Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Packing for Prague" - written when I was 20

In rummaging through my archives, trying to find letters and such from Mikey, I found this essay I wrote 3 weeks before moving to Prague when I was 20.  I was stunned by the details in it.  I've forgotten so much of this.  For a minimalist who tries to carry very little "stuff" through life, I'm so glad I'm a pack-rat with the written word.  These emails and essays from over a decade ago mean the world to me now. 



My green Samsonite that I got for graduation seems too corporate and glossy.  I had pictured a tattered brown carpet bag tied shut with string, or an army-green duffel bag that used to hold dusty uniforms in WWII.  

My hiking backpack is only wistfully vagabond.  It needs more dirt and character - but I guess that requires that I get more dirt and character. The only thing between cutting the price tags and now was that Spring Break trek to the Grand Canyon, where I felt more a victim to the elements than "at one" with them.

Fitting.  I'm wishing I was a well-traveled carpet bag with dust from Bangkok and Belgium, but I more resemble a Samsonite just off the shelf.  And in trendy hunter green, no less.  My wanderlust isn't about where I've been, it's about where I want to go.  It takes very little adventurousness to order travel catalogs and plan itineraries 5 years down the road. I'm finally here, three weeks away from Prague, and I want to cry and curl up on my mom's lap. 

It used to be more exciting when I was just talking about it.  Studying over in Europe.  It still gives me a thrill to say that part.  Saying it, I bear some resemblance to the person I want to be. 

But I'm scared to death.  I have no idea how to ask for bread in Czech.  Or how to say bathroom.  Or how to differentiate streets sings or ask where the nearest bank is.  

Those Czech language tapes have scared the hell out of me.  I can't even listen to them anymore, or I'll end up backing out of this whole thing.  

I have no friends there, no connections whatsover, and no real guarantee that I'll get any soon.  It will cost a fortune to call Kel or Kim, and email is closed down on nights and weekends.  

And of course, checking email won't even be "who wrote?" but rather, "did Steve write?"  I'm furious with myself to have reached that point.  Leaving control of the hands of anyone other than myself, in terms of human relationships, was never one of my strengths.  Actually, I always do it, I just never like it.

So I pack.  And unpack.  And re-pack.  In packing, I isolate the one known part of my sojourn to Prague.  In making up lists of clothes, photos, toiletries, and books I need to survive in Europe, I have some control over the experience.  Now, Prague isn't 6 months long, it's two shampoo bottles long.  Two toothbrushes. Three tubes of toothpaste.  One and a half body washes.  5 ballpoint pens. I can capsulate my life into a Samsonite, a hiking pack, and a book bag.  Hopefully.

How many books will I go through on my train rides to Vienna and Munich?  How many journals will I fill?  (I guess that also depends on how many friends I make.)  What is the minimum number of framed photos I can bring to include the key characters in my life?  The family photo, of course.  Kim and Kel and me. 

And the one good shot of Steve and me.  Theta "informal" night. He's in the gray sweatshirt at a 70's theme party, because he could never get hold of that guy to get the costume.  He looked incredible that night.  And he was mine.  I got to kiss him in the back of the bus and sit on his lap by the fire.  

Our night had nothing to do with the costume-clad people drinking and dancing inside the barn. We had finally reached a point where we were more "real life" than novelty, so we could be honest about having to go home on the early-bus so he could rest up for a double-header the next day.  Granted, we ended up fooling around in the girls' bathroom of College Street for two hours, but our intentions were good.  We meant to get him to bed early.  

I felt like we were a couple that night, not just dates.  And we look like one in the photo.  Chasing to make the bus at the end of the night, we ran past the photographer.  "Hey, Steve.  One more kiwi?" He laced his arm around the small of my back, we smiled for 2 seconds, and when the light flashed we took off running for the bus.  I felt so safe about us.  We were soft and comfortable, just like his gray sweatshirt and jeans.

I'm bringing only one photo of Steve.  Any more than that, and it would feel like the freshman floormates who tried to cling to hometown honeys, wallpapering with his photos as though relationship security was correlated to how many photos were up.  As time passed, a few more pictures would come down.  And then a few more.  And finally it was just one picture, and the rest were replaced by college friends.  

Not sure what that means that I'm starting from the bottom. Do I plan on working up from there, or just not feeling as foolish when that one picture comes down? 

Tucked in the corner is that stuffed dog that Mom gave me.  It's got these big warm eyes that look like they understand being lonely.  The tag calls him Dudley, so I guess I will too.  He's small enough that he can be massaged between my fingers, and also small enough that I don't feel guilty taking up precious cargo space for sentimentality.  I love the feel of the seeds inside of him rubbing against my palm.  I'm glad he isn't cotton stuffing; it always feels oddly frustrating to squeeze cotton-stuffed animals, as though I can never hug deep enough.  The seed stuffing is just right. He's just right.

When Mom gave him to me after the Oklahoma trip, I was a little surprised by how thrilled I was.  Maybe it was that she thought of me while she was down there.  And not in a maternal-authoritative way, either.  It was the kind of thing that Kel or Kim would get me.  A stuffed dog.  Perfect.  

And, it's the kind of thing you would get a child, which is kind of what I feel like being right now.  I don't want to be a twenty-year-old woman moving to Prague. I want to hug Dad and sit next to Mom on the couch and have people buy me stuffed animals and be able to curl up in bed and hug my pillow and cry without feeling silly.  

Or feeling like I need to close the door so that people don't see me and wonder why an adventurous world traveler is scared to actually travel the world and have adventures. 

I'm primed and ready to charge out into the world and have my travels, so long as I feel tethered to a home base.  And maybe I am growing up, because I feel like my home base is broader than it used to be. I feel like Mom and Dad and David and Craig and Grovner Rd and Oakdale will be around forever.  Not as though they're frozen in time, but that they aren't fragile.  I can't lose them.  We'll email and have sporadic phone conversations and I'll see them in October. And we'll be fine.

Even Kim and Kel seem cemented for life.  We've tested those waters.  Mikey, Towner, Steph -- they'll all be around for life. We may play "catch up"- but we'll never start from ground zero.

Lauren is now joining the same ranks.  We'll have a wild and crazy relationship the rest of our lives, I imagine, but I think he's going to be a keeper.  I'll probably have a chance to see him with gray hair and grandchildren.  Barring a huge falling out, of course, which I can also see - based on the passionate extremes of our friendship.  It keeps it riveting, but perhaps makes it more fragile than I give it credit.  But I'm not longer concerned when we have breaks in our communication.  We'll be back.  We'll talk again. 

Which leads me to the embarrassing conclusion that the only person I'm worried about is Steve.  Not because he's the only one whom I value, but rather he has the least insurance of being around for the long haul.  

I feel like this sounds like I'm ready to marry the boy, because that's how people talk about him to me.  I mean, when I talk about being scared to lose him. Quite honestly, I don't know what I think about marrying him -- I certainly don't want to decide that yet.  I just want to keep the door open for deciding that later.

What if he were the last guy I ever kiss?  That seems so limiting.  I'm only 20.  Granted, I have no interest in kissing anyone else right now, especially if I thought it would wound chances with him.  but I like the idea of hooking up in an Italian discotque, or having a crazy encounter with a Frenchmen in a hillside pensione.  

And beyond that, I'm not even sure that Steve is the kind of guy I want to marry.  His heart doesn't race at the idea of jetting off to Hong Kong or Kenya.  He hates to fly.  He likes comfort and security and routine.  Robert James Waller wrote an essay about his relationship Georgia Anne in one of his essays, with their similar imbalance.  "I grew up dreaming of rivers and music and ancient cities and dark-haired women who sang old songs in cafes along the Seine.  You were raised to be  and a beauty, and you probably would have been satisfied, maybe happier, with a more conventional man."
I'm the dreamer of far-off places, and Steve needs only a ball and bat and a few loved ones to feel like he has his whole world at his feet.  I wonder how often I would feel closed in by his security and unquestioning approach to life. 

It isn't that Steve is a simple person.  He knows himself and understands what he wants.  He has his passions, so he understand why I need to go to Prague.  His passion is baseball.  The same passions that are sending me to Prague are what fuel him through 100 degree double-headers, just so he can have the thrill of feeling the bat connect with the ball and knowing the team is winning because of him.

I guess the poet in me can see the correlation.  If he can't, however, perhaps we would both be frustrated by having to cater to the opposing forces.  Then again, I'd like to think I could be the independent spirit who could take weekends in Paris, even if my life partner didn't come with me.  Let Steve stay home with his baseball games; I'll day-trip to San Francisco. 

I'm hoping all this will become more clear after my time in Prague.  Who I am.  What I want out of life and who I want out of life.  

I've packed these books that excite my spirit. My Robert James Waller and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  People who've gone places and done things.  Things I want to do.  They look at life as huge and vast and full of opportunities. Life is about choices, and I choose this.  RJ Waller: "You understand the need to live with old furniture and rusted cars and only two kitchen cabinets and rough wooden floors and vacuum cleaners that don't vacuum and clothes washers that operate correctly only when the tab from a beer can is stuck just so behind the dial, so that a little money will be there when I yell over the side of the loft, 'Let's go to Paris!'"

So, Sarahbeth, swallow your fears.  You'll learn how to say "bathroom" in Czech.  And perhaps a few more words that will come to you in pleasantly surprising memories sometime down the road of life.  Washing dishes after the Thanksgiving dinner, where your children have all gathered for the once-a-year reunion, the Czech word for dishrag will come to mind....and it will seem like a far-off dream.  Not only the time in Prague, but the time when you were age 20 and life was about the future and dreams.  

And you'll be grateful.  That you had the courage to stockpile these experiences and memories when you had the chance.  That you took crazy opportunities and followed your heart's tugging, even when it meant sacrficing other things. And maybe even sacrificing people and relationships along the way

But if you can look at your life thirty years down the road and be confident that you took the chances and were true to your passions, even when you were scared to death, then it was all worth it. 

I also want to believe that experiences at age twenty will help fuel the ones at thirty and forty and fifty and beyond. You'll never have to wonder if you would have been capable of navigating Europe alone, or were strong enough to leave life beind for a short hiatus while you went and found yourself in Prague.

Although, maybe it isn't about finding yourself.  Maybe it's more about figuring out what was always there.  And, what you want to make sure is there to the end.  By paring life down to the basics, the basics become pointedly clear.  

There are so few things in life that are indispensable, but those that are...they're worth isolating and cherishing.  The rest is clutter at worst, details at best.

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