There’s a rumor floating about the world, that nowadays, everyone speaks at least a little English.
That’s simply not true.
So I reasoned that those working in the central tourist districts must speak English. After all, their main clientele was garish, English-speaking tourists. Surely they could understand the fact that I needed a blow dryer for my unruly American hair.
I started at Tesco because it was a known, international brand. A huge department store located in the middle of a central tourist district in Prague, they catered to the needs of foreigners. I was able to find peanut butter there before; surely they would have other Westernized items.
I’m always polite when asking locals for directions or help. Never do I just come out and say “Hey where’s the chocolate milk in this place?” That is rude. No, I start of slow and cautiously, always asking, in the native tongue, “Do you speak English?”
‘Twas the blunt reply provided to me by the majority of the workers at Národní Třída’s megolith of a Tesco. Even the young workers, who must have had English-training in school, could not help me out. I saw a youngish-looking woman stocking shampoo on a shelf.
“Mluvite anglicky?” I asked.
She looked nervous. “Ne…a little,” she struggled.
An attempt to ask where blow dryers could be found was made.
“Nerozumim,” she replied. “I don’t understand…”
I resorted to desperate, flailing hand gestures. “Uh, blow dryer,” I pretended to hold the hilt of the blow dryer in one hand, the other hand whirling around my head to signify wind.
“Oh, baby?” she asked, showing me some baby products.
“Ne, dekuji,” I sullenly respond as I trudged into another department.
I was so angry, so frustrated at the fact that these Czechs, in this “supposedly” cosmopolitan city, out of a whole department store, none could help me find what I “so desperately” needed. Eventually I stumbled upon the electrics department, when a sparkly young lad who spoke near-perfect English was able to help me purchase a hot iron hair straightener.
That’s when I sighed and regretted my previous feelings towards the Czechs. It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t speak English, it was my fault that I couldn’t speak Czech.
It’s been my dream to travel to Nice since I was young. I grew up on the beaches of Long Island but their dingy water and gritty sandy has always been unappealing to me. I prefer the pebbled shores of European coasts, where private yachts are docked at tiny marinas, back dropped by bakeries and post offices and little French or Italian cafes.
I almost went to Nice. I kick myself that I didn’t have the gumption to go through with it. But then again, travel is most frustrating when planning it for anyone other than yourself.
For spring break a close friend and I were going to go on a $500 steal deal, which included hotel and airfare. My boyfriend-at-the-time was studying abroad in Florence and was going to meet us as well. While everyone else would be getting drunk and acquiring STDs in some impoverished developing country, I would be sipping a cool class of chardonnay with my best friend and the love of my life.
Being an avid planner, of course I attempted to get the ball rolling. Every phone call to Kim resulted in “I have to see, I don’t have the money now.” In reality, I don’t think she was ever really serious about going to France. Most people get excited at the idea of travel, but they shirk at the amount of responsibility that comes along with it.
So my dreams of speaking French with locals, dining on mussels drenched in buerre blanc, and walking along cobblestoned streets to the pier, were crushed in early October. I would never open whitewashed shutters to a balcony overlooking the city, waiting for Sean to return with a basket of baguettes, a jar of jam, and freshly churned butter from some side-street market below. No, Nice would have to wait until some other opportune time, when friends were more reliable.
Yet, things happen for a reason. Sean and I broke off our relationship before Thanksgiving; Kim and I fell out of touch that spring.
I do believe there is nothing more awkward than traveling to a foreign country with an ex-boyfriend who you love and a friend that you hate.
I never wanted to go to college – at least, not right off the bat. My friends were applying to Ivy League schools, the likes of which I knew were too far out of my academic reach. Pressured by my teachers, my friends and to an extent, my family, my attempts at applying to college were very little. I wanted to travel the world for a bit, like gap-year students in Europe.
Really, I considered last resort to be university.
The College of Charleston is my first choice. South Carolina is the very opposite of New York – warm, friendly and laid back. Charleston was rich in history and there seems to be a good Anthropology program. My mother and I take a trip to this peninsula to check it out.
The school’s guided tour is abysmal. Our guides are listless and unfriendly. The other prospective students in our group are also douchebags. It is raining and we have driven through the slums of Charleston to get to the tour. So far, Charleston is not winning me over. What kind of a place is this, that I would potentially be spending 4 years of my life living in?
We stop for lunch at a corner bistro called Yo Burrito. This is when it was on the corner of Wentworth and St. Philip. It’s now back on Wentworth, but a little further down the road.
I am so overwhelmed, I can’t eat. Mom orders some nachos and we sit at a table, waiting for our appointment with the head of the Anthropology program. She keeps talking – talking about nothing, really, just talking. All I can think of is how hard choosing the right college is, and how well you have to do your research because if you don’t, you are screwed, there is no turning back. I had made a bad mistake, going from public high school to Catholic school – how did I know I wasn’t screwing up my life again?
I burst into tears at the table.
“What’s wrong?” mom asks, in her cold and unfeeling way. “What’s wrong, Katie? Stop crying!” I can’t answer her. I don’t know what is wrong. I run to the bathroom and lock myself inside.
When I emerge, she is gone. I stand there in shock – my mother is not the type to just get up and go. She gets pissed off at us, she reprimands us in public, but she would never just abandon us. I didn’t understand. So I sit down on a bench near the window and wait for her return.
I am miserable. Tears stream down my cheeks, instantly evaporating into the hot atmosphere. I want to go home.
“Are you okay?” a shaggy-haired bartender says from behind his counter.
I look up at him. “What?” I am delirious. “No…I don’t know…”
“Do you want a beer?” he casually asks.
My face screws up. It takes me a moment to comprehend is offer. “Wha – what?”
“Do you want a beer, or a shot?” he repeats. “You seem pretty upset.”
My mind is absolutely blown.
“I- I don’t have any money,” I stammer.
“I don’t care,” he says. “I’ll buy it!”
I should have taken the offer, no questions asked, no hesitations. I should have chugged down the cold, soothing liquid and calmed myself for a moment. This is every high schooler’s dream! Underage booze from a relatively good-looking guy! Who would pass up such a gift?
“I – I’m seventeen,” I blurt out. Yes, I am stupid. “No, thanks, that’s okay…” I reply, still stunned. I am stunned that my mom has left me. I am stunned that I was such a goody-two-shoes as to admit being underage to a man offering me alcohol. But most of all, I am stunned at my vulnerability.
I leave the restaurant. My mother is standing against the building, sipping from an empty cup.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I nod. “That man just offered to buy me a beer.”
She blinks. “What?”
“The bartender,” I reply. “He asked me if I wanted a beer or a shot because I was crying. He offered to buy it for me.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him I was seventeen.”
We both burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.
On our flight home, I make the decision to attend the College of Charleston. The city is beautiful, it was different, and it was warm. When people ask me why I decided to go there, I usually say “Because of the weather.”
When people ask for the real reason, I tell them the Yo Burrito story.
We squeeze our way up to the front of the Trevi Fountain. Typically, I dislike the underwhelming sensation that comes with seeing a famous work of art, face to face. A Jackson Pollack painting just looks messy up-close. And seeing a work by Van Gogh at the museum dedicated to his life in Amsterdam is no more exciting than seeing it in a book. Italy is different however. In Italy, every sculpture and painting and piece of architecture is ten times larger than you originally imagined.
The Trevi Fountain exemplifies this theory. I was used to fountains being of medium size, especially if they involved sculptures of people. New York City is big, but nothing is really THAT big. The real focal point, in my mind, is always the final pool, on the ground – that area can span as far or as close as the architect desires. The fountains at Versailles, for example, are beautiful, but warrant no more than a lingered glance. Bronze sculptures of merfolk are dwarfed by the intensity of the pool’s diameter, and the view is relatively distorted.
The French need to learn a lesson or two about artistic proportions. The Mona Lisa looks so small because it is displayed on a huge, barren wall in a ballroom-sized vista with forty-foot ceilings. Keyword: “disappointment.”
But I digress.
The Trevi Fountain is enormous. Myriads of fleshy gods and robust quadrupeds flank a glittering waterfall, which flows over marble outcrops and into a turquoise pool. Your first temptation is to dive into those clearest of waters, envisioning yourself as an ethereal being amongst mere mortals, supported by an ashy cast of higher souls.
December is too cold to go swimming however. Even though Rome sports a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I keep myself to the outer rim.
“When you throw coins into the fountain, you can do one of three things,” Pedro begins to tell us. “Throwing in one coin means you will one day return to Rome. Throw in two coins and you’ll find true love. Throw in three and you will be married – or divorced, whichever you like – within the year.”
“Really?” I so naively reply.
“Oh yeah Rosie, totally,” he says. “But you have to take them in your right hand and throw them over your left shoulder. So what’s it gonna be then? Return to Rome, fall in love, or get hitched?”
I fish in my pocket for a set of coins. I’m not in the market for the start of a union or the end of one either, but it would be nice to finally find true love…whatever that entailed.
Posing for a photo, I clench the Euros between my thumb and forefinger. With an innocent smile, they fly over my head and into the pool.
I wonder if those coins had Tom in mind when they sank to that shallow, beautiful bottom.
They say that if you are in a foreign country long enough, eventually, out of the blue, you will see someone you are acquainted with.
Pedro is giving us a talk in Rome, Italy, outside of the ancient Pantheon. We will soon to enter its age-old architecture and admire it for ourselves. Sometimes thought, I wonder if I have “Traveler’s ADD” – my eyes always seem to wander onto windows, take in food stalls, and people-watch crowds. The latter distraction is where I see Dr. Hayes. She is the Department Chair of the Anthropology program at my university.
If my eyes had glanced in that direction a moment before or after, I would have missed her. Natural energy turned my head in that direction, invisible forces pulled me to a space between two comrades. Fate guided me to receive good news; any other motion and my academic achievements would have been an afterthought.
I haven’t seen her in almost a year, but she looks the same. Her hair is long, bushy and flowing in the Roman breeze. A paisley shawl is wrapped around her thin shoulders and she is smiling next to a man in a gray fedora. They are walking in the direction of the Pantheon, where we are also going. I push through the crowd and meet them in front.
“Dr. Hayes!” I say, grinning. “It’s Katherine Lapelosa!”
She returns my smile. “Oh yes, how are you?” she seems surprised, but glad to see me.
“What are you doing here?” I stupidly ask.
“Well, we are on vacation,” she replies. “My husband and I are going to Senegal, and we stopped over here. We’re just visiting.”
She introduces me to her husband. He seems like a nice man. I imagine them doing archaeological work in the villages of Senegal, looking for primitive art surrounded by a jungle filled with poisonous snakes and other wild animals. Dr. Hayes is just so cool.
“So you are studying abroad, right?” she asks me.
“Yeah,” I reply. “I finished a few days ago actually. I’m on a tour of Europe right now.”
“And this was your last semester, right?”
I nod. “Yup. What a way to go out, huh?”
She thinks a moment. “So you are graduating. What is today, Sunday?” she ponders. “I think winter semester graduation in Charleston is today!”
I think about the day as well. “Yes, I do believe it is!”
“Oh, well, congratulations on your achievement!” she shakes my hand.
We part ways and Dr. Hayes melts into a crowd of blacks, browns, grays and olive greens.
I return to my group, beaming. It’s one thing to encounter an acquaintance in a completely foreign city, by chance. It’s another to receive the best of news from them.
“What are you so chipper about?” Pedro asks.
“I just found out I graduated college!” I exclaim.
“Did you think you weren’t gonna?” he retorts.
“Huh? Of course not. I actually graduated early.” On a sunny, Sunday afternoon in the center of the antiquated world, I am an official college graduate.
What a way to go out.
All my life, I could never understand how anyone could want to live in Manhattan. To me, it was a city full of actors – small town kids lured to the big city with hopes and dreams of making it on Broadway, television or the movies. Small town kids with small town minds and idiotic expectations. Didn’t they know the only people who make it big in New York City are the ones with rich parents? Or the ones who’ve lived here their entire lives and have had voice lessons since age three? If you want to be discovered, move to LA. Manhattan has centuries on that city.
I went to college in South Carolina and my opinions changed greatly.
Why aren’t there places where I can get a grilled cheese and french fries over chocolate chip pancakes at 2am? How do people get to work without a subway? I didn’t know it was possible to have a sun tan in the middle of February. You…you still go to church?
Traveling abroad and living in other cities made me appreciate all Manhattan had to offer. The constant sources of culture. The only place where walking wasn’t boring. The eccentric types, the innovators, the struggling, and the “hip.” It was the only place in the world where a millionaire can find the shared bedroom of his bohemian date absolutely charming after dinner at Peter Luger’s and drinks at Welcome to The Jones’.
Manhattan is the place to be if you are young, but there is something to be said about raising a family there too. It’s the perfect place for a minimalist – West Village apartments can’t account for all the “things” in the world. Access to the roof allows one to feel open and welcome while simultaneously being surrounded by 1.6 million people. It is the only place in the world where one can feel over and underwhelmed at the same time.
But the absolute best part about Manhattan is when you look out your window at night. You see contrasts. The shadows of buildings that are subtly guided by squares and circles of light. It’s that iconic skyline, and knowing you are part of it’s construction.
It’s an electric city. It’s a mirage of a million meanings.