Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mon and Jo`s Eggcellent Adventure (The Princess Diaries)

(MH) One of the best things a mentor once said to me was about the development of one´s conception of self. In his office four years ago, when I was planning on leaving a reality that I had no tangible reasons for needing to leave, when he could have been disappointed or disengaged, he decided on a different course. "You think there is a core, or a set of central elements that are you, that are the things that define you. And you settled there. Until, those change, or fall away entirely, sometimes without your even noticing." My twenty-four (and even now) wanted a stopping point: "Does that ever stop? Is there ever a time when you know for sure?" "No. There´s just different beginnings for the questions."

It started when Johanna sent me an email. Subject line: Hold the phone: HOSTELS. I puked a little in my mouth. I even remember waiting a few hours to open it. My powers of denial are...well...powerful. But I opened it and, since I´m a poor graduate student and all, I couldn´t really argue with the bottom line: hostels were way cheaper.

The thing was this: my family traveled a lot when I was young. My first big trip happened when I was four and we went to Italy. This was the first of many summers and vacations in Italy, or Greece, or Israel, or Morocco, or Spain, or Indonesia, or Turkey, or Curacao, or wherever struck my parents´fancy. I can see my little legs dangling over a chair in a marble-encrusted lobby, dress swishing against the upholstered antique chair, arms politely folded in my lap, waiting for Maria, Mom and Dad to finish coffee or after dinner drink, spending my time wondering at the chandeliers that lined the hallways, the smartly-uniformed bell boys, the bow-tie tied waiters. Perfectly pressed, perfectly polished, perfectly posh. That´s just what traveling was to me. It was more than comfy, it was about how much excess we could partake in. In no way am I mad at it, of course: it´s nice to be surrounded by luxe and my parents earned the chandeliers and marble tubs and plushy robes with every burrito they sold and every school function they couldn´t make it to.

But it happens that that much excess makes its way inside. And it happens that my stomach turned a little at the idea of bunk beds and shared showers and messy, drunk, tube-top wearing college graduates on their version of the Grand Tour.

But it also happens -- in line with the fact that you can always surprise yourself -- that the things you think you need (and need) all of a sudden, with no warning, become merely the things you remember needing. And more, in this case: I don´t know if I ever want to travel in that other, superficially comfier way again (nb: not that my current career choice allows forthis possibility. I'm just sayin'...if I had the option. Heh.)

In Firenze, at Dinner 1.0 at Acqua al Due, we were seated next to brothers who toasted perhaps the only toast that we should ever toast. The eldest (I´m making that up, but I want it to be true) raised his glass: "Because we are in Florence. Because we´ve worked so hard." He said it in Italian and I translated for Johanna. And what followed was the kind of silence I am blessed to have with my closest, dearest.

Not that we´ve really slummed it all that much, thanks to Venus. Mostly we´ve been in private rooms (aside from that night with the Night Shouter, whom I christened either Fritz, short for Friederich, or Hans) mostly we´ve had at least a toilet to ourselves, even if the shower was shared with other rooms. But my point and I´m having a hard time getting to it, is that this trip helps me leave in the past, the Princess. Or the part of my Princess that doesn´t know the riches of earning experience. Really, truly earning every moment of travel with past hard work, with present sacrifices. The Princess that doesn´t know that the world is generous, and more than meets you the more you´ve unfettered. "Que dejamos atras cuando cruzamos fronteras?" is one of my favorite quotations from _The Motorcycle Diaries_ and I´ve been thinking about it the entire time on our trip as we´ve crossed borders and oceans and ridden in planes, trains, little and big buses and with our foots. My favorite part is that I can´t anticipate what this - reframing my idea of travel - will mean. In five years. Or ten. Or twenty. But I´m sure only good things.

With one small caveat. Food. The thing that remains is my oldest, most treasured way of enjoying new places: smart food. Sometimes, but by no means all the time, this food is fancy and served in fancy places with fancy menus and fancy wine lists. (It can also happen that food masquerades as smart with all the fancy accessories, but luckily and thankfully I can tell the difference.) What I value is the intelligence that anticipates that small slices of ripe strawberry will compliment the gazpacho (like this afternoon at Attic off La Ramblain Barcelona's Barri Gotic); the wisdom of the Catalan region that would glaze a codfish filet (bacalao) with honey, then bakes it at the exact right amount of time so it retains its meatiness and loses none of its moisture -- in an iron pan with golden raisins and pine nuts at El Qatre Gats our first night in Barcelona; the insight that knew that arroz con leche was a potentially amazing flavor for gelato, the civilizations the world over that understand that sometimes, all you need is to gently, delicately fry some dough -- just enough to leave the memory of its former, smoother life inside: (thank you Cafe de la Opera). This part of how I was raised in travel stays. 'Cause it actually has nothing to do with luxury. It has everthing to do with a reverence for Craft and the right reasons for indulgence: celebration; gratitude; accomplishment; experiment; communion.

We´ve been thinking about why Barcelona feels so different. I'm still not sure, but it might be something about how it´s still a living modernist dream. Or maybe it's about the difference between Spain's modernismo and what my department teaches me about modernism. Either way, something in the air here didn´t quite take the turn with the rest of the world where "time flies when you´re having fun", where efficiency dictates the pace. I´m conviced, by the way, that that idea, of time flying off when you´re having fun started as a factory manager's mean joke. The day would whizz by mechanized lives and they´d fling it at the exhausted bodies, no longer each in their own time, taken, instead, by industrial, alien rhythms.

You might want to say - and I´d probably say it if I were you, too - that I´m fantasizing. That, as a traveler here with no agenda and no job and no commitments, I´m seeing life in Barcelona through my own escapist desires. Maybe. Except that I already live somewhere that deeply fulfills me. Except that I already do the thing that satisfies. Except that for the first time in as long as I can remember, I am as happy - as entirely, truly happy - as I´ve ever been -- and then some. So I´ve nothing to escape. And, if anything, I don't remember my vision ever being clearer.

And if perception is reality, like Johanna reminds me, then I say here in Barcelona there´s the space for the individual clock (which is no clock at all). For the individual who changes her mind. For the individual who changes. And there is a new space in this individual for the kind of travel that is not about checking things off lists (how is it a vacation if you are on someone else's schedule, replicating someone else's values?) but about ignoring time (which is stretching it) and savoring other air.

And now to thank yous. Because I'm left with too much gratitude not to...

To my parents for showing me early that the United States has nothing on the rest of the world. Part of the reason they urged me not to speak English was because their immigrant eyes already knew what I'd read as elsewhere (Country Cousin). We might have the air to explore all of it (not that nearly enough people take advantage), but more than that it´s dubious at best that we didn´t take it from other people and call it our own in a less poetic language.

To Mo for teaching my nephews this already by raising them in Guadalajara in Italian, French, Spanish and English. They´ll have so many more ways to express wonder and delight.

Thank you to the Powers that conspired to make my graduate school funded, the ONLY reason I could take this trip now.

Thanks to anybody who read the random musings here. That´s super kind of you :)

And a super thank you to my friend, Johanna. It couldn´t be any other way and I couldn´t be happier. I´m already psyched for the next ones.

Oh, and look out for Johanna´s new diet: How to Eat Your Way around the World and Still Lose a Few. Coming to your local bookstore next fall...

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