Another excerpt from what I’m currently working on:

February 14th, 2006

Viktor,

I don’t know how I can be writing this to you, but I feel like I must. Today was her favorite day; she loved the idea of people telling each other that they loved them. That was her dream, for people to tell each other that they loved each other and to mean it and act like it.

My brother thinks that I must be crazy, to be writing to you, but I felt like things needed to be said, even after what I said to you at the trial. You see, I feel like I need to let you know that I have truly forgiven you. I almost say it with gritted teeth, because thinking about you and about her still brings bitter tears to my eyes. But I do, I forgive you.

When you live as long as I have (82 years old in January), you learn a few important things. One of those things is that it’s easier to hate than to love. Another thing is that the easy thing to do usually isn’t the right one. When I was holding onto all of my hate for you, it made me feel like someone else, I certainly wasn’t being me. The resentment that I held for you fermented and became something like poison inside of me. I could feel it touching every part of my life, the things that I loved to do I couldn’t stand doing anymore. I have always been an optimistic man, but I felt myself change, I felt the light exit my life. I saw her face everywhere, I saw your face everywhere too. I couldn’t escape the memories and I felt the last bit of youth fade from my image.

When I looked in the mirror on my eighty-second birthday, I didn’t see the happy, young, fit old man that I was used to seeing. I saw a greying, grizzled, ugly old man, the kind that yells at kids to get off of their lawn. I didn’t like what I saw there and I realized, at eight two, I needed to change. That starts now, with you knowing that I forgive you, truly, honestly, wholly. I couldn’t call myself a Christian if I didn’t forgive you, hell, I couldn’t call myself myself if I didn’t forgive you. It doesn’t make what happened right and it doesn’t erase that I don’t get to see her every like I did less than a year ago. But I couldn’t live with myself if I held onto hate while I’ve preached my whole life to replace hate with love.

How are you doing in there, Viktor? I’ve only ever driven past Connell, I’ve never seen the place where you are. Have you made friends there? What’s the life like that you’ve left behind in Spokane? I only know what I read in the papers.

I’m sorry for all these questions, is it too much? If it is, please don’t respond to them if you don’t want to.

God bless,

Charlie

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Tea Time!


  

So it’s only Tuesday and I’m already dreaming about brunch. That’s ok, right?

Last Sunday, my roommate and I decided to have an impromptu tea party – complete with delicious plantain bread, blueberry scones, coffee and, of course, tea! The best part of all is that these sweet treats are (relatively) healthy. So maybe not a-scone-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away kind of healthy but more the replaced-butter-with-yogurt kind of healthy. Still counts in my book.

Why oh why can’t brunch be and every day kind of thing?

Plantain bread recipe from here*.

Blueberry scone recipe from here**.

*replaced the sugar with honey and the butter with a Greek yogurt/canola oil mix

**replaced the butter with a Greek yogurt/canola oil mix and did not brush the top with egg

Five o’clock in Rome

 

It is five o’clock in Rome and we are boarded on a train – our suitcases and backpacks scattered about the second-class train carriage in the hopes of warding off potential cabin mates. It didn’t work. So now we are three in a cabin: my friend, me and a dapper Italian woman who, I must assume, chose our cabin because we were so spread out and thus unlikely to attract any other passengers. Better sit with two haggard-looking American girls than five unknowns, I suppose.

It is five-oh-five in Rome and I am thinking about the time I have spent in this magical city. No, magical is not quite the correct word for such a place – majestic, perhaps, or grand or extravagant – but not magical. Magic implies simplicity, a slight of hand, a kind of hidden wonder and Rome is truthfully none of these things. It is big, it is towering, it is a peacock strutting proudly in front of any visitor who happens to find themselves on her marbled streets. Our party of three has now blossomed to a crowded six, our luggage now stowed uncomfortably in our cramped space, the woman seems to have been joined by her posse, who seem to not particularly enjoy the fact that two haggard-looking American girls are crashing their commute home.

It is five twelve in Rome and the train is now pulling away from the station. The streets ripple by, walls covered in graffiti and people walking in that slow Italian way that had me letting out a steady flow of curses when I was unlucky enough to be caught behind them. Rome was, again, a strange mix of wonders for me: it was mostly grand and loud and majestic but it was also, at times, confusing and overwhelming and in-my-face.

I am finding that this is how I have been experiencing the places that I’ve been so far on my grand tour:

I love them, I hate them, I am indifferent to them, I come to peace with their reality, I love them again.

A cycle, I think, that seems to be true for most things that I encounter in my life. Whether it be a class, a person, a book, a film, a song – my way of navigating what I like and dislike in this world are rooted in initial extremes and an eventual middling out as I find the compromises and justifications, the excuses and rationalisations that are so necessary to make as one navigates their way through the diverse situations that life often throws their way.

It is strange that I say that I settle on love in my cycle. I read it back to myself and wonder if I should change it – I certainly do not love every place that I’ve been, book that I’ve read, film that I’ve watched, person that I’ve met. But something keeps me from hitting

COMMAND + X

and erasing the statement from the white blinking page and, soon, from my own memory.

I think there is something beautiful about examining a thing, understanding it, accepting it and still disliking it. It brings more meaning to the things that are fully examined, understood, accepted and then are loved. That balance brings beauty – the fact that opposites exist at all is beautiful and the knowledge that they also happen to be perceived slightly differently by every human is even more amazing.

If opposites did not exist, if there were not things to be loved and disliked in equal measure, how boring life would be – how meaningless our sentiments would become! When we tell somebody that we love them, it only bears meaning with the mutual knowledge that we also harbour hatred and dissention and conflict and that amid all of that, we feel this love and passion and zeal and we choose to spend our time and effort tending to those things.

So when I notice that I go to these far-off places and feel everything that I’ve felt – these strange and confusing mixes of love and hate and indifference and bewilderment and passion and beauty and pain and struggle and accomplishment and contentment – I no longer am worried that I am not experiencing my travels as I am meant be. I know that without the uncomfortable feelings, the ones that wrap me up in a warm embrace would not feel quite so comforting.

It is five fifty six in Rome and I am

happy and sad and tired and lethargic and energetic and wilful and in pain and strong and beautiful and worn out and passionate and sleepy and bumbling and in love and in love and in love

the jumble is what makes me human – what makes the happiness so wide, the sadness so deep and the love so lovely. The jumble means that I’m learning, that I’m feeling, that I’m seeing, that I’m doing.

The jumble means I’m alive.

A Knowledge of Nothing

I remember the first time that I went to Dante’s. My friends and I had heard about it from past study abroaders. “Stop right there,” We said collectively one Skype session, our friends relaying to us details of a place in Florence that served free wine to students, so long as they ordered an entrée. “You had us at ‘free wine’.” And so we ventured out onto the darkened cobblestoned streets one night, dressed in what-we-thought-were Florentine essentials: black skinny jeans, Italian leather boots, a flouncy sheer tank and topped off with a leather jacket. We were giggly clientele. We flirted with the wait staff, winked at the table of students next to us, stumbled on home, stopping in on a few discotecas and pubs on our way. We woke up the next morning with clear heads and bright eyes. We laced up our sneakers, went to classes and did it all over again. Every day, every week, every month passed like this until it was time to pack up my pink suitcase, board a plane and cross the Atlantic.

It is eight o’clock in the morning on September the twenty fourth. Florentine traffic pounds by outside of the open hostel window. The room is musty, the smell of mold so faint that I wonder if I’m only imagining it. It is silent in the sixteen-person dorm. The four girls lay face down on their bunks, legs peeking out of white sheets, escaping the heat while maintaining some sort of imagined privacy. The two boys in the half-empty dormitory flout the small amount of privacy we are afforded, sprawled on top of their sheets in their tight boxer briefs. The room is illuminated by the dusty sunlight that manages its way inside, tumbling over buildings and twisting around windowsills just to touch the dirty concrete floor. The glow from my laptop screen casts a slightly garish blue light onto my face and the wall behind me. I click the small sun icon on my keyboard to turn the bright blaze down to a dull burn. I begin to write: “Oof. What a night out in Florence…” Hoping that the gentle pattering of my fingers on the keyboard wouldn’t lull any of my roommates out of their hungover snoozing.

It was my first visit to Florence since the time I had spent studying here, back in 2013. I turned to my travel partner, who had only ever been to Florence on a short weekend trip, and asked her an all-important question, “Have you been to Dante’s?” As she shook her head, my heart soared. I loved showing people elements of a city that I knew well and that they knew nothing about. It is akin to letting someone listen to a song that you love, it has a certain weight to it, a certain personal attachment that makes it carry much more meaning than an Italian restaurant that serves free wine to students should have any right to carry.

So after a day of walking for miles and miles around the small city, touring around the Pitti Palace and gazing longingly at the €12 Boboli Gardens, of window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio and contemplating taking the window out of window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio, of longingly staring at crepes and giving in and buying crepes, of running through the rainy cobblestoned streets and turning down the offer of ‘Umbrella?’ on every corner, we finally made our way to Dante’s. I wore a short white dress with my white lace up sandals and a black trench coat. I led my friend through narrow alleys and over hilly streets, taking brief refuge from the intermittent rain under striped awnings, until finally we made it. The restaurant was packed and the two of us could barely be squeezed in to a table framed by the kitchen and the toilet. I smiled in anticipation, the memories of flirting and winking flashing fondly through my memory.

“Students?” The cute Italian waiter asks knowingly. We nod expectantly, grinning and affirming, “Si, si!” The man claps his hands and smiles back, turning around briefly and returning with a flagon full of sparkling white wine. We order the necessary entrées, though the wine would likely be enough for us. The loud table next to us catches my attention; it is the table that I used to sit at as a student. It can seat ten people comfortably – and fifteen people uncomfortably. Tonight is the uncomfortable fare. There are fourteen people stuffed hastily around the table. They are loud, unselfconscious, American. They signal at the waiter and wave their student cards under his nose. They stare at us as the night goes on and our full flagon of wine is joined by another – the waiter winking – while theirs sit empty on their table. The boys wear cargo shorts and the girls wear that oddly familiar uniform of skinny jeans, flouncy sheer shirts and leather jackets.

Suddenly I’m greeted by something I can only call déjà vu. I am back in Dante’s, it is 2013, I am in a leather jacket and skinny jeans. It is our last night in Florence and my eyes are bleary from the constantly refilled pitcher of wine. Wow, I think, I am twenty and I am traveling, I am cultured, I know so much, I can say thank you in another language! I sit contentedly among a bubble of Americans in a foreign city, thinking that I was perhaps at the tippy-top of the cultured ladder.

But now two years and countless plane rides later, I come to another conclusion. I am in Dante’s, it is 2015, I am in a short white dress. It is my last night in Florence and my eyes are bleary from the constantly refilled pitcher of wine. Wow, I think, I am twenty-three and I am traveling, I am lucky, I know so little, I can’t say so much that I want to. I sit contentedly across from my friend in a foreign city, thinking that I have a long journey of learning, seeing and doing ahead of me.

The prospect of knowing so little has never delighted me so much.

forgiveness

You may be wondering why I haven’t posted here in awhile. Probably, though, you are not. Because I can see that literally nobody has looked at this website in quite awhile. So, we’re even. The reason that I haven’t posted in awhile, now that you ask, is because I have been working on a larger project than just chronicling my daily wonderments and observations. The project requires a lot of words, some people might call it a novel, but I am not yet so optimistic. I have been writing and forming and reforming ideas about where I want it to go and I am posting here now to show you the fruits of my labor – the opening bit of the lengthy Word document I’ve been adding to.

Read on and I’ll catch up with you below:

June 4th, 2015

Dear Charlie,

Today is the tenth year that I have had to live with myself after what I have done. I sometimes can’t believe that I’ve made it this long without killing myself or just collapsing with grief. I cried in the bathroom today and someone pulled me out of the stall and punched me to make me stop. Maybe I was reminding him of why he was here. Nobody here spends too much time thinking about why they’re in this place, maybe so that they don’t cry in the bathroom like I sometimes do.

You know that I don’t like to bring up what happened, Charlie. Mostly because I don’t know what to say except for sorry and thank you. I wish I could scream it, I wish you could hear me. But I am already so thankful that you respond to these letters so I won’t spend too much time wishing for something better than your goodness, which I have been lucky enough to see a lot of.

You’ve never asked for details and I swore to myself that I would never give them until you asked, if you ever do. But I have to tell you, Charlie, the pain of keeping it inside hurts me. It feels like there’s an angry cat stuck inside of my stomach, always clawing, trying to find his way out. And at the same time, it feels like there’s another angry cat stuck in my brain, crying out over my thoughts and making my head bleed and hurt. I just can’t take it anymore; I know that you can understand because you’ve understood everything so far just with a little grace and mercy. I’m going to write out what happened, exactly what happened, and put it in the envelope with this letter. When you’re ready, you can read it. I’ll understand if you don’t want to write me back after you’ve read it.

I hope you can think about something other than her today. Or maybe you should think of her, she was such a good person that she deserves to be remembered. I guess I meant that I hope that you can remember the good parts about her and that maybe when you cry, it’ll be happy tears and not the sad ones.

God bless you, Charlie,

Viktor

The novel, as you may be able to garner already, will focus on themes of forgiveness, morality and love. Told through letters sent back and forth between a criminal and his unlikely pen pal, the story is one that will hopefully challenge our ideas about such topics. So keep forgiving me a little longer as I divert my attention to this compelling new project of mine – but don’t worry, I’ll be updating you all (nonexistent followers of my blog) with more excerpts and pieces soon!

First day in Berlin

 

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Tuesday 9 February 2016, 16:00:

My backpack is haphazardly slung across my back, my purse dangles from the crook of my arm, my suitcase is poised next to the door, all packed and ready to go. A partially constructed table from IKEA lies on the floor, its seemingly simple construction instructions gazing up at me, I imagine with a smug look of feigned innocence: Oh you can’t figure out how to put me together? I can’t say I’m surprised. I type out a quick note of apology to my roommate as my Uber rings incessantly to tell my that my ride to the airport is waiting outside – not-so-patiently, it would seem. I rush to the airport and board the plane that will take me to Amsterdam, Berlin and a real test of my own purported dreams.

Twelve hours later, I am exiting a small KLM plane onto the tarmac of a one-terminal airport in Berlin. I hail a taxi and make my way into the city. The hotel that I am being put up in is near to the city centre where I will soon be working – just a five minute walk from the hub of the Berlinale International Film Festival: the Martin-Gropius-Bau. I check in to the hotel, shower, meet my fellow interns and head over to the Ritz Carlton. We jump into the elevator and punch the top floor – number eleven – and wait in that ever awkward boxed silence until the doors ding open.

We enter the suite uncertainly, looking around in awe at the movie posters with famous faces, the Presidential Suite at the Ritz Carlton, the faces of the executives that I had been studying in a homemade Excel spreadsheet for the past week. Immediately, we are toured around the suite, being told whose office is whose, how to greet and handle clients, the importance of keeping all of our receipts – a list that seems to extend longer and longer as we continue to walk around the huge suite. Suddenly, I panick. In all of my working experience, I had never done this sort of work – working for a specific group of people rather than the lovingly vague consumer. It all feels so immediate, the results so tangibly material. In my past work, a mistake could be corrected in the office before it was sent out to a client or customer, a tweet could be deleted if there was a spelling error, a blog post could be edited if I misspelled somebody’s last name.

But here, I would find, the stakes are higher. A mistaken Starbucks order is written in stone, the crestfallen look on the executive’s face forever etched into my inerasable memory as I quickly realise that they had, actually, asked for no whip on their Frappuccino. Not catching an important client’s name under a thick accent as I escort them into the office saw me having to quickly and humbly run back, lean in and hope to god that I understand them on my second, embarrassing ask before scribbling their (hopefully) correct name on a Post-It and rushing it into an executive’s room – while, in the meantime, a slew of other important clients with other thick accents form a congested line at the front desk and I have to start it all again. A request for a lunch reservation in an hour at a fully booked restaurant could not be met with an incredulous I have to do what now but instead with a determined of course and a smile.

In short, the work I was about to embark on would be hard. It would be long. It would be demanding. It would be erratic and electric and frenzied and scattered and – the list could go on. But the craziest thing of it all? I would come to find that the work was fun. Something clicked on in me that first day of running around the office and suddenly getting Starbucks orders correct, snagging reservations at fully booked restaurants, finding the only egg sandwich in all of Berlin all began to feel like soaring achievements.

It is with this soaring feeling, this energetic high that I walk into the elevator of the Ritz Carlton flanked by my two fellow interns. I steel myself for the days ahead, the promised losses of tempers, the advice to not take anything personally, the uncertainty of it all. I walk out of the building, the red carpet guiding us outside. The flashes of cameras stun me and the voices of the photographers rise up into the cold, steely night. I smile and take out my sunglasses, put them on and lower my head surreptitiously. I am in Berlin for an international film festival. The photographers yell at me to look at them. They scream some person’s name who I could be mistaken for. I step off of the red carpet and the voices fade, the flashes disappear and I am greeted by the crisp Berlin night. It is calm out here, a man bikes slowly in front of me, the streetlights change lazily from green to yellow to red. We amble tiredly back to our hotel, alarms set for another day full of – what exactly?

And with that mystery, I fall asleep and find that my dreams are exactly where I left them: big, bright, blooming.

Beginning to remember

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Thursday 18 February 2016, 07:01:

My heads spins and my body aches. I open my eyes and am surrounded by the warm glow of the New York sun filtering in gently through my gauzy crème curtains. My phone reads 7:01am. My head begs Go back to sleep. My bladder pulls me out of my bed and to the toilet. My logic draws a warm shower. My head still pounds, my throat still aches, my body still shakes – and my mouth can’t help but smile. Wide and goofy, I feel like a drunkard being tucked in lovingly at the end of a long night by a tired friend.

The word is blasting through my head, loud and echoing: BERLIN. I can think of nothing else. It crashes through my sickness – a result of the city and its luring nightlife, its vibrant festival energy, its spanning itinerary of things to do and places to be – and makes my headache more bearable. In retrospect, it begins to blur: the people, the work, the bars, the clubs, the films, the days. The memories already slip out of my mind like a quickly rewinding film – I can catch only glimpses and snippets. So I get back into my warm, white bed and thumb through my week day-by-day, a mug of tea in one hand and my open Notes in the other.

Manhattan

  

 I exited my apartment building, curt note in hand for the UPS delivery person:

The buzzer for 2R is broken – please leave delivery inside the door. Contrary to what somebody told you yesterday, there are tenants in 2R – one especially who would have loved to have slept on a mattress last night.

I crammed the note between the old brick wall and the broken buzzer and made my way down the now-familiar street to get coffee at a café that I had been referred to by seasoned locals. They’d been here since August, anyway. The rectangular olive-green sign beckoned me onward, steel and hard with flashing bulbs that made it look like an old and woefully lost Vegas sign. I ordered an almond croissant and a cappuccino and took a seat at a small, round marble table. I found myself flanked by hipsters, the luminescent glow of chalky white Apples and the click-click-click of their modern keyboards surrounding me. Extremely conscious of being the only person in the large café without a laptop, I grabbed my cappuccino and croissant, settled into the hard wire stool and opened the book that I had brought, The Hours – a favourite whose staccato syntax and city setting fit in seamlessly with my new life here.

The morning passed by in an almondy haze, the overcast skies reminding me wistfully of the London weather that I do not particularly miss, but also of the elegant city that I assuredly do. Wanting to walk around for a bit, I gathered up my things and departed, making my way down Wyckoff, to downtown Bushwick. The now-familiar sights and smells and people and shops greet me as I make my way through the quickly developing part of Brooklyn, bathed in kooky graffiti, minimalist cafés and wannabe dive bars. My boots click and it finally starts to settle in that I live here – I, by default of my choice of residence, am a part of the wannabe hipster movement: the cappuccino-drinking, fake-glasses-wearing, I’m-so-poor-but-still-spending-six-dollars-on-a-smoothie movement that I have come to know and laugh at – with safety and legitimacy from across the country. But now I am here and am unmistakably a part of it.

I have been in New York now for five days and have spent those five days cleaning my new apartment, waiting for packages to arrive, waiting on utility companies’ appointments, wandering about the neighbourhood, familiarising myself with my surroundings – but I have not yet been to Manhattan, that beautiful, tantalising, intimidating piece of land. I wonder to myself why that is. Though rationalisations ranging from duty to busy wander through my head, in the end, the only word that seems to hold up is one: fear.

Not fear of harm or safety, but a more psychological fear, the one that crawls around deeply in all of us – the one that is dark and tar-stained, whispering all of our most intimate worries into our brains as though they were unequivocal truths: you’re not cut out for this place, you made the wrong decision to come here, you’ll never make it here, you’ll never find a job, you aren’t talented enough to be here… On and on it whispers – it falls asleep with me at night and wakes up with me in the morning. His name is Doubt and he can be a real buzz kill.

And so, with Doubt slowly staking claims to ever-growing parts of my mind, I have believed him, obediently staying in my neighbourhood, refusing to challenge his proclaimed truths. Forever worried that he might be right, I’ve left his whispers unchallenged – if he was right, if I made the wrong choice, going into Manhattan would unequivocally cement these whispers, releasing them from the slithering aura of Doubt to the pages of the even more dreaded unchanging book of Fact.

But what if he was wrong? Was the gamble too high-risk to make?

I stopped walking, positioned squarely in front of the descending stairs of the L train. The word stares at me, challenging me, beckoning me.

Manhattan, it reads, white script dirtied with age, crumbling, peeling a bit off of the sign.

Manhattan, it calls, glowing, almost knowingly stark, boldly white against the dark forest green of the sign’s background.

Manhattan, it pulls, drawing me downward to its tracks, littered with plastic bags and candy bar wrappers.

Manhattan, the static female voice says as the train rumbles to a stop at the platform.

“Manhattan,” I whisper, stepping onto the train, smirking boldly at the lost figure of Doubt left on the platform, scratching his head and looking around.

Manhattan, I think, taking my seat on the train and wobbling contentedly, fashionably, familiarly with the metro as it stops and stutters and rushes onward.

“Manhaaaaaaaaaaattan!” A man sings as I reach the top of the stairs and tumble into Union Square, alive with people and wind and sounds.

A gust of wind pushes me forward, quickly, urgently, impatiently, as if to say, Go on and explore! What the hell took you so long?