Letters From Abroad – 17 JUN

Dear Family,

I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about this whole travelling phenomenon. I don’t know what I’m supposed to think when I’m dropped into beauty and madness and community and isolation and the contradictions of being a student abroad who doesn’t want to come home and is extraordinarily homesick for countless unnamed things that don’t even constitute as home.

In case my last post didn’t give you a hint, I’m trying to put into words my inability to just be; to experience without littleness or ignorance. I’m trying to name the beauty around me, trying to put into words how other this is, and yet how normal. I spent today watching sunlight and shadows in a place that is older than the country I both love and uncertainly miss.

I’m struggling to process what I encounter, as it feels so disloyal to describe these places in terms of what I know. A cathedral that echoes of France, an edifice crumbling like Romania, a corner table that feels like Chicago, a smell that drifts from Israel, and a sunset with a Nebraska breeze. I want to speak of this place on its own merit, but every place is somewhere else. The more that I travel, that I experience, that a place settles into memory, the more I speak of these new things in terms of the old. And it doesn’t touch my soul.

And maybe that is why. Maybe it is because it doesn’t matter if the street is quaint or the façade impressive…I haven’t allowed it to mean anything more than an old memory in different colors. I’m in Europe, one month in, and that is extraordinary in a way I have not been able to comprehend, let alone describe.

But I’d like to try, try to tell you one of the stories of today in its own many words. Can I? Here.

Today I ventured to a new place, a staunchly Swedish coffee shop, two-story glass windows and shaker furniture, with hot yellow sunshine and little cappucinos. It was firmly in the university district and far enough outside the town center to abut buildings of glass where the only old things were the cobblestones between them. It was also close enough to the university district that everyone entering the shop came with a painted cheek and inadequate clothing, draped in rainbow flags and hair color as loud as their voices. I wondered at these people and what their lives would look like. Where do the fishnets and crop tops go after college? Where do those who march and cheer take their hoarse voices after this day is done? It was a strange question to ponder in a corner table with my colored pencils in hand and a blank castle waiting to be shaded in. Somehow, amidst the bustle of others’ activity and the quiet strokes of ultramarine blue, I still felt guilty for finding a new place in which to stop counting the minutes of a day.

A meander along the cobblestones brought me to one of the market areas with tilted tables of fresh fruit and Italian cheese, plaid neckwear and leather bracelets, set between the bars and restaurants and cafes. There was a circus act at one end and a magician setting up his table and scarves between. I wandered into a vintage clothing store; a flea market for clothing someone else once loved. There was a row of plaid kilts ready to greet you as you entered, and a dusty life-sized Egyptian coffin, the color of old gold and navy, guarding the steps up to the rooms at the back. It was a cacophony of color; old hats and glitter fringes hung from the ceiling, rows of dresses labeled by era (“1950’s” “1970’s” in Sharpie on ivory tags), colors and fabrics of magenta and gold and canary and forest green. A row of olive and tan tweed jackets hung above a packed rack of slacks in dark green and navy blue, and stuffed underneath them were scuffed shoes with worn straps and old shoelaces. The interior of each fitting room was plastered in some bold graffiti, with a garish curtain to pull across the front. The roof of the fitting rooms was actually a shelf, “For Display Only,” piled high with creased shoes, leather bags, the breastplate of a tarnished suit of armor, the tartan hat and kilt of some unknown heritage. There was not a single space left uncolored by yesterday’s styles. It was gloriously overwhelming. I touched the silks and fibers and shoulder pads of decades-old clothing and bought nothing.

I followed the uneven streets to an art shop with prints of Edinburgh framed in matte white cardstock. The castle was the prominent feature, mostly in gray and taupe and olive, but some artists rendered the city like a child’s picture book, with blond, round-faced-and-peach-skinned occupants posing in front of pastel shops and the castle in pale baby-blue shades under a faintly yellow sky. My favorites were the ones of whimsical Edinburgh–known places and streets in bold, shaded colors, touched by the fantastical; a goblin with an elephant balloon on a string in front of a red coffee shop, yellow windows bright against the night; large feet in blue striped stockings draped over a window ledge and a tasseled red cap nodding over the sill a few stories higher; a fox huddled under a sign pointing to the highlands with the faint impression of snow and a definitively red telephone box behind him. It was a child’s imagination printed on cards. I looked, smiled, and left them to settle in my memory and not my hands.

I trekked back to the main thoroughfare, all busy tourists and hissing buses, chasing one another back and forth along the gardens and monuments and green places below the castle. The street behind it was called Rose Street, criss-crossed overhead with strings of pink triangles. It was mostly restaurants, which my tongue could not taste but nose could not miss. So I drifted the length of the street with a new scent at every step, carried by the sounds of fellowship and the plink of silverware and the sorts of memories made over glasses of wine and bowls of heaped pasta. It was a feast of sight and sound and smell and it, for a wistful and forgotten moment, was enough.

Back on the main sidewalk, still swimming with people and beckoning stores, I found my first new bookshop, all piles of clean titles and crisp colors. It was a three-story delight of displays and vibrancy and endless possibility. There were immeasurable pages to read, but the sheer infinitude circled back on itself and I had no place to begin. So I climbed the staircases with their delightfully thick dark wood railings and creaky treads and found the sunlight pouring through the windows of the coffee shop. I settled at a table that overlooked the activity of the street and drank a latte from a homey gray cup and picked up my pencils again. Across from the big windows was the great brown castle, imposing against the stiff blue sky. From its cliff the castle looked down on the green swath of gardens, the street with its buses of maroon and gold, and the people busily counting the minutes of the day and giving them over to the stores and shops in hand with their pounds. With violet and indigo, I shaded in my castle roofs and brushed the curling shavings into the saucer, crumbling bits of color against the gray.

I spent the afternoon with coffee, pencils, and time that did not care. With the sky fading towards evening around the castle, I left the bookstore and ended at a park. It was full of people, with a movie projected on a screen the size of a small building. The people were the sort I’d seen all day; the rainbow-draped students in the morning, the children who had chased bubbles near the magicians in the market, the men and women who had sipped bottles and sauces on Rose Street, the bag-and-bustle-laden shoppers of that afternoon. I bought my own little container of ice cream and leaned on the iron fence around the park, watching the ending of a movie I didn’t care about while the sun colored the sky with its own pink pencil and the world slowed down to a few moments that I did care about.

And then I stepped aboard a bus that softened its hiss to a gentle shush and took me home along a skyline of pink and blue and just a touch of violet.

Not every day is so full of delight or so empty of things that must be done, but neither can every day be described. I wish you could be here to know the fullness of this life, even in its emptiness, so maybe it is you that I miss.

~Rae

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