Small Steps

Have you ever had a dream that seemed so crazy and unattainable that you couldn’t even say it out loud? Have you then woken up one morning to discover that suddenly, you are living in that dream, standing at the beginning of the path that might lead you there, and surely will lead you somewhere new and different? This is what waking up in New York City every morning has been like for me, Manhattan’s skyline greeting me every morning from the living room window. For the first few days, I couldn’t stop staring at this jigsaw of skyscrapers, watching how the light illuminates its industrial palette of shiny glass, steel and stone as the sun shifts across it, how even when the outline of buildings disappears into the night sky, Manhattan retains its mythical shape as windows light up and towers glow.

I am here. How did that happen? I keep asking myself. I went from knowing a city like the back of my hand, navigating life there with ease, to relying on a map and my sense of direction in order to get anywhere, and accepting that I’ll have to get lost several times before it all falls into place under my feet. From having different groups of friends in different places, communities where I felt I belonged, to knowing a total of eight people in a city of 8.5 million people. From having family just a thirty-minute train ride away to the closest family being five hundred miles away. From soaking in familiar wonder and beauty to swiveling my head around in a hundred directions every time I leave the apartment, constantly enthralled with the newness, the Americanness, and the vastness of my new home. I had a life in Paris – a good life – one where I was comfortable and finally feeling at peace. In the weeks leading up to the move, I would sit on my bed at the end of each day, my apartment reflecting less and less of my life and becoming more and more like the white slate it was when I first moved in, and wonder why I was doing this at all. Everything’s great now, I could stay here longer. Why do I need to uproot my life?! I asked myself this question a lot, as well as the hundreds of other questions that accompany the unknown.

And then the day arrived. After many goodbye dinners, cups of coffee in my favorite places, wines and desserts, hugs and tears, it had finally sunk in that I was leaving. It was time to momentarily say goodbye to France, this land and culture that will forever make up half of me.

“So this is it. You’re leaving for good,” my grandmother said rather stiffly at lunch that day, hours before my flight, just barely masking the sad despair of uncertainty that comes with every goodbye. She would not look me in the eye. And in her gruffness, I suddenly remembered all the other goodbyes, at the end of every summer as a child when the two months with my grandparents would come to an end and I’d have to leave one place that felt so much like home to go to another place that was home. The bittersweet relief of sending rambunctious grandchildren home mixed with the sadness of a ten-month absence until the next year always hung in the air on those car rides to the airport.

“It’s never for good. We’ve done this before, remember? We’re good at this, we know how to do this,” I reminded her gently. “I’ve always come back; I always will.” I hoped this truth would be as comforting to her as it is to me.

As I boarded the plane, I understood that I was leaving but the fact that I’d soon be living in New York still remained hazy. Aside from the address of my friends’ apartment I had saved in my phone, I had no bearings to latch onto. I would guess that almost everyone who moves to New York City to chase their dreams imagines that their entrance will be magical. We think THIS is what’s important, imagining the bright lights splaying out beneath us to make way for our arrival. I wanted to walk off the plane glowing with confidence and excitement as I greeted the first moments of my new life here.

However, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this is NOT how I marched off the plane. I was tired, hungry, and grumpy after seven hours spent sitting in the middle seat of the middle aisle between two men snoring in my face. We descended into a cloud of fog and rain that completely obscured any clear view of the city lit up at night. As I stepped off the plane and made my way through the airport, the only thing I felt besides the cramp in my leg was fear. Businessmen sailed past me, large-print ads in English (English!), grabbed my eyes at every turn, and people cheerfully rushed into the arms of those waiting to be reunited with them. America – it was much to take in and I was being swept into it all at once. Panic squeezed my chest and my eyes began to well. This was a mistake.

The good thing about being young with no money and transatlantic travel is that it makes it pretty impractical to just turn right around and fly back to Paris. Lucky me! The only thing to really do was to keep going. Outside the airport, New York loomed as this big scary intimidating question mark. But I was here, now, and couldn’t hide in the airport forever. New York had to be broken down into small, manageable steps. Rent a trolley, collect my luggage, borrow someone’s phone to call my friends, find a taxi stand, wait in line until it was my turn, and not worry too much about whether I was doing it the right or wrong way. I’d figure it out!

There is something to be said for showing up somewhere you’re unfamiliar with and having to trust other people to help you find your way. It really forces you to let go of any need to control and simply rely on your instincts and put your faith in good people. I’ve experienced this over and over again while traveling alone, but have found that I always have to re-learn it. By the time I got a taxi, it was 9pm and any bearings I may have had from my previous brief stay in New York were totally erased by the darkness and the prevalence of Jersey license plates. Was this taxi driver taking me to Jersey?!?! That is not where I am going! my panicked, jet lagged inner voice was shouting, as though I would have a better idea of how to get to Queens than this man. I had to remind myself to breathe and resist the urge to remind him of where I wanted to go.

Again, the universe (or whatever you believe in) intervened to distract me from my fear. Only Americans (of which I am half, I do acknowledge) would see fit to install a TV screen barely a foot away from your face in the back of a taxi. Which means that maybe in fifty years, the French will decide to do the same thing. You know, so you can get all caught up on your local news and the weather report right when you probably have a million other things on your mind. I did not fully appreciate the beauty of American inventiveness until an infomercial on how to make lasagna in a bundt cake mold graced my screen. The part of me that is French watched in horror and disgust as something resembling a dense dumpling-colored jello was served up like slices of cake. But my rustier American side watched in fascination, applauding the ingenuity and not bothering to wonder how this improved the dish at all. Yes, this was my first re-encounter with all that makes America great.

As you can probably guess, the taxi driver did not kidnap me or take me to Jersey. I arrived at my friends’ apartment with little trouble other than hauling an enormous suitcase up a fourth floor walk-up. I’ve spent the past two weeks adjusting to the rhythms of New York, re-connecting with friends I haven’t seen in a long time, and tackling the long list of things that have to be done in order to start a life in a new place. Everything is new, exciting, and a little bit scary, but at night I’m able to fall asleep appreciating the fact that I am here. That a year ago, this all felt so impossible and out of reach. That three months ago, I literally trembled as I clicked the button to buy my plane ticket. All the small choices have added up to the big ones, have helped me embrace the uncertainty and trust that whatever lies behind it will lead me somewhere. I am seeking out my purpose but allowing life to unfold. Even if it leads me to making bundt cake lasagna.


Letter to an Asshole

Dear Asshole,

Yeah, you know who you are. How could you not? You avoid me at all costs because I have become a very inconvenient part of your history. And I will admit that in the months that have followed the end of our strange union, I have also done my best to avoid running into you, steering clear of certain streets where you may be lurking and startling when someone resembling you comes into my field of vision. On the rare occasions when our paths have crossed, all the blood in my body has rushed to my head as I march straight ahead, hoping that you’ll notice how different I am from when you knew me, how much stronger and wiser I have become. I have wondered what you think of me still, how you place me in the story of your life. Before I can stop them, sound bites of your voice float into my head, the meanness and callousness that rolled off your tongue so easily. The way you always used my words against me. Your angry pride, the way you wore it on you like cologne, washes back over me, a visceral memory of the desperation, the rage, the guilt, the shame, and the euphoria you provoked in me.

You kept me a secret, which has made me afraid of what others would think of me if they were to find out. You have done everything you possibly could to erase me from your life, to pretend like I never existed, because I never really mattered to you in the first place. We’ve been finished for long enough for me to be able to bask in the joy of being free of you, to crack jokes with friends and laugh at my mistakes, for days to go by without you ever popping up in my thoughts. But to truly be free of your power over me, I must stop letting your rules define how I think about our relationship. Without fully realizing it, I have been holding all the mistakes I made, all the signs I chose to ignore, against myself. How could I have fallen for an asshole like you?! I have beaten myself up over this question and the position you put me in, because I am a sensitive and empathetic human being, and I care about how my actions affect other people. But I’ve been judging myself as though I were the only factor in the equation, as though you didn’t make choices, too. I have taken on all the blame because you refuse to take any responsibility for your actions.

But that is not my job; my job over the past few months has been to understand myself better and what led me into your arms, to identify why I believed I deserved so little. And I have done that – in therapy, through self-reflection, and in having tough conversations about love, loss and pain with people I trust. I understand who I was when I met you – how I thought you would help heal the wounds of the past, how it felt good to feel wanted. And then how I wanted my care to make you better. I understand that the moments when I saw so much good in you were a reflection of what I wanted for you, but that for you, goodness runs shallow because you yourself do not understand what it is. And I think I am starting to understand that what makes it possible to move on from experiences like this is by appreciating what I have gained from knowing that kind of pain. First you have to get through the pain itself, learning to tend to your heart and then working through it so you can claim it as your own. Sometimes it still hurts to remember. But I’ve realized this is because I hurt for that young woman that I was – desperately looking for a soft place to land and feeling every cold stare, cutting remark, or blasé dismissal as a personal failure – and not because I am still hurt or damaged by the things you said and did. And if I can hurt for that woman, I can also celebrate for her, for the long path she’s traveled and the things she gained along the way. I have grown so much since then and I am so far beyond your reach of influence. I have healed, and though right now you seem like a pretty lost cause, I hope that one day you might heal, too.

So I have done the hard work. I have taken responsibility for my actions, dealing with the consequences of my decisions. I no longer need to spend an ounce of my energy feeling bad for the choices I made. You will continue to try and erase me from your existence, a little side note in your journey, a headache you’d like to forget. And that’s ok – I can’t control what you think of me. But you were never a sidebar in my life, no secret of mine. Because the truth is that you have been an important part of my journey to becoming who I am today. Without knowing you, I might still be that woman seeking validation from others, living life based on what others want me to be and limiting my choices out of fear of what people will think of me. You have taught me how much I am worth, giving me a deeper respect for my thoughts, feelings, and opinions. I can now better recognize what true kindness looks like, how unselfish love should be. I am sorry you do not know what love is, but I’m not sorry I had to learn what it is not from you. So thank you, dear Asshole, for being such an asshole. I regret nothing and I am not ashamed.

F*#% You Very Much,
Not Your Dirty Little Secret

Prideful Pain & Healing Conversations

A few months ago, in the midst of probably the most difficult time in my life emotionally, my best friend from childhood, a girl who has been by my side since we were three years-old, reached out to me, wondering if we could plan a trip together in Europe. A year before, we had talked about her coming to visit me in Paris for her 25th birthday and we had both been excited about the idea. Now she wanted to talk to me about dates and logistics. When I read her message, my heart sunk, knowing I just was not in a place where I could open my home or my life to her at that time.

So I sent her a message telling her the trip just wouldn’t be possible, that I was not doing very well and just needed some time to myself. I clicked send, filled with an overwhelming feeling of hot shame; I was letting her down as a friend and I felt like a failure just as I was failing in all the other places in my life. When I received the notification of her reply, I ignored it, leaving the message unread. I was so afraid of what she would say, unable to face what I thought at the very least, would be disappointment and at the most, hatred.

A few weeks ago, while sorting through my messages, I fell upon her unopened one. After months of sorting through a lot of emotions, it felt like it was time to open it. I knew I could handle whatever was inside, knew I owed it to her to read her words. I took a deep breath and clicked on the message.

“I love you. You are strong. To me, you are irreplaceable. I can leave you alone as long as you promise to tell me when to not leave you alone anymore.”

These are the words I found staring back at me. I sat open-mouthed, stunned to my very core. I sat in the same spot for nearly 15 minutes reading these words over and over again. Goosebumps covered my arms, a chill ran through me, and I began to cry. I had kept this sweet friend of mine, someone I consider to be more of a sister, at a distance for so long and she was still loving me from afar.

Over the past seven months, I have confronted some of the darkest parts of myself – thoughts, fears, and emotions that have lingered since childhood. To this day, I’m still not sure what radical shift happened to move me to the point in January where I just no longer had the energy to keep playing all these roles in my life that didn’t feel like my own. All I know is that right after Christmas, I got terrible food poisoning – I threw up 16 times and actually thought I might be dying. No one else got sick, and when I went to the doctor, he explained it wasn’t bad food that had made me so sick, but the accumulation of too much rich food that the body has trouble digesting – a crise de foie, or a “crisis of the liver.” In French, the word for faith is also foi – pronounced the same as foie with a mere gender distinction between the two words. I find it to be an interesting coincidence because by the time I rang in the New Year, it was clear to me that something was deeply wrong inside – a crisis of faith. I no longer trusted myself, or at least the part of myself that has always pushed me to keep going without asking questions. I no longer trusted what this person had built for herself, no longer trusted what she felt, no longer trusted the institutions that had told her she was smart and capable and worthy of love.

Now, seven months and many therapy appointments later, I have the benefit of a bit of distance to reflect on that time and to appreciate the difference in how I feel, how I express myself, how I am gentler with myself. I have pushed a lot of people away, not just this year but in the years following my mom’s death, building walls to mask where it hurt the most. Of course, I have wondered what would have happened had I read my friend’s message back in February, or if I’d been honest about how I was feeling the day she came to visit me after Mom died instead of trying so hard to be “normal.” What would these past six years have looked like? Would I have made different decisions? In February, would I have even believed her and been able to accept such selfless love and grace at a time when I was hurting so deeply?

Her message has taught me a lot about love at a time when I have had to reconsider my own misconceptions on the subject. It also has made me consider my own pride and the different forms it takes on – we never think of ourselves as being prideful, it hides deep within us, until it kind of hits us in the face. It is painful for me to read some of my older blog posts, not because I don’t like the writing or think those stories aren’t important. I’m glad I wrote them down and shared them with you, and I believe it has led me to places I wouldn’t be had I not started. What makes me cringe is that I know when I first started writing them, I wanted you to understand these things that hurt so badly, while convinced that you could never understand them. It is a weird kind of pride to have – we often think of pride in terms of boosting about the things we have or the things we are good at. All forms of pride are a shield against the things we are afraid to face, or afraid others will notice in us. I was so afraid of being “the girl who’s mom is sick” or “the girl who’s mom died” that I had to protect my loss, claim it as my own so that others wouldn’t do it for me. But in my own head, I WAS the girl who’s mom died and so I had to protect myself even more.

It also makes me think back to my days in college when I was volunteering with Relay for Life. It was a great outlet for my grief, a way to connect with other people affected by cancer and to actually do something about it. I think about how my entire dorm raised money that year, and then the next, for my team in memory of my mom. Of how my roommate and friends and church family baked cookies for bake sales and galas, how they woke up at five in the morning three years in a row to help organize our team fundraiser, how they walked for 20 hours beside me every year, how they helped me raise probably around $10,000 for cancer research in four years. No one ever said they didn’t want to do it, and their enthusiasm and support helped me rally through the hardest parts of the year. And still, I thought that they didn’t understand! All this pride to mask all the things I was hiding from myself.

What I’ve come to realize, now that this pride has moved out of the way, is that everyone understands pain. There are different types of pain, different degrees of pain, different names for pain. But we all know what it’s like to feel worthless, enraged, abandoned, not good enough, afraid, or broken. Different experiences shape us but in the contexts of our own lives, we all understand these emotions as humans. My pain feels unique, because my mother was unique and our bond was special. But if we didn’t understand the basic premise of pain, would we really be able to love each other through the hard times the way we do, even when we may have never experienced what the person is going through?

I have learned a lot about my grief and about myself this year. I have learned to accept that it does not go away, that it will require constant care and self-love. Every season brings in a different tide – usually it is just a thimble-full, tucked away inside, but then without warning, it becomes an ocean and I feel lost at sea. It is times like these where I feel plunged into a silence, a bubble that I cannot burst. I can be riding the metro, surrounded by people and noise, or go out with friends and make polite conversation, but I cannot feel the hand that touches me or hear the sounds around me.

Luckily, I’ve always been a strong swimmer. But I’ve also learned over the past few months not to panic, not to be so afraid to float there for a moment. More importantly, I’ve learned how to reach out my own hands and grasp on to the amazing people around me who I love and who love me. Once I’ve embraced the fear, the anger, the sorrow, I’m able to swim back to shore, deflate the bubble, and tuck away that thimble again. I’ve learned to trust that I’ll find my way.

Last night I called my sister-friend and we spoke on the phone for two hours. It was amazing to hear her voice again and humbling to experience, once again, her constant love and grace in action as she listened to my teary apology and welcomed me back with open arms.

So maybe sometimes we swim in different oceans, but I know you understand.

The Littlest Things

Blogging can be a strange thing. It’s demanding of others to read what I write, to take time out of their day to interact with my words and the way I see the world. It’s a selfish things, in so much as writing is a selfish act, to ask for this kind of attention on my thoughts. So I often feel as if my content must make up for such selfishness, an apology for taking up this space. But then I get stuck in my head, caught up in this question of what is interesting and what is worthy of being shared. And then the words that come out feel stilted and hollow, devoid of any resonance, the result of my self-consciousness stripping away their natural power. I get caught up in the artifice of blogging, thinking that if I can just find the BEST café with the BEST wifi and the PERFECT amount of noise that soothes but does not distract, I will be able, at last, to create something worthy. And when nothing comes, I walk away from the task so easily, the discipline of sitting down and completing something suddenly so difficult.

So I stay away from this place, where many things were born, afraid of the discomfort. For every year I’ve been blogging, there has been a stretch of time, usually lasting about a month, when the blog has sat silently waiting for me to come back. Aware of this pattern, however, I wasn’t as concerned about this dry spell as in the past. Like most things, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Instead, I settled in to see just where I’d come out at the end of this tunnel, having learned in the past that I usually emerge from these periods of drought with a better idea of how I want to proceed. I worked on other writing projects and tried to surrender control, following my instincts and exploring different genres. And to my delight, the words seemed to just spring up simply out of taking the time to let them flow on their own and coming back to those same words, tweaking and rearranging, finding better ways to say what I mean. I’ve been stirring up things within me that I’d previously been oblivious to, touching many nerves that released something else in turn. I am coming to terms with the fact that even as I pursue the art of finding the words, I am still someone who fears saying how I truly feel, saying what I need to say. And this little hiatus has reacquainted me with the beauty of what I do: getting to sit with myself, through the good and the bad, and witnessing the changes that come. If I’m lucky, I capture it in words and put it down on paper. But the moments pass quickly, so we must work in each moment.

To me, blogging is about finding the stories within all the ordinary mess of our days, exposing the beauty and ugliness that exists in everything and everyone. The most marvelous things is to sit down with pen and paper, phone off, and to move your hand across it, not worrying about what comes out. I am finally learning to trust this process in everything else that I write. So why not here? Why spend more time worrying about what to blog about than actually writing? I will no longer worry about how interesting this blog is, curating my writing the way we are apt to do on social media. Like the Moleskines and notebooks I’ve carried around with me for years, this will be the place of unfettered creation, where I write because I can and not because I have to. Where the littlest pieces of life – the simplest joys and the silliest of agonies – can be honored.

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Rush Hour

Rush Hour

It’s a crescendo, a rumble, a woosh of the wind coming down the tunneled track. Crush of bodies, tang of sweat and soap, wet wool coats and perfume, squeezing into a space no bigger than the average American closet. It snakes through the underbelly of Paris, wheels shrieking against steel, a high-pitched cry of a child never soothed. From my earliest memories of Paris as a child, the metro represented the thrill of urban unpredictability and excitement, a roller coaster of sights and smells that terrified and delighted me all at once as I gripped my mother’s and aunt’s hands tightly, eyes fixed on the edge of the platform as if I might find myself suddenly propelled over it if I let it out of my sight. Currents of people and music and noise, train after train, wave after wave.

Now a regular commuter and in possession of my own metro pass, navigating through this pulsating network of tunnels and trains has become routine. The things that made my pulse quicken as a little girl have faded into habit and even annoyances. Every now and again, however, something unusual occurs during those periods of the day spent underground that shakes you out of autopilot and grabs your attention. With so many people sharing space and breathing the same air day in and day out, boundaries between private and public life become blurred. Whether it’s as gruesome as projectile vomit or a sweet moment shared with a stranger, they remind me not to lose the wonder I felt as a child at the first tastes of the big world. Here are three little stories from the Parisian underground to wake up your senses as they did mine.

The One with the Projectile Vomit

Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. It’s a bright early morning, cold and clear, and the rush to work is off to a grind. Tailored suits and leather shoes, sleepy eyes and breakfasts on the go, headphones and screens to block out the rest of the world, as if living in their own orbit. In this way, we walk swiftly in one mass, together yet always apart. Up and down the steps of the metro, our legs take us over the crests and valleys of concrete hills, from one platform to the next. We descend into the ground just to pop up through the ground at our destination, tunneling our way through the earth like moles, blinded by the light that awaits outside. Our hub is Chatelet/Les Halles, a palace of intersecting corridors and processions of weaving bodies right in the center of the city where despite the lack of sunlight, time can be measured by the urgency in footsteps.

I am with a friend. After navigating through this giant fortress of activity, we make it to one of the major exits, Porte du Louvre, a 12-foot wall of stairs up to ascend to reach the street. Side by side, we trudge up the steps, concentrating on our footing and staking a claim to what little amount of space is ours among the pack. As we come up on the street, I see a woman up ahead plop herself down on the edge of the sidewalk, a large suitcase beside her. The morning commotion on the street mirrors that in the metro, bodies in motion whose individual faces have been erased in our little bubbles. A few more steps forward and we are passing this woman when a stream of liquid escapes from her mouth and projects through the air, landing at least two feet away from her. For an instant, this little pocket of the world stands still, stunned out of the clouds, shocked by the sheer force hidden in the depths of this woman’s stomach, and the mere centimeters between ourselves and the spray that could have changed the course of our days. Nonetheless, the circling orbits of so many lives played out in one space have finally collided, forced to acknowledge one another’s presence if only for a short moment.

The One with the 90€-Conversation

It happened while I was changing lines, heading home just as the late afternoon storm of too many limbs and stoic stares and insults was gathering. A tap on my shoulder and I turn to find a middle-aged man asking me if I could do him a favor. I don’t answer but the look of suspicious skepticism must have been pronounced for he says that I shouldn’t be scared, he won’t bite. People are flooding past us and I think about walking away, how easy it would be to be swept away with the crowd. He says it will only take five minutes and I can’t help myself from telling him that’s kind of a long time, enough for me to switch lines and catch the next metro going home.

But I’m trying to be more patient and in reality, I have nowhere to be, so I stay. He launches into a long story involving running out of gas, not having enough money on him to pay for more, not having the right papers on him for his bank to help him (footnote: this is kind of probable in France, land of bureaucratic hassles), and spending the whole day asking strangers for help only to be ignored or told no. He’s from a small town in the middle of France and he just wants to get home tonight. I can sympathize with both of these sentiments, having often bemoaned the lack of kindness Parisians have for one another.

“How much do you need?” I ask, reaching for my wallet. I happen to have 40€ on me and it’s been a good month so I know I can spare it. But he tells me he needs 90€ to make it all the way back home, that if I give him my mailing address he’ll write me a check to reimburse me and put it in the mail tomorrow. He also promises a bottle of my favorite perfume as his sister apparently works in a beauty shop.

At this point, we are outside on the street again, having gone outside the station while he explained his story and I’m not sure what to do. I want to be kind and trusting but you just never know and 90€ is a lot. I start to change my mind and voice my doubts, saying i am happy to give him what i have on me. He then becomes distraught, almost angry, saying he thought I understood his situation and that he’ll never be able to get home with 40€.

I should have walked away. But something provoked me to stay, maybe the part of me that hates disappointing others, and so I give him my address before walking to an ATM to withdraw the remaining difference. After handing him the money and wishing him the best of luck, I can already sense the feeling in my gut telling me that maybe I’ve just been emotionally manipulated into giving a perfect stranger 90€ for God knows what. There’s something guilty about his expression as he walks away but I try not to think about it too much, reminding myself that a good deed isn’t about being repaid anyway.

It’s as I’m recounting the details of this odd encounter to a friend later that night that I realize just how many holes there are in his story, all the questions I should have asked but didn’t think of. Suddenly I feel very vulnerable, imagining intruders at my window thanks to the address, and sheepish for being so naive. And why did this man pick me out of the crowd? For a couple of days, I find myself on edge in the metro, watching my back and trying to appear as unapproachable as possible.

But in a few days, the feeling passes and the whole experience is filed under the many lessons I’ve learned while living here. Only my curiosity remains about what a well-dressed, middle-aged man’s intentions could possibly be in singling out a young woman in the metro for 90€.

The One with the Giggles

On the first day that spring finally conquers the winter grey, a friend and I decide to meet at le Sacré Coeur in Montmartre to enjoy the sunshine after months of seeking refuge in cafés. It appears that we are not the only ones who have decided to take advantage of the weather as Line 2 is particularly crowded for the early afternoon. Every car is packed, passengers standing with bags pressed tightly against them and faces practically against the necks of those around them. Normally such rides seem interminable but the promise of a warm spring day awaiting just above has appeased the Parisian spirit and these irritations are forgotten.

Somewhere amidst the crowd the side of my car, a young woman in a baseball cap is talking loudly on the phone, apparently recounting the events of a night out. She begins to laugh, and not the cute little “tehehe” kind. This is a loud, rollicking laugh, the kind that sucks the air out of the lungs to make a strangling sound at the end of a riff, one that sometimes leads to snorting. It rings out through the car above the clamour, filling the empty spaces above heads and between legs. It sends a ripple through the crowd, soft at first, until shoulders shake, hands cover mouths, and faces bury into the backs of friends. A peal finally escapes from someone’s lips and breaks the seal, everyone laughing and not knowing why and laughing even harder at the absurdity of it all. Through eight different stops and new sets of passengers, the chorus swells and when I finally reach my stop, I don’t want to leave. But I’d like to imagine the laughter spreading down the length of that train as it continued along the serpentine tracks that day, greeting each wave of people with the pure unbridled joy of being alive in this city so hardened by life.


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a.k.a on facing situations of letting your guard down and taking people on human being to human being

  1. projectile vomiting in the metro:
  2. money lending in the metro

The Plunge

The Plunge

There’s a place I go in the mornings, to wind down after the first hours of work and gain momentum for the rest, letting the mind churn out excess thoughts and reset. It’s commonly known as a swimming pool but in Paris, this name is too benign, conjuring up images of your friendly, local YMCA pool where the water is a place where community thrives as much as where exercise takes place. In Paris, this scene takes on a more aggressive atmosphere, as strenuously competitive and cramped as other aspects of life here.

I am generally greeted with a long line waiting for the doors to open. There is no profile for the Parisian swimmer; from the moment the doors open, it’s a mad dash for the changing rooms, businessmen and grandmothers alike stripping down with astonishing speed, and charging into the showers. Be it a lunchbreak on a weekday, early morning on the weekends, or late at night, lanes fill, water flies, and the ants fall into line, one behind the other, in an endless circuit of dizzying movement for this myope. Like playground days long gone of timing your leap into the spinning jumprope’s vortex, entrance into this cog requires careful timing and an assertive push off the wall.

One, two, three, four, breathe. Head bowed, I follow the fizzy wake of the swimmer ahead, making the necessary adjustments in pace. The water offers respite from the incessant noise of the world outside, all sound dissolving into the vacuum, pools of refracted light shimmering at the bottom. Despite my predisposition to excessively worry about other people’s judgments, I try to ignore the looming presence behind me and the pressure of not lagging behind, focusing on my own shadow gliding along the bottom of the pool. We’re all in this together. Traffic becomes heavy at the end of each lane as swimmers readjust googles and caps, catching their breath and putting some distance between themselves and those ahead before getting back on the race track. Through my half-blinded state, I assess the landscape, counting the blurred arms flying and heads bobbing on the surface. At peak hours, which seems to be always, there can be as many as 16 limbs coming towards you.  It seems one can never escape the density of life in the city, always compacted tightly together.

Though unspoken, a certain code of conduct reigns over the splashing madness of the swimming pool and as the lanes fill up, a miniature model of the population emerges, a collection of bodies of varying proportions and personalities. The most fit, serious swimmers set the pace, their movements strong and sure, unwavering in their confident circuit up and down the pool. They are the leaders, wired to push forward and attract others to follow. These followers include those who are able to keep up with the general rhythm but are also attune to the needs of the group as a whole, willing to adjust their own behaviors to benefit the overall group. I most certainly fall into this category, preferring to adapt than to force my way through the tangle of limbs. We make the accommodations necessary for creating a peaceful environment conducive to everyone’s needs. Meanwhile, the leisurely and slower swimmers go at their own pace, and though at least one lane is usually reserved for them, limited space and high demand lead to a mingling of skill levels. There’s also always that one person doing water gymnastics, somersaulting all the way down the length of the pool at the speed of a porpoise, carefree and oblivious to any interruption they may be causing. But we adapt, the swifter swimmers  respectfully passing only when feasible and the rest of us courteously hugging the lane’s shoulder and pausing at the end to let them go before us.  Under the auspices of these rules, fluid movement is maintained and this micro-system functions nicely.

Perhaps inevitably, however, this harmony quickly breaks down. Whether from lack of oxygen or sheer arrogance, a group of impatient individuals systematically disregards everyone else’s right to an enjoyable experience. These are the swimmers who breathe down your neck as they pass down the narrow median with oncoming traffic directly ahead, volleying for a prime position in the line-up. Such “road rage” forces everyone else to yield, shield their faces, break their breathing pattern and roll on their side in order to avoid catching an elbow to the face, groin, or stomach. As these dissenters muscle their way through, all cohesion disintegrates and resentment begins to build. Once courteous swimmers become as tyrannically insenistive as these rude rule-breakers, succumbing to the temptation to resist this callousness with equally bad behavior.  A few elbow jabs and tidal waves sending me scrapping against the ropes and I feel all the meditative qualities I love most about my swim leaving me as my irritation rises. What began as a mentally-stimulating, invigorating work out becomes a race to see how long I can stay in the game before my patience maxes out.

With few exceptions, these people who feel entitled to disregard everyone else’s space and feelings have been men. From the bulkiest, balding tanks to the sleek young businessmen with ripped swimmer’s bodies, the message has been clear: “my time in the swimming pool is more important than yours and if you don’t move over, I don’t care if I hurt you in the process.” They go back and forth in this way, violently churning up the water and pushing people aside as they go. At best, their behavior is disruptive and disrespectful, but it is also unsafe. Worst of all, it goes unchecked, with lifeguards and other swimmers turning a blind eye until a confrontation occurs. They stand smugly at the end of each lane as if daring anyone to say something. I have even witnessed a few shouting matches between offended swimmers and these aggressors, the most dramatic involving a man trying to block a woman from swimming in the middle of the lane with a paddle board, refusing to let her pass on either side and resulting in blows from said object. Interestingly, this woman was one of the few who herself was swimming aggressively. How convenient that a man swimming in a way that endangers others around him is left unchecked or approached with great deference but a woman behaving with similar aggression merits to be attacked with a paddle board.

These confrontations have left me with the feeling that though so much progress has been made for women in our society, a large proportion of men continue to move through this world with rampant indifference towards the consequences of their behavior. It is disheartening to see so many generations of entitlement within the confines of 12 feet of water play out and wonder if it will ever be different. Our world is in crisis in so many ways and yet we are still incapable of thinking of others and functioning with a modicum of respect for one another.  No, instead it appears we are fated to continue pummeling one another, pushing the weak aside and forgetting that we are all humans deserving of love and respect. Even in a chlorinated basin of water.


Image courtesy of Jay Mantri @


Hello, Stranger

Hello, Stranger

Lock the doors, cellphone turned on and at the ready at all times, perfection a steely gaze while walking through the city and avoid all human contact. We’ve been raised to believe in our vulnerability and the vicious, cruel intentions of anything and anyone outside of our circle. Minds poisoned with television dramas and police thrillers, reeling with all the ways we could possibly be hurt. So we bury ourselves away in protective layers – perpetual distraction with the swipe of a finger, closed to the world passing by.

The first time I ever toyed with the idea of hitchhiking was as a lanky preteen joking around with my best friends on the side of a quiet road in rural North Carolina. There was something thrilling  at the thought of a perfect stranger stopping at the sign of a thumb, not to mention the deliciously satisfying element of the forbidden. Amid giggles and friendly shoving, we stuck our thumbs out and waited. But at the sound of a car rounding the bend in the road, we’d lose our nerve and pull our thumbs away at the last minute, erupting into fits of laughter and high-pitched squeals as drivers cast confused and disapproving looks upon our little group. Egging one another on, our thumbs stayed up longer, the winner to walk away with the glory of being the bravest. I can no longer remember who won the dare but I do remember our failed experiment ending when our church pastor at the time recognized us and pulled over to see what on earth was going on. First lesson of hitchhiking: don’t do it in your small hometown.

Then my friend Bri and I began planning our trip to Ireland. She brought up the idea after reading an informative article written by seasoned traveler and solo hitchhiker Ana Bakran, who addresses many of the myths and concerns of hitchhiking as a woman today. Her confidence and sage advice made us excited to try it for ourselves as we drew up an itinerary for our 10-day trip around Ireland. Not only was it sure to be an adventure but we’d be saving lots of money on bus tickets, a bonus for travelers on a budget.

So after a weekend in Dublin, we headed out beyond the western city limits in the direction of Galway. Although Ireland generally looks favorably upon hitchhiking, it is illegal to hitchhike on the highway. Therefore, we made sure to place ourselves as far out of town as possible right before the highway junction. Shivering with excitement and nervousness despite the sunny blue sky, we stationed ourselves near an intersection, feeling a bit self-conscious as drivers swiftly rushed past. Thumbs out, a handmade sign made of cardboard with our destination in bold letters, and high spirits were all we needed. The initial timidity quickly fell away as we committed to the task and drivers began signaling with their hands, indicating they were turning in the other direction or simply offering up a little wave. Whether they stopped or not, suddenly these strangers all seemed less removed and fear of the unknown began to retract.

We stood there for about 30 minutes, doing our best to look cheery and confident, before an older gentleman in a worn driver’s cap and white whiskers getting off at the bus stop nearby came over and kindly informed us that we’d have much better luck if we moved further down the road a bit. Tip number two: listen to unsolicited advice from locals. In nearly every location, strangers walking by or driving would pull over and offer us this type of advice and it always served us well. After standing in our new spot for a little while longer, another man with whom we’d spoken earlier as he put up campaign signs drove up beside us and offered to take us even further so that we’d really only be getting traffic headed out West. A 10-minute drive up the road and a 15-minute wait later and we soon had hitched ourselves a direct ride to Galway!

Our luck in finding rides from friendly, respectful drivers continued as we wound our way down the Atlantic coast. In Galway, a shared meal with a young man staying at our hostel led to an invitation to join him down South to the Cliffs of Moher. In his rented car, we rode through the rolling countryside of the Burren on narrow back roads, ancient pilings of stone walls winding beside us. Routes that would be impossible for bulky buses to weave through, this unexpected opportunity to experience Ireland’s backwaters left us breathless and hungry for more, so restorative was all the lush green after months of Paris’ stiff grey. It was all we could do to restrain ourselves from shouting “Stop!” every five minutes in order to pull over to take pictures and breathe in the crisp fresh air. One mustn’t abuse one’s host’s generosity, after all.

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Cliffs of Moher at sunset, February 2016.

As you hitchhike, you learn pretty quickly what you’re comfortable with and about its exigencies. We quickly devised a system to ensure that we both felt comfortable in accepting lifts from the drivers who pulled over. By the end of the trip, I had accumulated a collection of photos of Irish license plates on my phone, as I always discretely snapped a quick picture of each driver’s plate as we loaded our bags into the car; just a precaution should a driver need incentive to drop us off when and where we asked. No such problems arose, however. It also became quickly apparent that there is no downtime when hitchhiking; most drivers want to chat and learn more about you and your travels, and it’s best to stay aware of your surroundings as well. Though this may have impeded us from catching up on any lost sleep from early mornings and noisy hostels, the conversations we shared in with our drivers were rich and informative, from the wine vendor who gave us tons of festival recommendations to the man from Belfast who gave us a tour of a seaside town. We arrived in each of our destinations well-informed of their history and best spots to see, eat , and drink, and other insider tips we never would have learned otherwise. Not to mention the long list of places and events to discover next time go to Ireland that our Irish hosts eagerly shared with us.

As with every trip, of course, there was a moment of discouragement, when we would have given anything to just be back in our warm beds at home. The infamous Irish weather that we’d somehow managed to evade all week descended upon us on the last leg of our trip from Cork back to Dublin, making for quite a soggy evening. Trying to take advantage of our short amount of time in such a cool, quirky city, we dawdled in the lanes of English Market, odors of fresh bread, cheese, and sausages wafting through the bright, enclosed space. While we sipped our cappuccinos in the hip little café of the Triskel Arts Centre, a converted cathedral that now serves as a concert and film screening venue and equipped with a record store, clouds gathered in the sky and unleashed their vengeance: a drenching cold rain that didn’t let up for hours. By the time we returned to our hostel to fetch our bags and head out of town, it was too late to correct our mistake. Though only 4:30pm, darkness had rolled in with the weather front and with it, our chances of catching a direct ride all the way back to Dublin were looking pretty bad.

Nonetheless, we wrapped our backpacks in garbage bags and reiterated our belief to one another that someone, just one person, would pull over and give us a lift. A ten-minute walk up the road towards the edge of town through sheets of rain and our faith began to quiver. The temperature had dropped by a couple degrees and our extremities were already beginning to numb when we stuck our thumbs out at a spot with plenty of Friday rush-hour traffic going in a northeastern direction, though in truth, the weather had made us complacent and we probably should have moved further out of town. The rain was falling so hard and windshield wipers moving so fast that all hopes of making crucial eye contact were lost. Still, we waited, trying to will a lift into existence and singing out our pleas in silly rhymes to lift our mood, huddling together and jumping up and down to stay warm, until the cold rain soaked through our layers and we had to admit defeat. No free ride to Dublin was worth catching pneumonia. A Guinness, a warm fire to dry off in front of, and some friendly chatter in a pub and we were on the bus to Dublin. My shoes will probably never be the same but it was one of those nights to look back on with a smile that distance affords.

Growing up in a small town where the closest thing to stranger driving by was my church pastor, I don’t think my 13-year-old self would ever have thought it possible for such generosity to exist. The world seemed so much larger and distant, separate from our little bubble. As I’ve entered adulthood as a woman living in a big city, that view of our global society has come into greater focus but my sense of vulnerability often remains. We are made to think, especially as women, that we must form thick walls around us at all times as we move through our daily lives. Perhaps this is why not one woman stopped to offer us a ride or give us directions. Times have changed, people say, they’re too dangerous for hitchhiking. But after Ireland, I disagree. Of course, there are bad people in this world. Of course, you have to be careful, follow your instinct, don’t take unnecessary risks. But I don’t see how this day and age is more dangerous than the previous decades when my own parents followed their hearts and instincts across miles and miles of foreign territory, with only their thumb to guide them. The only difference I see is a closing off of people, of our willingness to really see others and form real connections. Five strangers and 436.5 miles. Call it beginner’s luck … or maybe people are just a little kinder than we are led to believe.

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