Bon Voyage: A Magical 10 Day Trip Through France

The linoleum floor of the San Diego airport squeaks beneath my Asics tennis shoes. Riley’s borrowed purple carry-on Samsonite in hand and my Targus backpack swung over my shoulders, I make my way to the international terminal. My Delta flight from San Diego to LAX is on time and so am I, for a change. Once my back hits the navy blue passenger seat my eyes instantly close and my mind drifts off into Lala Land.

The wheels hit the ground marking our arrival. Damn, that felt like we were in the air for 23 minutes. That’s because we really were in the air for 23 minutes. The shortest flight I’ve ever been on.

The flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport is a bit longer. 11 hours to be exact. In the meanwhile I sleep, read, watch the incredible cinematic spectacle known as Birdman and write my blog. I also make friends with my neighbor to the right, a woman in her 40s traveling to Morocco with her father, and my neighbor to the left, an older woman with dyed black hair anxious to explore Paris for her first time. In line for the bathroom a young German girl, bright eyed and bushy tailed, talks my ear off about her first time being in America. “I never thought I would want to be in America, but now I never want to leave,” she says. For dinner I order chicken. Big mistake. As someone who has frequented his fair share of McDonalds’s, Burger King’s and Salsita’s (see entry, “Everything is Bigger in Texas”) in my 25.9 years of life, I’ve consumed a hefty amount of meats that more resemble chemically injected tire than edible foods. Nonetheless, this “chicken” may take the cake for food that isn’t really food. First of all it’s gray. Maybe this was a byproduct of being trapped inside an airtight airplane tray for God knows how long, but nonetheless it’s gray. Secondly, it’s the shape of the tray. I don’t know if it always was, or whether it expanded while being heated, but the chicken was literally a rectangle. I poke the blob of meat and it jiggles like gelatin. Some sort of brown sauce lingers in one corner of the container, seemingly not having spread proportionately. My best description of the food’s scent is aluminum, plastic and something sweet. Too hungry not to eat, I take my first bight. It’s slimy and it’s chewy but it has probably been processed too many times to contain anything harmful. I finish the meal and go back to sleep. I dream about junkyard tires.

The plane touches down and the doors open. For the first time in my life, I step foot in France. Now I must find my parents. Thanks to T-Mobile’s Global Data plan, communicating over a mobile device while abroad is as simple as domestic communication. Unlimited free text and data plus $0.20/minute phone calls. I call my father and identify his location. Thirty minutes later I spot my parents in the train station. I smile as I watch my dad anxiously look down at his cell phone, wondering why I haven’t answered his texts for the past 10 minutes, and mouth the words “Ну, где он? (Well, where is he?)” My dad turns and spots my wide grin. The side of his mouth curls into a half smile. We embrace and say a few not-so-kind things to each other, in typical father-son style. Despite having seen my parents just over two weeks ago, the feeling of being back in the presence of the two beings that gave me life is no less rewarding

30€ poorer, the three of us stand on a mostly abandoned train heading towards Javal station. 10 minutes into our transition we switch to a metro train. We exit the metro and lug our bags towards Port de Javal Bas where the Amadeus Diamonds awaits our arrival. A ship, significantly smaller than your typical ocean cruise line, rests in the calm water of the Seine (pronounced “Sehn”) River. A green walkway leads us from the concrete sidewalk to the carpeted cruise floor. We check in and receive our keys. While my parents share two twin beds pushed together in Room 226, I get room 228 all to myself, thanks to my little brother having to cancel his trip to France due to the high school state finals in tennis. I drop my bags and plop on the bed to read. I’m going to stay up until nighttime so I don’t get jet…, I fall asleep before I can finish my thought.

Tonight is the Captain’s dinner. 147 individuals fill the dining room consisting of about 30 tables. The right side of the room is occupied by Germans while the left by Americans (and an Australian couple). My parents and I locate a table near the back of the room and sit down. Atop the bleach white tablecloth rest plates, silverware, napkins and a menu. The menu is broken up into 5 sections: a cold appetizer (“entrée”), a hot appetizer (also an “entrée”), a snack, the main course (a “plate”) and dessert, in that order. While I scan the menu a young, black couple asks if they can join us at our table. Robert (pronounced “Ro’-bear”) and Regina are from Denver, CO and have chosen to celebrate their anniversary on this river cruise.

The 5 of us take turns dictating our orders to Julian, our waiter from Romania. With a pudge belly, a shiny bald head and an endless supply of wise cracks, I feel an instant affinity towards this man.

While 5 courses may sound intimidating, upon seeing our first dish I begin to wonder whether 5 courses is enough. A salmon and salad dish is what I ordered and what I receive are four 1-centimeter-in-diameter semi spheres of ground salmon surrounding one lettuce leaf. I down the dish, wondering whether my body gained or lost weight after eating this meal.

In between our teeny portions of food, my family and our table guests discuss a wide array of topics, from travel and food to economy and politics (yes, I know you’re not supposed to discuss politics at dinner, but hey, it happens). Robert and Regina seem to have traveled the entire world. This is quite possibly a literal statement. Of the 20 or so countries we bring up in conversation, the couple has been to every one: Russia, South Africa, Spain, Italy, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. The list goes on and on. For an occupation Regina works for a marketing company and Robert is a project manager, but from the sound of our conversation, you’d think they spend all day reading the newspaper front to back. Whether discussing the Stalin’s rule of Russia in the 20s, 30s and 40s, the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg or the fluctuations of the Euro over the past century, the couple has a ton of information and opinion to contribute.

Of applicable topic, we discuss the European form of dining. “They treat eating as an experience here,” Regina says. “When Europeans sit down to eat they truly savor every moment. Whether with company or on their own, Europeans consume multiple courses and take the time to enjoy every bite. They don’t watch TV or sit in front of the computer; they simply sit at a table, grab a glass of wine, and allocate a couple hours of their evening to enjoying food.” This statement obviously doesn’t apply to all Europeans, as is evidenced by the group of kids I saw earlier in the day mindlessly eating fries at a McDonalds with their noses buried in their cellphones, but it’s still an interesting concept. I can only speak for myself, but more often than not, I do 10 million things while eating. Whether it’s watching ESPN, skimming the newsfeed on Facebook or texting, I seem to do everything possible to dull out the meal itself. I make a promise to myself to attempt to eat more mindfully going forward.

I won’t go into detail about every course we eat but I will say that they are all delicious. And after desert, we load up our plates with a variety of cheeses and crackers and fill our cups with coffee and tea. From start to finish dinner last 3 hours. But feels a lot shorter. I head to my room and am soon asleep.

I wake up to our boat docked in a new location. We are in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a small commune in North-Central France. This town, with a population barely half as large as that of my college, can be explored in a few hours. The weather is cool and sunny and my parents and I take off on a walk along the cobblestone streets. Not a half block to the left of our ship is a market. Kiosks full of fruits, vegetables, meats, desserts and negotiating customers line a block along the coast of the river. For a tiny market in a tiny town I am blown away by the quantity and variety of meats sold here. Shrimp ranging from an inch to a foot in size, every part of a cow, from its tongue to its kidney, rabbit, lobster and crab. Certain that it’s long dead, I tap a crab atop it’s shell. It’s eyes shift from side to side and it’s claws make sharp, small maneuvers. I jump back in shock. My mom and dad can’t hold back their laughter.

We walk for two hours or so and then another hour after lunch. The typically European cobblestone streets are barely wide enough to fit a pair of bicycles, let alone a vehicle. The cars are tiny, with the brands Peugeot, Renault and Citroen making up the bulk. We ascend the hill leading to the apex of the town and towards a large cathedral. Upon opening the doors and entering the cathedral grounds we realize we’ve just crashed a Muslim wedding. Aside from a few glances, the attendees don’t seem to mind our presence. We soon leave and walk to a wall along the hill’s edge providing a panoramic view of the entire town. Not far below I spot our cruise director and a handful of adventurous tourists making their way through a secret passageway. Not long after I lead my parents down the same route.

I wake up the next morning to another new location. This time we are in Rouen (pronounced “Ruw ah”). My parents and I enjoy some breakfast in the dining room before commencing our 9 a.m. guided tour. We walk along streets and through alleys containing homes dating back to the 17th century. What’s most impressive about these homes is they aren’t made of durable rock, they’re made of wood. Oakwood, to be specific. To make the Oakwood more durable, inhabitants would soak the timbers in the ocean for 7 years and then dry the wood for 7 years before building with it. 14 years later, construction could begin. Another interesting facet of these homes is they are significantly larger on the 2nd and subsequent floors compared to the ground floor. Why? Because back when they were built, owners paid taxes on the surface area of the plot of land. So after building a tiny first floor, they would gradually increase the size of each subsequent floor. The result is an optical spectacle of multi-story, overlapping, leaning houses.

As we wander towards the main square the guide points out that the cobblestone roads are taller on the sides than in the middle. The reason for this is twofold. The first reason has to do with the nonexistence of a toilet at the time. Residents of Rouen (and various other towns) during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries would toss their waste out of windows and into the streets (of course they would first have to yell “Guardez l’eau!” to inform all passerby’s of the oncoming wad of crap (pun intended)). And in case you were wondering – yes, that expression did, in fact, popularize the modern day term for toilet, “loo.” To maintain the filth and the stench residents used a combination of nature and pigs. They let pigs rummage the streets and consume the waste while the rains would take care of any remnants. The second reason the streets were taller on the sides was because that is where the kings would walk. As such, they would appear taller and “of a higher class” than the rest of the town’s residents. If a mere citizen happened to cross the path of a king, he would have to step down into the middle of the street while the king continued walking on the side.

Our last stop in Rouen is at the memorial of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc, a peasant girl living in medieval France, believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its long-running war with England. With no military training, Joan convinced the embattled crown prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans, where it achieved a momentous victory over the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. After seeing the prince crowned King Charles VII, Joan was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake (which has been since replaced by this memorial) in 1431, at the age of 19.

Sunday morning I wake up to yet another new city. This time we are in Caudebec-en-Caux. Our morning tour takes us to Etretat, a commune along the English Channel. The weather is much colder today and the ocean breeze only makes matters worse. Our group, cuddling to retain warmth, listens to the history of this town. To me, I’m more entranced by the beauty here than the history. To the left is a hill leading to a massive cliff with a striking resemblance to an elephant drinking water from the ocean and to the right is an equally massive hill leading to an equally beautiful view.

While the hike to the “elephant cliff,” as I’m dubbing it, is more challenging, my parents and I decide to undertake it. Shivering in our boots, we ascend quickly, only stopping to take scenic photographs. I cause my mom’s heart to skip a few beats as I climb atop rocks and stand on ledges “only idiots” would stand on. We make it to the top before rushing down to ensure we make it back before the bus leaves. Arriving a few minutes early, my dad and I meander through a local fish shop, with me careful not to touch any crustaceans.

After lunch we have another tour. This time to Honfleur; home to a scenic harbor in the center of the city, an ageless wooden church and 12th Century chateau ruins. Our guide leads us into the Basilica of St. Thérèse, dedicated to St. Theresa. Photos of this wondrous girl rest along every wall. As the story goes, St. Theresa had an energy unlike anyone. She also had the ability to cure many incurable illnesses. 100 years after her death, the ill still pray to her to cure them. Our guide tells us a personal story in which she also prayed to St. Theresa and a miracle happened.

After dinner I head to my room and chat online with Riley. With a 9 hour time difference between San Diego and France I’m only able to speak with my girlfriend for the few hours between dinner and bedtime. Tonight we do a fair bit of catching up. The responsible girl she is, Riley’s been working every day. And with me not distracting her all the time, she’s been wildly productive in purchasing health insurance from the exchange (since she turned 26 this month and will no longer be covered by her family’s plan beginning in May), applying for tutoring jobs in our next location and coordinating her babysitting gig which is set to begin in a few weeks. This is the first time I’ve been apart from Riley for more than a few days since we started this trip together, and I dearly miss her. But as they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Monday morning we’re ported in the same spot as the day before. While the majority of the group leaves for the optional tour to Normandy Beach (think: D-Day), my parents and I decide to have a lazy-day and stay back on the cruise. Our physical activity today consists of my dad and I playing shuffleboard on the deck (this is my dad’s first time ever playing) and my parents and I going on a short stroll through the small town. To put in perspective how small this town truly is, in the 2 hours we walked every inch of Caudebec-en-Caux, we ran into the same man 5 times.

At 5 p.m. every day, anyone interested is invited for coffee, tea, sandwiches and dessert in the panorama room, where servers stand patiently behind the bar and a man in a suit plays classics on the piano. Feeling jocular, I decide to play a prank on my dad today. While he stands up to get some coffee, I take the black olive off my salmon sandwich and bury it into the middle of his vanilla pastry. I carefully compress the surrounding cake to conceal the tiny black ball. He returns to his seat unknowing. Attempting my hardest to avoid laughing I bring up casual topics like our remaining itinerary and how my little brother is doing back home. Waiting for my dad to begin eating his pastry is torture, as he prefers to casually eat his sandwich and sip his coffee. Finally, he takes the first forkful. I turn away, trying my hardest not to laugh. He takes another forkful, still not having gotten hold of his little surprise. I close my eyes and look down at the floor. He takes a 3rd forkful, this time unwedging the olive from its temporary home. It rolls onto the plate. I burst out laughing to the point of streaming tears. My dad stares at me wide-eyed, waiting for me to explain myself. But I can’t. “You need to fix this problem,” he says, still oblivious to my prank. Shaking his head in non-understanding he forks another chunk of cake, this time taking the olive for a ride. I turn to stare at my dad as he scrunches his face in disgust. His face remains in that form until he breaks out into the longest, heaviest laugh I’ve seen in years. For the next three minutes we cannot stop laughing. For sure, the fellow passengers on this cruise ship are convinced we spiked our coffees with vodka. “Those damn Russians.” Once calm enough to speak my dad looks at me and says “If you were 13, I’d understand. But you’re nearly 26 years old, Misha.”

I wake up early on Tuesday, knowing I have to be on the tour bus by 8:30 a.m. The drive to Giverny is storybook like (well, at least the parts I see in between naps). We pass fantastic fields of animals, gorgeous gardens with blooming spring flowers and endless rows of pink-flowered apple trees. Our pint-sized tour guide, maintaining a hilarious high-pitched French accent, utters the words “ooh-la-la” and “ya,” more times in a 5 hour stretch than I have heard in my entire life. But she makes up for it as her tales are captivating and her knowledge is expansive. She takes particular joy in morbid stories, such as that of the 2 men who were having an affair with the prince’s wives and were thus tied to horses, urinated on for days while being starved, then castrated, skinned alive and hung from a tree. “How crazy, ya?” she says upon finishing her recollection with a smile.

Giverny is where Claude Monet lived and painted for the final 43 years of his life. His 5 bedroom home is a spectacle in itself, but his garden is out of this world. The scene for many of his most famous work, including countless bridge paintings and the world renowned water lilies series, this garden contains rows upon rows upon rows of exotic flowers of all shapes, colors and sizes. Foot and a half tall yellow and red tulips, full beds of remarkable red roses, passionate purple Aubrietas and gorgeous white irises trees fill this massive plot of land. We cross the bridge, represented in countless masterful works of art, and near the water lilies. How tranquil it must have been to live here.

No one enjoys this gander through the gardens more than my mom, an aficionado of flowers. The smile never leaves her face as we quietly stroll through this rainbow of color. Using me for my photography skills, she has me snap pictures on her phone of the countless florae dispersed here.

Foregoing the second tour of the day to Versailles, we stay on the boat as it takes off back to Paris. My dad and I sit atop the deck and watch as we approach a dam and are subsequently entrapped inside a lock which fills up with water before allowing us to continue our journey, now 10 feet taller. We then play another round of shuffleboard, which is won by my dad. Old man’s still got it.

At dinner, we eat our usual 4-5 course meal with our new Russian friends, Valerie and Irena. We met them on our second night on the cruise and have been eating all our meals with them since. The couple, appearing in their late 40’s to early 50’s have actually been married for 40 years. Originally from Odessa, Ukraine, they moved to Brooklyn, NY around the same time as my family. They now own a house in Brooklyn and seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Tonight’s conversation is mostly dictated by my mom and Irena, as they discuss TV shows and Russian books. After dinner I finalize Riley and my move out inspection (taking place the day after I return, on April 26) and our move out date (April 30).

On Wednesday morning we are docked in Paris. The trip has come full circle. We rush breakfast in fear of missing the 8:30 a.m. bus tour. My parents and I stand outside the bus confused why only Germans surround us. Turns out our tour doesn’t begin until 9 a.m.

In the few hours we have before lunch, the bus driver cruises through Paris, while the fast-speaking tour guide describes our surroundings. If you’ve been wondering when I was going to mention all those places you generally associate with Paris, the answer is now. We drive past the French Parliament, cruise beside the Louvre (a whopping half-marathon’s worth of hallways and containing 30,000 paintings on exhibition and another 270,000 in the basement) and park beside the Luxembourg Gardens. We then drive over to Trocadero square where we observe the gorgeous Hôtel National des Invalides and the, you guessed it, Eiffel Tower. Built in 1889 for the world fair and the 100 year anniversary of the French Revolution, the Eiffel Tower is truly a magnificent work of art and architecture. Parting from our tour group in order to do our own exploration of Paris, my parents and I walk beneath this 986 foot tall structure. As much as I’d love to ascend the 3,720 steps to the second (of 3) levels and then ride the elevator to the top, I know that this will consume the entire day and we won’t get to see anything else. As such, we merely walk through the evergreen fields of the Champ de Mars and onto the artificial island of Île aux Cygnes, containing the 1/3 in size replica of the Statue of Liberty, before returning to the ship. After lunch my parents and I walk to the L’Orangerie museum, highlighted by two galleries containing the eight tranquil paintings of Monet’s large-format waterlily series. If lined up side by side, the works would measure 91 meters, or 298.5 feet, in width. They are also conceived so that the four in one gallery represent sunrise, and the four in the other evoke dusk.

The day is capped off with a delightful 5 course Captain’s dinner, an introduction to the wonderful men and women that make our dining experience possible (the kitchen crew) and a few meaningful words from the ship director. The Baked Alaska dessert is the perfect topping to a delightful meal.

At 9 a.m. the next morning we depart the ship for our final time. Despite not refunding us for my brother’s cancelled reservation or allowing us to switch out his reservation to another name, Gate 1 (the company through which we purchased our reservations) and Amadeus Diamond were a class act. Everything from the food to the service was sincerely enjoyable.

A few metro transfers later we arrive at Saint-Mandé Station. A 20 minute walk later we arrive at Building # 23, home to Yafa. Yafa is a woman we contacted through AirBNB. While our original plan was to stay in her second flat in the center of Paris, her boiler exploded. However, she was kind enough to lend us her main unit in Saint-Mandé while she left town for a personal matter. The flat is everything we need. 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and a living room. WiFi and a functioning boiler is included.

After unloading our belongings, we head back to the center of Paris to meet with a tour guide we hired through recommendation. Her name is Zhenya and she is originally from Moscow, Russia, like us. We start our tour with a tasty peasant-style lunch at Lyon Café, where I get to try foie gras for my first time. For those who don’t have a weak stomach, foie gras is the overfattened liver of a goose. To create this delicacy, a goose’s liver is force fed with food until it becomes excessively large. The goose is then killed and it’s liver is fed to the French. This sadistic ritual results in this fat and cholesterol rich food I consume today. The rest of our afternoon is spent on our feet.  Our first stop is the Saint Chapelle, where Zhenya attempts to bypass the long line awaiting entrance by stating she is a tour guide. In return for her efforts she is reamed out by the woman working the ticket booth, loud enough for the last person in line to hear. After a few impolite things said (which I won’t disclose in this blog) between these two alpha females, we get back in line and eventually enter the cathedral (but not before the ticket lady told Zhenya she will not sell her tickets until Zhenya apologizes). What stands out most about this 13th century building are the stained glass windows on the second floor. These intricately designed pieces of art are the most extensive in-situ collections of 13th-century stained glass anywhere in the world. The blues, yellows, greens, oranges, reds and purples illuminate as the clear-skied sun shines through the glass. The 4 of us then stroll through Ile de Cite en route to the Notre Dame. Emphasis, on “the” as this is the world famous Notre Dame, built in the 13th century. Not one of the umpteen other Notre Dame’s we’ve seen on this trip. The cathedral lives up to the hype, from both the exterior and the interior. 315 foot tall gothic structures encompass this massive form or architecture. It took 185 years to fully complete this structure, and the result is truly awe-inspiring. We also wander through the Latin Quarter, home to the world famous Sorbonne University (University of Paris). In the center square countless students rummage through textbooks in notebooks while sipping on coffee and nibbling on pastries at the Café’s. Unlike my experience at the University of Florida, rather than locking yourself in the silence of your room or the library, students here prefer the jibber jabber of the many cafes dispersed throughout Paris.

As we cross one of the many bridges from which tons and tons of locks (yes, like the cheesy scenes in love movies), a boy on a scooter (not unlike the Razor scooters we rode as kids) scoots by me. This is another unique aspect I’ve noticed of France. These scooters are everywhere. Children and adults alike, cruise around town in these L-shaped chunks of metal as if it’s the greatest invention on earth. And with the narrow streets and heavy traffic, they may be the greatest invention here.

At 6 p.m. we depart from our host and catch a taxi towards Avenue George V, home to the famous Crazy Horse show. Before entering the theater we sit down for dinner at a nice looking restaurant. We order escargot, duck and salmon. Despite the concept of eating snails sounding rather nasty, the pesto and olive oil drenched delicacy is absolutely delightful.

Not to say I’m overly experienced in erotic shows, but Crazy Horse is by far the most sexual thing I have ever witnessed. I won’t get into detail, plus I’d rather you see it for yourself, but all I’ll say is you will be hard-pressed to find any sign of clothes, at any time, on the performers. I also wouldn’t say this is the ideal show to watch with your mom and dad, but if it’s not awkward for you then be my guest.

By the time we arrive home it’s nearly midnight. I undress and plop down on the bed belonging to a child. With my feet hanging off the edge, and surrounded by Spider Man toys, I fall asleep.

I wake up Friday to our final day in France. My mom is sad, as she always is at the end of vacations. Today’s itinerary consists of the D’Orsay museum. While this 5 story, former train station has a plethora of visually stimulating pieces, I am most overjoyed by the 5th floor, containing Impressionist work from the likes of Claude Monet, Eduard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, Alfred Renault and Pablo Piccasso. Three to four hours and a sub-par café lunch later we exit the museum and continue our exploration of Paris. Our next stop is Montmarte, home to the stunning Basilique du Sacre-Cœur. We ascend the 270 steps to the structure and walk through impressive interior. We then walk through the overcrowded-with-tourists streets of Place du Tertre until locating a pastry shop. My mom has been waiting for this moment since, well, probably since before she even arrived to France. Paris is renowned for their pastries and my mom has been aspiring to purchase and munch on one of those little pies with berries and glaze on top. We purchase 3 goodies – a slice of pear pie, a chocolate éclair and a slice of raspberry pie. We sit on a typically tiny French table and ingest more unneeded sugar. Since arriving in France, I’ve been eating desserts 3 times a day. Like clockwork, I have a sweet every lunch, pastry hour (see olive in the cake story above) and dinner. If I’m feeling really rowdy I’ll even have one of those chocolates the cleaning lady leaves on my pillow before bed. That’s an absurd amount of sugar but I’m in France; I can’t help it.

After this tasty break, we stroll along Rue Lepic, where we encounter the homes of Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, before entering Boulevarde de Clichy (the red-light district). Here we have shop after shop of sex stores and club after club of strippers. We pass a 6 story Sexodrome. Speaking of sex, one thing I would like to talk about is the P.D.A. (Public Displays of Affection) in France. Like the stereotypes suggest, there’s plenty of it. At bus stops, museums, restaurants or merely in the middle of the street – couples are constantly sucking face for the world to see.

After getting offered hashish and cocaine and kindly declining, I continue walking with my parents in search of a restaurant. Along the border of the gay district we find one. We order duck filets and lamb. A wonderful last dinner in Paris. The only thing missing are frog legs.

An hour later I’m hungry again and I order a crepe with chicken, cheese and tomatoes in the Jewish district. This tasty goodness is prepared right before my eyes. Meanwhile, my parents, seemingly wanting to avoid a sugar crash, order another raspberry and strawberry pie at the local pastry shop.

We walk a bit farther until reaching the Bastille metro station. Before descending into the underground world of metro trains we take a second to admire the Place de la Bastille (the center square). Many years ago this city housed one of the most prominent prisons in the world.

I wake up Saturday morning feeling well-rested but unsettled. This wonderful trip has come to an end. I spent 10 wonderful days with my family and once I walk out Yafa’s front door, I likely won’t see my mom or my dad for months. My sadness is mitigated by the thought of Riley. In less than 24 hours she’ll be waiting for me at the San Diego Airport terminal.

I shower and join my parents at the breakfast table. An omelet, fruits and yogurt. It’s a few minutes till 10 a.m. and I turn to look at my mom. The corners of her lips curl downward and her eyes take on the form of a sad puppy’s; a face I’ve seen her make at the end of many a family vacation. “I don’t want this vacation to end,” she says.

A slight pang of guilt fills me as I realize my parents go back to work in two days while I go back to traveling. I stand up and hug and kiss each of my parents. Bon voyage.

The linoleum floor of the San Diego airport squeaks beneath my Asics tennis shoes. Riley’s borrowed purple carry-on Samsonite in hand and my Targus backpack swung over my shoulders, I make my way to the terminal exit, where Riley awaits me.

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Happy Birthday to Me. Come on Down.

It feels like the days of old – when I was a teacher and Spring Break arrived. No babysitting, tutoring or teaching this week, just play and birthday celebrations.

It’s Saturday morning and my bags are packed for Temecula, a city an hour north of San Diego. Ainsley, Courtney, Patrick, Shane and I pile into Pat’s pickup truck and head north. Courtney, my teacher friend from Dunwoody Springs, is in town visiting her sister, Ainsley. In fact, Courtney is the reasons Ainsley and I met. And how thankful I am to her, as Ainsley has become my best friend in San Diego.

Today we are honoring Courtney’s arrival by going to the “Napa Valley” of Southern California. The large plots of land and spacious houses are a drastic change from North Park, where people practically live on top of each other. Ponte Winery (or as I heard it, “Poncho” Winery) is the first stop. Rose bushes, adequately watered grass and a lavish lake make Ponte the perfect venue for wine and fancy events. We each purchase tickets good for 6 samples of wine and select our first beverage. We then step outside to sip our drinks amid the spectacular landscape. Walking into the vineyard, we are pleased to find ourselves the only occupants of this area. We walk among the rows and rows of grapes, chatting about useless things and snapping photos.

On to the next winery – Wilson’s Creek. This location is even more stunning than the previous. The boys play bocce ball while the girls sit on the soft grass beneath a shadow-casting tree. Between the effects of the succulent wine and Courtney’s dry sense of humor, I find myself in tears with laughter.

All that wine makes us hungry, so we head to Public House, a restaurant in the town’s old-western style downtown. Between Pat’s family and our group of friends, we occupy the entirety of this massive, circular stone table. Hamburgers, sandwiches, salads and fries satisfy our tummies.

That night we relax and watch and the epic March Madness Semi-Final between Wisconsin and Kentucky. Well, not ALL of us watch – by half time Courtney, Ainsley and I are merrily snoring away. The boys seem to enjoy the game though. After a late night snack Misha and I head over to the guest house, which was graciously offered to us by Pat’s parents. We lay down and are soon staring at the backs of our eyelids.

Packed again, Misha and I are ready for another trip to L.A. Holding back the tears, I say goodbye to Courtney, unsure when I will see her again.

Seat belts on and hungry, Misha and I drive straight to Chinatown. We park and bee-line past the Chinese lanterns, cheap souvenirs and pet shops straight to Yang Chow restaurant. After our ungratifying experience in Chinatown – San Francisco, these dumplings, wonton soup, rice, green tea and sesame chicken far exceed my expectations.

With a few hours remaining before the arrival of my mom and her best friend, Vivian, Misha and I head to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). You may know this museum by the famous lamp posts constructed on its premises. While I’m not a connoisseur of art, I do find some of the contemporary works by Andy Warhol and his peers quite fascinating. To my pleasant surprise, I stumble upon a painting by my grandfather’s first cousin, Jasper Johns. Among the many buildings and hallways present here, Misha and I view exhibitions entailing German Horror Films, Faces of America and Tibetan Pottery.

As we pull into the arrivals terminal at LAX I think to myself how fortunate I am to have my mom fly over 2,000 miles to visit me…twice in two months. While I love San Diego, I do get homesick – and seeing my mom this often mitigates the sentiment. I am also looking forward to seeing Vivian. When my mom and Vivian get together, you never know what’s going to happen. One thing is guaranteed – things will get interesting.

LAX is not my favorite airport. I’ve had poor experiences here before and seeing the chaos unfolding here now isn’t doing much to change my mind. The traffic here is worse than Atlanta rush hour. People flock across the street, disregarding all signs and rules. Moody cops do little to control the situation other than yell at unsuspecting drivers (including one cop who called Misha an “idiot” for putting on his blinker and attempting to switch lanes). It’s an hour after their flight was supposed to arrive, yet neither my mom nor Vivian have received their baggage. Once again, welcome to L.A.

Tonight we have a late dinner. It’s after 11p.m. when we’re handed our menus. Despite it nearly being the next day, Bossa Nova Brazilian Restaurant is packed. This reminds me of the late nights I had in Rio de Janeiro, when my friends and I wouldn’t even begin getting ready for the disco until midnight.

The table next to us hosts two couples. Stylish haircuts, leather jackets, designer skinny jeans and high-rise sneakers make up their appearance. These kids, possibly a decade younger than me, speak in a nearly indistinguishable music-industry-esque accent, indigenous to Los Angeles. Misha and I heard similar speech from some of Josh’s peers last time we were here (see entry “The Final Leg”).

Feasting in a Brazilian restaurants reminds my mom and me of my brother, Pierce, who is currently teaching English to schoolchildren in Brazil. Pierce and I often discuss how genuine and friendly Brazilians are. Our waiter reinforces this opinion. He is almost too eager, with smiles and attentiveness, to make sure we are having an incredible experience at his restaurant. He even gives us a completely flan dessert for my approaching birthday (at midnight).

While brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed at the Comfort Inn, Misha escapes outside stating he left his toothbrush in the car. Moments later he knocks on the door, marking his return. In his hands he doesn’t hold a toothbrush; rather, he holds a large rectangular shape covered in wrapping paper. It’s past midnight, meaning I’m unofficially 26 years old. Feeling a mix of emotion and curiosity I clumsily rip apart the wrapping paper to discover a canvas upon which an image is drawn. Two faces, painted black and white with the exception of blue eyes and red lips, stare at each other affectionately. One is a man while the other is a woman. Between them is a wooden heart covered in pink construction paper and split into quadrants. The characters clearly represent Misha and me. I can’t help but crack up at the image of Misha’s blood-red, voluptuous lips, and perfectly chiseled face, making him appear a bit homosexual. While the painting is nice, the true gift lies within the heart (no pun intended). My job is to peel off a quadrant of the heart, revealing the name of a restaurant. Misha will then treat me to a meal at that restaurant. I then peel off the next quadrant and repeat the process until all 4 quadrants have resulted in tasty meals for us. This is a very thoughtful gift as I have often preached to Misha how I regret not having taken advantage of San Diego’s vibrant food scene. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.

Not having slept nearly enough to function, Misha and I leave bright and early to pick up my mom and Vivian from the Lowles Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. No one loves seeing celebrities quite like my mom. And in not-surprising fashion, she finagles her way into obtaining free studio tickets to see The Price is Right, Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil.

Misha and I drop my mom and Vivian off at Ellen before heading to The Price is Right. We stand in a long line only to find out that the morning episode is “16 year olds” and that we can’t get in. While Misha and my mom (via text) attempt to convince me to tie my hair in pig tails and feign being 16, I highly doubt I will appear a decade younger than my sincere age.

Turns out, my mom and Vivian arrived way too early for Ellen. So they grab an Uber and head our way. With time to kill, we cross the street to a farm-to-table restaurant and order eggs and mimosas. Bottomless mimosas, that is. The plan is to eat and drink and then head back to The Price is Right, in attempt to get onto the 12:30 p.m. episode – themed “Teachers.” Fittingly, I’m a teacher. Even Misha qualifies, since he’s technically a substitute teacher (despite him never having actually stepped foot into a classroom).

After a long wait, we are let in through the gates. Woohoo. We are first seated on bleachers in a large room resembling a storage garage. For the next hour or so, we sign waivers, receive name tags and have our photos taken (which will later cost us $40 a piece if we want to buy them). All the while, the 298 people surrounding us scream endlessly and jump for joy in attempt to be noticed. After all, only a handful will “Come on down.” Despite the mimosas, the atmosphere is a bit too enthusiastic for me.

About twenty of us are ushered into the next waiting area where casting directors select random people and ask them questions. Misha and I are both selected. I am asked two questions by the casting director and I intentionally give bland responses to avoid getting selected. Misha, on the other hand, is asked 3 questions. He jumps and pounds his fist with (what I believe to be fake) excitement.

We are escorted to yet another waiting area. This time we stand outside for about an hour before being guided into another room with more bleachers, TVs and excessive amounts of cheering. While waiting and munching on our overpriced quesadilla, Misha and I examine the self-made t-shirts and make guesses on which contestants will get called down.

After a combined 5 hours of waiting we are finally let inside the studio. Somehow Misha and I land front row seats and are right by the camera (hopefully, this means you’ll be seeing plenty of our faces on the September 8 airing of the episode). The show progresses mostly as expected. Certain audience members get called down while other cheer and applaud on command. After a few minutes my cheeks and hands begin to hurt from all the smiling and clapping. During commercial breaks Drew Carrey (host of the show) chats with the audience. To my surprise, he has a very dry and, dare I say, vulgar sense of humor. Some of the words that come out of this family-TV-person’s mouth truly surprise me (and outright offend a few of the unsuspecting teachers in the audience).

It’s after 6 p.m. when we finally get out. We need to be at my birthday dinner with my mom, Vivian, Beegie and her friend in negative 15 minutes. We rush to our car and head to Spago, an elite, celebrity-infested L.A. restaurant offering Wolfgang Puck’s luxurious menu and sleek decor. After valeting our car we rush inside to 3 familiar faces and Mike, Beegie’s friend and celebrity dogwalker, sipping on martinis. Before introductions are over, Mike orders me a lychee martini and informs me that, ironically, Drew Carrey is one of his clients. He modestly names a few other stars’ dogs he walks while sipping his Belvedere.

Eyeing the food choices presented on this 3-course menu, I salivate over the impending meal. Oysters, lobster pasta, cous cous and scallops are the first to arrive. Then the veal, seabass, meatballs and salmon show up. Dish after dish appear and soon disappear, as we indulge in these delicacies. Between the talk, the drink and the eating we manage to spend over 4 hours seated at this round table. The experience ends perfectly with the most delicious dessert I have ever witnessed. Just writing about it makes me melt with desire. This chocolate brownie is prepared from scratch in the kitchen and is immediately inserted into an air tight bag. The bag is only sliced open once it arrives at our table, emitting a mouthwatering fragrance which wafts 3 tables over. We cannot remove our eyes from the brown spectacle. Ice cream is placed beside the brownie. We all dig in simultaneously. And within an instant, the finest dessert known to man is consumed.

In the morning we are guided by Beegie on a hike to the Hollywood sign. Misha and I admire the multi-million dollar homes compressed along these sloping streets of Hollywood Hills. Beegie points out the homes occupied by celebrities, and there are many, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake, Tobey Maguire, Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck and Selma Hayek. Oh, and of course, the home originally belonging to the Monkeys. My mom and Vivian spend the next 30 minutes singing Monkey’s songs I’ve never heard. After the hike, Misha takes off for home while my mom, Vivian and I head dinner.

The next day, us three ladies head to a filming of Dr. Phil. Prior to entering the studio, one of the producers hands me a yellow slip, instructing me to sit in the front row. Unbelieving of my luck of having gotten front row seats to two consecutive shows, I joyfully walk up to the front and take me seat. Soon after, my mom and Vivian enter the studio and stare jealously at me in the front. They proceed to complain to the producer about not being able to sit with me in the front row.

“Well, that yellow slip is for the entire party. She should have brought you with her,” the producer explains.

“Can we go now?” my mom inquires.

“Unfortunately, the seats are already taken,” he says.

With envy in their eyes, my mom and Vivian assume their seats in the 5th row.

The episode is about the Amish Mafia (I can disclose this information now as the episode aired last week). While the show is interesting we are more concerned whether the cameras are capturing us and whether our faces will be appearing on daytime television in a few weeks. Ironically, my mom and Vivian receive significantly more camera action than me.

That night I catch the Pacific Surfliner train from Los Angeles to Old Town Station in San Diego. I hop off the train and straight into the passenger seat of my Acura TSX; Misha sitting at the wheel. At home, I plop on the couch, ready to relax. Birthdays are always exhausting. Especially when traveling. And especially especially when you are constantly surrounded by family, friends and events. That being said, my 26th birthday was everything I could ask for and more.

The Grandest of Canyons

I stand with Steve in the kitchen, an old Indian Country map spread open on his half-constructed marble countertop.

“If you take this route, you’ll be able to see the best view of the Colorado River,” Steve says, pointing to a route from Flagstaff, AZ to the Grand Canyon. “But if you go this way, you can explore the Red Mountains.”

“Which would you prefer?” I ask our adventurous host.

Steve bites his lip and caresses his soul patch with his thumb and index finger. “I really want to say you should go through the Red Mountains. They’re one of my favorite spots. But that’s the only thing you’ll see on the route. The other route has 3 or 4 really cool stopping points.”

I wait silently, allowing Steve’s inner dialogue to play out.

“Go this way,” Steve says, concluding that we should bypass the Red Mountains.

“Sounds good,” I say.

“Remember to swing by the local AAA and pick up one of these maps too.”

And that’s exactly what I do.

Two shiny, new maps in hand, Riley and I set off for Flagstaff, AZ. After two hours of cruising along the speedy interstate, we jump onto Route 66. Yes, historic Route 66 – one of the first U.S. highways, created in 1926, and originally running 2,448 miles from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA. We pass by gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels all boasting the numbers “66” in their name. After many miles of this gimmicky stretch of road, we merge back onto the quicker and more efficient interstate 40. The sun begins to set, painting the swirling clouds above us deep shades of gold, pink, blue and purple. The snow-capped mountains, seemingly forever in the distance, radiate a confident dark blue glow.

We arrive in Flagstaff shortly after 6pm. Rather than heading straight to our hotel like a boring, old couple, we decide to gander around the city’s downtown. First order of business is food. We blindly decide on Beaver Street Brewery. 3 succulent bratwursts, a fulfilling Portobello ravioli and a tasty local Pilsner later, Riley and I feel quite content. We spend the next 2 hours walking off our dinner while enjoying the many clothing and craft shops scattered throughout this quaint town. After realizing we desire every single item being sold in this town, we decide to head to the hotel.

A good night’s rest and a surprisingly diverse hotel breakfast later, we depart our Fairfield Inn for the Grand Canyon. As per Steve’s advice, we take a longer, more scenic route to this world renowned park. We approach Sunset Volcano crater, a volcanic cinder cone, covered in hardened black lava rock. The apex of this mountain is missing, as if bitten off. We then pass many hills and mountains encompassed by black sand, from which unusual vegetation grows. We continue increasing in elevation. Suddenly the picture-perfect clear day turns into an impenetrable fog. We’ve entered a cloud. Over the next 3 minutes the temperature drops from 51 degrees Fahrenheit to 31. We pass through 18 miles of Wupatki National Monument, unable to see any of it. Once again, Riley sits behind the wheel during an unexpectedly challenging drive. And once again, she impresses.

We park a short walk away from the Bright Angel trailhead. Not anticipating the snow, ice and slush covered terrain awaiting us, I wear my running shoes, having 18 months, 2 half marathons and 100’s of miles of tread on them. Riley, also wearing tennis shoes, walks a few steps behind me as I gingerly descend the slippery trail. We slip but avoid falling many times. Less than a half mile in, we pass a group of 4 fit looking men, staring fearfully at the canyon below them. “Let’s just turn around,” one of them says.

Undeterred, we continue our hike. After a mile, the ice ceases as the trail is exposed to the sun. Simultaneously, the view becomes even more stunning. An indescribable amount of space fills this trench we stand in, surrounded by rocks of various shades of red and brown. The plateau seems miles away, and in fact it is. We hike down another half mile. Mesmerized by the beauty we are witnessing, we climb atop a rock protruding farther than the others. Encased in the magnitude around me, I can’t help but think of how small I truly am.

The hike up is easier and quicker than the hike down. We pass many good-natured individuals cursing themselves for hiking as far down as they did. One boy sprints by us, slowing down only to explain that he needs to complete the trail in less than 20 minutes to prove his manhood to his father.

We drive through another gorgeous sunset towards the small town of Williams. We eat a satisfying Mexican meal at Poncho’s. Feeling refueled, we set off to our next destination.

Land of Cheap Gas and Beer

We approach the ancient wooden door. A stone Buddha sits in full lotus to the left of us. A scooter, having seen many better days, leans against the side of the house, motionless. Misha makes a fist with his right hand and knocks three times below the smiling sun carved into the upper center of the door. A fit man appearing in his fifties opens the door. Unkempt grey hair protrudes from beneath his black and white fedora.

“Hello,” the man says.

“Hi. Are you Stephen?” Misha replies.

Still acclimating to this new experience, I stand a few feet behind Misha.

“Yeah, I’m Steve,” the man answers. “And you must be Misha.” He then turns toward me and asks me my name.

“I’m Riley,” I say.

Steve invites us into his cluttered home. Tribal relics and artwork span the unpainted walls. Shelves upon shelves are filled with vintage records and tapes. Another bookcase contains more modern sources of music – CDs. Countless dusty books are stacked atop antique tables. One of the many Buddhas in this home rests peacefully within a wall incision along the staircase leading to the second floor. Steve points out a small tent lying atop aging wooden furniture. “I’m in the process of making that thing waterproof for when I backpack Colombia for 2 months. I leave in a few weeks.”

While studying the disorganization among us and talking with our host, we learn that for a profession Steve imports and sells various items from Indonesia. In addition to the keepsakes and indigenous clothing scattered among the house, Steve has an entire warehouse full of imports he is attempting to liquidate. “Once all this crap is gone, I’m retiring,” he says.

Steve is also working on multiple projects around the house, including renovating his kitchen, painting the walls and setting up a permanent room for Couchsurfers. The more we speak to Steve, the more I realize this is going to be an unforgettable and eye opening 2 days in Santa Fe.

An hour after arriving at our temporary home, Misha and I set out to the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe. Unprepared for the 20 degree weather, we only stay long enough to eat dinner and check out a “funky schmunky” (as described by a local couple we came across) bar, named Evangelos. And indeed the bar was funky schmunky. Rugged-looking men with cowboy hats drink in the dim-light room filled with stuffed game and ancient Mexican decorations. We return to Steve’s house exhausted and are soon asleep in his guest bedroom.

With the sun having awoken, Misha and I arise from bed ready to go for a run. Upon stepping outside we are exposed to picturesque terrain. Snuggled between the mountains, Steve’s house is at the end of a development consisting of quaint homes perched among large plots of land. We look into the distance and see snow-capped mountains beyond endless dry fields of golden shrubs and scattered rocks. We run 4 miles along the desolate, snowy street, passing horses, dogs and adobe-style farm houses. Despite the 7,000 foot altitude and the uncomfortable blasts of sub-freezing wind, we make it back to Steve’s house.

Although worn out and cold, I’m determined to experience more of this distinctive city. Our first stop is Madrid. No, not the city in Spain. A 40 minute drive from downtown Santa Fe, Madrid, NM was once a prosperous lead and coal mining town. As with many mining towns, the natural resources in Madrid were exhausted and the economy dwindled, resulting in a ghost town. Some time later Madrid received a face lift and now boasts a renowned artistic community, with a variety of enjoyable shops and galleries lining the main street. As we wander in and out of the aged shops, I can’t believe that I’m in the United States. The culture, terrain, and architecture of Santa Fe is something I’ve never experienced. I soak in each step.

We end the day at the Santa Fe Brewing Company. Unlike the breweries I’ve experienced in the past, in which I receive a collectible glass and six 4oz pours of beer, this brewery sells delicious pints of beer for 3 bucks a pop. This favorable price came as little surprise to us, as gas sells for under 2 bucks a gallon in this town. Misha and I climb the stairs to the second floor where we are surrounded by extravagant Christmas decorations. A Christmas Party will be taking place here later tonight. While sipping our crafts brews we engage in conversation with an older couple from El Paso, TX. We have much to talk about as they are quite the travel buffs. After discussing cross-country motorcycle treks, Couchsurfing, camping, and New Mexican history, Misha and I are ready to conclude our night.

We snag some cheap dinner at a local pizzeria and head back to Steve’s home. We walk into this eccentric home to the sound of Steve listening to calming music and feasting on organic rice, veggies and self-made juice. The stove, positioned half in the kitchen and half in the living room, heats up a pot of organic purple sweet potatoes – Steve’s lunch for the next day. After many questions from Misha, we learn more about our wonderful and caring host, including his passion for preserving our environment and our bodies. We are wildly impressed by his use of composts for the garden, buckets to catch the cold and excess water in the shower, and mason jars to preserve and ferment food. I go to sleep reflecting on my time in Santa Fe; it has been an unusual; yet, amazingly mind-opening experience which I will never forget.

Everything is Bigger in Texas

The sun glistens off a shiny metallic star, 10 times the size of me. We’ve officially arrived in Texas, the Lone Star state. With Austin another 4 hours away, and my overwhelming hunger making me sick, I ask Misha to pull over at the next decent restaurant. This task is more challenging than we thought. For 20 miles the only restaurant we pass is a Pizza Hut. No thanks. We see signs for the city of Beaumont. That sounds more promising. Misha reads a few reviews online, and we settle on a reasonably priced Italian restaurant. It’s closed. In fact, the entire town of Beaumont looks like it’s been closed for the past few decades. We try another place – La Salsita; authentic Mexican food. Huge Mistake. After ordering what I think was a chicken burrito, and watching the cashier hit on my boyfriend, we sit down to eat. Misha maintains a stoic face as he attempts to down the mass of food in his hands. Despite my apprehensiveness, I follow suit. Two-thirds through our burritos, we call it quits.

“We needed to eat at a place like that. So we could get it out of our system. Right?” I ask Misha, attempting to find optimism in the episode having just occurred.

“Sure,” Misha says.

With a rumbling stomach, I cautiously drive along seemingly endless, wide roads. The 80mph speed limit is a bit disconcerting for me, as I’ve never seen anything greater than 70. I guess it’s true when they say everything is bigger in Texas. Shortly after 9pm, we arrive at Chelsy and Brett’s house. Chelsy and Misha met in the summer of 2012, while Misha was backpacking Hawai’i for two months. She now lives with her boyfriend, Brett, in Cedar Park, Texas, just north of Austin.

Chelsy greets us with massive rubber boots and a wide simile. She instantly radiates a positive and free spirited vibe. With her dirty blonde hair and athletic physique, she’s not exactly the dark-haired Hawaiian I imagined her being, but I can already tell that I’m going to get along with her. As we enter the seemingly typical home, we are enthralled by the decor of the insides. The walls are filled with artwork made of drift wood and copper. We later learn that Brett, a freelance handy-man by trade, built and welded most of these magnificent items.

After an early morning run through Brushy Creek Park, we head to SoCo, a hip area along South Congress Street, in Austin Texas. The street is filled with diversity and spontaneity, as we pass by a skater, a runner, a pair of traveling hippies, and a man dressed in a full Santa Claus outfit, crossing a bridge atop a galloping horse. Misha and I explore unique shops filled with vintage costumes, collectible books, well-preserved antiques, adorable hand-made souvenirs and other uncommon objects while discussing the carefree vibe in Austin. It’s a place of neither judgment nor a preferred style; a place where you can truly be yourself.

The rest of the afternoon is filled with laughter and Misha’s weirdness. We gradually make our way to HopeOutdoor Gallery, a hill containing wall after wall of graffiti art. A strenuous, short hike leads us atop the structure overlooking the city. We sit and enjoy the sunset.

Our last night in Austin is spent cooking a delicious salmon, red potato and asparagus meal for our lovely hosts and ourselves. We pop open a bottle of red wine and toast to old friends and new friends. A few hours of good conversation later, I make my way to bed while Misha plans the next part of our trip.

The Voyage Begins

For the past 27 months I woke up every weekday (and some weekends) knowing that I had to shower, eat breakfast, slip into a dress shirt and slacks, and be at work by 9am. Today feels different. Today is my last day as an employee of a Big 4 accounting firm. At least for now.

The elevator reaches the 10th floor; the very same floor I received my first full time job offer. I read the countless affirmations pasted on the walls: experience, opportunities, unique, flexibility, happy. I’m finally living these words, I think to myself. I sit at a desk beside a glass wall overlooking this gorgeous Atlanta morning. I’ll miss this city, I think to myself.

Today is mostly formalities. I print out my 3 page Exit Checklist, and make sure I’ve completed all necessary procedures. I’m hit with a splash of emotion as I glance at my work instant messenger, containing the names of all my coworkers and work friends. A wave of gratitude encompasses me and I send a few kind words of wisdom to those I’ve grown close to over the years. They thank me and wish me safe travels. I check the digital clock at the bottom of my computer screen. It reads 10:15. Almost time for my exit interview. I head up to the 12th floor.

After a refreshingly open conversation with my interviewer, I exit her office and ascend to the 14th floor with my computer. In a very matter-of-fact way, the man workings the operations services desk snatches my computer, asks me to sign some paper I’m too excited to read, and bodes me farewell. This anti-climactic moment does little to deter the excitement bubbling up in me. Without a work computer for the first time in nearly 2.5 years, I feel lighter; literally and figuratively. I try to hide my grin as I speed walk to the elevator and then sprint across the lobby to the glorious day outside. I scan the parking lot for Riley. There she is – appearing scared, yet excited.

8 hours and some world famous BBQ later we turn onto an old pot-hole infested street full of vintage, tall houses with large porches. We’ve arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana. We park in the street beside a picturesque white house with pink window shutters. Unsurprising beads hang from porch posts and telephone lines. As we ascend the aging porch steps, a skinny boy with long red hair jogs over to us.

“Misha?” he asks.

“Yup,” I reply. “And you’re David?”

“Yes sir.”

David is our Couch Surfing host, with whom we will be staying the next two nights. We pulled in just as he was returning from a night of studying economics. He unlocks the door to his dwelling and we enter a classic shotgun-style house. Dating back to the early 19th century, the shotgun house is built as a narrow rectangle, with one door at the front of the house and one door at the back of the house, and all the rooms in between connected by a continuous hallway. Our room is the one closest to the door. A full sized air mattress, 2 sleeping bags and 2 pillows await us. David’s room is connected to ours, followed by a study area, a kitchen and a bathroom. Not every day do I walk through 4 rooms just to brush my teeth.

David invites us onto his porch, where we set up 3 chairs and a hammock. We pop open a bottle of red wine and merrily sip away, while listening to some unusual sounding birds screeching above us. I stargaze for the first time in months. Midway through the bottle David’s friend, Pedro, arrives. An exchange student from Honduras, he and David are co-founders of the Loyola University Economics club. The 4 of us spend a wonderful evening discussing everything from communist-Russia to college girlfriend troubles. As the temperature dips into the 40’s we walk inside where David prepares us some fancy shmancy hot chocolate. We sip on it and our eyelids grow heavy. David, a self-proclaimed night owl, has a party to go to. We check the time – it’s midnight (well, back home it is. In N’awleans, it’s a young 11pm). We tell David we’re going to take it easy tonight and go to sleep early.

Riley and I wake up to a perfect morning. We tie our shoe laces and head off on a 5 mile run along the St. Charles trolley line towards the French Quarter. The closer we near to the Quarter, the rowdier and more eccentric the crowd becomes. After witnessing a fight between a convenience store employee and a drunk homeless man, and passing by a van advertising “Weed Candies” (which I did not know was legal in Louisiana) we arrive on Canal Street. Resembling The Strip in Las Vegas, Canal Street is beautifully lined with vast hotels, symmetrical palm trees, a casino, and endless activity. We cross the street and walk along the deceivingly quiet Bourbon Street. A family dressed in Victorian-era clothing prances around, while a man balances himself on an invisible chair for tips.

An afternoon in New Orleans is not complete without Po’boys, which is exactly what Riley and I eat for lunch. Dessert consists of Cafe Du Monde and their world famous coffee and French beignets. As the afternoon draws to a close, we hop on the St. Charles trolley, which takes us back to David’s house.

After relaxing and changing into more presentable attire, Riley and I treat our accommodating host to a true creole dinner at a local restaurant. We then hop back on the trolley towards Bourbon Street. With the sun having set many hours ago, the atmosphere on the Street has drastically changed. Spray painted school busses speed past us, blasting music. Its tenants shake their rears out the windows. We walk the length of Bourbon Street, stopping only to purchase the famous Hand Grenade beverage and to stare at intriguing passersby. We listen to some impressive piano music at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the oldest bar in America, before setting off to nearby Frenchmen Street. Considered, a more vintage New-Orleans experience, Frenchmen Street is bustling with live music. Men play jazz on street corners while onlookers dance. A trio of women play folk music on a set of dirty steps. A sextet of young boys play classic covers inside a local bar.

Riley and I stumble upon a recommended hot dog joint where we gluttonously down an obnoxiously large brat. An enjoyable amount of beers, a strip club and a rave later we’re back on the trolley heading to our host’s home.

We wake up Sunday morning to a third consecutive day of marvelous weather. We pack the car, snap a selfie with our host, and take off for our next destination.

The Day Before

I sit in my room, packing the last of my belongings. It’s Thursday and the clock reads 12:13 p.m.; approximately 24 hours before Misha and I hit the road. The process of folding clothes into a suitcase is mundane, and evokes little emotion. Later that afternoon, I sit down with two girls for my final tutoring session. Having worked with these young ladies for the past few months, we’ve grown quite close. About 10 minutes into the lesson, one of the girls begins to cry. At first I am confused, until I realize she is sad due to my impending departure. Her sorrow transcends into my sorrow and I soon feel a wave of emotions come over me. I’m barely able to hold it together as I try to comfort her.

This moment marks the onset of a surplus of emotions, consisting of anxiety, sadness and excitement. Words do not manifest to describe this collection of emotion, but deep down I’m certain that I made the right decision to take on this challenge with Misha.

After loading the car with my final bag I sit with my parents for dinner. Despite all attempts to focus on the delicious Thai food in front of me and the comedy act radiating from the TV, my thoughts are elsewhere. As dinner nears an end it hits me that this is the last time I’ll see my parents in quite some time. After never having lived more than two hours away from my mom and dad, I am about to set sail on a journey which will take me over two thousand miles away from them. After suppressing my emotions for months, I finally let the tears flow down my face. Seeing me cry is too much, and my mom begins tearing up as well. This wonderful chapter of my life has come to end. And now begins a new one. Thankfully, I receive ample phone calls and text messages from my friends to distract me enough to fall asleep.

I wake up from a surprisingly great night’s sleep. At 11am I hop into my vehicle and head south to Downtown Atlanta. By noon I’m parked across the street from Misha’s work office. I notice a male figure wearing a striped white and blue button down shirt and grey pants exit the building. It’s Misha. Our journey is about to begin.