“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
“I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.”
I wonder sometimes what it is that makes people want to become a historian. I mean picture, in the 3rd grade, when everyone else is talking about how they want to grow up and be an astronaut or a ballerina, little Sally or Tommy raising their hand and informing their teacher that when they grow up they would like to sit in a room and read books about things that already happened, and people who already died.
But, somewhere along the way, certain people get enamoured with the process of looking backwards, remembering what came before, and putting their life into scale as a small dot in a spectrum of thousands. I thought about history a lot this weekend, first of all because I met the London history study group on their trip to Ireland, second because I spent 6 hours trudging in the rain through the “Douglas Death March” (which is the teasing, and not entirely invalidated, nickname for Professor Douglas’ historical tour of Belfast) and thirdly because of Douglas himself; the historian that he is.
Professor Douglas hasn’t made as many appearances on this blog as he really should have—the amazing and slightly ridiculous character that he is. It’s almost as hard to put him into words as it is to try and estimate his age; he could range anywhere from 40 to 60 and I wouldn’t be surprised. But he is one of the most intelligent, and peculiar, men that I have ever met. I feel like every time I talk to him I hear one new ridiculous story— from his time as a pilot in Northern Ireland to his times traversing the majority of the 3rd world on a bicycle, or some tidbit from one of his 3 or so books.
But there was something different about hearing Douglas speak about Ireland. To hear someone share the history of a place so intimately intertwined with his own life, and who he was as a person. As a catholic boy, living in protestant Belfast, Douglas had seen more of violence and conflict by the time he reached double digits than most will see in a lifetime. The more I heard Douglas speak about the history of this struggle, the more I realized he wasn’t just telling us about history, he was telling us of his country, and his struggle. And I started to think there might not be very much difference between a writer and a historian after all. I think, when it comes down to it, we all just want to tell our stories. To try and find a way to understand why we are who we are, why we are where we are, and how we got here.
And for a few hours on a rainy day in Northern Ireland, I caught a glimpse of that point where history and story meet, and where a professor becomes a person.
Well, it seems as I so fearfully predicted in my last blog—the last two weeks have found me lost in the abyss of highlighter ink, powernaps, and copious amounts of caffeinated beverages—also commonly known as; Colgate classes, which as I have so vividly discovered, do not ease with distance—but actually increase in magnitude.
I wish that I could say I`ve been estranged from blogging purely out of academic dedication—but the truth is, me and Word are on a bit of bad terms right now. Meaning mainly that my computer crashed and I lost my last blog post and so I`ve been putting off rewriting it out of pure spite, hoping maybe one day I’ll open my computer and it will magically appear.
The post was about my amazing weekend in Zurich with Myriam. About my perfect day snowboarding among the alps—about her adorable and homey apartment in the most quintessential Swiss village, overlooking lake Zurich, the alps, and the spattering horizon of snow covered cottages, twinkling with orange lights over the water every night. I wrote about laughing over a bubbling pot of cheese fondue, and driving through the mountains to ridiculous hockey games with screaming fans, Italian cheers, and a lot of people throwing a lot of beer. And most importantly what it felt like being around Myriam again—like I could breathe again.
It’s all rushing by so fast, this entire abroad experience. I head to Ireland this weekend, and at that point I will be officially one third finished with my semester. Not that I have any time to think about that—every spare moment is spent reading, sleeping, or travelling, which I know—I can’t really complain about. But I feel perpetually behind, almost like I did when I used to walk with my Dad when I was little, and as fast as I would walk my short little legs just couldn’t keep up (and when I can’t keep up with my blog, you know it’s bad). So much to tell you, so little time to write. But for now, I must go find my green sweater—I’m headed off to Dublin in the morning!
I officially understand the secret of Switzerland’s historic neutrality—they were simply too cold to care about anything but a warm pot of fondue. My first thought when I got off the train from Barcelona into icy Geneva was that I had mistakenly agreed to study for 5 months in Siberia. Alright, admittedly I’ve been a tad spoiled down in Southern France for the last month—but the snow and wind and 30 minutes waiting for my bus to the cite was not the welcoming I would have liked. But, I arrived at last, with only mild hypothermia, and was excited to move into my new (semi-permanent) home.
We are being housed in single rooms in a large graduate school here in Geneva, the rooms are good sized and have plenty of storage and seem to be reasonably heated—thank goodness. There was just one issue. There are 16 single rooms on each floor of the Cite—there are 17 of us. And because this is just the sort of thing that happens to me—I was lucky number 17. So, at 11 at night when I finally got my key, I wandered into my dark, lonely hallway—and into my room of isolation. Now, keep in mind that this is my first time living in a single in 9 years, and I was already a little unsure what I would do with that space.
That first night, sitting in my room, despite the heaviness of my eyelids, and the tempting allure of sleep, I wanted to write down the moment. I wanted to remember the terrifying loneliness that I felt right then, but my computer was as dead as a doornail, and I had forgotten my adapter on the train—which made my charger useless. I decided I could do it the good old fashioned way and just use paper—until I searched everywhere and could not for the life of me find a pen. So unless I wanted to write with my own blood I was pretty much out of luck.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so isolated and unprepared, and well helpless. In some ways I haven’t stopped feeling that way since I got here. We started classes, and the reality that I BSed my way onto this trip has become abundantly clear. And all of a sudden I feel incredibly out of my league. We got our reading for one of our classes and it came in three volumes. We hundreds of pages to read each week, 7 papers this semester, 2 presentations, and oh yes, I`m meant to be traveling from Thursday until Monday everyweek. Now don`t get me wrong, I`m not trying to complain about the fact that I get to spend every weekend jettisoning off to exciting locations. But I am starting to feel a little bit behind.
Now, the reality is that, this being said, I should probably be off reading my French reading for tomorrow (yes, one of my 14 page articles is assigned in French) So that’s all from my isolation room for the moment. More to come I`m sure. That is, If I’m not frozen, or worse: reading.
John Steinbeck once wrote; “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” While I agree with him, I think that this unruly aspect of exploration can be responsible for both the best and the hardest parts of travelling. Madrid was most assuredly quite the adventure—although admittedly, not quite the one I was expecting. Our first morning in Madrid, Mellissa discovered that she had left her 3 month Eurrail pass in the pocket of her train seat, which would make catching our train to Barcelona the next morning, back to Geneva, and every weekend for the next two and a half months, a tad difficult.
So, faced with quite a pickle, and a rather distraught Melissa, Amy put her mommy face on and me and Melissa spent the day hopping around the city to different train stations, information desks, and lost and founds, trying to see if we could locate her pass. When that didn’t work, we made a couple cross-continental calls, and finally a plea for help from our professor in France.
Finally, several hours, 13 subway stops, more than a few tears, and one skilful evasion of some crafty pickpockets, we heard from Professor Douglas who told us to file a police report for insurance purposes, buy Melissa train tickets to finish the trip and get her back to Geneva, and that a new pass would be waiting for her there.
So off we went to my first ever Spanish police report, which was an adventure all itself—the chief, straight out of a 50’s detective sitcom, had gruff Spanish, a round belly, an embellished leather gun holster, and little patience for two 20 year old tourists who had lost their Euurail pass. But after some begrudging grunting, and our persistent waiting in the lobby, he humoured us and filled our report. We booked Melissa’s ticket for the next day, and made it home in time for dinner.
Though Madrid might not have turned out exactly how we had planned it, I wasn’t disappointed at all. It is moments like these that remind me exactly what we’re capable of—when we have to be, and remind me that there is nothing that the travel god’s can throw at me that the team can’t handle together. And as stressful as the whole situation was, I don’t think me and Melissa stopped laughing all day, and I figure—what better way to make Madrid memorable. How many tourists can say they have successfully visited every information booth, help desk, and police office in all of Madrid? And at least commissorias don’t charge entrance fees.
It seems that a month of too much fun and too little sleep finally caught up with me. What started off as a cough that merely sounded like an 80 year old woman with emphysema, didn’t take too kindly to a chilly overnight train, and by the time I got to my Madrid connection yesterday morning, my cough had turned itself into a full on bout of feverish pneumonia (or whatever that thing is that doesn’t sound at all like it is spelt). Now excuse me as I digress in order to ease the imminent worries that are about to arise in some (mainly you mom)— I am feeling much better now, am taking medicine, and promise to go to the doctors if I get any worse. But, for about 24 hours I thought my own death might be just around the corner. Though, I must admit, if I had to die anywhere—the orange tree covered, warm, sunny streets of Sevilla would be the place to go.
As most of my friends know, I have a chronic case of FOMO, or as Dr. Steph Manning describes it—the perpetual and debilitating “Fear Of Missing Out”. So, obviously, the whole day I dragged myself around Sevilla in prime zombie fashion, and told myself that I would rally and make it to dinner and the pub with all my friends. But, by the time 7pm rolled around, my fever and chills were so bad I could barely make it out of my bed to change into fleece pants. It was then I knew I was actually dying, because you have to be dying to miss out on Tapas. So, while I languished in bed, and listened to the Spanish music wafting through my window from free sangria hour in the garden of my hostel, I practiced this homeopathic method that I saw on Oprah once—where you tell your sick cells to please leave, and if you are polite and persistent enough, they listen. And when that didn’t work, I resorted to my other go-to home remedy—facebook.
There is something about being sick far away from home that shows us what we really miss. For instance, I think there is something in each of us that is genetically programmed to want toast made by our mothers when we are sick—I remembered in that moment, that my mommy used to rotate between cutting toast in half horizontally and diagonally, which was nice, you know, to add a little intrigue to lying in bed all day. But really, what I mean is that during the day, when you are distracted by exciting adventures, and you are thinking about something different every second—it’s so easy to think that you don’t need anyone at all. Until suddenly, you are that sick, and miserable, and lonely, and gross and ugly, and you want someone different than you thought you would. Suddenly new and exciting can wait, and what you want is familiar—comfortable: home.
13 hours of laying in bed, and 2 Excedrin’s later, I woke up to a full and beautiful day in Sevilla. Complete with tapas, a beautiful tour of the largest cathedral (by volume) in the world, and some delicious fresh squeezed orange juice for a much needed Vitamin C kick. As I write, I’m on a high-speed train, chasing the setting sun on my way to Madrid, and using paper napkins that I stole from a nearby bar to mop up my perpetually runny nose. And you know, as much as I am sure I would have loved Sevillian night life last night—I think I’m happier to be reminded that when push comes to shove, and pneumonia comes to call—home’s still there, waiting for me, even when I’m snotty, and lonely, and gross. And if that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
My flight to Porto yesterday was the first time I had heard Portuguese since I’d been in Angola, and it brought back a medley of memories. Like my first ever TAGG flight from Lubango to Luanda, when my seat’s oxygen mask was taped up with duck tape, and where my seatbelt fell off as soon as I tried to buckle it. The sign when we arrived said “Bem vindo” and all I could think about is the welcome song they used to sing every time I came to Angolan church. And it took me all of two minutes in the airport to remember that the only sentence that I ever really knew in Portuguese was “Não Fala Portugese” (I don’t speak Portuguese).
But those brief Porto flashbacks are nothing compared to the way it feels being back in Lisbon. Every where I look—the roasting chestnuts on the side of the road, the taste of pastel de nadas, the cobblestone rues, and the illuminated silhouette of Cristo Rei on the evening skyline—they feel like some sort of déjà vu. Nearly a decade after I ever lived in Lisbon; everywhere I go I find myself checking to see what is familiar and what is foreign. Some things, like pastel de nadas, are exactly as I remember them. Other squares and pracas I find utterly unfamiliar. But some things I find to be a weird hybrid between memory and imagination—the Vasco de Gama monument identical in its form, but in a location completely different than the one I thought I had remembered.
I was surprised to be able to find my old street on a map within 30 seconds—I didn’t have time to visit, but I wonder what it would have looked like;. The cemetery I used to watch from my balcony, as old women brought flowers every day and placed them tenderly before the remnants of those they had once loved, the grocery store where I first experienced perma-fresh milk in a box, and the glories of European chocolate. As I looked at ocean from the top of a tower on our tour, I remembered vividly the harbor view I had watched so many times as the night turned into morning—my angsty 13 year old self unable and unwilling to sleep. I wish I had have had more time in Lisbon to explore these kind of questions. To find out how much of that 13 year old self lingered somewhere inside me, and how much of me is new—5 countries, 2 continents, and 8 years later. Lisbon was the first place I actually lived outside of Canada, and now I don’t even remember what it was like before I didn’t live in Canada. Lisbon was the first place I ever really started to know God, and now, I can’t imagine my life without that being a part of it. I wondered, in my perpetual state of déjà vu, what 13 year old me would have thought if she had have met 20 year old me along one of those cobblestone streets, or even more, what I would tell 13 year old me if I could find her now. More than telling her to avoid the polka dot knee socks, and to stay away from taking International Econ, I thought about what I would want her to know. And after some serious thought, I think I would tell her this: to pick up a guitar a few years earlier, write as much as she could, to stop wasting so much time thinking about herself, and most of all to be excited for the next 8 years of her life—because they’ll be both her hardest and her best.