Saturday, December 8, 2012

Red Light District

It was my birthday. I hopped on a flight at EWR on a certain evening in March, and awoke on the morning of my life anniversary in Amsterdam. Amy, my idiosyncratic and brilliant friend, had invited me, or rather I had invited myself and she did not decline. She was in the Netherlands on business, training consultants for the telecommunications company her parents owned. I was a woman of leisure. I arrived promptly at 10:15am to a quaint boutique hotel de Filosoof, where a key was waiting for me and a plethora of guidebooks, maps, tourist paraphenalia that Amy had prepared. I might add that at this point, I actually didn't know Amy well. We were acquaintances in the same bible study small group, where Amy was silent and mysterious and I was vocal and controversial. (A Lone Catholic in the midst of Protestants is bound to be interesting, no matter how pacifist we all were) All I knew was that she was very sensitive to cell phones.

Jetlagged, I decided to walk and become familiar with the city. I was particularly curious to see the ConcertGebow, world famous music hall and acoustics where the most accomplished symphonies and composers had reigned. Of course I was lost, my sense of direction was pathetic and it was very cold besides. I inquired after my destination in abbreviated form "Where is the Gebow?" and got strange stares. Apparently, Gebow is a general term for building, and I was actually asking "Where is the building?" in a streetful of buildings. No wonder I seemed confused.

I got to the ConcertGebow at around noon, where there were free concerts every Wednesday, a 30 minute rehearsal open to the public. Listening to the lilting instrumentals resound throughout the high ceilings seemed to open up a new world of possibilities to me. I was on fire, inspired by music, by creation, by ideas that somehow found their way through this labyrinth of human frailty to exist in the fiber of our world. I realized it was no accident, that beauty comes into being by sacrifice, threats of judgment and failure hang over the head of every artist like a noose and to stray into that tempting circle means certain death.

I continued walking, tracing the path of sunlight by my footsteps since it was so frigid that I could only endure the weather by the additional warmth of the sun. Entranced by the canals, the elegant and minimalist three-storied house with fronts facing the water, I wandered the city, watching the rooftops as much as streets. I approached a busy area, close to the train station and lots of people were milling around. Colored banners highlighted one of the streets, so I diverted to more serene side streets sporting that same lovely architecture.

I passed a row of glass windows peeking out from an alley, all empty except one with a particularly voluptuous mannequin. However, she seemed a bit too fleshy for a mannequin, her goods all but falling out of a flimsy black and pink negligee, and then I assumed she was a poster. Then I thought I saw a flicker of movement so I stopped and did a double-take. She was definitely alive. She caught my eye and peremptorily pulled open the glass door, pulling at my sleeve with amazing strength. I jumped, stumbled on my buttocks, and ran out of there with more speed than I thought my short legs were capable of. It was pure adrenaline, and the shock at the prospect of being sexually propositioned by another woman, one who was selling herself. Didn't she know I was female? Perhaps I looked like a skinny, androgynous boy. Perhaps it didn't matter. "Well, you know," Olivier told me later, "business was slow."

Welcome to the Red Light District.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mayan Legacies

Jenny and I stared upward at the Temple of Kukulkan, the renowned step pyramid and centerpiece of the archaelogical ruins of Chichen Itza, capital city of ancient Mayan civilization. Built in homage to the feathered serpent deity which maintains its name, there were carved serpent heads at the ends of the balustrades.


Perhaps our expectations were too high. Perhaps National Geographic had glorified Chichen Itza in its flawless photography. Whatever the reason, my kindred spirit and I exchanged kindred glances and we were thinking the very same thing: underwhelming. To the naked eye, the Pyramid was composed of rather large, symmetrical limestone building blocks. Yes, it was vast. Yes, it seemed imposing. Yes, it made for some rather interesting photo ops, of which we took full advantage and Jenny took a rather carefree snapshot of us, energetically leaping in the air with Kukulkan's namesake in the background. But Wonder of the World was stretching it.

The tour guide showed us the supposed location of the phantom serpent shadow that appeared writhing along the stairs at the spring and autumn equinoxes. Jenny raised a perfectly arched eyebrow, given that it was December, invisible, and therefore unimpressive. I wondered if we were jaded, or if we had traveled and seen too much in an abbreviated period of time, or perhaps we had lost that exuberance, that child-like sense of wonder when everything was new and fresh and exhilarating. Perhaps we were a bit distracted. Nevertheless, we explored Chichen Itza with a lingering sense of disappointment and rather lethargic pace, since we also insisted on being stylish under the boiling Mexican sun.

At one point, Jenny retreated into the velvet shade along the Temples of the Jaguars, with a dessicated mural portraying a divine battle scene, where she rested her feet and I proceeded onward. Whether it was my penchant for exploring or my relentless curiosity, I kept walking through one set of walls to another, sparse columns, ballcourts. Unknown, unnamed, and uncomplimented ruins struck my fancy far more than the lauded expectations of someone else.

Then I entered the El Caracol observatory temple, a conspicuously round structure in the midst of all the angular ruins, pointing like a vector towards its spiral staircase. Here was where the Mayans watched the planetary movements and the stars traversing the firmament. Intrigued, I asked our tour guide, descended from the ancient Mayans himself and thereby visibly affronted by our lack on interest in his ancestral homeland thus far. Reluctant at first, he shared with me the Mayan prophesy of 2012.

"Does that mean that the world will come to an end on December 21, 2012?"

He shook his head vigorously.

"It is not some apocalyptic ending. It means that the energy of the world is shifting based on the alignments of the planets with the sun, something that happens only once every 26,000 years so it will be the beginning of a new age, a new era, a new beginning. All the planets and constellations of the zodiac will be aligned with the sun and it will bring natural disasters to the earth. This will signify the end, and the beginning."

"Right now, only three of the planets are aligned and we have already witnessed storms, hurricanes like Katrina. When all of the planets are aligned, the gravitational energies of the earth and the celestial forces will change, and there will be more."

This conversation happened in 2009, when Katrina was the greatest devastation to hit my beloved country. Looking back, this was shared with me prior to the Tsunami and nuclear meltdowns in Japan, prior to Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and prior to the vast destruction experienced by cosmopolitan New York and her less refined neighbor of New Jersey.

Manhattan was pitch black, the insipid darkness of lack, and the cold denizens who freeze within their luxury apartments without heat.

So we have been warned by the earth, the heavens, and those intuitive enough to read them. And yet, we go on living as if we will always have tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Searching in Cancun

Cancun was a place I had never intended to go, but there is something wondrous about saying "Yes," accepting an invitation and extension of a friendship that ultimately became a kinship. My friend Jenny was traveling on a business trip there, and the resort was such a vista of paradise that many of the conference attendees brought a significant other. I walked the white sand shores in the morning, and studied the transparency of water throughout the day. It was more than just examining the many shades of aquamarine; I was searching for a familiarity, a story that had begun with the sea.

Let me explain. Sometimes we find ourselves through the journey of others, whether real or imagined. I had begun writing a story about an abandoned woman who lived on the edge of an ancient lake in ancient time. As long as I found a thread of inspiration in her life, and the events that precipitated in the glorious burst of creation, I could find my own way along the winding road of my life. At least I could make do. Yes, I had begun to feel lost after months of searching for myself. In some ways, I could see how people could go on searching forever, trip after trip, degree after degree, relationship after relationship. Bohemian wandering, continental sojourns at times were preferable to admitting a deep truth within yourself and realizing you have to change.

I had scoured the museums of Paris, looking for the face of my heroine, among those immortalized on the canvas. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for,a restlessness in the gait, a certain ingenuity in the eyes perhaps, a moment of surprise when one is shaken out of resignation. I never did find a face that satisfied me, but in the searching, I discovered more about my character. And perhaps about myself.

As I was searching for inspiration, Jenny was searching for potential wedding venues. Jenny and I lived oddly analogous lives, and I recognized the symptoms well. Not wearing the engagement ring, not settling upon a date, not mentioning the very fact to people we just met, as if by omission it would cease to be true. Yet, she would exert herself identifying all the elements of the perfect wedding, like a mechanical exercise. What is it about women that we keep hoping even when the blatant hopelessness hits us in the face like a slap? Maybe it was love, and maybe it was arrogance, the illusion that we could actually change another.

Somehow, between the void in my life and the absence in hers, we became like sisters. Perhaps kindred spiritship was borne in mutual pain, as well as good times and a similiar sense of fashion. It is only when you fall that you discover who will help you up, encourage you, and stiffen your resolve to become more than you currently are. I remember so many epiphanies in the past year, yet straddled with many nadirs of self-doubt. And in the midst of it all, the sister who was overwhelmingly supportive, and always patient, was Jenny.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Silhouettes of Strangers Who Became More

My memory has never been linear. Europe has been a litany of experiences and people that somehow melded into one as I recounted that journey westward, a Dejas-vous of all the things that have touched my life. Some remembrances are crystal clear; others are blurry and indefinite as things that seemed to have never happened.

I had encountered Kyle, an army officer on leave while on tour of Dachau. Afterwards, the English speaking group gathered for a drink and I joined them for typical peripheral small talk. The group dissipated except for us two, keeping each other company before our respective trains, his destined for Vienna or Salzburg and mine destined for Prague. It seemed military men were extremely lonely. I thought nothing of it when he asked for my email address, but he consistently wrote me long emails for months afterwards. He even wished he had kissed me, but perhaps the romantic fancies are far more potent than the reality. He had a rather pleasant, clean-cut face with chiseled features, and I would altogether not have minded kissing him. Then again, looks could be deceiving and he might have slobbered all over me.

There was Jasmine, an independent Greek girl studying towards an economics degree in Zurich. We walked all over the city and sat in cafes, lamenting her love life, since she apparently had a successful, doting boyfriend whom she loved not. I watched her justify why she should be with him while sensing she longed to unfurl her wings and fly in a different direction. I wondered if she would be relegated to the status of luxurious wife with this fellow, or if she ever had the courage to break free. I never knew, except she introduced me to soft gingerbread cookies encrusted with chocolate, which became my daily staple in the midst of expensive Switzerland. The Swiss believed that one should pay for the quality of fresh fruit and produce; therefore everything was exorbitantly priced for us American bargain shoppers. Even the idea of bargain shopping is considered an anomaly in Switzerland, as good quality needed to be properly reimbursed and why would you not want to pay for it? Nonetheless, gingerbread cookies typically bring me back to La Suisse.

Then there was Sophie, a Quebec student who traveled through Europe by the labor of her hands. She picked grapes in Provence and Tuscany, did odd jobs like waitressing and cleaning in Paris, Berlin,and Milan, any place that welcomed a cheap and migrant labor force and international worker's permit from Canada. She told me that being on the road was often lonesome and that she tended to become much more easily infatuated with friends on the road than back home. And I wondered if it was that exciting newness, of being able to grow and to reinvent yourself, of becoming more of the version of yourself you have always wanted to be, in this itinerant lifestyle that causes you to be more open to love. Or the idea of love, since these amorous liaisons rarely last. But you find yourself inevitably changed.

Sophie also alerted me to one of the best kept backpacker secrets: This free service concerns itself with matching a backpacker who needs a place to stay in a given city and the host who offers free accommodations in their home(i.e. a couch). She was currently sleeping on someone's couch as we spoke. In the backpacker world, there is an unspoken law of hospitality and mutual help without thought of gain. We were all traveling on a budget, hoping to see the world and willing to rough it. It brings out the very best in human nature, this egalitarian sense of giving what you can and taking what you needed. Non-institutionalized, completely voluntary, and without exchange of any currency. What would the world be like if money was abolished?

Of course, I couldn't forget Raphael, a German Christian socialist who was studying engineering or physics in Zurich. He was in his early twenties and intense, with smoldering eyes and a very particular manner of speaking. I felt sure he would become a politician, and he didn't deny the ambition. I don't know if it was the intensity or the ambition that attracted me more, but after the exchange and a few espresso, it seemed I had been conversing with someone who would change the world. I met him on my last day in Zurich, and he kept trying to arrange subsequent rendezvous even after I had left the country. Perhaps he will remember me, perhaps not, but someday he will hold the reins of power, when the European union has become an archaic institution.

Then, there were the shadows of Matthias, with whom romance fizzled and David, with whom it was never kindled, both of whom surfaced in and out of my journey.

Perhaps they were individual people in certain times and places, but I remember them like a long line of ghosts, people whose details fade, but for the indelible imprint they have made on my life, the gifts they gave me, the things they taught me, the joy they brought in making my existence richer and fuller. For that, I will always thank them.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Olivier and Instinct

Somehow I dragged myself back from the metro and into the incredibly warm bed of the hotel. The next day, it was snowing. Heavy feathers floated from the sky and dissolved onto the black pavements. I crossed the Charles bridge over the Danube on the way to the train station. Sick as I was, I still toyed with the idea of going to Poland, even though the weather was well below freezing. Then my better senses took over and then I headed to the platform for Munich. Then I turned towards the train destined for Krakow. If there is one thing I have learned, it is better to make a decision, any decision, even if it is the wrong decision, than to remain in the throes of indecision. I scurried back and forth between an ideal and the needs of my ailing bones, like a chicken that lost its head. Well, I lost my hat. In the last minute dash between platforms, I lost my well-insulating, furry hat that covered my ears. Great.

I arrived in Munich, back at the eventful Euro Youth Hostel where I got sick in the first place. I longed to take a nap, but I wound up sharing a room with a young Arabic man who seemed polite enough. I had never seen anyone so closely resemble a pirate, from that dark swarthiness to the brusque mannerisms in which he handled his bags. Somehow, he seemed sinister and a horrible feeling spread from the pit of my stomache. Too uncomfortable to stay in the room (we two were the only occuppants that night), I went to the lobby.

I was still there 3 hours later. As backpackers went back and forth going about their business, I wrestled with the ideals of being safe and being mean. Rationally, my Arab roommate had done nothing to offend me, he hadn't even proven himself inconsiderate. It would be unfair, premature, and judgmental to assume that something would happen to me after the lights went out. But I was scared despite rhyme or reason, and could not bear the thought of going back into that room.

To distract myself, I struck up a conversation with a long-haired PHD physics candidate from Holland named Olivier. He was from a small town outside Amsterdam called utrecht. He had kind, gentle eyes and his pale visage was of the fine European facial construction seen in portraits of Jesus. He had the calmest demeanor when speaking. He was here for a conference, to present or gather information for his dissertation, and leaving for the Netherlands the following day. We spoke of many things, travel, Europe, life and circuitously arrived at where we were at that very moment. Yes, it was an existential conversation. I also confessed the reason I was hiding out in the lobby.

"So switch rooms," he suggested.

"I can't do that," I protested. "It would be rude."

"There is a reason for your instincts, even if you dont know what it is."

I must have looked unconvinced as he sought to persuade me to listen to myself.

"The worst that can happen if you change rooms is that you feel rude. But if you don't and something does happen, you will regret it because you knew."

He was right. Somehow, his reassurance was exactly what I needed to trust myself. There were plenty of vacancies and not at all an issue for the hostel. Perhaps nothing would have happened if I stayed in that room. Perhaps I avoided a catastrophe. I will never know. But there is a peace, a transcendence from worry, when you listen to that innermost voice.

Needless to say, I slept soundly that night.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Black Light Theatre and Mulled Wine

Jane was a young, attractive drama teacher from Australia whose smooth accent matched the vivacity of her nature. At twenty-six, she was traveling the world for a year. Typical of Aussie backpackers, since they live so far from the rest of the world that when they embark on an adventure, they are abroad for at least six months to a year. If only Americans were that bold...

We became fast friends. The blighting cold ushered us towards the Church of St. Nicholas, gleaming more like a chateau in the midst of Old Town Square. The interior was airy and everything glistened; light was used as an architectural construct and it was organic and transparent, almost like a highway to heaven. I remember the rose-colored marble of the columns, golden cherubs kissing the altar, and the Versailles-esque gilding upon an impeccably white facade. A jewel of Baroque architecture, the services were sadly poorly attended unlike the masses at Paris' Notre Dame or Basilique of Sacred Coeur. Then I recalled that these lands were formerly under Communist rule and how those doctrines tended to discourage (i.e. punish) allegiances to anything beyond the state. God included.

Then on to the Museum of Communism, which initially did not sit well with me. However, Jane with her agnostic tendencies, had appeased me by going to a church so looking at Marxist paraphernalia seemed like a fair exchange. In a dingy corner of a dubious shop, the proud Museum of Communism slinked along without any spectators besides Jane, myself, and a bespectacled young student who was probably writing a thesis on the issue. I can't say that the museum was particularly memorable, since all I can recall was the red, comic-like drawings that passed for propaganda, and the very poor attempts at preservation. It seemed that nobody cared about Communism here, the molting of a reptile's skin, a poor and painful part of history that has finally been shed.

Freezing from our ears to our toes, Jane and I resorted to the mulled wine sold in the streets. Vendors would pour us a steaming, reddish liquor from large metal cannister
they wheeled around. Warm and intoxicating, one drink became two, two became four, and both of us became slightly inebriated from the multiplicative property of alcohol. We laughed, we sang, we stumbled through the streets arm-in-arm sharing stories. Jane had left her boyfriend at home, and I told her I left the world at home including sour romances. I couldn't tell if it was the wine that warmed me up or the friend who was at my side. Even the most transient friends can have a potent impact on us, changing our perspective ever so profoundly.

Being interested in drama, Jane was excited about Prague's famous "shadow" or black light theatre. I had no idea what it was, but I promptly changed money (inevitably losing a few Euro in the process because I was "free-spirited" in the extreme) and bought tickets to Aspects of Alice.

More mulled wine, and we were sitting in a small theatre, with tons of small children and some straggling parents. Circe du Soleil-like performers entered, fluorescent colors against a black background, the movements of black-clad acrobatics unfurling a fantasy of glowing lights and frenetic, kinetic sounds. In the center was Alice, her dress an electric blue, her hair a soft blonde as she found her way through Wonderland. What became clear were the metaphoric stages of maturity, as Alice was growing up.

Then two glowing nude women walked out, as Alice was apparently embracing sensuality and ego. Every detail was explicitly and exquisitely highlighted. Jane and I exchanged identical looks of horror, confusion, and amusement. There were young children sitting open-mouthed in the audience! No had told us this was an X-rated show. Or perhaps nudity among Europeans is commonplace while we Americans and Australians still behave with a Puritannical sense of priority.

Nonetheless, our eyebrows were permanently raised for the remainder of the show. After the finale, we had more mulled wine, said our goodbyes, and set on our way. She was headed to Salzburg and I was on my way to Poland the following day. It was well after midnight and the crowds were thinning.

Upon departing, I realized I had no idea how to get back.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Not So Plain Jane

So I decided to stay at one of the ubiquitious Marriott Courtyard hotels in Prague, on points mind you, since I was still traveling on a budget. It was snowing, covering the world with an icy veneer that appeared even icier when one was desolate. I lay in bed, my body was leaden and wobbling, that disorienting state of weakness when you are on the verge of recovery. Without neighbors, there were no distractions and no motivation to see the city, so I wallowed in my own thoughts. Every mistake I had ever made, every regret I had about life, men, and career choices appeared in vivid images before me, and I felt my own worth dwindle in some intangible way.

I had never felt so lonely. Jenny called me after receiving a particularly depressing email from yours truly. Jenny was Chinese, fine-boned and fashionable, the epitome of professional success in corporate America. In her early thirties, she was a pharmacist and global director of regulatory in one of the most prestigious healthcare companies in the country. Why was she friends with a basketcase like me?

Jenny informed me that a mutual friend in NYC, was having a birthday party at a posh club. Dan was an MIT-educated ABC (American Born Chinese), eternally energetic and known for bar-hopping every night of the week, and he conveniently knew every happening place in Manhattan. Not that he could always get us in. Dan was an oxymoron; he was simultaneously painfully shy and eager to party, he was outgoing and conversationally distant, he seemed a Peter Pan who refused to grow up and yet he is the most responsible friend I know.

I felt even lonelier.

The next day, I dragged myself out of bed and walked through the historic part of the city. It was still snowing. Prague was an exquisitely romantic city, with glittering rooftops the color of brick, uniform and yet unique at the same time. (Reminded me a bit of Mykonos, with the whitewashing and cobalt rooftops.) But romance, when steeped in sadness, appears ever tragic.

Nonetheless, I made my way to Prague Castle, abode of the Holy Roman Emperors, republican presidents, Nazis, and Communists. Comprised of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, this was supposedly the largest castle in the world, although the sheer size was not due to any particular building, but the archipelago of structures which congregated in such a dense space. What I remember most was how exorbitantly long it took to cross the courtyards to get from one building to the next, especially in below-freezing weather. The Basilica and monastery of St. George Cathedral was particularly impressive, harkening back to an old poem...

"Here come I, Saint George, the valiant man,
With naked sword and spear in hand,
What mortal man would dare to stand
Before me with my sword in hand?"

It was the mother of Marie Antoinnette, Empress Maria Theresa, who commissioned the final rebuilding of the castle.

However, it was en route to see the Czech crown jewels and the National Gallery Museum in one of the lower rooms, that I met her.

A sweet-faced Australian girl named Jane, who was loitering by the paintings with a similar level of scrutiny and annoyingly slow pace as me.

Things were looking up.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Popular Prague

Yes, this sounds like a gimmick from a travel agency, but I quickly realized that Prague had become the new "it" destination, the rite of passage for all self-declared world travelers, the way Paris was ten years ago or China is in the present day. In my three days in Prague, I ran into more tour groups than in my thirty-seven days in all of Europe combined. So we have the obnoxious crowds, loud tour guides, poking backpacks and fanny packs obscuring anything and everything worth seeing in the otherwise romantic old city.

I was still sick, probably sicker because my generous, thoughtful hostel roommate in Munich decided to leave the window open before he/she left. I vaguely recall it was a short-haired woman whose odorous feet manage to keep me awake, aside from the fact that she removed my belongings from the inward corner bed (the toastiest bed in the room which I had previously claimed) and plunked it squarely on the bed nearest to the window (arguably the coldest place in the room). All I saw were her feet and her head, snuggled in MY bed. I contemplated waking her up and reasoning with her, except when you are dealing with inconsideration, what can you do? She was already asleep and I probably would have started a cat fight if I dared interrupt her.

I sniffled, fumed, shivered, and wished negative thoughts upon my nemesis. Of course, the bad intentions boomeranged on me, since it was 4am and I was still angry. I wondered briefly if it would serve me better to forgive her. Not that I did, but I considered the idea and in the midst of considering, I drifted off to sleep. Perhaps I was learning to let go. That is, until the frigid cold snapped me out of my slumber and I prayed that God would give her a taste of her own medicine.

Was it a yearning for justice or was I being a cantankerous old cat? I'd like to think it was the latter, although I suspect the reality is less than flattering. So I took this sick, peevish self all the way to Prague and discovered the hard way that it really does serve oneself to forgive, since I probably would not have lost my much-needed hat if I had been paying attention to my journey.

This would be a lesson that would take me years to learn...

For now, I resolve not to travel into cold places during the winter, since that was apparently the cause of all my suffering.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


I had always dreamed of seeing Auschwitz. Perhaps because I had studied genocide in high school; perhaps because terror, no matter how well-documented and analyzed, never ceases to shock the human system when we see the dark reality for ourselves. It is far too easy to forget, to lie within our layers of comfort and contemporary distractions, to bury ourselves within another part of history. I was never one for the easy path. I seek the remembrance of pain because it feels more real to me, far more real to be hurt than to be happy.

Well, it was snowing in Munich and forecasted to be inevitably colder in Poland. I could barely lift my head, let alone brave a train to the capital of the crematoriums. So what did I do? After sniffling and moaning and fretting the bad luck of getting sick at such an inopportune moment,(although I cant recall of an opportune time to get sick), I gave up a dream. Substituted it rather, with the help of free WI-FI and my trusty sidekick, the ubiquitous IPOD touch (wonderful invention, God bless Steve Jobs). In the haze of a sinus headache and a wet, rattling cough, I booked a local tour to Dachau. Not that one concentration camp could replace another, but I never did make it to Auschwitz.

The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed to see a site of the Holocaust. What is it about ourselves that we keep pushing towards a destination, a goal even if we know we are poorly equipped for it? The hour train ride was torturous, and towards the end I had forgotten that I had elected this. At the stark, iron-wrought entrance gate, I suppressed waves of nausea roiling inside my stomache. I wasn't sure if it was the flu or if I was sickened by imagining all those premeditated deaths, stacked into piles like in documentaries.

Two things truck me about Dachau. How bare the space was, and how small the showers and crematoriums were. How they were reduced to nothing, how life was nothing, only a room and a bench and a shared bunker if they were lucky enough to live. If not, bodies crammed into the showers, smothering together, not that there was any air to breathe in the first place, but that sulfurous poison enveloping the lungs like a parasite.

The wind was frigid, and penetrated through the fabric of my jeans as if they were threadbare, a gust of paralyzing cold. So this is hopelessness. The labor, the cold, the desensitization of death. Except not everyone lost hope. Viktor Frankel, a noted Jewish psychologist and Holocaust survivor, remarked that man's suffering is like a gaseous entity, no matter how much or how little, it always fills up the volume of the container. Enlightened thoughts.

Then I thought of the lotus, how it grows from the filthiest mud possible, the scourge of the earth, to become an uplifted blossom, opening towards the sky. Lotus was Buddha's flower.

Try as I might, I couldn't help but taste ashes in my mouth.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Post Fairyland Castle

I was already sick by the time we left the snow-capped Alps of Ludwig's realm. The winter had come on rather quickly, even though it was only early October, and an icy air blew through Munich like a giant's terrible breath. Temperamental snows dusted the city like flour, although they dissipated before turning to ice. It was the brute, unabashed cold that hit me like a stone. I found myself with the sniffles, then a sinus infection, and then rivers of mucus that clogged my throat. Yes, I was deteriorating in the midst of Bavaria.

There is something about the state of being ill that causes one to feel lonesome, rather acutely. I scampered back from the train to my hostel and while it wasn't literally far, I might as well been dragging through the mud, feeling awfully sorry for myself. I even forgot about Simon, our mutual promise to spend Germany together before heading back to opposite ends of the world. Luckily, Simon hadn't forgotten about me. He followed me back to my room and as he watched me shuddering uncontrollably, he ran out again. So I finally got rid of him after all.

At length, he returned with a cup of hot tea and lemon, and asked how I was doing. I could only raise my eyelids pitifully. He proceeded to give me a massage, and then some small plastic packets that generate heat after we rubbed them for a few minutes. (Ingenious contraptions, those Taiwanese). Then he tucked me in and related that he felt worried and uneasy leaving like this, but his flight back to Asia was already booked. He did seem genuinely concerned, and those long-lashed, liquid eyes blinked at me guiltily.

I was profoundly touched. He had no obligation to me; I was a fellow traveler, transient and forgettable. He would never see me again. Yet, there was something transcendent in the human to human interaction, a sharing of thoughts, experiencing a wondrous event in the same time, that inevitably binds us. That sense of connection, that we affect each other, that we are real and we lived in that moment together is powerful. Even though we have become no more than a memory to one another, it is impossible not to care and not to feel that my life is somehow better because it was touched by kindness.

So Simon departed and I was left to my coughing fits. But I smiled every time my toes touched on the warmers that he gave me, which thawed out my frozen feet and kindled something in more guarded areas of the heart.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Neuschwanstein was a disappointment at first. Romanesque style, with byzantine accents, it was the most romantic castle I had ever seen, whitewashed limestone, glistening turrents with cobalt roofs that matched the somber azure skies, perched in an isolated cliff in the midst of the Alps. Unfortunately, there were rows of iron scaffolding on the castle, a caged, bridled beauty unable to manifest its glory.

Nonetheless, as Simon and I walked inside, we entered the utopia of a shy, reclusive king. He commissioned Neuschwanstein to be the builted in the style of German knights' castles, and financed his idyllic venture from his own personal fortune and some heavy borrowing. Ludwig II's portraits indicate a delicate, fine-boned visage with earnest eyes, eyes that dream and roam the official affairs of state with the yearnings of fantasy and imagination. Inside was a Hall of Singers, a green and ethereal fairy land in homage of Lohengrin, Richard Wagnor's opera of Swan Knight. I remember the vibrancy of the light and opalescent colors of damsels in distresses and magical animals, King George slaying the dragon and the twelve-toned robes of Jesus' disciples. Here was a man who was an artist, a poet, and musician, who possessed such a passionate nature who was bound by birth and law to be a politician.

Something told me that he didn't quite fit into his life and his pre-determined calling, the struggle that he endured to remain authentic to his most intrinisic sensibilities. Perhaps that was basis of his friendship with Wagnor, an appreciation for those intangible things that stir heart and imbue the senses with an indescribable, almost unbearable duty. Thanks to his faithfulness to his own heart, we walked into the reality of this whimsical monarch, the visions he kept in proximity and perhaps more alive to him than the procedures of constitutional government.

I too, did not fit into my previous life. That was why I had come, to see how others carve a sanctuary of authenticity within the worlds they inhabit, within the vulnerable spaces of the mind that the world never ceases to intrude. To maintain the self, the sacredness of the self, the divinity of the self, as you truly are.

Ludwig was never considered a great king, but I sense an immeasurable peace, a joy that pervades that castle, even though the operas and fairy tales do not necessarily have happy endings. He was a boy who materialized his dream, even though it was never finished. Perhaps it was not about ending, or the happiness within the end, or even if there is a true, finite ending. Perhaps it is about the journey, the honesty of the journey, whether it is about self-discovery or staying true to a revelation of the self, who we truly are and what is life-giving to us. Perhaps it is our ultimate truth. Perhaps it is no more than a fleeting moment.

Monday, May 28, 2012


No, I was not in Munich during Oktoberfest, although I had my share of German beer in the beer gardens, where the buzzing of intoxication was accompanied by the rowdy chatter of Bavarians, providing much better entertainment than performances of any kind. The best entertainment, by far, however, was the Australians. In general, Aussies are ubiquitous wherever there are interesting sites and good drinks to be had. Apparently, Aussies comprised nearly 30-40% of Munich's population during the two week-long festivities of Oktoberfest, frequenting its beer tents "Bierzelte" with laughter, smooth accents, and good old inebriation. So inebriated, in fact, that the majority of the Aussies lost their passports and the Australian embassy aptly set up a temporary, make-shift embassy (in a tent) during Okoberfest so that the drunkards who lost their documentation did not have to take the 6 hour train ride to Berlin, where the official embassy was situated. True story.

I lived vicariously through Simon, who shared the experience of paying nearly $30 for a mug of beer during the celebration, as well as shacking up with roommates for meager accomodations and shelling out $150-200 for a third of a room per night. Wow. Now I am just not that committed to beer. Half grinning and half sheepish, Simon assured me it was worth it for him to see his typically uptight friend completely lose it. "Drunkenness with trusted company" was the way he put it. Simon seemed so young to me, guileless and with big, double-lidded eyes unusual for those with Han ancestry. A Taiwanese friend once told me about the ethnic differences between the indigenous Taiwanese versus those who later came with Chiang Kai Shek after WWII. Chiang's cohorts were unmistakably Han, but the indigenous people looked a bit more exotic, with wide eyes and darker skin. I guessed Simon belonged to the "original" Taiwanese, but it is inevitably a sore subject to raise, as the indigenous Taiwanese and their intelligentsia/scholars were massacred by their Han counterparts. Sigh...

Simon and I went to the Residenz, the largest palace within the city, home of the Bavarian monarchs that has now become a museum, a concert hall, undergoing immense reconstruction behind billboards of some famous Italian designer like Prada. It boasts some amazing Rococo and classical architecture, among others, and true to the German style, everything was perfectly symmetrical. The Antiquarium, (Hall of Antiquities), was a massive hall covered by a plethora of Renaissance paintings, separated by large beams of wood, which seemed to be the overpowering color in the entire collection. It was the most impressive room and somehow, the coldest. Suddenly, the tears that I did not shed on the train spouted full force and Simon was justifiably baffled. However, he didn't find an excuse to leave that hour, that day, or even that evening. Backpackers are not beholden to one another, and whenever you felt that your paths needed to separate, there was no explanation necessary. Instead, he sat beside me until I quieted and for some reason, there were very few tourists in the Residenz that day. I don't remember what I told him as the reason for my outburst, and I don't remember him asking. Perhaps it was nothing, and perhaps it was the wave of uncertainty over uncertainty hitting me as I didn't know what my next step would be. Nonetheless, it didn't matter. We sat in the silence, punctuated by my occassional sobbing, and then it was over.

And he suggested we have dinner. We went to this folksy, non-tourist and therefore non-English-speaking restaurant where the food was reputed to be authentic. However, we weren't warned on the demeanor. Not to be speaking in generalties, but Bavarians are rude. Particularly in restaurants. They are impatient with you for taking to much time to decide, and then annoyed that these bumpkins did not pronounce the names correctly. I ordered the Weisswurst, a traditional sausage made from very finely minced veal and fresh pork bacon, and Schweinsbratenhe, pork with gravy. Simon had the Nürnberger Bratwurst mit Sauerkraut (fried sausages with Sauerkraut). The meats were hardy, succulent with juices, and utterly amazing. And strudel, of course!

That night, the air turned frigid. As I ate the last bits of my apple strudel with beer and began to sniffle, I realized I was coming down with a cold.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bavaria Continued

Except that Simon interrupted my flood of tears, pointing to the landscape with glee. There is something about acquaintance, no matter how remote or recent, that obligates you to be on your best behavior. Perhaps it was the fear of being judged, how familiarity with people causes you to care how you stack up in their opinion. So I held back that torrent of feeling which rains salt and water and contorts my face until I look like a red onion. I had no idea what excited him, but Simon had the kind of ebullient personality that was almost contagious. Then he mentioned his sisters, how he learned to detect when a woman wasn’t happy and how to cheer her up. I glanced at him sideways, wondering if he was a womanizer in disguise, but he seemed completely in earnest and had an eager-to-please look reminiscent of a young puppy. He was also about 8 years younger than me.

Simon & I made a pact to meet that evening for dinner after we got settled; it turned out our hostels were neighbering institutions. The train rolled into Munich and like in every station, I headed over to the kiosks to arrange my ticket (via the EuroRail pass) to the next city, Prague. Except I couldn’t read German, so I stood in the information queue for about 20 minutes. They promptly directed me to another kiosk where I stood behind a long line for another 15 minutes to buy my ticket. When I got to the window, I asked about train times and they absolutely refused to sell me a ticket because I did not know the precise time of the train I wanted to take. Instead, they referred me to a glass waiting room where more complicated tasks like purchasing a multi-train pass were resolved. Incidentally, that was also where the timetables were located. I tried to ask a brief question, but was instead instructed to take a number. After 30 minutes, my number was called and I was promptly referred to the large steel fixture of a shelf with multiple pamphlets. None were in English and when I inquired about that, I was told to take another number.

So much for customer service. Germany, the epitome of discipline, efficiency, and standardization; and it took me over an hour to even get a timetable translated into English. Apparently, Germans spoke flawless English, unless you happened to need your visa renewed or any kind of paperwork processed. Then, every utterance of English was indecipherable and you were inevitably misunderstood. Looks civil service was on par with customer service.

I roamed free in the land of BMW Bismarck, Oktoberfest, and origins of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers' Party, otherwise known as Nazi. Ironically, political power and racial supremacy were not the prime dreams of Adolf Hitler, at least not in his youth. He was a foiled artist, or so he believed, rejected from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts multiple times before he began peddling street paintings and got involved in grassroots politics, along with disbanded members of the German military post WWI. How the course of the world may be have changed if only he was recognized as a painter. Other interesting commonality among some of these totalitarian radicals was that Hitler was Austrian, not German, although he claimed he was "Germanic." Stalin, too, was Georgian, not Russian and perhaps their lack of "true belonging" in Germany or Russia led to a psychotic drive for domination.

I took a free walking tour of the city, exploring Marienplatz and its marvelous medieval, baroque, and renaissance architecture in a variety of stalwart pillars and churches. As the young German tour guide recounted the city's illustrious and sometimes sordid history, it occurred to me he tiptoed around any semblance of German pride, remarking in a deadpan tone about everything that this city stands for. It was a pattern repeated time and again. Conscientiously, they are still embarrassed about the past and the Holocaust, to the point of depriving their future generations of any sense of positive national identity.

Only the Germans are big enough to admit what they did was wrong. What about the Americans and Native Americans? What about the Japanese, massacre of Nanking, or the Korean "comfort women?" What about the Chinese massacres during the Cultural Revolution, and more recently, Tiananmen Square? None of these superpowers has made an effort towards such humility and reparation as the Germans have done. For that, I am proud of the Germans.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Enter Bavaria

Nothing happened. Or rather, there was no opportunity for anything to happen. I had booked a ticket on the 6am train to Germany the next morning. Timing is everything, the key determinant of success or failure, irrespective of talent or education or credential. And there was no time for anything to happen.

Matthias was still sleeping when I left, in the dark, unholy hours of the morning when it seems the entire world was dormant. I left with the unsettled feeling of things left unresolved and for once, I wished the trains in Switzerland would be late. Indecision mounted: to follow an impulse and stay in Zurich without cause, or to continue on my journey. The train pulled into the bahnhof, the grey mist or maybe just the cold air, congregated under the signs announcing destination and I leapt onto the last car. I closed my eyes, ascribing everything to sleep deprivation and foreign countries, and still I felt inexplicably sad.

Another stop along the German border, perhaps Innsbruck, and thin, Asian man got on. He paused momentarily, and then headed straight for the seat opposite me. Why me, of all people, I wondered as there were plenty of open seats and I was in no mood for company. Perhaps he doesn't speak English. Soon enough, he introduced himself in beautifully smooth and articulate English, with only the slightest hint of an accent. Simon. From Taiwan. Project Manager at a Bank. In Search of Adventure in Europe. Also Headed to Munich. Interesting how we can always get these soundbytes from fellow backpackers in the first five minutes.

I learned that we were staying at adjacent hostels, and that he yearned to see Ludwig's Castle, Neuschwanstein, the fairytale wonder that inspired Cinderella's castle in Disneyworld. I'd never heard of it. For me, Munich was the center of all the action. Oktoberfest. Kristallnacht. Beer Hall Putsch. Dachau. Hitler's rise to power, the sinister and powerful history that defined the course of a war.

Of course, thanks to Simon, I had something happy to look forward to. And suddenly, in that moment, I burst into tears.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Matthias and Me

Upon my return, the illustrious Matthias planned a trip to some posh Swiss spa perched on a mountaintop as a way of welcoming his guest. Upon consideration, he promptly canceled in favor of a hearty hike up one of the neighboring ranges to absorb the great wonders of his native country. Of course, I should have known better than to go hiking with a man who climbed Mt. McKinley.

We took a cable car from the foot of the mountain to mid-range area where most hikers began. The land fluctuated from emerald green of pine to areas of gothic rock formations, non descript grey dominating both sky and stone. It seemed a massive lake of slate, with cracks and jagged edges. I wound up hiking primarily by myself, as Matthias' pace far exceeded my own. He became a remote figure in the distance, pausing and waving to make sure I was still in view. By the way, did I mention that by this point I was fully cognizant that my hiking boots were far too large and they were slipping off periodically?

Then it began to rain. Between the cold, icy rain, and evanescent greyness, everything suddenly seemed oppressive. Time seemed to have passed without us knowing, and dusk was impending. Matthias, overestimating my speed, had gone too far into the hills and even as we headed back, daylight was fading fast. There we were, hopping on slippery rocks in the dark with water pelting on us, which was a simple task for Matthias but somewhat life threatening for me.

At length, we reached the cable car station and it was inevitably closed. So we had to travel on foot for another few hours to reach the bottom. It was absolute black by this point, the only vestige of light was flickering from Matthias' cell phone, which was running out of battery. It also didn't help that he didn't know where he was going. I was exhausted and kept tripping, hobbling after Matthias, who was mere inches away instead of yards. Suddenly, I was angry at being in this foreign place on this miserable night, angry at Matthias and his uncharacteristically poor planning, angry at myself for accepting this hike when I really wanted to go to the spa. In the midst of my somewhat concealed rage, I fell, Matthias caught me, and he never let go of my hand that night.

In a moment, something happened and my insides melted like butter. Being a woman, I overanalyzed the moment. Was this a friendly gesture? The beginning of something more? Perhaps neither or both. It made me think of how much of our lives were situational, things that happened as a result of a coincidence that somehow defined the outcome of what was to be.

It also reminded me of the power of infatuation. Infatuation and love are indistinguishable in intensity; it is only the longevity of the feeling that separates one from the other. Right now, we could only wait and see.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Welcome to Switzerland

From where does friendship begin? The evolution from stranger to acquaintance to one who enters the inner shrine of friendship begins from a single glimpse, a word interchanged, or some comic physical interaction when none was intended. Between some, it is a slow process that may never reach fruition and among others, it happens at lightning speed when two folks instantly understand one another.

I did not know how Matthias and I became friends, as we spent no more than a day and an evening in each other’s company. Perhaps we were in transition towards friendship, as he seemed much more open and free-spirited in Alaska. Here, in the Alpine land of Switzerland, he appeared detached, cautious, and more concerned about what people thought. Apparently, Matthias thought I was a true American, as I talked far too much and tended to share information he didn’t care to know. However, when I decided not to dominate a conversation, he blatantly said that didn’t suit me either. He took me to a disco, and laughed with idiosyncratic glee when I tried to dance in my hiking boots. (No, I didn’t bring a change of shoes.)

Switzerland was an idyllic realm of mountains green as malachite, and Zurich in particular complemented the rocky ranges with a mirror-like lake. The city was small, picturesque, with many bridges, a plethora of small floating boats, and multiple restaurants and shops with a lakeside front. The architecture and buildings were thin, pointy, and poignant. Everything was elegant, balanced, and perfectly organized. Even roasted chestnuts from the street were sold in a paper bag with two compartments, one for the steaming “marrons” and the other for empty shells. There was the Lindt chocolate factory unveiling delicious aromas along Lake Zurich, water taxis, and delectable cheeses in the shops. By the way, even groceries are expensive in Switzerland, since the Swiss believe in paying a great deal for good food. They don’t understand why Americans are so fond of bargains. Matthias told me the Swiss were most proud of the Zurich clock tower because its face was the larger than any other in Europe. Another entity with a preoccupation with size. Quite Freudian.

At Matthias’ suggestion, I took the inevitably prompt train to Luzcern, one of the most scenic sites in the German part of Switzerland. It was a quaint town, also adorned by a lake, but the main attraction was Mount Pilatus. This extraordinary mountain rose through the clouds, like a spiral into heaven. I remembered my love of summits, despite my fear of heights, because of the feeling of being aloft, of flying within the ever fluctuating winds, touching the clouds and the air.

It was not until later, that I realized the genuine importance of the site I had just visited. Mount Pilatus. Pontius Pilate. This was where the Roman governor or praetor, had been exiled after the revolution of Israel, where he perished, and where his bones were buried. Rumor had it he died of a broken heart. This was the anti-hero in the story of Christ, did anyone care about his heart? Ironic that such a place of misery for him became so exhilarating to many tourists who followed.

Suffering. Dying. Rising. Someone once told me that this is the cycle of life, this constant transformation and letting ourselves die so that we can continue to grow. The problem was that many of us get stuck in the suffering stage, and have trouble letting go of status quo, remnants of mediocrity. Only when we die to the past and open ourselves to the present could we unlock the mystery of our own hearts.

So maybe we all need to learn this lesson. And maybe we all are worthy of redemption. Even Pontius Pilate.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deja Vous: Alaskan Habits in France

Leaving Lourdes was harder than I thought. It was nine at night, blacker than ink, with no street lights or street signs in this quaint provincial French town. I was searching for the train station, or rather groping around in the dark for the only means of transportation and fearing I’d miss my ten o’clock train. I had a map, but a whole lot of good it did me. Apparently, this side of town was empty at this time, as all residents, tourists, and pilgrims congregated by the shrine for the nocturnal processions of Mary and candlelight.

I wound up in a sinister alley, weighed down by my backpack and duffel bag so I didn’t have much mobility in the occasion of being attacked. (Being a petite young girl, albeit a scruffy one, you had to be wary of these things.) Then a car drove by, at a considerably slow speed as if the driver was coincidentally meandering along waiting for me. This might be my last chance. Call me reckless, but it was dark and I was desperate, so I resorted back to my Alaskan hitch-hiking ways. I flagged down the car. (No, I did not adhere to my usual rule of riding with mini van-driving moms with a baby in the back.)

Thankfully, it was a pleasant-faced woman who was very sympathetic to my plight and offered me a ride to the train station a few blocks away. A grad student, she was rather young and seemed like my contemporary, although at the moment I thought of her more as angel. Angels may be portrayed as cherubic visions, or winged seraphim of blinding white at some divinity’s beckoning, but I am much more interested in the flesh and blood creatures who literally appear out of nothingness to save us from our scrapes. In moments of most dire need. When things appear hopeless. I have known many such angels. To others, they are normal citizens going about their everyday business. But to some, they work magic.

So she dropped me off at my destination with fifteen minutes to spare. I thanked her and I don’t remember her name, but it happens so often that these details are forgotten in the transcendence of to help and be helped. Then I was off to Switzerland to visit Matthias.

Remember Matthias? He was the Swiss German economist who had summited Mt. McKinley and ended up with a viscous green toe. We met while backpacking in Alaska and he had invited me to stay whenever I visited Europe. I thought about him while boarding the train, wondering if I’d have to find my own dubious lodging in Zurich. After all, there is a difference between what men say and what they actually do, and the well-intentioned directives of “I’ll call you,” or “Let’s go out” or even “You’re welcome to stay,” often have hieroglyphic meanings and even more ambivalent shades of meanings. For Americans, it is common to say things that you don’t mean out of politeness or not wanting to appear as anything less than nice. Edith Wharton implied that Americans did not like to refuse; the real answer was known only by a set of arbitrary signs. Do I think we’re fickle? Not in the slightest…

Well, Swiss Germans, or at least this one, did exactly what he said. There he was, waiting for me at the station, complaining at my selection of tardy trains and ushering me away, paying for everything as we went to his home since I hadn’t a single penny in Swiss Francs.

Matthias welcomed me into his sanctuary; he shared an apartment with an amiable roommate overlooking Lake Zurich. When I saw that iridescent sea of promise, shimmering with the halcyon of youth, I already felt at home.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bernadette's Corridor

Lourdes. I had heard of it before, a provincial and unassuming village where the apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to a poor young girl tending sheep. She had roses at her feet and stars at her head, a beautiful lady attired in azure who told the shepherdess to dig a hole in the earth, from which a spring sprouted. The waters of that spring were said to heal all kinds of ailments and even contact with it was thought to strengthen the soul.

I have been Catholic all my life, and I confess I never quite understood the "Mary thing." Certainly, she was a holy woman, a saint even, but did that mean she should be exalted as goddess? Nonetheless, I have discovered that holy places are holy because there is an intense spiritual energy there. Regardless of whether you believe, there is something that touches you in an extraordinary way, reminds you of your limitless potential, that you will always be more than what you physically are in the moment. I have been moved by Buddhist temples in Ayuthaya, the Acropolis, Egyptian ruins at Karnak. My heart tingles whenever I walk into a church or a monastery or even a mosque.

Being in the grotto was a profoundly affecting experience, like looking on the dark side of the moon. However crowded the shrine was, the sense of being there was deeply solitary as if you were the only one on earth praying. Perhaps you don't notice the hopeful, tearing, mournful, or respectable prayers of others when pouring out the private greivances of your own heart.

I remember there was a myriad of candles, each symbolizing an intention or a dear and impossible wish, or a hope that refused to be dashed. Burning fervently in the dusk, the wax dripped into idiosyncratic shapes, an assortment of figures that seemed to pray together. There were candles intermingled like lovers, or twisted and high and lofty as if reaching for a goal. There were some that burned below the surface; having spent out the liquified wax, they gleamed from the proximity of some nether world. Yet they all must end, quenched and resoundingly similar, after the flames engulfed them. Perhaps we all had been burned by the fires of Hell, whether or not we realize it.

Then I walked down the quaint rues that Bernadette herself would have passed and realized the poor saint would turn in her grave at this modern entrepeneurial site. Souvenirs, candles, and plastic replicas of the saint and the Blessed mother were up for sale by the thousands. Above all, by swarthy-looking vendors who did not seem to have any religious affinity to anything besides cold, hard cash. They hawked and solicited and haggled like any seller of overpriced trinkets at any tourist location. Here it was again, the good old profit motive.

Nothing remained of the simplicity and the unfettered mind, the very reason Bernadette was chosen to receive a divine message.

Perhaps some good had been done in the world. And perhaps the world has not changed as much as we hoped. Holiness and commercialization. How do we manage to co-exist.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Overnight to Lourdes

I went to Lourdes because of a promise to my mother. Lourdes was a site of miracles for my family. My grandfather lost his fingers to a grenade. Prior to the division of Vietnam, he worked for Emperor Bao Dai and it was at a meeting with Prince Sianouk of Cambodia that the grenade exploded in his hand, shielding the rest of the company from harm. At Lourdes, he prayed for safety and recovery prior to the necessary hand surgery. His wish was granted and he promptly converted from Buddhism to Catholicism.

My godmother Catherine, my namesake, was diagnosed with metastic breast cancer at the age of forty-two. Even though she passed from this life only two years later, Lourdes was the inevitable place where she made peace with her regrets and her past mistakes. When she bathed in pools of holy water that washed infirmities from the bodies of so many pilgrims, my mother noted that Aunt Catherine looked serene for the first time since diagnosis.

Thus, I took the overnight train from Paris to Lourdes, in the couchette. Hearing rumors of vicious and relentless pickpocketing on trains, I kept my possessions close to my chest. Despite my paranoia, I fell into a deep slumber and relied on my "poor student" exterior to ward off any potential attacks. It worked, or maybe it was because I didn't really own anything worth stealing. I'll never know.

The train dropped us off in the dark at around 4:30am. A glib French Nigerian woman insisted she knew exactly where my guesthouse was, and I wound up dragging my luggage uphill and downhill around town, retracing our footsteps twice before she realized she was lost. Actually, she did look rather sinister although I did not notice in shadowy confines of the train. In broad daylight, she seemed an African witch with treacherously thick eyebrows and gaudy shawls, ready to cast a spell on any unsuspecting passerby.

There was a central shrine area populated by a community of churches and cathedrals. A dazzling basilica was built in proximity to the grotto where the apparition appeared. Perspiring and exhausted, I pulled my luggage into the nearest pew of basilica for six o clock mass. I knelt down and lowered my head, except I did not know what to pray for.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fontainebleau & David

I met David on the steps of Basilique d'Sacred Coeur. He was a young, inquisitive Chinese man who was exploring Europe on his own prior to a business meeting in Germany. He looked even more bewildered and conspicuous than I did, so I introduced myself. I had spent several days on my own, looking for inspiration and scouring the luminous paintings of Louvre for the face of my heroine. Then I had watched non-museum goers try to be efficient in the Louvre Museum, with a very goal-oriented approach and laughed to myself while incurring curious stares from bystanders. Since I obviously needed to get out of my own head and he needed company, we joined forces. We had café au lait in Montmartre, picnicked on an inviting green with a fabulous view of Tour Eiffel, and went to the Chateau de Fontainebleau together.

David was a hopeless romantic searching for love. I was jaded, broken, and my heart was irretrievably scarred. Already, I should have seen the dangers as this was not the first David whose heart I may have broken, although I inevitably hurt myself more than anyone else. At the time, I was keen on my discovery of French castles and endeavored to visit as many chateaux as possible. In doing so, I inadvertently blew off my mother’s cousin who was waiting for me in the metro to go to Chinatown. Granted, she never even asked me what I wanted to do, but I continue to feel guilty even to this day.

I seemed to have committed many faux pas in this city of lights. Even so, I did grudgingly fall in love Paris. Quite honestly, I always resented the falling metaphor in this expression because love feels more like soaring to me. Maybe it is the aftermath they are warning us about, where we fall and crash and burn if the story does not end happily.

On to the Chateau de Fontainebleau! It was about an hour ride outside of the city. Oddly enough, it was less ornate than the other castles with soft wooden accents and swirls of more palatable colors like lavender, saffron, and baby blue instead of the burgundies and emeralds of Versailles. Apparently, this palace was sacked during the French Revolution, with many of its treasures sold. It wasn’t until Napoleon that this chateau was restored and his taste was decidedly different from that of the monarchy. I also got the sense that this was not a highly visited site, since the temperature was decidedly low as if heating was not a priority here.

The gardens and courtyards were a wonder. Fontainebleau was a former royal hunting park, surrounded by a lush forest that offers refuge to a myriad of endangered species. The canal and pine, elm, fruit trees did not seem the slightest bit contrived, but rather as a natural converging of land and its finest resources to nourishing a circle of life. Nightingales were singing as we strolled along the gardens and footpaths of the largest chateau in France.

David and I had a lively, albeit somewhat contentious discussion about love. He was a Protestant with very specific views of the world, partnership, and marriage. He was indefatigably optimistic about love, believing that there was someone for everyone and every woman was meant to be a wife, to bear children just like every man was meant to be a husband. When I expressed uncertainty as to my path, he insisted that my path was of course the universal path every woman wanted. I resisted his line of thinking, as I resisted his shy and awkward attempts to convey his feelings later that week.

Even though he was very sweet, even though he genuinely seemed to like me, even though he wined and dined me the rest of my evenings in Paris, and even though we were in the starlit city of dreams, I simply could not accept him.

I could not be anything other than what I am.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


In high school, I developed a fascination for Marie Antoinnette. It came as the result of writing a term paper, the intrigue of a fashionable and profligate queen who taunted the starving masses of Paris. “Let them eat cake.” The purchase of an exquisite diamond necklace followed, when the monarchy was sorely in debt. Thus toppled the throne of Louis XVI, ended the Old Regime of nobility, and began the infamous French Revolution. The city was engulfed in blood and massacre. She was interrogated by the Jacobins, condemned, and executed via guillotine, stripped of all the luxury and satin and jewels of her glory days. Yet she was still a queen.

History paints a flattering picture indeed. Marie Antoinnette was once Princess Maria Antonia of Austria, fatherless and governed by the iron will of her mother, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa. At the naïve age of fourteen, she was promised to Le Dauphin Louis Auguste, a political alliance that was to begin with a marriage.

France loved and hated her. By all standards, she was a radiant, voluptuous merry creature like a nymph of old. Her eyes were blue and translucent, her hair was strawberry blonde and her bust measured forty-six inches (which ought to please the fellows). She loved dancing, singing, wild entertainments as well as expensive clothes. Little did they know her husband was impotent and neglected her, she suffered from the decorum at court, and was virtually friendless in this alien world.

France was hungry. Their queen was an extravagant woman who delighted in grand parties. L’Autrichienne. All hell broke loose.

Now I walked through the garish salons of Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors, all the gorgeous and excessively adorned rooms of gold carvings and rich tapestries. There was an abundance of velvet, feathers, heavy embroidery and gold everywhere. Yes, it was awe-striking and impressive and even intimidating, which may have been the sole intent of the Sun King Louis XIV. “L’etat, C’est moi.” Yet it was impossible to feel comfort, peace, or a sense of belonging within these gilded walls. Perhaps it was my humble station that was talking, but I couldn’t help wondering if Marie Antoinette felt the same way.

Then a visit to Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s retreat, which was really a long walk away that the majority of tourists did not bother to take. It was not grandiose or garish or even royal. It was a simple cottage with beautiful landscaping and I could see the ancient queen confiding with her cherished companion Yolande de Polignac. This seemed the only place she could escape the fury of France.

People do strange things when they lack love. They play, frolic, amuse themselves in expensive ways, and they buy gleaming inanimate things that appear so dear in the moment. I think of Marie Antoinette’s spending, partying, gambling and our present-day “It” celebrities with the drugs, drinking, and binging. Maybe they are not so different after all.

Miraculously, people do even stranger things when they are in love. At some point Marie Antoinette won Louis’ heart and bore him several healthy children. In the later years of his reign, she proved to be a responsible mother and conscientious queen who actually declined to buy that famed necklace bearing the Hope Diamond, the necklace that she ultimately died for.

And at some remote corner of her tragic history, she was reputed to have made a true friend, a kindred spirit. Count Axel van Fersen of Sweden, who organized her family’s last attempt for freedom, the flight to Varennes, out of love for this flawed and yet utterly lovable woman.

It all goes back to love. And friendship.

Perhaps they are the same.

Friday, January 27, 2012

La Vie en Montmartre

Next stop was that eclectic neighborhood of artists and writers, bohemians and courtesans (popularized by the Moulin Rouge), Parisian and foreigner alike. Montmartre. The Basilique de Sacre Coeur stood like a virgin in the midst of a rowdy, egregious, and at times drunken crowd. A Catholic monastery of beauteous proportions, it was a curved white dome that housed golden frescoes of the faith within. Light was used as an architectural construct, crossing the path of many a tourist.

This was to be my home for the next few days. The monastery allowed lodging to pilgrims seeking travel and spiritual enlightenment. I awoke to the Gregorian chanting of the nuns every morning, sibilant voices that seemed other-worldly. This must be what angels sounded like (in French no less!)

I changed money to pay for my keep (by the way, the nuns only took cash), and oriented myself despite a poor sense of direction. A friendly, plump African-Franco sister tried to direct me through the labyrinth of the city, but to no avail. I got lost on the Metro. Because I did not know where to begin, I began anywhere.

I walked aimlessly, armed with a baguette and a few ounces of Brie fromage. One should never underestimate the tastiness of French bread. In the Champs Elysees I found myself, and chatted with a Sorbonne physics student along a park bench. I saw the glass pyramid of the Louvre. By the time I got to the Arc de Triomphe, my legs were so cramped that I panted and sat squarely on the ground. In another time and another place, I might have been embarrassed. However, desperation reigned and there I squatted, idiotic or not.

Perhaps I had finally accepted my limitations.

While excited tourists clicked digital cameras and Asian lovebirds engaged in corny poses, I thought about the grace of the present moment. Pam, a beloved friend and spiritual mentor, had taught we are called to be the best version of ourselves in the present moment. This moment is unique, from the people we encounter to the warmth of the sun, and there are limitless possibilities of what we can do and who we decide to become. We can constantly reinvent ourselves. Pam’s own life was an evolution from award-winning radio producer who covered the Tiananmen Massacre in the 1980s to respected theology professor to director of admissions for an inner-city school.

Each day was a rebirth. Because I had nothing, I was liberated from all the attachments that typically hold us back: jobs, family obligations, financial responsibilities. I felt like a tabula rasa once again, a blank slate upon which multitudes of stories could be written.

Which would I choose? Where would life take me?

In the course of wandering, I stumbled back upon Montmartre, to the prestigious cemetery that sheltered the bones of the rich and prominent. Edgar Degas and Alexandre Dumas and Francois Truffaut, to name a few. I only remembered artists, even though legions of famous politicians dwelt there as well.

How much land, how much living space did these notable folks claim as their own while alive? Yet, how much land does one really require to be buried? The irony is that most people are buried in very similarly-sized plots of land, egalitarian almost. (Notwithstanding the meticulous detail and expense some of these folks invested in their tombs.)

Why, then, do we like to acquire so many things?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Aimeric & Chantilly

It wasn’t until the next evening that I spoke to Aimeric.

For the life of me, I could not figure out how to use the shower (yes, foreign gadgets befuddle me). So I approached Aimeric. The door to his room was open, the light was oddly dim, and the television was loud and blaring. Posters of race cars ornamented his walls. It seemed the room of quintessential teenager, universally familiar and disordered. As he sauntered back from the bathroom and a particularly uninspiring demo, I was about to pass him off as an overgrown freeloader, lazy and leeching off his mother.

Except that he hobbled.

This tall, handsome young man walked with a slight limp. Even though it was barely noticeable, it changed my entire perception of him. Somehow, he seemed marred physically, like a blatant splash of ink upon an otherwise flawless painting.

My eyes surveyed his bedroom for a crutch, cast, or a sign of recent injury. Instead, I saw the discarded covers for Lidoderm patches. My fingers gripped the doorknob in remembrance of pain, the devastating post-operative pain that required me to use those patches. My heart went out to him.

I asked rather indelicately, but Aimeric was frank and unabashed. Apparently, he had hemophilia, the disease of bleeding without clotting, which caused lumps in his knees and arms due to unequal pressure or concentration of blood. There were times when the pain was excruciating, particularly when he moved. Oxycodone or Percocet, gabapentin, hospital-administered morphine, he had tried it all.

He said he couldn’t work until the university releases his diploma, but they were on strike at the moment. There was nothing he could do. As he folded his hands in his lap, the melancholy that permeated his being was so potent I felt it keenly.

The next morning, I was scheduled to see the Chateau at Chantilly, literally five minutes from Joce’s house. To my surprise, Aimeric volunteered to take me around the exquisite Baroque castle. The chateau faced a lake, offering its own resplendent reflection on a clear day. I truly loved it. To me, this was the most beautiful and well-balanced chateau in all of France.

Aimeric narrated the history of this landmark, destroyed during the French Revolution, and rebuilt in the late 1800s. The art collection, Musee de Conde, was particularly prestigious and extensive. The gardens were elegant, the original inspiration of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. Of particular note were the Great Stables, which looked like towering majesties in their own right. He told me festivals took place over the stable grounds and fireworks were displayed on national holidays.

Aimeric seemed to come to life over the course of the day. No longer was he the reticent personality of the day before. As I listened to him, I realized how isolated he was.

He reminded me of myself during my teenage years, after my parents got divorced. I had felt there was an invisible barrier between myself and any possibility of happiness. A glass wall existed between me and my contemporaries; they could laugh without inhibitions and it was hard for me to find anything that was worth laughing about.

It wasn’t until I met Suneeta did I learn what it meant to be loved for your soul, your thoughts, and your most intrinsic self. The basic human need is that of being understood. After that moment and that wonderful girl who became my best friend, I never felt alone.

I suddenly felt close to this bright-eyed, twenty-two year old French boy, suffering from an ailment that will never cease.

Aimeric. Aimer. The French verb “to love.” Perhaps it is no coincidence.

Perhaps we all need to learn how to love.