Saturday, October 22, 2016

DAY 30!!!

My friend Leannah asked me yesterday how I would celebrate being finished this 30-day challenge.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Probably eat something?”

It hadn’t occurred to me. Just being finished felt like celebration enough.

I’ve been officially teaching writing for six months now, and actually writing for way longer than that. But the first thing all of this has taught me is that challenging yourself is a very valuable life experience. 

I would never call myself an “expert” writer, because that would be obnoxious, and also because I don’t think we can be an expert at anything non-linear, and creativity is nothing if non-linear. 

But I do have my ways. I work on my book most mornings, and on my client work in the afternoons. And every month or two (or more…) I think, hmm, I should really write a blog post. Then I put it off for a while. Then I sit down and write copious amounts of notes and worry about how much time blogging is taking away from my other writing, and then remember how much I love blogging, because it connects me to readers right in the moment, rather than writing for future readers from a room, by myself, or with Ruble, who doesn’t appreciate anything aside from cookies or someone throwing his squeaky alien toy.  


"Throw the squeaky alien. toy Throw the squeaky alien toy. THROW IT.
You have nothing important to do anyway."


I put hours and hours into those blog posts. I usually stretch out writing them over days, or weeks.

And there is nothing wrong with that. But having to write a post every day for the last month has sure as shit helped me turn that idea on its head.

Here are some other things I've learned about art and life in this 30-day challenge:

1. Accountability is a powerful thing. Want to do something? Tell a bunch of people you’re going to do something every day for 30 days (or whatever) and suddenly, you’re doing it. What else do you think you can’t do? What else might you be totally wrong about? I cannot emphasize this enough. 

2. One of the things my friends/support group remind each other of is “done is better than perfect,” which comes from Liz Gilbert's brilliant book, Magic Lessons. Again, this probably does apply to building bridges, or performing surgery. But while patience, attention to detail and love are all valuable and important aspects of making art, sometimes, you just have to get your shit out there so that people can experience it. And then be surprised by the fact that it’s better than you think it is. And if it isn’t, it doesn’t matter, cause you’re just going to keep getting it done until it is.

3. I can't imagine being one of those people who have to constantly social media-ize their lives, because of their careers or their status or they are a Kardashian or whatever. I will very much enjoy a break from whipping out my notebook any time a friend says something funny or I get stuck on an elevator because I don’t want to forget each detail. I will looove getting to the end of the day and being able to turn off. And not do Instagram hashtags for a while. 

4. And yet, even throughout this journey, how many times do you think I got to the end of a day and thought, “What in god's name am I going to write about?” More than half the time. Probably 60% of the time. 

People who want to be writers often say they have nothing to say. I get it.

But because of whipping out that notebook - and because I had to - I made a habit of being an observer. It wasn't traveling around Europe that made me do it. It was watching for stories. Which is what I love about stories: they are all around us. They are in our eyes and in the air and in everyone we meet and in everything we struggle with. As long as you are alive, there will be stories. And the more you try to see them, the more you will. 

5. In this crazily disjointed world where we mostly connect through little rectangular screens we hold in our hands, blogs and social media can count for a lot. I’ve been amazed at the responses I’ve gotten from this project. I’ve gotten comments and reads from people I haven’t spoken to in ages, people I’ve just met, total strangers. And I write to connect, so I've loved a lot about the last 30 days. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a very long nap.

But to answer Leannah’s question: I do want to celebrate, and with something aside from this bottle of Romanian Pinot. (Trust me.) 

So I’m inviting you to celebrate with me.

First off, if you’ve been reading any of these posts, please write and tell me so. Not because it will stroke my ego. Well, a little bit because it will stroke my ego. But more because I want to know what you liked, and what you didn’t like. What you’d like more of, and what you’d like less of. What moved you, and what didn’t. This will help me more than you can imagine. People don't realize how much writers love 2-way communication. 

After years of doing this, the topics or themes I often think are the weirdest or most out there or unique to only me often get the most responses, whereas the stuff I think everyone is going to get sometimes falls flat. I would love, love, love to hear from you, even if it’s just to say, “Hi! I read you! Bye!” Facebook me, DM me, text me, call me, tweet me, email me. I will also accept messages written on cakes.   

Secondly, one more time with feeling, if you’ve enjoyed even one of these posts, and haven’t done so yet, please donate what you can to a charity of your choosing, or one of the three below. Just $2. Maybe more. I would really love that. It would be nice for all this energy to go towards making other people’s lives better, since ultimately, that’s why we’re here.

I wish I had something more poetic or dramatic to say, but this says it better than I ever could:





I really do. Thank you so much for being here,


Natalie

*


The UN Refugee Agency 
I met some refugees from Syria while in Turkey. We've all heard the stories, but the ones they shared, which I will write about soon, made me wonder how it is that we inhabit the same planet. Every little bit helps. I saw that firsthand.

The Edja Foundation
Edja was founded by the wife of Jackson Kaguri, director of the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project where I volunteered in Uganda two years ago, to combat child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. As you can read about here, this is a huge issue. 

BARC - Bali Dog Adoption and Rehabilitation Centre
Living in Bali put animal rights in a whole new light for me. Wild and homeless dogs in Bali suffer terrible states of health, are not fed or watered properly, and are sometimes used as sacrifice. BARC does amazing work. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Day 29: Bucharest

I arrive in Bucharest without a clue.

Seriously: nothing. I have some friend-suggestions on where to go and what to do, but I have no plans, and it does not occur to me until I’m halfway to my AirBnb, in a taxi, with no Internet connection, that I don’t know the buzz number or apartment number of the place I’m staying, nor have I noted the owner’s contact info. I am normally meticulous about these things.

And yet, from the moment I land, I feel at home in this city. Like I kind of fit. Not physically – people here are olive-skinned and on the shorter side. I just feels as if there was a Nat-sized landing pad here, waiting. I can’t explain it.

My cab driver turns onto a street bearing rows of Soviet block-type apartment buildings. It takes us a while to find the mine, since they all look exactly the same. But we do, and she drops me off, and I stand at the front door with my backpack at 10:30 at night, wondering what the fuck I am doing, and more to the point, why I’m not all that concerned about it.

I try to see if there’s any free WIFI floating around. There isn’t.

I try getting on the AirBnb app to see if the information is available offline. It isn’t.

I stand there and look around at the empty street, still worryingly unperturbed.

I search my email, and am overjoyed to find one containing my reservation info. And there: some extra digits after the address. Victory! But what do they mean? I try punching them in various sequences into the number pad next to the door, which is so decrepit I’m afraid it’s about to implode. Nothing happens.

There are some random letters at the bottom of the number pad, so I try those, too. Still nothing. I stand there for a while longer.

Then three dudes get out of a cab, come to the door, let me in, tell me what floor my apartment is on, and wish me a pleasant stay in Romania.

If the elevator in this building were in Canada, it would have been condemned three times over. It looks like it was welded together by a grade 12 shop class, and you have to close the inside set of doors by hand before it moves. I get to my apartment. The lovely owner shows me around and then takes off for the weekend. I decide to go and buy some food at the 24-hour supermarket. When I get back into the elevator, it goes down and stops on the first floor, but the door won’t budge.

Huh.

I press a random button. The elevator goes up. I realize that you have to wait for a little “ka-ching” as it clicks into place, and THEN you open the door. How this elevator even knows it’s an elevator, much senses when its doors are open, is a miracle, but there you go.

*

Today, I go into town.

I check out churches, a courtyard that once belonged to Vlad the Impalor (aka Dracula,) some shops. I sit at a lot of cafes. I know I should be more proactive, hunting down museums and monuments and secret, hidden spots, but it occurs to me - and this is in no way a complaint - that I don’t have the energy. I would be happy to trot along next to someone who had everything mapped and planned, but I'm a little bit traveled out. For now.

Maybe it’s because I’m coming to the end of this journey. Not just this whirlwind European tour, but my whole time abroad. For now. I’m heading home in three weeks. I don’t know how long I’ll stay, but something is telling me it’s time to be still for a while, and be close to my family and the people I’ve known the longest. And Ruble, who’s coming with me. 

This is why I’ve tried to squeeze in so much over the past month. A last (for now!!) hurrah.

So even though there’s a loud voice shouting “SEE ALL THE THINGS UNTIL YOUR FEET ARE BLEEDING STUMPS,” I’m pretty okay with just cruising. I’ll get a few sights and trips in over the next couple of days, but if I don’t see everything in Romania worth seeing, I’m cool with it. Traveling feels a little like breathing, now. Which is maybe why I feel okay putting it down for a while.

*

If Bucharest were a human, I think she would be a beautiful, strong woman who has been through some serious shit. She’s a survivor, this city. Her outskirts are endless rows of Soviet-era buildings, like the one I’m staying in, but her middle layers are these stunning, turn-of-the-century apartments and banks, many of which are half worn through and graffitied everywhere. 






And then there’s the Old Town in the centre, where everything is ornate and magnificent, and you understand why Bucharest was once known as Little Paris.


I let myself get lost in the labyrinth of streets. I people-watch. “Friendly” is not a word you’d use to describe Bucharesters, but despite that, I still feel something welcoming about the place. My great-grandmother came from this country, and my grandmother and mother from the one next door, so maybe that’s why.

Back at my Airbnb, the elevator doors do their thing, and I rise up to my little haven in the sky. As I unlock the door, there’s a familiar swell of gratitude for the freedom and the privilege I’ve been given to spend the last two plus years traveling, and for the fact that I’m looking forward to being in the place that I can, sort of, call home.

And also for the hard-won wisdom of knowing that, while it sometimes takes a while, I, too, almost always ka-ching into place.













Thursday, October 20, 2016

Day 28: Tribe

This morning is one of those mornings. Nothing terrible happens, shit just goes wrong. Then I find out that the friend I’m supposed to meet in Bucharest, where I’m headed today, can’t make it.

At lunchtime, Pietro drives me to the train station, even though I could have walked there in 7 minutes.

“Have a great and long life,” he says, with a flourish.

He kisses me on both cheeks and then disappears. And I stand there on the platform with my backpack, with that feeling that I get sometimes when I travel alone: of being a tiny minnow in an enormous sea, like I could get swallowed up at any moment and no one would know.

Sometimes, I can be a little bit dramatic.

*

I was talking to one of my Bali friends yesterday, Sabrina, who's now back home in Australia. She's had the sads lately and doesn't know why. 

“There is nothing wrong with my life,” she said. “I don’t want to be a downer.”

“When you’re having a shit time, you’re having a shit time," I told her. "You’re not whining about it or blaming the world. Your friends want to be there for you.”

Do you think I can take this advice myself?  

I get on the train into Florence, feeling lower and lower. I want to call a friend, but I don’t want to be a downer. I send out a little prayer to the universe that someone who loves me might check in on me for no reason, even though the universe is probably like, “Girl, god gave you two hands. Pick up that phone and dial.”

Lo and behold, in that moment, a text comes in from my friend Leannah, who's still in Bali.

“I’m having a shit day,” I tell her.

Then I add that there is nothing wrong with my life, and apologize for being a downer.

Leannah tells me, in the politest way possible, to fuck off and let her be a friend.

I catch her up a bit, and then tell her about a guy I met on Bumble (for those not in the know - essentially like Tinder, except girls have to send a first message.) I've been chatting with him for the past few days, and there is even the possibility of (gasp) meeting up. He is cute, friendly, intelligent, and a traveler.

“But he makes dad jokes,” I say.

I have no issue with dad jokes. I find them kind of endearing, when done properly. But this guy takes it to a whole other level. For example, knowing I was flying out of Bologna today, he made a joke about baloney. 

“I can’t go out with a guy who makes jokes about baloney and Bologna,” I say to Leannah. “Can I?”

Leannah, who is usually pretty squeaky clean, says:

“Depends how big his bologna is.”

I burst out laughing. The very serious elderly Italian woman sitting across from me raises her eyebrows. I start laughing harder, and her very serious husband gives me the side-eye. Now I can't stop. The more people start looking at me, the more I giggle like a 12-year old. We bring Sabrina into the conversation.

“He seems harmless,” Sabrina proclaims, once I fill her in.

“He’s read all the Game of Thrones books,” I tell her. Sabrina is a huge fan.

“OMG! Can he speak Dothraki? Definitely sleep with him if so.”

As I get off the train in Bologna, I send them his profile photo. I liked it especially because there are goats in a field behind him.  

“He’s cute,” Leannah says.

“He looks dodgy,” Sabrina says. “Run.”

I’m stunned. Sabrina and I usually have similar taste.

“RUN? Why?”

“It’s the way he’s looking at the camera. Trying to be cool with those llamas in the background.”

“They’re not llamas. They’re goats.”

There is a pause as, presumably, Sabrina looks at the photo again.

“Goats they are.”

“Maybe he’s saying, ‘Hey girl, check me out with these llama-goats,'" Leannah says. 

This makes me double over on the platform, backpack and all.

We all chime in about how much we miss each other. Then we say our goodbyes, and I head out in the rain to find the bus to the airport, still laughing.

*

There is so much calm and positivity that comes from sitting with the shitty feelings, rather than distracting yourself with Facebook or texting or any other number of ways we can tune out. We learn this, in meditation. We learn it the hard way, boy. And I know, from experience, that it works.

But it was also a meditation teacher who told me that we’re not supposed to do this alone.

This whole life thing, I mean. We’re supposed to reach out when things get shitty, even if they’re not that shitty. Even if there is “nothing wrong”. Not to whine, or to blame, or to be negative. None of that works. But to commune. To say, hey, I’m not so great, so the other person can say hey, neither am I, or hey, I still love you. 



So when to reach out and when to stay still? What’s the fine line between mindfulness and stoicism? I don’t know the magic formula. Maybe I never will. All I know is that today, no one tried to make anyone look on the bright side. We were just real with each other, held space for each other, and laughed. Three women – one on a train to Bologna, one in a parking lot in Canggu, and one on a couch in Perth – brightened up each other’s days. Mine especially. I'm grateful for the technology and the circumstances that led me to be able to reach out to them.

In the end, traveling solo, as exhilarating as it can be, is not entirely natural. We’re meant to be in tribes. Human are pack animals.

And so, for the record, are llama-goats.







Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Day 27: Tiramisu

I had to stay home and work today. Someone’s gotta be productive around this place.

Maria and Pietro were out all day, including for both lunch and dinner (gasp!), so I was left to my own devices. Sort of.

“You take food from the fridge,” Maria commanded, before they left.

But out of a desire to be at least somewhat self-sufficient, I walked into town at lunchtime and bought a few groceries. The sun came out from behind the clouds, and I passed an old man who exclaimed, “Bongiorno, segnorina!” to a little girl on a sidewalk, proving once again that Italy exists on a different dimension than the rest of the planet, and making me wonder why, given the choice, anyone would want to live anywhere else.

At the supermarket, the cashier asked me something. I cheerfully told him no parlo italiano, and he cheerfully spoke probably the only English he knows, and we said goodbye, laughing. I passed a man walking a miniature schnauzer, and I squealed and showed him a photo of Ruble on my phone, and he was seriously thrilled. (The man, not the schnauzer. Who had a much fancier hairdo than Ruble, but as he is Italian, this should not come as a surprise to anyone.)

I went to the post office to mail a package. The woman behind the counter knew no English at all, but somehow we figured out the price of the postage, and that it was going by regular post. As I walked home, I thought, again, how I should just stay here. Maria and Pietro have even offered that I could hang out while they’re away for the winter. I’d get Ruble over and call him Rublito, and we’d sit in my little loft and look out the fog and write. And probably gain a few hundred pounds, because after 3 weeks of being here, I now feel, like the rest of the nation, apparently, that unless it’s got bread and cheese in it, it ain’t food.

Then I came home and cooked for myself for the first time in almost 2 weeks. (I know.)

I am a terrible cook. Ask any man I’ve dated or person I’ve lived with: I suck at making food, and also, I hate it. Baking is a different story, because that’s about dessert, but actually being inspired to put a meal together is not in my DNA. This is probably why I have so many friends who happen to be fantastic in the kitchen.

It was then that I realized, really and truly, how well taken care of I’ve been since I arrived in this little town. It’s not just the food, although that’s a big part of it. (Side note: yesterday, Maria gave me her tiramisu recipe. DID YOU HEAR THAT? I will never be husband-less again. Just kidding.) It’s the love that came with it. It’s having people who knew when I came and went, who cared where I was, and who wanted to know who I was. This is what I’ve missed, as a traveler, but I also know there are a lot of people who aren’t traveling and who still don’t have it. There is no substitute for having people. It doesn’t matter how happy or self-fulfilled you are.

I knew I needed to come to Italy. I wasn’t sure why. I wanted to see beautiful things and visit beautiful places, and maybe have a fling with some handsome man on a vespa – well, not actually on the vespa, he’d be riding… never mind. Anyway, I thought I’d have some kind of Audrey Hepburn experience, staying out late and flitting around the rooftop bars of Tuscany like the young and carefree thing that I am.

Instead, I came home almost every night and had dinner with a couple in their late 60s. And I wanted to. In fact, most nights, I couldn’t wait to sit down with them, and not just because of the food. Because of the warmth. Because of the sharing and the appreciation, the open-mindedness and the extension of family. Because I got to be like a grownup here, but get taken care of like a little kid. 

Tira mi su, translated, means "pick me up". 

Which, in the end, was what I exactly what I needed.