travel

How to Get Mixy: Guidelines from the South of France

image

What does it mean to be “mixy?” This is a question that I’ve been asked many times over the past several months- by friends, acquaintances, strangers, myself. When I decided to book the Mix of France this summer, a 5-night affair promising lots and lots of mixiness, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. A gathering of hand-crafted cocktail enthusiasts? An ethnically diverse blend of sunbathers? My go to response was “it’ll be Adult Spring Break.” The Cancun college tradition, only classier. Way classier. But this doesn’t even begin to encapsulate mixy. Because mixy is a state of being. It’s like the definition of cool, but cooler. It’s…mixy.

Hosting a 30th birthday party in Cannes with 77 friends, one hotel, and hundreds of bottles of rosé, Grey Goose and Moët et Chandon is mixy. This is how the incomparable Mike Basch chose to blow out his 20s, and it is only appropriate that he is the one who has spearheaded the Mixy Movement. According to him, “mix” is gathering together hip friends from different social circles around the world and allowing them to blend. The hotel serves as a sort of Petri dish where chemical reactions can occur, molecules combining and recombining, a science experiment in social anthropology. While this definition is not incorrect, it’s far too limiting, like defining love as people caring for one another. It needs further explanation. So what is mixy?

Mixy is pre-gaming for the Mix in another country. It’s dancing in Barcelona until 3am then hopping a flight the next morning with a raging hangover. It’s shooting a film in Paris, visiting friends in London, throwing an epic going away party with a hundred friends, staying out all night in New York, then jetsetting to Nice. It’s taking a helicopter into Cannes, sharing a luxury taxi with new friends, working through that hangover together. It’s also booking a last minute flight, deciding on Sunday that Friday you’ll be partying in the South of France. It’s doing whatever it takes to make sure you are part of the Mix.

Mixy is drinking a bottle of rosé at lunch the first day, and two bottles on the beach. It’s consuming more rosé in five days then most non-French will drink in their lives. It’s rosé at breakfast, it’s magnums of rosé at Nikki Beach, it’s rosé at dinner. It’s seeing the world through rosé colored glasses. You should try it sometime, it’s beautiful.

Mixy is partying for five days straight. And five nights. It’s dancing at baoli until 4am, then waking up to take a boat to St. Tropez. It’s 16 hours of dancing, from Nikki Beach to the tables of Brasserie des Arts to VIP. It’s boats of sushi, and more magnums of rosé, and perfectly cooked seabass and filet. It’s a woman in the bathroom line at dinner saying “I wish I were at your table, you guys look like you’re having the most amazing time.” And of course, we are. (Note: spraying 50 bottles of Piper into the air for two minutes might seem mixy, but it’s not. Wasted alcohol = not mixy.)

Mixy is representing countries from all over the world. It’s speaking several languages, and talking in sexy accents. It’s being British and saying whatever the hell you please, because god dammit if it doesn’t still sound charming. It’s being well-traveled and well-versed in other cultures. It’s cosmopolitan.

Mixy is working hard and playing hard. It’s booking a movie on vacation (not me, another wonderful actress), it’s managing a company from a beach chair, it’s waking up early for the market, then drinking rosé. It’s networking with other people in your industry, and those not in your industry. It’s learning about derivatives, then doing a Superman on a stop sign just before dawn (okay, no one learned about derivatives, but a few people work in them.) It’s spending the money you earned, because after all, we only live once. WOLO.

Mixy is running on the Croisette, jumping rope like a maniac, powering through an ab workout. Getting sick is not mixy, but it’s inevitable for all but the most seasoned alcoholics. It’s pushing your body to the limit, then going further in the name of Mix. Sleep when you die, be healthy when you’re home. Anyways, the wine has no sulfites (or maybe it does, but placebo effect), the food is fresh and preservative free, and the sun gives you Vitamin D: all very mixy.

Most importantly, mixy is getting to know some of the coolest people you’ve ever met. It’s guys and girls, singles and couples, old friends and new. It’s a summer fling you’ll think about for years (and pray to someday revisit), it’s the girl in London you’ll stay with next fall, it’s the couple in Germany who invites you to the “secret Oktoberfest” in April. It’s a party in room 352, or 260, or 431. Heck, it’s a party in every room of the Carlton, that’s how mixy the Mix is. And it continues in Istanbul, Tel Aviv, London, Paris, Vienna, New York, Los Angeles, all over the world. Because in the end, Mike is right: mixy is about the people. We brought the mix because we were the Mix.

The question now is: are you ready to get mixy??

Advertisements

Amy, Alicia, Barcelona

image

 

“You know who your real friends are when you travel,” the pretty blonde Canadian said over her glass of champagne atop the W Hotel in Barcelona. She was recounting her experience in Greece a couple of weeks prior, when a friend of hers left her in a restaurant in a fairly seedy neighborhood, leaving her feeling hurt and vulnerable. Alicia and I looked at each other shocked. Even in the tensest of moments, inevitable while traveling, we could not imagine doing such a thing to each other. We had definitely hit some rough patches throughout our time spent abroad- my misaligned neck in Rome, her broken camera lens in Shanghai, Vegas mornings mirroring the one in The Hangover – but we always worked through it and our relationship only deepened from it.

Travel buddies trouble buddies – we’d coined the phrase a couple of years back while laughing with some friends over a particular wild experience in Paris. That trip to Europe had been our first together, and it cemented our friendship in that unique way traveling does. Something about the extreme highs and lows and constant pulsating energy forges a bond that can last a lifetime. Or break one that’s been years in the making. I knew why people had consistently told me I should travel with a boyfriend before marrying him. But until that happens, I’m blessed to have found my partner in overseas crime: the beautiful, adventurous, down-for-everything Alicia Anderson.

On this European tour, I joined up with Alicia in Barcelona. London had been exceptional, but after a week of sightseeing alone, I was ready to have someone by my side, especially after the intense anxiety-producing flight to get there. My last morning in London had been lovely- a long run through Regent’s park, but it all went down hill after that. First the train I took out to the airport stalled on the tracks, and I instantly regretted that second cup of coffee, my hands shaking as I checked the time every few seconds. After 20 or so minutes of not moving, the conductor came over the airwaves to announce we were being held due to someone being struck on the tracks. I felt guilty for getting so worked up about a missed flight when a person may have just died, said a little prayer, and then continued to panic. So much for my happy place with waterfalls and organ music.

When we finally arrived at Gatwick, I sprinted to the bag drop, politely asked to cut in line, made it through, only to find my flight delayed 3 hours. The board informed me my flight info would be up at 3:05, so I got a beer, wrote, and chatted with a lovely Englishman. At 3:09 I went back to look at the board again, and it said my gate was closing at 3:11. I grabbed my bag and started sprinting down the halls, covering a solid half mile before finding the gate, sweat pouring, long queue not moving. After half an hour laughing with the couple in front of me in line who had also hauled major ass, we got on the plane, only to be held captive on the Tarmac for an hour and a half.

Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Barcelona, near dark, google maps not properly working, I wanted to cry. I got to the bar below the flat we were staying, got on their wifi, and found an email from Alicia – if I’m not on the patio I’m in the room with the pinwheel, just call up my name to the window. “Alicia!” I moaned tragically. “Amy Main!” The sound of her voice, the singsong way she always said my name- a rush of relief washed over me. She came down and we shared a long hug, then she grabbed my bag and we headed up to the apartment.

“Here’s a cold glass of water, we have red or white wine, and I’m making some tapas. I wasn’t sure if you’d feel up to going out, but I figured you’d be thirsty and hungry.” It was this kind of anticipation of needs that made her such an incredible friend and travel partner. “I am your mind,” I had once joked with her in Italy, after a particularly poignant moment of nonverbal communication. We’d been saying the phrase ever since. Right now she was mine.

After a little red wine and tapas, we ventured out into the streets. She pointed out some of the places she had been that day and the day before, and we found a little restaurant in an alley to have paella and sangria. Even though we only had three nights in Spain, we both agreed to call it an early one after dinner, since we planned on doing some heavy walking, Gaudi viewing,and drinking the next two days. This was one of my favorite things about traveling with Alicia. She shares my intense desire to experience as many cultural and debaucherous things as possible in a short period of time.

Which was exactly what we did. Wednesday we hit a trifecta of Gaudi monuments. First was Casa Batllo, the Barcelona architect’s nautically designed residential masterpiece. I tried to imagine actually living in the fluid, organic spaces, where no straight lines existed and everything seemed in motion. Next we walked to Sagrada Familia, begun over a century ago and not scheduled to be finished until 2040. It was single handedly the most unusual place of worship I’d ever stepped into (although the mosque in Cordoba, another Spanish must-see, is a close second.) The hanging Jesus resembling an anguished Dionysian circus performer, the soaring stained glass, the kaleidoscope ceiling – it was definitely worth the price of admission (note: the Spanish will charge for everything, churches and parks included.) We concluded our Gaudi day with Parc Guell, picking up a bottle of cava, ham, and cheese (our three Barcelona food groups- bloat, bloat, and more bloat, but so good.)

That night we ate a late dinner at a restaurant recommended by a friend, Boca Grande, and enjoyed some of the best ceviche we ever had. Upstairs at their chic bar, Boca Chica, we met some Spanish gentlemen who introduced us to Monkey 47, the preferred liquor of choice right now in Barca. After shutting the place down at the tender hour of 2am, we made our way to a near empty club. Now, this may sound horrible – a dance floor with no dancers?! – but for me, it was heaven. I’m not sure I’ve ever danced so freely, whirling around the floor, flipping around hand rails, diving swan like into the arms of a handsome Spaniard. “Your friend is crazy! We love her!” our new friends expressed to Alicia. It felt like a dream, the influences of the day coming together perfectly in this moment of unrestrained joy. I thought of the dancers in the Egyptian tomb paintings I’d seen in the British Museum a few days earlier. There’s a reason every culture through every age has expressed themselves in this way — dance.

The next day was Alicia’s birthday, and we spent it having drinks at various places along the beach. First came Arola at the Arts Hotel, under a huge Frank Gehry fish sculpture. It was literally the one thing she wanted for her birthday, and it did not disappoint. The 15 minute handcrafted cocktail, the exquisite tapas, the adorable assistant bartender from Portugal who was beyond excited to bring Alicia a free happy birthday drink – “I’ve never gotten to do this!” We had mutually made each other’s day. A stroll down the boardwalk treated us to many a gorgeous sun-tanned body, and we decided to stop for a beer to be able to fully enjoy the people watching. Beautiful beach, beautiful weather, beautiful company. Things could be worse.

Our final drinking destination for Alicia’s birthday and our Barcelona trip was the W hotel, one of the most incredible places to view the sunset. We left around 8, figuring that would give us plenty of time to catch the sun’s descent on the third longest day of the year. We opted for the bus to save a few euros and our feet, but after three stops, the bus came to a grinding halt. We had hit the most densely packed roundabout I’d ever seen, literally worse than the 405 on a Friday afternoon when Obama’s in town. If I had been alone, or with someone besides Alicia, this may have induced anger or tears. But considering what I’d learned in London, and the current company, we turned the traffic jam into a scene from a Chevy Chase movie. We laughed so hard I nearly did cry. It really is all a matter of perspective.

We had accepted our fate of spending the evening in a roundabout, but then something miraculous happened- the driver found the one open pocket and maneuvered towards it, Mario Andretti in ten tons of public transport metal. We cheered as he honked his way through, going up on a curb, dodging a century old lamp, our hopes revived. He finally cleared the circle and gunned it down the Ronda, delivering us to our destination. A quick cab ride and we were there, the sun hanging at 2 o’clock, stalling for our arrival. We made it to the 26th floor with plenty of time to watch the colors change, the city an aging actress, dazzling in each incarnation until eventually fading out of the light.

“Have a great rest of your trip!” The blonde smiled and waved goodbye. I looked at Alicia, Albariño in hand, hair gently cascading down her shoulder, perfect skin defying the passing of another year. I thought of the last two days, the whirlwind that was only the beginning, and felt so lucky to have found her, my traveling soul mate, the girl who would never leave me in a restaurant, who kept me from falling to pieces, who “was my mind,” my travel buddy trouble buddy. I raised my glass- “to us in Barcelona.” Maybe we hadn’t found Javier Bardem, but who really needed him as long as we had each other.

To London with Love

image

 

The sun broke through the clouds, casting rays down across the gently rippling waves. It was the kind of light that made me reevaluate my belief in God, a flood of religious imagery acquired over years of museum and cathedral visits resurfacing in a single moment. Was it the works of Italian Renaissance masters that made me feel His presence right now, or had Raphael had a similar experience to the one I was currently having that made him paint so many radiant beams? Either way, the interplay of sky and water created a distinct spirituality on my river cruise down the Thames.

It was my last full day in London, and for the first time in five days I really felt the fatigue of travel and limited sleep. My whole body ached as I surrendered to the padded seat of the KMPG boat. I was glad to be on the public transportation and not a proper cruise, as I needed the time to relax my limbs and collect my thoughts. London was the first stop on my five city European tour, and thus far it had been, in a word, magical. But also, as I was realizing, exhausting. In trying to strike a balance between the cultural, the social, the active, and the romantic, I had sacrificed sleep. But if something could wait until later, it was the last of these. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

London. I hadn’t anticipated just how much I would fall in love with the city. For some reason it had never been on the top of my places to go, and if I hadn’t had a college friend living in Maida Vale and accepting visitors, it may have been many more years before I came to the city. I think part of my apathy was due to a perceived similarity to my own country- England just wasn’t foreign enough. But the very thing that had kept me away- our shared language and ancestry- was what made it so spectacular. I had loved the people I had met in other countries- France, Italy, Thailand – but nowhere had I felt more connected and at ease than with the English.

One thing I’d learned over the last several days was that a week was barely enough time to experience even the most obvious attractions. Though I had been going non stop, cramming in as much as I possibly could, I felt a certain despair over the things I had missed – restaurants recommended by friends, works of art in the museums I hadn’t gone to, a day trip to Brighton or Richmond or somewhere outside the city. Never mind that I had been to the Tate Modern and Britain, the British Museum, National Gallery, Green Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Park, Regent’s Park, Greenwich, Borough Market, Arts Club, Beat Club, Broadway Market, and so on and so on. It’s a little like meeting the perfect guy and only getting to spend four days with him. You want to share everything with him, and know him more intimately than ever possible in such limited time, but you just can’t. You get a taste for what it could be like, life with this man, with this city. But that’s all it is. A taste. A visit. A kiss.

As the sun emerged more fully, I smiled at the memories I had created, and a tear rolled down my cheek. I really had experienced a good deal in the city. I had spent my days alone for the most part, a proper tourist soaking in Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square and a host of museums, and my meals and evenings socializing at restaurants and pubs from the West End to the East End. I enjoyed the company in both areas, their attitudes and perspectives shaped in different and striking ways, thanks to a myriad of socio-economic factors. My whole life I had been straddling these two worlds, from my childhood growing up on the east side of Portland and then attending high school at Lincoln, mostly populated with Westsiders, to my adulthood spent in Los Angeles, stationed in Hollywood but moving between crowds in Silverlake and Echo Park to Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. In the end, I’ve realized, it doesn’t matter where someone comes from – we are all humans, and we all have something to offer. It’s the differences that excite and intrigue and attract.

And finally, of course, I thought of the boy. I had met several, in fact, but one in particular, the one I kept texting, the one I spent 7 hours with and it felt like nothing. Or maybe everything. And even though I had spent 4 days with him, there had only been one kiss, and I wondered why it worked out like that. Why couldn’t it have been more? But then I remembered what he said that night as he walked me to the Cycle Hire, where I rented a bike and rode it all the way across town by myself at one in the morning because after all I am my father’s daughter. “Some things are better done slowly, given time.” And even though this made me want to scream because I love nothing more than to throw caution to the wind, my hair blowing behind me in the cool night air, cruising past centuries old buildings and cobbled streets, I knew he was right. I had been so hell bent on cramming in all of London in just under a week that I had completely run myself to the ground. Not that it hadn’t been worth it, or that I regretted any of it, but I felt that perhaps I had in my flurry passed over some of the more subtle moments, like the light breaking the clouds. I relived the solitary kiss once more, and it took on a sort of sublime quality. I felt infinitely grateful for his words, this kiss. Because I knew it wasn’t the end, the affair wasn’t over. After all, London is only an 11 hour flight, and I would be coming back.

I have arrived…

image

 

After an hour and fifteen minute delay on the Tarmac, trapped in a seat so small I couldn’t cross my legs, the plane finally took off. Apparently there had been some “mechanical issues,” which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but gratefully they had been resolved. I turned on the in flight entertainment, practically cheered when I saw “Lego Movie” among the options, and reached for my earbuds, an ordeal that reinforced the necessity of yoga in my life. I thought of my friend James, the world’s happiest Production Assistant / posture nazi, and how proud he would be of my straight-backed, neutral-leg position. Everything is awesome!! Sigh.

As soon as dinner was served (a grueling decision between chicken or pasta, either of which I would inevitably feel I had made the wrong choice), I downed a little blue pill with a glass of Cabernet, my savior at 30,000 feet (see below: “Flying Lessons”). About 15 minutes later, right after Emmet and Wild Style had reached the Old West, I found myself feeling really warm and fuzzy. Pretty soon I was lassoing some horses of my own, only they were zebras with pink and blue stripes, and I wasn’t in the desert but rather on the planet Xanaxia, where everything is sparkly and beautiful and sleepy…

“Would you like some breakfast, miss?” I opened my eyes to find the flight attendant serving croissants and coffee. “Yes, please,” I smiled, thrilled by yet one more successful drug induced 8 hour plane sleep. I started back up where I had left off in “Lego Movie,” and finished it just as we began our descent. I could see England! Everything is awesome!! While I’d been to London as a baby with my parents and had enjoyed several layovers in Heathrow over the years, I’d never been to the city properly. I could feel the excitement simmering in my body (along with the coffee that was jolting me further and further from Xanaxia.)

Aside from the usual tedious customs line made better by free wifi (I loved England already!), navigating my way from the terminal to the Heathrow Connect was painless. The train took me right into the center, London Paddington, and when I exited I got that familiar yet foreign feeling I get every time I arrive in a new city. It’s a bit like waking up from a dream, or rather, waking up in a dream. Different air, different energy, different culture. But same language. That would make the next week decidedly easier to get around, in more ways than one (yes, that pun you are thinking is intentional.)

My first stop was my friend Mike’s work, the guy who I would be staying with the next week. On the way there, I practically cried as I passed centuries old buildings, regretting the fact that my entire adult life had been spent in Los Angeles. There were so many lives to lead, jobs to be had, ways to spend my 20s. I silently cursed my friend for having lived in both New York and London post LA, then rang up to his office. Any residual jealousy immediately disappeared upon seeing him, and I chose at that moment to be the person I wanted to be over the next few weeks: open, accessible, joyous.

We walked to his place, I dropped my bags, and within 40 minutes I was having a pint with one of my best friend’s sisters and her boyfriend. I live for moments like this. Practically strangers (we had met once before 4 years ago), and yet I felt so comfortable, so wonderfully at home with Izzy and James. They are the kind of couple that makes you want to be a better person. You can’t help but smile and laugh and be grateful in their presence, and I was all three. A few pints later, and I was ready to cancel my return flight to LA.

After leaving them (much to my chagrin) I met for dinner with Mike and his friend Ben. It was healthy, fairly inexpensive, and delicious – a rarity in London according to Mike. The company was excellent, and we continued the rapport at a hole in the wall. Literally. We knocked on a door, a server approved us through a sliding window, and we entered a speakeasy of sorts in the west end. My chocolate old fashioned did the trick, and pretty soon I was tearing up the dance floor to the Eagles. How funny to fly thousands of miles only to listen to a song about California. Small world indeed.

I got back to Mike’s flat at a reasonable hour, around 1am, and completed my usual evening routine. It’s amazing, I thought, I could be anywhere in the world, and I am still me. Same face wash, same toothbrush, same ritual. But a world away. A new perspective. That’s the beauty of travel. We recognize ourselves in another light, and we are transformed by it. I said a small blessing, prayed for sleep, and retired to the couch. What a trip this would be.

Flying Lessons

Image

 

I hate flying. If my love for travel weren’t as deep as it is, I may be one of those trains, ships, and automobile girls. But alas, my heart breaks if I don’t touch down in a foreign country at least once a year (and quite frankly, who has time to participate in trans-oceanic cruises aside from the elderly and my parents?) Thus, in order to strengthen my 28 year marriage to traveling – yes, I began my adventures as an infant in Thailand – I have had to overcome my dreaded fear of airplanes. And oh, what a trip it’s been.

Like many sufferers of pteromerhanophobia, I didn’t always picture horrific scenes of airplane shrapnel piercing my liver while my left arm was on fire the second I stepped into the aisle. No, there was a time back in the early 90s when I actually enjoyed being up in the clouds, viewing the world as a red-tailed hawk or Superman. “Daddy, daddy, look! There’s a McDonald’s!” my excited 7 year-old self would proclaim from 2,000 feet as we ascended into the heavens. Back then, I somehow could trust that the wheels would always touch down on the other side of the planet, that our odds of winning the airplane crash lottery were a slim 11 million to one. My greatest fear as we crossed the ocean in a Cathay Pacific 747 was a dearth of honey roasted peanuts. Those were the days.

I still remember the flight where everything changed. It was a dark and stormy night in Southeast Portland, the perfect night (pregnant pause) for a plane crash! That’s actually not true at all. It was a sunny morning in Northeast Portland, and I was awoken at 6 am by a camera crew, ready to escort me to PDX. At 16 years old, I had been cast in a reality show for ABC Family (one of the first of its kind), and I was being shuttled across the country to switch lives with a girl in Pennsylvania. I kissed my mom and dad goodbye on cable TV, and boarded that flight alone. That’s right, you heard me, ALONE. It was the first time I’d ever done such a thing, and the second we took off my mind could thing of nothing else except dying in the comfort of two hundred strangers.

Reflecting on it now, I find it quite ridiculous that this solitary flight birthed my crippling fear of flying. For one thing, how selfish of me to want my friends and family to die with me in a fiery crash. Isn’t it actually better if I go down with strangers, my loved ones spared the horrific demise? I guess not; misery loves familiar company, as they say. Secondly, and this is getting a bit more philosophical, we all technically die alone, so with or without my mother present, the fear should have been the same. Again, the irrational wins the day, and even now my fear of flying is exponentially increased when I’m traveling solo.

But enough of all that psychobabble, I know what you’re really wondering – “Amy, how have you been able to overcome such a dehabilitating condition as pteromerhanophobia?” Well, I’ll tell you, dear reader, and it’s really very simple: Xanax.

I came across this miracle airplane drug a blessed three years ago, on a return flight from Dusseldorf. Until this point, my tried and true weapon of defense were those mini wine bottles they serve free of charge on international flights. Lots and lots of them. For several years, I had found that a drunken stupor greatly decreased my sense of panic, and also significantly improved the quality of film programming (I don’t know what rottentomatoes was talking about, “Good Luck Chuck” was hilarious!) But as any alcoholic can tell you, the buzz eventually wears off, and on my flight to Paris a month B.X. (Before Xanax), I had succumbed to a full blown panic attack halfway through The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. What makes this incident all the more surprising is the fact that I had also consumed a Tylenol PM, and the combination of the two had caused me to conk out. But do not underestimate my sensitivity to turbulence, because the second that plane started to tremble, I came to with a jolt, and my pulse went off the charts. (In retrospect, I wonder if the red wine and sleeping aid may have been the real cause of the panic attack. Who will ever know.)

Needless to say, after that terrifying experience over the Atlantic, I knew I required something much more potent than the poison of Dionysus to return me safely to Los Angeles. Luckily, my friend Zoe, an ex-pat living in that oh-so seedy arrondisement of Montmartre, prescribed just the thing. She gave me three little white tablets, and suggested I take one based on my slender frame. Knowing she was incapable of truly grasping the gravity of my condition, I took two before boarding AirBerlin Flight 790 to LAX. As I settled into my seat next to a 20-something Brit, I crossed my fingers and said a short prayer – “God save us.”

Twenty minutes later, suspended in a 400 ton piece of metal 10,000 feet above sea level, I was in heaven. I’d never felt so weightless, so content! The Brit could have told me he was secretly Al Qaeda and I would have smiled- “Bloody wonderful, good chap!” Every fear I’d ever had – spiders, ghosts, those pink flamingo yard ornaments – just evaporated into the oxygen deprived air of the stratosphere. “Life is beautiful! I’m on Xanax!” I proclaimed joyfully to my seatmate. “Do you have anymore?” he inquired, and I handed him my final pill. Wonderful! I thought, if this plane is to fall out of the sky, I will not be alone!

As chance would have it, a mere 12 hours later we arrived at the Tom Bradley terminal, as intact as two Xanax induced travelers could be. I retrieved my luggage from the baggage claim, phoned my friend who was circling the airport, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I’d found my cure.

(Now off to London!!!)

One Night in Florence

Image

 

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.

The Cambodian Girls

Image

 

Every morning when I wake up and wash my face I’m greeted by a colorful star ornament. It dangles from the handle of my medicine cabinet, its eight points shooting childlike energy out in all directions. The bright purple, green, and pink hues clash with the light mauve of the bathroom wall, but this only exaggerates its purpose. This star, given to me by a petite Cambodian girl, serves as a daily reminder of gratitude.

In February of 2013 I visited Cambodia with my parents as part of a Southeast Asian tour. Our trip began with a two week cruise taking us through Singapore, Bali, Malaysia, and Thailand. I know what you’re thinking – “wow, your life sucks. Traveling on a boat full of senior citizens sharing a room with your parents? Yuck.” But luckily, I love my parents, and those old people have a lot of exciting stories to tell you about their trip over the hill. (Plus, there was a hot Aussie trainer eager to help me with my, uh, form.) Needless to say, it was wonderful. But after 14 days of endless buffets, a hundred games of Hearts, and AARP Zumba, I was ready to get down and dusty in the forest of Angkor.

I didn’t know much about Cambodia going into it, except what I’d read in textbooks back in school. I knew the country had suffered tremendously under the bloody hand of the Khmer Rouge, and that it was poorer than the other third world nations I had visited. In regards to Angkor, I could vaguely remember spending ten minutes looking at photos of temples in my Asian Art History course at SMC, but I was always distracted in that class by my professor’s good looks (he was married- no fantasies fulfilled). Aside from that, I’d spent a few minutes googling the country the day before I left, and then decided I would just learn about it when I got there. I do love surprises.

Our first night in Siem Reap I fell in love. The warm air whipping my hair on the rickshaw, the bright lights of Pub Street, the sweet coconuty Amok. We sipped $2 mojitos under bamboo fans in a bustling alley and watched the swell of foreigners drifting in and out of restaurants and shops. Languages from all over the world sang around us, a symphony of diversity. I watched my mom taking it all in. She’d never looked more youthful than at this moment, her eyes alight, her nose crinkling as she laughed, still experiencing wonder at 57. This is the life I signed up for, I thought, one of our many family slogans. It doesn’t get much more magical than this.

But it did- Angkor Wat. How to describe it? Ancient, mythical, impossible, unrepeatable, like a lost fairy tale reawakened. We spent hours exploring the main temple, scaling its walls, feeling its ghosts. How could this place have been buried for so many centuries, kept secret from the rest of humanity? Who were these ancient people who built these monuments, thrived and flourished, then just disappeared? I ran my hand over the archaic carvings. It was the closest I’d ever been to time travel.

As the sun peaked in the sky, we finally decided to move on to the next temple. Angkor Wat is only one of more than a thousand temples in Angkor Thom, and we only had three days to cover as much as we could. We found our guide – one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of rickshaw drivers – and he motored us off to Prasat Bayon, the temple of the mysterious faces. I definitely remembered discussing this one in my class, the fact that each of the 216 zen-like visages were slightly different. I thought of Ancient Egypt, and the varied imagery used to distinguish each pharaoh from the others. Who were these faces? Boddhisatvas? Jayavarman VII? The truth remained sealed behind the stoic lips of the 216 stone faces. An hour passed, maybe two, and it was time to continue to the next site.

At each of the temples, vendors hawked items to the visitors, as typical of any tourist destination anywhere. These included fresh coconut water, fans, t-shirts, scarves, and silly little knick knacks, like kazoos. The sellers ranged from 7 years old to what looked like a 100. We bought a few things along the way – I got a dress and a coconut, my mom got a fan and a scarf – but we couldn’t possibly buy something from everyone, and we had to become adept at saying “no, thank you.” It was hard to turn down the little boys with their funny masks and musical instruments. It was harder still to choose amongst them who to purchase the diet coke from. “From me, ma’am, buy from me!” I thought of the clubs in Vegas, where people would “make it rain.” I nearly choked on the absurdity.

Our last temple for the day was a bit further off the beaten path. The sun had just begun its torchlike descent to the horizon, and we hurried down the dusty entryway to the gate, determined to see all we could before closing. As we shuffled along, our flipflopped feet sore from the day of sightseeing, a group of 6 or 7 young girls with scarves joined us. “Ma’am, 3 for $5. Beautiful scarf. Pretty on you,” the girl said, trying to appeal to my vanity. One of them tugged on my mom’s dress- “For your daughter. So beautiful. You buy from me.” We smiled at them. “When we get back, but first we need to see the temple!” my mom exclaimed, and they nodded.

We were the only ones inside the temple grounds. The light was spectacular, “Golden Hour,” and we absorbed as much of it as we could in 20 minutes. When we walked back out, our first day officially concluded, the girls greeted us. “Ma’am, you told me you’d buy!” “But I already have so many scarves! Look!” My mom showed her her earlier purchases. “For gifts, for friends,” the girls pleaded. “My husband has all the money,” my mom replied. It was true. He was in charge of carrying the money, and he had already retired to the rickshaw. Their faces fell. My heart broke. I wished I could take each of them home with me, give them each the education and opportunity I had, provide them with the kind of life I had been blessed with.

I reached into my small purse and rummaged around for something, anything, I might be able to give them. I found a JuicyTube lip gloss. “Here, for you.” I handed it to one of the girls, and her eyes shined the way my mother’s had the night before. She put some on and shared it with the other girls excitedly. “Do you guys want to take a picture?” my mom asked. “Yeah!” They eagerly lined up with us beneath the blood orange sun. Click.

They followed us to our rickshaw, and we got a few dollars from my father to give to the girls. It was so little to us, but so much to them. Why does the world work this way? I wondered. “For you, for you!” The girls held out little straw stars for the three of us. “No, no, we don’t need that. You keep it,” my dad said. He wasn’t trying to be rude, he was just telling the truth. We didn’t need the stars, and we didn’t want to take something from them that would earn them money. We got in our rickshaw, and the driver started up the engine. “For you!” One of the girls put the star in my lap. I started to give it back, and then locked eyes with her. It was the girl I’d given the lipgloss to. I saw myself through her in that moment, and understood. I clutched the star to my chest, took her hand, and said “Thank you.”

As we made our way back through the forest, past the temples and lake, past a small village with no electricity or running water, past children in school uniforms walking the miles back to their homes, I felt more grateful than I ever had in my life. For that moment, for my parents, for the beauty of the place and the people, for the girl, for the star. What a gift. I think about it everyday.