The Meaning of Travel in More Ordinary Days

One of so many long, beautiful staircases in Montmartre

When the great shift has finished, and I’m left with a blank slate of a life and the quietest quiet I’ve known for months or maybe even years, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I imagine a lot of us are there now, in some way, mentally if not physically – even if we had a trip planned. Reading that article, I realized something: if finances and responsibilities allowed, I’d be on a flight there tomorrow.

That’s kind of always true, but especially true right now.

My days as I progress into this next part of my life are marked by these kinds of realizations. It feels like luxury, after this long summer-into-fall, to be able to have the thought I would go to Paris tomorrow if I could and have it be something other than a clawing attempt at escaping necessarily hard days. I am gradually becoming a regular person again. Now that I’m moving past being completely tangled up in job searching, moving, and healing from some real heartbreak, I have sufficient brain and heart to have flights of fancy again. It feels good.

And so a dormant part of me is awakening – the part that thrills to finding how far my stash of airline and travel points will take me, or the part that feels a little frisson of excitement when I see how many airlines fly from SFO and OAK to such wonderful places. I could take one flight and end up in Dubai or Australia or Amsterdam or – well, Stockholm. Thanks to a staggering sale and the well-timed tip of a dear friend, I will be taking advantage of that one myself come February. (My somewhat curious decision to go to Scandinavia in February is not without precedent in my life, of course.) In the last week, I’ve thought or talked about going to not just Paris, but also Peru. Washington, DC. (I’ve never been. I know, it’s hella weird.) Stinson Beach. Los Angeles. Mexico City. Rome.

The power got reconnected, and the lights are coming back on in the house.

I didn’t stop thinking of traveling during the extremely stressful weeks between July and, oh, a couple weeks ago. It just had a different timbre: what if I just went to Paris and didn’t tell anyone and just didn’t come back, what would that be like, would that fix stuff? the little voice that comes from somewhere in my lizard brain said. What if you just put some underwear and a toothbrush in a little bag and went to SFO with that empty credit card and just blew this popsicle stand, huh? 

This isn’t a sign of real fear; this is a game I, veteran of a certain kind of anxiety, play with myself to find the truth in negative feelings. I feel bad right now. Ok, self, that’s fine. Is it the kind of bad we should just wade through? What if we picked up and went back to Seattle right now? Would that fix it? But I like learning programming. But I know that relationship needed to end, even though it hurts like hell. But I’m not willing to go back to that old paradigm of communication, just because it would seem easier in the moment. Cool, brain. Let’s just keep on learning. Stretching. Trying. Packing. Moving. Keep on going.

It’s been a theme of my life to be reminded, over and over again, until perhaps I really learn it, that the thousand small actions matter so much more than the one big one. It stayed with me this time. Just pack one more box. Just meet one more friend to say goodbye. One more phone call to arrange one more part of moving across multiple states.

One more, and one more, and a thousand more, and now I am really, honestly here. I signed a lease for an apartment last week, and it set off a series of events in my brain that I didn’t even realize were waiting to happen. I am good and here, and I see Oakland now as if I am seeing it anew all over again. The world has stopped being something to pass through, elbows tucked in and moving as fast as I can. Once again, for the first time in a while, life is a banquet.

And my god, but I am hungrier than a boxer at the end of the main event.

To refine this a little bit, to prevent myself from doing the travel equivalent of raiding the Hungry Man shelf at Safeway, I’m going to go back through my rather wonderful archive of travel pictures and tell you stories I’ve been sitting on for a year or more. The room to think again also means, for me, the room to write. Let’s go back to Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam and Tokyo and Victoria and take the long way to Oakland, San Francisco, and all the points present and future.

See you in a few days. Meet you in Montmartre?

The Warmest Welcome, the Enduring Oasis

A cup of hot wine at Place de Tertre in Paris

When I am at loose ends with things, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I know Paris is not a sustainable kind of situation for me, or at least not at this point in my financial and professional life, and a sustainable kind of situation is what I need these days. I need to find somewhere that I can plant myself for a year or two, avec mes chats, and spread out a bit. Paris is attainable for only a few days at a time, here and there, when I am both lucky and plan well.

But, even knowing that, I still go there in my mind when things are hard. And they are right now, so there I am.

Because the memory of beautiful days can outweigh the incredibly difficult reality that surrounded said days.

Because readily available vin chaud can feel, over and over, like the world is welcoming you home.

Because sitting, warmed by heaters and overlooking the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, watching the artists pack up and the coat-clad tourists slipping by, waiting for onion soup (the French is implied, of course) and tipping just enough sugar into your hot wine can be enough to obscure (if not actually erase) the 12-hour travel ordeal proceeded it, as well as whatever unfortunate reality prefaced or followed it. Warm and comfortable and on the cusp of an adventure, an hour or a meal can stand out as one of the handful of perfect moments that we get to keep and hold in a life, if we are very lucky indeed.

And so, when things are hard, it’s easy to long for moments like that, because they stand out, independent of context. Were things perfect then? Before or after? No, of course not. But just for that moment, that hour, my needs were met, and things were good, and the future stretched out ahead like infinite possibility – or I could at least pretend that possibility was infinite.

There will always be Paris. And there will always be me. And the only thing to do is to try to recreate that feeling wherever I end up.

It could be vin chaud in Paris. But it can also be just the right dinner from my own kitchen in a clean apartment. Pulling over on the 101 to look out at the seeming infinity of the ocean, knowing I have what I need to get wherever I’m going. Warm arms around me and nowhere else to be. And these are better things to aim for, because although I will have vin chaud in Paris again, it won’t be the moment when I took the picture at the top. So better to aim for a multitude of perfect moments; the inevitable failures will be fewer and easier to take if I’m looking to augment rather than recreate.

Still, these days, the vin chaud is the thing that calls to me. Autumn seeps into my room at night now, and I can feel the equinox approaching. Times are hard, and I am me, and I treated myself to this book this weekend. I just bought brie and a crusty loaf at the grocery store, which I will enjoy by Lake Merritt in the next couple of days. I do what I can, and I try not to envy my past self too badly.

And I trust there will be more perfect moments ahead. Because I am lucky, and because I plan well.

Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, Where I Am

A most excellent shop window in Montmartre in Paris

I am yearning to travel.

I am currently, technically, traveling every day.

I look up flights in October every day or two lately.

I remind myself that I will probably want nothing more in October than to sit my ass down in my apartment, pet my own cats, and do the work on my home life.

It helps sometimes. For a few minutes.

I’ve just finished my first month of living in the Bay Area. I live in Oakland; I go to school in San Francisco at Hackbright. (You can read about what I’m doing there on my other blog).

I had some realistic ideas about what school would be like. I knew it would absorb most of my energy. I knew it would be a major undertaking. But I still thought of it as a kind of retreat, in that it would be me concentrating on myself and learning a skill. The focus part of a retreat if not the relaxing part.

I didn’t anticipate the difference between the energy that goes into a full-time job and the energy required for 40 solid hours a week of learning something entirely new.

(Spoiler: IT IS MASSIVE.)

And so my “SF planning” spreadsheet, with its optimistic tab of places to explore, is relatively untouched.

A month in, my energy is starting to come back. On Wednesday, I took an indirect route home from BART. I saw this.

Turquoise three-eyed cat graffiti in Oakland

That same day, I took a lunch walk that ended with me reading in Union Square for a while, surrounded by tourists and gobs of languages and the soft summer sunlight.

I have learned that I feel unlike myself when I don’t have the energy to explore. I feel like I’m inhabiting someone else’s weird, small life.

So it’s an interesting, evocative thing for me to think about things like “Shall I take a trip in October, before I (with any luck) get a job? Or shall I respect my limits and needs and stay the eff home for five minutes?” Traveling feels like who I am. Exploring is how the parts of me I love best work in the way I enjoy the most.

I had a sharp division in time about a week and a half after I got to the Bay Area. Except for my six-week depression national tour in 2007, 18 days was the longest I’d ever been away from Seattle in the ten-plus years I’ve lived there – that was my trip to Europe in November. Recognizing that I was approaching that limit and then surpassing it affected me more than I expected. While I’d been to San Francisco and Oakland before, I’d never stayed past the “Gee this is neat and new let’s eat this and see this ok wow windmills right then going home now” point. Doing that has felt like an umbilicus stretching and then going slack, if not actually breaking.

Part of the tasks of being here is deciding whether to stay or not after the program is over. I am training to go into tech; it would certainly make sense to try to stay. But my focus right now is on learning Python, and I think I won’t have answers until I go back to Seattle for a bit. See what I miss about the Bay Area when I leave it, see what feels like oxygen rushing back into the room when I return to Seattle.

In the meantime, five weeks in, I have the energy for a few extra things now. On Friday, after class, I went art supply shopping and then took the long route to BART from SoMa, walking up the Embarcadero along South Beach, past the paint-flaked workaday piers, the tugboats floating in coronas of golden light on the twilit bay, the bow-and-arrow sculpture, and finally the synapse sculpture, its LEDs cycling through the rainbow in a way that seems to have been scientifically calibrated to the way I appreciate color. Tomorrow, quite early, I am going to the Alameda antiques market with my friend/roommate. I am seeing things and doing things.

Just in time to start projects season at Hackbright, during which I may disappear. I hope not. I don’t know.

I had to stop myself from doing that thing of avalanching Amy with iPhone travel pictures earlier tonight, instead showing her just a couple of street art from Montmartre. When I do flight searches lately, I look at Reykjavik and Paris; I’ve gone to enough places that I’m considering repeats. Maybe part of it is that I also recognize that I basically want to go everywhere, so I might as well go somewhere. Central and South America. Morocco. Italy and Greece. Turkey. Croatia. Japan, again, more. India. Korea. Australia and New Zealand. The better known, the lesser known, the easily accessible and the ones where you have to squeak by in single lanes, via tiny boats, such tenuous connections to the rest of the world that you wonder if you’ll be able to squeak back out.

But my difficult adjustment – which is, granted, exacerbated by school – has given me things to think about regarding long-term travel, or even living elsewhere. Whether it still has any appeal. Whether what I’m doing now has that many parallels. I don’t know yet. I don’t know a lot yet. I guess that’s one of the things going new places will teach you. For most of us, a lot of our basic daily intelligence is based on familiarity. Pull that, and you’re lying if you say “I know” more than you cheerfully shrug.

I’ve thought of writing here often over the last several months. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting about school on my other blog. A couple people in my cohort have said that they’d have a hard time writing that much; we’re all basically exhausted all the time. And I say, “I’m a writer. It’s what I do and what I’ve trained to do; it doesn’t take much out of me.” And it’s true. And it’s time to do it again for myself too.

I have such a backlog of pictures. Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam. Victoria. Japan and Japan and Japan, where I had my new camera that captures things almost as beautifully as I see them. San Francisco and Oakland.

I’m very lucky.

The backlog has been daunting. I prefer to knit together narratives, stitching together themes and my observations and those feelings and impressions that stick with me still, that I think of when I stare off into space these days, trying to figure out indentation and functions and just-so syntax in a way that’s both familiar to me and radically new. Turning a corner in Montmartre and seeing another piece of street art so stunning and perfectly placed that I feel something pierce me slightly in the vicinity of my heart. Gently rocking houseboats in Amsterdam, generous guides and new friends and being able to see the beauty of a place but having no chance to get its full context, the glory and tragedy of it. The insight of the outsider without the context of the insider. It’s all we have sometimes.

And it’s late, and tomorrow is early. And I’ll be back soon. I’m going to start writing moments. If there are themes, they can grow from there. But I’m long overdue to tell you where I’ve been lately. I’ll fix that soon.

P.S. The top picture is a Montmartre store window I passed on the way to get breakfast before a walking tour. I wanted to go back; I didn’t get to go back. Not yet.

Hither and Thither #32

the physical possibility of inspiring imagination

I arrived to the Greater England Area just a few hours too late to go see this. I might’ve taken a train to Liverpool just for this. I might have.

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There are a lot of ways to be at odds with how your brain sees your body and how your body actually is. This was a new one to me.

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I see this message more often lately (though maybe still not often enough), and oh, it makes my heart soar. For a YA version (though still pretty effective), see the Ruby Oliver books.

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All along, I’d been told cats speak French. Apparently not. Though I will say my own were nowhere to be seen when this stuff was erupting from my computer.

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Your regular installment of Andrew W.K. makes you cry.

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It is possible to have absurd amounts of money and also a little sense. I wish there was more of this.

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My friend!

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You don’t drool enough. No, seriously, get on that.

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If I walked into a New York subway car and saw this, I might swoon from the wonderfulness.

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I love when other people create roundups of my city. Eff that Storyville business, though.

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We are better at valuing things if we have lacked them.

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And, finally, a rad roundup about drawing the female body by women who have drawn their own bodies.

Hither and Thither #29

portal

When I get deep, deep into a necessary or unavoidable timesuck (school, depression), I daydream of creating like at no other time of my life. The key, and the thing I’m working on in my life right this minute, is carrying that frantic “IF ONLY I COULD, I WOULD WRITE A NOVEL AND CONSTRUCT DIORAMAS AND TRAVEL THE WORLD AND MAKE MY OWN INTERNET MOVIES, OH BOY OH BOY” energy over into non-frantic life.

I thought a lot about papercraft this last go-round. My first post-school task is to make my apartment feel livable, alive, and welcoming again. After that: oh, we are MAKING SHIT.

Which is to say, I love this so much and want to try it myself soon.

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These portraits are so affectionate and so beautiful.

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My friend Amy’s fine eye for the visual, deep love of children’s books, and wide-open curiosity about the world makes all of her travel-related blogging a joy to experience, but I especially loved this roundup of children’s books from her recent travels. I hope she brought an expanding suitcase… And here are her stupendous (STUPENDOUS) drawings from life. I got jealous in the best way.

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I know where I am sending every single postcard and other piece of correspondence I might need to mail next time I’m in Paris.

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In our data-driven world, everything has a strategy. EVERYTHING.

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Making the total count of known books bound in human skin in the greater Boston area… four. FOR NOW.

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No clever thing or sincere thing or anything I could say could top the existing title of this piece.

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COVET.

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An incredibly candid, giving, and useful look at the long-term creative process and how you can fuck it up with the best of intentions.

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Today, Captain Awkward’s column extolled the perils of baby elephant pictures. While I can get on quite an internet tangent of cat pictures and otters and street art, this is my true risk. If there were days upon days of this kind of thing, you all might never hear from me again.

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I have thought of doing this and didn’t, and I am grateful someone did.

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As for podcasts… oh god, just go listen to 99 Percent Invisible, and I’ll catch you back here in a couple of days.

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I’ve had this draft sitting and waiting for so long now. I can’t tell you how good it felt to go back, flesh it out, and get ready to go again. Like doing a forward fold after standing on cement at a concert for two hours, like using a washcloth to scrub inside your ear, like water when you woke up hungover. Hello. Let’s do this.

Hither and Thither #20

2013-10-06-adamI  had a time where I did something like this myself – in humbler pen and ink, to be sure. But I drew myself with flaming swords, summoning lightning, standing in power poses on cliffs. My life lacked a lot of that feeling around that time, so I created it in sketches. I have yet to clutch a flaming sword – which may be for the best – but I feel like I do a lot more metaphorical standing on cliffs these days, wind whipping around me as I brace myself for action, so I call the exercise a success.

That’s part of why I found these murals such a delight. Have you ever read about the imagery in portraits from centuries ago? They were all thickly layered with visual shorthand that told you so much about the subject. The way they wished to be portrayed, their professions, their social standing – all of it was conveyed via colors and props and poses. The curious result of there being such limited media to convey large amounts of information.

So I think this guy’s paintings are an excellent step in the right direction. We need more modern myths – specifically not of the harmful religious kind, that is.

division squiggleThere is nothing new under the sun. Continue reading

Hither and Thither #16

installation

It’s trite to say, but I don’t care: I want to go to there. The last cultural thing I did in St. Louis before I left for college – early on a Saturday morning, after I’d stayed up all night, packing – was to go to an exhibit of environments at the St. Louis Art Museum. I think this would always be my cup of tea, but because of that bleary, edgy visit to that exhibit, things like this will always transport me that much more.

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Oh my.

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Did you know the SPD has a Tumblr? They do, and they’ve also gotten in on the current Doctor Who fervor. To great effect, I might add. Continue reading

Hither and Thither #12

florentijn-hofman-partyaardvark-designboom-08Oh, let me count the ways.

  1. “the Dutch artist has envisioned ‘feestaardvarken’ (partyaardvark)”
  2. “a 30-meter-long concrete sculpture that can be climbed upon and interacted with”
  3. It has nipples
  4. And a literal party hat too

The world is better for this being out there.

Now: do I need to borrow a child when I go to see this, or can I just gallop up there myself?

Also, new goal (to add to my considerable list): have my own name in a headline even a tenth as devastatingly delightful as that one.

division squiggleA few years old, but always always always worth repeating: 15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has Or Will at the AV Club. Continue reading

Hither and Thither #10

Prosthetic eyesOcularists: a creator of prosthetic eyes. It’s meant a lot of things over the last couple millennia, but for a pair of families, it means two strikingly different philosophies. The LA Times explores the gulf that exists between the art and science of ocularistry.

division squiggleBecause Halloween is so awkwardly midweek, I declare that this weekend has also been Halloweekend. (The substantial number of costume-wearing people I saw Friday and Saturday night agree with me.) As such, this excellent roundup of horror movies set in New York is still timely. This is a new blog I’ve found, which looks at New York from the distinctive view of a location scout.

Also, this kind of thing is why going to New York feels like entering the real world, and leaving feels like going back to the outside to look in.

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Capitol Hill has a new bookstore, and I can’t wait to wander through it!

Continue reading