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It’s raining metaphors

Umbrella by Art.Lebedev Studio.

My original intention for this post was to compare life to the unpredictable nature of weather.

Since Spring has arrived, the weather in Amsterdam has become much more fickle and I find I can no longer make a semi-accurate forecast by simply reading the sky when I wake up. This usually worked for me in the winter, but I have lately found myself fooled on too many occasions. Lesson: you can’t judge the day’s weather based on how the sky looks at 7 in the morning, just wear layers and shoes (as much as you may hate it) and keep your stupid plastic rain pants handy.

And there it was, finally some neat and tidy little metaphor I could use to write another long-overdue blog post and remind those who read it that I have not, in fact, lost all of my fingers in some horrible accident. As I face yet another major fork in the road of life and do little but worry about every potential decision I have to make, I can look up at the changing skies and remind myself that I can’t judge something by how it looks at first, that I just have to grab my umbrella and walk out the door. Eureka! Blog, here I come! Everybody can relax now, I finally thought of something moderately clever to bore you all with for a good 3 idle minutes of your workday.

So, thusly motivated, I sat down to write and promptly realized how tired and overused not only this metaphor is, but also the subject matter in general. It bored me too quickly to even get through the first paragraph, and I realized it’s because I was basically about to rewrite the same post I’ve already written 10 times in different ways–most of them at this time last year when I was right where I am now (minus 9 months in Europe). The formula is this: my life is about to change dramatically, I’m facing another bunch of big scary decisions, I might not choose the right ones, there’s no way to know if something will work out until after it’s too late, but I have been newly reminded by some aspect of daily life that it’s all OK, that we just have to push on and make the best decision we can at the time and hope for the best. Ta-da! Enlightening, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, these cute little metaphors leave me still facing the stormy future with no fewer worries, and no more answers. And they probably leave you rolling your eyes at your computer screen thinking “deal with it” or perhaps clicking back to YouTube or textsfromlastnight where the real action is. And no, I won’t be offended if you click that link and do not read the rest of this post. It’s an addictive site.

The point is, the weather metaphor is as exhausted as I feel with so many impending decisions looming on the  horizon yet again. But no one is going to give me the answers, or even a little sympathy, and it’s time to change my attitude, stop worrying and start doing. As my mom always says, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” And while I think that’s bull shit, and that some weather just sucks, I admit that it’s time to hitch up my big girl panties and take the next step, whatever it turns out to be.

I just hope I wear the right jacket.


How can I put this…

One of many sculptures in Retiro Park. It has a secret.

Sitting in Retiro Park on my last afternoon in Madrid, all I could think about was how I wouldn’t be able to write about the city in any way that does it justice, how I wouldn’t be able to avoid a string of cliché adjectives so overused they’ve lost meaning, so I simply wouldn’t bother.

But as the street music in the park grew louder and the new April sun tightened its grip on me, I sat there soaking in the feeling you get only from the blinding energy and violent color that pump through a living city, the feeling of numbing bliss you get when traveling that convinces you for the moment that you’ll never feel it again, never be able to describe it, never truly understand what it was.

I figured this had to be worth an attempt of at least a few sentences.

So, for me, Madrid is Retiro Park – laying in the sweet, sticky grass on a Friday afternoon as a warm breeze sends a blizzard of white petals spinning and dancing through the trees. It’s a pink ice cream cone on Saturday, it’s spending a few hours letting the sun—finally free from its winter cell—heat me, cover me, wrap me up for the first time this year.

It’s standing in El Tigre, a packed, grimy tapas bar—the floor covered in wadded napkins and cigarette butts—eating hot croquetas and drinking beer amid the loud voices of hungry Spaniards just released from a week of work. My shoes stick to the floor and my shirt sticks to my back and I feel warmly welcomed to Spain.

It’s moving up the stairs of the metro station with a hot, crushing crowd of other Sunday morning shoppers on their way to El Rastro market and hearing the street music before I’ve even emerged from below ground, when all I can see is a cloudless sky and all I can hear is energy, voices, and rhythm. Seven Spanish men are there—two guitars, two accordions, a giant bass cello, a saxophone, and one just dancing, who moves and shakes as though he’d never even learned to walk before he was using his legs to dance. They play and sing and shout and sway and effortlessly fill the bodies and hearts of the crowd with a tick, an itch, a beating euphoria.

It’s laying on the little bed of our cheap 8th floor Gran Via hotel room for an evening nap, the sky turning from blue to orange to purple to black out the window as I listen to the hushed breathing of the lovely person next to me and the distant, excited clamor of the traffic below.

It’s sitting in a peaceful square in La Chueca on Sunday evening, drinking cheap cans of San Miguel on a bench as the sun sinks behind the buildings and everyone around raises their drink and bids a quiet farewell to another weekend.

It’s sitting in Retiro Park, yet again, on Sunday, that last afternoon, thinking this is too much life, too much energy and color and humanity and love to know what to do with. We lay among the giant pillars of the monument behind the lake, the sun pressing insistently on our faces, our necks, our bare feet. Blue and white boats slide across the water with each lazy stretch of an oar. People watch a big group of drummers with djembes as together they push a solid moving sound high above us all.  They pound their drums faster and louder and the beat shakes with such a force that the air itself seems to be moving, and you hear it and you feel it and everything becomes part of you and you’re blind and you’re dizzy and you’re happy and you have seen Madrid.


View from the Top

the view from our chalet

They say dreams are more vivid at high altitudes.

To me that sounds like a load of crap, but my subconscious confirmed it recently when I spent a week in the Swiss Alps. After seven months living in the center of a major European city and traveling once a month to other major European cities, I was looking forward to a week in the mountains away from concrete, traffic and metros, in a place where I could raise myself  above cluttered streets and a cluttered mind.

What I found there in those mountains – aside from the most grandiose landscape I’ve ever seen – was indeed a higher level of consciousness and a more extreme range of emotions than I’ve reached in a long time; and it left me tired, despondent and agitated. All week, instead of floating around in my usual and comfortable mass of vague ideas, questions and worries, I found myself either digging for any kind of thought at all in my hollow icy cave of a brain, or desperately trying to flee an avalanche of inexplicable anxieties.

To be clear, it was definitely a relaxing week with little cause for stress – which is perhaps why I was so unnerved by the snowball fight going on inside my head. I was in Verbier on a ski holiday with my adoptive family, and I passed the time playing in the snow, looking after the kids in our chalet, eating good food, sitting by the fire, and reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. All in all, a very nice way to spend seven days.

Though, being a California girl who’s always followed heat like a house cat moving across the carpet with the afternoon sun, I did feel out of my element in the snow. I tried snowboarding a few times on the baby slopes, and the cold, harsh reminder that I am and will forever be a big sissy hit me as hard as my ass hit the piste. Somehow I thought I’d be able to do it, but I’m just too scared to relinquish any amount of control and really go for it. I finally gave up (hating myself all the more) when the unhygienic Swiss lift operator who didn’t speak English grabbed hold of me for the third or fourth time to offer a boost on the drag lift, and I lost my balance and control and the thing ripped that plastic flying saucer from my crotch yet again. I lay there as that infuriating Swiss mountain boy stood over me shaking his shaggy head with pity that humiliates you in the way that only pity from such a lowly creature can.

We did spend one of the mornings at the village’s indoor swimming pool instead of the baby slopes, and I was able to enjoy water in the state of matter in which I feel much more comfortable, much more natural, much more – if you will – fluid. I closed my eyes, submerged myself, and there, swimming in that dingy community lap pool far past its prime, with the mountains gazing down on me like wise elders, my mind reached a quiet equilibrium. I let my body sail effortlessly through the water as my thoughts balanced calmly between the two opposing forces of all or nothing that challenged me the whole week.

That night I had a dream that looked and felt more real than the conscious world had seemed all week. I was flying. I steadily propelled myself forward using the same strength and ease with which I swim. I’d never been so convinced of coasting naturally through the clouds. When I woke up I thought how odd it is – how poetic – that somehow being higher in the physical, geographical sense means we are lifted up and pushed not only toward the sky, but toward our own elevated subconscious – that misty, clouded place that is always so far out of reach.

I appreciate the mountains for all their inspiring grandeur and humbling might, and bow to their power of challenging me physically, mentally and emotionally while on what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday; but ultimately, I think I’m better off down here, at sea level, where I can swim happily in the steady ebb and flow of my mind.


The Guessing Game

I’m nearing the end of another Thursday, typically my toughest and most tiring day of the work week, and here is how I’ve spent the afternoon: watching Finding Nemo on the couch before settling down at the kitchen table to play with play-doh and listen to Mika. Did I mention that I have a college degree and this is what I’m being paid for? Awesome, right? They call something like what I’m doing a “year off” for a reason, and I don’t deny that life is mostly fun and games for me (with the occassionial bout of homesickness or I-can’t-stand-these-kids-another-minute sickness mixed in).

Of course, as with anything, there is a flip side. As it turns out, doing things like playing with play-doh, giving baths, cleaning up toys and making family dinners does not leave me feeling very fulfilled or accomplished. I’m happy and proud of the relationships I’ve formed with this family and the care I am able to give the boys, but at the end of the day I’m exhausted and have nothing to show for it. Nothing, that is, except two little kids safe and happy in their beds. While I don’t discount the value in this, it’s just a very different kind of achievement than what I was used to in school and college sports. I’m not getting hard-earned A’s on any papers, not rowing for 2 hours before anyone else I know has even gotten out of bed, not making any progress for myself.

It’s not as though I babysit all day and then just sit around staring at the wall the rest of the time; I read, I travel, I explore the amazing city I’ve planted myself in. But the other 35-40 hours a week, the hours I spend at the playground or changing diapers or breaking up little fights, leave me physically and emotionally deflated while my mental and intellectual needs are left almost entirely unmet.

People often ask me if being an au pair has turned out like I’d expected it. I tell them yes, that my job is almost exactly what I imagined it would be. What I predicted inaccurately was my own level of contentment. I chose to seek a position abroad as an au pair because of both the limited financial impact and the fact that it would be easy. Fun. Games. I would just get to play all the time. I figured I’d been working my ass off for four years, so why not give myself a break and see Europe while I’m at it? And while this has been an overwhelmingly positive experience thus far in almost every aspect, it turns out that the very thing that appealed to me about this decision is the very thing I now struggle with most.

I did not see that one coming.

Maybe I’m an idiot, or maybe I just guessed wrong. That’s what we’re all doing anyway, isn’t it? Guessing? Those of us recently out of college or approaching graduation all face similar questions and doubts about the future. As confident as some might seem in the “life path” they’ve chosen, the goal they’ve set and the means they’ll use to get there, I would bet good money that they really don’t have a clue and are just hoping they’re pointing themselves in the right direction.

I gave myself some extra decision-making time by using a year while I’m young to see Europe, something many will never find the time to do when they’re older. But now that year is halfway over and I find myself staring the future in the face – mocking me with teeth bared – once again.

What I can do now is make the most of my situation and use what I’ve learned to make a more educated guess next time around. And I shouldn’t say that my hours spent with kids leaves me with nothing to think about. Like the scene in Finding Nemo (no, not “just keep swimming”) when Marlin and Dory are clinging for their lives to the upturned tongue of a whale, debating whether or not to let go and plummet to the uncertain depths of his dark, cavernous throat. Dory yells to Marlin,

“He says it’s time to let go! Everything’s gonna be all right!”

“How do you know? How do you know something bad isn’t gonna happen?”

She thinks for a second, then:

“I don’t!”

And they let go.

I have to admit that when it comes to Dory, the free spirit and hopeless optimist, and Marlin, the over-cautious worrier, I swim in the current of the clownfish. But we could all be a little more like Dory, and I can definitely say that as far as big decisions go, I have yet to regret just letting go when the time came and seeing what would happen.


D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: Aesthetic Bliss

An Italian edition. I recently read Lolita and found myself unable to describe its impact on me –  making my heart spin, my brain fog up, and my mouth hang open in rapturous disbelief – until I came to Nabokov’s supplement at the end of the book and found that he’d done it for me.

He offers a few notes on his reason for writing what would become his masterpiece; he called it a “throbbing” that grew in him over a number of years until he plainly needed to just get the thing out of himself (with mixed reception, to put it simply). Without restraint, Nabokov criticizes those who cannot read a piece of fiction without asking “Why?” Why did he write it? Why should it be read? What does it have to teach us? Of course we’ve all been instructed to ask these questions by simple-minded English teachers who were instructed to ask us these questions by their simple-minded superiors, but in the end, do we (should we)  always need a reason, a lesson, to glean from fiction? Nabokov writes,

There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.

So why read something that doesn’t teach us anything? Is it worth the hours spent squinting over page after page, sentence after sentence, word after word in hopes that we might find something that can briefly give us the sense of another state of being? Three important reasons come to mind when I think of Lolita (none of them seeking the didactic):

-1- To better understand language in itself as an artistic medium and discover the surprising, unique and beautiful things that can be done with it (by a non-native speaker, nonetheless).

-2- To think things and feel things that you may not have known possible.

And -3-  To taste for even a fleeting moment – like those waiting and writhing on the trembling pages of Nabokov’s book – pure and complicated and shining aesthetic bliss.


Wiener Wonderland, Part Zwei

5 euro scarves in the Naschmarkt.

Our second day in Vienna started early with quiet snow falling on the window of our hostel room. It had been a while since I stayed in a hostel and I was surprised by the distinct contentment I felt when I rolled over in my sterile sheets that morning, waking to the soft light and the kindly muted sounds of strangers moving about the room. There’s a certain youthful innocence to the hostel experience, kind of like camp; except instead of rolling out of your bunk bed and going downstairs to your archery lesson or nature talk, you roll out of your bunk bed and go downstairs to a grungy bar, pool table, and a dozen 20-somethings using their 50-cent block of internet time to update their Facebook statuses: So-and-so “is in VIENNA! Hell yes!! Europe 2009!!!” or some other equally obnoxious, overly-exclamated way of making sure all their friends know they’re doing something cool. (Admittedly, I do not exclude myself from this group.)

So we pulled on a few thick layers and went for a stroll through the colorful sunlit Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest outdoor market, before exploring the enormous Belvedere gallery where we were lucky enough to brave the crowd and stare – numb with awe and adoration – at Gustav Klimt’s great shimmering masterpiece, “The Kiss.” From the museum we rushed back to our hostel to get dressed for our evening out. This time we wouldn’t be going out to sit in a cloud of smoke and laser lights only to be overcharged for drinks and dodge the eyes of sleezy drunks with greased up hair. No, instead we went to the opera. Guiseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Vienna State Opera, to be specific. It felt rather incongruous to be pulling on evening dresses and heels in our hostel, the dirty water on the floor of the bathroom soaking through the feet of my tights as I did my best to apply mascara in the dim light.

But while we may not have fit in there, we certainly looked the part at the opera house, even if we didn’t act it. Arriving late, we crept through the heavy door of the stately building some 20 minutes after the start of the first act, and flew up the empty stone staircases – our heels clicking on each cold step – to our seats. We then really embarrassed ourselves when the usher reprimanded us for arriving late for the second act as well, having spent too much time taking pictures against the resplendent backdrop.

Our 10 euro tickets did not include a view of the stage, as we were seated so high up and to the side that we could only see the giant donut-shaped chandelier. But we read our translator boxes, let the music move through us, and stood up for a good look when anything exciting happened. The man next to me – Austrian, simply dressed and alone – was strong evidence that one doesn’t need a good view to enjoy the opera. The way he moved – the subtle but frenzied flicks of his wrists and the thrilled twitch of his smile – showed his thorough knowledge of the music, of every rise and fall, every sparkling moment. When it ended, he invited us down a few rows with him to lean over the banister and have a better look at the triumphant performers, then he walked slowly out of the room, his hands raised high above his head as he clapped them together with the reverberating boom of a man truly moved.

We finished off the night with dinner in a fancy Italian restaurant and drinks in a 6th floor lounge/bar sitting against huge windows with a view dominated by the adjacent St. Stephen’s Cathedral, lit dramatically against the black sky. All in all it was a high class evening, but I didn’t get through it without losing at least some of my dignity with a minor incident that truly demonstrates Austrian politeness. As our waiter removed my coat before seating us at the restaurant, my heavy wool shroud (and the static cling that it had been devilishly propagating against my satin dress) came off only to lift my skirt above my rear end and attach it to my back, revealing my ass – thinly veiled by sheer gray tights, but clearly there nonetheless – to the entire restaurant. And although I am regrettably certain that people saw, including our wait staff, I noticed not a single reaction then or throughout the meal.

I thanked the heavens for this the following morning at the Hofburg Imperial Chapel where we sat through mass with nuns and tourists alike to hear the angelic voices of the famous Vienna Boys Choir. It was one of the strangest, most unbelievable things I have ever seen. Truly unworldly, seraphic sounds coming from the diaphragms and vocal chords of 25 bony, scraggly 10-14-year-old boys with shaggy hair and wrinkly sweaters.

We too, it seemed, proved unable to fit ourselves into our surroundings there quite like we’d hoped. Though so much of the city calls for solemnity and dignity, we couldn’t help but laugh at inappropriate times throughout the weekend as we pulled our inadequate clothing around our shivering shoulders. I mean, although it is simply the German word for “Viennese” – a word that evokes only rich history, art and grandeur – it’s difficult not to giggle when “WIENER” is posted with such exuberance and pride everywhere you look.


Wiener Wonderland, Part Eins

Winter festival!My weekend in Vienna was one of contrast–high and low culture, extravagance and simplicity, chance encounters with people both delightful and dreadful.

We started off the trip with a fancy lunch at the beautiful Palmenhaus. On our way there we found an old woman who had fallen on the icy curb, seemingly landing on her face, and had been laying there unable to get up for who knows how long.  Her nose was purple and lumpy and seemed to be swelling by the minute, and her lovely coat was splashed with blood from a small cut on her face. Fortunately my travel companion, Tiffany, had a stash of Kleenex to offer, so we and the woman who’d found her first helped her up to a bench and just stood there dumbly offering sympathy and something to catch the blood. In spite of the trauma, though, both ladies were extremely friendly as they waited for the ambulance, the old bird smiling and nodding and thanking us profusely in German as she soaked tissue after tissue with her own blood, tried to catch her breath, and fussed with her furs and felts in an attempt to look composed. I’d heard that Austrians are polite, by my goodness.

After getting over the shock of finding a bloody old lady on the street, we ate and enjoyed an afternoon of modern art at the Kunsthalle where they were showing an Edward Hopper exhibit, including a photo set for visitors constructed and lit as an exact replica of “Western Motel” so you could be your own lonely and brooding Hopper character. After refueling with some perfect lattes in their swanky cafe, we wandered upon the Wiener Winter Festival with colored lights everywhere, an enormous ice skating track, and stand after stand of traditional treats (we went for the enormous donuts).

That evening we reminisced about our college days (oh, how distant they seem) over more coffee and Austrian cakes in a velvety cafe with a horribly rude waiter, conspicuously scoffing and shaking his head at everything we said and did. Their kitchen was closed, so we satisfied our appetites at a street cart outside serving shoarma and enormous portions of slimy, yet delicious, pizza. A large Turk served us up the cheap food with plenty of pet names to go. So we sat and ate on a bench at a tram stop on a yellow-lit street, freezing as we wiped the grease off our hands and did our best to deter a pair of fat, drunk, middle-aged, blue-collar Austrian brothers who accosted us with every other bite. We shooed them off and didn’t get too nervous because we knew our burly Turkish prince would come to our rescue if things got too real. Then it was on to a recommended nightclub that turned out to be over-priced, under-ventilated, and brimming with some serious Euro-trash.

Oh well. Tomorrow night we’d try again.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
June 2018
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