If you ask any of my friends what my passion is, they will not hesitate. Travel. I have been close to obsessed before I made it to kindergarten. I remember sitting on my grandma’s floor. She had this horrible ceramic zebra and giraffe that sat on either side of the t.v. set. I would just stare at them, so curious. Where did they come from? I had yet to even visit a zoo, so they just seemed like they were from a different planet. When she told me they came from Africa, I asked to see a map. That was it. I decided right then and there, I would go to Africa and I would see a Zebra and a Giraffe for myself.
Growing up in Oklahoma, however, did not afford me a lot of opportunities to hop on the next flight to Kenya. About as close as I could come to see any exotic animal was to go to the Oklahoma zoo, which as you can imagine, was a bit painful. I have never been a fan of zoos. I hated to see all of those animals stuffed into tiny cages. They all looked so very sad and bored. Little did I know this would turn into another great passion of mine, and I would do everything I could to free those caged animals, or at least try to make sure no more were captured for our enjoyment.
But that is another blog for another day.
It turns out, I did not get the chance to cross an ocean until my dad took me and my sister to the Bahamas when I was 12. I remember stepping off the plane, the intense heat and humidity taking my breath away, and my gyspy roots started to take hold.
It was a resort, which is not my thing, but I didn’t know any better. The ocean was 10 steps from our room and all things adventure were waiting for me to tackle. I snorkeled, I parasailed, I boarded, I played volleyball, I kissed a boy on the beach, and I got the worse sunburn I have ever had in my life. I even took scuba lessons with my dad.
I was all in. I was the youngest diver in the course, passed my certification test with no problem, got on that boat, no problem, put my scuba gear on, hopped up on the edge of the boat preparing to plunge in, and then this kind man beside me announced to all what he saw the last time he dove. “The last time I dove, he boasts, “I actually saw a shark. He was huge! I think it was a Great White. I thought we were all going to get eaten alive. Luckily we were all able to make it back in the boat with no casualties”.
And, the scuba gear came off.
I regret it to this day, especially the fact that I had a chance to see all things and creatures ocean with my dad. But, I was 12. And I am still petrified of sharks.
My next opportunity to travel was not until college. And I pretty much chose my entire undergraduate degree, and Master’s degree for that matter, based on the places I wanted to explore. No, I could not just do a normal ‘semester abroad’. I would spend an entire year, three semesters, abroad. I would start in Italy, spend three weeks in Florence and three weeks in Rome. Then, I would hop over to Spain, become fluent in Spanish, and then finish in London.
Italy, amazing. Beyond amazing. It was my first time in Europe and every single thing was magical. The beautiful people, the men cackling at us as we walked by, the language. It sounded like they were singing when they spoke to each other….well something in between singing and hurling insults at each other. There is no shortage of passion flowing between those Italians.
Back in the day, the men were still super affectionate with each other. You would even occasionally see them holding hands. And, no, it was not because they were in a relationship with each other (which would have been just as strange and exciting to see, and completely fine, by the way). They were just good friends and it was not taboo to show affection, regardless of your sex. Easy access to American t.v. shows, movies, etc. has unfortunately transferred our narrow-minded, conservative, homophobia to most other cultures. But at the time, it was just another beautiful, romantic, magical thing about a beautiful, romantic, magical country.
And then there was Spain. One of the most challenging things I have done, oddly enough, was spending 9 months in Spain, which I now consider my second home.
I chose Spain after reading The Sun Also Rises. Everything about it fascinated me. The way Hemingway depicted the language, the people, the passion they exuded- in their music, their dancing, their bullfights. Spain is where I would go. And I would learn Spanish. I would learn how to dance. And I would maybe pass on the bullfights.
Although I had studied Spanish all throughout school, I was terrible at it- the accent, the grammar, the vocabulary. It just never clicked for me like it seemed to for my classmates.
So, what better way to remedy this than to move to Spain? I would just throw myself in, face first, and force myself to learn.
It was long, painful, very lonely process. In my mind, if I was going to learn Spanish, this meant little to no contact with other Americans- no exploring together, no going to have drinks at the local Irish pub, and no talking in class, unless it was in Spanish.
This is how I met my best friend, Oscar, who is still my closest friend, twenty years later. I met him through an ‘intercambio’ program- basically, a way for Spanish boys to meet American girls and vice versa. But not for me. I was there to learn Spanish, not to mess with the whole dating thing.
We met for the first time at a bar. He was introverted, somewhat serious and spoke hardly any English. To make matters worse, Sevilla is in the south. Like most places in the south, Sevillanos have extremely thick accents. Very similar to Texas, they speak very quickly and ‘comen las palabras’, which means they ‘eat their words’. An example- Pescado becomes ‘pecao’. You will rarely hear an ‘s’ the end of a word, and the velocity is astounding. I felt like I had landed in Russia.
I eventually met all of Oscar’s friends. There was Alvaro, Oscar, Manolo, Pedro, and Alejandro, and each had a girlfriend. So, I had found my pack, my tribe, if you will. And they still are. I go back almost every year. And, it is as if not a year has gone by when we all get together.
I did eventually ‘conquer’ the language, but it took every ounce of strength I had. I had such a hard time learning, and I just got tired of not being understood. I decided to leave early. I stopped trying as hard, I stopped going out as much. Full on culture shock. I called my university and pleaded, “Please, just let me transfer over to England early. I will only be 2 months behind. I mean, come on. The classes are in English, how hard can it be to catch up?”
I told Oscar I was planning to leave early. He just looked at me, looked away, and said, “Brooke, you can’t just give up. You have learned so much since I first met you. You speak more Spanish than most Spanish people can speak English”.
He had a point.
He quickly added, “But, this is how you won’t learn it. You won’t learn it by sitting in your room. You won’t learn by not speaking at all or not taking risks and making more mistakes. And you definitely won’t learn by going to London.”
He had a point.
That was all it took. I stayed and was virtually fluent within three months. I completely immersed myself in the culture. I took Flamenco lessons and learned the local traditional dance for the spring festival, La Feria. I spent every moment possible with Oscar and his friends, I went to class every day, I did all of my homework, I made myself ask every question possible to any passerby. And I was petrified every time I opened my mouth.
That brings us to the present. Including my year abroad, I have visited more than 15 countries and lived in 5 of them. Some people bust out pictures of their children. I bust out my passport. They brag about their kids’ grades and sports achievements. I show them the extra pages I had to add because there is no more room for stamps.
So it’s fitting that I am moving back to Paris. I can honestly say that I wish I wasn’t. Not because I don’t want to live in Paris, let me be clear. I was just supposed to move there with the person I fell in love with, or at least be taking him with me to visit.
But, that is not how things worked out. So, once again, I’m headed out on another adventure solo. But better than no adventure at all.
So what am I going to do there, where am I going to live, for how long? No idea. None. But, it will all work out. It always does. All I have to do is pack enough clothes for at least a 3-month stint and book a ticket. The rest will work itself out.
But I’ll tell you a few things I do know I will do. I will explore. I will make sure to go into every old church I see, no matter how much of a hurry I am in. I will go to one museum a week and then go back until I have seen every painting in every room. I will navigate the old, uneven cobblestone streets, stare in awe of the Eiffel Tower every time I walk by it (steel and lace, as Natalie Lloyd so eloquently describes it). I will eat crepes, indulge in my favorite macaroons, run along the Seine and count the days until the flowers start to fill the air with their intoxicating fragrance that follows your every step as you stroll through the Luxembourg gardens. I will do my best to improve my French and join my dear friend, Jane, for our weekly Zumba class. And, I will eventually not be sad. Not in the least. And I just might not ever come back.
This is what I will do. So, if anyone needs a place to crash in Paris…