Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why I still wonder

The story of our becoming roommates is convoluted, and like so many things in life, might have ended up quite differently. The summer before my freshman year of college, my mom must have sent my deposit check in late. Room assignments were made upon receipt of the deposit check, and by the time my check was finally mailed, the freshman girl's dorm was already filled to capacity with children of responsible, bill-paying parents. But I didn't know this yet. I received a letter from the school with the names of my two assigned roommates. I immediately sent out two e-mails, to the effect of, "Hi! Wow, I didn't expect to have two roommates, but I'm sure we'll all get along great! So what do you like to do? What music do you like? Are you excited? I'm so excited!!" In response I received two very similar e-mails, only varying in degrees of iciness. These e-mails said, "There has been some confusion. We're going to be seniors in the fall, and we've lived together for the last three years. Because of overcrowding, the school is turning some doubles into triples, and we're really not happy about this. They'll be paying us a small stipend, so let's all just enjoy the extra money while it lasts, and hopefully they'll find you another place and you'll be out of our hair soon." Then I cried. I cried and I sobbed and I threatened not to go. How could I go and live with people who already hated me? How could I have my idealistic college experience now? My father was furious. He threatened to call the school and tell them what's what. I don't know if he did or he didn't, but in any case I soon received a new roommate assignment. She was a sophomore, but at least she didn't already hate me by default. Her roommate had decided at the last minute not to return to school, and so we came to share a small room for the next nine months.

When I entered our room on that first day, her things were there, but she wasn't. I tried to form a picture of her from her belongings scattered about: charcoal drawings on the walls, clunky black boots strewn on the floor, jeans with holes in the knees. I was already intimidated; she was obviously cool. What would she think of me? I threw my floral comforter on the bunk above her ripped olive green bedspread, put on a Moloko cd, and hoped for the best. When she came in she said, "Is this Moloko?" and I breathed a small sigh of relief. We slowly warmed up to each other, and I got used to sharing a room for the first time in my life. We were always ultra-polite to each other, and even at the end we would still say things like, "Do you mind if I put this picture on the wall?" or, "Are you sure the tv's not bothering you?" and the other person would never dream of saying, yes, it is bothering me, even if it was. She, being a sophomore, already had her own friends, and I, a freshman in a mostly upperclassman dorm, never really found any friends of my own, except for the three girls I knew from high school who I clung to with increasing desperation. She and I would end up ordering Papa John's pizza one out of three nights, sometimes, which was good because it saved me the embarassment of eating at the dining hall alone. We'd eat pizza and watch The Simpsons, and I remember that one night when she laughed so hard, she couldn't stop. "Ned, you so craaaaaazy!" And she laughed and laughed, and I laughed too, because how could I not? And every time she'd stop, she'd pause and then start up again, which would get me going again too. It felt so good to laugh like that. We would prank call people, and hang up, hysterical. Sometimes at night, we'd turn off the lights and peek out the window until someone she knew walked by. She'd yell something inappropriate and we'd watch their reaction, then duck down giggling, and then pop up and do it again.

But it wasn't all laughter and pranks. I remember listening to Iggy Pop's "Perfect Day." "I love this song," she sighed.

"Yeah, me too," I said. "It's so...happy."

"Really?" she said. "You look at it that way?"

"Well, yeah." I said. "What other way is there to look at it?"

"Oh come on," she said. "It's such a perfect day...I'm glad I spent it with you...You just keep me hanging on...?" The way she heard it, the song was bitter and dripping with sarcasm. "I've never thought about it your way," she said. "I guess it is more...optimistic."

When she told me she was going to shave her head, I said, "Oh. Cool! I can take before and after shots!" She hesitated a second and then said, too brightly, "Ok!" And I knew that that really meant no, that it was a horrible idea, and her shaving her head wasn't about before and after, it was about something much deeper and much more desperate than I, with my ponytail and my Gap jeans, could ever hope to understand.

When she told me she was an alcoholic and had started going to AA, I had already pretty much figured it out. I had seen a pamphlet on her desk, and she'd started only returning to the room to sleep, long after I'd gone to bed. It was obvious something was going on. I'll be honest; I didn't believe she was an alcoholic. I knew she didn't keep liquor in the room and she didn't drink alone. I thought she was probably a confused college student who went to parties and drank too much, like most of our small, non-Greek, non-football playing campus. The way I heard it, that's all there was to do. I think AA provided her with something, a higher power to believe in, and something to belong to. I understood that need, so I said, "Good for you." She went in all the way, going to one or more meetings a day, forming friendships with her group people. They came to her recitals and supported her. They were like family. She started distancing herself from her former friends, and they were understandably confused. I'm sure they probably had the same initial reaction I did--"What? You're not an alcoholic!"

She said she was glad I didn't drink, it made things so much easier. I nodded along like I was doing it for her, or even myself, but the truth was, if I had been invited to even one party, I would have done anything, drank anything, eaten or smoked anything, just to fit in.

But in fact my one attempt at fitting in, like everything else I tried that year, was a failure. At the beginning of the school year, when I was still making some attempt at an effort, one of my friends from high school told me she was going to a party that night. "Oh," I said, "do you think I could go too?"

"Ohhh," she said. "Well, um, I'm kind of tagging along myself, so I don't really think I could have someone tag along with me...ya know."

"Oh," I said. "Ok." And I never asked again.

By the end of that year, even she had made her way "in," while I was doomed to forever be, not even outside, but a particular brand of invisible understood only by those who have experienced it.

By winter break, I knew I could never stand another year there. I applied desperately for a transfer to what had been my second choice school originally. I had gotten in there a year earlier, but it was a private school, so I went with the cheaper of the two. On paper it wasn't much of a change; I would be going from a small, rural, public liberal arts college in Maryland to a small, rural, private liberal arts college in Maryland. Even the student population was the same; about 1500 students. But I needed a fresh start somewhere else, anywhere else, and at the new school I knew I had no acquaintances from high school to rely on, although that was perhaps more terrifying than it was inspiring. I knew I wanted to get the hell away from that campus and its intellectual elitist, cliquey students, and its (what seemed like) perpetually gray skies. I felt like if I stayed there, I would die.

Though it seemed like May would never come, it had to, and after the studying and exams were finally over, I stood out in the parking lot with my roommate after packing my car. She was wearing a tank top and a bandana over her spiky hair that was starting to grow back. We hugged, and it was the first time we had ever touched like that. I wished I wasn't leaving her, and I wished I didn't have the heavy feeling of knowing you're looking at someone for the last time. She said she might transfer too, next year, although she admitted it was getting a little late for her. She understood why I was doing it, she said. "This place..." she said. She wanted to get out of it too, go somewhere where the art program was better. She said she'd miss me and I said I'd miss her too, and I knew it would be true.

We parted, and as I got in my car, I watched her hug one of her friends goodbye, just for the summer, and it was like she never wanted to let go. I understood our relationship then for the first time. We weren't friends, exactly. We were thrown together by random forces, and we helped each other through those dark months as best we could, even though we were both weighted down, both dragging our own broken wings.

Even though we only lived 25 minutes apart, we never did see each other again, though I always looked for her in malls and public places when I was in her hometown. I sent her a letter, and then a card with Homer Simpson on it, hoping she would laugh, even if I couldn't hear it. I still wonder about her, sometimes. I wonder if she did transfer to another school, if she graduated. I wonder it she still goes to meetings, I wonder if she still makes art, if her jaw still clicks when she eats. I wonder if she's found her way. I wonder if I have.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why I have a sudden urge to watch The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

When my new French pupil e-mailed that she wanted to learn French because her boyfriend spoke French, was French, was the grandson of a famous French deep sea diver and underwater explorer, in fact, I didn't think much of it. When I arrived at their penthouse apartment and saw a stack of mail, saw that name, his name, it still didn't click. She introduced us, and I tried to keep my cool. "You can speak French to her," she kept saying, as I put on a wide smile and tried not to look too deer-in-the-headlights. If there's anything more anxiety-producing than having to speak French to an actual French person for the first time, it's having to speak French to a French person who also speaks English perfectly, and knowing that as I am here on a dollars-per-hour basis, I will necessarily be judged. He, perhaps perceiving my discomfort, or not wishing to hear his mother tongue potentially mangled by an American mouth, thankfully demurred. "You want me to test her already?" he joked. "This is your thing, I'm going to stay out of it." And thankfully, as she was just as fearful as I was of exposing herself to potential accent snobbery and that particularly scalding brand of French scorn, she led me to the seclusion of their spacious roof deck where we could work in private. (View of the Statue of Liberty and waterfalls included, gratis).

It wasn't until I got home and thought to perform a quick Google search that I realized the significance of what had just happened. This man, as I have said, is the grandson of France's most famous undersea explorer and documentarian, and I can't say which one, only that it rhymes with Fraques Frousteau. But I had no idea that in addition to that he is also a documentarian and underwater explorer in his own right, that a quick Google search would turn up pages and pages of articles and images, that he had been named Someone's Sexiest Something-Or-Other. I mean, the man has his own Wikipedia entry. Had I known that I probably would have high-tailed it out of there and never looked back. I'm supposed to teach his girlfriend French? Mother of pearl.

I think I'm out of my league. You might even say I'm about 20,000 leagues out of my...league. Yeah. I'm off to work on some better underwater puns. Bad aquatic wordplay makes me so crabby. Ok, ok, I'll stop. I can see that if I keep going I'll be making anemones. And I wouldn't want to jump the shark. Ok, now I'm just fishing for compliments, so I'll clam up. Sea you later!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why some things will never change

One of the (few) things I like about returning to my childhood bedroom is how everything has remained very much the same. From the pale turquoise walls to the decayed and crumbling remains of Prom corsages and yellowing newspaper clippings pinned to the bulletin board, not a lot has changed in the last ten years. Other than the occasional box of mystery clothes or stack of discarded magazines left by certain family members who seem to think my room is the closest and most convenient branch of the local Goodwill, things pretty much tend to stay where I left them.

It's fun to read the magnetic poetry that's been on my closet door for the last five years at least, composed during that 10 minute window when magnetic poetry was still a socially acceptable form of expression.

I think my friend Pat wrote this one, and, wow, considering how long it's been since I've seen or heard from him, that was a long time ago:

These are mine:

But wait, what is this...? I don't remember writing this one. What the...

MO-THER! Becca's been in my ROOM AGAIN!!!!

Sigh. Like I said, some things never change.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Why (baby) I can drive your car

Readers, I'm back. I have learned so much during the last seven weeks, and I can't wait to share it all with you. Actually, the skills I'm most proud of I've picked up in the last few days here in the US of A. For instance, would you believe that for three days this week I was tooling around Raleigh, NC in a manual BMW station wagon? Me, your (perhaps not so) faithful blogger, who has been known to break down in hot tears of anger and frustration at the very suggestion of easing slowly off the clutch while simultaneously pressing the gas? Who has driven countless ex-boyfriends (ok, two) and fathers (fine, one) to the brink of madness and hair-tearing insanity with my hot-then-cold pleas to "Please teach me, I really want to learn" quickly turning to "I can't do this I will not do this and I will never learn to drive stick, and also, by the way, I hate you," followed by a stonily silent ride home, arms folded and pouting in the passenger's seat. Still, I didn't give up, and about once every year or so I would rope whatever unsuspecting manual transmission owner I could into giving me a "lesson." My high point came last summer when I accomplished about 20 minutes of semi-successful gear-shifting on deserted country roads with my dad coaching me from the passenger's seat. I patted myself on the back and called it a day, and hadn't really thought much about it since then.

Until Tuesday, when the powers that be told my co-leader and I that they had a car we could use to drive back and forth from our dorm to the office during our three-day long "debrief" session. Great! we said. "You guys can drive stick, right?" they said. Margaret and I looked at each other, eyes wide. She shook her head. I don't know what came over me, because I surely did not feel confident at all in my ability to drive that car, but for some reason I found myself saying, "Well, I can give it a shot." It's as if after getting through this trip, this 25-day roller coaster ride, I sort of feel like I can do anything. Drive stick? Well as long as there aren't ten kids complaining in the backseat, sure! I'll drive it anywhere you want!

Ultimately, it went about as well as you might expect. I stalled, and I stalled a lot. Though it wasn't that far between the dorm and the office, there were a lot of stoplights, and every one of them was red. Stoplights were the bane of my existence. But dammit, I drove that car. I made it safely to the office every morning and back to the dorm each evening, with the occasional Starbucks run thrown in for good measure. And then, on our very last day there, right before boarding a D.C.-bound train, I drove to the office one last time, and I didn't stall once. It was a beautiful day. And dammit, I drove that car.

I picked up my next new skill also out of necessity, desperate times calling for desperate measures and all that. This story takes place in a sparse and flourescent-lit college dorm room. Our players are two exhausted and frazzled young women who would like nothing better than to settle in with a Papa John's pizza and a refreshing beverage or three for a night in front of the cable t.v. Several months ago, such an evening would have seemed banal, but after nearly a month of deprivation, it now sounds oddly appealing. We watch as the women rifle through drawers and fling open cabinets in an increasingly desperate search for that most elusive of kitchen implements, the bottle opener. Several unsuccessful attempts are made with a steak knife and a metal drain plug. Wounded fingers find their way into pouting mouths. After a pensive silence, we hear one of them say, "Well, I think I've seen this done before..." I'll let the video speak for itself. (And yes, I know it's sideways. Blame my co-leader Margaret's "artistic vision.")


And while I'm no longer sodden with beer, my confidence is still at an all-time high. Seriously, readers, is there anything I can't do? (Wait, don't answer that). All I know is there are two fresh new checkmarks on my Things To Do Before I Die list. Next up: ride a camel and learn how to apply liquid eyeliner. What's on your list?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Why your dictionary won't help you here

After having spent the last month-plus in Europe, I have noticed that sometimes, even if you speak the language, there are things that just don't translate. For instance, in Madrid Molly and I amused ourselves by picking out t-shirts with English phrases written on them. It quickly became obvious that the wearer of these t-shirts had no idea what they actually said. My personal favorite read, Fuck me with the heart. Well, ok, but...what?

While in France I noticed that fun with not-quite-English words wasn't limited to t-shirts, but could in fact be found anywhere. For instance, in the category of business names that you would never, ever see in the U.S.:

Servix: Your friendly neighborhood locksmith, who wonders why so many Americans keep showing up for pelvic exams.

Hey baby, wanna cyber?

Nahh, that's like, so 1998.

Ok, well do you wanna...aquacyber?

Oooohhhh...Sounds like fun!

But the fun doesn't stop there. Restaurant menus with "English" translations can be a rich source of linguistic humor.

In case you weren't clear on the ingredients of the mussels plate, they are, in no particular order: mussels, mussels, mussels, and, oh yeah...mussels.

Care for some apple pie in your shrimp cocktail? I mean, I know the French are adventurous eaters, but this is ridiculous...

Further investigation into France's rich tradition of cultural mistranslations, linguistical slip-ups, and unintended double entendres will have to wait, as I find myself once again on American soil. But, my readers, whatever your country of residence, where do you find the silly in the serious?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Why I can't wait to go home

I just moved back in to the hotel here in the-town-that-can't-be-named, else it will show up in the Google alerts feed of the owner of this lovely establishment, a fact he was kind enough to inform me of the last time I was here. And while that's fine, I do prefer to fly under the radar whenever possible. (Though it is starting to become slightly disconcerting, given my penchant for online anonymity, just how often I manage to give myself away). So, as I said, I'm back in the hotel after a week of staying with a host family, and I'm drunk on freedom and unlimited internet access. And that's all I'm drunk on, I can promise you, because as my co-leader said to me recently with a bit of a desperate gleam in her eye, "Rachel, I haven't smoked, drank, or had sex in almost a month, and those are three of my favorite things to do." And I can say that I miss at least one of those things, though I will never admit which one it is, although fine, I will just say that it feels wrong, oh so very wrong to eat cheese without a bit of wine to go with it. It should maybe even be illegal to eat cheese without wine, which is just my personal opinion, of course, but that is just how wrong it feels to me.

It's been a bit of a challenge for me to try to write honestly about this trip, since as I have discovered all over again, in the blogging world, you never know who your audience is. I will say that it has been a roller coaster ride, with more lows than highs, and just when you think you're at the bottom, there you go, plummeting downward again, heart flying up into your throat, only to finally land in the pit of your stomach with a resounding thud. The hardest part for me has been having to be responsible for so many people's individual happiness, and in the end being able to satisfy no one. The thing is, in general I am pretty eager to please. I like to keep things on a pretty even keel, and I will do whatever I can to make this happen. In my professional life, I'm used to people thinking I do a good job. I'm used to people thinking I do a great job. There's a reason that I'm conscientious and detail-oriented to the point of it keeping me up at night. I am a tier-up of ends, a coverer of bases, and a checker-off of lists. But on this trip, every other day I am on the verge of calling the whole things quits, and if only it were possible I would already have boarded a plane back to the States, because no matter what I do here, it's just not good enough.

The office says the students' daily online trip updates aren't good enough, are nowhere near, and their marketing director is very disappointed. It goes without saying that I am personally responsible for this. I must make the students understand that they have to do better, although they barely have time to do the updates as it is.

The director of the school here blames me for an important e-mail that I sent and she never received. If I sent it, she says, well then I will just show her the proof. Proof? An e-mail disappears into the ether of the Internet and she wants proof. As she is talking I try to offer an explanation, and she roars that I will let her finish! I let her finish. I want to cry.

The students aren't allowed to drink. They aren't allowed to go out alone at night. They hate this. They sneak out. They get busted. They get upset. Some of them are from New York City. They go out alone all the time. They feel like they are in prison here. No one is happy. Everyone is having a terrible time. They call their parents. Their parents are upset that their kids are having a such terrible time on such an expensive trip. They call the office to complain. They don't know what they are complaining about, exactly, and so they say things like, "They took a tour and it was in French and my kid didn't understand, couldn't keep up, and someone should have translated for him." Then we will have a tour in English and another parent will complain that it was in English, when this is supposed to be an immersion trip. Someone thought her kid didn't look happy enough in the pictures posted on the updates.

After enough parents called with their vague and uninformed complaints, I got a call from the owner of the company, which is an experience I never wish to repeat. After an introductory period of being talked at loudly and angrily, followed by some general ranting and calls for things to improve, stat, he said that we were being too strict. We had to loosen up a little. Because we were upholding his rules. His rules and the basic dictums of safety and common sense. Well, of course we couldn't be more flexible with those rules, he said. We still had to uphold those rules, but wherever there was room for flexibility, we should exercise it. He didn't seem to understand, and wouldn't listen when I tried to explain, that it is those rules the students are unhappy with. They're not upset because we had sandwiches for lunch instead of pizza, or ice cream after dinner instead of crêpes; they're pissed because they can't go meet their classmates at the bar everyone is going to tonight. And the only thing I could do after 45 minutes of cross-continental reprimand, the disappointment echoing tinnily in my ear, was repeat mechanically "Yes, I understand, yes, I understand" through tightly clenched teeth, and refrain from throwing the cellphone across the empty schoolyard.

Things seemed to be on an upswing, for a while. The momentum shifted, and we spent a whole day in Tours, yesterday. The kids had time to walk around on their own and feel some of that freedom they were desperate for. I went shopping and bought clothes and tried not to think about the exchange rate. Finding a place for all of us to go to dinner was a challenge; everything was expensive, and we had to stick to a budget. We finally found a place that looked reasonable, and made reservations for twelve. After walking around a bit more, we found another restaurant that was perfect. At this place we could get a three-course menu for less than the price of an entrée at the previous restaurant. (Entrée used in the American sense of main course, and not to be confused with the actual French meaning of entrée, which is appetizer). We decided to go there instead. My first thought was that we had to cancel the reservation at the first restaurant, but we didn't have a phone number. I could go back there, I said, but in the end we ran out of time, and then, ultimately, I forgot. The phone rang in the middle of dinner. I didn't answer it in time, and it went to voicemail. The other restaurant. A brief ball of guilt in the pit of my stomach. I could have abandoned my dinner, left the table, called them back. But I didn't. It's already 40 minutes after our reservation time, I thought. Surely, they have to know by now we're not coming. We finished our meal, which was amazing, and I thought with some satisfaction that for once, everyone was happy. The kids were still all raving about their food, showing off their purchases from the day, and exclaiming over the perfectness of the city. We got in the cars and headed home, tired and happy. I retreated to my room with a book, brushed and scrubbed and ready for bed. Then, at 11:45 p.m., the phone rang. Thinking it was my co-leader, I answered in English.

"I just wanted to thank you for your reservation for twelve people tonight," a voice said in French. An unhappy voice. An angry voice. She couldn't fool me, though. I knew she was not actually calling to thank me. And though I had previously considered the American culture to be quite adept in the art of sarcasm, I had to admire how this French woman managed to take it to a whole new plane. Trust me when I say that America is not even in the same league as the French when it comes to sarcasm. Speechless, I said nothing. "This is the restaurant?" she said snippily. And I said the only thing I was capable of at the moment, which was simply, "I'm really sorry." "Well next time you should think about calling," she said, and hung up.

And once again I went to bed riddled with guilt and anxiety and regret, and wondering if maybe tomorrow will be the day, that magic, elusive day, when I actually do something right.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Why I already miss the mountains

I feel I may have been a bit stingy in my posting of photos yesterday. Can you ever forgive me? To make it up to you I now present to you More Pictures of Mountains That Will Still Never Come Close to Doing Justice to the Real Thing, aka Why We Should All Just Give Up and Move to Switzerland Right Now:

View from my hotel room in Chamonix
Assorted hiking pictures

Ten reasons I will likely be gray-haired after this trip.Quiet when they're tired.

A toute à l'heure.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Why the hills are alive with the sound of whining

It's day 12 of the trip right now (is that all?), and I can't think of where to begin. With the unexpected phone call to my hotel room the morning of my last day of freedom in Paris, saying, "Surprise! One of your students arrived a day early and you have to go pick her up at the airport right now"? Or how about the airport pickup the next day, otherwise known as The Day I Spent Eight Hours in Charles de Gaulle Airport, Oh My God. I was there from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., dashing from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 and back again, as it just so happened that each successive student arrived in a different terminal than the one before him. The trip between terminals required a 10 minute train ride and a 20 minute walk, each time with more students trailing behind me, Pied Piper-like, with all their collective baggage, until I started stashing them at strategic points throughout the airport, leaving them with snacks and words of comfort like, "Wait here, I'll be right back!" and then, two hours later, trying to remember where I had put them. Do I talk about how then, after all that, I had to wait in an hour and a half line for RER tickets to get us out of the damn airport, and how every minute I waited I trembled in fear of a hungry, tired, cranky teenaged uprising? I could talk about Paris itself, I suppose, which turned out to be quite lovely, once we all finally left the airport, with trips to the Louvre, the Latin Quarter, Versailles, and a Seine bateau mouche tour on the night of the summer solstice, an experience so perfect it requires its own entry.

I should probably talk about Chamonix, and the 5-day circuit hike of Mont Blanc, and how it was the most physically and mentally challenging experience of my life to date. I received my little "diplôme" and honestly, I'm probably more proud of it than I am of my high school diploma. High school schmigh school; I hiked Mont Blanc, and I have the aching joints and sock tan to prove it. The scenery was amazing, as you might expect; almost too much to take in. I took pictures, but I doubt that they can do
justice to the grandness of it all: that no matter where you are, you are surrounded by mountain peaks in all directions, the vastness, and how the mountains tower over you, the tinkling of the cow bells, like I was starring in a modern-day version of Heidi, one where helicopters buzz overhead and the countryside is dotted with American high school students scampering around the Alps in hiking boots and bikini tops. So yes, it would have been nearly sublime, if I hadn't been immersed in a private world of my own pain, and the incessant nagging questions of "how much fuuurther"? from 11 students.

Things I've learned on this trip so far:
- I don't really need as much sleep as I think I do
- The necessary art of doing my delicate business using both squat toilets and the great outdoors
- That which does not kill me will still make me beg for a quick and merciful death

I haven't had much time to post lately, obviously, so I need to wrap this up and attend to my duties as baby-sitter, nay-sayer and general all-around bad guy to 11 10 students. (Don't ask). For now, I leave you with this moment of zen: