Europe

Home Sweet Los Angeles

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I sink into an inevitable depression every time I return from traveling. It’s one of the ramifications of being abroad – in getting to experience the world in a larger sense, my own small life back home takes on a glow of insignificance. It’s like being shown a buffet of all the best offerings of cuisines from Thailand to Turkey to Timbuktu, and then being told I will only be served chicken and steamed vegetables for the rest of my life (or until I can afford that next plane ticket). Not that I don’t like chicken and steamed vegetables. In fact, after three weeks of subsisting almost entirely on carbs, meat, beer, and wine, chicken and steamed vegetables sound like downright heaven. But as the bloat subsides, so does their appeal, and pretty soon I’m left hungering for one more slice of jamón ibérico, one more pain du chocolat, one little stein of Austrian brew…

Knowing this about myself, I made a concerted effort this time around to change my mentality. Even before I left Europe, I devoted a small chunk of time on a Seine river bike ride planning my return strategy. I would take my newly acquired rosé-colored glasses and use them to see afresh the city where I had spent my entire adulthood. I would write a blog about Los Angeles illuminating all of the things I had missed before in my day-to-day complacency – architectural details on downtown buildings, neighborhood coffee shops with handcrafted soy candles, funky galleries featuring hip young artists. There were angels somewhere out there in LaLaLand, and I was going to locate them. For too many years I had been decompressing from travel the wrong way – lamenting the end of my exotic experience instead of embracing the beginning of a new perspective. Well, not this time! I told myself, pedaling fiercely along the cobblestones of Île de la Cité. This time I’m coming home happy! And you wanna know something? I did. I came home happy.

For about 36 hours.

I touched down on the evening of July 11th, a huge smile across my face. Mostly I was relieved to survive yet one more harrowing excursion in a big chunk of metal hurtling through thin air 30,000 feet above the ground. But I also found myself in awe over the golden light basking the urban sprawl. I’d forgotten just how expansive Los Angeles was, how many places I had yet to explore, people to meet, restaurants and shops and museums to patronize. The mountains beckoned me to come hike them, the ocean to run along its sandy beaches. There were so many wonderful things to do in my hometown, and with the new enthusiasm Europe had gifted me with, I would do them all!

But not that first night. That first night I would just drive home with my friend, try and form coherent sentences about my trip, pick up a few groceries, then collapse on my bed. My bed. Of all the things I’d left behind over the past month, my bed was probably the thing I had missed most. Aside from the Carlton, most of the beds I had been sleeping on hardly deserved their title. They had been more like… cots. I snuggled up with my teddy bear, turned off the light, and passed the eff out.

I was so excited to begin rediscovering Los Angeles that I woke up that first morning at 4:30. (Alright, fine, I had jet lag, but I was trying to reframe things.) I made a damn good gingerbread cappuccino, watched the sunrise, spent a couple of hours on one of my stories for my acting class, worked out while watching the pilot of The Leftovers. It felt good to be back, and it was nice having the time to myself, knowing everyone was still asleep and I didn’t have to reach out quite yet. I was enjoying the quiet.

Around 10am, I decided it was finally reasonable to start texting people. The malaise had begun to creep in after only 5 hours, and I knew I needed to act fast. Luckily, my friend Jairo quickly picked up the ball I was dropping, and invited me down to his place in Culver City to go for a bike ride along the beach. He showed me his regular route, a wonderful pedestrian path stretching essentially from his backyard all the way down to Redondo Beach, and we conquered a solid 25 miles, broken up by margarita pit stops. We got back to his place around 6, took a little nap, then headed out to Malibu for an outdoor screening of Back to the Future for a friend’s birthday. It was exactly the kind of LA outing I had had in mind only a few days before in Paris. Ahhh, Paris…

The next day was a little harder. The World Cup and my friend Hannah helped alleviate things a bit, but I could feel the quicksand of depression beneath my feet. By 6pm, I grew so tired of flailing around in it that I gave up. I left the lovely people at the porch party I was at and returned home, exhausted, sad, defeated. Why was I already crossing over into the dark side? How was it possible that I was already becoming jaded?

Over the next 48 hours, I tumbled head first into the black hole I’d been so afraid of. There were flashes of glorious light – throwing a spinning descending angel on the pole at S Factor, tap backs with the beautiful Jenny C. at SoulCycle, the insightful lecture from my profound mentor Diana Castle at The Imagined Life – but it couldn’t seem to stop the plummet. What was I doing in Los Angeles? What was I doing with my life? Who am I, what am I, why am I? I skipped from news article to news article, website to website, put 20 books on hold at the library. I read 15 pages of Romeo & Juliet, then 10 of the Silicon Valley pilot, then 5 from a Richard Linklater script. There was so much to do and see and read and watch and people and places and restaurants and plays and artworks and and and – – –What was I going to write?!

I felt crushed by the weight of my own desire for experience, immobilized by the sheer vastness of the world and the shortness of life. My body ached, my mind ached, my heart ached. I was mad at myself for not being stronger, for succumbing to my old tendencies, my old insecurities. Why hadn’t I been able to bring Europe home with me? Where was that joie de vivre? I laid my head down and cried…

I woke up several hours later to the sound of my phone vibrating. It was a text from a friend, asking about dinner that night. I rubbed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, still groggy. I listened to the whir of the washing machines coming from next door, the soft Spanish murmurs of two neighbors on the other side of the fence. Laughter erupted between them, a joke I would never understand. I smiled, thinking of the various languages I had just been immersed in the last few weeks, the places I had been. Six different cities in 24 days. No wonder I’m exhausted, I thought, reliving the culturally-packed days and fun-filled sleepless nights. No wonder it’s hard to readjust. I forgave myself for the nap, the tears, the tumbling existential thoughts, and picked up the phone.

Sure, what time? I texted back, and watched the three little dots on the screen. 7, any preferences on place? I thought about it for a moment, then responded. No, not really. The dots reappeared, then- great, let’s do Sugarfish. I grinned, immediately excited by the prospect of one of my favorite sushi restaurants. That sounds amazing, I replied. See you at 7.

I reached across my bed, grabbed my computer, and opened it up, finally ready to get to work. Maybe Los Angeles doesn’t have centuries old boulevards, beautiful parks brimming with roses, and awesome public transportation, but at least it has more than chicken and steamed vegetables.

 

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One Night in Florence

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In the fall of 2008, I went on a three week trip to Europe. My best male friend Sammy had invited me to be his date for a Tuscan wedding, and it happened to coincide with my parents trip to Spain. Even though I was pretty broke at the time, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to travel, and booked the flight on credit. The journey proved to be incredible, a feast for the eyes, ears, tongue. I walked the cobbled streets of Toledo, experienced the serenity of the Islamic architecture in the Alhambra, marveled at the monstrous take over of the Cordoba mosque by the Catholic Church. In Italy I danced until 4 in the morning with the bride and groom, went wine tasting through the Tuscan countryside, had the most amazing seven course, five hour dinner in Florence. The trip was packed with culture, art, food, beauty, wine. But the most memorable experience actually came at the end of my vacation.

When I had booked the flight, I had misread the dates Sammy had sent me, and thus ended up with an two extra nights, one in Italy and one in Switzerland. I was nervous about this, as I had never been alone in another country before, but also thrilled by the possibility for adventure. I didn’t plan anything before leaving the United States, so on my last day with Sammy in Lucca I had no idea where I would end up. I took a train down to Florence, passing the hours simply staring out the window at the red, orange, and yellow leaves of the October trees.

As the train finally pulled into the station, my heart skipped. I was officially alone in a city with no idea where I was going, where I was staying. I reached up for the suitcase and struggled to pull it down. It had been wedged into the overhead cabinet, and I couldn’t get it out. Tears started forming in my eyes. What was I doing here all alone? Why did I think I was capable of this? “Can I help you with that?” a voice from behind me inquired. I turned to find a handsome, bespectacled young man, who looked about my age. I nearly hugged him I was so relieved to hear someone speak English. “That would be wonderful,” I replied. He easily lifted the suitcase down and smiled. “These are my parents,” he motioned to a kindly looking couple, “where are you from?”

As we departed the train, we unearthed a lot of common ground. We were both in college, both from the west coast, and he was currently attending the University of Portland, a campus I had grown up less than a mile from. We talked about traveling with our parents, and how much we enjoyed Italy. As his father stopped to hail a cab, a sense of sadness and panic overcame me. Without thinking, I blurted out “Do you think I could come with you guys and see if there’s an extra room in your hotel? I have nowhere to go.” They all smiled. There was so much warmth from this family, I didn’t want to leave it.

During the cab ride, I started to feel anxious about the hotel. What if it was really nice and I couldn’t afford it? I had less than 70 dollars left, and it needed to last me for the next two days. As I listened to the family talk, I became acutely aware of the father’s speech. He had an impediment of some sort. Not a stutter exactly, something else. I could sense his frustration. His wife was very patient, every so often finishing his sentences.

When we got to the hotel, my nerves calmed. Like my own family, they travelled frugally. The hotel was charming in its own storied way, but it lacked refinement. The wallpaper peeled slightly at the corners, the wooden banisters had long since lost their luster, the lift elevator groaned heavily. I was grateful for the absence of pretense; it felt comfortable. And the price was right – $35 for a tiny single with a twin bed. As we got off the elevator, I thanked the family for allowing me to come with them. “Would you like to come have dinner with us?” The boy asked. “Yes!” I responded too eagerly. I couldn’t help it – I wanted to stay enveloped in their affectionate energy. “Great, meet us in the lobby at 7.”

The room was no more than 10 feet squared, but as I unpacked my toiletries I felt an enormous sense of pride. It was the first time I’d ever rented my own hotel room. I felt distinctively adult. I was in another city, by myself, and I had found a place for myself within it. I laid on the bed and hugged myself. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, I thought.

That evening we roamed through the piazzas in search of a restaurant. We found one in a rather touristy part of the city and ordered pasta and pizza. It could have been The French Laundry or McDonald’s, it wasn’t important – what mattered was the company. We laughed, shared stories, drank wine, spoke about home and the Northwest. I could barely contain the joy I felt as we stopped for gelato on the walk back to the hotel. This was living.

Back in the hotel, the parents retired to bed and I sat with the boy in the lobby, each of us checking Facebook on our lap tops. We chatted for a bit, and then I finally asked the question I’d been pondering all night – “So, what’s going on with your dad?” The words felt poisonous exiting my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I quickly followed up, “I don’t mean to be rude.” He looked at me tenderly, “No, it’s alright. He has Lou Gehrig’s.” My mouth dropped. I didn’t know much about the disease, but I knew enough. My eyes welled. “He has about six months left, we took this trip because it was always his dream to come to Italy.” I hugged him and started to cry. I had no words. After a minute we pulled apart. “He’s had a really good life, and we have a really strong family,” he said, “life’s not always fair, but it’s what you make of it.” I nodded, moved. A moment passed. “Wanna head back upstairs?” he offered.

The next day I sat with the family at the complimentary breakfast. We ate bread and jam, drank orange juice, shared more laughter. They talked about the places they were going to visit that day, and I told them about my favorite pieces at the Uffizi – the Cimabue I adored, the magnificence of the Birth of Venus. The boy gave me his contact information, and we promised to keep up with each other on Facebook. After finishing our last sips of coffee, we exchanged hugs and goodbyes. I headed upstairs and packed my suitcase, alone again. I broke down. The last 24 hours had been too special, too sad, too sacred. Their acceptance and grace – it would never leave me.

I took one last look at the room, and then confidently grabbed my bag. I still had a night in Zurich to figure out, but this time the only nerves I felt were of excitement. There are seven billion of us on this planet, each doing our best to navigate this thing called life. Whose path would I cross today? Whose story would I be told? Who would change my perspective on things, great or small? I couldn’t wait to find out.