Funemployment

A list of ways to spend your days when you are still waiting for that handwritten letter from Beyonce asking you to become her personal assistant-slash-best friend-slash-live-in babysitter:

1. Find any and every excuse to bake something. Got a girls’ movie night planned? Make brownies! Rosh Hashanah began? Make Challah! It’s Wednesday? Look up the most intricate and time consuming recipe you can find and expect nothing less than perfection from yourself!

2. Cry at least once a day in one of the following places:
-The shower
-Your car
-Your bed, circa 2 PM, midway through your fifth episode of Glee in four-point-five hours.
(*The remedy to this is generally a hot shower, a change of clothes [staying in pajamas all day generally lends itself to clinical depression], and a walk outside the walls of your home. In case, you know, you’re into the idea of not crying.)

3. Commit to reading an extremely long book.
Side-note: my father has read Infinite Jest “three-ish” times and has, for many years, flaunted the book’s awesomeness in my literary face, likely in hopes that we will someday be able to geek out about it together. Well, the time has come that I have endless amounts of free time and a serious need for mental activity. This is great because:
-This book is amazing. Insanely, annoyingly, brilliantly amazing
-Just like I used to stop my father every five minutes to ask a question while he read me the entire lord of the rings trilogy when I was, like, seven, I need somebody to hold my hand as I read this book. I can generate an obnoxious amount of questions which, if left unanswered, can stall any and all potential progress.
-I have someone to geek out with about this ridiculous new book that I’m reading
-I have something constructive to do that entails neither shouting expletives at a blank word document entitled “cover letter” or engaging in suggestion #2 (see above)

4. Take an impractical road trip. See: Exhibit A, Exhibit B

5. Spend exorbitant amounts of time in your favorite coffee shop. Sure, you might be doing the same stuff that you’d be doing at home without spending $4 on a soy capp, but it’s worth it because you’re around other humans, you’re not in your jammies all day, and you have the opportunity to at least look productive. Also, you’re allowed to brag about your caffeine addiction on any and all social media outlets.

6. Remember that you’re not special. You’re not the only person who’s miserable, or unemployed, or unsure of their life-long purpose. We’re all just making it up as we go along. You’re allowed to complain about how hard your life is, but probably only for about ninety seconds a day. And remember that all those things that can come with unemployment and general anguish regarding the meaning of life aren’t as cool (and certainly not as fun) as they appear in Kat Marnell columns and Hemingway novels: depression, drinking alone, promiscuity, unrelenting angst, etc. So maybe go to a yoga class, or call a friend, or volunteer, because laying in bed eating leftover brownies and watching an entire season of The New Girl on Hulu isn’t as fun as it sounds.

New England, Part Two

….in which I get distracted on country roads countless times and have to turn my car around just to capture junkyards and dilapidated houses, stay with family in Maine and play hooky from life, pick the most perfect baby tomatoes from a backyard garden, play with puppies, and finally head home.

20120914-082042.jpg

20120914-082103.jpg

20120914-082115.jpg

20120914-082125.jpg

20120914-082143.jpg

20120914-082150.jpg

20120914-082156.jpg

20120914-082206.jpg

20120914-082228.jpg

20120914-082252.jpg

20120914-082259.jpg

20120914-082329.jpg

20120914-082336.jpg

Now what?

New England, part one

The upside to unemployment is the ability to live out of your car for a few weeks and travel around one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Just put all the gas on your credit card.

Apparently my migratory urges haven’t subsided just yet.

20120914-081830.jpg

20120914-081839.jpg

20120914-081846.jpg

20120914-081901.jpg

20120914-081909.jpg

20120914-081915.jpg

20120914-081921.jpg

20120914-081926.jpg

20120914-081934.jpg

20120914-082427.jpg

20120914-082432.jpg

Sorrento, Maine; a pit stop at St. Paul’s; Vermont and a four-day bread overdose; and York, Maine, the perfect site for lighthouse gazing and candy store-and-arcade-by-the-waterside type nostalgia.

curiosity.

There was a small portion of my trip in Europe that was spent train-hopping with my father. In three days, eight different trains took us from Genoa, Italy to St. Jean Pied du Port, France, where we would begin to walk the Camino de Santiago. Our need to get from point A to point B gave us an excuse to relax for a few days, watch the French Riviera pass by, and get some reading done. I love train travel: you can move around, you can read, you can decide if you want to face backwards or forwards! Pure luxury!

We boarded our first train and wrangled our backpacks through the narrow corridors. I got settled and dove back into my book as all six of us in the compartment pretended our fellow travelers didn’t exist. We did the usual dance: stare into space just above the head of the person seated directly across from you; read your book intently; stare out the window. Anything to avoid interaction with a stranger.

A conversation finally developed between my father, the large Italian man sitting in what should have been my window seat, and me. Alberto was a chef, we learned, who works on private yachts all year. Not a bad job, I thought. He was headed to Nice to work on some rich family’s yacht for a few months. I listened to him talk about his career: migratory, exciting, difficult.

I love food, I gushed to him. I love cooking. I want to learn more about it.

“In order to learn,” Alberto replied, “you have to be curious.”

I resisted the urge to write this down in my journal like an overeager student taking notes in history class. In order to learn, you must be curious. What am I curious about? There were things I wanted to learn more about – food, language, art – but which of these topics were backed by a curiosity that would actually drive me to do something about my interest?

We each have an obligation to our own curiosity. If we want to change our lives, to discover new hobbies, to explore new career opportunities, we have to be curious. We must acknowledge the nagging desires inside ourselves that don’t shut up, and then we have to do something about them.

Hard work is obviously involved. Commitment. Et cetera. But it all starts with curiosity.

I promise this is going somewhere, rather than a nostalgic tangent brought on by a desire to be back there, in movement, in Europe. I’m back in New England now, and I’ve been trying to articulate my curiosities – to people asking the “what’s next?” question, but also, more importantly, to myself. And I’ve been telling myself since January that I want to learn more about making bread. It’s so interesting! And tasty! It’s an art and a science! It dates back to ancient times! And then I realized, with some gentle nudging from loved ones, that there are real, concrete ways to explore these curiosities. Ways that don’t involve just sitting in your kitchen and waxing poetic about flour and reminiscing about croissants and baguettes because bread in the States is just terrible! (But then what do you expect from a country where unpasteurized cheese is illegal?) ANYWAYS, I digress. I had to let go of the fear that these desires weren’t genuine, that I was somehow “wrong”. I had to trust my curiosity.

So! Right! The point here! I signed up for a four-day course at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Norwich, Vermont, which was just about the coolest thing I could imagine, and therefore imperative. And you can pay with a credit card! So it happened. (Thanks, internet!) I’m spending a few days learning about yeast and dough and I’m learning to knead and shape. Also, I’m carbo-loading, just in case I decide to run a marathon this weekend. I am just thrilled about all of this, especially since I’m in Vermont and it’s beautiful and peaceful and it’s an adventure.

Who knows what will come of this. It might become a hobby, or a career, or a fun memory. But I’ll never know if I don’t jump; I’ll never know if this is something that I’ll actually enjoy if I don’t at least try it on for size. I’ll never learn if I’m not curious. At a time where I feel paralyzed by uncertainty, action is always better than inaction. So far, I’m having a blast. If nothing else, I’ve already come away with some tasty souvenirs.

A day at Taize

The last full week of my travels overseas was spent in prayer and communion at the ecumenical community of Taizé in the French countryside. It has been near impossible to explain what Taizé is to anyone who asks, so I’ve decided that the only way to explain this experience is to describe what a day looks like. I can confidently say that this was one of the most beautiful weeks of my life, filled with joy and worship and challenges and friends.

I try to wake up around 7 to make it to morning mass on time. This morning I discovered that the instant coffee machine operates round the clock, making pre-worship caffeine a possibility. This is earth-shattering. I make my way to the machine and sit on a wooden bench, sipping instant coffee from a small (recyclable!) plastic cup. I am alone, enjoying a rare moment of quiet before the day begins and thousands of people surround me.

I arrive two minutes late for mass, and the small chapel is packed. Each day, the mass is said in a different language. Spanish, Slovakian, Portuguese, French. The language center of my brain is thoroughly confused these days. So I mumble my responses in English, trying to stay focused on my own words and intentions rather than attempting to decipher the language of my neighbor.

After mass is over, I wait for the priests to file into the main church – a long line of them, from all over the world, old and young and short and tall alike. I follow them and sit quietly as thousands of people spill into the large, peaceful space for the morning prayer service.

There are no pews here, no chairs. Everybody sits on the floor, and the wall-to-wall carpeting makes the space seem like a school assembly hall. This is comforting. Many people take off their shoes, and I enjoy seeing bare feet in church. We all get as comfortable as we can, surrounded by five thousand of our closest friends in the French July heat. And then the singing begins.

Imagine thousands of people singing the same melody, the same verse, over and over. Maybe twenty times; I always forget to count. The collective energy is tangible, beautiful. They are often words from the bible, perhaps a Psalm. Poetry translated into over twenty languages. We sing, we listen to readings, we sing some more, sometimes using the small songbook in our hands as a reference, sometimes singing from memory, even if the words are foreign to us. (I now know the Slovenian word for God.) We share a generous stretch of silence in the middle of everything. I love this.

People begin to leave – are allowed to leave – once the brothers file out following the closing prayer. But others – myself included – stay, and sing some more. I stay through the last song, partially to enjoy more time here, partially to avoid waiting in the heat, crowded in among the masses, waiting for breakfast.

In the breakfast line I am handed a french roll, a pat of butter, and two sticks of chocolate. I decline the bowl offered to me with the option of “tea” (sugar water) or hot chocolate (chocolate water). I find a comfortable place to sit and people watch as I fashion a makeshift pain au chocolat from what I’ve been given: slice open the bread with my fingers; smear half of the butter along the fluffy white insides of the roll; place the chocolate inside. It’s delicious; I’ve come to crave it.

After breakfast, we have Bible study. We first meet in large groups, segregated by age, where a Taize brother introduces the daily reading to us. We then break into smaller groups of five to ten people for discussion. My group –“Las Palomas”, as we like to call ourselves — finds a shady spot to sit and discuss the day’s reading. More often than not, the conversation shifts quickly. Topics range from the existence of evil to our hopes and fears regarding the future to the Spanish translation of SpongeBob (“Bob Esponja”, who shares a dubbed voice with Bart Simpson). We come from Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the US, as well as various Christian faith backgrounds (Catholic and Protestant). Conversation is rarely boring.

At 12:30, we attend afternoon prayer. Again, I wait until the last song is over to walk into what is now sweltering heat. I am ravenous; I wait in the ‘NO MEAT’ line. The food is simple and satisfying. There is always dessert. Again I find a place to sit – sometimes alone (people watching opportunities abound), sometimes with friends. I say a quiet prayer and dig into whatever is on my tray.

After lunchtime I get some free time, which means naptime. I find my way back into the church, which is now almost empty and provides a cool respite from the outside heat. I lay on the floor, my journal serving as a pillow. There are a handful of others scattered around, sleeping or reading or writing or quietly talking. I can hear a small stream of holy water trickling from a nearby wall into a stone vessel. In the section of the church containing the altar, the choir is practicing. A partition separates us: I can hear them but they are invisible. Their multilingual lullabies lull me to sleep. I sleep like a baby here, even on the hard carpeted floor.

I wake up from my nap and readjust to consciousness. I lay around and listen to more singing and read until it’s time for my afternoon meeting with my small group. We find another shady spot. Often, we talk about the differences in our cultures and our faith backgrounds: speed limits in the Netherlands, or why Saints are important to Catholics. Over the course of a week this random group of strangers has become a little family, sharing and questioning and supporting and teaching and laughing.

At 5, we break for snack time, followed by workshops, which vary each day. And after the afternoon’s workshop comes possibly my favorite part of the day: serving dinner.

I love serving dinner so much that I wonder if I don’t have a future as a lunch lady. I stand behind a folding table and a tub of food: generally something simple and easy to serve with a ladle, like mashed potatoes or lentils or peas and carrots. It’s cramped; we have limited space in which to serve and seemingly unlimited bellies to fill. When the hungry masses are given the signal, I begin ladling. I smile brightly at each person who passes through the line, greeting them with cheer and mediocre food. At a time in my life where I’m searching for ways to serve God and serve others, it’s a treat to be able to serve in such a simple, enjoyable way.

After an hour or so of ladling, I get to eat. I have a bit of time to read or rest or socialize before the evening prayer service, which is calm and beautiful and the perfect way to wind down. People often stay in the church for hours singing. It’s amazing, seeing crowds of young people voluntarily – and enthusiastically! – spending hours of their day in church. Worshipping, praying, coming together in communion with others. The collective faith here is so strong, so pure. It inspires me in a way that I never want to forget. When I walk out of the church, song still ringing in my ears and in my heart, wispy clouds catch the changing colors of the sunset: pinks and blues across the valley. The sky here is always good. I am grateful.

Things finally get quiet at night. On the walk towards bed, the crickets chirp and a peace settles in. I go through the nightly motions: teeth brushed, contacts out. At this point in my trip I don’t even have face wash or moisturizer. Somehow the world still goes on.

I spend a few more minutes than usual talking to God before I go to bed. Being at Taize allows me more time to feel close to my faith. I probably spend five hours a day in church here. I’ll tell you a secret: it makes a difference. I’ve experienced a lot of “special” things over the past seven months of travel, and I often struggle with what to do with them. What do I do with this week? What will it mean once it is in the past? But what I do know is this: I am happy here. I pray. A lot. I smile at every stranger I see. I feel peaceful about my uncertain future. I have faith.

sullivan street

no, not the Counting Crows song.

Recently a special angel (read: family member) treated and surprised me with a visit to Sullivan Street Bakery in Midtown Manhattan and it sort of changed my life.* From the outside, it is small and unassuming in the most earnest of ways (that is to say, neither exclusively small nor pretentiously unassuming the way that you might find an organic-fair trade-locally roasted-hipster only coffee shop in a renovated garage broom closet in Brooklyn).

(Source)

It is warm inside. Correction: it is hot inside, which is especially noticeable in the New York summer when you’d like to walk into a place where you spend money and be blasted by air conditioning. But it smells like bread, which makes everything okay.

And the bread is amazing. Fifteen varieties of bread sit behind the counter on a wire rack. If my imminent hunger hadn’t been hastening my decision-making process I would have stood and ogled and asked questions for quite a long time. Instead I ordered a croissant (duh), a piece of potato pizza (it was 8 AM and it was perfect), a brioche roll, and other “regular” (but exceptional) bread for later. It was a tall order. Strictly for research purposes, of course.

Sullivan Street Bakery Bread

(Source)

Have I mentioned here how much I love bread? One time very long ago I waxed (un)poetically about conquering pizza crust (never really happened). I have also gushed about making unleavened bread in the desert a few hundred feet away from sleeping camels. Anyways, I love bread. I was always the kid who ruined her dinner with the bread basket (and ordered dessert anyways). I love how almost every food culture has its own tradition of bread. It’s so basic, so simple. But it can be intimidating to make. And my curiosity regarding its traditions and techniques won’t go away.

So I sat at the table this morning, brioche in my belly, and ordered Jim Lahey’s book, My Bread. Amazon’s one-click buying feature seriously enables impulse buying, by the way. The book will be mine in two days. And hopefully – maybe? – I’ll get to work on it soon and get my hands in some flour.

Even more hopefully, I’ll be able to share some successes (and multiple failures) here. Maybe I’ll even instagram some loaves. Stay tuned.

*Well, not really but for a few minutes I had myself convinced

07.30.2012 (midday in paris)

Is it a cliche to love this place so much? (Do I care?) I’d like to move in; I’ll pay my rent in baked goods and alphabetization services. The padded bench I’m sitting on is quite comfortable: it’s almost like a bed. I could happily sleep here across from the piano (a Schindler) and the typewriter (of unknown make and time period). Perhaps this anonymous man, who is so unselfconsciously and passionately playing the piano, whose back is to me and whose face I have not yet seen, only his hands and red tshirt and leather jacket hanging over the back of the chair like it has been here before – perhaps he could wake me up in the mornings with emphatic chords on this charmingly out of tune piano. He’d be encouraged to stick around for music and ambiance purposes.

But anyways, regardless of my skillful and unkempt friend, I’d happily live in this tiny second floor library, a chess board and its mismatching pieces serving as my nightstand. And hundreds (thousands?) of old, torn books – whose earth tones reflect a time before glossy covers in fifty shades of anything – could serve as my roommates.

There’s a feeling that I live when I enter an old bookstore, a place that so earnestly (Earnestly?) and endearingly expresses a love of books. Seconds after entering I decide I don’t want to leave, and my mind begins to race: not with anxiety but rather with inspiration, with a desire to consume all of the knowledge and feeling that awaits on old, towering wooden shelves. It’s like sitting down to a feast when you’re starving, not sure what to eat first, overcome by appetite and excitement and gratitude.

I first came here ten years ago with my family. A family of nerds, I think I can safely and proudly say. I’m not sure I appreciated the place the way I do now, but I remember the rafters – I remember how tall the shelves and ladders seemed – and the cramped rooms and the dim lighting and the store’s ability to convey a sense of nostalgia even to first time visitors. I remember my father speaking fondly of his memories of the place, of visiting when he briefly lived in Paris over 30 years ago. Lucky man. I wonder if I bought anything? Maybe a book I never touched again, or something that entertained me throughout the rest of our trip, finished in the middle of a transatlantic flight. I wonder if I browsed the children’s section upstairs or searched for a more mature read on the first floor. Regardless of any of that, I’m back now. And my own memories and nostalgia amplifying the impression these walls and shelves and pages leave on my heart.

It is in a place like this where I feel comfortable in my questions and uncertainties. There is a feeling of promise, of potential, that one feels when surrounded by millions of words, thousands of ideas already on paper, ready for the taking, ready to inspire and influence. I am in the company of countless others who have searched for answers here, or used this space as a refuge from that search (it can be tiring). I am comforted by the intellect they leave behind, like layers of paint amassed over time, growing thicker with the passing of decades. It makes me want to write and read and breathe all of these books.

It’s a place like this that makes any ambitious plans for sightseeing melt away. The knowledge that sitting here for three house will be more gratifying than taking forty pictures of the Seine or the Eiffel Tower or the masses on the Champs Elysses. And it’s always a comfort to be so enamored with an experience or a place, for it serves as a set of clues, a way to understand what inspires me in hopes that the result my in some way serve as a clue to my future. I still don’t want to leave.

So I sit and the notes of the piano echo the excitement in my heart, providing an appropriately dramatic soundtrack for this moment — a gift on this last full day of travel, an unexpected burst of joy and culture and gratitude. As I’ve done too many times over the past seven months, I promise myself that I’ll come back here, if only to repress the sad fact that I’m just a visitor. Like a promise to a sick person: someday we’ll take that trip we’ve always planned. Someday we’ll go back. We’ll get our chance to see it again. Can’t you picture it? And the patient, bedridden, just closes their eyes, and smiles, and finds joy in the satisfaction that comes with those promises, empty but full of love.