Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Happy Sad Lisbon

In the world, there are some intrinsically happy places and intrinsically sad places. Take Wellesley, for example. On the outside, a campus that boasts of its natural beauty and abundance of ambitious, self-sufficient students, it seems like Happy Valley, a utopian community of laughing women who love to learn, encourage each other, and pet smiling dogs they pass on their way around the lake. From the inside, however, Wellesley looks like a suffocating bubble within which anxious, lonely perfectionists struggle to keep up with their overfull schedules and maintain some semblance of success. You could say Wellesley is one of the saddest happy places. It’s a happy place, but the life within it is sad. 

In these terms, Portugal is home to one of the happiest sad places. In Lisbon, there’s something poignant about the hazy, gray skies that hang over the oily, black water and the decrepit houses—their windows broken and walls covered in bright graffiti—standing right beside the palaces. The pristine and the grungy are  all mixed up together. It’s at once depressing, terrifying, tranquil, and inspiring.
I first knew Lisbon as the mistress in William Beckford’s geographic love affair. Lisbon was an escape for the troubled English author; it had something that kept drawing him back. I picture the city on a hill, overlooking the Tagus River, offering Beckford a beautiful, haunting place that could make him happy without force. Lisbon wouldn’t mock his melancholy with abundant sunshine; it would indulge him. 
When I finally visited Lisbon on tour with my college choir, I traveled with Beckford in mind. Compared to the wine country we had already seen in northern Portugal, Lisbon wasn’t very pretty. Most of the time it felt like one of the urban maps of a Tony Hawk video game: a cool spot to skateboard, with plenty of  white surfaces to tag, narrow alleyways, and guardrails to grind. Lisbon felt edgy, and it inspired us to become edgy while we were there. We stayed out late and screamed over club music until four or five, knowing we would have to sing in a cathedral the next morning.
The scenery of the city was drab and colorful at the same time. An array of pastel colors made up a row of buildings, but the way the paint had faded and cracked, with tiles broken and falling off, smudged what could be gaiety to a dull wistfulness. At night, young and old people alike flooded the streets. A Thursday night looked like a festival. Jazz music blared out the windows of dark bars we passed. The friends I made explained their academic studies as a means to get out of Portugal. They seemed surprised Americans even knew where the country was. But despite the movement to escape Lisbon, they had a lot to show us. It was like adolescence embodied by a city: people were desperate to move on, but they also knew it was the most fun experience they’d ever have.
Everything I saw in Lisbon was exciting, sad, and confusing. One night, we accidentally started a street fight. We had been outside of a cramped bar in the Santos neighborhood when some boys encouraged us to go to a club called Kapital. We said we’d think about it while we got a second opinion from a table of five or six boys. They recommended a different club, called Urban. “Why Urban?” I prodded. “Those boys over there told us Kapital is the best,” I said and pointed. Instantly, they leapt from their chairs, which I took as mock indignation. As they began to violently knock drinks off the table, breaking glasses before they flipped the whole table over, I realized it wasn’t a joke. Some of the angry Urban boys ran at the Kapital boys. In a matter of seconds, the breezy, flirtatious ambience of teenagers wandering the streets had turned into a brutal scuffle with boys beating each other in the middle of the road and girls screaming. We ran away, laughing, terrified.
I returned to Lisbon a year later. This second trip confirmed my first impressions of the city: not unlike a carnival—a sad looking place cloaked with amusements, making it both fun and eerie. Whether we were congregating in the streets, meeting people, or sparking fights, there was always life going on everywhere around us. People were always out. That never happened at Wellesley—not even in Boston. A friend I met in Lisbon put it well: “In America, it’s work hard, play hard. No work in Portugal. It’s just play.” Lisbon’s economy is in bad shape, but rather than making its people sad, it frees them to just be people.
Or so I think, as an outsider. Maybe if I moved in for more than a year, I would understand all of Lisbon’s brokenness with the same clarity I have at Wellesley. Maybe you have to live somewhere to see that it’s not a happy place, that there’s no such thing as a happy place, that people are the same no matter where you go. I’m sure all the smiling visitors, getting out of their van with New Hampshire plates to take photos of each other with Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker; and all the Wellesley moms from the Ville, speed-walking in pairs around the lake; and my own parents, commenting on how beautiful it is here and how smart and wonderful my friends are and how I’ll probably never want to come home—I’m sure all of them see Wellesley as a happy place. They don’t know that it makes me angry to see them bopping about while I run, sleepless, to an exam. I wish the happy onlookers wouldn’t peer at us like visitors to an aquarium. Sure, it’s beautiful. I boast about Wellesley’s beauty when I’m away from it, and I give a good tour when friends visit. But we constantly feel cut off from the real world in this little paradise. Maybe the key to a happy place has nothing to do with aesthetics; maybe the trick is making sure there’s no inside and outside. An aquarium is an illusion of happiness, like Wellesley, because it’s fun for the people passing through, but the sea creatures inside can’t go home at the end of the day. 
Or maybe it’s the place’s government that makes its people happy. According to the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index, Denmark has the highest experienced well-being—that is, Danish people feel happiest. I’ve been trolling the internet, trying to figure out why, but I think the answer is simpler than any data can convey. People are happy when they feel supported doing what they want to do, and Danish public policy supports its people through health care, gender equality, and paid maternity leave for men an women. At Wellesley, we can explore our interests to some extent, but we are all limited by academic expectations. Because the institution thrives, we struggle within it. In the poor economic conditions of Lisbon, on the other hand, perhaps the city's struggles enable its residents to thrive in a different way. Slim job offers make it impossible for everyone to follow the same career track. People have to get creative, silly, happy.

Audio Test

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Marching In: To New Orleans and Back Again by Megan Mills

            The thing I remember most from that first visit are the houses. They were all so magnificent and Southern. Houses with wrap-around porches and grand columns. Houses laden with balconies of the most intricate wrought-iron railings. Colorful houses. Houses in danger of being swallowed alive by looming oak tree branches. And plantation houses. Compromising my admiration for these gorgeous estates rich with history and my knowledge of the tragedy of that history was challenging. In fact, there is no possible way to compromise; I was simply deeply fascinated by them. When I travel, I traverse not only distance, but time. I start by blurring my modern surroundings. At the plantations, I would block out the sounds of cars in the distance, the evident signs of electricity and indoor plumbing, my friend Ali texting beside me and just imagine. Imagine how this place functioned in its prime. Imagine the sound of horse hooves on dirt paths, the rustle of ladies’ dresses and the smell of smoke from men’s pipes. Call it ignorantly romantic, but imagining the past is how and why I travel.

             And its past was exactly what drew me to New Orleans. That summer I had been swept away by Gone with the Wind. I wanted to don a bonnet and whisk off to Georgia, as if there I would find Southern gentlemen willing to fetch me food at a charming outdoor barbeque. Ali and her family had moved to New Orleans earlier that year, so when she invited me to visit, I thought, how perfect: that’s where Rhett and Scarlett honeymooned.

            We got to the houses eventually, but they were not my first impression of the Big Easy (a fine and accurate nickname for the city, without a doubt). Our first stop was Bourbon Street and I can’t say it was something I was entirely looking forward to. And for good reason, I thought, the instant we got off the street car – not trolley, street car – and turned onto Bourbon. I swear it was the worst thing I had ever smelled. It was trash day, I hoped; it couldn’t possibly smell like this all the time. I looked to my left and saw the sign for a club called Hustler. “Relax, it’s just sex,” it read; welcome to Bourbon, I thought.

            As I quickly discovered, there was so much more to New Orleans than its houses from a different era and its infamous party scene. I forced Ali to take me to jazz clubs, where we snickered after illegally ordering margaritas. I ate everything – gumbo, jambalaya, oysters, beignets, coffee with chicory. The Southern accents of the locals captivated me. Everyone was so friendly and relaxed and I tried not to act like a Puritan from up North because I wanted them to like me as much as I liked them. I decided I wanted to be buried in a crypt, they were just so beautiful. I thought that New Orleans was to be one of my favorite places and for reasons beyond it being a mere setting for a fictional tale and a fascinating history.

            I knew my return to New Orleans would be drastically different. Many times, I find that returning somewhere can be better than visiting it for the first time. The anticipation is richer. I was bouncing in my seat on the plane, playing jazz licks in my head, counting down the hours to good ol’ Southern comfort. Yet, there is also the fear of disrupting your idyllic image of the place. My return to New Orleans was centered around my friend’s bachelorette weekend during the peak of Mardi Gras season. I was thrilled to celebrate with my friends and to experience that grand festival. But I knew I would be walking on the Bourbon side of things this time around.

            As it turns out, Mardi Gras is contagious. Its devil-may-care revelry infects everyone. We saw it in all walks of life. Like a family friend of Ali’s, a downright Southern Gatsby with monogrammed drink stirrers and traditional New Orleans blues bouncing off the rich blues and greens that painted his walls. The little ones who sit high above the parades on ladders, unaware of the pleasure they possess of growing up with such tradition. A solo traveler we befriended who was in town to experience the city in its prime, but mostly just to dance. There was another family friend, a socialite born and raised in this place which resembles European cities more than its American counterparts. “Happy Mardi Gras!” she greeted us from the porch of her house right on the parade route. “Please, come in, drink all of the wine and eat all of the king cake.” She told us New Orleans was the kind of place that if you loved it, it would love you back.

            I found that love of all places on Bourbon Street. It thrived with an energy I had never before experienced. Beads of purple, green and gold were everywhere, thrown from the balconies above and covering the street below. I don’t recall any awful smells and I looked on the Hustler sign with fondness. It was all New Orleans.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Going Back by Anna Krauthamer
When I was studying in Prague, I planned a trip to Positano, Italy, because I believed I had to go back there while I was already living in Europe.  That semester, Positano wasn’t as far from me as it usually is.  I had been to Positano many times before with my family, but this last time I went alone.
My parents went to Positano, a small town on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, for the first time in the eighties, several years before my sister and I were born. Then they took us back the summer when we were five, again when we were six, seven, eight, eleven, fourteen, and eighteen. My mother never wanted to go anywhere else. I don't blame her.  Positano, a fishing village built into mountainous coastal rock, leads down to the water; there's just one main road.  The town itself, all its buildings painted some pastel color, is tucked into the mountain's folds. As you walk up the main road to get to the top of Positano, the higher you are, the better your view of what lies around and below you. You see haphazard rows of white and peach, from this distance, tiny structures that make use of their mountain's every square inch, and surrounding the buildings, ancient green and grey landscape. Beneath all that, you see the sea, separated from the town proper by a rocky gray beach dotted with what looks like, from this height, little orange beads.  
Positano has one main beach, with little grey stones and sea glass instead of sand. Everyday we were in Positano my family went to the beach, where we would rent orange lounge chairs from an old man we knew as Capitano.  He was there every other time I had gone to Positano, starting when my sister and I were five, always coming by our chairs to give us slabs of frozen coconut or to remind my sister and me, then burgeoning swimmers, how to say “someone help me please” in Italian, but when I went down to the beach last fall, another man who's now responsible for those orange chairs told me that he had died.
Just farther up into the town, barely off the beach, there's a restaurant called Le Tre Sorrelle that my family ate at almost every night for three summers in a row. We had prosciutto and cantaloupe and watched the beach at night, the orange umbrellas drawn and the water strewed with wooden fishing boats straggling toward the horizon, until everything else around us was quiet. After dinner we'd walk back up to the lovely small hotel, the Villa Rosa, that we'd stay at every summer, in the same set of rooms every time. Ours had a terrace that looked out at the ocean, and sitting there at night, high above sea level, the black sky blending in with the black water, you have a sense of being very small.
Positano was my favorite place in the world. Before I went back, on my own from Prague, memories of hiking up to Positano's peak with my parents and sister were part of a hazy impression of sunny days and late nights with my laughing family, eating gelato and pizza and fresh fish caught that day, of the annual summer Fiesta with fireworks set off from those straggling wooden fishing boats and the rainbow reflections in the black ocean, of our parents buying us matching sundresses, of learning to swim in the ocean with my father and learning to paint from a leafy terrace with my mother.
My family isn't the only family to become less happy as the years go by. Elizabeth and I changed from carefree children to adults. It got harder and harder for my parents to climb the mountain. The summer when Lizzie and I were eleven, we flew out from New York with only my mother; my father had to stay behind a week so he could bury his father. We went back the summer before I started high school, and I was so excited about the next four years and everything beyond. We went the summer right after those four years ended, but my life wasn't where I'd thought it would be. I wasn't going to college that fall—I didn't know then if I'd be going to college at all, actually—and my fear and sadness over how things seemed to be turning out began to overwhelm the joy of being in Positano.
I remember arriving back last October.  It was my first time in Positano when it was not summer.  I got in late on a Saturday night, and it had been a hectic journey. I missed my flight from Prague to Rome the previous night, and almost didn't go at all, but I wasn't willing to give up on seeing Positano again.  So I got another flight the next morning, then took two trains to Naples, another train to Sorrento, and it should have been a simple bus ride from there to Positano, but I missed my stop and had to take a cab from a nearby town. It'll be worth it, I thought, as my trip became more and more complicated. I'll be back, I told myself. As the cab entered the town and drove down the streets I had walked on countless times, I recognized the local grocery shop whose mozzarella my father swore by, the desert place whose items looked so good but, to my sister's and my chagrin when we were finally allowed to try them, were really full of bitter rum I didn’t then appreciate, the salon where I'd get my hair cut every summer. There's no extra room to build anything new in Positano, which means that everything was still the same as it’d always been.
When I stepped out of the cab, in front of the hotel I'd stayed in many times before, I willed myself to feel the way I had before in Positano, but it didn't work. When I went to bed that night, in the same rooms my family had once occupied, I told myself it'd feel different in the morning, after I had slept, but I still felt nothing: it was like trying to summon a stranger's sense of being in her favorite little town to which I had inexplicably decided to travel. The next morning, as I walked up and down the streets, went back down to the beach and back up to the mountain's peak, I kept on trying to access the joy I had always felt before there, but it never worked.
It rained that day, so the beach was empty. I had never seen it rain in Positano before. Next to the beach, there's a big stretch of gray concrete where ships arrive, and the gray stone blended in with the gray water. It was very beautiful.   If you go a bit farther away from the beach, there's an empty trail whose cliffside drops into the ocean. I walked the trail down to a remote, totally empty, lagoon. I watched, from that distance, the quiet beach with its closed orange umbrellas, and realized everything that had changed outside of Positano’s protected, dreamlike world since the first time I had been there.  I tried closing my eyes and pretending that it was ten years ago, that it was another hot summer in Positano,  and that my family was waiting for me somewhere back on the beach among the orange umbrellas, but I felt silly; I could not forget that when I opened my eyes again it would still be October and I would still be alone.  My trips to Positano, with my family, in the past, had condemned me now to grasp for something irretrievable.  I stood up and started walking back to the hotel.
I left the next morning on a bus to Sorrento.  I had run around Positano all morning buying presents, visiting the stores my mother loved, and barely made it to the bus stop on time. But the bus was late. Still, my panic remained, ten, twenty, thirty minutes after the bus was supposed to arrive, and I began to realize I would probably never return again; I would probably never want to return.  The whole time I was there that weekend, I had waited to feel like I really had come back, and when I saw the bus approaching from off in the distance, making its way around the curvy treacherous road, I looked at the town and realized I was saying goodbye.
A couple of days later I Skyped with my parents.   It’s been a long time since my parents were last in Positano.  They wanted to hear about everything; they were so excited to see their favorite town again through my eyes.  “It must have been so nice being back,” my mother said, picturing me, I'm sure, on the beach, in the Villa Rosa, and on our terrace looking at the town she loves and, I know, misses very much.  I told her that it was just like she remembered it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Traveling Circus

By Emma Page
Honestly, I was having a hard time remembering why I was in Phoenix in the first place. Nothing about my previous travel experiences had prepared me for this. I was used to flying with my family, either to familiar destinations or in possession of an extensive and precise itinerary created months in advance. Yet here I was, traveling alone to a city I’d never seen, with a plane ticket I’d bought just days earlier. Finding cheap direct flights from Seattle to Chicago isn’t difficult, even considering how last-minute my purchase had been. I cursed my blind frugality. I’m sure if I’d scrolled to the second- or third-most-expensive fare when booking my trip I wouldn’t have been standing alone in a line that didn’t seem to going anywhere, contemplating just catching the first flight home rather than dealing with standby seats and an indefinite layover.
Someone behind me turned to his neighbor, commenting: “man, I wish we had some bongos right now. This line could use a drum circle!” I ignored him, turning to twitter while I strained to make out what the news anchor on the holding-room television was saying. Something about a “polar vortex?” That couldn’t be right...
My feet were starting to ache from standing, and my phone battery was looking dangerously low. I contemplated the situation. On the one hand, this would probably make a better story than whatever I would be doing back in Seattle. On the other, I wasn’t going to be in any mood to tell it if I had to spend 24 hours in the Phoenix airport waiting to get a flight.
The bongo guy went on explaining behind me that he “was about to quit his day job to focus full-time on his carbon-fiber fixed-gear bike repair business.”
I checked my phone again. O’Hare International, the second-largest airport in the country and my final destination, was closed entirely. Twitter informed me that the polar vortex had frozen all of their antifreeze fluids. I suppressed a horrified giggle at that improbable piece of information. My amusement turned sour as I pondered the high likelihood that I wouldn’t make it to Chicago at all.
Bongo Man revealed that he was “living in Portland right now, with some rad people.” Of course he fucking was.
When it was my turn at the counter, an extremely frazzled-looking woman informed me curtly that the best she could do was stand-by for an 8am flight tomorrow, and I could have a discount on a hotel room at the nearby Marriott. Having just watched a long line of people spend upwards of an hour berating this helpless employee, I tried not to let my frustration show as I thanked her a little more than was strictly necessary and decided that the $60 for a hotel room sounded more than reasonable.
At the hotel, a friendly concierge set up a 6am wake-up call and handed me a warm “hospitality cookie” in a small paper bag. Cheered slightly, I munched thoughtfully on the cookie as I walked up to my room. The air in the hotel courtyard was warm and still, with moonlight and the glow of an outdoor pool casting eerie shadows on the alien shapes of the cacti. The smell of the desert gave way to the tang of A/C in my room, a surreal contrast considering my rainy origin and my frozen destination. I took a bath and watched a marathon of “Beverly Hills Housewives,” my frustration fading as I drifted into sleep.
The house was wedged between a Whole Foods and a Crossfit gym, an incongruous piece of dull residential architecture in a cheerful, well-lit shopping district. It was clean but bare, with a cramped kitchen, a single bathroom, and institutional-looking couches in the first-floor living room. Upstairs was a single, large room, unfurnished except for a pair of love seats and several stacks of un-inflated air mattresses, blankets, and sheets. I dropped my bags on one of the couches and collapsed, paralyzed with exhaustion. Although the house was empty at the moment I arrived dragging my bags up the front steps, I knew that wouldn’t last. I was something like the twelfth guest out of nineteen staying for the week in a house intended to sleep no more than nine. Aching from the snowy walk from the bus stop, I did my best to claim a corner of the upstairs room, spreading my belongings out across the floor and fading once again into an exhausted sleep.
We stumbled out of the taxi into the dark, wet street, wading through an icy puddle toward the sidewalk. The driver had dropped us in front of a low, unmarked building flanked by a gas station and a freeway onramp. I was frozen, as usual, and hadn’t eaten in far too many hours. Broke and running late, I had taken a deep breath and decided to leave the search for food until after the show. A warm glow spilled out of a small door a few yards away, and we could hear familiar voices as we approached.

Inside the door was a narrow hallway leading to a crowded room with a few cafe tables and a bar to one side. The room was in the same state of dingy, dignified dishevelment as old theaters everywhere, with peeling plaster and faded gilt on the molding around the bar mirror. Through another low door in the back of the room was the theater, a medium-sized black box lit barely well enough for us to find our way to our folding chairs.

Earlier in the day I’d listened to a slender, upright young woman with a tangle of dark hair and bright red lipstick speak at a press conference. In her clipped, neat French accent she had told us about this highly unusual one-woman show which was in fact the product of her Master’s thesis in contortion. “When I would perform my act, people would come up to me after always saying ‘that must hurt you so much!’ and I say, well, no, it doesn’t actually. So I studied, and I trained, and I created this piece to stop those questions.”

As the lights rose slowly I saw that here she was again, contorted unrecognizably. She hung bent in half backwards, her ribs seething towards the ceiling as she panted and swayed slightly. She moved imperceptibly lower until suddenly her hands were on the floor, her face hidden and her hips twisting. Most contortion relies on a combination of grace and shock value, bending the human body cleanly into impossible positions. Nothing about this woman seemed graceful, or even human. Her legs and arms were twisted reptilian limbs, her ribs and shoulder blades heaving scales, her movements agonizing and unlikely. It wasn’t her flexibility that was unusual, but rather the quality of her movement and the stunningly strange shapes she achieved over the course of her 50-minute performance.
48 hours later I sat on a sidewalk half a mile away, cursing Chicago, the Polar Vortex, and my hubristic decision to make the walk to the theater without looking up directions first. An easy 10 minute walk had turned into a 40-minute odyssey, and my odds of survival were looking lower and lower by the second. Although it had warmed up considerably since the vortex had stranded me in Phoenix, the weather was so surreally awful that I was about fifty percent convinced I must be trapped in a nightmare.

My phone said it was twenty degrees outside, and yet somehow it was raining in wet, heavy sheets that immediately worked its way through my layers and froze against my skin. My Seattleite soul was so baffled by the fact that it could be both below freezing and pouring rain at the same time that I kept fighting the urge to indignantly ask someone what exactly this city thought it was doing with the laws of nature. The sidewalks were flanked by foot-tall snowdrifts which melted to create a thick layer of black ice underneath the rainwater. Each time I successfully traversed a block, I was confronted with a ten-foot-wide, six-inch-deep ocean of ice water sitting malevolently in the depression made by the wheelchair ramp. My leather boots were functional in the snow but completely hopeless against this slush-storm. In my frustration I had managed to walk too quickly and slip, landing hard in one of the smaller puddles.

An hour later, I quietly slipped off my soaking boots and tucked my frozen toes up onto the worn velvet seat of the theater. I’d done my best to towel off in the bathroom when I arrived, but the icy stream of water rushing down my spine as my sweater defrosted was still going strong. I had decided several hours before that, as much as I’d liked what I’d seen so far of Chicago, the Midwest mid-Polar Vortex was probably what Hell looked like. The horde of uniformed school children sitting in the section of seats to my right (all looking much drier and better-prepared for the weather than I did) emitted a low, squirming murmur as the lights went down. A couple behind me muttered knowingly to each other. “I hear this troupe is the next 7 Fingers. They’re blowing up.” “I hear Cirque wants to buy the show.”

The aesthetic was upbeat, low-budget urban: bright tshirts, jeans and a 40-foot fake building edifice on which the cast scrawled graffiti during the performance. A cast of five men and one woman milled about the stage, newspapers and umbrellas tucked under their arms. Even at rest, each of them overflowed with the casual grace of an elite athlete. As the first act burst into motion, I felt like apologizing to the city for any weather-related complaint. Chicago had brought me this display of a kind of artistry that is almost impossible to find in the US, and I’d have gone through that icy rain a dozen times to be there.

A few of acrobats crouched in the wide windows of the fake building, and two men sat on top of it with their feet dangling over the edge. “AAAY TIME FOR BREAKFAST!” shrieked one who looked eerily like Cory Monteith, tossing a box of cereal to his friend as he pushed himself off the ledge. He spread his arms at the last second and rebounded off a trampoline twenty feet below, floating effortlessly back up to the top of the wall. He paused for a beat, then twisted and fell again, this time ducking his head and flipping twice on his way down. As my eye followed him up I caught sight of his friend with the cereal passing him on the way down, then suddenly three more bodies flying through the air. For the next ten minutes, the six cast members shared the 9’x15’ rectangle of the trampoline, whipping past each other as they ducked in and out of windows and switched places at the height of their 30-foot trajectories. It was a death-defying display, high-caliber acrobatics disguised as dreamscape playground antics. Plenty of skill without an ounce of self-serious drama. When they tumbled grinning and panting off the stage, the applause was thunderous. I smiled and thanked the ice melting between my toes for bringing me here.