I had breakfast last Wednesday in Italy (speaking Italian), boarded a train for Zurich where I had lunch (speaking German) before catching my connection to Strasbourg (where they speak French). And let’s not lose the fact that I’m writing about all this in English. It’s a private joke from me to me (that I spoke all of my languages in one day) and I’ve had a lot of those on this trip. Private jokes that are funny to me — and then I look around, expecting to be able to share a laugh with a familiar face — and I’m reminded again, that I’m on my own, flying solo.
I left NYC five months ago and that’s a long time to be away. In today’s language, with life’s fast pace, it’s probably the equivalent of more, but forty years ago I was completely immersed in the culture of my host countries (Germany and Italy). This time I’ve got my laptop — and the capability of downloading episodes of my favorite TV shows to keep me company — Then, it was nearly impossible to call home; now I’ve got SKYPE keeping me connected to friends. I don’t know yet if it’s good or bad, but I’ve had enough quality time in each of the three countries I’ve visited so far to wonder what it would cost to rent an apartment and a work Visa — and enough contact with NYC to know that I’m terrified of re-entry. I’m living the old cliché that Judy Collins sang, about seeing the clouds from both sides — and my friends have changed.
I’m living my life over here and they’re actually mad at me for not being there. Karen broke it down for me before she broke down sobbing, overwhelmed by all that’s going on in her life: they’re “trying to figure out their lives too,” she said, somewhat sternly, “living on the edge and [I'm] easy to blame when things go awry.” That is to say, Pailey is still chasing Mr. CEO (oye) and negotiating a possible life-changing career move, so she’s not returning JB’s phone calls/emails (we’ve got a show going up in June that needs more of her attention since I’m away — and that’s pissing her off); Karen is being forced out of her dream sublet and Tool Man isn’t interested in finding a new place together (she’s collecting my mail and that’s the backbreaking straw in her camel). And then there’s my “X,” who loves reminding me in occasional emails, that he’s working — and I’m not (he was just born a shit). If it weren’t for Emma, who’s meeting me in London for a few days next month (very cool), I might have torn up my return plane ticket.
But I’ve got the home-court advantage being a cozy 5,000 miles away. I can stick my fingers in my ears, block them out and enjoy my identity crisis, quietly. Shaking them out of my mind in the Zurich train station, I switched in to German, put one foot in front of the other and refused to let them steal my joy on THE one day when I can read all the poster ads, order off a menu and wallow in the magic of being multi-lingual.
On this final leg of the trip I’m staying with friends — and curious now, to see how they fare relative to the chaos unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. With no weight restrictions (so I can keep my perfume), I’ll be riding the rails from Strasbourg to Stuttgart to Bremen to Berlin to Edinburgh and London. Quality time with old pals in the “here, now” from a life-acquired perspective that’s “been there, done that” and/or “seen it, felt it” and/or even “wanted to, never did.” Maybe I need them right now for balance, but I want to hear my old buddies espouse about life, love & the ever-so-complicated pursuit of happiness.
First stop, Liane... a friend from middle school who said, with a fore-lone romantic sigh, that she “was given a French name & therefore destined to live in France.” After spending her junior year abroad in Strasbourg, she returned for her masters and fell in love – with the city and the wrong man. A tenured professor at the University, she lives in a spacious 2-bedroom apartment in a landmark building that’s 500 years old on the outside –and newly renovated on the inside (there’s a metaphor in there somewhere). Reconnected 10 years ago through a high school reunion newsletter, I missed most of the details, but a horrible nose cold didn’t deter her from filling me in with sometimes comical, often biting non-stop chatter –With her arms & hands flailing, she offered opinions about men, marriage, breast cancer and the challenges of educating students looking for easy ways out. As the days went on (her wheezing & sneezing improving only slightly), she relayed mostly horror stories of adult friends who have also suffered from spousal betrayal, parental abuse or malaise. Caught up in their stories, she’s found reasons to expect less from her own –but to her credit she’s developed a lust for life and a no-nonsense attitude (french, perhaps?) that keep her busy at work (albeit frustrated), on the internet (researching every unanswered question) and in the kitchen (preparing extraordinary meals for friends). She’s mastered the language, adapted to the culture and raised a terrific son (a successful DJ/singer/composer) with whom she has a wonderful, solid relationship.
I began gorging on grapefruit in a vain attempt not to catch her ferocious cold –or her negativity, and made it my mission to treat her in a style to which she should become accustomed, hoping she would see the difference. We had great long talks in her kitchen, in the center of a city that looks like it’s somewhere in the middle of the 1600s. Strasbourg, with its huge Dom, narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets is Alsace and, like my friend, “charming,” at its core. Suffering from an identity crises not unlike my own, it sits on a moveable line between Germany & France. Having been annexed to both time & time again, it’s acquired dual attitudes… and at the moment I’m comfortable with both; another private joke.
My worst fear realized, I caught Liane’s miserable cold three days before leaving and was completely stuffed up. So even without sticking my fingers in them to block out snarky emails from home, my ears were as plugged up as my nose –and all I could do was focus on boarding that train to Stuttgart.
German — Where I know the language and the people, perhaps too well after Liane hosted a day trip to Baden Baden (Germany) where I ventured in to my first ever “clothes free zone” — a somewhat humorous visual in any language.
NOTE TO SELF: Actung! Der Zug fahrt! (Attention! The train is leaving!)