Tag Archives: travel

Remembering Why I Watch

As though an excuse was needed to drink wine in Paris, but sure... tennis!

As though an excuse was needed to drink wine in Paris, but sure… tennis!

It’s a cool Sunday morning, the type that lends itself towards coffee and nostaligia. I suppose the fact that I’m starting to pack my stuff into boxes isn’t helping the nostalgic side of me. You’d think I’d be used to that by now, but my mind still gets loud from time to time. Is Des Moines really the spot for me? Is it going to be just a larger version of Cedar Rapids? I have lots of tricks to quiet my mind like all of us. Some of my favorites are music, running, reading, and even watching sports.

The French Open is on this morning and I’m instantly transported back to Paris. Sports, just like any other type of entertainment at its best, can do that. They can take us to other places and times. Last year I was watching this same match, Djokovic vs. Nadal, this time in the finals instead of the semi-finals. This year watching alone with a cup of coffee on my couch in Iowa instead of in the courtyard of Hotel de Ville, drinking wine surrounded by thousands of people.

Hotel de Ville’s courtyard was a constantly changing landscape that holds memories from my first days in Paris to my last. It was an outdoor ice skating rink the first time I happened upon it, an essential part of my first great story in the city. It was a makeshift nature preserve my last time, where I spent time reflecting after my last great story there had its conclusion. For a few weeks in late May and early June, the courtyard transformed into a mini-Roland Garros, complete with a clay tennis court and a sixty foot long Jumbotron with plenty of seats around to catch all the action. Gorgeous weather brought out gorgeous people to enjoy the food, wine, and scenery. Tennis wasn’t secondary or even tertiary, it was the background noise; the excuse to be there.

Sports at their worst can be hard to admit you enjoy. Fan is quite literally short for fanatic, and sometimes it feels like you either have to be completely involved or not at all when it comes to sports. The amount of vitriol that gets spewed on a daily basis, both by the general media and social media, is enough to turn off anyone. Tonight, The Miami Heat will play a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs. The ten players on the court will all do things we could not possibly fathom doing for three hours. After the game is over, win or lose, LeBron James will be called a traitor, a pussy, and all other variety of names you can imagine. This need of others to tear down people in some sort of effort to validate their own shortcomings makes me ashamed to enjoy sports.

The whole reason I started liking sports was to have more to talk about with my dad. My weird memory combined with the propensity towards numbers and statistics in sports made it easy for me to pick up quickly. It’s entertaining to me to watch people compete at the highest level of almost anything. I remember sitting with friends talking about all manner of subjects last year in that square. Hours went by and it appeared Nadal would handle Djokovic as expected. Then Djokovic started to rally, and you could feel the entire energy in that courtyard change. The side conversations stopped as everyone started watching intently and discussing only the match. People walking by on their way home from work, to see Notre Dame, or just out for a casual stroll, stopped to watch; filling the courtyard. By the middle of the fifth set, you could not find a place to stand. People were climbing trees and lamposts to get a better view of the Jumbotron. Here we all were, in the middle of one of the most beautiful and romantic cities on the planet, and people had stopped everything they were doing to watch two grown men hit a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth. Five hours had gone by before Nadal finally claimed one of his hardest fought victories at the championship he has made his career on. People smiled and chatted with complete strangers about the match before slowly dissipating into the Parisian evening. Nadal claimed this year’s title as well, with a significantly easier victory than last year. Even if it could never live up to what I experienced last year, I was thrilled to sit with the windows open on an overcast Sunday with a cup of coffee in hand, remembering why I still watch sports.

Thank You, Christopher Columbus

No, not this Christopher Columbus... though Gremlins, The Goonies, and Home Alone? Maybe we should have a holiday for him...

No, not this Christopher Columbus… although Gremlins, The Goonies, and Home Alone? Maybe we should have a holiday for him…

It’s Columbus Day here in the states and I actually have the day off… paid! The advantages to working for a giant, multinational financial institution are starting to pay off. I’ve decided to celebrate this most worthless of holidays by planting Spanish flags in random objects possessed by strangers, yelling at them to show me where their gold is, and spreading diseases to them that I brought over from Europe. Before I head out though, I feel like I need to sit on my balcony, have some coffee, and take a moment to remember all that Christopher Columbus has done for me.

Here’s a little known historical fact: Columbus came to America because he hated how close everything was. (Warning: historical facts may not be facts… or historical.) Can you blame him? I mean who would honestly want to live close by everything you could possibly want or need? Columbus set sail because honestly, he just needed some fucking space! This attitude has thankfully been implemented into suburban American culture. After having to endure walking to any of the small shops dotting the Parisian landscape and having a relaxing dinner outside with friends, now I get to drive through traffic to a chain restaurant and sit inside while deciding which one of the fifteen televisions I want to watch. Plus, there’s the obvious advantage of already knowing what’s on the menu. Now instead of wasting all that time exploring the menu for new food options, I can spend that time on my phone while waiting for my bloomin’ onion to come.

Another historical fact: Columbus hated water, fresh air, and non-processed food. Since he was born in Genoa, Columbus had grown up with a cool breeze blowing off the Mediterranean every morning, the smells of freshly baked bread he had purchased from the local bakery, and the taste of that bread paired with a locally-produced olive oil and a bottle of red wine from the vineyards nearby. He hated that life so much that he said, “Fuck this shit! I don’t care where I go, but I can’t deal this anymore. I’m just going to sail in the opposite direction until I run into any sort of landmass.” Unfortunately for Columbus, he died long before he could have discovered Cedar Rapids, where I currently reside. Thankfully, I can honor his memory by enjoying the genetically enhanced food at and endless number of supermarkets, all conveniently located outside of walking distance. Instead of the smells of that god-forsaken, award-winning local bakery, I get to enjoy the smells of a massive cereal processing plant that actually set off my carbon monoxide detector last week because my windows were open.

Columbus is having a really tough time of it lately. Some people would say that Columbus didn’t discover America, or that he was a miserable human being who should never be celebrated. However, I just really I just wanted to thank you, Christopher Columbus. If it wasn’t for you, my family might have never traveled to this country. I could have been born in some dump like London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Prague, Barcelona, Stockholm, Florence, or Vienna. I really dodged a bullet there!

The Five Stages of Coming Home

Iowa: it's not just corn... though there is a lot of it...

Iowa: it’s not just corn… though there is a lot of it…

They say you can’t go home again. They are wrong. You absolutely can go home again… it’s just really, really weird. After spending the majority of the last five months in Paris, I’ve come back to Iowa. Not only that, but I’ve picked up plenty of new followers recently. I’ve been trying to come up with an amazing follow-up to my “Freshly Pressed” debut that will appeal to my newfound fan base. Obviously, my first thought was to just write a series of dick jokes and end it with a statement about how Obama is going to take our guns and force us to eat government-assisted euthanasia candidates. (That’s right. You just got a double dose of Charlton Heston. You’re now ready to defend your property from miscreants or part the Red Sea.) However, I decided to use my experience to help guide others through the grieving process of coming home.

Denial

That moment the voice in the back of your head says, “Hey, so our visa is expired and we’re almost out of money… maybe we should think about going home…” followed by you drowning that voice with enough wine to make it sound like this. Yep, you’re in denial. Enjoy it! Ignorance truly is bliss, but eventually all that drinking will lead to the next stage. No, not that…

Anger

You start cursing the universe. Why wasn’t I born with an unlimited amount of funds and diplomatic immunity? You curse your middle-class, midwestern heritage. If only your parents had been hardened spies or criminals. Maybe you could murder a rich guy and take over his life? Now you’ve entered the third stage.

Bargaining

You start to realize that you probably don’t have the huevos to kill someone. Then you start to realize that you could happen upon an already dead rich man and find his safety deposit box key. The only problem is you have to perform a voodoo ceremony on his corpse in order for it to lead you to the box, which you screw up, limiting his corpse’s ability to walk only when it hears reggae music, only you don’t have enough money to spring for underwater headphones and your ability to handle a spear gun is sub-par at best. (That was the single greatest sentence I have ever penned.) This realization leads you to the fourth stage.

Depression

You now know your fate. You walk around the place you’ve come to love that you will now be forced to leave with a look on your face that’s so heart-wrenching Sarah McLachlan is following you around, filming her next commercial. No one has ever had it more difficult than you. You have to leave this first-world major metropolis for a first-world rural area. No one can possibly understand the depths of your sorrow.

Acceptance

You start to realize the things that you truly missed. Obviously you’re excited to see friends and family, but also the little things you forgot about as well. Like spreadable butter (Seriously France? Even your butter is high maintenance.), some spice to your food (I get it France. Your palates are so sophisticated that my uneducated American tongue could not possibly grasp the levels of your culinary superiority. Would it have honestly killed you to have a bottle of Sriracha somewhere in your country though?), and getting to wear T-shirts and shorts out in public. (Sorry to break this to you France, but not all of you are models.) More importantly you figure out that the grass isn’t necessarily greener, just a different shade. Sure, there are plenty of differences, but your happiness is defined by you, not where you are.

Walk Like an American

stewart-colbert-patriotic

I’m currently laid over in the Philly airport for around five hours and after demolishing a cheesesteak it dawned on me that I was probably supposed to have some sort of epiphany about this experience. Unfortunately, I think I’m all out of those, possibly due to that same cheesesteak. Instead, I’m going to give my American brethren the second greatest gift they’ll receive this week. (The first of course being the fact that I have gloriously returned after five months away.) So here’s my guide to being a better American while abroad. Make sure you click on the links… it makes me a better writer when I can distract you with pictures and videos.

1. Flags (If you watch the last minute of that… I promise the link makes sense)

A big mistake most Americans make when overseas is trying to blend in with the local crowd. This is dumb. You are an American! Show off that star spangled awesomeness!

2. Regional Flavor

Now that you’ve let everyone know that you’re from America, it’s time to let them know where exactly. This can be easily accomplished by wearing shirts or hats from your local university or your favorite sports team. I, for instance, wore a Chicago Cubs shirt every time I went for a run in Paris. This insured the locals knew that not only did I enjoy a cold beer and delicious tube-shaped meat while sitting on aluminum benches, but also that I have a staggering amount of self-hatred. (What’s that you say Skeptical American? The French don’t watch baseball and would have no concept about what being a Cubs fan entails? Sorry, I can’t hear your facts over this song…)

3. Speak English

Everyone speaks English anyway, why should you inconvenience yourself attempting to learn the basic formalities of the native language? That’s valuable time you’d waste researching other important topics. If they’re having difficulty understanding you, it’s probably because you’re not speaking loud enough. Americans are known around the world for being understated. If they’re still struggling to understand you… well, you know what to say.

4. Ask about Wi-Fi everywhere

Just because you left the comfort of your cellular network doesn’t mean you should deprive yourself of all the wonder provided by mobile social networking. After all, what would you do if you couldn’t check into a café on Facebook, tweet about how the server totally checked you out, and instagram a photo of what you ordered? Converse with friends? Please…

Follow these four steps and you’ll be on your way to a more American way of traveling. When you come back, be sure to tell all your friends and family how the place you visited was not like America. I’m sure where you went was really dirty, or old and in need of renovating, or the food was weird. Lastly, if you’ve taken offense to this post, feel free to ignore all of the advice given. You are already prepared to travel like an American.

3.1 Decades

First, let me apologize for not updating the site in nearly two months. I know many of you are interested in what’s been going on over here. I have had so many unbelievable experiences over the past couple of months. My friends and family should already be lamenting all the long, drawn-out, convoluted stories they’ll be forced to listen to the next time I see them. I’m pretty sure the Geneva Convention will eventually outlaw my storytelling as some sort of inhumane torture.

Besides my inability to tell a concise story, the other reason I haven’t updated much is because most of the things that have been happening to me are pretty personal. I know part of the point of a blog is to share personal feelings with others, however I will always keep a part of myself for just those closest to me. Here’s a small amount of what has happened to me over the last few months.

I’ve had my phone stolen by hookers in Barcelona, not while patronizing them. Made friends with the owners of a wine shop and their friend in Avignon, who treated me like they’d known me for years, not days. Given away my favorite article of clothing to a homeless girl with two puppies when it was sleeting so they could be warm. Ice-skated in the middle of Paris with someone I’d just met and kept her upright even though she’d never skated before. Broken a champagne glass because I was afraid of a pigeon. Sat on steps in Finland that were in the middle of the capital city but made me feel like I was at the edge of the Earth. Audibly gasped at a demon mannequin child in a museum in Stockholm. Had students from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School practice making food in my kitchen.

I’ve been out from sunset to sunrise. Stayed in my flat for over 24 straight hours. Been afraid to walk in a grocery store. Been confident enough to find out if the cutest girl at the bar speaks English or not. Discovered new music. Listened to the same song for hours on repeat. Been completely panicked about what is happening. Been completely relaxed about what will happen next. Been hurt. Hurt others. Lost someone who was important to me. Found someone who will always be important to me. Woken up cold and alone. Woken up curled around a warm figure. I’ve been lost. I have found myself.

31 years ago, the greatest mother I could have ever dreamed of gave birth to me while the greatest man I’ve ever met stood by. They’ve been standing by me ever since. No matter what crazy idea I had they supported me, even when they disagreed with it. I can’t tell you how many times over the all these years they’ve asked me how I was doing, sometimes as a casual icebreaker, sometimes with genuine concern for my well-being. I still don’t know what’s going to happen, where I’m going to be, what I’m going to do, or who I’ll be with. But finally, I can answer them truthfully.

I’m good.

Risk, Reward, and John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was one the earliest and most influential supporters of women’s rights. His essay, The Subjection of Women, one of the most important feminist works of the nineteenth century. He was the first member of British Parliament to ask that women be given the right to vote. He also believed in freedom of speech, refused to attend Oxford or Cambridge because of their alliance with religion, and was a huge supporter of civil rights for every person.

The reason I bring him up is that he was buried in Avignon, where I currently am until I head back to Paris on Saturday. I was asked to seek out his resting place for a research project while I was here. I had heard of Mill and respected his opinions and work but did not know much more about him. I was very surprised at what lay atop his grave. While there was a small inscription on the side informing you that this was indeed where John Stuart Mill was buried, the top was solely dedicated to honoring his partner in life, Harriet.

The following adorns the top of the grave of John Stuart Mill

The following adorns the top of the grave of John Stuart Mill

to the beloved memory
of
Harriet Mill
the dearly loved and deeply regretted
wife of John Stuart Mill
her great and loving heart
her noble soul
her clear powerful original and
comprehensive intellect
made her the guide and support
the instructor in wisdom
and the example in goodness
as she was the soul earthly delight
of those who had the happiness to belong to her
as earnest for all public good
as she was generous and devoted
to all who surrounded her
her influence has been felt
in many of the greatest
improvements of the age
and will be in those still to come
were there even a few hearts and intellects
like hers
this earth would already become
the hoped for heaven
she died
to the irreparable loss of those who survive her
at Avignon Nov 3 1858

Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill

Mill and his wife knew each other for less than thirty years and were controversially linked while Harriet was married to another man. They were socially outcast solely for being in love with each other. If this had happened in modern times, Harriet and her first husband would have divorced and she and Mill would have been free from judgment by (hopefully) most. The chance they took was immense, and so, it seems, was the reward they were given. We are very risk-averse as a culture now, preferring to be cautious so we can avoid the pain that comes from taking a risk and dealing with the fallout if it does not pan out.

I’m generalizing too much…

I’ve been hurt in the past. I prefer to be cautious instead of risking feeling deep and meaningful things for another person. I would rather avoid the pain that comes from taking a chance and failing. If this pattern remains, I will continue to be good, but never great.

John Stuart Mill died May 7, 1873 and fifteen years later he adorned his grave not with his great and many accomplishments, but with a dedication to the person who meant more to him than any other. Many of us probably don’t remember John Stuart Mill even though his works were extremely important in advancing nineteenth century thought. He is remembered for being one of the early feminists, advancing Utilitarian thought, and probably by a small town in Australia a couple hundred kilometers outside Melbourne named for him. Mill, however, decided that the one thing he wanted to be remembered for more than anything of his greatest accomplishments was his love for another. I know in order to feel that strongly for someone, I’ll eventually have to take that large of a risk again.

Walk It Out

I’ve often complained of the lack of good public transportation in most places in the states. Though there are exceptions, the rule is that driving is most likely the best way to get around. Paris actually has a very good metro system, so did Barcelona for that matter. While it can be very tempting to hop on whenever you have a long walk ahead of you, I highly recommend walking as much as possible.

Besides the obvious benefits of walking/eating mediocre sandwiches, walking a city has numerous other advantages. My current flat is a bit off the main scene in Paris. It’s around five to six kilometers to the Bastille, which is about as far in the opposite direction I’ve been so far. That’s about an hour walk for me and while it may seem more logical to catch the metro and get there much faster, it’s not like when I’m wandering I have a time schedule to keep.

Walking can give you a window into the city’s soul. You see people working, taking walks with their families, shopping, eating, and generally living day-to-day life. You can smell the freshly baked bread or coffee being brewed. You can walk by neighborhoods you had no idea existed and even if you can’t explore them right away, you’ll know to come back and give it a visit.

Small hole-in-the-wall places can have great food, like this place's cous cous

Small hole-in-the-wall places can have great food, like this place’s cous cous

One of my favorite things about walking is happening upon street food stands that have good, cheap bites to eat. Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world and while it’s very easy to find great places to eat, it can ding the pocketbook quite quickly. I’ve been fortunate enough to have found a few places on my own, and also got some great advice from a friend about a few spots, including the best falafel I’ve ever had! Besides cooking for yourself, knowing a few different street food places can make sure you’re still able to go out now and then and spend money when you want to.

Plus you can eat in amazing places, like the banks of the Seine

Plus you can eat in amazing places, like the banks of the Seine

Too often, we get caught up in the fast-paced lifestyle of the states. If you don’t feel like you have to rush anywhere the city can open up for you in ways you never knew were possible. Take the scenic route, even if it’s a bit out of the way. Feel free to take your time and see what serendipitous moment possibly awaits you. Put some good music on, find some great food, maybe even talk to a stranger and wander around. You never know what you might find.

Like an ice skating rink plopped right in the middle of Paris.

Like an ice skating rink plopped right in the middle of Paris.