Freedom

It was gray and chilly in London today as I walked through the city thinking of friends and family, countrymen and cousins feasting on watermelon in the heat of freedom and the mid-summer sun. This is not the first Fourth of July I’ve spent overseas. And, in fact, in recent years I’ve spent more time out of my country than in it. Everywhere I went today, the Union Jack seemed to be waving. A different formation of red, white, and blue.

It’s a difficult time to be in the UK. “Independence” feels like a trigger word, recently fraught with misuse and now tender to the touch. How odd to be celebrating my country’s independence from this nation that once nearly colonized the world, now isolated and tearing itself apart in fantasies that it was being colonized in turn.

I do not belong here. Aesthetically I blend in, but as soon as I open my mouth the jig is up. Other things reveal themselves, too: My sense of humor is off— too goofy, too brash. I speak directly, sometimes confrontationally. I forget that I need to call pants “trousers”.

I am an immigrant from a country of immigrants, roaming the motherland.

I’ve fallen in love with Europe— from London’s Victorian streets to Paris’ sparkling tower, and every inch of Italy’s sun-soaked soil— and I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll root myself in America again. But somehow the deeper I fall under Europe’s spell the more clearly the beauty of my star spangled heritage comes into focus. And the more time I spend away from America, the more proud I am that it’s my home.

We are the land of the free, home of the brave. We are clear-eyed, innovative, and optimistic. We are protectors and guardians of the disenfranchised and broken-hearted, because we know we once were them. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

I was thinking about these things today, standing in the shadow of another nation’s flag, reminded of how quickly these qualities are vanishing in a scared world, and how dangerously close to extinction they are at home. I thought about how much I wished that everyone could see this— how beautiful America was when you took a step back and remembered what we stood for. What we stand for. How brave it makes you feel, how free.

God bless America. And everywhere else, too.

Advertisements

The Apple Tree

111206-lge

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up.

And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

Louise Erdrich

Dear Jessica

Dear Jessica,

Hey, girl. It’s me. I know you don’t know me yet, but I know you. I know your clothes don’t really fit, you hate school, and that you feel lonely and awkward most of the time. I know you don’t really like yourself. And I know that you’re spending a lot of time and energy trying to seem more intelligent and important and glamorous than you really are.

But I also know that 15-20 years from now, you’ll be living in Europe all by yourself. And one day as you’re getting ready, you’ll look down and see a pretty box on your vanity and think to yourself how funny it is that you always seem to have French chocolates around. What a random, glamorous thing. How fun.

And then you’ll think of you. You as you are now. Awkward, dissatisfied, and trying so hard to seem impressive. And you’ll realize that after all those years of trying, and finally giving up and surrendering yourself to life and the world, you’ve become the person you always dreamed you’d be.

You’re not perfect— you should probably wash your hair more and eat less sugar, and you still say dumb things when talking to a guy you like— but you feel brave and sure of yourself, and yes, even a little glamorous, most of the time. And it all happened while you were working on other things.

You’ll get there, girl, almost without trying. And I’ll be waiting when you do.

All my love,
Jessica

My Tiny Valentine

I was walking through Florence tonight, carving my way through crowds of people milling the streets, running the last of my errands before dinner. My new coat was warm against the damp chill of the evening, and I marveled at how crowded it was, wondering if it was this holiday celebrating love— perhaps an Italian’s highest prize— that was drawing masses to the city streets. I turned my shoulders to pass through an opening in the stream of people when suddenly I felt something warm and soft press against the bare skin of my hand.

Startled, I jerked my head to the side to see who had touched me, prepared to glower at whichever overzealous Italian guy had taken advantage of our forced nearness. But when I looked down I saw that a little boy, no taller than my elbow, had put his small hand on mine. He had been staring up at me as we passed, but when I met his gaze he pulled his hand back and snapped his head forward. I felt my face soften as I watched the long brown hair on the back of his head swing into place. He quickly tucked himself back in between his parents and they disappeared in the crowd as I stood still, for just a moment, watching them walk away.

Love will always find you. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Fade

Amalfi Coast

My foot is cut in three places. Three identical slices on the inside of my heel, where the skin is wrinkly and a little tough. The water was choppy the day I was swimming, and the beach was nearly abandoned as the sea rolled and slammed against the coast. I had gone to a broad, flat rock under a cliff where locals like to sunbathe away from the tourists. There are normally dozens of bronzed and bronzing Italians stretched underneath the sun, but this day there were only three people scattered on the stone— one of whom was me.

I stood at the edge of the rock for a long time, evaluating the size of the waves, feeling the salty spray on my skin as the rolling water crashed into the craggy coast beneath me, and tried to determine if I could go out and return safely. I was alone, after all, and didn’t want to be la pazza bionda who had to be rescued after her body was pummeled against the rock. But as I looked beyond the crags at my feet, and eyed the waves that had turned the turquoise water gray with churning, my back arched in anticipation. The normally quiet water was rolling, and I wanted to be suspended in its rage, feel its electricity roar around me. So with another glance at the oncoming waves, I turned and climbed down the metal ladder that descended into the sea.

As soon as I reached the surf, a wave crashed and I pushed away from the coast. I swam as hard and fast as I could, ducking as water sprayed all around me. The waves were more powerful than they looked and though normally the sea was a kind and yielding companion, carrying me softly in its gentle roll, now it fought back. I had to actively participate, kicking my legs and fighting to stay upright, always with an eye on the horizon. I felt more alive with each push, and stayed out there for a long time, bobbing and rolling in the preamble to each crashing wave.

When I eventually decided to swim back in, reaching the ladder safely had become an issue. The waves had increased in size and frequency while I’d been gone, and now there seemed to be very little time that the rocks weren’t being pummeled. I waited and waited, shifting my attention back and forth from the nearly-submerged ladder to the advancing water. Finally I decided to go for it, swimming toward my exit, but a wave rose and carried me forward too fast, surging into the rock. I kicked my feet in front of me to keep from being thrown against the coast, bracing myself against sharp submerged crags, and as soon as the water went out, I swam away with it. I tried this a few more times, but there seemed to be no time when the water would rest long enough for me to get to the ladder safely. I was stuck.

I looked up and saw Aldo, an old local man who is a fixture on that rock, iconic with his closely cropped white hair, deep, leathery skin, and trademark blue speedo, standing at the edge of the cliff looking down on me. We had never spoken, but I knew he had come because he was worried about me. He knew how high the water was, and that I was probably trying to do something stupid, and as he stood there, hands on hips, silently watching, I wondered myself how I was going to get ashore.

Eventually I realized that there was a small sandy beach behind the rock, and if I could just swim there I could climb to safety. So that’s what I did. Paddling past Aldo, I navigated the waves until I reached the quiet inlet and walked out of the water. Aldo returned to his towel.

It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I looked down and saw blood pooling underneath my foot. Three small gashes cut into the soft flesh of my heel. Three bites from my dance with the waves on the coast.

Once cleaned with seawater, these cuts calmed and I liked looking down and seeing them glaring back at me; they made me feel tough and wild and served as a vivid reminder of the roaring water that day. As wounds tend to do, they stung at first— a slight, warm pang every time I took to step. But the soft, oozing flesh started to scab and eventually toughened up, leaving only silent red dashes on the side of my foot.

In the last few days the wounds have continued to heal; the gashes are closing and the deep red slices are fading as my skin grows to cover the gap. I’ve been struck with a certain sadness. I don’t want them to go away. They remind me of Amalfi, and the sea, and my summer so far from home. They remind me of Aldo and long talks with friends on the rock, and make me think that I may be braver than I often feel.

My mom has been dead for nine years as of this morning. I normally say “passed away” but today she feels dead. When I first went to Italy I was in Florence, walking by the river late at night. It was early summer, and the burnt, amber yellows of the city’s bridges were set against a deep, inky turquoise sky, and the thought came that my mother will never see this— any of this. She never traveled to Europe, and I wondered if she ever wanted to. What would she think of my life now? Maybe she’d be worried, or excited, or scared, or thrilled that some of her wildness had found a root in me. But I realized, more than anything, that she’d be proud. And that made me cry.

When I think about my mom now, I usually don’t cry. Those tender, inflamed parts of my heart have calmed and the open wounds are closing. The pain of my mother’s loss is less acute now. It doesn’t sting or weigh heavy in my chest the way it used to. I still miss her, and think of all the ways I wish she could be here, and how I’d do almost anything to have her advice, but mostly that sting has given way to something deeper. That electric pain has nearly burned itself out, and I’ve been fertilized by the burning— a rich blackness in the soil of my soul.

Now when I think of my mom, she seems somehow nearer and further away. Instead of having to return to the pain of her death in order to reach her, I’ve learned to carry her heart with mine, so she sees what I see. I can turn to the part of my heart she lives in any time, and hear her, sense her. She comes with me now.

Is it all right to mature in our pain? Nine years. I’ve been a grieving human, grieving daughter, for nine years. I remember being nine years old— a jumble of girlishness and confusion and newly-awakened awareness— am I now that girl in my grief? Unsure of what’s to come but sure that everything is changing.

This pain has served as memory and mark. But what happens when it goes away? As awful as grieving is, the ache serves as a reminder that something was here before it was taken. The pain takes the place of the thing, and fills the void with red hot anguish. But when gashes close and cuts heal, what do we get instead?

What do we have left when our wounds fade?

On Boyhood and the Oscars

Boyhood is a miracle. A quiet, slow burn that somehow slows time as it jumps from year to year, and turns our focus to the beauty of the mundane minutiae of our lives. We are defined by these normal motions and movements, more so than the landmark achievements that consume our attention and often feel hollow once attained, and Boyhood shines a light on the value of the days between our lives’ headlines.

Admittedly it was a long shot. Any other year and it wouldn’t have even been mentioned with the Oscars in the same breath. But it was. It didn’t need to win to prove its worth to me, but I would’ve loved to see The Little Indie Movie That Could take the big prize. I’m sorry it didn’t.

Returned

20140624-143818-52698870.jpg

I’m home. Whatever that means. They say home is where the heart is, and so how can it be that I’m back where I belong when so much of me is still wrapped up on the other side of the Atlantic?

I spent the last month traveling through Europe. Eight cities, three countries, and one perfect Mediterranean tan. I’ve been back for a week and am still having a hard time qualifying and crystallizing my trip. Pulling it from the golden, ethereal mist around my heart and mind and wrestling it onto a page, hardening it into black and white, feels like murder. So I’m in limbo. Trying to preserve this ephemeral ecosystem within while riding the C train.

Speaking has never brought me so much joy. I can talk to ANYONE! I’m joking with doormen, flirting with waiters, chatting with ladies in elevators… After three weeks of having to think heavily about everything that came out of my mouth (and often embarrassing myself anyway), the joy of easy conversation is not lost on me. I’m eating everything I couldn’t find—salads, vegan cookies, Mexican food… Getting a pedicure and using my phone any time I want.

But still.

I wander Eataly and buy a slab of fresh focaccia. I say grazie to l’uomo behind the counter. I hunt for the American equivalent of the Nivea hand cream I bought at a train station in Salerno. I can’t get over how the t-shirt that I hung to dry against the stones in Amalfi still smells. (Lemons, jasmine, and ocean…) I gaze longingly at maps, at pictures of places I’ve been and still want to go. There is a dull ache somewhere between my stomach and heart that will not go away.

What this limbo will produce—if anything—is still up in the air. Was this trip a signpost? A blinking indicator light of things to come? Or will the throbbing ease into a manageable pang as life goes on?

I don’t know. But stay with me. Either way, there’s lots to tell.

20140624-142916-52156915.jpg

Broke Girl in the City, Part 2

mm+bench

It’s a new year and I’m still making it on a wing and a prayer, but have discovered a few more ways to stay in the black. Resolved to save more money in 2014? Maybe some of these frugal fixes will help you curb your spending habits. Half the price but all the fun! (Just like taking me to a bar!*)

Do Your Own Nails
Jin Soon used to take beautiful care of my petite paws until I realized that spending $25 on a manicure every two weeks meant I couldn’t eat for three days. So bought a fancy top coat and started tending my own cuticles. But whenever I get tired of my regular rotation of Chanel Ballerina or Essie Bahama Mama, I go to Sephora where they have Nail. Painting. Stations. Seriously. You have to stand amidst the tactless tourist crowds, but you have access to hundreds of delicious shades by Marc Jacobs, YSL, and Deborah Lippmann. So keep your head down and apply another layer of that Dior hue, and your date that night will never know you had to fight a tacky Russian girl for the top coat.

See Movies in the Morning
I’m sort of obsessed with movies, and with Oscar season fast approaching I’m nearly overwhelmed with the glut of awards bait in theaters right now. (Redford! Streep! Bale!) But with tickets running $14.50 a pop, how’s a broke girl supposed to reconcile her need for cinephile satisfaction with her lowly bank statement? Enter AMC Theaters. If you can rouse yourself out of bed in time to catch a flick before noon, you can snag a movie ticket for $8 or less (depending on the theater). Granted, I don’t think 12 Years a Slave is necessarily an ideal way to start your day, but for lighter/ less emotionally disturbing fare, seeing a morning movie is a great way to get your flick fix on the cheap.
(Pro tip: If you know a college student, ask them if they’ll buy you a few movie passes from their campus ticket office. NYU students get passes good anytime for $6!)

Read at the Store
As a kid I was a voracious reader, routinely leaving our local public library with a stack of Nancy Drew and Babysitter’s Club novels stacked to my chin. Adult Jessica reads far, far less, in part because novels for grown-ups are often so dang weird/ oversexed/ depressing (one can only read the words “quivering member” so many times before getting turned off forever). But when someone has passed on an enthusiastic recommendation that I want to dive into, I can’t afford to just go buy a book I’ll then have to lug around in my suitcase or wedge into my storage unit, so what do I do? I go to Barnes and Noble and find a comfy chair.

This works twofold because 1) it gives me an out-of-the-house-but-still-inside activity to do on cold/ gross days, and 2) it’s noncommittal (ie: no book to lug around) and FREE. I simply go to my local bookstore, find my book, scout out a good reading spot, and cozy in for an hour or two of reading. When I’m done, I return my book to the shelf, making a note on my phone about where I left off, and return another day for the next installment. Boom. Barnes and Noble is my library.
(Note: If you have any non-weird/ -oversexed/ -depressing recommendations, please send them my way.)

And there we have it! Broke Girl, Part 2: el fin. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Free manicures, cheap movies, and a bookstore for a library. Sounds like a good Saturday to me.

*I’m a Lightweight. Capital L. Half a beer and I’m ready to go.

Broke Girl in the City, Part 1

16_21

It’s no secret that New York is expensive. My adopted hometown regularly tops “Most Expensive Cities in America” lists, and I once tweeted about having to pay $6 for a toothbrush. So, you know, everybody gets it*. But what do you do if you want to live and love in the Greatest City in the World and your account balance rarely has more than two digits in front of the decimal? Is selling body parts of debatable necessity on Craigslist the only answer? I’ve lived without a job in New York for 16 months, and am happy to report it is not.

After starting this post I realized just how many weird, wonderful ways I’ve figured out to save money in this city, so this is the first of 2 (3? 4?) Broke Girl posts. We’ll start with the simple stuff: Food, Transportation, and Potty Breaks.

Buy Inexpensive, Healthy, Filling Food
Falafel: As a single girl, the majority of my meals are comprised of cereal, KIND bars, and/ or frozen yogurt. But (wo)man cannot live on Yogurtland alone, so every once in a while I branch out. I had never even seen falafel until I came to New York and now it makes up the majority of my savory food intake. It’s hot, flavorful, and often contains a variety of green fresh things, which, if you were paying attention to the list above, you know I don’t get a lot of. Falafel pitas in the city range from $2.50 to $5.50, which is easy to part with when I know it’ll keep me full for several hours. Maoz is one of my favorite pita purveyors because of their multiple locations and extensive (free!) salad/ toppings bar. (Try the marinated carrots.) If you find yourself in Williamsburg (I’m sorry), Oasis on 7th and Bedford is freakin’ delicious and freakin’ cheap. The place is a dump, but you won’t care when you’re cramming a steaming two dollar pita stuffed with their perfectly pickled red cabbage into your maw.

Tacos: This is tricky. Not only because New York, in general, has terrible Mexican food, but because the few decent Mexican places that do exist are so expensive you’ll end up over-salting your chorizo with your tears. But sometimes this California girl just needs a taco, so I compromise. Chipotle is everywhere which normally means AVOID, but they’re everywhere because they’re cheap and delicious, so cool your jets. Two tacos for $6 is nothing to sneeze at. Pony up to the assembly line with the rest of the assistant account executives on their lunch break and make like a boss by asking for corn tortillas.
(Pro Tip: Want more protein but don’t want to pay for it? Semantics are your friend. Ask for “a little more” meat. Saying “extra meat” means they charge you… extra. Avoid the word “extra” and you’re set.)

Salad: When cilantro is the only green thing I’ve eaten in a few weeks, I head to the Whole Foods salad bar. Normally fraught with financial peril, there are a few tricks to making it cheaper. First, grab the small box. Don’t get greedy, Hungry Eyes, you’ll fill it AND your stomach. Next, get whatever you want, but think about how heavy it is before plopping it in your box. Most salad bars, including this one, charge by weight, so keep that in mind when you’re selecting your goodies. Lettuce? Basically free. Quinoa? Chickpeas? Vegan tortellini? A little heavier, but not bad. Go for it. Chicken? Salmon? Steak? Mmm. This is the good stuff. But it’s heavy, so take it as easy as you can. Eyeing a big wedge of steamed sweet potato or chunk of glistening beet? Danger, Will Robinson! That heavy block of root veggie will cost you big at the register. If you really can’t resist, ask for a sample and eat it on your way to checkout.

Know Where to Rest Your Room
Because I stay in the outer boroughs a lot, I often find myself in the city all day without a home base. Knowing where to pee in peace is key to surviving a day in Manhattan. The absolute best, most consistently clean and lovely bathrooms are in movie theaters, hotels, and upscale department stores. But they also require the most time and energy (and in the case of movie theaters, money) to use. My favorite public toilet in the city is at the Plaza (obviously), but you’ve got to have some big ol’ lady cajones to get to it. Not seeing a movie? Anywhere but midtown? Starbucks is an ever-present option. Cleanliness is hit-or-miss, but their omnipresence means you can just try another one if you encounter a gross situation. Apple Stores and Barnes and Noble also receive honorable mention; the latter certainly doesn’t gleam, but it’s not nearly as bad as other options. Speaking of bad, avoid any bathroom in a transit station, park, or grocery store. Whole Foods bathrooms are particularly awful; I don’t know if they’re morally opposed to using cleaning agents more than once a month or if they just have such a varied clientele that things get gross fast, but man… I still have PTSD from an incident in Union Square. Avoid.

Minimize Transit Expenses
Buy an unlimited MetroCard. Just do it. $30 is tough for me to cough up in one swipe, but I don’t care if you’re only in the city for only three days, you will use it, and it is worth it. That said, if you’re between cards or just don’t believe me, walk as much as you possibly can. New York is smaller than it seems and you’ll likely stumble across something wonderful, work off the tacos you just ate, AND save yourself an unnecessary subway swipe. Boom.

Okay, that’s it for Part 1. Do you feel empowered? Queasy? Sad for me? Whatever. New York is wonderful whether you’re young or old, employed or not, rich or poor… The latter just requires that you work it a little. And what’s more fun than workin’ it?

See you in Part 2.

*Trying to describe life in New York to friends back home is often what I imagine explaining football to me is like. There are a few moments of intense, focused, willful attention, and then it all fades to dead, glassy eyes with poorly-timed nodding. I/ they don’t get it. And I/ they don’t care.