“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 am 3 days deep into what is already proving to be some of the most amazing 10 days of my life. It feels like decades now, since my last snowy night in Montpellier. I somehow didn’t mind the glittering flakes in France, their presence an anomaly in itself, and a farewell meal of cheese fondu waiting for me at home. The next afternoon we bolted to the train station and found our way to Barcelona, and soon after, to a restaurant with unlimited Sangria refilled by the pitcher and Paella served by the 4 foot platter. We had valiant plans to head out for a little pre-plane Barcelona clubbing, but we ended up snuggling the 5 of us onto 1 bunk bed and falling asleep—because what says group bonding like double spooning. Then, bright and early at 6am we hopped on our avion for Porto—and the adventure began.
The first thing that happened when I got to Porto is I realized the lens of my camera was jammed—the cause of death of my last point and shoot in January. Upset and frustrated that my camera had broken on the first day of my trip, only a month after I got it, I resolved that I could not let a thing ruin Porto for me, and that I would have to take an abundance of mental pictures (and then steal from my friends later).
I can honestly say that Porto was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. Carved out of the side of a mountain (or a children’s story book), The city perched on the river, the cobblestone streets steep, winding, sunlit, and crowded with lines of vibrant hanging clothes and bright window shutters. Caitlin gets, as always, MVP for trip planning—Porto’s Poet Hostel, for which we were paying an immense 15 dollars a night, ended up being the 7th best small hostel in the world, and one of the most interesting places I’ve ever stayed—the walls covered in poetry, the desk offering quotes of the day, and rooms full of bean bag chairs and shiny hardwood floors. We spent our day doing what else but sampling Port— drinking free tastings in breathtaking vineries beside gardens and vine covered terraces. A huge walking bridge sprawls across the vivid blue water of the main river, reflecting a steep cliff full of orange and yellow stucco buildings and bright blue sky. There were moments where I didn’t know if I wanted to cry because it was so beautiful or because I had no way to take a picture of it.
That night, back at the hostel, my camera had charged and the lens unjammed—too late for Porto, but not for Lisbon: the next city on our 10 day adventure. And as I fell asleep that night, I imagined that if I had have been any sort of poet, that I could have written poem upon poem and never even broken the surface of all the words one could use—to try to make something a fraction as beautiful as this little city named Porto.
Scientists are about to have the biggest crisis since Pluto lost its planet status. After hundreds of years of believing that February was the shortest month of the year, it turns out that January 2012 was officially the shortest month on record… ever. An approximate second and a half after I arrived here in Montpellier I found myself taking my final French exam this afternoon and planning to spend the night packing for my next adventure—10 days in Spain and Portugal and then finally to Geneva to actually start this thing they call class.
Today, about a thousand miles away, my parents are moving. As I write, sitting at the end of my street in a British pub called Robin Hood, trying to work on my konosioni application, my parents are loading up a moving van, locking up my pretty yellow house, and arriving in front of my new blue one. For the next 5 months, while I settle into Geneva, they will settle into Fort Erie.
It might be a combination of the corny Pearl Jam songs they are playing on full blast in here and the residual enchantment of the last month in Montpellier, but the last thing in the world that I want to think about is leaving this amazing country. This week I met a group of hilariously fun teachers here from Ireland, Wales and Scotland and showed them my best British accent (Murh and Sam, I told them about fun accent Friday!) and they told me I sounded like I was straight out of Liverpool; I Swear, their sentence, verbatim (for all you haters out there, I only have one thing to say: haters gonna hate). I also visited a captivating costal city called Sete where I splashed in some Mediterranean waves, bought some handmade organic sorbet and some friends found a store that sells white wine from vats by the litre. For a euro. And to top it off, on Sunday I met a musician here from London smoking outside of church, who talked to me about the bible and Harry Potter in the same 10 minutes and who wants to get drinks tomorrow. So basically, I’m feeling like maybe there isn’t any reason to make this yet another moving day. Maybe I should just stay here, buy a guitar, and pan handle on the rue and live off bread and cheese. On the bright side, that would mean that it wouldn’t matter that I spent the last half an hour blogging instead of finishing my application
Regardless of the fact that my new aspirations might not quite pan out for me (pun intended), staying here would mean forgoing the amazing 10 days I’m about to spend exploring Porto, Lisbon, Madrid, Seville, and Barcelona—and thus, I’ll leave my application for today, go home to yet another delicious 4 course meal, pack, and then spend my last night with Steph, the Chat, and yet another season of Sex and The City, and deal with the reality of Moving Day tomorrow.
I am thoroughly convinced that 95.95% of all bad moods can be instantly cured by a trip to the farmer’s market. Something about the fresh air, the vitamin D, and the crowds of interesting people all excited about vegetables sends any melancholy away faster than you can say “fresh produce”. It’s been a bit of a rough couple days and I was feeling a touch of what the French might call ennui, so it’s rather perfect that this morning I discovered one of the most wonderful farmer’s markets I’ve ever stumbled upon.
The farmer’s market in Montpellier is a well known secret that hides beneath the arches of the city’s aqueduct. A mess of cheese booths, dried fruit, local honey, delicious produce, and apples big and beautiful enough to make Snow White jealous, the market is like a hipster’s wet dream; I even found my first ever French vegan booth—complete with goodies “Sans Gluten” and soup de jour avec le “Lait de Soja”.
In an effort to continue to experience everything I’ve always been too afraid try, I had my first whole olive today. And it turns out that I was right, I don’t like them at all—but I love being able to say that I know that from experience, and not just from culinary timidity. It turns out the French are bigger on samples than Costco, and we spent more than an hour walking along the street and being handed bits of everything from Clementine-Cinnamon bread to dried mango to deep-fried chickpea patties, and all the muffins and fruit in-between.
To make things even better, in one section there were tables of absolutely beautiful used books, with worn, ornate hardback covers, yellowed pages, and that amazing musky used book smell. I could have stood there looking at them for hours, reading the French titles and perusing their tattered pages—full of mysterious words that someone else carefully poured onto the pages. I’m a bit of a book slut to be honest, and I love used books more than any other. A good book is a bit like a lover really, and I like holding them in my hands and imagining all the hands that held them before me; thinking about how each book changed their life; if they cried when it ended, or if it made them laugh, or if it reminded them all of someone different while they read it. I’ve always thought that if I found a boy who could make me feel as good as my favourite book, then that would be true love forever, no questions asked.
After the market, Steph, Caitlin, and I went on a long walk beside the river that leads to the Mediterranean Sea—the sky was a devastatingly fierce blue and the sun was deliciously warm, and that’s when I realized it. First as I walked among the stands of the market—recognizing types of cheese that were once foreign, and understanding signs and words that were once gibberish, and then for a second time as I walked along familiar streets on my way home from the mar— that today I feel the most in love with Montpellier as I have thus far, and that is saying a lot.
It amazes me that I am about to begin my last week here—as it goes with most of life’s most incredible experiences, half of me feels like I’ve been here for my whole life, and half of me believes that I’ve just arrived. But like it or not, I’m headed to Portugal in less than a week, so I plan on spending the next 6 days drenched in everything Montpellier has to offer—like fellow vegans and other book sluts.
When I was 2 or 3 years old my older siblings had their first day of school and I missed the memo that I wasn’t old enough to go with them, so I packed my whale-shaped Marineland backpack and put on my favourite dress and sat on the stairs ready to leave. When my mom told me I wasn’t old enough to start school I sat on the stairs all morning and cried until my mom took me and registered me for preschool. I would like to say I have grown out of this excessive excitement for the first day of school, but that just wouldn’t be true. To this day I can’t sleep the day before school, I pick out my outfit, and pack my backpack, and then lay in bed restlessly until it’s finally time to wake up.
Today is the first day of school back at home. And I’m not there. And I don’t want you to misunderstand, I am so happy I am here, and if I could choose again I would choose to be here in a heartbeat. I’m happier here than I’ve felt at Colgate in a really long time. But something in me, something misses the familiar. I wish I woke up to the sound of Kelsey’s coffee machine this morning, I wish she was here to help me pick out my outfit, and serenade kreature with Katy Perry to get me out of bed. I wish I could study at the Barge tonight with Anna, and I think I would physically fight someone for a pomegranate Chobani right now. I miss my guitar, and I miss slices, and I miss making late night pancakes for Carson’s apartment, but, just like my mom told me, while I sobbed buckets into my Free Willy backpack that first, first day of school—there’s always next year.
Well, even though tonight might look a little different than it does for my friends back home, it’s looking pretty perfect to me. The rest of my study group is headed to the classic bar Australian, but last night was un peu fou, so I’m staying home with Steph and the chat. We just gorged ourselves on our standard 4 course dinner, complete with cheese course and nuttella-bananne crepes, and were about to snuggle in with the chat and watch fight club. But, I’ll still pack my bag before I go to bed, and I’ll probably still be excited for school, even if it does include 6 hours of French and excessive consumption of vending machine espresso.
There is something about the warm sunshine of Sunday mornings that brings poverty in Montpellier out of the shadows. Perhaps it is simply that the masses of people who normally create the bustle of the streets are safe asleep in their bed, or eating warm croissants at their kitchen table. But without their distracting presence I see the often hidden presence of poverty everywhere I walk. On my way to catch the train for church I see a woman on the corner holding her sleeping child on her lap, rocking her gently back and forth, shielding her from the harsh reality of the world with her protective arms. I’ve heard such conflicting perspectives on charity over the years that normally I keep my change to myself but this morning their undemanding presence unsettles me and I put the few cents I have on hand in her cup. When I arrive at the stop I have to wait a few minutes for the tram. While I stand there I watch a 13 or 14 year old boy begin to approach people for money. I try so hard to ignore him, it is so much easier not to let myself feel as unsettled as his situation prompts me to; I just am not ready to contemplate all the truths and questions he represents. But I stand there and it unsettles me more and more. I rationalise for a few more minutes about how he would probably use the money to buy glue to sniff, or how he might not even need the money. But two minutes before the tram arrives I can’t ignore it anymore, he looks too alone. I buy him a croissant from the boulangerie on the corner and hand it to him silently as the tram pulls up to the stop. I step on and it pulls away—the harsh realities of inequality trapped safely behind two sliding glass doors. The interaction upsets me in a way I’ve resisted for the last 3 years. In my sheltered Colgate bubble it’s so easy to pretend I never saw what I saw in Africa, to convince myself that perhaps I never held a starving child in my arms, perhaps the world isn’t quite as unfair as I once believed it to be.
I bought a Longchamp bag today—my first. I’ve been planning to buy one for almost a year. They are functional, and Amy-mess proof, and they last forever, and to be fair they are much cheaper here in Europe. The reality is, I couldn’t care less what logo is on the zipper—I just wanted a good sized, good quality bag I could take on weekend trips. This is how I honestly feel, and yet, it is not lost on me that every girl at Colgate carries the same overpriced, pretentious bag. A bag I would have thought ridiculous and slightly repulsive 3 years ago. I walked home from the mall with my shopping bad and I passed a homeless man sitting on the curb with his shaggy, skinny, dog—and the pretty green shopping bag in my hand felt like lead. Am I becoming the very inequality I so hate? Where do I draw the line between what I want and what I need? How do I grapple with something like poverty—which I can never fully fix, but cannot bring myself to ignore. I could return the bag and give the money to that man, but what about the woman and her child that I see tomorrow? I could sell my laptop and feed the boy at the tram stop for a month, but what happens when the money runs out? How do I grapple with a world full of problems that I hate… and then perpetuate?
I can’t help but wonder if being submerged in an environment of such blatant affluence for the last few years has changed me just as my years surrounded by abject poverty did. At the moment I’m working on a cover letter to apply for an internship at NGO’s here in Geneva, and having to write about my motivation is reminding me of so many of the passions that I’ve put on the back burner to study in a classroom and trudge through the snow. I’m starting to remember that deep down I still might be the kid who cried every day in Challenge of Modernity first semester freshmen year because the world just seemed so unfair. That kid is making a comeback.
The number one goal I gave myself when coming to Europe was to try everything. To experience everything I possibly could, and to, as our ancient European counterparts might say, carpe diem, as corny as that sounds. And this far in, it’s the best decision I’ve made here. I wish I had time to write about every adventure I’ve found here, but you would get bored, and I would get tired. Every day I feel like I find something completely different that I’ll never be able to live without again—paella in Barcelona, make your own crepe nights with Madame, watching the Barcelona vs Madrid game in an Irish bar.
Some loves have come quicker than others—it took me approximately 3 milliseconds to fall in love with French baguette, but every night I serve myself a generous portion of balsamic covered salad— the liquid that used to be my arch nemesis, but which I am now teaching myself to love. Just like I’m teaching myself to love natural yogurt and eating at 9:30pm.
I’m suddenly so used to greeting my friends with 3 kisses that I think it will be strange to go back to shaking hands: its normal now, this new type of French kissing. And this new attitude is making me wonder is there aren’t things I don’t like back home that I could learn to love if I taught myself to try. But for now I’m headed home to take a good nap so I can be ready for my next experience tonight—my first ever hookah bar. I’m sure I’ll love it.
I`ve finally reached the point on every trip that I always know will inevitably come. It`s that point when a little of the excitement and adventure has worn off, and a little of the naiveté, and you begin to realize how very vulnerable you can feel in a place that isn`t your own. You realize that the amazing experience of being engulfed in a culture drastically different, no matter how beautiful, comes with a set of costs—a whole new realm of vulnerability. You are insuring for yourself a certain level of sustained discomfort.
I have loved immensely every ounce of French culture I`ve absorbed since I`ve been here, the architecture, the French food, the streets, the people, the beauty of the language, and the excitement of surviving in a city that is completely foreign. And yet those things come with sets of inevitable failures as well, for some reason I am completely incapable of deciphering the spring loaded lock on our old 20 foot tall French door and I stand there like a bumbling idiot everyday trying to let myself in. As French classes continue, my enthusiasm to learn is dropping almost as quickly as my attention span and today I took my first French test, which I had no idea how to prepare for and caught me completely unaware. But more than anything, the hardest thing to grapple with is that the excitement of making so many new friends is quickly being replaced by my desire for my old ones.
There is vulnerability as well in travelling with a random group of 20 college students. For the next 6 months these people will see me in my best and in my worst—my greasiest and my grumpiest—but they will also be the people who will experienced some of the most vivid memories of my life. There are pros and cons to being accepted into a highly selective study group; the experiences I gain here are destined to grow me as a person, and a student, but I also can’t help but feel immensely out of my league. Part of me feels like one of these days someone is going to figure out that everyone else on this study group has a degree of experience and drive that I just don’t have.
And yet, I am not afraid of this feeling. I knew this point would come even before I boarded the plane. Transition is painful, and inevitable, but eventually: worth it. And I know too, that the point will come a few weeks down the line where if someone offered me a plane ticket and a barge bog I would be terribly tempted to give up and leave it all behind… but I know that that moment will pass just as this one will, and that only a few months after that, when my time here is done, it will feel far too soon.