the island, I was just as reluctant to leave Minneapolis.

Before today, my first day of class, I had heard so many friends talk about their experience with TAPIF and teaching that I put the idea of actually teaching up on a shelf, not to be considered until last night at 10pm as I was planning my first lesson plan. And as easy as my assignment was – making a presentation for my classes to explain who I am, where I come from, what I like to do, etc. I sat in my apartment hating every minute of planning that presentation.

Perhaps it was because it wasn’t challenging, because it felt like busy work, because it was a shock to even consider that I would actually be teaching something to someone else, but I felt so low. Enfermé, coincé, like there were brick walls closing in on both sides and the situation felt inconceivably hopeful. After I finished preparing a presentation to last an hour or so, I took out the journal from my nightstand and wrote every concern that I had to better fall asleep.

Why am I here? Can I really do this, be a good teacher that is? Why didn’t I stay in Minneapolis where my friends are, where I can continue to do something I know how to do and occupy the space that feels most secure. I miss the coffee shops, hell, I miss the cold even!… And on it went until both my hand and head were tired.

***

I woke at 6:30am to catch a ride with one of the English professors. He dropped me off at the middle school 40 minutes before I was to go to class and present. I redid my slides, overlooked my notes, and met some of the other professors in the teachers lounge. Anne found me, the professor I would be with, and we walked together to her first class, my first class.

She had me stand in front of the class as they asked me questions from the sheet that they were given. They were extremely friendly and sweet, great at listening, overall good students. I felt completely at ease the moment I began talking. In eighth grade I distinctly remember winging a presentation on a book called Running With the Buffaloes and received an A. It all felt completely natural, and that’s how my first class went. At the end, after asking me what I like to listen to, I played a song by Girl Talk from Feed the Animals, an album that I have been listening to since leaving Minneapolis. They loved it.

My second class went exactly the same way, easy, natural. The final two were no different.

***

Even at the airport I was still considering bailing. The thought had popped into my head multiple times a day until last week when I finally handed over the majority of my savings to my landlord for first months rent and a security deposit. The little remaining money I had went into a bank account, somewhere around 230 euros. Even if I wanted to leave I couldn’t afford the plane ticket home.

Honestly, I strongly feel that that is why I am here, to quit the habit of bailing. I’m a great bailer. It comes so naturally to me to quit something, a relationship even, when things aren’t easy anymore. I don’t know why, but that’s how I have been since my first year of college. Perhaps its because of all the responsibilities in high school I felt I had to take on: AP classes, working a part-time job, doing three sports a year. Perhaps it’s because I was always pretty carré, square, never drinking in high school or experimenting with drugs, etc.  When I entered college I had so much liberty to act as I pleased, I ended up skipping a lot of classes, getting poor grades adopting a lot of unhealthy habits.

I have gotten better in a lot of areas, but still, bailer. I bailed a week before I said I would stay when I worked on a ranch in Montana a few years ago. I nearly left French camp after two weeks because I felt uncomfortable trying to be a teacher. If it weren’t for a good friend of mine, there is no way I would have stayed. I have bailed on relationships early on because I tend to overthink them, I often bail on pursuing things with my life that might be a little difficult: graduate school for example, pursuing a career in writing. There was a video from Vimeo I posted on here once entitled The Scared is Scared, the message continues to say, … of all the things you like. Why is it that we’re often scared to pursue what we want?

I am not saying that being here is necessarily something that I really want, nor am I someone who always looks for a reason to explain why something happens. I do however believe that I am here, on Reunion Island for these next seven months, to quit my habit of bailing. I have no choice but to stick with this program and see where I find myself at the end.

Cheers.

End of Day 4 – Le Port et une coucher du soleil

A Go Pro camera would have been nice today. I took Nathalie’s mountain bike for a ride through the ravine that they had shown me this morning. There are mango trees all around in a park near the end of the descent, and as you make your way among the fallen, green and yellow mangoes, there are dirt jumps that people have created to go off of.

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The little one was nice to warm up on. Not necessarily ready, however, mentally or physically on Nathalie’s  unstable VTT (vélo tout terrain, bike all-terrain), I decided to go off the larger one, perhaps two-feet tall. The front fork has shocks making it fit for more forgiving landings on uneven surfaces. The disadvantage however is that you waste more energy pedaling. As I approached the jump, fear regulated my speed. I was pedaling faster than a run but slower than a sprint. I flew off the jump, hitting my ass hard on the seat as I came down, forcing the seat post to collapse. Ha! I thought. Somehow I didn’t fall and still have the ability to have a child, apparently just above natural selection’s cutoff point.

In Réunion they actually have painted bike lanes, which came as a large surprise to me. The upside, however, is that their bike lanes sometimes shrink to nothing, and they also run parallel on the sides of their highways. After descending from la ravine, I took the bike lane running parallel to l’Océan Indien and biked to the next city, Le Port, meaning what it looks like in English. It’s named after the one of the island’s big harbors, maybe it’s largest. I’m not sure. Le Port is also the island’s industrialized area where they manufacture Danone yaourt (Danon yogurt). It turns out that Le Port is also home to the island’s most impoverished.

There is poverty in the US, without a doubt, but I have never before seen it in the form of shacks with tin roofs. The farther I biked away from the highway, the more impoverished the area became. My comment last night about segregation not being a thing here isn’t true, apparently. I was told later by Nathalie that immigrants from Madagascar, Les Malgaches, do not often succeed à La Réunion.  The same was the case for the Sudanese population living in Fargo, ND. I was told by a Sudanese priest in the area, Jacob, a while back that the parents of Sudanese students are unable to help their children with their homework nor learn English. The result is that Sudanese children then grow up less educated and subsequently qualify for jobs lowest on the economic ladder. The cycle repeats itself. I imagine the same is for most, if not all, immigrant situations.

***

I stand out on the island, somehow. I’m not sure exactly why that is because there are plenty of Asian immigrants as well. The clothes I’m wearing aren’t imprinted with a flying eagle emblazoned by an American flag. As I made my way through Le Port, I got quite a few looks from people, some curious, others challenging. I turned around after that happened at the nearest roundabout and made my way back to La Possession where I found my way to the beach.

The beach is composed of rocks rounded by the waves. There is a tunnel that goes under the main highway, a tube that gets so dark in the middle passing through that you can’t see anything directly in front of you, but you’re still able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As such, you feel as if you’re floating towards the light.

I stood there at the shore’s edge, touching the ocean for the first time, letting the waves crash upon the rocks and climb up my legs, again and again. It’s so easy to lose yourself in something natural and changing. Everything became quiet, and I took note of the salt drying on my shins. I looked out across the ocean and began to think about one’s perception of distance.

As far as I could see there was nothing but open water. Less than 100 miles surely was all I was seeing. Looking north there would be nothing for thousands of miles until Les Seychelles. Nine hours in the future, my friends back home would be seeing the same sunset that I was watching. What happened over the past three days can be equated to the same game that everyone plays when you’re younger. Someone fetches a cardboard box, everyone climbs inside, and when you get out,  you’ve traveled through time to another world.

I entered a plane. Closed my eyes, and before I knew it, I was walking around Iceland where the language sounds made-up, and my experience of Iceland was extraordinary while people were going about their daily lives, everything ordinary for them. I was ecstatic to be riding the bus to Reykjavik, to drink a coffee in a coffee shop called Kaffitar, to be skateboarding around the city and taking pictures of buildings completely banal to people who live there.

There was a shovel near the sauna next to the hot tub at the A-10 Deluxe Bed and Breakfast. I noticed that the metal part of the shovel that connects to the wooden shaft is made up of two pieces bolted together. When I think of a shovel in the United States, there is only one piece of metal that attaches to the shaft. The mugs for hot liquids were maybe 3/4 the size of those in the United States.

When I went to France, the light switches are square-shaped. Additionally, I have never seen a lamp in France where you switch it off near the lightbulb. There is always a tiny, finger-sized switch somewhere along the cord that plugs into a wall plug with two, perfectly circular holes.

In Réunion, after cutting my foot, I was given a sheet of bandaids the size of 10 regular-sized US bandaids sewn together. You take a scissors and cut the size bandaid that you need. It saves on packaging. Nathalie doesn’t use an electric tea kettle, not because electricity is too expensive or because she’s more partial to stove kettles, but because it wastes less energy. Composting and recycling are mandatory on Réunion. People who work from the city check your compost and recycling to make sure that you’re doing it properly.

Tiny differences. Tiny differences between places that make you feel so happy and excited it barely makes sense. But at the same time it does, too.

Last year in Minneapolis was a great year for many reasons, I met a lot of exceptional people, ate delicious food, explored Minneapolis. I’m more than happy to be here, however. What an eye-opening experience so far.

Day 4 – Ma famille d’accueil

By the hour, I’m falling more in-love with my professor’s family and the island. This morning, after a relaxing breakfast on their porch of ananas (pineapple), brioche, and yaourt (yogurt), Nathalie, Acadie, Anton (with the skate) and I left for la ravine. I told them that I was interested in running, and they informed me that trail running is very popular here. I nearly followed Acadie’s lead and pooped on the sidewalk when they told me!

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They took me to an entrance to la ravine near their house, and we walked straight into les montagnes. As we made our way up the mountain, we saw all sorts of runners, even those sporting Ultimate Direction hydration packs, an American ultra-distance running company famous for theirs. What a small world. Too bad I had to leave mine at home!

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Anton et Acadie au Chemin Latinier

 

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Anton et le skate
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Nathalie et Anton
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Un lézard

They taught me the names of plants and wildlife, random words today like poteau électronique (telephone pole), cue de sac or une impasse (a dead-end), bouilloire (kettle), and boire un coup (have a drink, slang). I quizzed Anton for his English test tomorrow on the days of the week during lunch. Everytime I asked Nathalie or Anton on how to say something in English, they would turn the question around on me.

2 boules de glace (chocolat-menthe, café)

After our hike through the ravine, where we could see the entire city of La Possession and l’Océan Indien, we drove to St. Gilles-les-Bains, just past St. Paul where I will be teaching at Collège Plateau Caillou et Lycée Hôtelier La Renaissance. Three Spaniards, one male, two female, as well as a french girl will be sharing the flat with me if I decide to live there. It’s a minute walk to the ocean, and according to Jean-Mick, another English professor at Lycée Hôtelier La Renaissance (LHR), St. Gille is “the most happening part of the island.”

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La route à St. Gilles-les-Bains de la Possession (The road to St. Gilles from La Possession)

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My potential flatmates were very nice, but I worry that they would only want to speak English and refer to me in terms of cultural stereotypes. The Spanish guy kept telling me that we would be making “a lot of party.” I have some options, though. Nathalie offered to let me rent out her studio and to live with the family for a small price, and another couple living in St. Paul has offered to let me live with them for free in exchange for English lessons.

I love this family a lot, and I could commute to school with Nathalie everyday. St. Gilles is full of other assistants which could also be fun. In my complex alone there must be at least 8 or so living there. A few other assistants from the US have also written on our group page that they’ll be living there as well.

Right now I’m watching the Ryder Cup, a US golf tournament I had no idea existed. I’m learning about my own country 10,0005 miles away from home! Go figure. Tomorrow I’ll be going for a run in the mountains. There is a 175km race that traverses the island diagonally called Le Grand Raid – Diagonale des Fous in octobre that passes right by Nathalie’s residence.

À tout à l’heure! (see ya later!)

La Réunion: Made It!

September 28 – 2:34am @ La Possession

She told me that while she was waiting for me in the crowd, she was playing a game with those around her of Guess the Head of an American. As she was thinking in her head, no, no, not that one, no, is when I approached her and took her by surprise. It became a story that she told all of the people from her quartier (neighborhood) all night.

That scenario tells you a lot about her personality already – involving, vibrant. Her name is Nathalie, and she is one of the English professors at Lycée Hotelier La Renaissance. When you meet her, she’ll make you think that it’s an island of 800.000 inhabitants where everyone knows everyone. “He is a very good golfer,” she told me after bumping into another person that she knew at the airport.

As we continued towards her car, Nathalie asked me if I liked golfing. Her family – her husband Pierrot and her 11-year-old son Anton – are  avid golf players. Tomorrow, Pierrot is going to play in a tournament. Aside from golf, she loves to play tennis and do a form of dance that involves stretching. Anton loves golf, swimming, and tennis as well. He was very interested as well by my skate.

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The drive to their house from St. Denis, the capital, made me say, “Oh my god,” three or four times. It was raining which, I was told, is a rare occurrence on the western half of the island. Fog shrouded the green mountaintops a mere mile away from view. As we drove west on the main road, we hugged the base of enormous vertical cliffs with massive sheets of chain-link preventing the rocks from disrupting traffic. Completely vertical cliffside to our left, the Indian Ocean to our right.

As we went through the gate to their residence, I was attacked by their dog Acadie who is quite serious about being pet, clawing your arms if you stop. There, I met Anton who could easily have had a modeling career for a clothing line – tan skinned, black-haired, beautiful smile. Nathalie’s husband, Pierrot, was very fit, walking around later that day shirtless, a bit quieter, but just as nice.

Their house is a small paradise with a small swimming pool, a lawn fit to putt on, palm trees and exotic flowers, and more flowers and cacti hugging the rim of their patio. The house has an open floor plan, the main entertainment room through the front door. All rooms branch off from their. Anton has a side entrance to his bedroom that is a 4-foot-tall, and cave-like, cut straight into the concrete with little doors on wheels that slide over the entrance.

Water from the pool is pumped to small tubes in the roof to heat the water and then is cycled back into the pool.

A small green gecko disappeared behind a dresser as I walked into the studio apartment on the second floor. I’ll be staying with them until I move into an apartment on the 1st of octobre in St. Gilles-les-Bains. It is fully-equipped with a kitchen, dining area, full-size bed, and bathroom with a waterfall shower head. The windows remain open all the time. At night you stick a prise (preez) in an outlet to keep mosquitoes away from you.

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Nathalie took Anton to an open tennis day at a dirt court just down the road while I unpacked my things, took a shower, and napped for a couple more hours.

For dinner, I attended a neighborhood gathering at the community building just near the tennis courts. 20 people or so showed up for the potluck they had planned earlier that day during open tennis. A mixture of z’oreilles (zor-ay) and des créoles showed up. Z’oreilles is a slang term meaning ears for French inhabitants of the island. “They’re called les oreilles because when the French first came here, they couldn’t understand a word of creole. They were always pointing to their ears and asking the natives to repeat what they were saying,” Nathalie informed me.

What’s fascinating about the island as well as our gathering is that races are completely mixed on the island. Their is no segregation among skin colors like there often is in the US. People come from all over the world to live on this island, mainly immigrants from Africa, India, and China. The food is reflective of all the cultures.

For dinner, two women had prepared for everyone an array of differences salsas, one mild with finally chopped green mango and onions, another the same but with peppers added, and also a fresh tomato salsa. There was steamed rice, sausages and some of the most amazing chicken I have ever tasted. I drank two glasses of red wine, aloe vera juice, and coca (coca-cola). “Tout le monde aime le coca (Everybody likes coke)” said one of the neighbors while pouring himself a glass.

I could already tell after a couple of hours that the overall personality of the island was much more laid-back than France. It could be from being exposed to so much sunlight all year round. It could be the fact that they were all living in paradise and a small part of the world where race meant only one’s cultural offerings.

Everything is so beautiful and perfect here that it honestly scares me. It feels like the setting of a dystopian novel where the main character becomes slowly aware of all the imperfections in the vase. I don’t think this is one of those situations, though. It’s just really really good.

Day 3 – En route to La Réunion – 4:40am

The screen in front of me says that our plane is flying straight over open ocean between Kenya and Reunion island. Before I fell asleep we were passing over Cairo, and as we ate dinner, I watched the plane fly the length of Italy straight to the heel. Looking down out my window, I watched the eastern edge of tItaly pass by, the coastline outlined by city lights.

This is the farthest away from Minneapolis I’ve ever been since leaving Seoul, South Korea three months after being born. I keep thinking of Samwise Gamgee when he stops in the middle of a cornfield and says, “If I take one more step, Mr. Frodo, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” The gravity of leaving The Shire, his home, meant uprooting his sense of place.

My junior year I was fortunate enough to be able to visit eastern Kentucky to learn more about their attachment to a land being destroyed by mountain top removal. Aside from the environmental impacts of dynamiting mountains thousands of years old, we were able to learn about the effect it had on the communities within close proximity of the explosions. Many are not leaving the area despite the associated health risks from contaminated drinking water and air and noise pollution. Spending a couple of hours in Appalachian country will make you understand. Even the most stalwart of city-lovers would feel an attachment to its ecologically-rich mountains.

My sense of place is constantly changing with every experience away from home. For me it began small. First there was freshman year at the University of Minnesota, a mere 30 miles from the spot on Lake Minnetonka where I grew up. Then there was the move to Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, a 4-hour drive northwest to the border where the Red River separates Minnesota and North Dakota. The following summer there was a short three-week stint in Ashland, WI at Northland College. There, I learned how to build a matchless fire and sanitize water while living outside for ten days. The summer of 2012 I got to live in a small cabin in Montana, working on a ranch with my good friend, John. After that I had my first taste of Europe during a semester in Tours, France and holidays in Germany. Most recently I took a month-long road trip on my motorcycle from Minneapolis to Seattle and back.

Overtime your ability to be comfortable away from home gets honed. You learn simple things first, like how to grocery shop for yourself and navigate the city’s buses. That evolves into learning how to pack for a big trip, how to budget your money while traveling, and navigating in places where English isn’t the first language. Specific things I learned in France are to use a bathroom whenever there is a free one available, how to find a hostel, to be unafraid to ask for directions. You also learn what you need to do to keep yourself grounded while everything around you is foreign. Running and the ability to remove myself from situations through writing help to keep my feet planted, and as I’ve said a many times, coffee does wonders for my spirits.

Overtime, I feel as if I have gotten better at traveling and figuring out what gives me the strongest sense of place. You mentally sort through what it is for yourself, paring it down until so it’s travel-sized. Despite all of what I have just said, about feeling better about all of this, looking at the monitor in front of me telling me where I am has reverted me back 4 years to when I was moving out for the first time.

Looking out my window, I sit transfixed with excitement, fear, and a strong sense of wonder. I watch the stars slowly being pushed out and up by the rising sun like a play about to start. An ominous layering of shades of orange, purple and blue move up while a field of clouds below comes into focus.

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I can’t help but question whether or not I’ll like living here, if I’ll make a mistake and catch malaria, what my students will be like, what Minneapolis will be like when I come back. That may be one of the most loaded aspects of travel, accepting that things will be different when you get back – your street, your home, your friends and family, yourself.

Day 3 – The first breath of Paris…

Came as I emerged from the M4 line at the Simplon stop an hour or so after collecting my bags. I felt like a pregnant mole traveling in the metro, 70lbs of luggage weighing me down, blind to the morning light as I emerged on the sidewalk. I’m back, I thought taking in a deep breath of the city. I stood at the top of the steps feeling dreamy-eyed and nostalgic while people hurried past. Le bon pain, le vin, tout ça m’a beaucoup manqué… 

I was there to meet my friend Andrew from Georgia and his girlfriend Maria from Italy. We had all met two years ago while studying abroad in Tours, France, and since then, Andrew has remained in the country, teaching in La Rochelle the year before through the same program that I am enrolled in, TAPIF (Teaching Abroad Program in France). Currently, the two of them share a quaint apartment together while attending La Sorbonne and working odd jobs around the city.

As Andrew said, I must have come up the stairs while he was heading down towards the metro because we completely missed one another. I made my way to their apartment at 41 Boulevard Ornano and set my belongings just outside the door. After borrowing a kind woman’s phone coming out of the complex and involving another at the market who offered her pen to us, I saw Maria making her way towards me from the other end of the sidewalk.

“Je suis très très contente de te voir!” Maria said while embracing me in a hug. She was radiating a happiness and exuding an energy paralleling how it felt to be back in France. Wow, how strange it is to see someone you haven’t seen in two years, to revisit a place that feels exactly the way you left it.

I placed my things in their apartment, its walls lined with pictures in crayon that her younger brother had drawn for her. Aside from the main room where their bed was, their was a tiny, two-burner stove, a small table with an electric kettle, and a beautiful balcony overlooking the street.

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As we met Andrew on the sidewalk, I embraced him in a hug. It felt so nice to see him again, one of the closest friends that I made during our semester abroad. We walked to a café where I was able to hear Maria negotiate with the bartender to allow us to bring in food from outside, his selection of baked goods thin.

We walked to a boulangerie next door where I ordered a pain aux raisins and took it back to the café for a café au lait while Andrew drank an espresso. I had never spent a lot of time talking to the two of them together in-person before, and two years ago their relationship was just beginning. My interaction with them as a couple of two years was quite a bit different than anything I had before experienced. It was cute to hear Maria tell Andrew to go grocery shopping so that he could make me lunch when I woke up from my nap, and to be sure to eat something for breakfast.

Maria, reluctant to have to go to work, voiced frequently during our conversation how much she would like stay, that we should come visit her during work, and that she would get off early if she could. Andrew gently pulled her hair in to her face telling her that she needed to be sick today so that she could stay with us.

After a kiss on the cheek from Andrew and Maria and I did la bise, she left reluctantly for work, waving goodbye through the window until she was out of sight. Andrew and I talked about our lives since we last spoke, reminiscing about our time in Tours, if we had heard anything from our other friends from Germany. After my eyes couldn’t focus any longer from exhaustion, we retreated to the apartment where I passed out for a few hours.

When I awoke, Andrew came back having purchased some chicken after I commented on the smell on our way back to his apartment. He prepared a simple but delicious meal of rice, lettuce, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and grape juice that we shared before we left for the train station.

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Maria got off work and made her way immediately to La Gare du Nord, right before my train pulled up to take me to Orly Sud for my flight. One last hug from the two of them, she handed me a bag containing a container of pasta and an orange drink before I boarded the overcrowded train.

The space I occupied was the smallest anyone could have taken up with the luggage I had. I piled the two bags on top of one another in the corner using the handrail next to the door to keep them in place while I stood as small as possible, elbow-to-elbow with all the Parisians. It was so crowded people nearly fought their way in and out of the train during the brief time that the doors were open.

Having missed the first train due to an extended goodbye, I had two hours from the time I left the platform at La Gare du Nord before my plane took off for La Réunion. Oh my god! I’m going to miss my flight! As I stood in my space near the door, I began to panic. I couldn’t miss that flight! It was $900 and it would bankrupt me to have to buy another one-way ticket from Paris to the island.

Parisians fit their stereotypes. They’re polite but rude, everyone parenting each other and informing everyone else how to behave. Most are extremely well-dressed, neat, composed, and soft-spoken in public settings. They look good doing just about anything, except dancing. As I stood in that train I had to say to myself, do what you gotta do to make that flight.

As the doors opened for the Antony stop, I threw myself and my bags out the door, heaved the large backpack onto my shoulders, and moved as quickly as I could to the train leaving for Orly. Shit! My ticket! It was in my back pocket. I awkwardly pulled out my wallet, grabbed the tiny ticket to allow myself through the gate, dropped it on the ground, bent over nearly tipping, and squeezed myself through to the edge of another completely full train. As I paced back and forth nervously from one stuffed doorway to another, I asked desperately if there was any more room.

“I am sorry, but it is impossible to pass,” a woman told me. Luckily another pulled up two minutes after, but I looked down at my watch as it read 4:30pm. Flight registration closed at 5.

Looking at the map of the terminals, Orly Ouest et Orly Sud, I pulled out the sleeve containing my flight information within my laptop case within the laptop sleeve in my backpack beneath a cardigan and a pair of shoes in my backpack. Orly Sud it read.

Again, as I saw the platform approaching from a distance, I put my backpack on and prepared myself the same way I did waiting in the starting blocks for the 400m event. I ran to the escalators awkwardly like a 5-year-old running with an oversized backpack taking the steps as fast as I could, nearly falling down the escalator. Rounding the corner, my eyes searched frantically for Corsair. All of the dividers were up, so I zigzagged ten times back and forth to cover the length of a hallway to get my boarding pass and check my bag.

“Another two minutes, Monsieur, and you would have missed your flight! . . . Okay, here is your boarding pass, you must run!” 45lbs lighter, I felt like I was flying. I stood in line for 10 minutes through security as families of French people somehow more pressed for time than myself cut to the front. I’m fine at this point, I thought to myself. I drank the Orangina that I had shoved in my bag, thinking sadly at the container of pasta that got left behind on the train, not because I was that hungry, but because it was so thoughtful of Maria to bring it for me.

As I walked towards my gate, I stopped in a bathroom to get stumped by the hand drying system they had going on. It was a weird stall with a vent above, but for the life of me, I could not figure out where the sensors were to detect my wet hands. Confounded, they dried in the time it took before I gave up.

“B, B, B.” I walked the length of the hallway looking for A12, but there were no A gates to be found. “Excusez-moi, Monsieur, mais je cherche A12,”  I said to a man with a badge. He looked at my ticket and laughed, not in a polite way, but in a what-a-complete-idiot sort of way. “Come wis me,” he told me. If the words had been “Your backpack is really dumb,” the tone would have been exactly the same.

We walked back through security and to hallway A (Voilà!), but not before stopping to tell his friend about my mistake. He literally stopped to make fun of me to his friend, and then another time as we reached hall A. I’m going to be fucking late! I wanted to scream in frustration. I was clearly the best part of his day.

Long story short, I was late because that Frenchman was evil and I ended up missing my flight. I’ve bought a one-way ticket to Minneapolis, and I’m writing to you from Charles de Gaulle.

The End

Just kidding. I made my flight. All is well! I’m in the best of spirits sitting here a row behind the nose of the plane, eating a complimentary 3-course meal with white wine.

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Goodbye, Paris! So long asshole security guy! See you soon, Andrew and Maria. I’m sorry about the pasta. There was no time!

Next stop: Reunion Island

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Day 3 – Currently en route to Charles de Gaulle, Paris

Lost in writing the blog post for day 2, I looked up from my computer to find that it was already 10pm. Worried that I would somehow miss my 1:00am flight to Charles de Gaulle, I quickly gathered my things, did a quick check of the room to see if I had left anything behind, and made my way to the front desk to meet Magnus.

The first thing that Magnus said to me was, “I like your skateboard,” after his mother greeted me at the door of the A-10 Deluxe Bed and Breakfast. After returning from the day’s excursion to Reykjavik, I talked to Magnus more at length and found out that he has spent quite a bit of time living abroad, not only in the US, but Denmark as well. Only 30, he has lived in New York for four years and Denver for a few months.

“There are so many temptations,” referring to New York. “You’re always worrying about money. It’s very expensive living there. I had some relationships as well, but it’s NY and nothing lasts long. Furthermore, there are also a lot of homeless people that you become indifferent to in order to function. Overtime, the stress and the subsequent numbing of your emotions changes you as a person. I like the mountains of Denver more.”

Made sense. He told me that he owned a small travel business, a website that he had set up for people to go on tours in Iceland. “It’s very low-maintenance. When someone books a tour, a portion of that money goes to me. It’s really nice when I’m traveling and running low on money and I check my bank account and realize that someone has booked a tour.” That is a good deal, I thought to myself.

After we talked, he offered to turn on the hot tub for me which I greatly appreciated later. I hadn’t expected Iceland to be as cold as it was, nor did I plan on it raining as much as it had. It has been nice for reading and writing. You can’t really have the same peace of mind staying inside and relaxing when it’s really nice out.

He offered to drive me back to the airport later that night, but when I rang the bell at the front desk around 10pm, he, nor anyone else working at the hotel was anywhere to be found. Worried, I left my room key in the door as I had seen others do and stepped out into the night.

Slightly worried that I would be late for my flight, I stuck out my thumb and continued to make my way down Adalgata St. The glow-and-the-dark penny board beneath my feet shown brilliantly. I couldn’t tell if having a skateboard made me look more like a bum, so I did my best to look put together and conceal it when cars approached.

Less than ten minutes after starting, a car coming from the opposite direction that I had pegged as a no-go stopped half a block down the road and reversed quickly towards. His name was Alexis, and he worked at the airport 15 days a month making, more than people who work full-time for minimum wage. It turns out that we were the same age, and it surprised me when he said that he had two kids, a boy and a girl both less than a year-old each. They also had different mothers. How opposite our lives were, I thought.

I thanked him as he pulled into the drop-off area at Keflavik. “I wasn’t going to let you walk, he said to me.” Before the car door closed, I told him that I had this blog and I would be writing about him. “I’ll be writing about everyone I meet, you too for giving me a lift!” He smiled and said, “Do you know about tripadvisor? You should write about me on there!”

A red eatery and a blue one faced each other in Keflavik’s waiting area with all of it’s tax-free shops and food establishments. I went for the red one because it reminded me of The Matrix (I later found out that the blue one was actually an expensive restaurant with a full bar). The last things I had consumed were those two cups of tea and bowl of dried corn flakes.

The two employees at the checkout must have thought I was delirious from the amount of time it took me to decide on what to eat. In my defense they had at least 20 different kinds of pre-made sandwiches. I spent $14 on one with egg, lettuce, and red peppers and a pre-packaged container of veggies and dip. I am sure that I would get used to the currency in Iceland if I were to spend a couple more days there, but it still freaks me out when I hear a number in the thousands for something as small as a coffee.

Something totally primal took over as the sandwich wrapper came off. I caught a whiff of egg (of all things) and felt greedy and indulgent, even though there was no one near me who would have cared even a little. I even felt myself feeling nervous as I left my small bounty on the table to go back through the line to get a glass of water. Oh my God is sleep crucial! I blame my thoughts and actions all on that. My moment with food reminded me of the finger-licking-Lays woman from before.

Weird things happen when you’re sleep deprived. I woke up fitfully after 20 minutes of deep sleep, jolting back to reality, my heart racing and face hot. Even now I can’t seem to catch my breath, like my body is both shutting down and going into high alert mode. How is that possible? This must be the end. And how is it that I haven’t missed a flight or lost one of the many important, extremely-hard-to-replace documents on my person? If I don’t get any sleep in the next few hours, I’ll most likely turn up on French news evading the police on foot, naked, and yelling that I’m Walter Mitty.

Iceland – Day 2

A group of middle school students visiting the cave near the A-10 Deluxe Bed and Breakfast where I was staying rapped the glass with their knuckles as I rode by. There were three or four of them looking down from the coach bus as I moved past clumsily, shifting uneasily over cracks in the pavement and small rocks. Expecting to be given the middle finger by the cool kids, instead I looked up to find them saluting me and giving me a thumbs up.

I rode on, stopping near the harbor to take a few pictures and admire the large boat on shore. Making my way aboard, I put down my penny board and jumped on top of the main cabin, climbing hand over hand to the crow’s nest. The submarine yellow rungs were ice cold from the frigid wind blowing off the northwest coast of Iceland. Up there, I could see Keflavik International 3.7km away and most of Reykjanesbaer.

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“How far away is Reykjavik?” I asked a man pumping gas. “Oh, maybe 50km or so.” “Oh my god!” I thought, planning on just walking there. Instead, he pointed me in the direction of the bank where he thought they might be able to help. A woman in her late 30’s called up the bus company for me, found the schedule, and exchanged my $20 for the exact fare. “Here,” she told me, handing me a pair of bills and a coin for my right hand and another pile for my left. “The price of the ticket can be paid for with your right. The rest is for you. The bus should be here any minute. I hope you make it.” I thanked her and made my way out just in-time to flag down the bus driver as I was rolling up to the bus stop.

Aboard were four people including the bus driver. I sat right behind him as a confused  foreigner needing some extra guidance. Across the aisle sat an older, weathered looking gentleman wearing a black trench coat, black pants, and black socks with his black sandals. “Where do you want to go in Reykjavik?” he asked me. “Anywhere, really. I don’t have any plans.” “Well you’ll want to go to the city center then. I’ll take you there.”

I listened to them talk the entire way as I looked out upon the rocky, green landscape that spanned until mountains on the southern horizon. They talked as if they knew one another, pleasantly, with few pauses and laughing at each others’ jokes. Having studied Spanish and French, I have never listened to a conversation where I couldn’t decipher a single word. Even German has enough similar sounding words to give you a vague idea of what’s being said. Icelandic is like nothing I’ve ever heard.

An hour later I was following that older man off the bus. It was raining, as it had been off and on, with intermittent periods of intensely beautiful sunlight breaking up a depressing grey. He left me near the tourist information building where I learned when I could catch a bus going back to Keflavik. A younger guy around my age with long brown hair greeted me at the tourist info desk. He recommended a hot dog stand around the corner when I asked where I could find some cheap food. “World famous! Bill Clinton ate two of them recently.” He had a a very good sense of humor. He exchanged my pocketful of coins just shy of 500 ISK for a single bill, telling me he would do so because he was in a good mood. When I asked where I could find a cup of coffee, he was sure to point out that I would then have to miss out on a hotdog.

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Nearly catatonic, I huddled over a small cup of coffee in the shop he recommended, Kaffitar. It reminded me a lot of coffee scenes in the US. They even had soy milk. Having slept from 3am-6am (US time), I was in that weird, jet-lagged, auto-pilot state, my brain slightly more awake than sleepwalking. I bought, wrote, and mailed a postcard, skated around town some more, and boarded a bus heading back to Keflavik International.

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Once at the airport, I cruised the 3.7km along down 41 back to the hotel for a glorious hot tub experience. It was outside, lightly raining, and around 50 degrees. Dinner, and food thus far, has been less than glorious – 2 cups of tea and a bowl of dried cereal. Tant pis! Can’t complain. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes that he would just go to the gardens when he was hungry and didn’t have any money for a visual feast. Iceland has more or less been doing the same for me.

Leaving for Paris in 5 hours!

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Last Moments Stateside

I woke up around 8 this morning and packed up everything strewn about the Corradis’ dining room, everything that would be accompanying me for the next seven months while living abroad. Last time I went abroad I packed as if France were the next frontier. I basically filled up a backpack with a few articles of clothing and a bunch of knives and camping gear. Naturally, living in Tours, a city an hour outside of Paris, was hardly roughing it, and I ended up purchasing a ridiculous amount of things that most people would have thought to pack. I like to think I’ve gotten better at packing to be comfortable without overdoing it. I even managed to find room for a couple bags of good coffee and an 8-cup french press. If I ever begin to miss home or feel uncomfortable, I’m sure that’ll do the job.

Luckily, I also had time to purchase a glow-in-the-dark penny board at the Mall of America before meeting my parents at Humphrey International. My flight’s inclusion of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in their movie selection is a clear indication from a higher being of what I need to do during my 19-hour layover.

While at the mall, Mary and I wandered to the restaurants on the third floor and decided upon Noodles and Company. “Hah,” she said to me after we had sat down at our table. “Last date.” Go figure! At least there was wine!

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At 5:30pm, we met my parents near the check-in area for Icelandair. The previous night they had driven to Uptown so we could have dinner together one last time. I took them down the street to Muddy Waters. Despite an array of unique entrees, it came as no surprise that my mom ordered a pepperoni pizza and my dad, the pork sandwich. “Nothing weird,” is often the only restriction on where we go to eat when they allow me to choose. Tofu is weird, I guess. That used to bug me a lot when I was younger. I think it’s funny now.

Last night as we walked from Muddy Waters to French Meadow for dessert, I watched strangers that we passed on the sidewalk smiling back at my mom. I realized that she was smiling at them as she passed, cheery to be walking outside on a perfectly cool night to get dessert with my dad and I. People really don’t smile to each other in passing in Minneapolis, so it was cute to see my mom bringing that out in the people we passed. When I was younger, I never noticed those qualities about them. I would be more focused on how annoying it was that my mom ate so slow or that they always went to the same two restaurants. Those characteristics that drove me to the point of sadistic actions directed at my pillow in frustration have become endearing.

After realizing my toothpaste couldn’t be taken in my carry-on, they immediately took me to the convenience store and bought toothpaste for me and asked multiple times if there was anything else I needed. Their eagerness to help, from purchasing toothpaste to insisting on taking $40 for “peace-of-mind” are just reminders of how much they care. I’m sure they would have bought one of everything had I asked.

Mary and had a drawn out goodbye the last fifteen or so minutes before I finally went all the way through security. An older woman with a family-size bag of barbecued Lays was sitting a couple seats down from us, eyeing Mary and I while we hugged. She was mechanically licking all of her fingers. It was much the same way I have experienced walking upon an unsuspecting squirrel eating in the park. Shifty, territorial glances, quick rapid movements. It was in such disharmony with what we were doing that I laughed to myself. I guess we were both having moments, though, and for all I know, we were disrupting her.

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22 minutes until we land in Reykjavik, and my ears are popping as we descend. If you’re reading this, that’s really great, and it is appreciated. More to come – I’ll stay busy writing as everything unfolds. Cheers from somewhere over the Atlantic!

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Chicago

9:42am – La Colombe Torrefaction

Arriving two nights ago via a $20 plane ticket, I had just enough time to grab potato-gnocchi to-go from a place in Logan Square called Reno. I ordered my food from an extremely grizzled bartender with long silvery-grey hair, a mangled beard, and a lifetime of tattoos up and down keg-hauling arms.

Half a minute after receiving the menu, he swung-fell towards me, propping his arm up on the counter, and leaned in to take my order.

“What can I get’chu, man?” he asked in the same way he moved his body – fluid yet graceless and slightly inebriated.

“Do you have any sweet tasting pizzas, like anything with barbecue sauce or pineapple?” I asked, thinking of the buffalo chicken pizza from Mesa in Uptown.

“WHAT?!” he responded, as if I had said the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. “NO!”

His response was so dramatic that it made me question my own sobriety, as if his sleepy drunk character emanated an invisible world that had engulfed me in it when he swung over.

I told him I needed some more time. After further inspection of the menu, I saw that there was a specialty pizza with beets, another with squash, and one with sweet corn. Immediately, my mind went to my days of server training and learning the importance menu knowledge.

I did not really care, though. The hugs people gave him at the bar led me to believe that his rough edges are only external.

***

The next morning I woke up at 8am to catch the Blue Line towards downtown for a 9:30am visa appointment at the French Consulate.

The CTA was stuffed with well-dressed young professionals reading from books and tablets, staring straight ahead, mentally perusing daily agendas. The atmosphere felt ambitious, as if getting ahead were the collective consciousness of the car. Chicago definitely vibrates at a higher frequency than Minneapolis.

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I stuffed my face with an onion bagel covered in peanut butter before heading up to the 37th floor, the mounting pressure in my ears paralleling the nervousness I felt for the appointment. I never felt completely comfortable that I had done everything during the time before she approved my visa. An everything-will-turn-out attitude does not really provide a procrastinator any lasting comfort. Luckily everything did turn out. Twenty minutes after walking in I was back on N. Michigan Ave heading towards the Blue Line.

After 20 cups of coffee at Reno with Kristi, a visit to Uncharted Books, a used bookstore, and running 20 laps around a small park off of Kedzie Ave, we caught a matinee showing of Boyhood, a brilliant film shot over the course of 12 years with the same cast.

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You grow up with Mason, the boy whose life story the plot is centered on. You get a sense of what it might be like to grow up with a distant but loving father and watch your mother cycle through a parade of abusive, alcoholic husbands, all while making her way through graduate school. You remember your moments of disenchantment, when you first questioned the existence of elves, feeling self-conscious about a bad haircut in middle school, realizing your parents are not perfect, and asking yourself what the point of anything is. You cannot help but lose yourself in Mason’s life as well as be taken back to your own.

Afterwards, we went to The Chicago Diner, a completely vegetarian restaurant where the names of the entrees are written as if they were not vegetarian. I had the Karma Burger, a curried sweet potato-tofu patty topped with grilled pineapple and avocado, sprouts, onions, and Chimichurri. Around 10pm we hit up an ice cream/gelato shop called Heavenly and capped off the first full day with an episode of Battlestar Galactica.

***

My feet and Ventra pass have begun a day wide open, no place to be until my departure from the Windy City around 9pm, and one last meal with my beloved friend Kristi Del Vecchio, a name more satisfying to say in its full form.

Now, I am sitting in La Colombe Torrefaction sipping on a Mexican-style brewed coffee referred to as El Murador, or Steampunk. The brew is fairly acidic, and as I stare into the coagulated hemp milk swirling in my cup, I become half-convinced that the future will be revealed to me, or at least what I might do today.

The forecast is scattered thunderstorms, and I am headed to Myopic Books then the Timbuk2 store off of Damen.

***

1:33pm – W Chicago Ave and N Orleans St. – Starbucks

According to chicago.seriouseats.com, Little Goat Diner happens to have some of the best bagels in the city. I just so happened to pass it on the way to Colombe Torrefaction. I stopped in for a toasted onion-rye bagel with honey masala cream cheese to-go. If I ever move to Chicago, I have resolved to subsist solely on bagels and coffee.

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For some reason I thought that I would be able to get into The Chicago Tribune for a tour. I imagined on the train ride over there walking in with my collared shirt and Ray-Bans to inquire about internships and writing positions available. They would sense my youthful energy and eagerness for a job, briefly ask about my writing experience, but mainly focusing on that energy, and say, “Send us a copy of your resume. We may have something for you.”

If I did not get in right away, I would just lie to the receptionist and tell him/her that I have a meeting with Jane Hirt, VP/Managing Editor for an internship interview for 12:35pm.

In actuality, I walked up to one of the three receptionists and asked for a tour. He responded that the building is not open to the public. I then said that I was looking to inquire about internships, and he told me to apply on the newspaper’s website. And that was that.

***

4:57pm

Made it to Damen after a half-hour train ride. It feels a bit bizarre being on vacation while everyone around me seems to be working. After visiting an extensive used book store, Myopic Books, I stumbled upon The Goddess and Grocer, a gourmet deli, for a kale salad with beets, olives, and golden raisins. I wish there was more to report, but I am slowly running out of things to do. Travel writers must run into this problem as well, especially when they’re not interacting with any people. Maybe I should do that, strike up a random conversation with someone…

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***

9:52pm

I am at the front of the Megabus on the second floor. Everything is visible from up here. Hopefully the NyQuil I took will ensure that that is not much. T-minus 8 hours until I see Minneapolis again.

Kristi and I had dinner at a counter-service restaurant called Native Foods, similar to The Chicago Diner in that the majority of their entrées are either vegan or vegetarian but different in that the service is more fast food. I had a mock gyro bowl with quinoa, kale, seitan, and large steamed pieces of carrots, cauliflower, and bok choy.

As always, we had a pretty good discussion about complacency, happiness, and relationships – romantic and those concerning our families. She told me she was afraid of becoming stuck somewhere, of becoming the miserly old couple that cannot stand one another in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

We shared with one another quite a bit about our families, and we both held regrets about the way we treated our mothers. Personally, i was ruthless towards my own, finding her flaws and doing my best to hone in on them and follow with coarsely ground salt. Only in the past few years have we really begun to learn how to show affection towards one another.

Another interesting point made was the similarities we could draw between our mothers and the people we are both intimate with. Andreas, Kristi’s boyfriend, shares many of the same characteristics and tendencies as her mother, and I would say that Mary, the girl whom I have been dating for a little over four months, shares the same kindness and gentleness I see in my mother. In dating these people, perhaps we were seeking a second chance to vicariously treat our parental figures the way we wished we would have treated them when we were younger.

***

10:28pm

Not very drowsy yet, but it is still only 10:28pm. A couple of long days ahead, but it feels so nice to have the visa appointment out of the way. Vaccines, squaring away student loan repayments, and deciding how I want to spend my remaining month with Mary, my friends, and family remain on the list of things still to do.

North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Miler

I received a book from a friend called Eat and Run by Scott Jurek, an American ultrarunner who is also vegan. In it, he documents his journey to becoming both a vegan and one of the top ultrarunners in the world. He also grew up just outside of Duluth, MN in the small town of Proctor. He even attended St. Scholastica.

Sick in bed a couple of weeks ago, I put down Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and began to read Eat and Run with a bit more focus. It didn’t take long to get completely absorbed. It was so interesting to read about his slow transformation from a full-on omnivore, a meat-and-potatoes upbringing, to becoming vegan. Furthermore, it was fascinating to get the perspective from someone who has experienced running multiple 100-mile-plus races – the hallucinations on trail, the mental game of running that far by oneself, the horror stories of what can go wrong physically despite the best preparation.

I want to experience that, what it feels like to run a 100 mile race. I would really like to run the oldest ultra in the country someday, The Western States 100 that Scott Jurek won 7 years in a row. The founder, Gordy Ainsleigh first ran what used to be a horse race in 1974 when his steed went lame in ’73. He wanted to see if he could do it in under 24-hours the following year and succeeded, thus setting the standard for recipients of the infamous bronze belt buckle.

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In order to qualify, you need to have run a 100K race in under 16 hours or finished a 100 mile race. In order to qualify for all the 100 mile races that I’ve seen, you need to have already finished an ultra before that, one of perhaps 50K, 50 miles, etc. and even some of those races require the completion of an ultra like the Superior 50 and 100 Mile Trail Race.

Today I signed up for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Miler. At around the same time last year, I signed up for the TC Marathon likewise on a whim, but only gave myself 5 weeks to prepare for it (the recommended training period is 3-4 months if you already have a base). Somehow it turned out alright. I ran a couple weeks of 30 miles and the the rest were in the 20s or teens. In retrospect, I did an awful job of preparing myself for the race, but admittedly I was in denial until the realization hit me the night before, and I had no idea how painful it would be! I thought I could just kind of cruise along and finish, which sort of happened, but the last three miles were probably the most painful 36 minutes of my life! Myself and two other guys were hitting even 7:40/45 splits for the first 22 miles, and then all of a sudden I was heaving and balling (internally), stumbling, and madly trying to keep myself from tipping over. Yeah.

There are 90 days until this race goes down, three solid months to train, to learn what I can eat that won’t induce vomiting or diarrhea while running, and to log some serious miles. I have a fairly good base at the moment and an ample amount of excitement to get my feet wet in the world of ultrarunning. I’ll keep writing as the weeks go on!

Ultrarunning

Today is the first day in six that I’m feeling completely healthy. During three of the past five bedridden days, I finished up Scott Jurek’s book, Eat and Run. He’s a legendary ultramarathoner and proponent of veganism. It was so inspiring reading about his journey through running, I downloaded two films on ultrarunning, In the High Country starring Anton (Tony) Krupicka, a badass, 26-year-old minimalist runner who spends hours a day roaming the mountains near Boulder and Unbreakable: The Western States 100 about the oldest ultra in the US and the 2010 race.

Anton Krupicka
Anton Krupicka

My good friend, John, and I wandered the length of Lyndale Ave during the Open Streets event, essentially a street fair that allows pedestrians to enjoy a day of riding their bicycles in the road while learning about all the cool shops and businesses in Minneapolis. We ended up going from 26th st. down to 49th then cutting west over to Lake Harriet. We went once around Harriet and connected to Lake Calhoun and then back home – a good 12-mile run.

It feels good to be back on my feet again. I decided during that movie that I wanted to experience an ultramarathon, so I’ve begun training for that. I’m not really sure how to go about it other than running as much as I can per week. Anton Krupicka runs anywhere between 150-200 miles, but I don’t think I’ll be hitting anywhere near his mark. What I learned two days ago though, something that seems so obvious, is that when you’re logging more miles, it doesn’t mean that your longer runs need to all be run at the same pace that you log 3-mile runs. You can go slower! Brilliant! And it only took 11 years of running to realize this…

We stopped at stoplights, perused garage sales, stood around and watched a BMX biker wearing what could have passed for a full-armor batman suit repeatedly launch himself over a ramp, often landing horrifically. We missed the connecting road, William Berry Pkwy, and ended up going a full time around Lake Harriet before consulting a map (FYI: The road is right near the band shell!). It was slow and relaxing. Despite some nagging joint pain in my hips and knees, I awoke the next morning feeling fine and cranked out another six miles.

Going that slowly helped me fall into an easy, almost meditative breathing rhythm, and the gentle ride didn’t agitate my sensitive stomach. There’s a ultrarunner by the name of Dean Karnazes with the definition of an iron stomach, and in the opening chapter of his book Runner Man, he meets a pizza delivery guy on the side of a highway to pick up a family-sized Hawaiian and an entire cake for dessert.

 

 

I’ve signed up for the Kids Against Hunger Fill Their Plate 5K (Lake Calhoun) the 21st of June and the Red, White, and Boom! TC Half Marathon on the 4th of July. It feels really good to be logging some more miles. I’ll continue to do so abroad while teaching English.

The planned date of departure for La Réunion is the 24th of September. I’m beginning to get really excited for that. We’ve made a Facebook group for all of the assistants from the US who will be going there. There are only 13 of us for this tiny little island of 800,000 inhabitants! I counted two volcanoes the last time I scanned Google Earth. I’ll be living on the west coast in the most happening city, Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains, according to my professeur référant at one of the schools I’ll be teaching at 6 hours a week, a hotel/culinary school for aspiring pastry chefs, cooks, and those looking to go into hotel management and hospitality. Should be a lot of fun!

La Réunion
La Réunion

It’s hard to know what to expect from this experience. To be honest, a part of me would rather stay in Minneapolis. One of my closest college friends, the one who accompanied on the 12-mile run, lives 5 blocks away, and we get to work together at the same restaurant. Another really great friend, a fellow French camp counselor, whom I met a few summers ago lives just up the road. I’m also dating a really amazing and beautiful girl. It’ll be hard to say goodbye to her, I think. On top of that, Le Petit Prince still gives me quite a bit of trouble! I hope my kids are sympathetic to my language level! What I mean to say is that things are really good right now. I’m happy and content, and nothing compares to the Twin Cities in the summertime.

Half a French press and a beautiful 70F day awaits.

Cheers!

Bench

One of my favorite coffee shops in Uptown has become The Urban Bean on Lyndale Ave S. It’s pretty plain and simple inside – black floors, counters, tables, walls, and stools. There’s a bar that you can sit along and a big wooden table near the door that’s nice for reading the paper at. The best part, however, is the bench that they’ve made available to the public in front of their shop windows. It receives, in my estimation, an inordinate amount of sunlight, as if the clouds do their best to make sure not to blot out the sun for that tiny space on the sidewalk. There are no outlets available, the Wi-Fi connection is spotty, and It’s too bright to look at your phone. What’s it good for then? Drinking a slow cup of coffee (and then pretending to keep drinking from an empty mug), watching every sort of person walk past, waiting for the bus and feeling so content that you let the next three pass by before you finally hop on.

A recent thought has been that the bench, coffee shop, and neighborhood that I have come to love over the past nine months will cease to be a place I’ll be able to frequent come October. I knew it was coming, but sending that confirmation email with my decision to accept the position has finalized the decision. I’m leaving. To teach English abroad in a department of France on an island called Réunion for a year. And as interesting as these past few months have been living in Uptown – working in the restaurant biz, living with, and becoming close to, two random Craigslist roommates, and going carless, change is always welcomed. It’s too easy to get stuck doing something. And maybe that thing is something that you enjoy doing, but I’ve found that change is always for the best.

I’m ready for a slow summer, one filled with midnight swims across Calhoun, bike rides along the river parkways, and plenty of good times hanging out with my roommates on the porch that we’re not supposed to be on, technically. Once it ends, however, perhaps there will be another perfect bench waiting on Réunion.

Impossible Bottle (2014)

Impossible Bottle (2014)

By Matt Barrett

Darling, my darling,

We’ve been stranded on air for quite some time.

A pair of steady, patient hands put us here to

Forever look on the world without taking part.

Darling, my darling,

Our lifeboat can get us nowhere,

But put on your vest for safe measure because we’re

Setting sail.

Darling, my darling,

Take the wheel while I swing the jib.

We’ll hoist the mainsail; that’ll do the trick,

Melville, Homer, this is goodbye.

By the way, you’ve both got some dust on your sleeves.

Darling, my darling,

You and I were meant for more.

We were meant to see the world,

And so we shall.

Darling, my darling,

Have you packed your things?

Your favorite oversized black shirt?

To wear as we reinvent ourselves over

Tiny French coffees and fresh bread?

Darling, my darling,

Are you ready

To dance it out on Spanish cobble?

For goat cheese and grapes?

And moonlit strolls as we explore all the crannies

At 2.

Darling, my darling,

Things will work out,

Exactly as you had imagined.

Darling, my darling,

We’re getting off this shelf.

Fences (2014)

Fences (2014)

By Matt Barrett

 

Broken fences tend to fall when energetic youth hop them for balls

That have sailed far beyond the green of their green.

 

“I’ll get it!” he yells as he plants his foot on the bottom board.

It snaps like the crack of the bat that sent the ball sailing.

And he looks at me, unsure of whether or not he’s in for it now.

 

The crowd falls silent as his pride cowers in the dugout.

But it’s not your fault.

It’s no one’s fault.

Fences tend to fall.

 

Broken fences tend to fall when neglect moves in.

He pays room and board with a beating heart that he

Swiped off the counter in plain sight,

Right in front of the previous tenants,

A young couple with their lives before them.

 

She’s never coming back, they’re told.

You can use the crib if you’d like to fix that broken fence.

 

Broken fences tend to fall as the paint does.

Rust-red paint that flakes away in the rain.

A storm-strewn twig brings down another,

And it falls in the green of their green.

 

No baseball today.

All fences fall someday.

My Grandfather (2010)

My Grandfather (2010)

By Matt Barrett

My Grandfather whose cheeks are orange sandstone canyon walls,

Whose hair is glass splinters and cedar chips.

My Grandfather whose eyes sting like smoke,

Whose gaze is a chess master, a surgeon

My Grandfather whose voice is a crackling fire,

Whose lap is a lost island.

My Grandfather whose shoes are large grey stones that have been wrestled smooth by the tide

Whose thick socks he stole off a sleeping black bear.

My Grandfather who smells like timelessness and the backcountry,

Whose warmth is the sun-warmed rock you press your cheek on while lying down.

Roses in Hand (2009)

Roses in Hand (2009)

By Matt Barrett

He sat on the bare metal chair in the public square, black diamonds composing the seat and back. Its blackness stood in contrast to the grayish cement. Aside from the color, they were both undomesticated things; cold, hard, and bare save the superfluous diamond-pattern someone had worked the metal into to make it more appealing, as if anyone really wanted to sit outside on a day like today in this cushion-less, life-less, piece of scrap metal posing as a chair. The brown saddening flaps of his coat drooping over the seat of his chair looked like dead plant leaves that have lost their lush color, their movements stiff in the wind. In his pale-white hand he held onto a bouquet. The scarlet petals fell at an unnaturally slow rate, landing in an emaciated pile at the tips of his once shiny shoes, reflecting the distorted face of a man defeated back up at him. One hand hung limply at his side while the other, full of life, was bleeding from clutching the thorns too tightly, the blood from his hand mixing in with the color of the flower petals. He hung in place on the chair, his back resting and his feet falling into the ground. He was gravity’s masterpiece, a great, but sad portrait, a time capsule… In his face you would see no emotion, no spark, no proof that there was a person inside of him. He was an empty shell of a man, waiting for one more thing in life, roses in hand.

Old Man (2009)

Old Man (2009)

By Matt Barrett

Sometimes I wish I was an old man. I wish to be an old man with deep lines etching the edges of my mouth, fanning out like little hands. That way, I’ll know that I have put my smile to good use.  I would embrace creaky joints, as long as I can remember the morning walks down at the lake with my wife, the sun’s eyes as open as mine, and the candle-lit dances in our living room. I hope my hands will be weathered from holding those of my kids’, of making them dinosaur-shaped, chocolate chip pancakes, and tying their shoelaces before they race to the bus. I hope my hair falls out from endless windswept car rides across the country, and when I can barely prop my grandchildren on my lap, I hope to find pictures and possessions that’ll bring back my black lab Britney, 9th grade dance cologne, pine needles from Pelican Lake, and the scent of smoke from roasting marshmallows in the backyard. I hope that my eyes go at the hands of a thousand splendid sunsets and sunrises, and my ears by the reckless concerts of my college years. Like my dad’s ratty pair of boots, I hope to get my use.

That Coffee Shop on the Corner and Other Bests of the Twin Cities

Everyone has their favorite haunt: that coffee shop they spend practically as much time nestled away in as their bed, a hole-in-the-wall eatery with food you’re not embarrassed to have dreamt of, that dirty dive bar with the stoic bouncer whom you’ve finally managed to make smile. It’s almost a right of passage in a way, to even have a go-to place where your drink of choice is known (dark roast coffee with a little soy milk) and innumerous countertop convos constantly cut short by the needs of the queue have permitted, over time, a surprising quantity of life confabulation. It’s a sign that you’re a part of the neighborhood, that you’re an Uptowner, a Minneapolitan. My coffee shop on the corner is gradually becoming Common Roots Cafe.

common roots

(Photo Credit)

It’s 8:45am on a Tuesday morning, and I’ve nabbed a favorite spot near the tall, Lyndale Ave-facing windows. Sunlight warms the nape of my neck and the tops of my cold-cracked hands as I type away and savor a dark roast ground from Peace Coffee beans delivered on two wheels. It’s an aesthetically beautiful cafe, rich in manifold textures and colors from walls tangelo-orange to robins-egg-blue and brick. My feet rest upon dark, lacquered wood floors scuffed raw by chair legs. The walls are artfully decorated with the vibrant paintings of local artists and fair trade coffee bean sacks analogous to their menu of locally-sourced organic fare, reborn and reinvented with the coming of each month. Their staff is as warm and inviting as is their space.

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(Photo Credit)

Without fail, regardless of how busy Roots can be, the majority of their workers will make direct eye contact with you and ask how your day is going, what your plans are. Questions inherently trite in nature hold a surprising degree of potential when asked in a sincere manner, eschewing the scripted banter of small talk role playing for something as hearty as their falafel pita. It is that neighborhood cafe on the corner whose staff invite a relationship as sacred as the one with your local coiffure whom you entrust with more than just the duty of keeping you lookin’ fine.

Just a few of the employees at Roots:

Jack, a handsome, gregarious gent will shake your hand as if you had been war buddies and went in together on BFF ass cheek tattoos. When he says, “One coffee? Sure thing,” his body language and eagerness to help is really saying, “Hey man, I’ve got your back, just like in Nam.” If you happened to forget your wallet, he seems the type of guy that would entrust you to hit him back next time you came in, if not buy you a cup himself. Benjamin is a bespectacled fellow who wears altruism on his sleeves. He helps coordinate a homeless shelter in Minneapolis, and one can sense that the care he brings to Roots is the same care he offers Minneapolis’ destitute. Finally, there is a man by the name of Perry whose passion for Roots’ mission of a low carbon footprint, laudable food, and creating a sense of community is conveyed modestly through his honest candor and soft spoken voice.

It is now 9:51am and time to take on the day, à l’attaque, coffee-bellied and fully recharged of Vitamin D. In this hurly burly (sweet word, right?) whirlwind of a vie, it gives to have that corner coffee shop, hole-in-the-wall eatery, dirty dive bar to anchor you to a sense of place. A beautiful space, an intentional menu, good coffee, and personable staff, Common Roots is the place to be, making the Incomplete Best of Minneapolis/St. Paul list compiled by a 10-month Twin Cities transplant.

The Best of Minneapolis/St. Paul

Cookie: The Wedge Co-op’s Black Angus Cookie ($1.5) is so good you’ll be willing to face a 12-block roundtrip walk in a Minnesota blizzard. | 2105 Lyndale Ave S. Minneapolis

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(Photo Credit)

Turkey Burger: French Meadow Bakery and Cafe’s Wild Acres Turkey Burger ($14) – gouda, guacamole, bacon, garlic-chive aoli, sprouted bun, I have definitely eaten this for dinner three consecutive nights in a row. No need consulting the rest of the menu.| 2610 Lyndale Ave S. Minneapolis

french-meadow-bakery

(Photo Credit)

Café: Common Roots Café | 2558 Lyndale Ave S. Minneapolis

Common-Roots-Cafe

(Photo Credit)

Bar/Pub: Aster – Happy Hour 3-6pm, delicious flatbreads, decent selection of tap beer and wine, good coffee, frequent live music/events, and a beautiful location on the east bank of the Mississippi River, a relaxing stroll away from the Stone Arch Bridge. | 125 SE Main St. Minneapolis

Aster-Cafe

(Photo Credit)

French Pastries: Chez Arnaud makes a fierce pain au chocolat, a flaky croissant-like pastry filled with two pieces of dark chocolat in the centre, and pain aux raisinsa custard-filled pastry in the shape of a wheel covered in raisins and sugar crystals. Dip it in your latté, and profitez! When it comes to gastronomic pleasure, the French know what they’re doing. The staff there are also the shiznit, the coolest crew you’re bound to find anywhere. Michael Fassbender and Jesse from Breaking Bad are a surefire conversation starter for at least two of the employees there.| 1085 Grand Ave, St. Paul

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(Photo Credit)

Pad Thai: Amazing Thailand will be sure to serve you a mountain of the best pad thai you’ve ever eaten, unless of course you’ve gotten it fresh from The Orient; that, I have no comment on. It is also conveniently located in the heart of Uptown’s Calhoun Square. Catch a movie at the historic Uptown Theatre (1913) afterwards otherwise a calm jaunt around Lake Calhoun will serve you well. | 3024 Hennepin Ave Minneapolis

348s

(Photo Credit)

Something About Whales

I’d write to you about whales if I could, but the paint has run dry, and there’s no more left to color anyone’s pages. If we grab the tin watering can along with the tiny blue shovel, we can go and dig a hole to China behind the old stone fireplace next to the left of the crab apple tree. That way, if it’s time to go in and we’re still on the other side of the world, no one will be able to find us. I here that’s where all the color has gone.

But before we do that, I need to talk to you about whales. I need to tell you what I was going to draw for you before I looked into the paint can and saw that there was nothing left. Whales, well, they’re big, I know, but you shouldn’t be afraid of them. If you’re ever swimming in the middle of the ocean and you don’t know what to do, if you find a whale and look directly into one of its eyes with yours, then it’ll sing to you. How do I know? Because I did it last summer after I followed an owl back to the crabapple tree at 12:34 in the morning. The clock faces that come with illustrations to tell you what time it is should tell you what to do at certain times of the day. 12:34: follow the owl, then stare a blue whale in the eye.

Do you want to get an ice cream first before we do all of this? Take the blue, lime green, and pink-that’s-supposed-to-be-red sidewalk chalk and grip them all in your hand together until you have a big wad of color. Lean your body off the back of the wagon while I pull you and then leave the trail. Don’t worry. I won’t go too fast.

Last time you pulled me a bee came out of the wagon handle. Remember? The handle hit the driveway with a loud pang and you cradled your swollen finger in the palm of your unstung one. You cried a lot because it hurt, but remember how I took the daisies and dandelions and covered you until you couldn’t feel it anymore? By that time, the driveway was colored-in so that mom and dad knew where to find us at the end of the day, which, by the way, came too fast. We’d only just started to dig.

Looking Forward To

“Pick a verb to embody who you are, a descriptive adjective or a short pithy phrase to encapsulate the essence of your being, nay, your very soul.” Sounds like a team-building exercise doesn’t it? I remember the first one of these I ever did in kindergarten.

Directions: Select an adjective that begins with the first letter of your first name and then attach it to your name.

I picked something awesome like Monster Matt. I don’t really remember exactly. I was more focused on a strange girl named Jaycie who decided to go with, Just Jaycie.

“Lame,” I thought to myself. “Out of all the great J adjectives out there, you pick just?” This is way off-topic, but I find it interesting that one of the few memories I have is of myself as a five-year-old acting self-possessed. Jaycie, if you’re out there and reading this, I apologize for having had the thought.

Waiting is the adjective that I would pick for how I feel now, and it’s not a good one truth be told. Who wants to feel as if they’re waiting for something their entire life?Perhaps waiting can be perceived as something positive. Waiting can be altered to looking forward to something instead. Although it doesn’t roll off the tongue as cleanly as the singular waiting, it implies that plans have been made and one is taking steps to ensure that better things are to come.

In 11th grade, English students in Mr. Bulman’s class each created a time capsule to present to the class. I decided to bring in a stick that I had picked up while hiking in Utah during a spring break trip with my friend, his family, and some of our other friends. On the stick I had written everything that I had ever wanted to do in life, a bucket list written in black ink wrapping around the bottom of the stick.

1) Serve in the Peace Corps

2) Travel the world

3) Live an unconventional lifestyle (whatever that means)

4) Fall in-love

5) Learn to communicate in other languages

In high school, one’s world, or at least my world growing up in a predominantly white, middle class suburb, was simple, compact, clean, all the parts visible. In a nutshell, it was this:

1) Get as many A’s as possible and enroll in as many honors classes that the school offered.

2) Run XC, track, ski, and do your best. Maybe you’ll get a scholarship to run somewhere.

3) Never do drugs; they’ll only lead to doing meth out in the boonies and eating your own scabs to get high.

4) Work weekends at the restaurant and save up for college.

Beyond that, there wasn’t a ton to focus on, just getting into college, essentially. A series of humbling events brought me down to earth quite a bit, and when I ended up going to the U of M over another school I had had my sights on since freshman year, broke my foot in a car accident, and didn’t get an ACT score as high as my friends, it dawned on me that the plan that I had had, the one in high school, couldn’t account for any deviations. Furthermore, it didn’t extend beyond getting into college.

There I was, a college freshman at the U enrolled in the College of Biological Sciences with my sights on med school! What was I thinking? I hate science! “But no,” I told myself. “You love the way the body works, and if you don’t necessarily love science, you’ll learn to love it, and if you don’t, that doesn’t matter! You’re going to be a doctor!”

I’ll share with you a little secret: I was paired up with a group of three other students at Nature of Life, the summer orientation camp at Lake Itasca, and the project we were assigned for one of our sessions was to look at some slides and snap pictures of what we saw, comparing one slide to another. We were so bad at locating what we were looking at that we snapped pictures of blurry nothing, attached those pictures to a PowerPoint, and did not provide any written commentary on what we had observed. When it was my group’s turn to present, the professor was literally speechless, and we had nothing to say about our slides. All we mumbled was, “And then there’s this one… and next is this one too.” All he said at the end is that we should have asked sooner for help, and that was that. If that wasn’t a clear sign that science was none of our business, I’m not sure if it could have been spelled out more blatantly.

Right. So there I was, goal-less, directionless. Many a week were spent holed up in coffee shops trying to glean Truth from books on philosophy that I didn’t understand, long and extremely emotional runs along the East River Parkway that often finished with an intense sprint, and pages and pages of diary, I mean journal, entries in which I would dump my heart and soul out onto college-ruled pages like your lunch lady used to drop turkey gravy and mashed ‘tatoes on your plastic tray every Thursday. Just a big, moist, thud, but everyday. That’s what I was dishing up. I still have that notebook, but I haven’t gotten around to burning it yet.

One day, however, I woke up and decided to fuck it all. “Fuck you, online introduction to introductory chemistry course! Fuck you calculus! I already took you once in high school, and I didn’t like you then either!”

I decided at that moment to only take classes second semester that interested me. In retrospect, it was the best decision I have ever made in my life. I took FREN 100 and creative writing and loved them both. I became excited about what I was studying and managed to finish out the year strong with a GPA .7 higher than first semester.

Here’s the point of all of this; I’m sure you’ve heard it before. You have to fill your days with meaning. Get into a good college was almost everyone’s plan that I knew of in high school because everyone was doing it, and therefore, it seemed like the right framework to operate within. When you’re in college, that framework changes to graduating with a degree in A) something you love, B) something practical, or C) a combination of A and B, and getting smashed three nights a week while simultaneously cranking out an average of 10, cohesive academic papers per month.

Waiting Matt. I feel as if I’m waiting right now because for the second time in my life, I don’t really have a plan. Not all of my friends are doing one thing. Some are off to graduate school, others are doing the corporate thing, some are teaching English abroad, etc. I’m working two part-time jobs and an internship. Not bad, but I still feel as if I’m waiting, maybe for the day I get a call from a major Twin Cities publication offering me a job where I get to wear fancy clothes and become Matt, the young profesh. But then I see things like this: http://vimeo.com/47355798 and think to myself, “Matt! You sellout! What happened to your stick! What happened to the 17 year-old who was full of big plans?!”

It still astounds me to think about, that almost everything is on the table. The question then becomes what do you want to pick up from table and put into motion so that you’re no longer waiting for something, but looking forward to, hell, excited for?

23

I remember last year turning 22. I was invited to the birthday party of a girl whom I didn’t know well. Her name was Annika, and she hailed from Hamburg, Germany. We got to talking about the necessity of doing something crazy before another year had officially passed on both of our lives. We ran out to the courtyard of Place Plumereau, the oldest part of the city of Tours, France, and we did laps on the cobblestone in the rain. I can’t remember exactly why we did so, something about running backwards until time reversed itself. Moments before the clock struck midnight, I turned to her and asked if there was anything that she wanted to say as a 22-year-old. She said to me, “Thank you for celebrating my birthday with me.” I’ll never forget that moment.

Time is so paradoxical. That moment feels like a lifetime as well as a day away. I remember the light drizzle coming down, the lavish cake that Ines made from scratch, our seat in the back of La Belle Epoque, how taken aback I was by Annika’s response.

It is a rare occurrence to experience a moment that makes you think of the bigger picture, one in which you’ll think, hope to yourself that you’ll remember 20 years from now. That has happened many times throughout this past year. Memory is so unreliable, so I’ll just write them down now.

Most immediately, I’m glad for the incredible people that I have in my life, those whom I have met recently building a new community in Minneapolis and those whom I’ve known since 7th grade cross country season. This includes all of you fantastic folk at Chez Arnaud and French Meadow Bakery and Cafe, friends met abroad – France and Germany, Concordia friends and roommates, les monos du Lac du Bois, and members of Tommy’s Relationship.

In addition, thanks to those of you who have been reading my blog from time-to-time. The writing may not always be the best quality (to be honest, I really hate going back and revising things), but the occasional positive comment never goes unnoticed.

Finally, I want to thank my fantastic parents and sister, Dana, Michael, and Lauren. I realize now living in Minneapolis working two restaurant jobs and meeting so many different people with different backgrounds how fortunate I was to have so much help paying for school and how lucky I was to be able to do cross country in high school. It’s unimaginable how differently things could have turned out without you three.

This feels really silly and a bit unnecessary, a bit too sappy as well, like a thank you speech in which the speaker begins to quietly sob for having received an award, but I just feel really fortunate, and I want to let those of you who have been a part of my life this past year know how much the 22nd year of my life has meant to me. Thank you.

Matt

Magers & Quinn

The gentle brushing sound of pages being carefully turned,

The creak of a newly-glued spine being opened,

The nearly-silent padding of perusing feet on old grey carpet new ten years ago,

Geometric patterns in shades of grey that could just as easily be found on an old sweater in your dad’s closet,

The clicking of a desktop keyboard and the ringing of an old beige telephone with a spiral chord the color of senior citizen, padded Velcro shoes,

Theatre and Plays to my right,

Travel to my left,

Food and Cooking in front of me,

Literature at my back.

“Hey Gina, do we have a copy of . . .” inquired a tall bespectacled man.

“Yes, we have two editions available at the moment . . .” responded a kind-faced woman.

The back and forth telephone exchange between two workers at opposite ends of the bookstore,

The sound of mice being run over in photography,

“Spray some WD-40 on those wheels!”

—If my dad were here.

The shy, polite bookstore worker who always excuses herself before walking in your line of sight.

It’s barely audible,

The uncertain “Excuse me” tagging onto the end of her breath.

This place is an ever-changing time capsule.

A 12 Vol. British Encyclopedia set for $1500 lies untouched behind the counter.

Books tripping over one another up the staircase leading to the offices,

A grand, polished wood ladder reigns supreme over the chaos.

It smells like knowledge in here,

Like mystery

Desire,

An overcast day and a window seat in November,

Like fat sweaters that could eat a child.

A grand intersection of the Universe,

Diggory Kirke and Polly Plummer know.

Choose a world,

The life of any character and a thread in time you can’t even imagine.

Through the bookstore’s windows lies the present.

Dust has settled on the windowsill,

Fingerprints and splotches on the glass,

It’s the Uptown Exhibit.

The interior of this bookshop is the all-access hub.

Run your fingers along those spines.

You’re a chiropractor now,

An explorer,

A time traveler,

A historian.

A binger reader,

A verbumivore,

Welcome to Magers & Quinn.

Here’s to Your 80’s: Running the TC Marathon

Procrastination is just a form of denial, and nonchalantness is often the form denial takes. “I like the color blue. Turkey burgers are delicious. I’m running The Twin Cities Marathon.” Until 5:00 pm Saturday night, those three sentences  held equal significance. When 5:00 pm rolled around and I still hadn’t figured out how I was going to get to the starting line and then home from the Capitol, it finally hit me: “I’m running the marathon tomorrow. I’M RUNNING THE MARATHON TOMORROW!!!” My room was in complete disarray – piles of books, clothes, and a couple of plates strewn about as if someone had put half my possessions in a big sack, shaken it up, and cut a hole in the bottom, letting all of the contents fall out at random. Luckily, something in me chose to fight, and with that, I turned on some Blink 182, naturally, cleaned up my room, begged my roommates for some help getting to the race and back, and put myself to bed around 11:00 pm.

6:00 am – wake up time. Not wanting to put too much in my system and desperately needing a good poop before the race, I gulped down a couple pints of vanilla rooibos tea and ate a handful of sesame seed crackers and a banana. Then, I put on my race apparel and sweats and tried to meditate for a good half hour until I had to wake up my roommate, Erin, to go to the race. Groggy from an hour of sleep (she works a couple different bartending jobs), we piled into her car and drove to the intersection of 6th St and Park Ave, corral 1. It would just so happen that the first two runners I talked to were from outside the country – Germany and Switzerland, go figure. The TC was going to be their 100+ marathon. I should have known. They definitely both had a bit of presence to them.

The gun went off at 8:00 am, and without really comprehending all that was happening, I began moving with the crowd near the 3 hours and 35 minutes Cliff Bar pacer. We made our way through downtown Minneapolis via 1st Ave, and as the sun came out and body temperatures rose, old shirts and gloves were left to loved ones on the side of the course and abandoned to no one in particular on the ground. Having left my mittens in the sweats bag I was issued to be brought to the finish line, I scooped up a pair of mismatched gloves to keep my hands warm.

The next 8 miles were a blur of faces, a guy in a Superman onesie who would run for the kids with his arms outstretched, and the incomparable rush of adrenaline and dopamine coursing through my system. At mile 8, I introduced myself to two runners whom I had been running near since the beginning, Michael and Evan, both 22, recent college grads, and first-time marathoners. “3:30,” they said to me. That was their goal, and mine as well. We decided to run together. We strategized, got to know one another a bit; I presented a riddle that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that Michael answered before I had finished giving him all of the clues. It was smooth sailing, a lot of pacman-ing until mile 20 when Michael broke away, I missed a banana-snack hand-off from my friend, Laura, at the Franklin Ave Bridge, and Evan and I passed under the blow-up stone arch at mile 20 symbolizing the infamous wall that many runners tend to hit with 6.2 miles to go.

Miles 23-26 were the most painful moments of my existence. I’ve never passed a human being through my genitalia, nor have I been shot or stabbed, which I imagine would be much much worse than what brought me to facial contortion and tears, but it was very painful. Until Sunday, I was living under the delusion that willpower could overcome almost anything, but that all changed at mile 23 when I literally couldn’t get my legs to move in a running motion. I was shuffling, hobbling, like an old man, down Summit Ave, eyes desperately searching for the next mile marker. I was passed by many older men and women in their 50’s with Master’s race bibs denoting their age group. That made me feel even more horrible! Not that I should have; fifty is not even that old, and there are many fast 50-somethings!

Here’s how miles 23-26 went: Limp, limp, limp, crying, facing all of my inner demons, GATORADE STATION!!! left thigh cramping, right thigh cramping, left calve cramping, right calve cramping, HALF BANANA STATION!!! Legs return to normal 10 good hobbles later, motivation returns, hope fades, vigor returns: “I WILL NOT WALK!!!”, round the corner to see the Capitol in sight, legs refusing to move in a running manner, and the 3:35 pacer has caught up! “SHIT!!!”

As the cramps returned in full force, I began to limp faster and faster until I was limping as fast as the pacer running behind me! It was a downhill finish, and with a final burst of gusto, I made it across the finish line in 3:33:48. A heroes welcome awaited all participants. I ran lovingly into the arms of a kind-faced gentleman who wrapped me in a massive piece of tinfoil like a burrito to retain body heat, and then he walked me by the elbow to the food table. THANK GOD! Not having had anything but a meager breakfast and a couple half bananas I’d snagged from the side of the course, food just entered my mouth. I barely remember it. My body turned off my brain, and an animalistic drive to find nourishment took over. I gulped two glasses of Powerade immediately, ate a candy bar, a cup of soup, a bread roll, and two bags of chips before all that rich food sent my stomach into a spasm. Another race had begun. I’ll spare you the details.

Afterwards, I collected my finisher’s medal and t-shirt, parted ways with Evan, and fell into the arms of my beloved parents and gentleman of a roommate, Rory, at the Capitol steps.

I understand now, better at least, what it might feel like when I’m 80, when my legs have lost all their sprightly youthfulness, when all that is left to power one through the day is a bit of determination and grit. Yesterday, as I got home after finishing my first marathon, I had to reach out to the sink in front for support as I planted my butt on the toilet seat. The tips of my nipples stung from 3.5 hours of my blue singlet rubbing up against them, but raw nips have nothing to do with what 80 year-olds go through, or does it? You never know. Like fetishes and phobias, I’m never surprised by what people can come to love and fear.

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Feeling thankful for having such great parents and roommates.

Cheers,

Matt

If you want to see the Finish… and here’s a completely unrelated song for your enjoyment. I discovered Sea Wolf yesterday. They are so awesome! This song is called “Priscilla.”

Fjögur Píanó Transcribed

A man and a woman wake up together lying on a four-poster metal-framed bed with all-white sheets. The brown, sand-colored walls of the room are covered in squares outlined in thick black lines, remnants of picture frames no longer there.

They are naked with salt deposits at the corners of their eyes. In between their heads as they gain consciousness lies a large dead butterfly as big as the man’s hand, its wings flashy teal. They have little memory of the butterfly, only enough to let them think they may have seen it before.

They bare wounds. The woman carefully unwraps a bloodied cloth wound hastily around the man’s right hand to reveal a sizable gash through his life line. As she turns her back to him, bleeding tick marks etched between her shoulder blades bring the man to tears. He cries, gently tracing the scars and still-fresh cuts with his fingers as if to heal them with his sorrow.

They stand apart from each other and don clothing. They then make their way to a window. Sunlight streams in and across their bodies. Each raises their left hand as if to shield the light from their eyes and brings it across and down in a sweeping arc. The man moves behind and holds her. They go into a dip. He brings her back up and clutches her close to him. Eyes closed, they stand as one, the beating of their hearts and the up and down of their chests synchronized. A perfect match.

They are back on the bed, and two custodians enter the room. They offer them suckers, red and blue with scorpions encased inside. With outstretched hands, the man and woman accept them. As they lick their suckers, the two custodians blow them from the room with huge gusts of visibly cold air, disorienting the two as they spin and stumble down the hallway into the plush backseat of a car from the 50s.

They’re underwater and convulsing in the backseat as they lick red and blue. The scene flashes back and forth between their car underwater and everyone in a concrete room seated in chairs in car formation next to a projector casting images of an underwater world on screen. Where are they? Has this all been a dream?

Finding themselves back on the four-poster metal-framed bed with all white sheets, they stare at brown sand-colored walls no longer bare. The squares outlined in thick black lines have been replaced by picture frames of butterflies. They get off the bed to look at the butterflies and find the same one that lied dead between their heads when they first awoke.

“Do you remember?” she screams at him, pointing to the butterfly in its case.

She grabs the frame off the wall and holds it desperately in front of her as if it’s an extension of her.

“Do you remember?” she repeats with more urgency.

The man begins to cry; he does. I must do this—his final thought before what happens next.

He rips the frame she holds in front of her, places it against the wall, and punches through the glass with his fist, tearing out the butterfly. Clutched in his fist, he presents it in front of her face and finds a shard of glass with his right hand.

She is scared now. He takes a step in her direction that sends her fleeing to the other side of the room. Around the bed she goes. With nowhere else to run, she flings herself onto the bed. With the grace of a ballerina, he leaps after her into the air and lands on top of her, pinning her body to those all-white sheets and her face into the bars at the end of the bed.

Subdued and on top of her, the glass shard goes into her back and a new tick mark is cut between her shoulder blades. The man tears cloth from the lace bed curtain and hastily wraps his bleeding hand. They lose consciousness resting side by side, and the butterfly falls on the mattress between their heads.

Two custodians enter the room. They sweep up the glass shards from off the floor, remove all of the pictures from the brown, sand-colored walls, and exit.

A man and a woman wake up together…

On Peace of Mind

Do you ever find yourself just sitting on your computer, looking at things you want, imagining yourself possessing those things as a happier more satisfied person?

I just spent a good hour doing this looking at tattoos on Pinterest and leather motorcycle jackets. I don’t know exactly why the obsession, but my roommate wears a lot of black, has multiple leather jackets, rides a motorcycle, and is the only person I know with a tiny leather holster that she clips on her belt to stow away her lighter.

She has a strong, no bullshit personality balanced by a very maternal side. She works in bars and nightclubs, carries a knife with her at all times, and can do 5-6 good pull-ups.

I’ll see her drive away on her bike in all black and think to myself what a free spirit she is – young, unattached, exuding a confidence ready to lasso the world and wrestles it to the ground.

Maybe that’s why the obsession with tattoos and motorcycle jackets, or maybe it’s the fact that I think it’s good to surprise people or that the feeling of being pigeon-holed into a certain archetype based on appearance is not so good.

Tattoos and motorcycles – a chance to recreate yourself.

What eventually ends up happening everytime I find myself spending too much time looking at things that I don’t need or staring at the photos of other people’s travels abroad in Spain is that I get anxious and grow dissatisfied with everything around me.

Then an impossible and pointless mission unfolds to improve my circumstances: “Matt, you need to get out of the country or go on a road trip at least. Matt, you need to get a car for the winter so that you don’t have to take the bus. Matt, you need…” and on and on the list of worries grows.

It grows until red lights begin to flash and an alarm goes off, taking over my field of vision and hearing, until a giant mystical finger has pressed the FF button on my brain and thoughts are flying past uncontrolled and wreaking havoc on my psyche like a colossal meteor shower. Buildings crumble into the sea, the earth splits, and the atmosphere falls in pieces to the ground like a child chipping at old paint on a fence with a stick.

What happens next? What makes it all go away? 

Just one breath and buildings begin to reform. Another, and the earth bridges itself back together. A third, and the black canvas of infinite stars floats back into place, the red lights and alarms cease, and the mystical finger finds the SLOW button.

What I begin to realize, and what may happen for you to, is that those things, tattoos and motorcycles for example, are not needed to be happy. In fact, obsessing over what one doesn’t have nor need just leads to discontentment.

It doesn’t take much, really, to be happy: close friends and family and time to spend with them, meaningful work, a hot drink on a cold day and a cold drink on a hot one, letters from your friends, a good nap when you’re feeling tired. Joshua Fields Millburn says it better here.

Cheers,

Matt

I Don’t Need Much

I DON’T NEED MUCH
By Joshua Fields Millburn
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When life is simple, I don’t need much to live.

I don’t need much to pursue my passion. A cup of coffee, a place to write, and my thoughts tumbling onto the page will do just fine.

I don’t need much to cultivate meaningful relationships. A pretty girl, a full-belly sunset, and a good conversation sound just right to me.

I don’t need much to live a healthy life. Daily exercise, healthy foods, and plenty of breathing while walking keeps me living healthily.

I don’t need much to contribute to others. A day at a soup kitchen, an afternoon with Habitat for Humanity, and some advice for a friend in need goes a long way.

I don’t need much to grow as an individual. Daily action, small incremental changes, and a commitment to constantly improve my life will keep me growing.

I don’t need much to live a meaningful life. And neither do you.

How much for this?

The last thing that I was told by one of the monks at the monastery was, “Do that which will cultivate the most compassion within you.”

These lines have been playing over and over in my head on repeat these past few days as I’ve been working at the elementary school as a literacy tutor for 1-3 graders, volunteering at the library, hosting at French Meadow Bakery and Cafe, and attending events in the community such as French Conversation Group that meets every Saturday at Espresso Royale on Hennepin. These past two weeks were around 60 hours each, and despite an affinity for movement and staying busy, it’s been exhausting, and the stress of paying off college loans and not being able to handle any emergency expenses (i.e. my laptop crashes, motorcycle/bike repairs, etc.) has been constantly on my mind.

Despite the volume of blog posts that I have written concerning the unnecessary and perhaps detrimental weight given to money and financial security, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. I remember learning in Psych 1 with Mr. Humbert that the circumstances in which we grow up in become our expectations for the conditions in which we live our lives when we’re older. My dad is a lawyer and my mom is a secretary, both very frugal. We grew up upper-middle class. My dad always told me, especially concerning shoes because his father was a shoe salesman, if you’re going to buy something, buy quality so that it’ll last. Still, wise words, Dad, but the money needs to be there to begin with. It’s much easier to buy 6 pairs of cheap shoes as the year goes along than to buy 2 good pairs for the same amount of total money and lifespan.

It’s not just the inability to afford a big purchase such as a new computer or having to pay close attention to what goes into my shopping cart each week. The most frustrating part about not having much for me are the looks given and the way that I get treated from people I seat and serve at French Meadow who clearly do have a lot of money. It doesn’t matter that I may be a good host, can speak a couple of other languages, etc. You’re automatically placed beneath them because of your socioeconomic status.

This is bullshit, I know. There are too many people whom I respect that aren’t millionaires, who are intelligent, great communicators and conversationalists, musically-gifted, great at reading people, making others feel happy and welcomed, unbelievable problem-solvers, motivators, visionaries, and go-getters who could indeed excel at anything they thought worth investing their time into. For some reason, however, there is such a strong desire to prove myself to the people I seat, to obtain a high-paying job, drive a nice car, live in a nice home, have nice things. Is that wrong? Yes, many would say. It’s selfish, many of you might chime in, to want such nice things when so few have them, and to you, I would say, you’re right, but the desire is still there nonetheless.

Alliance Francaise has a job opening for a receptionist, and they’re looking for someone strong in speaking and writing in French and English, someone who is well-organized, etc. and the job pays twice as much as I’m making now working 60 hours per week. It’s no guarantee that I would get the job; in fact, I’m probably grossly overestimating my chances, but I know the executive director of the organization, and I think my odds are good.

The inspiration for this post: Do I apply for the job? A foot-in-the-door to, hopefully, a French-English bilingual position, or should I stick it out with AmeriCorps, hosting at French Meadow, and volunteering in the community?

Today was one of the most difficult days at the elementary school. I work with a 2nd grader with ADHD whose parents refuse to medicate him which makes our tutoring sessions quite challenging. Things were so difficult today that we had to end early, and I had decided at the end to talk with his teacher and tell her that I couldn’t tutor her student anymore, that I don’t have the experience or training to deal with a student with ADHD. Before I could speak to the teacher, however, my student’s little sister came up to me and told me, “Mark really loves you! He talks about you all the time at the house.”

And then the monk’s words from the monastery popped into my head once again: “Do that which will cultivate the most compassion within you.”

Each day, as I’m brooding on how difficult it is to work 60 hours a week, how much I dislike not having my weekends off, how boring shelving books can be, etc., something always happens to turn those thoughts around: I’ll bike past a particularly rundown house and realize how much more difficult things could be if I were to have a family depending on me; A student of mine will open up with me about how her dad beats her mom, and another student’s face will light up everytime I go to his class to fetch him for his 20 minutes a day of reading time, and he’ll go out of his way to say hi to me in the hallways five more times throughout the rest of the day. It’s realizations and events such as these that turn perceived burdens into things to be grateful for, and when one turnaround occurs, everything to be grateful for begins to pour out: The staff at all of the places, the school, restaurant, and library, are all incredibly friendly and down-to-earth people; I’m learning a ton about communicating with people in general by learning to do so with children; my supervisors are all inspiring individuals; I feel blessed to have such loving parents and close friends.

A woman, a mother and a wife, at the school with me told me today that she’s worked with a lot of different people at many different jobs, and some of them will never feel satisfied. “They’re the type who are never grateful for what they have, or can’t see the good in it, at least.”

The most important conclusion I came to at the monastery was to revisit a relationship in my life and work on rebuilding it. I don’t identify with any religion, nor would I call myself particularly spiritual. When I came to this conclusion, however, I had never felt more sure of anything in my entire life. I just knew what I had to do, and a clear voice was telling this to me. As I sit here, typing, I feel annoyed at that voice for having once again returned. Loudly and clearly, it’s telling me what needs to happen.

N’aie pas peur – Don’t be afraid

It’s been two months since heading out from Minneapolis for Seattle, and an entire month void of anything of substance concerning a trip out West that I have been wanting to write about. Believe me, I’ve tried. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in front of my computer screen long after I should have put it and myself to sleep. Drafts have been produced, and more drafts, unfinished entries that have been placed on the backburner for so long that by the time I actually get around to working on them again, they’ve begun to mold they’ve been forgotten so long, my taste for whatever it once was, long gone. Not this time, or so I hope.

You know why this will be the one to survive, to make it to the window in time to be taken out? Because expectations have been drastically lowered from this idea concocted a month ago about how I would write the next greatest adventure/travel novel. I would call it, On the Road 2, or The Motorcycle Journals, maybe Zen and the Art of Holding Your Bladder. Bad joke, I know. I’ve never been the super witty, quippy type, more of the physically demonstrative, semi-big-gestures, dry humour kind of amateur comedian, seche like a picnic orange forgotten in the sun, like a pair of chapped lips that have been licked and licked until they’re cracked right down the center and the person owning those lips will do anything to avoid laughing. This book was even going to have an introduction, chapters, and maybe even a dedication page in which I’d be able to write something so personal and nonsensical that only I and one or two other people would feel warm reading it.

BUT, as you can see, that idea has been balled up and eaten.

Here’s the trip:

I left by myself on July 15, 2013 for the west coast by motorcycle, and after spending a few days in Rapid City, SD, a night in Bozeman, MT, and another in Coeur d’Alene, ID, I had reached the Puget Sound. There, I was able to stay with a good friend from school, a musician and photographer with a shock of brown tangles and a soulful voice that makes the stoic, teary-eyed, and the weary, sprightly and nimble. Seattle passed beneath my feet, before my eyes, I sat on it, sang to it, wrote to it, and drank it in one glass of unabashed hard cider at a time. Not a single rainy day to report.

Puget Sound was great, but when I had envisioned myself and the west coast, camping on the beach is what I had imagined. Thus, after spending six days in Seattle, I made my way to Lookout Cape, stopping in Portland briefly to catch a glimpse of the utopia that I had heard so much about and pass up the opportunity to get a tattoo; I didn’t know what of, and there was also a high risk of infection being on the road. Misjudging the distance from Portland to my destination and attempting to camp off the side of a logging route, and then bailing, I found myself dancing with death as I road through 50 degree weather in the dark on deer-clustered roads to Lookout Cape. Eventually, I made it and spent the next day poking squishy sea life clinging to rocks at low tide, chasing seagulls, holding warm cups of coffee in hands that were hard to open, and taking oodles of good pictures.

After two days of doing this, I decided to head back to Seattle, but I didn’t make it back right away. A sign off of the highway for Skydive Toledo caught my eye, and that old phrase from France took over, profites bien, profit well. 10,000 feet up, I fell from the sky, and from there, I was treated to a royal view of the PNW, a truly intimate glimpse of being able to see it all at once, like a lover who finally bares it all for you in the daylight.

Then, I made my way back to Hanna’s house and the familiarity and warmth of its interestingly colored walls and artistic nuances to be found in every corner of the house, a plant hanging from Gabe’s ceiling whose vines had grown out onto and down his walls, the cowboy lamp in the upstairs bathroom, the neon green door to the downstairs bathroom, gold-colored, board-eating, great whites outlined on her faded purple living room walls, and the wood chopping axe for wood chopping parties in the corner. In six days of living there, of being greeted warmly every morning with a hug and a “how did you sleep?” it became a place of great comfort and a reminder of how important people are concerning one’s sense of place.

Last summer, an idea popped into my head to experience monastic life, and this was before I had known anything about Buddhism other than the fact that shaved heads seem to be in style, and with its gardens and residents always sitting in meditation or going for walks, a monastery seemed to me like a peaceful place to visit. Thus, while I was in Seattle, I attempted to find the monastery in California that I had located and wanted to visit a year before. With no luck and little money left to spare for gas, I found another in a small town in Oregon that graciously took me in for an indefinite period of time. “Come, please,” they told me in response to a lengthy email that I had sent outlining all of my reasons for wanting to visit and current circumstances. I ended up staying there for five days during which time I was able to meet Karen, really feel what hunger and discomfort felt like by giving it attention, and spend five days in a simplicity so unlike anything I’ve ever felt that I often revisit in thought to quiet my heart when it begins to beat too fast.

Here’s how the monastery went:

I usually wore the same thing everyday, a borrowed, comfortably-too-big, knitted, mint green sweater and a pair of baggy grey wind pants. I only wore shoes when I would work in the garden, and only sometimes. I worked in the garden pulling weeds and watering the crops twice a day for three hours at a time. We would wake up at 3:50 am everyday and begin meditation at 4:30 am, ending around 6:30 am for a half an hour of studying script. Then, we would proceed to the cafeteria for a communal meal, much of the ingredients either from the garden or donated. We would show appreciation every meal for what we were given through an offering to the Buddha. Aside from meditation, work, and sleep, there was a festival that I had arrived in time for in which we made paper lanterns that guided us through the woods to find and bring back lost souls; we picked blueberries for a day from a local blueberry farmer, and we, the residents of the monastery, got to know one another well. In essence, everything that we did came down to mindfulness and being present. Life at the monastery was about being present for it, no phones, no facebook, no to-do lists, no money concerns, no jobs. I can’t describe it for you anymore than this. Just know that it was the most pure and elucidating experience of my existence, and I can say with 100% certainty that it wasn’t fabricated out of subconscious desire; it was real.

After those five days, I had decided that it was time to go home, and over the course of three days after leaving from Seattle, I pulled up next to my house in Uptown, unloaded my things, and gave my roommate, Rory, a hug. From there, I don’t remember what happened next, but a lot of processing and adjusting.

I had set out looking for something to change my life. I had wanted it so badly, and it was constantly in the forefront of my mind, intruding on my experiences and tampering with them. The problem was is that there are only so many factors that can be controlled by the individual. Deciding to do the trip was a positive move. Trying to control the outcome became a hindrance. Luckily, the questions that I had set out hoping to answer were answered. I’m not just saying this to write a good story. Somehow, it actually happened the way that I had hoped for from the beginning, the way that I had pleaded for when I was left in the parking lot of the Whole Foods Market with $6000 cash in my hand watching a stranger drive my car away, as I was stranded due to mechanical issues on the side of the highway in Albert Lea, MN the first day of the trip, not having even left the state, as I was longing for someone to be there when I was wearing all of my clothes in my sleeping bag on the beach in Oceanside, OR and thought I had nowhere to sleep for the night.

When I came back to Uptown, I got that tattoo that I didn’t get in Portland. It is of a picture that a friend of mine found, Annika, of a boy riding a whale. Beneath it is written, n’aie pas peur.

Don’t be afraid.
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A Young, Inexperienced 22-Year-Old’s Ponderings on Making a Living, OR at the Least, a Wine Recommendation

I’m writing to you now after having had the best glass of red wine I’ve managed to find. It’s called La Finca de los Arandinos; I feel so sophisticated, and I also give you permission to slap the pretentiousness out of me the next time you see me if you feel the urge.

***

Today was riotous. I began hosting at 8:00 am almost pleading for something to do, making my way back and forth between French Meadow running out food and clearing tables while keeping an eye on the floor at Blue Stem Bar and Table. After fifteen-minute spurts of making drinks and doing stuff on the other side of the building over at FM, it was a shock to come back to the Blue Stem everytime finding that no one had come in yet.

All was quiet.

At 11:00am, a 5-top came in, and then a 3, and a 2, and a 4, and 2, and before any of us knew what was happening, we were getting slammed by nagging botoxed brunchers and a few other insistent diners, but mainly it was the shear volume fueling the chaos. I’m sure if you took an MRI of my brain when everything was at its most hectic, it  would read the same if I were at a rave dancing on a table shirtless with a binky in my mouth. It was as if we were all relaxing on the beach in a warm daze, letting our minds skip in a thoughtless slumber, and suddenly a monstrous 12-foot wall of water crashed into us, knocking off our sunglasses and sending waterlogged summer reads and our baby cousin out to sea. JIMMY!!!

If you haven’t worked in the restaurant industry before, it’s something I highly suggest doing at least once in your lifetime as a bus boy, a server, a food runner, a cook, a dishwasher, etc.  To be the one clearing the table, bringing out the food and catering to the customer’s every need, preparing it, and finally scraping what’s left of it at the end of the night into the trash is a humbling experience. To be on the other side of the counter, the one in the uniform, gives you an entirely different perspective on the world. And this goes to all jobs in the service industry.

For a time, I didn’t have to worry about money. I was rich, or it felt like it at least. Unfortunate, yet retrospectively fortunate circumstances led to me sitting comfortably atop a plump $40,000 bank account when I was still a teenager, 19. It wasn’t through the generosity of a deceased grandparent or the ingeniousness of an idea such as silent velcro, rather, it was compensation for having been hit by a car when I was 17-years old, crossing the street on my way home from summer cross country practice.

Over the years, that money has gone primarily to college loans, but much of it was frivolously tossed about as if I were five again playing in a mound of leaves, a used car here, a road trip there, an expensive coat. I have no regrets, really. The money was spent how it was spent, and looking back, I don’t know how much I should realistically expect from a 19-year-old given 40k other than to indulge in some good times and some nice things.

Looking to the present however, circumstances are quite different. Budgeting. I had never had to do it before, and when I was down to around $4,000, I began to play with the idea halfheartedly, while abroad in France. Yeah… so that didn’t go quite well. Now, it has definitely become an important tool in my life. Furthermore, living in Minneapolis with my three roommates, a bartender, a barista, and an international student from Japan at MCTC, as well as the variety of different people I have come across who didn’t have a private college experience for example, or who didn’t while away their days via boats on lakes they also happen to live on, etc. has already begun to teach me a lot about the meaning of making a living.

It’s a strange game, making a living, or better yet, finding a job that you look forward to going to everyday. The rules are not always clear, the strategies to employ are abundant, and so much depends on circumstance. Roll a six and you can take a ladder up one tier, that much closer to winning the game. But, ope! You’ve just landed on a slide, and now you’re back to where you started. Now you have no hands and you need to figure out a way to keep rolling the dice, so you pick it up with your mouth, but you’re sixty years old with dentures, and all you want to do is make it to the end and relax because you’ve been playing for so long.

Studies show that if you’re tall, handsome, white, and male, the road to wealth has been paved for you. That’s awfully depressing to think about, and possibly discouraging if you choose to let your life be guided by these statistics (“Oh, god, is he going to reference Macklemore now?!”). What I would like to wrap up with is a thought to ponder, and maybe that thought will lead you to another thought, and perhaps remind you of all the ways in which you can win the game. It’s not necessarily about getting to the top and benefiting from as many ladders as you can, or looking down on the player who is trying to roll a pair of dice with only his dentures. Remember the value in tipping your barista, or your hairstylist, or asking them how their day is going. And remember that the world is run by people, not employers and CEOs, and they’re also hiring people, not only framed certifications and decadent lists of achievements or statistics.

***

Leaving college, living on my own, and now really paying my own bills has given me a different perspective. I’m sure that if you’re in your late 20’s or older and reading this, maybe you’re nodding to yourself remembering what it felt like for you when you were first flung out of the plane at 10,000 feet with a parachute that you needed to assemble in the air, or maybe you’re just waiting to hear something new. Well, if there is anything to take away from this post, try a glass Finca de los Arandinos. It is marvelous.

Cheers,

M

Home N Arrow

It feels like the most vivid dream that never really happened. All of the feelings feeling fabricated and nestled somewhere I can hardly reach in the past. My fingertips can just graze those moments through an arms-width crack in an obstructed doorway. A brown eye peers through to guide a groping arm, and every now and then, something sticks and I’ll pull it out to remember a face, a feeling, a taste.

Most vividly, in vibrant color and emotion, I remember a girl that I met at the monastery, Karen. She had two small tattoos, one on the underside of her left wrist of a rudimentary home and the other an arrow drawn on the back of her left arm just above her elbow. I can only guess at what they might mean, but when she spoke of feeling displaced this past year due to all the travel (three months living in New York and working at a shady bakery infested with roaches, six months in India, and I was catching her at the tale end of her four-week stay at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Oregon), my best guess is that the home permanently inked into her wrist gives her a feeling of stability while the arrow represents the sense of adventure tugging at her heartstrings. It’s an interesting combination, the two, and deep down, or perhaps not so deep down, we all desire both at the same time, to see the world and continually reinvigorate ourselves with new experiences while forever clinging to the familiar roots that keep us grounded and feeling connected to something or someone.

She was subtly beautiful from the quiet way in which she spoke and moved down to the hardly noticeable details of her curly brown hair that was partially bleached in back and shaved on the right side near her temple. One doesn’t notice these things unless talking to her, nor the deep brown of her eyes and the paradoxical way she could wield them to leave you wanting to inquire more about her and shut up at the same time.

And when she told me about her depression and anxiety and feeling displaced this past year, it really hit me that we’re all just human. It was not a coming down of sorts to learn that she was dealing with these issues. Rather, I felt more connected to her in the heave and ho of this big world, and it was a simple, yet poignant reminder of our shared experience as human beings. We’re motivated and moved by many of the same things, and our desires are the same.

The collapsible poop shovel unused in my closet tucked away beneath a National Geographic Adventure Atlas curling at the corner. A chipped and slightly bug-splattered helmet. A lent sweatshirt from a friend’s days at Indianola High School. The Elliot Bay Book Company.

Scoop up the armfuls of maps long poured over, scribbled on, and annotated in our names. There’s a Cliff bar in every pocket of our naked packs waiting to be patched up by emblems of our favorite places and times, slept against in the wee hours of the night, and tossed around in the dirt, sand, and sweat of the world. Travel pants house our young legs as we begin to sidle on down the asphalt in slow motion.

Are you ready? you ask me.

Sure, I say. Why not?

friends a flockin, times a changin

My good friend, John, boarded the Megabus to Chicago 22 minutes ago. We arrived at 11:40 pm in the parking lot, the two of us together on Barry, my bike. We stuffed John’s backpack in one of the saddlebags, and John’s 40 lb, mustard-colored duffle bag, he wore on his back. His bus was scheduled to leave at 11:45 pm, which it was in the process of doing by the time that I yelled at him from the other side of the glass. That’s John for you–lucky in which everything seems to work itself out.

“God,” I said. “Have fun in Europe! This is your big European adventure!”

“I will!” he said.

And with the excitement and unique loss for words brought upon by the prospect of one’s first extended stay in Europe, we parted ways, nothing more needing to be said, other than this blog message that I’m sure he’ll find once he’s comfortably arrived and moved in with his host family.

John,

This is your big European adventure!

“I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view.” Have some crazy experiences, my friend! I know you will, and this will be a time in your life that you’ll never forget!

Rock on, freaky bro!

M.

Aside from John’s departure, it is surely a week of change on many different levels. Not only is my close friend, John, taking off for Spain, but my friend Andrew (Dear Friend) whom I met in France, is about to embark upon another year there to teach English! My friend Amy is headed off to China for a year, and my close, Italian roommate during my last two years of undergrad has recently been offered, and accepted, a job in Chicago with an organization known as Better Together. On a final note, another close friend who went with me to France, who lent me her broken umbrella to throw up in one unforgettable bus ride back from my first ever official beer pong tournament, in France! is beginning a new chapter of her life as a high school French teacher in Wyoming. She has a very evident knack for teaching and children, and will make an outstanding teacher, one that reinvigorates my faith in America’s worksheet n’ overhead education system.

Friends be a flockin’ and times be a changin’! Catch my drift? Catchin’ what I’m throwin’? Pickin’ up what I be layin’ down?

Tomorrow is my first official day at the elementary school where I will be a literacy tutor through AmeriCorps. I’ll be working with little kiddies, kindergarten through third grade, to make sure that they’re reading at grade level. Furthermore, I’ve found a job working at, yes, you guessed it, another French bakery in Minneapolis!

So much is changing. If I close my eyes, I see a colorful map of the world with my friends’ faces zooming around the globe, leaving a little dotted line behind them so that I can see them all branching out from the great state of Minnesota.

I’m loving it, though, all the change that is. They’re all going to have some really great new experiences.

Je pense à vous mes amis, ici aux Etats-Unis et partout dans le monde, en France, en Allemagne, en Chine! Bonne chance. Bonne courage avec vos aventures, et surtout bien sûr, il faut profiter!

Bisous

Crossing Puget Sound

A stout woman with a deep, booming voice yelled, “Bikes!” and to my left, at least 60 cyclists whizzed past, one after another, as if the woman in neon were our general and we, her fleet. “Motorcycles!” was the second command, and with that, twenty of us started up our bikes, a loud, synchronized roar resounded weakly before the three-story ferry that towered before us, as if we were a pack of wolves doing our best to look tough in front of a wooly mammoth, and this ferry was an enormous, prehistoric metal creature. A parking lot’s worth of cars, motorcyclists, and cyclists were able to board the ferry with ease.

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I made my way to the middle deck, to the bow of the ship, my arms giddy to spread like Rose from the Titanic. It was a spectacular view: the Olympic mountains to my right, enormous, cheddar-orange, brachiosaurus shipping cranes to my left, and the magnificent Mt. Rainier looming majestically in the background, slightly faded by the distance, all the colors of the horizon shades of orange, purple, and blue pastel. As the ferry began to take off, you could feel its enormous bones creak themselves into motion, and slowly but surely, we began to move towards Brisbane Island across the Puget Sound.

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To my immediate left, there was a woman with a white sweater, off-white pants, and white hair. She must have been 80 years old. Her eyes were closed and her mouth gently curved into a smile, an almost private smile that betrayed a humble happiness and a certain contentedness that said, “I could die right now and it would be okay. In fact, if I were to have control over how I were to leave this world, I would want it to be like this: crossing the Puget Sound with mountains to my right and left, Seattle behind me, and Brisbane before me, the ocean below me, and the sky above me.”

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The drumming of the ocean waves hitting the bottom of the ferry was a rhythmic hum-roar, somewhere in-between the two noises, and depending on which way you anchored your head, the wind would catch in your ears to whisper or scream. Either way, the symphony could have been labeled, “Storm.” As I closed my eyes, a gathering of wild men beating empty trash cans with dinosaur bones around an audible flame amidst the storm was taunting mother nature, provoking her into a colossal storm fit to break even the most determined of ships.

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I opened my eyes and the scene changed. I retreated to the base of the cabinet in which passengers could sit comfortably inside on all three levels, and as I sat there with my back against the wall, I watched the couple who had asked me earlier to take so many pictures of them, holding and planting kisses on each other as if they could heal the bite marks of the cold Puget breeze. Despite the impossible nature of such an act, somehow it always seems to work.

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Her smile, unlike the woman in white, was of a completely different nature. We all recognize it when we see it because it is one of the most desired smiles yet hardest to evoke naturally. Her smile said, I am in-love; I am loved and I am loving. Touching your hand is better than the smell of freshly brewed french-pressed coffee on a groggy morning for a coffee addict, better than the feeling of sleeping in your own bed after two weeks of scrappy motel springs sewn between bits of cloth, better than anything you could ever taste, smell, hear, or see. To complete the picture for you, there was also a single sunflower resting on top of her purse. No wonder he wanted so many pictures of their time together. I would too.

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That was the ferry ride across the Puget Sound.

“I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

Say, “yes.” Just do it. Don’t think too hard about it. No need to get out the scales and the +/- lists. Just say, “yes,” and launch yourself over any barriers that may be preventing you from experiencing something new.

I have met some really incredible people on this trip, and with one of them we had a conversation about self-actualization and the mental barriers that we construct preventing us from pursuing what we truly desire.

I could never start my own business.

Really? And why is that? You have all the tools that you need.

But I don’t have the funds, the know-how, a charismatic type A personality, blah blah blah.

I’m beginning to realize more and more on this trip what potential there is to live one’s life intentionally, whatever that may look like. You can do whatever you want! Meeting people who are pursuing some really incredible things has helped me to see the unbounded potential to realize whatever it is that we want.

If you want to be a painter, then paint. If you want to learn how to sail, become a Hungarian folk artist aficionado, proficient at cooking good pad thai, then do it. Say “Yes!” to yourself. One of my favorite lines of all time is a quote from the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. At the end of Benjamin’s life toward the end of the movie, a voice-over comes on as his daughter is reading from the journal that he had left for her. He writes:

For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

It’s such a beautiful paragraph, especially the very last line: “If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” It’s easy to become complacent when you’re comfortable, but you risk becoming stuck in familiarity. If you’re always doing the same things and having the same thoughts, some of the greatest joys of being human, experiencing growth and seeing yourself change, mature, and screw up, are missed.

A number of people have told me that this motorcycle trip, or a trip of this nature, is something that they would like to do but could never see themselves doing. When I say that you can do it, or something similar, as well, I mean to communicate it humbly and sincerely. I feel compelled to say it because I see so many who limit themselves for no reason, constructing non-existent mental barriers, and because taking this trip has already been such a big learning experience for me.

Self-doubt is a starved, convincing, skinny bastard that slinks around in the shadows, slipping in unseen and blotting out our hopes with a crude hand and black ink. Everyone feels it from time to time, suffers from a lack of motivation, but there is no greater tragedy than giving up on something that you really want.

Still Suspected of Espionage: The Past Four Days

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It’s been four full days on the road making this morning, at 6:09 am, the beginning of day number five.

I’m sitting in the kitchen of a friend whom I met my first year of college at the U of M. I had called her on the road two days ago as I was pulling into Rapid City, not having a place to stay, only having planned on going half the distance that day that I actually ended up covering.

Sofie, like Tarantino’s beautiful but deadly Japanese-American assassin, and I were in the same college at the U, for the first semester at least, the College of Biological Sciences. It’s funny how we met; we met through a mutual friend, one of her friends from high school, named Stefano Shpeely.

There is a summer camp/workshop for all incoming CBS freshman called Nature of Life. Some people say that it’s Bio 1 and 2 that weed out the med students from the non med students. Let’s just say for me that Nature of Life was probably a really strong indication that I shouldn’t have continued with the introduction course that I had tested into for Introduction to Chemistry. Let’s call it Chem .5 as in you’re halfway there.

I say this because my group failed miserably at one of the activities. “How do you fail at an activity,” you might ask. Well, the task bestowed upon us was to observe some slides of something so uninteresting to me at the time that I could not tell you what it was for any grand prize in the world, and then we were supposed to snap different images of these microscope slides and determine if it was A or B and present it to the class.

What ended up happening is that we ended up staring at the slides unable to focus the lens so that we could see anything. Personally, I had no idea what we were looking for, and the blurred images in the microscope seemed to me as if that’s what we were supposed to be finding.

The images that we presented to the class were blurry and some missing, our results inconclusive, our enthusiasm not there. The professor leading the activity was speechless, and managed to conjure up the advice that we should have asked for help sooner, and that was that.

Right, so I was at the bus stop waiting for my parents to come pick me up at the end of camp, and there was one other guy standing around, Stefano. In the fifteen to twenty minutes that we were standing around together, we struck up a conversation about medical school and Scrubs, naturally, and completely hit it off.

There are people that you come across that you identify as being one of “your people,” not in a pretentious way like, the-blue-whale-blue-silk-scarf-you’re-wearing-with-our-mutual-country-club-logo-identifies-you-as-one-of-my-people kind of way (what are the rules on hyphens? Is this considered abuse or creativity?) BUT (there’s the but!) more like an  I-get-you-you-get-me-we-have-a-similar-way-of-thinking-and-I-like-you kind-of way. Stefano was like that for me, and it was through him that I was able to meet Sofie. Four years later and Stefano is still pursuing med school, pursuing like hunting down his prey meaning that he has plans to get a master’s degree within a year in a medical something-something program in Florida. What a guy!

Not long after I left the U for a different school, Sofie changed colleges within the U of M to become a forestry major, and now she is in a program to become a naturalist. I’m also sitting in her kitchen and she’s not here! Go figure.

Luckily for me, Sofie has a really wonderful family with whom I’ve been lucky enough to stay with and get to know over these past two days despite ongoing suspicions, dimming suspicions her father might argue, that I am a spy. They’ve introduced me to their closest friends in Rapid including a woman I met on the first night who lives in a canyon. She has incredibly long, beautiful silver-grey hair with lighter streaks of brown running through it. Her house is a small fairytale cabin in the woods. The interior is decorated like nothing that I have ever seen before. There appeared to be only lamps that cast all of the rooms in a dim glow, all of the artwork on the walls, all of the everything. To add to the scene, she named her small dog Frodo, and there is really beautiful stream running behind her house that one can swim in. It’s positioned right against the side of a massive mountain face.

I was able to attend a free production of Shakespeare downtown and hear about the city’s rejuvenation after three years and attend a birthday celebration of Mr. and Mrs. Dicknmary. So many interesting people – artists, writers, extreme backcountry/lichen experts, some awesome neighbor kids who taught me this last night:

Anyway, it’s been four great days so far. I now have a windshield so I won’t be blasted by 80 mph winds and bugs that spew green juices when they explode on my jacket and helmet, the Dicknmarys have pampered me with delicious food, laundry, warm showers, and plenty of rest. Sofie’s brother, who lived in the Portland area for 6 years and is the lichen specialist, backcountry explorer, spent a good amount of time pointing out the best camping places and roads to take from here to Seattle.

Mmm… smells of pines :) Here we come Bozeman!

Here’s to uncertainty, to adventure, to life.

My family and friends, beloved co-workers and incredible roommates:

It is the eve of another great adventure. Tomorrow morning marks the beginning of a three to four-week excursion out West. I’m heading out alone as many of you know. In so doing, I hope to grow and learn more about myself.

I am afraid, without a doubt, but facing such fear, the unexpected, and all the obstacles that will arise, is the only way that we are to learn more about ourselves, the world, and what we want out of life.

To those whom I have talked with at length about this trip, in particular, Laura, Miranda, and Delilah, a million thank you’s for your support, encouragement, and friendship. I truly appreciate every minute you have set aside to help me wade through my thoughts concerning this trip.

Well, here I go…

Wish me luck!

M