If I must be sad, I will be sad in Paris

Content note: I talk about depression and past suicidal thoughts in this one. If those aren’t safe subjects for you, it’s a great time to close the tab or try something else.

Early in my trip to Paris and Barcelona, I took the Metro from Montmartre to the center of the city. I sat by myself, watching the texture of the tunnel racing by and feeling how deeply sad I was. Unlike other depressed trips, trips I’d taken hoping for distraction and even managing it sometimes, it felt like different environments only made it purer, this distilled sadness washing over me, cold and astringent.

I laughed at myself a little, at the absurdity of being on an amazing trip I’d looked forward to for months and feeling like refried shit. It’s useful to be able to do this without thinking the harder feelings aren’t legitimate and real, but I’ve learned to, and I did that day. Sitting on the train, looking around at all the lovely people and their beautiful winter coats, heading between one place I loved and another, I knew that the weather in my brain was utterly absurd and utterly true.

It was then that I found my frequent mantra of the trip: if I’m going to be sad, I’d rather be sad in Paris. I could be sad on my couch, but instead I’m sad somewhere I adore where all my senses get fed. I have a less-glamorous version of it for home: if I’m going to be sad, I can do it while wearing clothes I don’t hate, while enjoying takeout from my local Thai place, while my hair is clean, while reading something good, while the floors are swept, while feeling a little soothed and seen. It still sucks, but it can suck marginally less with some effort, when I can spare it.

The Louis Vuitton store in Paris with a large sunburst decoration spanning one entire side of the building

At the moment, I assume that everyone is massively emotionally wounded in some way, and I’ve have since roughly June 2020. I think people were largely doing not great, thanks in the beforetimes too, but after almost two entire goddamned years of downs and ups and downs, things opening and closing, good guidance and terrible, dreams deferred and altered and abandoned and resuscitated and held close and shoved away, no one’s ok. The depth of the wounds varies wildly, of course. Mine right now have to do with my scant handful of emotional outlets (dancing, readings, seeing art, trying to make more friends) suddenly being unavailable again after I’d become accustomed to some small liberties, to say nothing of the unaddressed damage of the last pandemic length of time.

And these things do not disappear simply because you choose to travel.

Like my time in New York this summer, this trip slipped into a tiny gap of space and possibility that I chanced into through stupid luck. This one landed neatly between “everybody get boosters” and “oh fuck, a new variant.” We left on November 25th; if it had been three or four weeks later, I think I would’ve canceled all of it. Instead, it was merely complicated. Instead, it was a few days into the trip, out of North America for the first time since my fairly disastrous 2019 trip, that I read that a new variant was rising, that the US was already issuing racist travel restrictions, that things were happening and the larger meaning and the effect on us remained unclear.

Running home didn’t seem wise. Instead, there was only to dive ahead with precautions.

A closeup of a small part of a Monet waterlilies painting with streaks of purple, brown, and green

But yes, as the prophet Adam Sandler explains in the video linked above, being in Paris and Barcelona didn’t change who I was and how I felt. I went to Europe and remained the same sad me who’s been circling the drain since March 2020, when the pandemic started and my cat died and other personal things went absolutely off the rails, when I wraithed around my apartment asking my partner over and over if this was the end of the fucking world.

He told me, with confidence I still do not share, that it was not.

In the months that followed, I became accustomed to everything being painful most of the time. First I lost my interest in cooking; later, I lost a lot of my interest in eating, a deeply surreal state. It didn’t mean I needed to eat less, but I lacked the energy to put any real force or interest behind it. Strangely, traveling did not entirely resuscitate this. I delighted at these fish-covered flatbreads in Barcelona we had for several meals; I bit into a ball of goat cheese like a creamy apple on the Île Saint-Louis; I remembered my love of those one-euro waffles you can get on Metro platforms in Paris and crunched my way across the city. Gratins and soupe l’oignon and pintxos and infinite croissants. I experienced brief moments of joy that were heavily enabled by old memories, and I considered that a victory.

I’ve been reluctant to talk or write much about this, since lots of people don’t have the cash for this kind of trip (as inexpensively as I try to travel and as much as we lucked out with relatively cheap direct flights) and my luck at slipping out just before another wave in 2021 was extraordinary. But the thing is: if you’re depressed at home, you’ll be depressed there too. And that’s ok! It’s still worth trying things and reminding yourself, however briefly, that being alive can be pretty fucking good.

In 2007, I embarked on what I called the Depression World Tour. It’s the last time I was what I think of as chemically depressed, though I’ve been situationally depressed a couple times since, including now. Working with a psychiatrist and trying to trick my brain into wanting to be alive via a series of medications, I decided the best thing I could do was hit the road for six weeks, my laptop and remote job in tow. It was actually a national tour, not a world tour: I saw friends in St. Louis, Chicago, and New York before visiting my family in Florida and New Orleans.

Sometimes I even kind of forgot that I’d spent the previous several months having visions of laying down in the grass and staying still for long enough that the rain would dissolve me. Or that I had to remind myself to wear a seat belt in cars because a part of me welcomed the risk. Friends and new places jostled my brain away from routine enough that the background noise of this living shit’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it got crowded out.

It worked until the flight home. I had a window seat and stared across the wing at the setting sun, and the feelings settled onto me like a wet wool blanket: heavy and total and like a dark hug. Ah yes, I thought. Here I am.

I got home, found the right antidepressant, and stayed on it for a year. The thoughts vanished. Better living through chemistry.

The interior of a Barcelona restaurant, with a hanging sculpture of a voluptuous woman dancing through the air

In this era, the feelings seem to stem from having survived via learned helplessness. I’m not an essential worker, so often my best contributions to things not being more terrible were donating money, tipping heavily, and staying the fuck home. I did this for long enough that I’ve lost some of my old skill for pushing back on things that need to be pushed back on, even in this era of laying low. I got some of that temporary agoraphobia that I know lots of people have experienced. Outside is bad. Inside is good. Ergo: stay inside, where it’s all predictable and safe. No room to thrash, no room to dream. Just put another episode of the show du jour on.

My entire adult life has been predicated on wanting more, and suddenly it was actually dangerous to do so. It’s had effects on me that I’ll be unraveling for a long time.

And, of course, it makes travel difficult because travel is only about uncertainty and trusting that you’ll be ok. Pushing back against a language you don’t know to find an understood shared space, pushing back against the unfamiliar to go boldly forward and experience wonderful new things, pushing back against homesickness with the confidence to believe that worthwhile living is on the other side.

For the last two years, that hasn’t been true. We’ve all been wading through life that’s tepid at best, a horror at worst, assuring ourselves that continuing to be alive is worthwhile and all this living shit actually is worth it.

It took me two weeks, but I think I came to believe it again.

We spent five nights in Paris, six in Barcelona, and then another three in Paris before our flight out. At the end of the first Paris segment, I sat in the bed of the adorable Montmartre Airbnb, crying and feeling a weight on my chest because I was doing this wrong.

Quick aside: you can’t do this wrong. It’s not possible. You can have a bad vacation; I certainly have. Still, the only real risk is being a shitty guest somewhere you’re visiting. You can’t do vacation wrong.

But I sat there in the adorable bed nook beneath a robin’s-egg-blue duvet that matched the cabinets and curtains, and I knew that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. I had managed a thing or two per day – this museum, that meal, trying to see and do things without asking too much of myself – but it wasn’t enough. Paris is my favorite place in the world, and I was trudging. I knew I was trudging. Everything hurt, and I was just passing through, like a pale visitor in my own life.

When I get these big feelings that I want to turn on myself like a weapon, I try to make the feelings into specifics. What did I think I should be doing, since apparently I wasn’t doing it? I made myself list all the things I hadn’t done that suddenly weighed on me: a street art walk through Montmartre, another walking tour, Sainte-Chapelle, a proper fromagerie visit, more vin chaud, Pere LaChaise, one of those zoo lights things that are everywhere now, walking along the Seine, the thumb at La Défense. A lot for two days! But I promised myself I’d come back and do everything I wanted until it stopped being fun.

Tall stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with part of the altar in the foreground

Part of the problem was that I’d lacked the ability to plan properly before we left. All I’d managed to do were the obvious time-sensitive bookings: the Louvre, the Orangerie, the Sagrada Familia. All these top-billed things, but none of the stuff that I usually ended up thinking about after a trip, the small random joys I linger on as I ease back into my life. And without a plan and something to work toward, I felt like I was squandering this thing I’d longed for.

And I spent two joyful, madcap days in Paris when I got back. One day I walked more than 15 miles. I zoomed back and forth across the city in a way I’d never recommend to anyone else but which felt like freedom. I saw centuries-old stained glass and said hello to Oscar Wilde. Illuminated, articulated tardigrades. Wheat pastes decorating apartment building walls and bulletholes from the liberation of Paris. Finally, just in time for all the panic of getting home, I remembered how to feel open and safe – at least for an hour or two at a time.

I’ve tried to keep it with me as I return to my life, but it’s been hard. Going out dancing (vaccines and masks required, bless San Francisco) had become a regular catharsis, but less than a week after I got home, that began to feel unsafe too. Masks required but not entirely enforced inside; rising omicron rates; the ongoing threat of long covid; the fear of possibly giving it to one of the scant handful of people I see in person. I’ve shuttered myself inside again.

An ink-and-watercolor drawing of a figure with arms, legs, a large mouse head with red eyes, and a little horn-shaped musical instrument

It’s better than the terrible 2020 months of the pandemic era because I am mostly alone, because I know these steps, because I know how to get regular exercise without the safe option of a gym, because I know where the armor starts to buckle and how to address it when it comes up (and it will again). And because I have more recent memories of eating a galette along the Seine and watching people walk and bike by, of dancing on a goth boat in Paris (yes), of seeing 400-year-old costume sketches at the Louvre and being totally enchanted by this cartoonist of yore, of lighted creatures in the Jardin des Plantes, of good meals, of the winding streets in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, of laughing like a stupid child at caganers, of seeing the Mediterranean beneath our plane, of deciphering the constantly evolving graffiti in Gràcia, of long train rides and easy Metro connections, of other ways to be. Of life sparkling again, just for a little while, and of that sparkle happening because I made it happen.

They’re distant again, but they aren’t gone. I’m contained again, but I’m not dead, and I don’t want to be.

Usually.

Large illuminated lanterns in the shape of jellyfish and other sea creatures

Travel, like other big experiences, gets enjoyed in stages. There’s planning, which I largely missed this trip. There’s the relatively brief period of actually experiencing it. And, after that, the memory, the longest stage, and the one worth optimizing for, if I have to choose one. I knew, sitting on that train and feeling my heavy, lonely heart, that when I thought of the trip later, I’d feel happy. “If you’re going to be depressed, kid, you’ve picked a great place for it,” I thought. I laughed, wrote in my journal some, and set off into the future, where those memories are sustaining me now that I’m an indoor cat again.

The trip was never going to be anything but a mindfuck, and it delivered. But it delivered on everything else too, so even though I cried, even though I wrestled with deep and difficult feelings, even though everything was twice as hard as I remember it being for the intrepid traveler I used to be, it was worth it.

The thing for me to remember: it is almost always incredibly worth it. And when that falters? It’s still pretty good.

Getting from France to the US in December 2021 Covid Times

I knew, from the time I planned this trip, that I was making a Choice. I hadn’t done a good and proper trip since February 2019, when I went to Amsterdam and a terrible cold fucked up my back. In the way of our species’ collective fantasizing from March 2020 on, I’d longed to have a do-over across lockdown. Fall didn’t offer a window amidst the walls of horribleness in the way we had in the early summer, when vaccines were offering such hope and the shitty roar of antivax horseshit had yet to really arise. But it felt safe enough for my own threat model and fears, so we moved ahead: to France and Spain we would go. (To Berlin we would not because of the rough covid rates and impending threat of lockdown.)

I researched and acknowledged the hurdles: I would have to get a French pass sanitaire by paying a pharmacy 36 euros to convert my paper CDC vaccination record – sure, that sounds great. I didn’t really want to go anywhere that wasn’t checking vaccinations at the door anyway, and I didn’t care to go anywhere that wasn’t at least as careful as the Bay Area. I would also have to get a covid test 72 hours before flying back and have an electronic or paper copy of the test to provide to the airline and, presumably, US border control or a similar entity. Very well! I researched testing options in Paris, sketched out a rough schedule in my head, and felt pretty ok about what was to come.

Then, on the Tuesday morning before a Friday morning flight, I got an email from Air France: the covid test now had to be done within 24 hours of departure, which meant late morning the day before. To be clear: this was an initial misinterpretation of the requirement, which actually states, as of this week, that the test has to be done on the calendar day before you leave. But that wasn’t Air France’s initial interpretation, so I got a little bonus freaking out due to that.

I’ve had to get covid tests twice during the pandemic, once after working at an election site and once after my trip to New York this summer. Both times, I had results within 24 hours, but that felt like a fluke: never promised, always incidental.

This new requirement, of course, changed things. Here’s how I got home.

Covid testing in Paris

Before the testing window shortened, I asked my host for the last leg of my trip what she knew about covid testing and timing in Paris. She told me that most pharmacies test (something that seemed very true; most of them had little tents by their front doors on the sidewalk just for that). With the 72-hour window, that would’ve been great; we were within a ten-minute walk of at least three pharmacies. Easy! What I couldn’t find was a solid, specific statement saying that those test results would be ready in 24 hours – or, ideally, in less than twelve. This led me to Biogroup, which I found through the official French site that directs people to covid testing sites. There are a lot; it seems like a ton of dentists have gotten in on this, which is pretty great.

Biogroup was the only one I found that offered:

  • Lots of locations
  • A promise of results in 12 hours
  • A clear description of how results would be provided via PDF, securely downloaded
  • The promise that walk-ins were available
  • A list of which services provided by each clinic
  • Promises of English speakers. I can speak good-enough terrible French for things like getting tickets or food. For navigating something that straddled medical and international travel spheres, I wanted someone who could talk to me in my own language.

This is how I ended up walking to 20 rue de Pont Neuf just before the 8:15 am sunrise the day before I was due to fly home. I ended up in a line of maybe 20 people, primarily English speakers, working with Google Translate to figure out the best way to say I needed a pre-travel covid test please. We were finished by 9:30 am. Was it extremely well organized? Not quite, which is fine – I have a sense of how French bureaucracy seems to work, and I knew they were trying pretty hard to make this weird thing work. They were kind to confused people and got me what I needed, and sometimes that’s all I can ask from a situation.

Here’s how it went:

  • They let us in one or two people at a time; usually couples were allowed in together. Other people showed up for appointments during all this, standing in a separate, shorter line. Good for them. I wished I’d worn another layer but generally do ok in the cold, so I wasn’t desperately unhappy.
  • Once we got in the door, they took our passports and had us complete a form to consent to the test and get our results. It looked like it was about eight generations off of the original copy. We just had to confirm the test we wanted, write and sign our names, and provide our email addresses.
  • We paid 44 euros each for the pleasure. Card was fine.
  • We were each taken into a private room and got the brain swab. Remember the big-ass q-tip people talked about nervously in the beginning of the pandemic? The one they pushed in so far that you figured they had to be brushing your brain stem? That’s what was still going on there. The site also offered saliva and blood tests at certain labs, but my French and anxiety were bad enough that I just went with the version of things I knew would work in the tight timeline and requirements I had.
  • Everyone who dealt with the confused tourist line spoke enough English that things worked pretty smoothly.
  • They confirmed they’d transcribed the email addresses correctly from the handwritten version on the form. Bless.
  • They gave us a slip of paper with a pre-generated password to retrieve the results later. This wasn’t necessary but was a great touch.

That was it. It sucked, but the people were kind. We had our results emails by 4 pm: blessedly négatif.

They sent two emails. One takes you to a portal where you enter some PII to generate an email containing a temporary password for said portal, where you can download the PDF you need. The other had a password-protected PDF attachment that could be opened with the password they provided. You’ll want the one from the portal because things like the Air France document void and the ToutAntiCovid mobile app will not have any idea of how to handle a password-protected PDF. (Still, cheers to Biogroup for trying.)

Uploading everything everywhere

I uploaded the PDF to the ToutAntiCovid app, which created a new record that contained its own QR code, the negative result, and a dynamic field that showed how old the test was. This was enough proof for everyone who asked for it at Charles de Gaulle – much easier than asking people to squint at the tiny version of an 8.5×11-inch test result file on my phone. I uploaded the PDF plus some other paperwork (vax records for both countries) to Air France, which promised that doing so would avoid hassle at the airport.

A couple things exacerbated all this: the first was the CDC reclassifying France’s covid risk, and the other was a general sense of elevated risk within Paris or possibly all of France. Those last few days, I saw military types with automatic weapons in a lot of different places, including the airport, La Defense, and by the Palace of Justice. That general !!! sense probably did not help with things like allowing airlines to accurately interpret extremely fresh, imperfectly worded international health directives. I would assume this was the case with all airlines flying from the US from other countries right now, particularly ones like France that were recently put on double secret probation by the CDC.

The night before we left, I received an email saying all those uploaded documents were approved… and then they were reviewed again in total before we were allowed to check bags. For this, we were rewarded with a sticker on the backs of our passports, a label with a handwritten set of initials on it, indicating we were ready to go. My boarding pass already had a READY TO FLY designation on it from the document upload approval, but I saw no indication that any of this actually expedited anything for us on the day of.

SECURITY.

And other administrivia

I also received multiple Air France emails about A FORM that we had to print, fill out, and bring to the airport. I regret to inform you that it’s a stupid and duplicative form that my government clearly foisted on other international agencies without a lot of explanation. (Kind of like the change in the acceptable window for covid tests; the first Air France email said “within 24 hours of departure” and the other stated correctly that it needed to be done in the calendar day before your departure, so a 12:30 am test on Thursday would be valid for a flight at 11:30 pm Friday night. The CDC says that this is to try to give flexibility to travelers, but as an anxious person crossing time zones, I gently suggest to them that they are not helping in the way they claim to be.) The first version was a docx file; the replacement form was a swanky PDF. I got to go to a copy place in the Marais the night before we left to get this shit printed only to find that the airline had a giant stack of them available at the check-in desk at CDG. COOL.

It just says that you either have submitted a covid test or have a damned good reason not to have done so, plus a signature. It isn’t tied to a passport or booking number or anything else solid and traceable, and it did not appear to be recorded electronically in any way, judging by the messy pile of them being collected at the gate. COOL.

We were asked about it more than once at bag drop, and then a third-party security guard type came around the gate area, checked passports, and collected them from people who happened to be sitting around the gate 45 minutes before boarding, including me. He pointed at the sticker put on the back of my passport earlier and said, “If you talk to another one of my coworkers, they will see this and know you’re good to go.” “Cool,” I said.

I will note here that I have seldom encountered a situation where the addition of third-party security guard types makes the situation better.

My partner came back from getting food, and I said, “You should probably give your form to that guy. They seem to be trying to get this done.” This was a mistake. He did as I suggested and was told to stand somewhere else for boarding (we were not boarding), handed the form over anyway, and came back, figuring he’d done what he could.

Cut to 45 minutes later when we actually were boarding, and he was accused of not having a form. “I gave it to you earlier,” he said. The security guard said he did not. “He did,” I said. Finally, it became clear that filling out an additional copy of the brief and pointless form was the path of least resistance. He did so while I started my own battle. “You didn’t fill out the form,” the guy told me. “I did,” I said, and recited our entire conversation, finishing by pointing at the sticker. Apparently my performance was more convincing. We were finally allowed to board the plane.

And, finally, home

That was the last of the covid test result presentation dance. We have Global Entry, so our return interview consisted of getting little print-outs with grainy pictures of our tired selves, a recitation of things we bought and brought home (“a couple of bottles of champagne, a lot of gummy candy, and some inexpensive earrings”), and then walking out into SFO, back to being ordinary people. We plan to test ourselves again early next week just to be very sure we made it through this ok, but I’m not worried.

It’s nice to stop being worried. I haven’t really had that for the last five-odd days.

My suggestions for you

If I’d known this shit was going to go into such upheaval so soon before we left, we would have brought a couple of those proctored self-tests. Prior to this week, I didn’t know those existed and resulted in a legally helpful test result; it would have made a lot of things much easier, both generally and because I do not do well with vague directives for things as specific as paperwork for international travel. So if you’re going abroad in this era, I strongly suggest doing that.

I would also suggest not flying to the US from France or other level-four-omg countries right now. I didn’t really have the opportunity to consider this, as the levels didn’t change until the trip was well underway. If you have the choice, though, depart from an easier country. If we’d flown out of Spain, a lot of things would have been simpler.

However, I’m pretty grateful we flew into France. I haven’t seen a CDC card conversion scheme for other countries as of this writing (and preliminarily googling it again so soon after all my pre-trip research frankly makes my head hurt right now; there are countries that work easily with it, but the US is not among them). Starting our trip in France meant getting an EU covid vax certification QR code shortly after arriving from the airport using a fairly straightforward process that costs 36 euros. There, it’s generally referred to as the pass sanitaire, a phrase which I can blissfully usually pick out of rapidfire French directives. (Getting the pass sanitaire was step one; buying cheese was step two. Falling asleep for five hours followed shortly after.) This pass, which initially seemed France specific when I was first researching it, is what allowed us to fly into Spain, to go to certain events there, and to just generally have a proper vacation. I feel like there have to be ways around this in other countries, but I don’t know what they are. I have it on good authority, though, that most people at the door in Europe are not going to be interested in deciphering your weird paper CDC card.

The pass checking wasn’t always consistent but happened often enough that I felt more comfortable with moving around in the world. France: thanks for checking the pass even for patio dining. Spain: your whole QR code locator form process for new arrivals was a bit of a pain in the ass, but the efforts are clearly working, so thank you. We were rarely asked for an ID to compare to the name on the pass, but best to keep one on hand anyway, in the way of these things.

I hope you like forms, because this requires a lot of them.

At the moment, certain kinds of travel mean taking up government documentation and admin interpretation as a new and time-consuming hobby. I’m a process dork by nature so take to this stuff pretty well, and I still had several not-ok moments during all this.

I had a small panic event the night before we left because I found a now-inaccurate Air France page from a month or two prior that still stated that visitors to France needed a compelling reason and a covid test for entry. I called my partner into my kitchen and said, “I think I ruined our trip and I’m sorry.” I had not ruined the trip, as it turned out. But this is what lackadaisical documentation governance in a complicated time can do to a person!

I even had a dress rehearsal of sorts when I helped a friend with the lighter version of this stuff required for going to Hawaii from the continental US, and I still felt overwhelmed more than once in this heavier international version. I say again: I like figuring out difficult bureaucratic stuff, and this shit almost broke me a couple of times.

The regulations and requirements change often enough right now that there’s a lot of outdated stuff out there. Right now, if you read guidance that isn’t dated within the last week, question whether it still applies.

It’s a good idea to think very carefully about traveling internationally right now at all, of course. I only wanted to go to places that had a similar model of safety to the Bay Area; a lot of places remain fundamentally off limits to me, including large parts of my own country. I urge you to be very careful and weigh things similarly. And once you’ve figured out that perhaps there’s a place in the world you feel ethically ok with visiting, really consider what your trip might look like if you have to spend parts of two or more days being stressed about meeting requirements to get on your plane home. If this had been a week-long trip, I think I would’ve been pretty upset to have spent so much time on this stuff. Instead, it was a two-week trip, and the hard parts got diluted – but it still had an effect. I also brought a laptop; navigating this stuff without one would’ve been really, really hard. We didn’t stay at hotels, so business centers were not an option. Copy shops would have been possible, but pretty inconvenient.

In addition to taking a frankly perverse joy in unpicking complicated systems, I also have enough money to deal with large, expensive changes of plan and reason to believe I wouldn’t lose my job if I suddenly had to be away for an extra two weeks. It’s a bet I can afford to make. Be sure you can too before doing something like this in this era. For instance, this was the plan B I formulated in case our tests came back positive: I was going to quarantine somewhere less expensive in the Paris suburbs and enjoy what I had named the Plague Ship Writing Residency. This plan fell apart somewhere around “but French takeout delivery apps don’t seem to accept American credit cards,” but that was future plague rat me’s problem to figure out.

I’ll write soon about the fun parts of all of this, and I promise you there were many. But everything I just wrote was part of the cost of every excellent meal, every minute spent gawping at centuries-old stained glass, every ramble through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. In the meantime, while it’s still fresh and technically accurate, here’s the harder part. I hope it helps. Good travel is possible; just know that it’s still very different than it once was.

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