Monday, July 28, 2014

The Bookcase for Fiction

Due to some recent conversations and because this has been stewing in my mind for a while, I think good fiction needs its respect. Summer has always been the time to lose yourself in a story. Last summer it was Flannery O'Connor and John Henry Newman accompanied by countless pots of tea. This summer it's the top of my I'm-Embarrassed-I-Haven't-Read-This-Yet list and more pots of tea. There are a lot of books on that list but if I told you which ones, well, I just wouldn't.

This is me when I'm home. If you know where this is from, then we've just became best friends.
Last summer I also skeptically began watching Doctor Who and barely passed the Eccleston test of stupidity tolerance. The timing for Doctor Who actually could not have been any better as I embarked on my year of travel. I told myself I wouldn't continue watching it abroad (because who watches TV when in Europe? Amiright?) but before I knew it I was through all of the David Tennant series and suddenly Matt Smith as well. Travelling sometimes alone and sometimes with friends but always in an unfamiliar place, I learned to empathize with the likewise Baggins-esque choice between home and a different world. I don't think I encountered many aliens or dragons in my journey (there were some strange folks and Gaudi houses), but I did often think about these stories and their characters because they resonated with my life.
I'm no English major, but I think that's sort of the point of fiction. It must be grounded in something that resonates with humanity - in fact there's no way it cannot be. Civilizations were built upon stories, myths, legends, and epics and even the craziest of fantasy creatures is connected to something we already relate to or know. My dad is quick to remind us that there are only about seven basic plots because these are sort of inscribed in humanity. When properly told, stories do more than just entertain and provide an escape from reality. Fiction helps us understand ourselves through the eyes of someone else. Good fiction helps us live better lives.

In other words, fiction isn't a time wasting escape from our "real world problems"; it tells us how to deal with them. Humanity hasn't changed much from when Shakespeare penned his plays. We still overthink, ponder unexplored death, and obsess over our inaction like Hamlet. There's something comforting about discovering this in someone else's words and witnessing the echos of the past come alive in the present. It's why we form attachments to fictional characters and long deceased authors. It's why we weep at the graves of men we never knew.

That's my soapbox for the day.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

(Almost) Midnight in Paris

"Are you sad?" my friend turned and asked as we stood in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame which towered shining in the darkness. No doubt there was a shadow of concern on my face due to the inevitable and fast approaching goodbye.

"No! Oh no." I instinctively denied before pausing and correcting myself. "Well, yeah. Of course I'm sad. I don't want to leave. I seem to be having that problem everywhere I go."

There passed a melancholic silence before he suggested that I might be back sooner than I think. There is truth in that. I wasn't ready to come to Paris and now I'm not ready to leave. However, now that I have perspective on the situation this was the perfect risk to take. I might even take it again if it's right.

We had a picnic that lasted something like five hours with the stagiaires at the tip of Île de la Cité. Even though some of them attempted to steer the conversation into English it always naturally lapsed into French within a few minutes. The sun eventually passed over the horizon and the world went from purple to gold as the city lights turned on and shone on the river. I thought about Van Gogh's "La Nuit des Étoiles" that I had seen earlier that afternoon in the d'Orsay. I zoned out of the conversation thinking about how the thickness of the paint works to the painting's advantage. When the light catches on it it makes the whole image shimmer like it's made of real stars and water.

It's better in person.
I never understood how Rome could be considered a romantic city but Paris I understand. It is more "beautiful" than Rome in an elegant sort of way. There's more grace to it than the unapologetic boldness of Rome's gritty streets. That's not to say it isn't more modern and just as dirty. We saw a rat during our picnic and we decided it was definitely Ratatouille.

Monday I came into the office a bit later than usual because I wasn't supposed to be there. I finished the watercolor while everyone in the office was in a meeting. I waited for years for the meeting to end so I could properly say goodbye, but when I saw that there was no chance of it wrapping up any time soon I had to do the last thing I wanted. I made an awkward public goodbye to everyone sitting at the table and they made their awkward goodbye back. It was so painfully awkward that I walked two blocks out of my way back to the apartment simply because I couldn't stand the thought of having to pass by the wide, open office windows. When I got back I reprimanded myself for not thinking up an alternative solution to leaving. I hate goodbyes but I hate leaving loose ends even more. Thankfully those loose ends were more or less tied up in last minute chance encounters, emails, and Facebook friendships.

If I could have relived my last day in Paris I would have done it differently because I tried to cram in too much. Most of the time not spent on transportation was spent frantically roaming the Père Lachaise cemetery. I crossed paths with a family from Fort Worth who were so charmingly American I started talking to them. At the time I was looking for Frédéric Chopin but I ended up joining their search for Jim Morrison. After being moved by Oscar Wilde's tomb I went on a wild goose chase to find the Picpus Cemetary and never found its possibly invisible door.

That night I met up with my friend and the French stagiaire for one last walk around Paris and one last crêpe. It was the most perfect weather you can imagine and everything was beautiful. We saw every site you could want to see either up close or from a distance. It was midnight when I returned alone to my apartment and used adrenaline to help me pack until, exhausted, I slept for three hours before a painfully long day of travel. When I finally got home the next night after two connections/three flights (I had the unlucky middle of the middle seat for seven plus hours over the Atlantic) every part of my body was sore. Nothing feels better than your own bed.

Now I have less than a month at home and plenty of things to do in that span of time. Boredom lost its hold on me a long time ago.  

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Summary of Events

"You should finish those windows today because you'll be a different person tomorrow."

I laughed at my friend who was standing over my shoulder creeping on my rendering. But today when I sat down to resume painting the windows I happened to think about what he said. A lot happened between when I started and finished painting them and it gave me some pause recollecting everything that had occurred.

I haven't written in a long time because I have been wonderfully busy. I enjoy being busy when it's the productive and fun kind of busy. I never talked about the experiences in Romania but I'll say this much: it was so. much. fun. Saying I'm grateful I was able to go is an understatement. Whether it was counting the shooting stars we saw under the night sky, jumping up from the dinner table with our teacups to watch the cows walk home, blasting an Italian opera out the van speakers as we pulled up to the Prince's House, climbing dangerous medieval towers, jokes upon jokes, speaking in our best British accents, sitting around a campfire with Romanian architecture students, or laughing until our sides hurt...all of it was memorable and more perfect than we could have imagined.

As for Paris, my time here has gone swiftly and comfortably post-Transylvania. One of my best friends from high school came into town one weekend from London with two of her friends so I showed them around and ended up with a fridge full of macarons. (I had never had a macaron prior to our trip to the Ladurée on the Champs Elysees. Yes, this was a documented event.)

Just recently after weeks upon weeks of cold and rainy weather, Paris burst into a blistering hot summer. I'm not sure if it's actually as hot as it is back home, but it's hot enough without air conditioning.

My French comprehension level has significantly risen and I've also been busy learning Sketchup and AutoCAD. All credit goes to my American peer at the office who has done much in teaching me little by little and giving me things to do. Yesterday the three of us Americans were the last ones in the office and I was chatting with him about Rome before he invited us over to his apartment for dinner. We had to stop by the grocery store first and by the time we got around to making dinner it was after 10 pm. My friend sort of got shooed out of the kitchen for being incompetent or something (just kidding...but he was booted after inquiring too much about how to rinse green beans and we were also disgruntled that he has never pulled an all-nighter) so I took his place in the dinner process. I was asked to talk more about my experiences in Rome, so I did after struggling to start fresh from the vague "Tell me more about Rome." part. Professors were, as always, a good place to start and then from there I divulged the law-breaking story about the last architecture project Via Monterone ever saw.

We had previously met his roommate (an Egyptian student my age at MIT) and his American friend who came for dinner and stayed the night. The roommate had a bunch of his MIT friends over who ended up staying too. They mostly did their own thing while the four of us talked and laughed until someone looked at their phone and told us that we had to leave right now or else the metro would be closed. My friend and I sprang up from the table, said goodbye, were given the door code in case the metro didn't work out, and we ran. I didn't make my train. My friend made his train, but I was left without means of contact or direction at 1 AM in a Paris metro station. I waited long enough to see the last train whiz by without so much as slowing down and then I realized I had no choice but to return to the apartment...if I could find it. Thankfully I have a guardian angel and a good retention of images when I walk somewhere (I kid you not, I found my way back by looking up at apartments that I recalled looking up at before while admiring their architecture). I don't know or want to know what would have happened otherwise because I couldn't remember which street we had run from. I had also mistyped the door code in my phone and yet somehow I miraculously remembered the correct number. Sparing the gory details, I made it back safely. My host set down a well prepared set of sheets, intentionally chosen ND clothes, and a pillow on an air mattress and said "Here you go, Dubs." I thanked him, said goodnight, and when I laid down I looked at one visible star out the open dormer window until, seemingly an eternity later, I fell into a restless sleep.

One of the many times I woke up in the morning was to the sound of the MIT girls making pancakes for our hosts. It was oddly soothing to hear American voices I didn't know. It was not so soothing when they packed up and left long before I needed to get up for work. (We girls were all in the room attached to the kitchen.) I went over to the flatmate's laptop to check my messages and then went back to bed until my host came in signaling we had to leave for work soon.

Today was going to be my last day - we even went out to eat as a celebration - but even after staying late I still hadn't finished my watercolor. I opted to come in on Monday morning, finish it, and leave after lunch, rather than let my American peer finish it for me. He had offered to and I declined because I hate leaving things incomplete.

Tomorrow I am making a solo pilgrimage to Lisieux and Sunday will be really the last hurrah for Paris. We have it planned out for a post Mass visit to the Musée d'Orsay, watercoloring and a picnic on the Seine with the interns, and all sorts of fun.