Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Breaking up with Boston, or It's Not You It's Me

I've decided that this move away from Boston is a bit like a tortured break up. Not the happy, fulfilled kind where both parties come away from the relationship knowing they were good for one another and ready to move on. Not even the kind where both parties end the relationship full of resentment and anger. No, it's what I suspect may be the worst kind: where both parties understand that they still love each other but that their dreams are leading them away from each other for now.

I wrote here recently about trusting in your dreams to direct you, even if those dreams have gone "stale" (as a friend of mine here put it recently). In that line, I've been imagining Boston and I as a couple of would-be doctors or lawyers who always wanted to go law school or to medical school but happened, inconveniently, to fall wildly in love. Boston and I carried briefcases around when we were 3 or tried to take our parents' temperature when we were 7. Boston spent weekends studying case law for mock trial in high school, while I took a college-level epidemiology course instead of joining swim team or the drama club.

In the days before my departure we were so in love that I was compelled to ask myself: well, wouldn't being a registered nurse or PA be just as nice? I could stay here with Boston and still work with patients. Boston could go to law school and I could join a private practice, giving flu shots and writing prescriptions... But really, if I was willing to give all that up, why couldn't Boston just go into social work while I went to medical school and achieved my dream? Boston and I had a lot of impassioned fights about this.

In the end, though, no one compromised. In a turn of events perhaps surprising to no one, Boston stayed steadfast on the east coast. It was I who got on the plane. Boston and I said our tearful goodbyes. We promised to keep in touch, but we knew things would never be the same. And I don't know if I can speak for Boston, but I for one wondered if I would ever love that way again.

Friday, September 23, 2011

In-flight Entertainment

Airports in the middle of the night are strange. You stumble off this rumbling machine into a pile of glass and metal that looks an awful lot like the pile of glass and metal you left. Your mouth is dry and tastes off. You feel hazy, half in a dream, unsure of where you are. You're in a new place, but it doesn't feel like a new place. It doesn't feel like the old place either. It's an odd in-between.

It's especially strange if the airport is in Iceland at the end of the summer. It's 5:30 in the morning and bright like it's 10. You're surrounded by people whose chatter sounds like singing. Everything smells like herring. So you take your bag and wander through the halls to a bathroom, then make your way to a service desk to ask about changing from window to aisle.

A slight man with close-shaved head stands in front of you speaking with a familiar accent. He doesn't have a boarding pass and needs one to get to London for work. The clerk steps away from the desk for a moment and he asks you if you're going to London. No, you say: Berlin, then Spain.

He smiles. As his accent suggested, he is from Zaragoza. You brace for the obvious question and the pitying answer. Oh, Palencia? But why? I'm sorry. It will be interesting for you, but it's such a small city.

You are mentally putting on your "no, this year will be wonderful" armor. He asks the usual clarifying question. "Palencia! With a P? Not Valencia?"

No. Not Valencia. Except:

He breaks into a grin. His face lights up. "Now that is the real Spain! Palencia is beautiful! I mean, really. Have you ever wanted to live across from a Romanesque Cathedral? Now you can! Just make sure it's the kind that stops chiming between 12 am and 8 am... they usually do these days."

He takes a breath. "Oh, you're from Boston? I guess you're used to living near the sea. Well, this is different, but you still have the river. Very beautiful! Anyway, Zaragoza is inland, too. You'll see -- the people! They're so nice, so friendly. Maybe not as open as those in the south, but they are loyal, kind, and respectful. Good friends. My mother grew up in Soria, and I can tell you: inland people were wheat farmers for a long time. They are used to hard work, and they respect education."

The clerk returns. You listen to them discuss the boarding pass for a moment, then turn to leave. From the receding desk you hear him introduce himself.

"Good luck in Palencia! I am Jose Major Domo! E-mail me if you need anything." He gives his e-mail address.

A few minutes later, you board another plane, one step closer. A little bit less in a haze; a little bit more at ease. On the flight, the Icelandic women are wide awake, chattering, buying duty-free items, joking with the flight attendant. It's like a giant, strange party in the sky. It's like it's already mid-morning, instead of 3 am by your biological clock. It's like they don't know what you're heading toward.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Well, hello there. Fancy meeting you here.

It's been awhile, and the time stamp on the last entry here is solid proof. I stuck in one place for quite a bit-- following my stint in Mexico I got a job at a small, cozy private ESL school and settled into an exceedingly lovely life for the next 16 months. I really hit this one out of the park, I must say: a fascinating gig as a reporter for the Chinese/English bilingual newspaper the Sampan; an incredibly fulfilling internship at NPR affiliate WBUR; a fun-filled routine packed with pub trivia, folk dancing, karaoke, and lectures; a fantastically-located apartment stocked with goofy roommates; and a group of friends who often felt more like family. It may have been "only" a few months, but I put down roots during that time. Or maybe I should say roots upon roots-- I bonded in an adult way with a city that I've known and loved (and that has known me) since childhood. I have been excited, stimulated, fulfilled, loved. Many everyday bumps (and a few not-so-everyday ones) aside, it has been one of the best periods of my life.

Which leads me to the next thought: why in the world would I leave!?

For leave I have: on Thursday, September 15 at 3:30 PM I boarded a plane that took me in a rather circuitous route to Berlin, Germany. Following a four-day layover, another plane took me to Madrid, after which a bus ferried me to Palencia (pop. 75, 000), the small Castilla y Leon city in Spain that will be home for the next 10 months.

In the run up to my departure I crammed as much wonder into my days as I could. I organized bowling trips and group dinners; took river cruises to cement the layout of my beloved city in my mind’s eye; and overloaded myself with Asian cuisine and diner fare, two varieties I did not expect to be offered regularly in my new home. And every night after tiring myself out dancing, listening to live music, or spending blissful time with friends, I would wonder to myself: what am I doing, leaving? Am I making a terrible mistake?

One thing I’ve realized as I’ve adjusted to the beginnings of adulthood is that the singular dream is a myth. Sure, some of us have one thing we wish for that hangs on tenaciously as we mature, but dreams transform as we do, molded to fit the new selves we’re growing into. I always dreamed of being a writer, but that dream has been refined and altered from author and illustrator to travel writer to journalist, and back. And in just the same way, when I returned home from my trip around the world, I had a new dream to join the old ones. I had adored my nomadic existence, but I wanted to know a foreign life from the other side. I wanted a home away, cozy bakeries that I frequented for bread, a coffee shop whose barmen knew my name, a Sunday morning market routine. The pull of understanding life so thoroughly in another place was remarkably strong.

And so I applied to the Spanish Language Assistant program, run by the Spanish Ministry of Education, which brings Canadian and American citizens to Spain to help teach English in public schools. I wrote and re-wrote an essay, put all my documents together, got a recommendation from my boss, sent everything into the embassy, and waited.

But of course part of the point here is that life doesn't stand still, and by the time I was accepted to the program in March my dreams had changed. I was deeply ensconced in my new life, busy drinking cheap beer in little bars in my neighborhood, trying new foods in the countless ethnic restaurants surrounding my apartment, writing a series of articles on Chinese life in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood, and pitching stories about Sudanese politics or dolphin communication at my radio internship. As far as I was concerned, I was living my dream. Spain seemed very far away, in all senses of the phrase.

But, I thought, what do I know about what comes next? I feared that this supremely fulfilling life might be just a brief phase, a period of pretend that would be followed by the confusion, general unsteadiness, and angst most of my friends were experiencing. And hadn’t I always wanted to learn Spanish, to live in Europe? Hadn’t my 2009 self dreamed of siestas, salsa, and sweet, hot espresso in tiny silver cups? I accepted the position, although with trepidation.

The summer wore on, bringing with it details of the year to come (and increased anxieties which may well be discussed later in this blog.) I finally found rhythm and confidence at my internship, I spent more and more time with a close-knit circle of friends, I joined a Zumba class and went dancing, I attended barbecues and went on dates. And I thought: what’s better than this? What person in his or her right mind would voluntarily give this up?

In the weeks before my departure a lot of people I love and respect took time to tell me how brave they thought I was being to leave and try all this newness. They told me that they admired me greatly; some even admitted to feeling jealous. I thanked them and felt the warmth of mutual affection spread through my chest, but some part of me was also thinking: “Am I being brave, or am I being stupid?” And also: “I don’t want to be brave. I want to stay here.”

I wish I could tell you the exact moment when I realized I was half-blind, but I think it was more of a gradual realization. Nevertheless, here it is: really, for me “lucky” and “stupid” are two sides of the same coin. I’m lucky to have enjoyed that life which, for a few short months, was so perfect for who I was and what I needed. And I’m incredibly lucky to have a chance to leave that life and try out a dream I once had, even if it’s not the dream that most recently spoke to me the strongest--many people who cherish this dream will never realize it, and it's easy to forget that. But even with those opportunities, I think perhaps you need to be stupid about risk taking and going out of your comfort zone in order to accept the lucky circumstances offered to you.

Ultimately, I don’t deny the fear that comes with “stupid”—fear that things will never be the same (they won’t); fear that I might lose people I love (I might.) But I can also see the incredible luck I have in tasting this life for a year. I can make room for both sides of the coin at once; I can stand it on its edge. With that perspective comes a new question I have to ponder: if I follow a dream that once belonged to a person that was once me, what does that mean? Should you trust your dreams to know you better than you know yourself? I am either stupid enough or lucky enough to have a chance to find out. Maybe both.