Tag Archives: friendship

a week’s worth of thankfulness.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
— G.K. Chesterton

The last Thursday in November is inevitably the one day of the year where my homesickness soars to unprecedented levels. Yes, being away for Christmas is hard, but there’s something about Thanksgiving that makes it even harder. After hearing other Americans the past couple of weeks explain to Brits what it exactly it is that makes the holiday so wonderful to them, I’ve realized I’m not alone in my sentiments: it’s like Christmas, but better. All the food and family and fun, with none of the pressure of gifts and certainly nowhere near the massive commercialization. And so I’ve come to expect that pang, a little twinge of sadness, every time I Skype home on Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just that my entire extended family seems to have that afterglow of gluttony on their faces and all I’ve had is spaghetti, but I always miss home a little more this time of the year.

When we were younger, my mother–much to the chagrin of everyone’s grumbling stomachs–would hand out five kernels of corn to each of us and before we dared touch the turkey, dip a finger into creamy mashed potatoes, or, God forbid, sample Grandma’s green jello salad, we had to go around and say five things we were thankful for. I hate lists and will have nothing to do with them in my normal blog routine–we can all figure out the “Top 10 Most Amazing” whatever’s wherever on our own, right? But, in the spirit of the season and given that it’s been an exceptionally good week in London, I thought I might dig up the old tradition…with or without the kernels to help me count.

1. Flatmates

I spent the summer at home practically stalking sites like Gumtree (a British version of Craig’s List) and Kingston’s own accommodation site. I bought Skype credit to call landlords and agents and did my best to convince them I would wire over a deposit to secure a room for September. Ha! Like that worked well. But now that it’s been two months since moving into my current flat in London, I can, with that blessed gift of hindsight, see why none of my desperate attempts this summer panned out. Although both Welsh Nick and Zambian-English Keith are lovely, it’s an Essex girl named Claire who has made me know for sure I was meant for this flat. Whether it’s catching up on the latest episode of Gossip Girl, nipping over to our local pub for a quick drink, or sharing travel stories and plans for new trips, my new friendship with Claire is one of those connections that makes each day a little brighter.

2. Food

Keeping in with the theme of one our favorite shows–“Come Dine With Me,” in which a group of four or five random people take turns cooking and entertaining each other–Claire has been fixing up some exquisitely tasty dinners for us the past few Friday nights. Two weeks ago it was a Moroccan-themed dish of lamb and red peppers, stuffed with chili, couscous, and halloumi cheese. Last week it was a Thai green curry with chicken and veges. “Where will we go next week?” Claire asked as we sat down to eat.

3. Events

I first met Dr. Chris Barlow, a fine art historian, two years ago through my flatmates at the time, Kim and Emily. Although they’ve seen moved back to the States, they sent me an email from Chris about a month ago, an invitation for the opening night of a contemporary art exhibition here in London. I was intrigued, and invited my Slovenian friend Tanja along to take advantage of her art expertise. The exhibit, held in La Galleria along the Royal Opera Parade, was called “Parallax,” which, I’ve since found out, means, “the apparent displacement of an object as seen from two different points that are not on a line with the object” (thanks, Princeton.) The paintings and pieces displayed couldn’t have been any more different from each other, but apparently that was the idea. “The theme is that there is no theme,” Chris explained to us. “How very postmodern of you,” was my response. “We need a new art history,” Tonja said to Chris as they discussed it further. I simply rolled my eyes, loving every minute of it.

 

Robert Bodem, “An Invitation,” bronze. £25,000. Yes, you read that right.

4. Travel bloggers

It’s true. Ever since TBEX in Copenhagen, I can’t get enough of them. Even as we parted ways after our whirlwind Danish adventure, I was excited to find out that many of the people I met at the conference are based here in London. I’ve since gotten together with some of them at a house party hosted by the esteemed Travelling Editor, otherwise known as Dylan. Last week I had a chance to attend a lunch the Dubai Tourism Board was giving especially for travel bloggers  and last night, Matt and Deborah of Travel With a Mate hosted a monthly London Travel Bloggers meetup at the Founders Arm in Blackfriars, where I got to catch up with my friend Justin and hear about the next 48-Hour Adventure he’s got up his sleeve. Conversations with Justin, Dylan and their friends were some of the most stimulating and thought-provoking I’ve had in a while, from freedom for Tibet to genocide in Africa and figuring out just how to make our love for travel and the world work. Who knew Copenhagen would open up so many doors in London?

5. The view

With a wall of windows overlooking the Thames, last night’s pub couldn’t have been located any better. As enjoyable as the conversations were around our table, I felt myself distracted half the time by the dome of St. Paul’s literally just across the river. It’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in yourself here, in the craziness of commuting and the busy-ness of life. But pressing pause for a few seconds just to take in the view around me is enough to know I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but here

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old friends and festivals: sunday in london.

“A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes is certain for those who are friends.” –Richard Bach

It’s been almost two years since I went to Paris. As I wasn’t working during my last few weeks in London, the subsidized trip offered by the International Student House’s Travel Club was too good to pass up: just £120 to cover round-trip Eurostar tickets, three nights’ accommodation in an actual hotel (read: not a hostel!), admission to the Eiffel Tower, the Lourve, Palace of Versailles, a three-day Metro travel card, and a €12 contribution to a group meal…glazed duck and potatoes au gratin anyone? When I tried to add it all up, I think it came to something like £400.

The only catch was having to go along as a group of about fifteen strangers (and in our case, all girls)–certainly an interesting premise for a trip. And given the fact that about two-thirds were of Asian backgrounds, you can imagine how often we stopped to take the requisite peace-sign-and-pose photos on our visit to the Eiffel Tower. But as usually happens in such situations, you end up leaving with people you can actually call good friends. For me, there was Tanja, a Slovenian who at the time was earning her Master’s, and Ermiza, a Sri Lankan law student. After we returned from Paris, Tanja and I even got together at the British Library and embarked on a literary tour of London, paying homage to William Blake’s grave and past residences of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and the like.

But it’s a testament to the modern age of travel and communication that on Sunday, we were able to reunite–some 21 months later–under the auspices of the 2010 Bloomsbury Festival. Tanja had managed to secure tickets to a reading for not only Ermiza and myself, but a few others as well. On a brilliantly sunny afternoon, we met up at the Art Workers Guild, an organization of architects and “makers” dating from the 1880s whose office in Queen Square reflects the talent and craftsmanship associated with the Guild.

The reading itself, an event titled “Deception,” was the best I’ve been to yet. It featured members of Future Perfect, a small group of poets, novelists and even a songwriter who have been together for about ten months and host themed joint readings across London–readings that are original, witty and entertaining. Their pieces ranged from a novel excerpt about a man who’s racked up half a million pounds on his corporate charge card and impulsively buys a £4,000 mobile phone; a short story about a psychotic lover who binds and gags her boyfriend when he packs his bags to move out; and a song called “Sweet Little Creeper”–no explanation necessary. What impressed me most of all, though, was simply the life and vibrancy each writer conveyed. These weren’t dry readings, but a true performance, engaging and insightful–something you’re not always guaranteed to find at such events.

After the reading, we moved to a nearby cafe and pulled a couple of tables together, discussing Tanja’s upcoming trip to New York for research. She’s currently working on her PhD from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) concentrating on the history of Islamic ceramic and glass art and apparently, the largest glass museum in the world is in Corning, New York. Who knew? “I have no choice but to go and take pictures,” Tonja explained. Leave it to a doctoral degree to allow such specificity.

As we sipped on coffee and hot chocolate, I marvelled at what a group we were–Tanja and her Indian friend Akhil, working on his PhD in Indian queer literature; Alena from Belarus, in her final year of doctoral studies in medieval Islamic history; Ermiza, now practising constitutional law back in Sri Lanka, and her reticent younger brother, whose name I unfortunately missed. Our conversation was fascinating to follow, from Ermiza telling us about her latest case concerning prostitution, to Tonja and Akhil’s account of their recent “ghost tour” through the South Bank area, where they visited the Cross Bones Graveyard, home to the Outcast Dead.

We didn’t linger long, however. A performance was due to take place on Lamb Conduit Lane (named for its purpose in another time, when goods were shipped down its canal to Holborn. It’s since been filled in and paved over, just another London sidestreet.) We arrived to find a community dinner in progress, organized in honor of the festival’s end. White tents and tables had been set up down the street, strings of exposed bulbs strung down the middle and colorful flags zig-zagging their way across the lights. Indian food steaming with spices was being served in another tent, curried potatoes and rice dished into brown paper boxes like presents.

In the end, the performance was rained out, but a rainbow that appeared over Bloomsbury Square pleased us all the same. We walked back to the station along damp sidewalks, golden sunlight glinting off windows. I thought about how quickly Russell Square is becoming one of my favorite areas in London, and also how much I love reconnecting with old friends–and realizing as always, the world can be as small or large as you make it.

"Deception" reading at the Art Workers Guild.

Threshold of the Art Workers Guild.

Community Dinner at the Bloomsbury Festival.

Divine...

A little welcome to festival-goers on Lamb Conduit Street.

Ermiza and I in January of 2009 at the Palace of Versailles...

...and reunited with Tanja in October of 2010!

Totally worth the rain.

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found in translation.

I’d never regretted learning Spanish until Tahiti.

I arrived in March of this year, where I planned to spend three weeks working on a black pearl farm on a remote atoll named Ahe. But when I reached the island, its coral ring tucked away in the northeast corner of French Polynesia, I found only four others living on the farm, two Tahitians and two Frenchmen, all of whom spoke English at varying levels of proficiency – from barely present to conversational. Getting beyond that initial bon jour and double-kiss proved a frustrating stalemate. Suddenly I wished the last time I studied French hadn’t been first grade and that I’d spent less time rolling my r’s and more time sleuthing out the infamous French silent letters, or lettres muettes.

I quickly got to know Heimana, a 31-year old Frenchman whose English was the strongest and his desire to improve even stronger. While on Ahe, Heimana was solely responsible for my French education. There’s not much I love more than learning a new language, and Heimana willingly obliged. While standing stand-by-side on the boat every day, hauling in two-meter long wire baskets of oysters from the lagoon, he coached me on the most elementary of topics. Never had learning to count to ten seemed such a feat. I returned the favor when I could, which usually took the form of correcting pronunciation or reversing words in a phrase: “Can you wake up me tomorrow?” he asked one night.

But it wasn’t just a new language, it was a new culture – this hybridized, far-flung French outpost, where you breakfast on coffee and baguettes whilst swatting mosquitos and wiping sweat from your brow. At times, trying to communicate was maddening. Humor was largely nonexistent, and by that I mean of the verbal sort – you know, attempts at quick wit and verbal irony. Slapstick was usually the order of the day, learning to make a fool of yourself for the sake of a smile.

When two Americans arrived on the farm a week or so after I did, it didn’t take long for one to remark, “It’s pretty impossible to crack a joke with them, isn’t it?” Even Heimana once said to me, almost apologetically, “I could be so much funnier with you.” So many jokes were lost, falling between the cracks of the weathered boards of the farm.

And yet, on the whole, it was a rewarding challenge; communication, that is. I began to look at the dialogue between Heimana and me differently, in that understanding was even sweeter when its opposite was a much more common outcome. I learned not to take the simple matter of being understood for granted. A few days before I left, I told him that it was going to be the craziest thing to go home and be able to say something without having to repeat it, for someone to instantly “get” what I’m saying. He laughed and shook his head in sad agreement, “I know, I know.” Compatriots in miscommunication.

Because, let’s face it, language can be a nightmare. The phrase ‘lost in translation’ conjures scenarios of all types, of bombed punched lines, failed relationships, and missed train stops, and its inherent difficulties come to life in Sophia Coppola’s well-known film of the same name. As Wikipedia writes, ‘lost in translation’ often describes “cultural references that lose their significance during translation from one language to another.” On Ahe, I would sit for hours around the long wooden table in the farm’s kitchen/dining room/lounge, listening to Heimana and the farm’s manager, Lucien, talk over coffee and cigarettes. I felt wholly alone in my thoughts – don’t get me wrong, I was the picture of ignorant bliss, listening to the waves beneath us lap against the rhythms of their dialogue, but it was isolating, nonetheless.

But the longer I talked with Heimana and the more hours we spent around the farm with our soon-beloved French-English dictionary, I started to think that maybe – just maybe – not everything is lost. In fact, perhaps, there’s even something to be found in translation. The thought came to me one day as I sat at the table sketching a glass water jug and Heimana talked beside me about the classes at the art school he’d attended for a year in Paris. He had taken a drawing class on still lifes and told me the phrase in French translates literally as “dead nature.” I began to chew on the end of my pencil, a physical act of digesting what he’d just said. The two phrases reference the same thing, right? And yet the connotations of each are quite different; even the use of ‘life’ in one and ‘dead’ in the other seems to be a complement, a way of elucidating a new side of the story.

When I finally emerged from the technological sabbatical that was Ahe – it was refreshing to learn the World Wide Web isn’t quite as wide as it avows – I started reading more on the French language. I soon came across the term ‘calque,’ defined by Princeton as “an expression introduced into one language by translating it from another language.” Wikipedia takes this further, writing that a calque is a “loan translation,” a “word or phrase borrowed by another language by literal, word-to-word, or root-to-root translation.” Common examples of this are the English word ‘superman’ being a calque for the German ubermensch and the English ‘flea market’ having been translated directly from the French marché aux puces literally, ‘fleas’ market.’ So what about my ‘dead nature’ discovery? I’m not enough of a linguist (really, I’m not much of one at all!) to know if I’m using the word in the right context, but I still like the idea of ‘still life’ being a calque. I like it enough I might even borrow the idea of borrowing words just to make sure it applies.

I continued to collect calques on the farm. As I went to bed one night, Heimana said, “Fais de beaux rêves.

When – as always – I asked him what that meant, he’d said, “Make a beautiful dream.”

“You mean, like ‘have sweet dreams’?” I asked, anxious to confirm this stunning revelation. Turns out he did, and I delighted in the reversal of what such an ordinary phrase is capable of signifying. Have sweet dreams. Sounds surprisingly passive after the action-packed order of Make a beautiful dream. Even puts the pressure on us, doesn’t it? The outcome of our dreams is in now our hands, not subject to the whims of our subconscious – a lesson for how we live out our daylight hours as well as at night.

Another night, I had the chance to play guitar and sing several of my songs for the guys on the farm. Later, as Heimana and I sat on the floor of his bungalow and rested our heads against the back of his futon, he told me I’d impressed him with my playing. “Why don’t you try to do it as a career?” he asked. I sighed, feeling like I was coming back to this question for the hundredth time. I tried to explain the multiple passions residing in my heart and my current decision that music was worth sacrificing for the ability to travel. Heimana, himself a designer of exquisite jewellery featuring Tahitian black pearls, understood.

“You’ll be fine, just don’t burn the step,” he said.

“I’m sorry?” I asked, only slightly confused.

Ne brûles pas les étapes, don’t burn the step. It means, don’t hurry, be an opportunist, you know?” Oh, yes. I know. The advice to not rush life is common counsel, but never had I heard it put so poetically.

And so now I conjecture and hypothesize about the possibility that one language can actually fill in the holes of another. That two definitions can work together and, when married, provide a meaning greater than what either offers us individually. You could almost call it syllabic synergy, the idea that sometimes the space between a conversation can be more than a deep abyss of misunderstanding, where cobwebbed corners are filled with blank stares and the sound of pins dropping. We talk a lot about barriers when it comes to language, but sometimes you find a bridge instead and you go stumbling across a beautiful link to a new way of thinking.

Sometimes, you find truth in translation.

me and heimana.

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