Untitled

– Patti Smith, Horses (1975)

travel and the art of mental maintenance: I. Paris, Versailles

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

Versailles

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A few days into Paris—before the Australians, the honeymooners, the college kids, and the life-traveller; after the three asshole partiers, Matthieu from Montreal, and the nameless guy from Newport Beach—I decided to check out the Palace of Versailles. It was outside of the city and I was told to set aside a whole day. I took an RER train, nervously, I might add. This was still my first experience in navigating a non-English speaking public transit system that wasn’t as easily colour-coded as the Métro. I had been nervous about following the map from the train station to the palace, even if it was only a few blocks.

I didn’t have to be.

The crowds were a swarm moving down the streets. It was like going on a school trip with a bunch of strangers. The wait to get in was at about two hours but what else was I going to do?

I waited.

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It was almost over-whelming, the sheer volume of human bodies surrounding me. I pressed on until I ended up around the back of the palace, watching the grounds stretch out before me. Long manicured pools ran on for so long they practically disappeared over the horizon. Marble statues carved the way down. Sculpted hedges ran off into the distance. Lines of chalky pink gravel were stuffed with tourists who were oddly quiet. There was such serenity to the place that it amazed me it was so peaceful and quiet even with as many people as there were.

Perhaps is this was a natural landscape, it would surely meet all these ample qualifiers—peaceful, quiet, serene—but something about the symmetry of the artifice was even more relaxing. It was like math meets nature. I can’t help but think of the idea of a beautiful face being a symmetrical one. Perhaps something like that was at work here.

But the sheer effect of it all was… breath-taking. Breath-taking is such an overused word; all hyperbole rendered it meaningless, just like what is swiftly happening to literally.

But it was literally breath-taking.

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My cold, critical intellectual side had been prepared to imagine the palace splashed with red paint, so something just as rebellious and angry. But that fell away. I found it impossible to overcome my cognitive dissonace, so I chose to momentarily ignore it.

The only time up until that where I had experienced anything as breath-taking was visiting the Grand Canyon when I was sixteen. But that was purely nature. I did not know it yet at the time, but a week or two later, I would experience it again seeing Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid. And that would be pure, noble art.

But the Palace of Versailles was something else entirely. It was the most quintessential example of the disgusting excess of the wealthy; it preceded a revolution. Preceded and/or provoked.

Starting out at the grounds, I lost all desire to see the inside of the palace. Could they, in all their simple beauty, be in any way divorced from the absurdity of the gilded palace?

I walked down the steps out past the carved hedges lined with marble statues. I think of the neoclassical movement and how hilariously wrong it all was. There is a definite beauty in the white marble, perhaps one reminiscent of our own uncomfortable ideas of (im)mortality. But in reality, those classical statues were painted with bright and gaudy colours. They probably looked more like Dogma’s Buddy Jesus than Michelangelo’s David.

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People lined the rectangle ponds. A concession stand was even there, but if I remember correctly, it wasn’t open. Perhaps it wasn’t even a concession stand. Perhaps it was something else entirely, but only looked like one. Perhaps that is just something the cynic in me wanted to see.

Past the people and the concession stands were wooded areas. I followed a path through one, curious what I might see. There were people walking in and out, but the crowds were significantly thinner.

What I found was Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. The Queen’s Hamlet, as it has been labelled, was essentially a fake rustic village she built herself, for when she was “seeking to flee the Court of Versailles.” Perhaps this is just a poor choice of words for the official Palace of Versailles website, as this is not only where she went for relaxation and comfort, but where she actually ended up fleeing to escape the revolutionaries. There was a small grotto in the hamlet, allegedly where she hid. I won’t go into any more details about the history of the place. You can read the website or just Google it.

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Said grotto.

Anyway.

I spent most of the day there wandering through what I would have believed was the set of Beauty and the Beast had it been live action. It was still a working farm, with animals, crops, the whole le-bang.

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There was something so ironic, symbolic and tragic about that place. Especially after being so awed by the… (there’s no other word for it) majesty of the palace and grounds. For all the splendour and excess of the palace, the queen required a simulacrum of a modest village. It was like Walt Disney building Main Street, U.S.A. It’s so easy to inject the Citizen Kane narrative, as if this rustic little farm was her Rosebud.

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When I finally felt ready to leave, I made my way back up to the palace. I tagged along with one of the guided tours, really only out of a sense of obligation.

Unlike the grounds, it proved to be exactly what I had expected.

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travel and the art of mental maintenance: IV. Casablanca

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

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I was exhausted and burnt out. For short trips, you rally. But backpacking is a marathon.

I dyed my hair from blonde to brown before I left Vancouver because I knew I was going to Morocco, and I’d heard warnings—mostly I’d ignored them, but my mother also heard those warnings. If she felt better, I could deal. However, it faded back into a dark blonde by the time I arrived in North Africa.

In a perfect example of a tremendous oversight, I arrived on the first day of Ramadan. I had a hotel room all to myself. A hotel on the beach, where I took the closure of everything as a chance to relax. I slept all day, wandered the beach, and then ate candy and drank mango juice for dinner.

But I got to watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean from Africa.

morocco

The world started to feel small.

I wanted to explore, but I was feeling what I hadn’t yet realized was culture shock. I realized I had been incredibly naïve. I took short walks through this little part of town, sneaking photographs as if I were a cultural thief somehow. Most of my experience with the actual city was on the taxi ride from my hotel to the train station.

I cannot even remember how I called the taxi. Did my hotel call it for me? Did I flag someone down? I seem to recall few cars on the streets on the outskirts where my hotel was. I attributed that to Ramadan, I remember.

I feel slightly ashamed that my memory has failed me on this one little detail. I cannot even recall much about the taxi or the driver. I have vaguely blurred recollection of a typical cityscape passing by once we entered Casablanca proper.

I remember thinking, comically aware of my own absurdity, how absolutely nothing looked like the movie. I had expected this; I wasn’t an idiot. I harboured no false expectations on that front. I even knew that somewhere downtown, some enterprising restaurateur had opened a “Rick’s” and that it too was nothing like the movie.

So it goes.

travel and the art of mental maintenance: I. Paris, the five types of travellers

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the five types of travellers

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My first week in Paris was a crash course in backpacking. The first day, wandering from my hostel along Rue Moufftard down to Place St. Michel, took me onto the Ile de la Cite, towards Notre Dame.

I’d been expecting a cathedral, damn it.

And that’s what I got.

Only the intervening centuries did their best to make themselves known. Across the river was a Subway sandwich shop. A long queue fed into the building from the square outside. Perhaps I was expecting a sign, like in Disneyland: 30 minutes from this point. But Notre Dame is a working church. Inside, people were praying. They were praying as if five hundred years had not passed by since I thought this place was relevant.

I realized with a start that the problem is me.

I grew up on the edge of the world. In a sense. Vancouver, Canada: the last frontier. Even the islands west of the Georgia Straight were colonized first. Incorrectly, our culture says that history started when the white people got here. The earliest thing we have that gets championed is from the late 1800s: the gaslight era. Something we seem really proud of, a friend of mine from England once pointed out, but is a barely remembered blip back in the Old World.

Thus: Notre Dame made me realize what a disconnect I felt between anything “old” and anything “relevant.”

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When I said I was staying for a week, it seemed like a universal consensus amongst the other hostel mates that a week was too long. “Three days tops,” suggested Matthieu from Montreal. He should know, I thought.

As it seemed that this was what most people thought, I was able to bear witness to the whole gamut of travellers coming in and out of that hostel room. They set a template that was only reinforced the more time I drifted from hostel to hostel. There are certain types of travellers.

The college kids doing their backpacking thing (or, if they were British, the gap year traveller). I liked to assume many of them were trust-fund babies, but I don’t want to judge. I will just say that I ran into quite a few of them that seemed to not really know the value of a dollar. Hostels were not a necessity; they were cool. It was like Coachella applied to travel. A couple of the kids in my hostel were fresh off to Stanford when they got back to the States in September.

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The budget honeymooners. In the Paris hostel, there was a young couple who had just married after eight years together. They had a six-month-old baby girl and money was tight. They had a small, cheap wedding and didn’t think they were going to get a honeymoon until their family surprised them with this. I never got much chance to get to know them, as – naturally – they spent most of their time alone together, outside the hostel. But they seemed like the sweetest, most genuine couple I had met. I respected the hell out of them.

The Australians. I met many, many, many Australians. They were often living and working in London for two years on a visa, and travelling as much as they can while doing it. There was little else to define them as a group other than their nationality and something of a happy thousand-yard-stare. They could party, to be sure, but something about their experience so far had rendered them wide-eyed but a little world-weary. It was an odd combination. It was like they’d seen some shit but couldn’t wait to see some more.

The partiers. These were the worst. The absolute worst. I’m sure they’re nice in other contexts, in much the same way the guy who is really letting loose at the bar one night is usually nice in his daily life. I found they were often rich kids from around Europe or Britain, taking advantage of budget flights to spend the weekend somewhere else getting drunk and/or laid. They didn’t care that you weren’t. They treated the hostel as an extension of the party. Even when it was four in the morning. Those fuckers.

And then, most impressively, there are the life-travellers, those for whom the nomadic nature of travel is a way of life. These are the people we all secretly wish we could be. So much romance is tied into their way of life; doesn’t it just sound so grand?! Travelling all. the. time. All you own is strapped to your back and off you go, picking grapes in Italy in the summer, wintering on a beach in Thailand. These people float around, volunteering in exchange for meal, surfing couches, making friends (upon whose couch they might one day surf), and filling out ice-breaker bingo cards like nobody’s business. There is a whole sub-culture that exists for life-travellers. I love these people. They’ve got the best stories. I’m also incredibly jealous because they have a stamina that I just can’t live up to.

Because travel is exhausting.

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Travel is life magnified.

Especially when you are travelling alone. Travel is an endless series of intense days where you are always required to be mentally present. This is equally exhilarating and exhausting. Where life is shades of grey, travel is black and white. Life normally passes with an emotional range that wavers slightly day-to-day just above and just below “normal.” Travel is all kinds of extremes. Moments of joy are thrilling in a way that life rarely is. Everything feels magic and unique and special. It’s like falling in love. When you’re alone, you’re truly allowed to be yourself or even just some imagined version of yourself. Because no one knows you, no one has any expectations from you. No one is going to say “that’s a weird thing for you to say,” they will just think “wow, that chick’s weird.” And—you know what?—who cares if they do? You’re onto a whole new city tomorrow, so fuck those haters.

But on the flip side, moments of sadness are ever-the-more excruciating. At some point during my first few days in Paris, I cried at night. You’re never truly alone, but you feel it. All the anxieties of everyday life are rendered all the more desperate and extreme. If you lose your keys, there’s no one to call. Hell, you might not even find someone who speaks your language. You’re all on your own, baby.

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I wondered if this was all some horrible mistake. Had the Great Adventure all of life culture had promised really been some big, fat lie? That romance of running of into the sunset was total bullshit. Travel is hard.

But the next morning you wake up. And it is… in every possible way… a new day.

You’re kinda over the jet lag at long last.

There’s a new group of people in the hostel and they’re all kinda friendly. One of them asks you if you want to go check out the Catacombs, and since she’s a radiologist and you took one university course on osteology, this is going to be really fucking good.

the commencement of commencement advice commences

There’s nothing more useless than unsolicited advice. 

I was going to preface that with When you’re young, but it’s really applicable to all ages. Unsolicited advice simply comes at a much greater frequency when you’re young.

As I age (like a slowly ripening then rotting apple; that is the metaphor I’ve chosen to age by), I understand this frequency. You get very caught up in feeling that you’ve finally figured somethings out. You feel wise at last. You’ve deconstructed the follies of your youth and learned from them. And thus the desire to share that wisdom is strong.

But don’t. Just… don’t. You cannot really be wise with your advice unless you know whether or not people want it. Do not forget when you were young and people tried to give you advice. There’s a fine line between advice and decree.

For me, I found I hated the condescension. I thought I knew what I wanted and I was going to go for it. At best, advice was an annoying drone in my ear that I had to swat away with a furious you just don’t understand. At worst, advice was a barked order and I would immediately want to do the opposite.

Of course I made mistakes. Of course I stumbled. Of course I fell.

I failed repeatedly. I took so many different paths only to get so far along them that I realized it was all for naught. It was a dead-end. I had to go back. I had to do something new. Or something old again.

But it was necessary.

After a time, I learned how to decipher advice as it came to me. I learned how to tell if the advice was in my best interest or in theirs. I learned to weigh the advice against my own thoughts. I learned the value of another opinions. Or two. Or three.

But the reality persists: Some things you have to discover for yourself. Making mistakes is how you learn.

It all boils down to what sort of person you want to be one day. Do you want to be successful? Do you want to be fulfilled? Or do you just want to be happy?

It’s even simpler than that. Is what you want out of life something external (success, money, a partner), or something internal (fulfillment, creativity, knowledge, wisdom, love, happiness). Yes, love and happiness are indeed internal. 

If you think internal, then the best course of action is to figure it out yourself. Independence was so important. I paid my own way. I got my own jobs. My parents always had a place for me to sleep if I needed it. And I couldn’t ask for more. I wouldn’t want more.

But they gave me the independence and the support to figure things out for myself.

~

My student loans will still take me years to pay off and I have a job that is completely unrelated to my degree. In fact, my job didn’t even require a degree. There are so many classes I wasted money on. So many things I learned that I don’t remember. So many people I met that I don’t talk to anymore. So many wasted opportunities.

But I would go to university all over again. (Actually, I would start at a college and then transfer this time around – the savings!)

And the reason why is simple. As a friend once said to me, education “pops the bubble.” That resonated.

For almost every single one of us, your entire childhood up through to high school, you’re living in a bubble. Hopefully, at some point in your life, that bubble pops.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s probably because your bubble hasn’t popped. I don’t mean this to sound condescending; I really don’t. But there are people I’ve met for whom I think that bubble has never popped. They’ve gone through their whole lives without really getting it. They just don’t realize how big and diverse and wonderful the world is. They don’t realize how great and terrible most of history has been. They don’t realize what sacrifices were made – and are still being made on a daily basis – to give them the life they have. They have no concept of their context in the world.

Imagine your world a fishbowl and you’re a huge frigging fish. Imagine growing legs. (Yes, this happened.) Imagine peering out of your fishbowl because you realize that there is more to life. As soon as your head pops up, you see countless other fishbowls running out every direction, disappearing into the distance. So many, you could not possibly count them all.

Of course that’s terrifying. It’s much easier to duck back into your own fishbowl and carry on with the life you know. It’s familiar. It’s safe.

But easier does not mean better. If you don’t leave your own fishbowl, you never know how different and unique all the others are. Some are scary, yes, but some are wonderful. All different sizes and shapes and all filled with a different manner of fish. And if you never looked, you’d never have any idea!

Do you really not want to go exploring? Do you really not want to learn all about it?

Or all you really content with your one tiny little fishbowl and all the limits it holds?

Of course, there are many ways to “pop the bubble,” but education was the one that did it for me.

~

Quite a while ago now, I used to make movies. I haven’t worked on one in nearly five years. Up until… well, this very moment, I suppose, I still called myself a filmmaker, leaving open the possibility that I might one day make another. As if I was just on a break.

For several years before that break, I made movies with people I love working with. We had fun for a while until it stopped being fun. As I still had the desire to make movies, I thought this was the natural progression to my “real” career in film. I enrolled in film school.

And it was great. It was. I learned so much and I think I did pretty well. More than anything, I gained the confidence to know that Yes, I CAN do this! I learned that I had it in me to succeed. I had all the internal components necessary. Whether or not I succeeded from that point would take persistence and a hell of a lot of luck.

But, aye, here’s the rub: I also learned what my life would look like if I did succeed. I learned that success is the horizon. There’s really no such thing. It keeps moving backwards the farther you go. To chase success, in and of itself, is really fucking pointless. 

All of it means nothing if you don’t love what you’re doing.

I never trust anyone who’s more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.

xkcd 

So many people try to give such advice as chase your dreams, and do what you love. But the thing is, those people are given a platform through which to hand out that advice because it all worked out for them. No one whose dreams have failed them is ever given a microphone through which to announce that. 

I think it should be amended to say: Do what you love, but don’t expect to make money from it. 

Have a day job. Something unrelated to your passion. Something that keeps you alive and doesn’t sap your will to live. (In this economy?!) Focus on what you love and ditch the rest. You don’t need a fancy car. You don’t need a huge house, or even house. Rent a cheap apartment in a part of the city that inspires you. You don’t need to be part of a “scene.” Make a scene.

None of those things will bring you happiness. Trust me. Repeat: happiness is not external. Love is not external. You don’t find love somewhere out there. You find it within and then maybe find someone to share it with. Besides, love comes in so many forms that you’ll constantly be discovering new ones for the rest of your life.

Your day job will not define you. Your house will not define you. Your car will not define you. Your significant other will not define you.

Why you love does not have to define you. What you love does not have to either. Who you love certainly does not have to.

How you love is what matters. 

How you love is love put into action. How you love is how you interact with the world. If you want to leave a mark on the world, that is how you will do it: whether though the love you give your children, or the compassion you give to strangers, or the art you create to express your need for the world to be better.

So if you truly love what you do, then you will be fine. If you love acting, then just act. Make it happen. Get creative. There is so much opportunity for cultural interaction in our world now. Go out there and find your people. Google them, for god’s sake.

But don’t get bit parts on television shows and think that somehow gives you more value as a human being than making your own Youtube videos with your friends. A job is a job, but passion is a purpose.

Because if you truly love filmmaking, then what you love about it will be more accessible when you create your own opportunities. If you truly love writing, hammering out your own stories or pointless blog posts (like this one) will be far easier to do and far more fulfilling than getting some hack job for an entertainment website.

I know because I’ve done it and I hated it. All it did was take away the energy I wished I had to put towards my own work. It became just another job. It’s strange to have the one thing you love that was always your thing become alienating. You wonder what part of you is even left anymore.

~

Why have I rambled so much about this?

I was asked by a collective of relatives to “give advice” to another, younger relative who graduates high school soon. But I refused. I told them I wouldn’t unless she asked for advice. Because otherwise it would be useless.

But, if she does ask, that is what I would say.

travel and the art of mental maintenance: introduction

This is the introduction of what I hope will become a series / retrospective project / diary-after-the-fact / examination of memory-and-place-and-all-that-jazz. All the links to other posts about specific adventures and places are/will be below.

Whenever you get back from a long bout of travelling, the world always feels different (at least for a little while, until reality sets in again). For me, however, the world really was different. I was gone from August to November 2008. I have always meant to write more meaningfully about this trip. I’ve touched on bits and pieces here and there, but alas… I’ve never put together something huge.

I imagined that one day it would all be complete, as if I was filling in the pieces on a puzzle that would one day reveal the big picture. It seemed so easy, when I thought of it. That I would be able to simply sit and write. I would start at day one and then it would unfurl from there like a pulling the thread on a sweater.

But memory works in funny ways. Events are not always best discussed in sequence. Not when they are connected to ideas. Below is my itinerary, not as it was planned, but how it turned out when all was said and done. I will fill in links when I get around to writing them. And probably not in order. Although, that’s probably how it will start.

My parents bid me farewell...
My parents bid me farewell…

Less than an hour after touching down in Paris, I was sitting in a street café, eating a kebab with a guy from Newport Beach whose name I forgot as soon as I heard it.

It was August 10, 2008, and I would spend the next four months rolling through the epicenters of several western European cultures. At some point, my sister joined me and things got messier. The impact of those four months on the world were enormous and the whole time I was in a bubble lit by my own navel.

One Forrest Gump moment stood out: I happened up the financial district of London on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse. I recall men in suits carrying boxes of office supplies and dazed looks. In retrospect, it made everything seem so much more important than it did at the time.

In fall 2001, I began university. Everything that followed was easily characterized by the phrase Post-9/11 and a campus perpetually peopled by anti-war protestors. It was here I met the boyfriend I would later break up with and have to run away to Europe to start over.

This was something of a theme for me, I realize now. I went to Europe for the same reasons a lot of people do in movies, if not in reality: I was freshly freed from seven years in university, five years of which were in a just-ended relationship, and I desperately needed to see something beyond my own milieu. It was simple: I needed to escape.

In summer 2002, I’d done something similar. I went to stay with family in England in lieu of summer classes to get over my high school boyfriend and my fear of the real world. The change of scenery provides a perspective easily lost when you’re stuck in the day to day.

Five years later, my husband and I would do the same.

But in 2008, armed with meagre savings, a line-of-credit, and poor financial decisions, I went backpacking. The entire thing reeks of middle-class white privilege.

Which brings me back to that kebab in Paris with a guy from Newport Beach…

I. Paris

the five types of travellers

Versailles

II. Madrid

the arrival

III. La Alberca

IV. Casablanca

V. Marrakech

VI. Some where in the the foothills of the Atlas Mountains

VII. London

VIII. Broken Down Somewhere in Belgium

IX. Oktoberfest

X. Dachau

XI. Kitzbuhl

XII. Munich proper

XIII. Amsterdam

XIV. Maastricht

XV. Paris Again

XVI. Disneyland Paris

XVII. Madrid Again

XVIII. La Alberca Again

XIX. Helsinki

XX. Hameenlina

XXI. Seinajoki

XXII. Huitinen

XXIII. Pori

XXIV. London Again

XXV. Lewes

XXVI. Doncaster, Thurnscoe