Tag Archives: from the notebook

In travels, strangers’ love can mean the world

When you’re traveling alone, it’s the chance interactions you share with others that keep you going. A tiny glimmer of a smile. A slight nod. Small talk about where you’re from or where you’re heading. At home, these moments seem trivial, easily unnoticed as we move about our busy, insular lives.

But when that’s all you have, these tiny moments, you’re only left with yourself. While time alone can be reinvigorating, it’s equally terrifying and overwhelming. You’re forced to reckon with a myriad of thoughts and emotions, some of which can be uncomfortable.

Life is being lived all around, except now you’re merely an observer to an unfamiliar world spinning madly in front of you. It’s quiet, really quiet. The silence that comes with traveling alone will make you love yourself at some points and dislike yourself at others.

One moment you’re stupidly proud of yourself for lugging a 30-pound backpack around for miles in search of a hostel. And when you find that secret, little corner booth at a cozy café far from where tourists have set afoot, you feel like a conqueror.

In these moments, it’s as though we’re invincible. The alluring lights of an unfamiliar city, no matter how big or how small, tend to have that effect. It’s rather silly. There are thousands of streets, thousands of people, but you feel like everyone knows your name.

But no one does. As darkness falls, we each head back to our little rooms in remote pockets of these metropolises alone. That is when the emotional reckoning happens.

One question weighs heavier than most: Am I significant? Sit there pondering long enough, and it will tear you up.

Thankfully, you have these random strangers to pull you back up again even though they owe you nothing. After all, our days are all fragmented and numbered.

Strangers have no idea where you’ve been. They don’t know your proudest moment or your biggest regret. They’re not required to care.

To truly get an idea of what strangers are like as people, ride among them on any form of public transportation. You’ll uncomfortably shift in your seat, pitifully grasping for human connection, however brief, as friends still lie sleeping in faraway time zones.

There will be the people who cut through your shy smile with callous turns of the head in the opposite direction. But just as you sorely resign to isolation, there will people who miraculously smile back.

Sometimes, actually, they’ll smile at you first. They’ll stir up random conversations about the stupidest things, like your shoes. Curiously enough, you feel your blood flowing through you again in these moments.

It happens when two guys notice you sitting alone on top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and invite you on a wild hiking adventure.

It’s when a woman offers to walk 30 minutes with you to the bus station in Seville because she figures you could use the company.

And it’ll happen when a teenager with wild piercings in Amsterdam makes you stop listening to your iPod just so he can introduce himself and ask if you’re enjoying your time there.

The love of family and friends is wonderful, but familiar love can be messy. Expectations, motives, conditions and stipulations can sometimes complicate an otherwise beautiful thing.

But with strangers’ love, there’s no pretense. They have just overcome a great struggle to say hello, wondering if it’s OK to stir up a conversation with you.

“Is it the right time? Is it the right place? Will she think I’m weird?” After all, we’re warned not to talk to strangers.

But these people smile, wave and say your shoes are neat anyway. Why? Because they don’t see you as just anybody  they see you as somebody.

They don’t know your past, your future or even your name, but they appreciate your existence.

Every now and then, we find ourselves walking alone in this world. We wonder if we’re worth loving. We need strangers to teach us that we are. We so are.

Robin Williams healed many in their dark days

This blog post is three years in the making. It’s taken me three years for me to find the right words  or just the best words I can. Why am I finally posting it? Because an actor, rather a person, whom I admire with every inch of my heart has died by apparent suicide, and I owe every bit of gratitude to him for helping me put myself back together when I was once so, so broken.

I never met Robin Williams, but I feel as if I did. Reading condolences on social media sites, I’m amazed at how one man can inspire many people to say the same. But when you’re Robin Williams, I suppose it’s not hard for people to take notice.

His batty improvisational skills and gusto-packed impressions in films like “Patch Adams” and “Aladdin” are mesmerizing. Williams has long been a welcomed guest in the homes of so many.

It only takes 90 minutes and one of his classic mischievous half-smiles for Williams to take families to a different world, an escape from the present one that offers up some hearty laughs.

When I was about 4 years old, it was always the 1993 hit “Mrs. Doubtfire” that did it for my family. Williams plays a father who crafts up some cross-dressing antics in an attempt to reconnect with his children in response to a bitter divorce and custody suit.

The film inspired many animated evenings at home with my own father.

On more than one occasion, my dad would channel his inner Williams by squeezing into my mom’s old dress, throwing on high heels and puckering up to a tube of gaudy red lipstick. With my little palm in one of his hands and a broom in his other, we’d take to the living room floor blasting Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” and dancing like fools.

Robin Williams
Courtesy: 20th Century Fox

The childhood memories those nights created remain at the forefront of my mind as some of my life’s happiest, still vivid to this day.

Had it been any other actor who played the role of Mrs. Doubtfire and not the ridiculously charismatic Williams, I’m not quite sure this wacky father-daughter ritual would’ve ever come into fruition.

Now, flash forward from the happiest moments of my life to the saddest. Not even a week into my senior year of high school, I was slapped with the abrupt news that my own parents were separating after 19 years of marriage.

I sobbed hysterically in a secluded corner of my high school each morning before class, that is, if I even made it to class. I had perfect attendance in school from seventh grade through 11th grade, but nowhere could be far enough from campus then.

I shunned my dad for two months and could only bring myself to yell at my mom.

One of my brothers became essentially mute. My other brother couldn’t keep his grades from slipping.

By the time June 2010 rolled around, we were all still a mess. Graduation was one of the worst days of my life. Instead of celebrating with classmates, I was more preoccupied with insuring one side of my extended family kept their distance from the other. We couldn’t even eat out as a family to celebrate the occasion.

It hurt too much to talk about it, so I didn’t. Here we are five years later, and I don’t tell even my closest friends that my parents are divorced unless they ask me outright.

I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but looking back on the whole thing now, I was depressed. At one point I felt as though nothing would ever lift my spirits again.

After a grueling two years of domestic purgatory, my parents ultimately decided to go through with the divorce in 2011.

A few weeks after my parents signed the papers, I heard a knock on my bedroom door. My dad walked into my room, tears rolling down his face. He held a laptop in his hands and silently pushed it towards me. On the screen was a queued up YouTube video, a scene from an old favorite of ours, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

The scene features Williams dressed up as Mrs. Doubtfire. He sits in a chair reading a letter from a girl named Katie who is afraid she’s lost her family after her mom and dad decided to separate two months earlier. Or at least, that’s what her brother told her, who shares the same name as my brother, Andrew.

“Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie … But if there’s love dear, those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet. You’re going to be all right. Bye-bye.”

Some might say the scene’s relatability is just a product of good screenwriting and mere coincidence that the girl who wrote the letter shares my name. I see it differently: Behind Williams’ delivery was pure soul, and it was speaking directly to mine.

It was then my dad apologized for all the hurt I had endured those past few years. “We’re still a family, we’re still a family,” he repeatedly murmured into my ear as I breathed deeply into his shoulder. I felt as though a massive boulder had been lifted off my back.

And though the situation didn’t magically become better in that one moment, Williams was correct when he said I was going to be all right.

Though my parents aren’t together, we all still laugh together and talk together. Sometimes my whole family will go out to dinner, both parents included. When my dad was in a car accident in February, my mom was the one who drove him to the hospital to get his head checked out for a concussion.

We’re unconventional in every way imaginable, but we’re making it work.

I wish I had been there to tell Williams everything was going to be all right when he needed it Monday night  just as he was there for me. When depression torments someone for so long as it did Williams, it’s difficult to say if my words would’ve helped, but I’d like to hope they would.

I can’t compare the grief I endured to that of Williams’, but I think I can understand how much it must have hurt to keep all that pain bottled up inside for so long. Sometimes the toughest battles are fought behind the biggest smiles.

Williams spent his life lifting up the spirits of others, and his death teaches us that no one should feel like they need to keep pain a secret. That’s why I’m finally publishing this blog post now, three years after creating an initial draft.

Though Tuesday and today have been steeped in sadness, writing this has made me feel just a little bit better. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for once again shedding light upon my life. I just wish you had stuck around so I could thank you in person.

A single rose floats along the French Riviera

I sit looking out at the Mediterranean lapping playfully before my feet when I spot a single baby pink rose riding its waves. How did it get here?

Logistically speaking, it’s probably from the Marché aux Fleurs, a vibrant market several blocks up from Nice’s beach. But why did it wander several blocks down to the ocean?

Maybe a man finally proposed to his longtime girlfriend, who became so overwhelmed with joy she tossed the delicate flower into the ocean.

Was a lovelorn widow thinking about her husband while making pilgrimage to their favorite vacation spot? Did she place it gingerly in the water out of remembrance, hoping it might find its way to heaven?

Was a teenage couple furiously making out to the French equivalent of John Mayer, rolling around on the rocks? Perhaps they forgot the rose, its petals as alluring and fragile as young love.

Did someone cast the rose aside, swearing off romance and all its tokens?

Perhaps a person placed it there just to make others smile.

If it’s the last of these, it worked. We’ll never know this rose’s origin — just that love and the longing for it will forever have an insurmountable pull as timeless as the sea’s waves. 

Getting a little closer to heaven in Cinque Terre

There are some places that before you even leave them, you miss them. Cinque Terre, a stretch of five coastal towns dotting Italy’s western coast with its impossibly beautiful beaches and colorful homes, is like that. (The regional government even has a commissioner of good taste who regulates the beauty of these buildings.) Though it’s become more become more of a tourist destination since the proliferation of social media, the area still has such a great local feel.

Those living in Cinque Terre have their priorities straight. They sit on their balconies to watch those in wonder below them. They eat the very anchovies they caught earlier that day. They linger in the markets they visit daily, which only sell simple things: cheese, fruit, meat, olive oil  all that’s needed to get by in this world. Though I can only make out the frequent “prego” and “ciao” spoken gregariously among them, I think the locals with their hearty accents are pretty happy here.

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As for the children of the region, I hope they realize and remember how lucky they’ve been to live here. Though they won’t be able to recall every one of the many days spent seaside, their towns’ pastel buildings leaning over them lovingly like their mothers, at least some of those memories will remain. For now, they laugh harder and longer than I’ve ever heard children laugh before, their cherub bellies jiggling as they chortle over the magic of the water kissing the sand.

Cinque Terre girl

What it means to be loved and to fall in love with it here. Maybe to love like this is to live forever.

Visitors quickly learn through that in order to truly love Cinque Terre, you must love until it hurts. The hikes among the towns always feel like straight vertical summits, despite their proximity to the seaside. You spend at least an hour walking from town to town, but more often than not, it takes at least two hours. Your legs feel as though they can’t move anymore as you hike up hundreds of shaky stone steps winding along the mountainsides of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corneglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.

You could take one of the regional trains to spare you from the aches of your heels and sweat on your back, but they’re terribly unpredictable and always late. But there’s a reason: Beauty like this isn’t meant to be nor can be savored from a train window whirring past.

Those who hike are rewarded with stunning views, breezes that the salt clings to and an excuse to carbo-load on gelato and pesto gnocchi, which is the region’s specialty.

When you take a dip in the sea after a hike through each town, you simply float. Your feet are unable to touch the water’s bottom. Some say it’s due to the Ligurian Sea’s high salt content, but you know it’s because a place like this turns people into angels, floating in water instead of the clouds.

Ligurian Sea

If you ever need to make a collect call to heaven, this would be the place to do it. So hi, Grandpa. Hi Sammie. It’s been a wonder spending time with you. Thanks for letting the weather hold up and pointing me to the most magnificently smelling roses this side of anywhere. You can’t keep yourself away from gardening even up here, huh Gramps? I’m surprised you managed to keep Sammie from tearing up the bushes before you take her out on her daily walk.

If only I could stay here forever, but I’m thankful to have just a fleeting feel of it. If I’m lucky, I’ll be back one day to visit.

#YesAllWomen endure sexism abroad, at home

Saturday marked my fifth day in London, and it was bound to be a pleasant one. I was ecstatic to have a familiar face, my friend Chelsea, accompany me for a few days of my 110-day journey through Europe, during which I will mostly be by myself.

We spent the afternoon at Tower Bridge, and as cliché as it might be, it is one of my favorite spots to head to on a warm day. But the tourist hangout also brings with it one of my least favorite parts about the city: the rude, pushy men dressed in costumes who try to get you take pictures with them and then demand payment.

While living here, you develop a certain skill set in avoiding these men. Put on a stone cold face, don’t make eye contact, become intensely aware of the whereabouts of your belongings and ignore, ignore, ignore. If they get too close, tell them to back off.

I’m very familiar of the game, but what one performer did to me Saturday was beyond anything I could have prepared myself for.

As Chelsea and I headed over to the Tower of London, a man in black and white face paint, who was masquerading as Charlie Chaplin took his prop cane and lewdly smacked it across my backside and smirked at me while he did so.

By the time I was able to process what had happened in order to speak up, he was gone, but I was left to deal with the humiliation that comes with being sexually harassed.

When I told others of the opportunity I landed to travel this summer, I was greeted with excited faces. But when adding that I, a woman, would be doing it alone, eyebrows would raise skeptically.

I’ve heard the question “Are you really going to do this?” more times than I can count. Upon arriving in London, a woman who noticed my backpack approached me on the Tube, and warned me to “watch my back.” Some friends have called me brave for what I’m doing.

Most mean well when they say these things, but I don’t like to be called brave for being a female solo-traveler. It only reinforces the notion that traveling alone as a woman is — and should remain — the exception, not the rule.

Women can read maps just as easily as men. Men find themselves lost as often as women. When we’re abroad, we all fumble over the same messy pronunciations of words our tongues just don’t seem to be built for.

I know there are tons of women who would love to be in my position, and if I didn’t receive this scholarship, I would only be daydreaming, too. But I fear that even if all women were offered this same opportunity, many would still turn it down due to the threat of violence against our gender that pervades our consciousness every single day.

And though it did require a bit of bravery to get on that plane, I do live in fear here. All these “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moments come along with the terrifying reality that I might be harassed or assaulted while I’m just pursuing what I love.

I’ve greatly enjoyed and appreciated my time here — but to the fullest? I don’t know if I ever will be able to due to the fear I feel as a female solo-traveler, but I try my hardest. While travel brings with it certain anxieties about lost passports and missed trains, the daily fear of being raped or killed shouldn’t be one of them.

I want to be able to take a late-night stroll alongside Westminster Pier by myself.

I’d like to not have to worry about whether I’ll be the only woman staying in my 12-person hostel room.

And when a friendly man asked me out on a date after a warm 45-minute conversation, I wish I had felt comfortable enough to say yes and trust that his intentions were innocent.

But here’s the thing: Though I’ve become hypervigilant of my safety as a woman in unfamiliar Europe, I still live in fear about sexual violence when I’m back home in the United States.

We tend to blame rape on “the other.” We conjure up these images of rapists being strange men who don’t speak the same language as us and lure us into an alleyway of a foreign city.

But if it’s other countries with the gender-based violence problems, talk to me about how the United States has the highest rate of spousal homicide of any developed nation.

Tell me why consent doesn’t even become a talking point in educational programs until college.

How do you explain a man could go on a killing rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., leaving six people dead because “girls have never been attracted to (him)” and he felt he should punish them for it?

We’re good at pointing out what we find to be misogynistic in other cultures, but we rarely recognize our own failures. We flippantly dismiss the use of headscarves among Muslim women as blatant oppression, but we’re dumbfounded as to how alcohol-facilitated sexual assault could get so out of control on our hallowed college campuses, as if our culture doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Statistics demonstrate a small percentage of men are repeat perpetrators of gender-based violence. So, most men are good people, but the bottom line is that men are most often the perpetrators of sexual assault, and this type of violence occurs all the time and to so many women.

Just as a female survivor of sexual violence is somebody’s sister, daughter or mother, a male perpetrator of violence is somebody’s brother, son or father. These men live among us, speaking the same language, strolling along the same familiar streets of our hometowns. We bear the responsibility of teaching them about decency, respect and equality.

It’s time we stop dismissing gender-based violence as someone else’s issue. How many other terrible events need to occur before we recognize it is a problem and it is ours?

Ending the violence starts with us, no matter where we’re located on the map. And when women do travel by themselves, we shouldn’t be questioning them but instead questioning those who hurt them and — perhaps, most importantly — ourselves for giving rise to a culture that makes it OK for gender-based violence to exist in the first place.

For the love of weirdness

I believe love is a choice. We actively decide who we keep in our lives and who we let go. Though we don’t have control over every circumstance life throws our way, we have a choice to love what we’re doing or stop doing it, a choice to love the place we’re in or leave it.

It’s a beautiful yet terrifying notion, choice. It demands we be uncomfortable. We’re uncomfortable while reckoning with the fears of what could go wrong. Then we’re perhaps unsettled when something does go wrong on the rare occasion. With this lack of comfort comes weirdness.

We don’t just shy away from weirdness, we vehemently avoid it. We’re told to. How else would we have survived our middle school hallways?

When we try to avoid being weird, we lose ourselves in translation. Recently, I’ve wondered what would happen if we were to always actively pursue the weird.

This summer, I’ve made the choice to go on international quest for weirdness. Thanks to a travel scholarship from UNC, a pipe dream of mine is actually happening.

I will be traveling to about a dozen countries to attend some of Europe’s craziest and most unusual festivals and to ask people about what is on their bucket lists.

While in Spain, I can be found at Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, Buñol’s La Tomatina and Castrillo de Murcia’s El Colacho, a festival in which men dressed as the devil jump over mattresses filled with babies in the hopes of purifying their souls.

Later, I’ll be in the Netherlands, which became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 1999, as others celebrate love simply being love at Amsterdam’s gay pride festival.

But first, come Monday, I’ll be in Gloucester, England for Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake at which competitors chase an 8-pound roll of cheese down a 600-foot hill.

I don’t know much about these people who wake up in the morning and say without pause, “Hey, I think I’m going to go chase some cheese or be chased by a bull today.” But I think I’ll be in good company.

You see, love and weirdness aren’t mutually exclusive.

When we connect with someone, our synapses spark and make us subconsciously say, “Hey, I like this human.” We call them friends even though they have knobby knees and pronounce certain words weirdly and fart about 14 times a day, statistics show. (Except you, right? Because you personally don’t fart.)

The same can be said about places. How else do we fall in love with cities without first embracing them for their weird, messy worth? I don’t really think we can truly love without first getting a little weird.

How appropriate that I kick off this quest for silliness in the city I first learned to love when studying abroad here last spring.

London is a city that is dreadfully rain-prone but also where I learned to embrace umbrella-less walks to class, drenched shoes, frozen fingers and all.

This is the city where people gather to hear weird people talk about weird things at Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner every Sunday.

As I learned while visiting the Museum of London Wednesday, London is also the place where pious citizens once believed the Great Fire of 1666 must have been caused by sinful gluttony because the fire ironically started at Pudding Lane and allegedly went out at Pye (or Pie) Corner.

A bunch of people erected a statue of a “prodigiously fat” boy warning of such gluttony, and it is known as The Golden Boy of Pye Corner. Naturally, I spent a greater portion of my Wednesday afternoon being the strange, lost woman in London searching for this pudgy little guy.

The Golden Boy at Pye Corner
The Pye Corner statue recognizes one of most catastrophic events to ever occur in the city.

Basically, I think if the statue were created with today’s obesity rate in mind, he’d be a lot fatter because his belly looked my post-dinner food baby after it’s had a couple of hours to settle. Oh well.

I love this city.

Here’s to hoping I fall in love with more cities. Here’s to believing that fortune favors the weird. (And I’m going to need a lot of fortune because I don’t really know how to get around most of these cities or how to speak any language including my own or how to not trip on any of Europe’s old staircases.)

Let’s get weird,
Katie