The man I had seen in the same café the day before passed by on his bike. “Can I help you get somewhere in particular?” Bashful, I replied, “No, thanks; just trying to get my bearings, is all.” He poked his head toward me. “Huh?”
“I’m trying to get my bearings.”
“You mean, find out where you’re at?”
“Oh. Good luck with that.”
He pedaled away, leaving me alone with my map.
You can’t find your way around if you haven’t decided where you’re going.
Sunday was day 0 in Amsterdam. I never count the day you arrive as a full day. You’re lost and disoriented, cars and trams beep, bikes plink bells at you, men seductively catcall in multiple languages, you’re surrounded by hordes of idiotic bumbling tourists, and you hate yourself for being one.
Stumble along on the sidewalk. Clouds of marijuana smoke explode in tufts from the mouths of eager testosterone-ridden men. They leer through the haze of the window and the weed.
Dragging my stupid suitcase, squeezing myself through narrow spaces between tourists, flattening myself against buildings to avoid bikes. I’m squinting into the sun and scuffing my sneakers on the uneven pavement. Bakeries are abundant and fragrant, and there’s music and movement everywhere.
I’m dazzled at this new, different city.
That feeling is reserved for Day 0. There’s none other like it.
“I’m afraid of being made fun of.”
How many times have my students confided this fear in me? Ashamed to struggle, flustered at their mistakes, looking like they want to disappear.
I wonder, What’s the big deal?
Since when do strangers’ opinions matter? Why are we so ready to give away our confidence to imaginary people who fictionally criticize us?
This mentality seems to speak to the greater idea that unless you’re going to be great at something, it’s not worth trying. Anything less than excellence is insufficient. You run the risk of entering the annals of history as a Failure.
Is our sense of self-importance that inflated, that our failures, never mind our very existences, will be remembered for more than 5 nanoseconds?
Push the logic a bit further, and it falls to pieces.
I screw up, forget things, commit acts of thoughtlessness.
I have a funny accent when I speak foreign languages.
I’m sure my lipstick is never smooth and flawless.
I trip over my feet, my skirts ride up, I get parsley in my teeth.
At times, I have no idea what to say. I get testy on occasion.
I ruin recipes and often write what I think is garbage.
So what? We all do.
Criticism from one person is fleeting. As is the embarrassment of screwing up.
More than fictional criticism that hasn’t happened yet, we should be afraid of leaving this world with regret in our hearts, at not having tried.
Let’s get over ourselves, and just do it.
Memories, circa 1995.
I had an “overactive imagination” that fed ravenously on anything mysterious or taboo.
I was morbidly fascinated by the true-crime and conspiracy programs my dad would watch late at night. I’d sneak out of bed and get a peek of the television; wide-eyed, I’d take mental notes about potential warning signs: creepy white guys and alien tracks were at the top of my list. Did you know that a distinctive stone is produced in the spot where an alien falls to the ground?
(I just tried Googling “alien leaves stone on ground where it falls on its butt” to find the original clip on Youtube. No luck.)
I would get a cold thrill when I heard the dramatic music of America’s Most Wanted. John Walsh’s composed newscaster-like persona told sinister murder stories with a detached, factual demeanor that totally creeped me out. I was haunted by the composite sketches and mugshots they’d display at the end of every dramatized murder re-enactment.
Immediately thereafter, I’d run to the bay window overlooking our front yard and rip open the heavy curtains to look outside. All I would see was the same orange streetlight glow reflecting off car windshields. Quiet suburbia. A little too quiet, if you asked me.
Thus was born the conspiracy-driven investigative fixation of my childhood.
I was ever-vigilant, on the lookout for crazed murderers in our suburban cul-de-sac. I also set intricate traps in my bedroom to thwart potential extra-terrestrial room invaders. Webs of yarn strung like a spiderweb, marbles on the carpet to make an intruder slip and fall, my toys placed with painstaking precision so I’d spot any slight disturbance or irregularity in their arrangement. The only intruders I ever caught were my poor parents trying to tuck me in.
Fast-forward to adulthood.
I’m a notorious fraidy cat. I don’t enjoy watching horror films, or any media with extreme, graphic violence. However, I’m still fascinated by grisly stories, true-crime cases, and creepy unsolved mysteries.
Hearing a true scary story around a campfire is way creepier than watching fictional dramatized storytelling on a big screen. A mental image is vibrant enough, and even more terrifying than someone’s attempt to visualize a “scary” image. Our imagination fills in the dark cracks with those terribly personal innermost fears, those secret things that take hold of us in our nightmares. Our own intimate fear triggers that make our pulse quicken and give us chills when we’re alone in the dark of night.
As for me, I don’t set alien traps or supervise neighborhood surveillance anymore. But I always lock my doors, keep my eyes open, and take an extra cautionary peek over my shoulder. Just in case.
It’s an average weekday. The post-holiday slump, the hangover of end-of-year introspection sticking like sludge in my step. What happened to all those grandiose promises I wooed myself with? I thought things would be different this year. But perhaps I’ve seduced myself back into torpid complacency. Safe, sweet complacency.
I step into a tobacconist’s to buy revenue stamps, and I’ve got 1 euro change. “Keep the euro, and give me one of those,” I point to a scratch ticket, and muster up an awkward smile. The clerk hands me my stamps and the ticket, and I look up into his face. Mouth turned up, eyes turned down. There is no familiarity or warmth in that hollow, forced gesture. My own tight smile dries up as I turn on my heel and step out of line.
I duck around the corner to scratch my lotto ticket, back turned to the world. For some reason, I don’t want anyone to catch me in the act, to see the faint glint of hope in my eye as I try my luck. I scratch, and the lucky number comes up: I’m a 1 euro winner. One euro in, one euro out. I’ve broken even.
Now, I ask: Do I try my luck, and get another ticket? I realize I’m already lucky to have broken even, and I should quit now. But quitting now is tantamount to complacency! Why not just try? I’ll never know if I settle for breaking even.
Approach another tobacconist, exchange the winning ticket for a new one. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Loser. Guess I shouldn’t have taken my chances, after all.
I realize that this is about more than a stupid lotto ticket.
Stuff the loser in my pocket, and start sauntering toward work. On the way, a man with a misshapen head and heavy jowls is playing accordion. Under the bland, gray sky, it sounds like an elegiac processional hymn. The gray sky starts melting into me, turning it all into one homogeneous paste. I wade on.
I land in Japan. I’m 20 years old and it’s my first time outside the United States. I’m nervous, lonely, and feeling out of place. Realizing that I’m not sure who I am.
In due time, I am to learn that this uncomfortable feeling is what leads to growth. Unfamiliarity is exciting. I meet new sensory experiences, and a glimpse of my true self. I learn to welcome them.
Japan is where I discover the joy of solitude. I can experience inner calm, the joy of independence, and the freedom to follow my own rules. It has become one of the core values of my life.
Things feel stagnant. Unmoving. Static. Gray. My life feels like short bursts of excitement that punctuate my cycle of reality: home, work, home, work…
I scan the coming months in the calendar, biting my thumbnail. What do I have to look forward to? I live from crescendo to crescendo; I ride the upward crests, and feel exhilarated when I get a peek at what’s to come. I feel aimless when I don’t have that joyful anticipation.
I crave something different.
Oh, I recognize this feeling. Wanderlust. I don’t need to do anything drastic; I just need to shake off the dust and move.
Walking is moving meditation.
Time spent alone is truly free.
It’s okay to get lost, I know I’ll always find my way in the end.
Time to find a new notebook and book a train ticket. I’m already feeling more alive at the thought.
French class is over. Goodbye Charlie. So long. That’s all she wrote. After 3 intensive semesters of studying the complexities of the French language, I said my final “adieu” to the university this past Friday. My last exam was with the same teacher I started my studies with, so it was a fitting end.
Now all that’s left is to wait for my grades, and more importantly, my new visa to come through.
After being out of school for so long, it was bizarre to go back to class, surrounded by people who were mostly my baby sister’s age. Talking with my classmates brought me back to memories from Japan, where I studied abroad 8 years ago. The hope, the uncertainty, the naive perfectionism, the desire to find their path and figure things out, the desire to grow up; I saw a lot of my younger self in my classmates. While it brought back memories of a much more sheltered, carefree (or careless?), naive Lari, my experience also smacked me with a bit of perspective to take away.
It was weird to turn in homework, get corrected and lectured during the day in class, then switch roles and teach and correct my own students at night at work.
It was invigorating to be motivated not by grades, but by pure will and ambition to become self-sufficient, to be able to advocate for myself in a foreign language and country.
It was uplifting to observe my progress in French, and reconnect with my love of studying foreign languages.
It was instrumental in showing me my limits, and I learned the real meaning of being kind and understanding with oneself.
It showed me a glimpse of my potential.
It helped me rediscover my cojones.
It inspired an intellectual curiosity that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
It also opened my eyes to the fact that there’s no way for me to learn all that I would like to learn in this lifetime.
Now, on to the next. Training wheels are off, let’s see what I get myself up to.