Author Archives: Sarah L.

About Sarah L.

I have a passion for people and culture. I want to change the world. I am dramatic and anxious and overly organized in everything I do. I love reading, good music, coffee, wine, family and friends.

Venezia

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Three and a half scorching days under the Mediterranean sun have turned the tops of my shoulders and cheeks into the color of ripe nectarines. My hair has remained a mess of windblown curls, liberated by the heat of the sun instead of an infrared ceramic coil of a blow dryer. My feet are enjoying a break from the uneven cobblestones of Prague, but I still managed to break a pair of sandals and detached the sole of my favorite pair of flats (which, in all fairness, have now been superglued back together three times). In this heat, where you can nearly feel the melanin bursting under the surface of your skin, it’s all strapless bras and hair ties.

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Crowds congregate near small water spigots, dipping their heads under the cool water and filling water bottles while dogs lick puddles around the drain in their own effort to cool off. A large group of teenage boys are splashing and laughing in a language that sounds like Dutch. One reaches in his pocket for a phone and begins lip synching Marvin Gays, Lets Get it On as it plays from his iPhone. We can’t help but blush a bit and laugh along with them at the silliness of it all. We don’t understand the words, but our shared laughter is universal and unmistakable.

At dinner, we ask for a table outside by the canal so we can watch the sunset. Instead of making us wait, we are brought a table and chairs from inside. We are sitting next to a woman and her son and his grandfather. They speak very quickly, laughing and singing in the way that Italians do when they speak. A man with an accordion comes up to our table and plays, while the little boy dances and gives him euros, one coin at a time, slowly sucking the pulp out of the moment so it isn’t over too quickly.

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The next night, we go out with Mei, who we met at the hostel, and have cocktails by the water. She tells us of her travels, her home in Malaysia, and all of the places we must visit in Asia. We ask a French filmographer seated at a table next to us to take our photo. We ask about his work, but he is short and rejects our offer to join us. (He did take a good picture though.) To our left is a man Lauren quite accurately refers to as “Fabio”. He has long Italian features, muscles bursting out of his clothes and a thick accent which he over apologizes for. He has a chihuahua named Papi who we pet and baby talk while we ask him about Venice and share the few words we have in common. I ask how he feels about the endless crowds packing the streets and he says, “Tourism is very good no? Good for Venice” he rubs his index finger and thumb together and smiles widely, his bleached teeth in complete contrast with his dark, sun soaked skin. He picks up our drink tab at the end of the evening, and after our profuse thanking dies down, he touches the tips of all his fingers together and kisses them in a sweeping motion “tourists!” he says.

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After the sun sets, we walk toward the center of the city in hopes of finding a lively bar and more friendly Italians to usher us into the early morning hours. We come across one of the few open bars, order spritzers, and take them outside to sit on the steps of a fountain. We are next to a group of college students who are laughing and drinking and passing joints around between them, mumbling and teasing each other and filling the square with echoes of laughter and the rising and falling of the language. I begin talking to a 19 year-old girl next to me who is studying Arabic at the university. Her friends quickly join in after they realize we bought her second glass of wine. And so, our laughter and linguistic twangs blend with theirs and hangs in the air somewhere between the drifting smoke and the edge of the ozone layer. We drink together, share small pieces of our lives, and exchange curse words with each other, laughing and saying them too loudly through the empty streets.

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So once again, Italy leaves me feeling full. Full of spirit and life and excited for people and these mini relationships that are fleeting in the physical sense, but linger in my mind. People see pictures of Venice and imagine themselves floating down a canal in a gondola and eating gelato from a still-warm waffle cone. And it is that. It’s sherbet colored sunsets and calzones as big as your head and overpriced cocktails. But it’s also a people, a slower pace, a love for food, and passion for life that no photo or blog can sufficiently capture.

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Self-inspired

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1) Whatever it is, it’s part of a bigger picture. Assume you have no idea what that picture looks like.
2) People are good, even when they mess up (including you).
3) Every person has value. (You aren’t omniscient – don’t expect to see it.)
4) If you truly believe in something you will never ever give up on it. Ever.
5) There are people who care about you – always.

I wrote that a year and a half ago after finishing one of my favorite books: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I was looking through my old blog this morning and found it, and realized that it still has a lot of meaning to me. Imagine that. I can relate to something I wrote. But it was me then, the past me, who doesn’t know the things I know now. And yet, sometimes the simplicity of organic thought is able to pervade time.

I was born with an uncontrollable urge to constantly control everything. It has been a slow process learning that I can’t, and that trying is really exhausting and not very rewarding. I have trouble opening my fists and letting what may happen may, desperately clenching onto things I shouldn’t. Not physical things- I don’t keep much ‘stuff’ around, but things that people say to me, my relationships, those looks of contentment and resentment you get from people who think you didn’t notice. I don’t have one of those “f you’ attitudes, as much as I wish I did, as much as I pretend I do. I want closure from those feelings, those looks, those relationships. I’m slowly learning (although not there yet) that most of life won’t give you closure no matter how much you beg for it. Everything won’t be packaged neatly and tied up with a bow. It will be destroyed along the way- dropped, man-handled, pissed on by homeless people. But, you carry it with you all the same. Not because you hope that someday you’ll get your pretty little ribbon on top, but because somehow, the piss and shit you pick up along the way ends up meaning more than all the other stuff; more than the package you carried in the first place.

I’ve changed a lot in the last year and a half. I’ve learned a lot and forgotten a lot, and got pissed on more times than I’d like to remember. But, when I look at the things that mattered to me then, they still resonate now. I’m still able to feel inspired by the same things. The core of who I am hasn’t changed, although the things I accept as my own certainly have. I don’t need what I once did. The comforts I cherished, the friends I thought I would have forever. Because I’ve still got me. The things I thought I needed are replaced by new things. Life does certainly have a way of going on whether we like it or not. So, in honor of the five things I thought I knew a year and a half ago, here are some slight modifications given what I’ve learned since:

1) Whatever it is, it’s part of a bigger picture. Assume you have no idea what that picture looks like. Embrace the chaos.
2) People are good, even when they mess up (including you). Some people are also shitty. Don’t try to change them – go about your life.
3) Every person has value. (You aren’t omniscient – don’t expect to see it.) But don’t give your time to people who don’t value you back- be around people who treat with you with respect.
4) If you truly believe in something you will never ever give up on it. Ever. EVER.
5) There are people who care about you – always. Give those people your love, and let them love you in return.

The Prague Metro

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It’s a Tuesday. I look out the window, up at the sky, contemplating if I should go with rain boots or moccasins. Typical overcast day, the sun trying its best to break through the thick ceiling of clouds and failing to do so. I see the people four floors below, walking to whatever it is they try to convince themselves matters. Slowly marching toward the unavoidable underground fate that awaits us all. They are wearing hats and scarves and boots, so the march today is a cold one. I go to my mirror boudoir, and stare into the eyes looking back at me. The light from the window behind me, pouring into my room, casting a halo around my reflection. These eyes are so much older than the ones I remember. I curse myself for not being braver, for not seeing more than I have, for not accomplishing something great. Not loving enough, or hurting enough or helping enough.  The blank expression of the person in front of me isn’t the person I thought I’d become. I tell myself that today will be the day that I become something, but it’s only Tuesday. Seems like the weekend would be better for such dreams.

I open the mirrored door, ridden with oily fingerprints, and reach for my winter coat. I run my arm through one sleeve, then the other, finick with the broken zipper until I get it binded, then zip it up to my neck. I reach for the brown suede boots and slip my feet into them, heading toward the door with key in hand. Then, down the four flights of winding stairs and automatic lights to the front gate. Someone’s left it open again, so I pull it open without having to use the key. I slam it hard behind me, harder than I meant to.

Although the air has a hue of grey and the cold is biting at my earlobes and finger tips, I’m happy to be here. To be outside, the crisp air filling my lungs, recirculating my blood. I’m walking up the hill toward I.P. Pavlova. Past the small potraviny that charges too much for bread, past the large non-stop potraviny where I buy most of my groceries. I see strawberries in the window. Still overpriced and out of season. I begin salivating for spring time and fresh produce and the promise of a sun that will break through the clouds and warm my face. I long for the feeling of a hot sun beating down through chilled air. I take a sharp right turn and run across the street toward Namesti Miru; the green line. I cross when the pedestrian walking signal is red because I know it’s about to change. I’ve only been here a few months, but I’ve figured out the traffic enough to know when it’s my turn. The Czech people stand waiting at the same light, knowing better than I, yet they stand obediently waiting for the little man to turn green. Bred by communism, afraid to step before the little green man grants them permission.

Up the hill toward Namesti Miru, walking quickly, passing up the clicking of women’s heels against cobblestone streets. I defy another red man, walking into the park toward the metro entrance. I pass a man sitting on a bench, his hands cupped in front of him, a hat covering most of his face. He’s smiling slightly, lips bent up with admiration and jealousy,as he watches his dog chase pigeons through the grass. Fat birds teasing the Labrador by flying just out of his reach. They are bored, unamused, yet desperate to collect the microscopic crumbs around the garbage can. The dog runs, his tongue hanging out of his smiling mouth, jumping and spinning and playing the way that dogs do. It makes me smile unintentionally as well, joyous envy for his carefree leaps. I think to myself that there is a lesson here somewhere; the fat rummaging pigeons, the crumbs, the careless leaping dog and the old man with the hat.

I walk past the people standing at the tram with their briefcases and backpacks and morning cigarettes. Past the hotdog stand that smells like a highschool football game. Soggy wieners steaming in metal, filling the air with the smell of cooking flesh, mixing with the choking smoke of tobacco. If you ask me what Prague smells like, that would be my answer: sausage and Marlboros. It sounds repulsive, but the smell soon becomes addicting. It becomes morning, afternoon and night. It is the vivaciousness of the city and the people and everything that life here embodies. Burning meat and smoke.

I quickly move down the stairs into the metro, the cold air rushing past me, chilling the sweat around my hairline. On the escalator, and a long journey down. Some days I run down the stairs, but today I’m just standing, watching the people on the escalator on their way out. A young man stands on the step behind a woman, equal height. He kisses her on her cheek, and her eye and her neck and she smiles and kisses him on the lips. I glance at them, catching eyes with the man and becoming embarrassed, waiting for his gaze to fall back on her so I can look at them again. I can’t help but stare, to watch them, their delicate kisses, as if they are the only ones in the world, as if their touch will last forever. I remind myself it won’t and move my gaze in front of me, looking down to the end of the escalator and the still ground waiting below.

When I step off the escalator and onto the platform, I turn lazily, waiting for the metro that will take me into town. The clock says 8:54. The car clock says that it has been 1:52 minutes since the last car. It’s Tuesday, so another will be along shortly. To my right, an old woman stands, her arms crossed in front of her, lazily staring at the walls in front of her without really looking at anything. Just past her, another young couple stands in embrace. The girl this time, pushed up against the wall and the boy with her, burying his tongue deep in her mouth. Their heads swaying back and forth, shamelessly, as if everyone in the metro is doing the same. I wonder what it’s like to feel that free. To feel such a passionate burst of affection so suddenly and ardently that you cannot wait until you are alone. We must act now, in this moment, without shame. I wonder if that’s love. I tell myself it’s just two stupid kids.

Then, the cold air starts moving past me, brushing my hair slowly across my face at first, then with more force. That’s the thing about the metro. You feel it before you see it. The breeze becomes heavier and colder and stronger, my hair is blowing wildly over my shoulder and across my face and I let it. I close my eyes and breathe in the cold air and let the stray hair tickle my cheeks and nose. Then I hear the rumbling of the car coming down the tunnel, subtle at first, then louder and more intense. Then a small flicker of light bounces off the walls, until the headlights are in view. The people step closer to the platform, nearly in sync, anticipating the opening doors. The car pulls before us and screeches to a stop. The doors open, and the busy people with their briefcases and backpacks step out, going wherever it is that people go on a Tuesday.

The old woman with the lazy stare is standing across from me, waiting to step on the car. She’s older than I realized at first. The roots of her hair white, the thin skin of her hands hardly able to contain the veins standing above the surface of her skin. She has no wedding ring, and I wonder if she is a widow. I wonder if that’s why her expression is so lazy, as if she’s seen all that she expects. As if she was once a young person on the metro, embracing her love, having her eyes and nose kissed, and now she has no one. She steps onto the car, revealing white sox and black tennis shoes under her long skirt. I step on behind her, disgusted with her, feeling sorry for her, and I tell myself not to look on her anymore. I spin facing the doors I just stepped through. They close, and I see a reflection in the glass windows of the doors, a pair of eyes much like those of the old woman staring back.

I’m startled when I realize they are my own, and the car slowly pulls away from the platform.

To those who hold a paddle

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One of the hardest parts about living on a different continent is the relational trauma it causes. For some, time and distance define the construct of how much another person is capable of mattering. For others, it’s as if we all live in a bizarre 1959 episode of Twilight Zone where time and distance don’t seem to exist…. another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind.

Or maybe they just know how to use the internet.

While I don’t like the feeling that I’m growing out of certain relationships and growing into others, I’m not sure why that feeling makes me so uncomfortable. It doesn’t seem realistic that through all of life’s changing tides, the person whom we chose to be our soulmate when we were in grade school would be our soulmate after life has thrashed us both about a bit. But, sometimes they still are. And sometimes, a great friend in one context turns out to be a black hole, sucking all joy out of your life, in another. (Cue Twilight Zone theme song). We grow and we change. People we once trusted break our trust and sometimes break our hearts, perhaps even forcing us into waters so rough that forgiveness cannot tread.

So, the question I’m struggling with is when is the right time to let go, to give up, to give in, to throw in the towel. I’m exhausted from trying to keep relationships afloat that would otherwise sink. How long can you be the only one paddling the boat before your arms give out?

Home is where my feet are. I realize that there’s an extra effort involved in being my friend because of that. I can’t just grab a quick cup of coffee or attend barbecues and ugly sweater parties because I’m not usually around for them. The only way people know what’s going on in my life is if they ignore the thousands of miles and several time zones dividing us, find time to not be “busy,” and embrace the technology and time differences required to stay involved. I’m constantly surprised by the people who find the effort worth it and the ones who don’t.

I have friends that I’ve had my whole life, many of whom I’ll know until death takes whichever of us first. But some of my strongest, most cherished relationships are those that are newer, but based on love and respect, and yes, a lot of effort. If that commitment doesn’t exude from both sides, no matter how long ago the foundation was set, no new growth, and only deterioration can occur.

And sometimes, I know, the best answer is to do nothing. Let those who want to walk away (or swim, for the sake of analogy) go. I’m fortunate to have so many people in my life who are committed to loving me and who will row along beside me. I should express it to them more often because I cherish my them so damn much. As for the others, well, the inescapable end that haunts us all is too close to worry about anyone unwilling to pick up a a paddle.

Gun Controlfusion

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It astonishes me how many people feel so passionately about one side of an argument or another when I am teetering on a fence in between, unable to decide how I really feel. People tend to get so heated when discussing personal views that any opportunity for real discussion is completely abrogated within a few minutes. Having been a bit removed from all of the recent talk in the States about gun control, and after seeing countless memes and graphs plastered on my Facebook feed, I decided to dig a little. Because the pie charts suggesting gun violence is decreasing, and the statistics about guns being leading cause of homicide can’t both be right. So, I spent the morning reading a lot of poorly presented data and some borderline fallacious graphs about deaths involving firearms in the US. Turns out they kind of are both right. That’s the thing about statistics; they can be bent to look a particular way to suit our particular needs.

Which leads to the thing about forming an opinion. You can’t expect to have a legitimate view on something unless you seek out information, understand both sides of an argument, and come to a decision based on fact, not fancy rhetoric or retweeted articles written by the NRA.

I started out my morning on NPR as I usually do, and came across a blatantly left article about deaths in the States, US Ranks Below 16 Other Rich Countries in Health Report, which called out gun violence as a major factor in America’s higher than most developed countries mortality rates. This prompted my research, as I wondered how significant an impact guns really did have on deaths in America, and how much this author was just giving into all the media hype recently in circulation.

I sifted through some data, and found that firearm homicides make up .5 percent of deaths in the US, while suicide by firearm accounts for about .6 percent. This means that approximately 1.1 percent of deaths in the States are due to firearms (about 27,364 in 2011). Interesting when you take into account that:

  • Drug-related deaths accounted for 1.6 percent of deaths
  • Alcohol-related deaths (excluding FAS and homicides as a result of alcohol consumption) accounted for 1 percent
  • Diseases of the heart accounted for more 24 percent
  • Malignant neoplasms (big word for cancer) accounted for about 23 percent deaths

I realize discussing death in general is much different than discussing homicide. I also realize there is more to an issue than the numbers involved. The arguments about cigarettes killing more people than guns, and regulating X instead of Y doesn’t quite fit into context, and those arguments are invalidated by the other side instantaneously. It just seems lately that so many people from both sides are pointing fingers in this one arena, when it accounts for such a small part of the real issues our country is facing.We tend to get so absorbed in the minutia that the media is feeding us that we fail to see the bigger, far more important picture. It’s an important area, I agree; it should be discussed. But so much hate has been thrown around about it lately. As if we don’t have enough racial, sexual and religious discrimination… as if we need a new outlet to hate each other.

I’m not exactly sure where I stand in the discussion about gun control. There are examples of countries with a lot of gun control who do it right, and vice-versa. It’s not a matter of taking a model that works for someone else and applying it to ourselves. Apples and oranges, square peg, round hole, you know the idioms I’m referring to. I have a lot of questions and  not a lot of answers. But doesn’t it seem easier to blame McDonalds for our obesity than our own bad habits… Are we playing the same card with gun control? Do guns kill people or do people kill people?

I don’t know that 18 year old Joe Schmoe has much need for a semi-automatic rifle. Having said that, is it my right to tell him that he doesn’t anymore than I have the right to keep him from smoking or eating a Big Mac every day? There are many sides to every discussion. It’s okay to disagree and discuss and get heated, but remember we’re all just people guessing at the end of the day. Your solution may just be the worst one out there when put into practice.

Regardless of such, I challenge you to read for yourself, decide for yourself. Don’t form opinions based on trending hashtags and what your parents want you to believe. You don’t have to choose left or right, the red pill or the blue pill. It’s okay to be in-process of forming an opinion, or simply be undecided about the right course of action. There’s far too much grey matter to be so staunchly decisive in today’s world.  

Buongiorno Milano!

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Shopping Center

Milan’s cobblestone streets are flooded with Italian women wrapped tightly in fur coats and men in designer jeans and studded belts. Nodding heads on subway cars look more like Ralph Lauren billboards than tired passengers heading home from a day of work. This city has a pulse and it beats rapidly, deeply through the night and early into the morning. Where I can pass as a local in some places, Italy knows better. My pale skin, pale hair and blue eyes cause long stares and incoherent words under soft breath. Men whistle as they pass by, staring too long with eager lust in their eyes. But even the greatest offense sounds beautiful when it is muttered in Italian.

This language shakes and breathes and dives in and out and up and down. Every word sounds like a call to action, a battle cry, a plea to join a cause. And the people lift their arms high, and put their hands close to your face and speak with a passion I’ve not experienced in my most heated moments. Hymns sung to Beethoven’s Fifth in an intense and frightening way to an ear that knows no better. The metro hums with chatter and booming laughter and a sense of famiglia encapsulates the city and all of the people inside it.

Duomo di Milano

Duomo di Milano

We visit the Duomo, a beautiful, skyscraping cathedral, if there ever was such a thing. Never have I seen so much art in one place. Every inch is ornate and ironic in the most beautiful way: the walls, covered in sculptures up to the ceilings, which you can barely see with human eyes; stained glass windows stretch beyond my grip of sight; the floor, a maze of complicated patterns and colors; paintings hang, two-up all the way down the church on either side. We try to make sense of everything our body is trying to absorb, but we fail and become overwhelmed, groggy from the dim lights and evaporating holy water. We leave the church, letting ourselves get lost, wandering narrow streets; every turn a new discovery, a new way to get lost again and again. We are asked for change, harassed by people on the streets collecting money for ‘Africa’ or to feed their hungry babies. We push past, pretending not to understand, and stop at a tobacco shop to enjoy a freshly rolled cigarette on a cold patio, surrounded by like-minded  locals.

And on a Thursday night, we walk into a small bar, where we are greeted by a group of men, laughing and eating cichete and drinking the local birra. Ciao! Ciao! Ciao!! echoes around us in a room with walls covered in old newspapers, slot machines lining the back perimeter. We swiftly and quietly order “due birre” from the bar and take our place at a small table in the corner. We quickly learn that’s not how Italians make friends. We are stoned to death with questions, and brought endless plates of formaggio and freshly sliced prosciutto,  deviled eggs, cheeses, salami, bread and  chips and dips. Every time we finish one plate, another one comes to replace it. Arthur works on a computer in the corner, ridden with unnecessary programs and a long history of user error. He tries to navigate Windows in Italian, and the men joke, calling him Bill Gates, gesturing to his over-sized head. They string together sentences in Italian and broken English, furrowing their brows when we don’t understand, then burning paper and building charades with toothpicks to help us along. They laugh because we don’t understand much; Armando, who knows the most English translates what he cans, and makes inappropriate gestures to either party in between his translations. The men tease each other with gay jokes and pepper their sentences with ‘fuck’ as often as possible. They apologize because I’m a girl, and immediately joke that they will take me home with them; their wives will forgive them tomorrow, they say.

IMG_0786Then a free round of beers come before the bar closes, but we stay inside, laughing and eating, filling the room with the sweet, choking smell of competing tobaccos. The owner pulls out his camera, points to his wall of photos, and we spend the next 15 minutes posing for pictures we’ll never see. We part ways, but not before receiving an invitation for the next night, which we know we will accept. And we will come back the next night, but it won’t be quite the same. These fleeting moments are never able to be repeated, and so we cherish them even more.

As unromantic as I know how to be.

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I’ve been avoiding writing about Prague… I know it’s going to turn into an 19th century Bronte excerpt, and I’m going to look like an asshole, but there is no other way that I can adequately describe it. Because every day, walking along the cobblestone roads, I’m narrating everything I see- every movement around me. . I’m telling stories to myself because none of it seems real enough to be my reality. It only seems able to exist in narrative. Everything is something new, every step a little closer to something, somewhere. Every corner a new challenge, another mystery. Even though I can’t understand much of what anyone says, and I get scolded by a Czech person daily for doing something wrong, I feel strangely connected to this place.

The untrained eye, or perhaps the rational eye, might see things differently. But my Bronte mind allows baroque apartments covered in graffiti to be beautiful. I pretend to understand it. Because it’s more than spray paint on a door. It’s an act of defiance, a declaration of expression. Twenty years removed from communism, and yes, I think it’s beautiful. Perhaps only the bud of expression, but progression at all seems to be great growth. Every once in a while I’m surprised by how a simple word or picture can stop me dead on a busy street. Every inch of the city another chance to connect to something just beyond my grip of understanding.

And every moment of the day is like that. My senses are confounded, at maximum capacity before I’ve even made it to the tram stop. Last week, I was overwhelmed by the thick smell of freshly snuffed cigarettes and sweat and perfume during my morning commute. This week, it just smells like morning. The contrasting smells claw at my senses, pulling me in zigzags across the pavement. The aroma of freshly baked bread grabs me by the wrist and forces out me wallet. Little armed baguettes, thieves with good intent. And then I go into an espresso-carbohydrate trance, and wake up a few blocks away with an empty cup and crumbs on my face. And the air is burning cold, but my blood is burning hot while I listen to Regina Spektor, instinctively marching in time across a 600 year-old bridge.