Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Czech Wedding - August 2014

The door pried open a few centimeters and two wide, tired blue eyes peeked into the classroom, hid under a disheveled mop of hair. He nodded to the professor in apology for entering late and he snuck around the u-shaped collection of desks to the free chair just a few spots down from my desk. "Hi, hi, what's up guys, I'm Petr," he whispered, introducing himself quietly in an Eastern-European twanged accent as the prof jotted Dutch introductions- dag, mijn naam is- on the chalkboard. During the break that morning, Petr would recount his epic first night in Leuven (he had "familiarized" himself with Oude Markt) and would immediately invite everyone in earshot to his place for Bechervoka that night. We piled into Petr's studio a few hours later, a Finn, an Italian, and our resident Czech taking turns strumming favorite Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam songs, most people singing along or cozying up to their favorite bottle. In retrospect, nearly all the people who became close friends were huddled around the table that night or squeezed in closed together on the bed-cum-sofa.

Five years and a few (hundred) beers, late nights, bike rides, study sessions, dinner parties and adventures later, Petr mails with exciting news: he proposed to his girlfriend and they are set to marry. Best of all, we're invited.

Pre-wedding naptime

Amforova, Petr's neighborhood

The Leuven Erasmus delegation

A small delegation assembled- a team of three departing from Brussels, one Scot coming via London, and one flying in from Bari- and we hopped a flight to Petr's hometown, Prague, to help celebrate their nuptials. It was five years, too, since I first visited Prague. The cast of characters was slightly different- the first go around, my sister had traveled from France to meet me, Scottish redheaded beauty Kathryn, and the tall and freckled Matthias in Prague, where Petr toured us over the cobbles, up the stairs, through the castles, and into the pubs... I mean the countryside; this time, Kathryn and I were repeat guests, but we added a Slovenian blondie and a two handsome Italians to the mix, and we were joined by a Japanese/French, an Austrian, a Spaniard, a German, and a slew of extremely welcoming and kind Czech friends.

Family band with a killer version of "Knocking on Heaven's Door"
Flower girl and boys
First dance

Line up for traditional Czech dances

Sending up wish lanterns for the newlyweds
Smile lines next to my eyes will forever be my souvenirs from Petr's wedding. It was genuinely beautiful: the ceremony (where the string quartet played Beatles songs) in a 17th century frescoed church, the scavenger hunt complete with green mint-flavored liquor shots as a right of passage to the reception, the circle dancing (led by both Grandma's) around the newly weds who had just broken a plate and cleaned it together per tradition, the six meals we ate throughout the day, the way Petr talked about how much he loved his Johanka and how glad he was to have us help him celebrate. There was music throughout the day on a stage set up at the reception hall, too, where Petr's family band played traditional folk songs, and Petr's high school bland played covers of Foo Fighters and Nirvana songs, and an 80-year old Czech singing legend sang jazz standards (in Czech).  Our cups "runneth"ed over, so they saying goes- all senses overflowed with the gorgeousness of a love and its ability to bring people together. Some cups were more full (or faster emptied?) than others, and the decorative pond and its fountain turned into an after-midnight swimming pool playground for a few particularly happy guests. We might not have stripped down to skivvies and joined, but we certainly understood the sentiment. When we said goodbye to the newlywed Petr the next day, those same blue eyes and the same unkempt hair sent us off down the airport terminal- lovely to know that even as our younger years leave us or as lives evolve towards the more mature, the friendships that drew us together from across the globe still hold fast.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Resolutions and Whatnot...A Fresh Semester

There's something so lovely about a resolution. A goal, a change you want to realize, something you want to accomplish. Its inspiring- "wow, you're going to digitally disconnect every night after 9pm?! that's such a brilliant idea!" "you're going to run a marathon this year- holy cow, you're mental!" Its also somewhat of a lark, isn't it? Digitally disconnect when you know that a new season of Game of Thrones is coming? Are you out of your mind? Voluntarily get up at 6:00am on Saturday mornings to run for four hours?

But the seemingly delusional, exaggerated goals aside, the idea of a resolution is also totally self-confirming. It starts with admonition: there is something we need to improve about ourselves, or something we can make better. It's disastrously humbling, acknowledging imperfection, especially in a culture where perfection, or feigned imperfection, is so highly touted and seemingly "totally achievable." But for me, resolutions are bold and brave and actually quite hopeful. It's the I want to make it better idea, the I'm ready to make a change attitude, that is wholly terrifying but totally liberating. The Ziggy Stardust, you know?, the chance to be who we want or maybe just emphasize a quirk, a quality about ourselves that could perhaps be better externally or internally represented.

A litany of brilliant moments, events, experiences, and people weave through the last few years- if anything, this blog documents how to be absolutely gobsmacked by the beauty of friends and places. But coping with the traditional emotional let downs attached to growing up (who signed me up for this, by the way?) coupled with the heartbreak of a failed relationship, workplace uncertainties, the 8,000 km distance between me and my family, and copious amounts of resulting self-doubt makes for heavy hearts. There's beauty in the trough, no doubt. The ever-wise Karen-O, shedding her leather, gorgeously reminds that the bottom dip on the roller coaster is often when we feel most alive (its advice for my hometown hero's teen-focused magazine, but this is universal wisdom, pinky swear).  Nonetheless, the economist in me is studying the business cycle (time is on the x axis), anticipating any indication that things are on the uptick, that the recovery is around the corner, one more akin to the US recovery than that tremblings of recovery plaguing the Eurozone, of course.

Resolutions seem like the perfect antidote. Admit to mistakes or shortcomings, find ways to improve. Terrifying but bold. And its not the audacious, entirely consuming sort of resolutions I'm after- instead, its about finding ways to reinsert positivity into the picture. For me, it starts with being more engaged. Sit up straight, improve posture, really dig into this, whatever this is: research, a conversation, an article to read or write, a pulled pork sandwich, whatever. It means giving a little bit more of myself even when I think I can't: run faster down the footie pitch; push just a little bit more into pigeon pose; give that extra half hour a week to something or someone good. And most of all, it demands new focus- mails and whatsapps can wait, concentrate! (a new mantra of sorts?)- not just at work, though, but focused on all the good, the sheer number of stunning moments that make my life one in a million (or 7 billion...).

So 2015, for me, will be the year to don the platforms and face paint. Its not a reinvention a-la Madonna, more a Robyn-like rebound (another afficionado of the platform). Here's a sneak peak at just a wee bit of the beautiful that, subtly or not so subtly, has already snuck in this year.

babyshower for my soon-to-arrive nephew

visiting this beauty, my grandma sue
Weekend in Marche-en-Famenne with the football team

breakfast near King's Cross, London

St. Paul's from the Tate

Pro punter, Jed Odermatt

Trinity College

Evensong at King's College, Cambridge

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

July-August 2014

Summer always approaches too quickly. And then it passes too quickly. And then September rolls around and the same conversation rolls off our baffled tongues: "whoa, what happened?"

This was a markedly different summer, though. No music festivals (sacrilege, I know...), no international visitors, no major hiatuses from work (also sacrilege in Europe...). The sun shone, the walking pace slowed, aperos were drunk and after just a few blinks the summer was gone- all in the traditional fashion- but nonetheless, this summer was exceptional.

(click on photos for full size)
Cafe du Mundial

Football, of course, kicked off the summer season. The World Cup line up created a monotonous June and July: wake up, work, workout, watch football, repeat.  No negative undertones there- in my book, those are beautiful days, even more so when World Cup fever spreads and the city comes alive with patriotism and venerable respect for the game that unites the masses. Special cafes (in an old Chaquita Banana Factory, no less!) opened for the tournament, and any cafe, pub or restaurant hoping for business installed projectors.

So June and July slipped through my fingers and next thing I knew, I was to celebrate a birthday and leave for a short Grecian escape (before another exursion to "summer school", AKA math camp).

 Oostende, on the Belgian seaside

 Biking back from Beersel

Beersel Castle

What made for a banner summer was the surplus of unplanned, unexpected beauty and surprises. And oddly, this summer I felt more American than I have in the last five years. First, with nationalistic pride, gushing over the inspired play of the US men's football team in the international arena; later in more quotidian moments. A country-side bike ride sounds rather commonplace for Belgians, but the picnics in a field of tall grasses, a pace of donkeys along the kasseien road,  stops at castles and fortresses built in the 1600s are, for me, still foreign and special. The trip to Greece was to be a trip to the sun, an escape from the banal late-July rain that seems to coat Brussels with Lana's summertime sadness each year. It was just that, but also a historical lesson on Alex the Great's family, political lessons on tensions in the Balkans, lessons on cultural identities. It was a chance to touch and smell and taste things we read about between art projects and typing lessons in 5th grade.  Surprises like seeing friends I met five years back, the friends with whom I stumbled over cobblestone-lined markets and squares, who joined for my first bike adventures, who joined for my first beers in Belgium.  Surprises like finding new corners in cities I already love, or a running path lined with wildflowers and sailboats in an otherwise dreary countryside, like crossing an Orthodox priest who by chance speaks enough English to tell you secrets of the monastery's 1000+ years....

Ruins of an ancient city in Pella, Northern Greece

Seaside in Thessaloniki, Greece

 Cliff top monasteries in Meteora, Central Greece

Whiskey club in Meteora

Meteora, Greece

Kassandrino, Halkidiki, Greece

Trying to lure a vegetarian into trying the local roasted lamb...

Commemorating WWI's commencement at Tower of London

Tower Bridge

Sneaky midday Spritz behind Boroughs Market

Entering Philip's tomb, Vergina, Greece

Sunrise in Halkidiki, Greece

Seaside eats = whole fish plucked out of an ice chest

Post-Monsoon in Covent Garden, London

My non-EU citizen status is largely the bane of my European existence (time spent at city hall this year to date: 67.35 hours), but perhaps the silver lining is the unabashed and overwhelming admiration for the beauty, obvious or mundane, in the collective experience here. Certainly not lost on these Ameripean eyes.