Thursday, October 9, 2014


Today, the negative attitude of a stranger discouraged me. The frustration at his critique of my work stung like salt poured on an open wound. 

The greatest fear of a writer is not misspelling a word or placing a semicolon incorrectly; these are aspects of our craft which can be easily fixed. A writer's biggest fear is rejection.

Writers are strange creatures. Blank pages are our canvases, and words are our paintbrushes. We have the ability to adorn a blank piece of paper with words so intricate they can paint vivid pictures inside our readers' minds. Our brains are in constant motion, for a writer never stops writing. 

You may think I speak nonsense, yet think about this for a moment. Every instant in a writer's life may end up as inspiration in one of his or her projects. The girl on the subway who caught his attention might end up as the heroine in his next novel. The lame joke her professor told might inspire a character for her next short story. Even the taste of the coffee we drink in the morning helps us decipher how to describe the way it caresses our taste buds. Writers are always writing. Whether they take notes on paper or in their minds is a completely different story.

I do not fancy myself a particularly gifted writer. Quite on the contrary, actually. I still have much to learn about this craft I chose for myself. Whenever I think about it though, it feels more like it chose me. 

Ever since I was a little girl, writing was always something I was good at. My parents knew it. My teachers knew it. Even my friends knew it, and they usually tried to bank on this by convincing me to help with their essays.The funny thing is I never saw writing essays as boring. I never gave writing much thought; I just saw it as another form of homework.

The truth is I did not realize I wanted to pursue writing professionally until I was already 20. The memory of that day is vivid. It was a rainy, humid July afternoon. I was spending a lazy afternoon lying on my bed when a character suddenly jolted into my mind. I knew her name. I knew what she liked and what she found disgusting. I knew everything about her. The more I thought about her, the more alive her story became. New characters materialized into my mind in the same sudden way she had. There was no denying it. The story was there to stay.

My passion for writing has only grown in intensity with the years. I sometimes think of my life before my epiphany and find myself confused at what took me so long. It was right in front of me my entire life! Everyone's positive comments about my writing never made me feel one way or the other. I was used to them. Yet, had I been paying more attention, perhaps I could have started perfecting my craft at an earlier age.

Back to the man who made me feel unworthy earlier today. This man knows nothing about me or my work, for he has only read one of my pieces. He has no grounds on which to judge me. Yet, I allowed myself to feel offended by his words for a brief moment. 

Then I thought, "Why does this matter? Why do I care what he thinks?"

The answer hit me like an ice bucket from the ALS Challenge. Writers survive on what complete strangers think of their work. 

We publish our work knowing not everyone will find it amazing. In fact, we are fortunate if even one person finds it so. Most just call it 'good' and move on with their lives never thinking about it again. There is a one in a million chance that someone will use the word "life-changing" to describe a writer's work. Many of us are painfully aware of that.

Criticism is fine and accepted. Offensive comments, however, are not. Especially not from strangers. This dark side of my craft is something to which I will need to become accustomed. After allowing the stranger's comment to get to me, I snapped out of it. 

If I let every negative comment discourage me, I will never hear the words I dream of hearing from a reader someday: "Your work was life-changing for me." 

I know I have not yet written anything worthy of being called "life-changing", and that is perfectly fine. One day I will. If there is a one in a million chance of my work being called "life-changing", I will be that one in a million. It does not matter what strangers think; what I think is what matters. 

If your career choice is more sensible than mine, odds are the probability of you making your dreams come true is also much higher than mine. Therefore, if I refuse to give up, what is holding you back? Is it somebody else's opinion? Is it social norms? Whatever it is, do not let it stop you. Be that one in a hundred, one in a thousand, or even one in a million. It will not happen overnight, but if you stick with it and are persistent it will happen.

So, stranger man, you are probably not going to read this. However, in the one in a million chance that you do, I would like to thank you. Your offensive comment motivated me even more to write a piece worthy of being dubbed "life-changing".

Monday, April 7, 2014

You Owe It to Yourself

     A certain magic lingers in the air on the first morning you awake in a foreign country. Erratic noises or absolute peace may graze your ears depending on your location. Sleep dawdles on your sluggish eyelids as they blink. An unfamiliar sight forces them to snap open. Slumber swiftly drifts away upon soaking up your surroundings; this is not your room. The wall colors are off, the décor lacks any of your personal touches, and the comforts are kept to a minimum. Your back aches from the old, battered mattress. Sleeping on it for several months suddenly seems a daunting task. A stranger, or two, sleeps on a twin size bed next to your own. All you see is the rise and fall of their sleeping body.

     Tiptoeing, you head for the window. The urge to sprawl the shutters open is consuming, but maintaining civil roommate relations is crucial. Instead, you sneak a peek through the gap between the shutters.
                The sight before you is no painting.

                                  The sight before you is no picture.

                                                    The sight before you is no postcard.
     A Venetian canal adorned by caroling gondoliers in striped shirts may grace your eyes. The distant view of the glorious Eiffel Tower might be in your peripherals. Perhaps a coastline as blue as an undisturbed summer sky glints in the horizon. Ancient Roman ruins could narrate thousands of years of turbulent history. The futuristic Dubai skyline, garlanded by unique buildings, can possibly greet you. A lush jungle drenched in flawless greens could garnish your line of vision. Rio de Janeiro’s Corcovado might be concealed behind your shutters.

     Open the shutters. You owe it to yourself to mesmerize your vision with the mysterious scene.
     Whichever your foreign sight may be, liberation devours you. A new place signifies opportunities, second chances, and reinvention. Mischievous thoughts cross your scattered mind.

No one knows me here; I can be whoever I want.
     Your interactions with the locals prove culture shock is a real phenomenon. Despite your willingness to speak to them in their native tongue, they eagerly respond in English. To them, you are an opportunity to practice. To you, they are the heralds to a world in which you wish to be immersed.

     In these heralds, you find friends you never thought you needed. These people, who are uniquely different from anyone else you have ever met, are treasures you encounter along the way. Had you met them back home, you would have probably never crossed two words with them. Now it is different. That is the crucial divergence between domesticity and foreignism; you seek friendships with those who are unlike your friends at home. There is nothing wrong with your typical friends, but a journey such as this one requires the atypical. These unlikely friendships may last an afternoon, a week, or the remainder of your stay. What you do not know is that one might just last a lifetime. You will never know for sure until you annihilate your prejudices and befriend those who are different from you.
     Greet these strangers. You owe it to yourself to initiate improbable friendships.

     You will get lost. Begin by accepting it is impossible for this not to happen in a foreign place. No map or directions shall guide you to your desired destination. Obscure addresses will not be numbered in order. Roads will possess similar names which you may confuse in your lack of knowledge of the land’s language. Yet, this prospect should not concern you. Narrow, dark alleyways will create a medieval ambiance. Dead ends will force you to retrace your steps; do not consider these a waste of time, for they are second chances to see that which you may have missed. If luck allows, your quest to find a known path will lead you somewhere better than what you expected. It could be a paradisiac desolate beach, a locals-only restaurant serving paella straight from your dreams, or an unknown landmark whose beauty overshadows the most famous of sites. No guide book will lead you to these places, for you must seek them on your own.

     Allow yourself to get lost. You owe it to yourself to find these concealed treasures.
     A stranger will ensnare your heart. With a smile charming as a summer’s day, he or she will beseech your attention at every encounter. You two might bask in your mutual desires to explore these unknown lands. Perhaps this person will guide you into his or her world. Never fail to forget you are simply a guest in his or her life, as he or she is merely a guest in yours. The time you shall spend together will be brief but memorable. The impossibility of fleeing romances has a manner of etching them into our memories in unfathomable ways. A simple picture, song, or scent will one day trigger a memory reflex that will transport you to a moment in the past with that person. Yes, you will fantasize you two will beat the odds. Yes, it will end. Yes, it will hurt. Exposing your heart abroad is part of the foreign experience.

     Let him or her ensnare your heart, but make sure you ensnare his or hers too. You owe it to yourself to discover how deeply you can feel.
     One day, you will find yourself engaged in an activity beyond your remotest expectations. Never, in your entire life, you would have imagined it would come to this. A microphone shakes in your sweaty hand as you intone the first lyrics from a song in front of an audience of strangers. The humps of a camel promise a steady, but jumpy, stroll through the massive desert. Fierce raindrops drench your clothing as you walk in a storm careless at the prospect of getting sick. You jump off a plane trusting a parachute with your frail life. Never close your eyes, for you could just miss the most beguiling of sights.

     Be brave and daring. You owe it to yourself to reach the limits of your courage.
     Few experiences will allow the real you to shine its brightest. Being a foreigner in a distant land will test you in ways you may deem absurd. The simplest of actions, like crossing a street or eating with the proper utensil, become daunting tasks abroad. Familiar surroundings help form our personalities and comfort zones. Without those surroundings, the real struggle begins. One day, you stare at your reflection unable to recognize the person who boarded the plane, train, or ship. This reflection is bolder, stronger, and cleverer. Only in unfamiliarity are you able to learn of what you are capable.

     Travel to an unfamiliar land. You owe it to yourself to meet the real you.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Whitewater Terror

     "So, just to make sure y'all got everythin', what will I say when I need y'all to duck?" the lethargic guide asked.

     "Oh shit! Oh shit!" we all replied in unison showered with laughter.

     It was the second Labor Day in a row my friends and I went whitewater rafting. The two-hour drive to Tennessee's Ocoee River was a sweet trade-off for the adrenaline rush we would enjoy. Let it be known: whitewater rafting is not for the faint of heart. In fact, the previous year we had experienced a couple of scary moments, but we decided to give it another try for the sake of being adventurous.

     That year's guide was a bearded, 60-something man whose grimy appearance made me wonder when his last bath had taken place. A poignant stench followed him everywhere he went. Oversized, dingy overalls hung from the man's skinny frame. He was shirtless underneath the ghastly garment. The Confederate flag bandana tied around his head seemed hostile to us, a group of young Hispanics. Underneath the bandana, he sported a gray-haired braid. His long, dirty fingernails made even the guys squirm in horror. Whenever he spoke, prominent gaps were visible where teeth were missing. Even though his instructions were funny, his sluggish demeanor spoke of boredom at conducting a task he had performed for over 30 years. At least we knew his expertise would be useful to us in the water.

     The early September day was unnaturally cool. Goose-bumps covered my limbs as I latched on the life vest and helmet. Lush Tennessee greenery decorated the beautiful scenery. Tree branches swung from side to side in the chilly breeze. The water would doubtless be cold; this made the prospect of falling off the raft horrific.

     Adrenaline injected my veins at the mere sight of the nearby raft floating on the river. When we boarded, one of my girl friends and I sat on the second row, while two of the guys sat on the first row. The third row was occupied by two other guy friends. Our fearless guide sat at the prow of the raft beckoning us forth into the fierce river.

     Freezing droplets splashed our faces as soon as the raft entered the river. Shivers ran down my back as I reevaluated the soundness of our decision to go whitewater rafting on such a breezy day, but there was no turning back at that point. Our raft continued making its course along the rock-studded river. We paddled uncoordinatedly, which made our guide's job challenging. He, however, seemed unfazed by our abysmal paddling skills. The languid disposition in which he carried himself was almost comatose.

     "Do you think he's okay?" my friend asked after hitting her paddle against an adjacent rock.

     "I think...he might be high on something," I ventured. The guide was aware enough to give us directions as to which way to angle our bodies, yet his reactions to threats along the way lacked any real emotion. Either he had been on the brink of death repeatedly over the last three decades, or he was highly sedated.

     "Oh shit! Oh shit!" his monotone voice managed to yell. That is, if the sound his mouth emitted is allowed to be deemed as a yell. We all ducked close to the floor of the raft, as he had instructed us to do. A freezing wave struck against our exposed backs. Despite the life vest, I could feel cold water seep through to my skin.

     We sat upright immediately after the hit of the wave. My view zeroed in on the upcoming downward slope, and the beat of my heart rivaled the rhythm of a drum. We would fall off the raft. There was practically no avoiding it.

     The previous year's experience taught me the river's floor was overflowing with rocks. I even scraped my knees badly then. But, the flow of the water was significantly heavier the second time around. Fear intertwined with adrenaline coursed through my body. The fall was imminent.

     Our raft slid down the steep slope like butter on a heated pan. The jagged course it undertook shook us while we attempted to follow our guide's slurred string of directions. His intermittent yells of, "Right! Left! Right! Left!" were so ill-given that I always found myself leaning towards the wrong side. It is no simple task going through life as a somewhat uncoordinated creature.

     Suddenly, the raft swerved to the side. It was a clear consequence of our dismal paddling. Two heavyset rocks blocked the path of our raft, which was now traveling horizontally. The raft crashed against the rocks filling the gap between them with absolute precision. My friend's elbow accidentally hit my ribcage causing me to wince in pain. We were stuck.

     "Alright y'all, we got ourselves a situation in our hands," the guide's reaction remained stoic, "y'all girls gotta get off the boat so that the boys can push it outta the gap." His instructions made sense, but I felt uneasy about getting off the raft. Still, we had no choice. We all stepped out of the raft, and us girls crawled on top of the rock. With such a heavy current, it was impossible to remain standing in the water. It would have knocked us down. The guys were able to steady the raft on the water, and we continued with our adventure.

     The path in front of us seemed to have steadied for some time. We even found ourselves bored with our low-impact rafting. The guys had been hoping for a more tumultuous journey, and they were not happy at the prospect of having experienced the height of our rafting so early on. The guide continued throwing ill-timed directions our way with the occasional, "Oh shit! Oh shit!" here and there. Just when I thought our trip was coming to a safe end, a plethora of jagged rocks emerged in the horizon. Our raft was headed straight for them.

     "Umm...Jim? Don't you think we should stray away from those rocks up ahead?" I suggested to our guide.

     "Look, little lady, if I say y'all are in danger, then ya are. If not, then ya keep goin' down the same path, all right?" he responded with a country accent which would have made Dolly Parton cringe.

     One of my guy friends agreed with me, "She's right. We have to get out of the way or else we'll flip over!"

     "What'd I say? Y'all city folk got ya heads up in the clouds, I tell ya," Jim replied monotonously. The argument between the guys and our guide continued as I watched in horror the eminent approach of the rocks. Their increasing proximity made their imminent threat grow. When I realized we were definitely headed straight toward them, I urged my friends to paddle to the opposite side.

     It was too late. Our raft struck one of the rocks and flipped into the water. We were all plunged into the freezing river, which was even colder than in my wildest nightmares. Oh shit! Oh shit! Indeed.

     I tried swimming underneath the overturned raft to free myself to no avail. My body was entirely blocked by the heavy raft above me, the seats of the raft on either side of me, and the humongous rocks below me. With every bit of strength I could conjure, my arms pushed the raft up. It did not budge. My face was completely submerged in the water unless I tilted my head back. Two of my friends' voices yelled my name in desperation from the shore. They sounded distant but not unreachable. I screamed for my friends to help me at the top of my asphyxiating lungs. I had swallowed enough river water to keep me hydrated for over a day, and my breathing became heavier each instant I remained submerged.

     Using my body weight, I flipped my legs upward and kicked the stubborn raft. Again, it was immune to my efforts. Instead, I accidentally banged my head against one of the rocks next to me. Fiery pain burned my head, as it had never experienced such a sensation. The impact caused my vision to become even foggier in the murky river water. I could feel my strength waning and my consciousness slipping away. The distress in my head forced my eyes closed despite my forceful attempts at keeping them open. Panic, unlike any I had ever or have since experienced, overwhelmed me down to the tips of my hair. All I could think was: This cannot be the way I die. I refuse to waste my life like this.

     Just as the last sparks of my resolve were dying, I felt the weight of the raft release me. "Laura! Oh God, you're all right!" My eyes snapped open and were greeted by the sight of my friend's face of pure relief. He pulled me out of the water with gentle firmness, and I noticed another one of my friends was fiercely arguing with the guide. Apparently, our incompetent leader thought it would be funny to sit atop the overturned raft and ignore my cries for help. No wonder the raft was inconceivably heavy.

     My friends insulted him and did not stop short of accusing him of attempted murder. The sight of the careless guide made bile run up my throat. That is how much the man disgusted me. One of my friends hugged me consolingly, and only then did I notice my entire body was shaking. Cold and terror had intertwined to make me shiver.

     Thankfully, the accident occurred only a five-minute distance away from where we were to disembark. I remained silent as my friends continued to argue with the guide, who avoided my gaze at all costs.

     When we disembarked the raft, I was finally able to breathe again. I looked up at the trees and heard birds chirping. Two thoughts crossed my mind: I am so lucky not to have drowned and I will NEVER go whitewater rafting again.           

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The New Girl

     "No one ever likes the new girl," I told myself as my parents dropped me off at Sweetwater Middle School's registration office.
     Especially when the new girl just moved from another country and speaks heavily-accented English. What makes it worse is if the new girl's English consists of proper grammar; such a thing is never cool in the precarious world of middle school. This poor creature will also suffer dire consequences if her sense of fashion does not coordinate well with that of her new classmates. She will be friendless. She will be lonely at lunch. She will get lost trying to find her Course Exploratory class (even worse, she will wonder what on earth a Course Exploratory class is).

     Everyone has been new somewhere at one point or another in their lives. Even I had been new to another school before moving to the United States, but at least I had been in my native country. Few circumstances are more unsettling for a preteen's social stability than moving to a new country. My new home was not just any ordinary country. We were moving to the best-known country in the world. Who did not enjoy American music, cinema, or television shows? In my opinion, the best part about starting school in the U.S. was that I could finally ditch my uniforms. Eager as I was to experience all the country had to offer firsthand, moments of uncertainty disrupted my excitement.

     December 5, 2000: a date that will live in hilarity. There I was, waiting for a classmate to chaperone me to my new classroom. Until that day, I was unaware of my tendency to sing Disney songs in my head to battle nervousness. The second verse of "Hakuna Matata" played in my mind when the administrator's impossibly high-pitched voice shook my focus. "Laura, here is your classmate!"

     I don't know if my slow, dramatic turn was due to nervousness or to my telenovela addiction. But, I immediately regretted my childish fashion choices upon seeing my classmate. She donned a skin-tight shirt along with even tighter rhinestone-embroidered jeans. Her face was covered in makeup, and all I had ever worn up until that point was lip gloss. However, the clothes and makeup were nothing in comparison to the difference in our hairstyles. Highlights sprinkled all over hers, while mine was in pigtails. Yes, pigtails. Don't judge me; 6th grade Colombian girls wore pigtails all the time in the year 2000. It's not my fault today's 6th graders take inappropriate selfies and post them online. Times were very different back then.

     Despite our obvious differences, my classmate turned out to be very nice. She was also Colombian, so at least that gave us some common ground. As we wound through the hallways, I could not help but compare it to a labyrinth. Every passageway looked the same to me: yellow walls, white tiles, and those ghastly fluorescent lights that could suck the life out of a rambunctious toddler. There was nothing distinguishing about any of the school's corners. I will wander these hallways forever lost, I thought.

     We reached a windowless, wooden door. My classmate turned the doorknob with no hesitation. There is no doubt my eyes jumped out of their sockets, for the sight upon me was straight out of a movie. A paper airplane landed right next to the doorway where we stood. I wasn't sure if it had been aimed at me, or if its pilot lost control. Kids were all over the room. They stood, talked, and even sang. Book bags were sprawled in disarray all over the brown carpet. A female teacher stood at the very front of the room attempting to fetch her students' attention. Her efforts were lost in the commotion. This class was as opposite to my previous classrooms as humanly possible. In my old school, we would have to sit in silence the entire class unless we raised our hands. Whenever an adult entered the class, standing up to greet them in unison was the norm. Our book bags were always stacked neatly beneath our seats, and paper airplanes were absolutely out of the question. I actually pitied the teacher who had to be responsible for such unruly children. Her eyes seemed at an utter loss behind round glasses. 

     "Hey, everyone!" The girl who led me to the classroom yelled. All heads snapped in our direction. Funny how all this girl had to do to get the attention of the class was yell, and the teacher couldn't even get the kids to acknowledge her existence. "Hey guys! This is Laura, the new girl," my classmate continued. Murmurs spread throughout the room as my new classmates took me in.
     It's official. I'm the new girl. They're scrutinizing every aspect of me. 

   As a preteen, one of the most dreaded moment is walking into class once everyone has been settled in for a while. This awful feeling is only intensified by being the new girl. Eyes fixated on me from every angle of the class. I might as well have been a brightly-dressed clown in the midst of a funeral for all the stares I received. Why yes, I'm Bozo the Clown and have arrived for your entertainment. Would you like me to dribble some water balloons?

     "Welcome, Laura. I'm Ms. Garrett. Please, come to the front of the class so you can tell us about yourself," my new teacher casually suggested. Ms. Garrett might as well have asked me to strip in front of the entire class for the panic I felt. Anxiety pinched every single one of my nerves. My classmates parted like the Red Sea to create a path leading me to the front of the classroom.

     As I stood in front of my new classmates, my mind became frazzled. In an instant, I had forgotten every English word I knew. Yet somehow I found my voice, "My name is Laura Diaz. I just moved here from Colombia-"

     "South Carolina?" A cute boy sitting in the front row interrupted me. He was the personification of the typical North American boy according to stereotypes in Colombia. His eyes were as blue as a cloudless sky. Golden locks adorned his head like rays of sunlight. Deeply-pronounced dimples danced on his cheeks. The friendly way in which he regarded me weakened my knees.

     "South America," I replied shyly in my heavily-accented English.

     Brad Pitt (as I had already nicknamed him in my head) shot me a dazzling smile, "Oh wow, that's really cool!"
     Wonderful. I had been in class a total of three minutes and was already harboring a crush on the Brad Pitt lookalike.  

     Once my moment in the spotlight ended, I proceeded to take the first empty seat I found. My entrance seemed to have quieted the class, for Ms. Garrett was then able to continue with her lecture. I had arrived smack in the middle of Language Arts. After listening to Ms. Garrett for a few minutes, I was astounded at the material covered in 6th grade Language Arts. We were learning about conjunctions; my 4th grade class covered this back in Colombia. A smile crawled onto my face as I realized the advantage this would give me to earn high grades.

     Lunch arrived shortly thereafter. It had always been one of my favorite parts of the school day. However, I had no idea with whom I would sit. The thought abandoned my mind as soon as I saw what was offered for lunch at the cafeteria. My eyes gazed over burgers, pizzas, and hotdogs. I blinked several times to ensure my sight didn't deceive me. In Colombia, our school lunches consisted of 'normal food'; this usually meant rice, beans, chicken, steak, vegetables, etc. I chose a burger for my first meal. It didn't seem as appetizing at all.

     Contrary to what I originally expected, a group of girls asked me to sit with them. Their genuine curiosity about my life in Colombia flattered me. When I asked them about Recess, they looked at me as if I had spoken in Russian. "Recess?" One of them asked in puzzlement, "Only kids in elementary school get Recess." My world was shattered by that simple statement. Recess was a crucial time in every kid's school day in Colombia, from kindergarten to graduation. There were no age restrictions for a well-deserved break from classes during the day. When I explained this to the girls, they simply stared in awe.

     On our way back to class, I heard murmurs coming directly from behind me. I didn't let it bother me; by then, I was used to my 'new girl' status. Then, a daring hand grabbed my butt shamelessly. I jumped in consternation. Appalled, I turned around to face the pervert.

     Never had any boy touched me in an inappropriate area of my body before. The most I had ever done was play the occasional game of Spin the Bottle. Rage drenched me like a fierce waterfall. My enraged eyes must have given away my mood, for fear washed over the idiotic boy's face as I stared at him. At an impulse, I slapped him hard across the face. I blame my dramatic reaction on years of telenovela viewership. The shocked boy held his reddened cheek as his brown eyes popped out of their sockets.

     "Kevin, what the hell?" The voice came from the Brad Pitt lookalike, who apparently had witnessed the whole shameful incident. My cheeks flushed in raw embarrassment. The attacker, as I had angrily nicknamed him, seemed intimidated by Brad Pitt. I have never been the damsel in distress type, always preferring to be my own knight in shining armor. Still, my heart skipped a beat at Brad's chivalry. The boys argued for a few moments until Ms. Garrett interrupted.

     "What's going on here?" she demanded with the voice only a teacher can invoke.

     "Ms. Garrett, he touched me on my..." Crap! I had no idea how to say 'butt' in English. I knew it wasn't 'tail' because that seemed too animal-like. Ms. Garrett stared at me expectantly waiting for me to continue. I scrambled for a word, but failed miserably. The only solution I came up with was to simply point at my butt. At this gesture, Ms. Garrett gasped dramatically. She took my attacker aside for punishment. I didn't like being a tattletale, but I was simply too offended to let it go.

     "Are you okay, Laura?" Brad asked me.

     "Yes, thank you very much for that," I answered with blood flooding my cheeks. "What is your name?"

     "I'm Dylan, and I'm from Columbia, South Carolina, which is why I asked you earlier," he produced an adorable chuckle. Dylan. So, his name obviously wasn't Brad Pitt. Still, Dylan was the name of my favorite character on Beverly Hills 90210, and this Dylan was even cuter than that one. We continued walking together as he asked me about my life in Colombia. Fascination dressed his face in response to all of my answers.

     Maybe being the new girl wasn't such a terrible thing, after all.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ma'am, Mean Girls, and Other Quarter-Life Crisis Quirks

     "Excuse me, ma'am, do you have the time?" a female adolescent voice chimed near me. Nobody answered the young girl. Well, I thought, the lady she is talking to is obviously rude. "Ma'am?" the girl asked again, this time her voice sounded closer to me.

     I froze. Wait a minute, is she talking to ME? But, I'm not a 'ma'am'.

     My head snapped in the girl's direction. There she was, a teenage girl wearing way more makeup than should be acceptable for someone her age and donning an outfit revealing enough skin for Mardi Gras pre-beads. Her round, green eyes looked at me expectantly. She did not blink once. The stare said, Yes, idiot. I mean YOU. I begrudgingly gave her the time, and then she walked away leaving me in a state of anxiety.


     The word echoed in my mind like a bad catchy pop song. It reverberated through every inch of me causing panic. I heard it in the car, in the shower, in my nightmares, at work, everywhere.'am-ma'am-ma'am-ma'am-ma'am-ma'am-ma'am-ma'am-ma'am-ma'am-ma'am... 

     How silly is it that all it takes is one seemingly insignificant word to undo the screws of your mental sanity. I used to see that word as a symbol of Southern manners. In fact, I used it all the time at my job to refer to any woman older than me. I never stopped to think just how strange that word might make a woman in her 30's feel. Some customers corrected me when I used the word 'ma'am' by asking me to just refer to them by name. I remember in high school, some of my friend's 'cool moms' would ask me to call them by their first name as well. They would flinch at my use of the word 'ma'am'. I never understood their apprehensiveness until now.

     That teenage girl singlehandedly turned me into a 'ma'am'. Who did she think she was? Her with the poorly mixed makeup and questionable fashion choices. Before she knows it, she too will be a 'ma'am' in a younger person's eyes.

     This foreign phenomenon gained momentum rather quickly. All of a sudden, teenage customers at my job called me 'ma'am' spontaneously. A glance at their dates of birth proved they were born in the mid to late 90's. I was not even a decade older than them, and yet they insisted on using that atrocious term to refer to me. I have since learned to correct these thoughtless teenagers by telling them to refer to me as 'miss'. It seems a much more appropriate title for someone my age. They, too, will understand one day.

     Then, I started thinking about my age. Those of us born in the late 80's and very early 90's are swiftly reaching a quarter of a century. I have yet to reach mine, but it will be here before I know it. Many of my friends have already passed that milestone, as much as they would like to forget it.

     When did this happen? When did we leave behind the days when any mistake we made could be justified by a simple, "You're young. It's fine to mess up"? Nowadays, it is more like, "You're 20-something, and you STILL don't have your life totally figured out?"

     Last thing I remember, I was a careless, metabolically gifted teenager who could apply a Mean Girls quote to nearly any situation. Two of those are no longer true. I am not careless, and to stay thin I have to watch everything I eat. Slowing metabolisms are part of the aging deal. However, I still use Mean Girls quotes when no other words suffice. 

     By the way, Mean Girls will turn a decade this April. Yes, the movie which defined our late 80's/early 90's generation (don't lie guys, you know you love it too) is almost ten years old. It is slightly traumatizing to realize that expressions such as: 'so fetch', 'is butter a carb?', 'word vomit', 'I want my pink shirt back!', and, my personal favorite, 'she doesn't even go here!' have been around for ten years. If you weren't feeling old before, I guarantee I just changed that.

     Realizing your favorite television shows from when you were younger ceased to exist a decade ago is another painful wakeup call. Boy Meets World ended 14 years ago. A sequel of the show, Girl Meets World, is currently under production and will focus on Cory and Topanga's teenage daughter. Lizzie McGuire ended 10 years ago, and our beloved Lizzie (one of the few child stars from our generation who didn't go nuts) is now married and has a child. Hey Arnold! also ended 10 years ago, yet we never got to find out if Helga finally got her beloved football-head. Dragon Ball Z's situation remains murky to me, but I will never stop crushing on Goku. (Yes, I just admitted to crushing on a cartoon character. Some of my other cartoon platonic crushes include Darien from Sailor Moon, Hercules, and Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid.)

     Yet another terrifying discovery I made, shortly after my realization that I was now a 'ma'am', is the fact that the children in my life are all grown up. We all have a younger sibling or cousin who now has a deeper voice, is dealing with acne, or who wears a mask of makeup (like the oh so nice girl who broke the news that I am now a 'ma'am). When I was a teenager, my little cousin would always listen in on my 'private' phone conversations. He is now himself engaging in 'private' conversations, except those are mainly through text messages. Did I also mention that text messages were a very new concept in our high school years? It was all about calling someone's house phone and that awkward moment when you had to talk to their parents. This does nothing to increase our comfort in terms of facing our age.

     Those of us who are lingering around our quarter lives also deal with anxiety in terms of what the future holds. At this point, we have been out of college for some time. I have found many people from my generation are unable to find jobs in their fields because of the recession. We feel duped. The deal was that all we had to do was go to college to land an amazing job. That deal seems to have gone down the toilet along with several banks' reputations. Job hunting is now entirely about networking and luck. Yes, a degree obviously helps and is necessary for many fields, but it doesn't guarantee a job will be found right after graduation.

     Despite all these quirks of reaching our quarter lives, there are actually some benefits to this age. We are still young enough to get away with some things, but old enough to know better. We have stopped caring about what others think is 'cool' and just focus on what we want to do. We realize now that although partying is fun, sometimes all you need is a bottle of wine and Netflix to have a good night. We are the first generation in which people are often not considered 'real adults' until they turn 30; this gives us leeway to make a few more mistakes along the way, if we absolutely must.

     I will not let a word define me. If I do not consider myself a 'ma'am' yet, then no one else should either. I could have an entire school bus of teenagers chasing me yelling 'Ma'am!' from the windows, and it still wouldn't change my mind.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Köszönöm, Budapest! Part Három (3)

     Cold. Icy. Frigid.

     I could continue for ages about the daggers of ice stabbing me to death on that freezing March afternoon. No amount of layers was adequate. Two pairs of pants, two thick sweaters, a winter coat, a hat, gloves, and even earmuffs (Who wears earmuffs anymore? Apparently, I do) proved insufficient to battle the hostile Hungarian winter.

     And yet, everyone around me seemed so unaffected by it all. I guess humans are, after all, creatures of adaptation. Unfortunately, I would not be in Budapest long enough to adapt to its extreme cold.
     Despite the weather and the fact that I still had not found my way back to the condo, I was enjoying every facet of Budapest. The city's gothic architecture was splashed with contemporaneity creating a rare, underrated jewel. Throughout my trek, I discovered the name of the city is actually compound reflecting its division. Buda is the older part, while Pest is the more modern sector. The two parts are connected by the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. It is a magnificent suspension bridge hovering over the River Danube. Pairs of tongue-less, stone lions adorn each end of the bridge. I longed to cross to the Buda side, but knew that would severely derail me from my mission of finding the condo.

     A quaint souvenir shop in a corner caught my attention. I figured I might as well buy some mementos while there was a chance. A surge of warm air welcomed me into the small store. Speakers blared a melody composed of vivid violin strings. The notes actually made me want to dance even though I was oblivious to the meaning behind the lyrics.

     The store clerk uttered, what I assumed to be, a greeting. I simply smiled and waved in response. How lame it is not to be able to communicate properly, I thought as I gazed at some postcards. After deciding on a couple of them, I directed myself to the counter. The clerk pointed at the screen on the register to signal what I owed her. As I rummaged through my leather wallet to pay her with exact change, a bright pink Post-it note slipped from one of the openings. Well this is further proof of my idiocy, I grunted inwardly.

     How ironic it is that you can completely forget you have the answer to your problems right in your wallet. The answer to my problems came in the form of a long-forgotten piece of paper.

     Unfolding the note proved my suspicion to be accurate: it contained my friend's cell number. Too bad my phone was dead; this was a mission for my awful Hungarian communication skills.

     I paid the clerk while smiling. She did not even glance up to meet my eyes. Her concentration was focused on a tiny television broadcasting a Hungarian daytime drama. To be honest, the show looked kind of good. Its quality definitely rivaled that of Hispanic telenovelas. Focus, I scolded myself, get the lady's attention.

     "Köszönöm!" I exclaimed a little too loudly as my hands waved in the air. The clerk barely even blinked. I guess the show really is good, I granted.

     There had to be a way to shift her attention away from the TV. I desperately needed to use her phone. The cordless was nestled just behind her. So close, yet so out of my reach. Think, Laura, think. Why was it my incapacities felt entirely exposed just because I could not communicate?

     A high-pitched shout emerged from me, "Köszönöm!" I then proceeded to twirl to the stringy tune of the violin. She had to notice me dancing around the store like an idiot. This lady would think I was either the most grateful or the most annoying customer she had ever encountered. Still, her eyes did not wander from the drama for even an instant.

     My hopes dwindled, but I refused to surrender. She would let me borrow her phone. An absurd idea sparked in my mind. Embarrassing, but promising. If she did not dart her eyes away from the TV with this, then I did not know to what lengths I would possibly sink.

     I swung my arms and legs in jumping jack motions while singing, "Köszönöm! Köszönöm! Köszönöm!"

     At this, the lady finally looked up at me. Of course, the moment I decide to make a bumbling fool out of myself would be the precise instant more customers walk into the store. Childish giggles flew from the doorway accompanied by what sounded like an adult holding back laughter. I was sure a video of me acting like a fool would eventually pop up on YouTube.

     I had a mantra for embarrassing circumstances I encountered abroad: Who cares? You will never see these people again!

     This mantra liberated me, but the momentary embarrassment was still raw.

     The lady gaped at me dumbfounded with her mouth shaped into a perfect 'O'. I stopped jumping to savor my victory. My index finger and thumb formed the sign for 'phone' as I held them to my ear. The clerk laughed as she mumbled something in Hungarian. She then handed me the phone. I swear the "Hallelujah" song sounded off triumphantly in my head.

     Four dial tones later, my friend answered the phone, "Hello?"

     "Hey! Where are you guys? You totally abandoned me!"

     Relief washed over my friend's voice, "Laura! Oh my gosh, I'm so glad you're okay! We all got separated by the crowd in the bakery. I kept on calling you, but your phone jumped to voicemail."

     I sighed, "It died. I know, I know, how unprepared of me to let my phone die in a foreign country. Are all four of you together?"

     She then informed me one of my friends was also wandering around the city as she tried to find the condo. At least she had a working phone, so her quest was not as difficult as mine. My friend told me which train number to take and gave me directions to reach the condo.

     I returned the cordless to the store clerk and said, "Köszönöm!" in a real grateful tone this time. The lady's smile conveyed an apology; this small gesture reminded me of the importance of body language during nonverbal communication. I shot her a thankful smile and waved.

     Cold weather enveloped me as soon as I walked out of the store. This time, though, it did not slice through me like a sharp knife. I was ecstatic at being reunited with my friends again. The metro station was simple to find. From there, it took me a mere 15 minutes to arrive at our condo.

     That night, the five of us decided to explore the city's famed nightlife. We started the evening at a bar near the condo. The pub's archaic décor offered a striking contrast to the area's modernity. Still, a live band covered well-known English songs with a unique Hungarian twist. We sipped on cocktails, shots, and Hungarian beer to warm up from the night's bitter cold. After relishing in drinks and dancing for a couple of hours, we moved our party to a coveted underground nightclub.

     The plastic flapped-door was sketchy at best. As we crossed the entrance, a couple of the flaps smacked us on the faces. Apparently, this club was more underground than we thought. A winding staircase led us downstairs to a dark, crowded room. Powerful bass thumped from the speakers situated in each corner of the club. Partygoers pranced around the room festively. It was simple for us to join in the celebration. We were young. We were in a foreign city. And, we were glad to notice Hungarian men were stunningly attractive. This is a very well-kept secret, I thought to myself as a group of handsome men made their way toward us. We spent the rest of the night delighted to dance the cold away.

     The moment for which I had been yearning had arrived. Relaxation in the form of a steamy wonderland. The glorious Széchenyi Thermal Baths greeted us. It boasts a total of 18 baths; 15 are indoor pools, while 3 are outdoor. Each bath varies in temperature ranging from around a frigid 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) to a steaming 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit). We started by trying several different indoor baths and were heavily rewarded by the alleviation it provided to our weather-beaten bodies. I steered clear of the coldest pools; there was no point in soaking myself in freezing water. If I wanted to feel cold, all I had to do was step outside.

     The beauty of the large outdoor bath taunted us. Through the glass doors from which we stood, the bath resembled the pool of a luxurious tropical resort. Although, we very well knew the temperatures outside were nothing but freezing. People walked past us in their bathing suits, braving the low temperature, just to enjoy the outdoor bath. Its water was, after all, a boiling 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, the temperature outside was below freezing. To soak ourselves in that thermal bath, we would have to run down a long flight of stairs in our bikinis and walk a not-so-long distance. Still, that not-so-long distance would seem eternal while semi-naked in below freezing weather.

     That is when it hit me.

     What is the point of going to a whole new place if you fail to experiment?
     What sort of memories can you hope to create without a sense of adventure?
     What is a little cold once you get to try something for which you have yearned?

     Don't be a wimp. A little shiver won't kill you. 

     I pulled my friend's hand, and the five of us created a chain of arms. We ran down the stairs careful not to fall. My body barely noticed the indecently low temperature to which I was exposing it. I credit adrenaline for that perk.

     A whole new type of shiver crawled through me when my feet entered the steaming bath. I slowly submerged the rest of my body into the inviting waters. Only my head remained above the surface. The contrast of cold and hot at once was a magically rare feeling.

     This is what heaven on earth feels like.  

     As I basked in that amazing moment, one particular phrase ran through my mind:

                                                   "Köszönöm, Budapest, Köszönöm!"

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Köszönöm, Budapest! Part Két (2)

     The lady’s fiery glare scorched through my conscience. Her lips moved fervently, yet I could neither understand nor even hear a word she said. My mind spun at a million miles per second. Everyone surrounding me spoke in Hungarian, so my brain made no effort to distinguish between the unfamiliar syllables. The plethora of faces surrounding me meshed into a gigantic blob of unrecognizable colors. I have to get out of here, I thought to myself. 
     Suddenly, a man wearing an apron pierced through the crowd as he yelled at the bystanders. The ferocity of the horde's clamors subsided at a steady pace. Though I still found myself in the midst of the commotion, the older man's presence created a sense of protection within me. The lady's scowl followed me, but I decided to return to my previous focus: fulfilling my chocolaty craving. Once that small issue was resolved, I could proceed to find my friends, who I had no doubt were outside.

     The crowd formed unruly lines which the cashiers were somehow able to decipher. When it was finally my turn to order, a majestic chocolate delicacy taunted me from a nearby display. Its fluffiness rivaled that of the softest cloud. The rich chocolate color dressing it conveyed its flavor. Syrup flowed from its top to the white plate. I had to have it. 

     Why is my speech romantic as I describe a dessert, you ask? I suffer from a severe chocolate addiction. It is the source of one of my many guilty pleasures. 

     My luck changed during my brief exchange with the cashier. She might have been more accustomed to clueless tourists than the rest of the general population, so she did not complicate our conversation. I simply pointed at the decadent cake and read the screen on the register to know how much I owed her. She did speak a few words to me, but my complete lack of Hungarian language knowledge had deemed me mute. After she gave me the plate, I threw her a grateful smile and walked towards the door.

     The cold air stiffened my face like an ice blanket upon exiting the bakery. I struggled to maintain my resolve to ignore the daggers of ice stabbing me, but this cold was unlike any I had ever before experienced. The oddest factor was the brightness with which the sun shone. Its golden radiance could have fooled anyone into stepping outside with a mere t-shirt. Yet, there I was freezing to death with a thick coat and two pairs of pants. I could not help but wonder for how long I would have to wait on my friends.

     I anxiously dug into my chocolate cake. Each bite was as delicious as my sweetest dreams and most bitter of nightmares. Such exquisiteness seemed impossible to resist, and yet I was incapable of enjoying it to the fullest extent for some reason. Apprehension convulsed my nerves. Something was wrong. I had been outside for about ten minutes, and none of my friends had appeared from inside the bakery.

     Could they have left without me? Fear and denial battled each other within me. No, I thought, they must still be inside. I decided to go back into the bakery and dive into the crowd to look for them. The mass had changed but not shrunk. At least my paranoid attacker was nowhere in sight. I covered each corner in that bakery looking for my friends; they were not to be found. Walking out again, I yelled all of their names into the street as bystanders threw me baffled looks. Oh my God. They really are gone. And these people think I'm insane.

     I took the only reasonable course of action a lost girl in a foreign city could have taken: I panicked.

     Countless questions plagued my restless mind.
             Did they forget about me?
             Is this some sick prank?
             Did they get abducted?

     As absurd as it may seem, scenes from the movie Taken ran through my memory. Except the probability of four girls getting abducted all at once seemed pretty slim. I knew something extreme had to have happened to force them to leave me.  

     At this point, I had not seen them in over half an hour. They could have been anywhere in the unknown city. But, where? Even if I knew where they were, how would I get there? The signs in the metro stations were ALL in Hungarian, and so far I had not had the best luck in terms of finding someone who spoke any of the languages I do.

     I realized then my only choice was to try and find my way back to our condo. That is, if I could remember the way from which we came. We had taken so many turns throughout our path that I did not remember the exact way back. At least I knew I was still in Pest, which was the same side of the city in which our condo was located. Now I just had to walk.

     Each step I took soothed me. This was not the first time I had been alone in a foreign city. True, I was able to properly communicate all the previous times, so I focused instead on the beauty of Budapest. For this city was truly splendid. I longed to drown in its beauty to never forget a single detail, miniscule as it may have seemed.

     Upon turning a corner, I instantly knew this was not the right path to the condo. I had never seen that which stood before me at that moment. Forgetting such a sight would have been impossible.

     A magnificent building graced my view. Its walls were patterned with an intricate design. Two towers dashed from the edifice into the sky above. A dome donning golden ornaments adorned the top of each tower. Before me stood the Dohány Street Synagogue.
     A small voice in my head urged me to continue the search for our condo. But, the ceaselessly curious wanderer within me yelled at the top of her lungs to explore the synagogue. She (but really, I) threw every possible argument against the small, safe voice:
                            1. Your friends are not abducted
                          2. You've never been inside a synagogue
                           3. You might never come back to Budapest
                               (And my personal favorite lie...)
                            4. You won't take that long in there
     The splendor of the synagogue's interior overtook me. Rows upon rows of wooden benches lined the right and left sides of the synagogue. A myriad of lamps glowed hanging from the embellished ceiling. The end of the aisle led to an opulent organ. The wanderer within me was pleased beyond a shadow of doubt.
      I continued exploring the massive synagogue beyond its area of worship. Curiosity led me to the Holocaust Memorial Park in the rear courtyard of the synagogue.
     A peculiar weeping willow stood proud in the middle of the courtyard. The tree's singularity enticed me to close the distance between us. Its silver leaves sparkled under the sun. Upon taking a careful look, I noticed each metallic leaf had a unique engraving on it: a name and a number. I realized then those leaves contained the names and tattoo numbers of Holocaust victims.
     Shivers crawled through my spine, yet they were unrelated to the low temperature.
     Each name listed on the tree represented a person murdered. A hope extinguished. A life eliminated.
     An inscription in the Holocaust Memorial stated the Nazis murdered at least 400,000 Hungarian Jews. 
     Four hundred thousand people murdered.
     Four hundred thousand hopes extinguished.
     Four hundred thousand lives eliminated.
     I was incapable to fathom what such a number entailed. 
     "Quite the infamy, isn't it?" a husky voice shook away my melancholic daze. I turned to find an elderly man regarding me with kind eyes.
     "How could the world allow this to happen?" I asked him. Something about the man made me feel comfortable enough to ask him such a question. I noticed then the kindness in his eyes concealed a profound anguish.
     "When one is not the sufferer of a great tragedy, it is easier to turn a blind eye to the circumstances than to face the adversities they bring about," his wrinkled hand fumbled on a particular leaf from the weeping willow. 
     My voice sounded unrecognizable to my own ears, "All my years of history studies have taught me one terrible truth: genocide has been a part of the world and it will continue to be. There's always someone ready to extinguish entire groups of people for the simplest of reasons." 
     The man's fingers lingered on the same leaf, "One must not lose hope in the eventual redeeming of the human race. She would not have wanted me to lose hope." At the man's mention of a 'she', my eyes scanned the leaf he held. The name 'Tikva' was encrypted on the metal. A number accompanied her name, though it did not gain my attention. I solely focused on her name.
     "Can I ask how you knew her?"
     His ageless eyes watered as they stared at the leaf, "She was my wife. We were newlyweds when she was taken from me. Today would have been her 90th birthday." A lump constricted my throat. For a moment, I could see them. This elderly man, who stood before me, and his wife.
                                      Eternally together.

     All of those possibilities had been ripped from them before they even had a chance to dream of a future together. Sentimentalism for this stranger engulfed me; I gave him a consoling hug as tears quietly slid down my frosty cheeks. 
     I had never hugged a stranger before. But then again, this trip had proven to grant me many firsts.
     The man's eyes glistened when we let go, "Do you know why I still hold hope for the human race?" I shook my head in a silent response. "Because of people like you, who are young but still understand the suffering of others. And also because, " he smiled, "the name 'Tikva' means hope. I must honor her somehow."
     We continued a conversation about his wife. I sensed he had no one else to talk to, for he eagerly shared with me details of her personality. Never was I bored or confused at such a happening. Tikva sounded like a lovely girl. Yes, a girl. For she was only 20 when she was murdered.
     When it was time for the man to part, I thanked him for sharing his story with me. It is unusual for a stranger to tell another such private details of his life, and yet he trusted me with his most prized memories.
     "Köszönöm," he answered.
     "I'm sorry?"
     "It means 'thank you'. Köszönöm for listening to this old man ramble," he called back to me as he walked away.
     That is how I learned my one and only Hungarian word.