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!"