In Which I Apologize For My Theater Minor

Travel

After a weekend in Paris and a sweltering last day in Rome, I took to the sky and headed toward San Sebastian, Spain where darling Thomas is spending his summer. Within the span of three days, I was faced with learning to order coffee in three different languages, which is a lot to handle without any espresso pumping through my veins. My Italian was functional because I took a crash course every morning at 8 am for the first two weeks I was there. My French was coherent, because I’m on my fourth semester of it with only one honor code violation under my belt. My Spanish, however, is severely lacking. In terms of language comprehension, I could be outpaced by any child who’s seen a single commercial for Dora the Explorer on Ice.

It was a shock to be submerged in a place where I could not communicate even the most basic sentiment. In Rome, the pack of fourteen girls that constantly surrounded me was enough keep me from realizing how out of place I was. Here, the only person I’m able to talk to is Thomas. Sure, he translates the conversations I’m having, but my witty quips don’t have the same punch when relayed slowly in broken Spanish. In my host home, with a pastor and his wife, the challenge is even greater in the evenings and mornings when Thomas is not around.

The case study for my time in Spain is my relationship with Nancy. I woke up one morning to a hoard of screaming children, their frantic parents preparing to leave them for the day, and a very tranquil Nancy. Nancy is the kids’ grandmother and she knows only one sentence in English (“my name…is Nancy!”) which she says all the time. Once the parents left, Nancy grabbed my hand and took me on a tour around the apartment, jabbering in a nonstop stream of Spanish. She glanced at me periodically, as though looking for some affirmation that I understood why she was waving around half of an avocado and a box of dryer sheets. I would give her a bewildered smile and we’d move on. The tour ended at the kitchen table when, unable to decline any of her offers, I found myself surrounded by three kinds of bread, marmalade, coffee, sugar, sugar alternatives, and enough fruit to stock a midsize grocery store.

I was elbow deep in devouring a peach when I heard “Lenn! Lenn! Lenn!” coming from the living room. I rushed in and found Nancy and the kids watching a home video of the 4 year-old, Isaac, in a school musical. He was dancing around on stage dressed like a dog. That’s when I made my first mistake. I decided to share an anecdote of my own experience playing a cow that meowed in our elementary school production of Wack-a-Doo Zoo. My acclaimed performance as a tormented heifer struggling through an identity crisis would have been difficult to describe in English. In Spanish, it was impossible. The interaction quickly deteriorated, until the two of us were facing one another across the coffee table, Nancy barking while I milked imaginary udders and emitted loud, sustained moos.

In Which Woodland Creatures Tend to My Third Degree Burns

Travel

Electricity in Italy, as in the rest of Europe, comes out of the socket at 220 volts alternating at 50 cycles per second. Not only do the outlets require an adaptor, but they need a power converter to step down the electricity to the American standard of 110 volts. I came to Italy armed with both, a hairdryer, and a miniature straightener.

The temperature in Rome slowly climbed from a temperate 72 degrees to a sweltering 98. I slept with the windows open, clinging to my sputtering fan, and I still woke up like I’d run a half-marathon during the night. After my morning shower, it was already too hot in the apartment to turn on my hairdryer.

In all the time Thomas and I have been dating, I’ve struggled to maintain the illusion of effortless beauty. In reality, it takes hours of concentration and a thick crust of hairspray just to leave the house. Through strategic planning, I’ve tricked Thomas into thinking that a gentle breeze curls my hair while woodland critters dress me in the morning. When Thomas arrived in Rome, however, I knew it would take an superhuman effort to look presentable in these conditions.

Ex. “homeschooled” hair

I stood before the mirror the first morning with a grimace on my face. I had my hairdryer plugged into a plug adapter plugged into a power converter plugged into the wall. I flipped the switch and the machine shot out a weak blast of searing hot air. I had already broken a sweat. I endured the heat for three seconds and then turned it toward the window when I couldn’t stand it any longer. The heat from the hairdryer mingled with the sunlight coming in from the window and I briefly saw a mirage. I heard Thomas stir in the other room. With a trembling hand, I pointed the hairdryer back towards my hair and clicked it to full blast. The temperature of the room was rising. It was getting difficult to breathe. Some might have given up, but when I let my hair air dry, I look like a homeschooler. So, middle part in mind, I soldiered on.

The aforementioned mane, pictured here in the Colosseum. Several tourists ran screaming from the sight, thinking that a live lion had been released into the arena.

The electricity pulsing through my straightener caused it to vibrate with excess energy. If left unattended for more than a couple seconds, its plastic shell began to melt. This should have been a signal that it wasn’t a wise idea to use on my freshly-cut locks. I could hear them sizzle every time I clamped down. I was feeling lightheaded from the fumes of burning hair. Beads of sweat were dripping down into my eyes and making it difficult to see. This proved dangerous, as the straightener was now functioning more like a small blowtorch. 

When Thomas walked in half an hour later, I was extinguishing a small fire from my bangs. I smiled beatifically and swept a pile of singed hair under the bed with my foot.

He glanced at me and said: “That didn’t seem like it took too long.”

In Which We’ve Always Been At War With Oceania

Travel

I’m a romantic. I can’t help it. Right now, I’m sitting out on my 5th floor balcony in the dark, wearing a black slip and a bun, because the heat wave that just hit makes it too hot to stay inside. I’m watching the glow of lantern-lit rooftops and listening to the gentle rumble of the bars beneath me. For some, living in a city where you can’t understand anyone might feel like isolation; for me, it’s all the comfort of company without any of the distraction. My simplest pleasures this summer have been open windows, billowing curtains, and long mornings drinking cappuccinos at the counter.

It’s in my nature as a writer to strategically place myself in settings that promise the most conflict, romance, and adventure. Thomas bought a plane ticket here and I thought, “This is the development my plot arc has been waiting for!” which was not a euphemism for anything. The day his plane landed, I brushed out my hair and set myself down in the shade of a cobblestone alleyway. I was there for the better part of an hour. He must have seen me before I saw him, because when I turned my head he was running straight toward me. 

Sometimes Thomas claims to forget our signature pose, the “You Look at Me I Look at the Camera,” and has to be gently coaxed back into the frame.

I was eager to show him around Rome. We got pizza at a place where we sat elbow to elbow with a Chinese family that had ordered french fries. I took him to meet my ‘gelato guy’ who is actually a girl that I am a little too well acquainted with due to a twice-a-day habit. When she told us that we were a “very beautiful coop-ul,” I momentarily lost consciousness. Once they revived me, we decided to take our cones down by the river.

I hadn’t even staged this scene but it was working out perfectly: pistachio scoops on handmade cones, a beautiful river bank, and a setting sun that made Rome look like it had been painted onto a backdrop and unrolled just for us. The two of us sat on a ledge and let our feet dangle over the water, alternatively gazing into one another’s eyes and chomping down on our gelato like hunger-ravaged animals. I was just about to go in for the kill on the last inch of my waffle cone when Thomas leapt into my arms Scooby Doo-style. 

“A RAT,” he hollered. “IT’S A HUGE RAT!”

I dumped him out of my arms and surveyed the reeds below us, but I didn’t see anything. Convinced that the threat was gone, Thomas returned to gazing lovingly at me while I gazed lovingly at my gelato. Then we heard a shuffling. 

“REMAIN CALM,” I shouted. “IT’S PROBABLY JUST AFRAID OF US.”

The rat darted out of the bushes. My first instinct was to sacrifice Thomas but I figured I might be better off using his body as a shield. I had to admit, from my position huddled behind Thomas, it looked vicious. If you’ve ever read George Orwell’s 1984, when he describes rats so big they ate small dogs and medium-sized children for middays snacks, then you have a pretty accurate image of what we were looking at. For a moment, the three of us were frozen there: the rat looking at me, Thomas looking at the rat, and me looking at the camera.

Then—I kid you not, folks— the rat turned and RAN across the water’s surface.

Eyewitnesses agree that there was a series of high-pitched screams, but none of them can agree on who exactly they came from: me, Thomas, or the rat.

In Which We Preserve The Last Shreds of Our Modesty

Travel

The class we’re taking here is on the art of the Renaissance, so we see a lot of oil paintings and cathedrals. On any given day, we see between two and five churches and it’s hard to keep them straight for several reasons. First: clear signage was not a top priority of the brilliant architects who constructed these buildings. Second: with a few exceptions, like the church we saw completed decorated with bones, they all look the same. We protect what can be salvaged of our modesty by covering our shoulders (with scarves, with jackets, with loose-leaf sheets of notebook paper), we use the reverse camera on our iPhones to take illegal pictures, and we gaze upon a dozens portraits of Madonna and Child. The cathedrals, though each magnificent in their own right, are still not exempt from the Law of Diminishing Returns. The more masterpieces we see, the less impressed we are with the next fresco of a saint being pulled apart between two wheels. We’ve seen so many altarpieces and Last Suppers that the fourteen of us have starting sitting on only one side of the table when we eat. 

The stagnant air of those cloisters has poisoned our minds. This is never more glaringly evident than when we try to give each other directions. Because the names of particular places or restaurants are not clear, we have to distinguish their location the best way we know how. ‘Turn left at the church where we saw the Madonna and Child.’ ‘The piazza in front of the first cathedral I almost cried in.’ ‘Take a right at the fountain that looks like Poseidon doing a spit take.’ ‘We’re right beside the guy aggressively peddling splat toys.’ ‘If you’ve passed the priest on a unicycle, you’ve gone too far.’ ‘Meet us in front of where Callie had that salmon pasta the week we got here.’ No matter what landmark we’re trying to describe, it ends up being just vague enough to apply to anything. We don’t meet up much.

Our renaissance education is starting to seep into our social lives in a dangerous way. Yesterday, in Florence, a huge crowd had gathered on the street. It was in the heat of the day and taxis were blasting their horns behind us, nudging pedestrians out of the way with their bumper. Everyone in the crowd was packed tight together, all craning their necks to see something in the glass storefront of the building. I wondered what it was that this mass of people couldn’t wait to see. I tapped the girl in front of me on the shoulder and asked her what was happening. “We’re trying to see Madonna!” The first logical thought in my head should have been the arrival of international superstar Madonna, who’s concert posters I’d been seeing plastered on every wall since I got there. But the long hours of staring up at faded frescos and old oil paintings had already taken their toll on me. So, instead, my response to the mob that had gathered just to get a glimpse of Madonna was: “By Cimabue or Giotto?”



In Which I Have The Upper Body Strength of A 12-Year-Old Boy

Travel

Tensions are running high here in Italy. With the volatile mixture of 14 girls, one head-in-the-clouds professor, and one illicit student teacher romance (more or less) (less), we were bound to hit a breaking point. We could tell it was coming when our would-be five hour class day turned into ten last Wednesday at the contemporary art museum. Low blood sugar nearly caused a couple girls to collapse in the pile of sludge on the museum floor that was supposed to represent the artist’s struggle with his geopolitical identity or something. Our teacher Wendy remained unconcerned, due in large part to the dozens of sandwiches she had hidden in the folds of her clothing. By the time we got home, we only had enough energy to swallow a couple pizzas whole and collapse into a fitful sleep. 

We figured the only way to diffuse the tension was to talk to her. As a practiced rhetorician, eloquent public speaker, and honorary green belt in martial arts, I volunteered to broach the subject with Wendy after lunch. What I imagined was a democratic discussion regarding the group’s main concerns. What happened was more like if you have ever seen a lion attack a gazelle in the wild and then pick its teeth with the bones. 

Contemporary art museums are a lot like a playground for adults, except you can’t laugh or touch anything or wait to leave. We went again today. By the time our 2-4:30 class hit the 6 o’clock mark, even the video loop installation of J-Lo crying couldn’t cheer us up. On the bumpy bus ride home, we swayed from the the overhead railings and scowled.

In Italy, cars are smaller. They don’t need as much room to reverse, parallel park, or nearly graze your toes as they zip pass you on a busy street. I’ve seen drivers here pull stunts previously only dreamed of by dudes in white satin scorpion jackets. The only parking strategy I’ve been able to pick up on is this: 1) Pull off onto a side street. 2) Abandon your car in the middle of the street like this is some episode of the Walking Dead. Our bus made the fatal mistake of turning onto a tiny road crammed with cars lining either side. It screeched to a halt, with no where to go and no way to turn back. The bus was stalled in the road and traffic was lining up behind us.

And that was when we reached our breaking point. It all hit us at once: the crazy professor, the 11 hour days, the hunger, exhaustion, and a week’s worth of pent-up anger and frustration—and now, this stupid SmartCar that was the the only thing standing between us and finally getting home.

That raw desperation was the only reason I can think of as to why, without hesitation, the fourteen of us marched off of the bus into the street and managed to successfully PUSH the car out of our way. 

We got back on the bus to the sound of cheers. Turns out the release of tension we needed wasn’t a civil discourse with an administrative professional. It was the adrenaline that comes from lifting a car over your head with your bare hands.