Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Eve in Vienna: Cathedrals, Texas Hold 'Em, and Getting Left at the Altar

Bad renditions of Christmas carols play at the hostel bar as we drink on Christmas Eve.  I meet Francesco, half Italian, half Colombian, with a giving smile and sparkling eyes.  You can tell he is on fire.  I meet Eric, a tall American man who is drunk from chugs of beer and too much time in the war.  He talks about death like it is nothing, the flip of a coin.  His hands move quickly and his mouth is over-exaggerated twists, working overtime to get words out.  I listen with eyes growing watery, listen about Afghanistan and tanks of natural gas and the "bdmm-bdmm-bdmm-bdmm-bdmm" sound he makes to mimic an automatic weapon as he tells stories of death, over and over.  Suddenly I cannot listen anymore, and I excuse myself to the bathroom, needing space from hearing about war I know exists, but I don't want to hear about it tonight, not on Christmas Eve, not in Vienna.  I want to talk to the Brazilian boys, I want to make youtube requests to the bar tender, I want to drink more red wine and sing terrible Christmas carols by the piano.

We go back and forth about whether or not to attend midnight mass.  Barry, an older Irish man who is here because "I knew there would be nothing to do" so he can study for his second major: environmental engineering, leads the crew -- me, Francesco, and the drunken Eric, but the church around the corner is closed.  I am dreading walking into a church with Eric, this drunken obnoxious man who is swearing every three words, and Barry makes an executive decision.  He grabs my hand and we run for a taxi.  I am defeated, not drunk enough or maybe too drunk, past the point of caring -- "I'm over it," I tell him, but he insists.  I'm in Vienna, it's Christmas Eve, and he's taking me to the cathedral.

Side streets in a smooth taxi, we talk.  He pats my head, which I don't appreciate, and somehow, the subject of veganism comes up.  He tells me he is vegan a few months out of each year.  I ask him why.  With a smile he says he can't tell me now, he'll tell me in the morning.  There is something strange about this.  He says it like it is a card he has been saving to use at the right moment.  Is this supposed to be so mysterious that it woos me into sticking around long enough to find out the reasons behind his sometimes-veganism?

We arrive at the cathedral, which is an open vaulted space.  I smell sage and the cool backs of rocks.  It is a cave, and I hear the clicking of shoes, the rubbing of coats against jackets as we humans weave quietly in and out of the mass.  I can't see anything, I can't understand anything, but I am drawn closer, filling up the space other bodies leave for me as they exit.  I am tired and I am wondering how people belonging to a religion that claims to love God and love their brothers and neighbors can take part in the Holocaust.  I think, how many people in this church believe that they are saying?  How many of us are blindly following without knowing or caring where we are going?  How many of us are living that truth of 'when you pray, move your feet.'?  My mind wanders to cynicism, and it doesn't have to travel very far to get there.  People shake one another's hand, saying "Peace be with you" in German I believe, and one man turns to me, pauses a breath of a second as if to register that I do not quite belong but here I am anyway, and shakes mine.

Near the end of the service, they play 'Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming' and I am thinking about my grandfather.  This is the song he, my aunt, my mom, and my grandma always struggled through on Christmas Eve, after too much egg nog, and it seems fitting that it plays.  He is here, in this church, in this instant.  He is the hum of singing, the notes swooping like birds.  The service closes with Silent Night, just as our Christmas Eve always ends, and I sing quietly in English, harmonizing with everything around me -- the cool air and the warm breath, the sage smoking and the sounds of coughing, voices in German, the muddy organ, and the promise of God.  

One by one, the lamps above are turned off, and the purple glow of lights come on in their place.  I wait while families and tourists with cameras file out and take pictures, cameras tilting up to the ceiling.  I walk up to the front of the church.  I don't know what I am looking for, but there is no time to find it.  We are being ushered out of the cathedral.  I dip two fingers in the holy water and cross myself.  It seems right, a blessing of dewy hands over my heart as I head out into the night, which is gray and quiet.

There is more to the story, less poetry and more re-tellings.  Barry is nowhere to be found, I am alone in the middle of the night in the middle of Vienna, waiting outside of the cathedral.  He doesn't come and I curse him under my breath.  I find a metro, the right metro, and I am reminded yet again of what this Christmas trip means for me: my independence.  With leaps of brave independence come small gifts: I see Rafael, the Brazilian music-journalist who writes for Brazil's Rolling Stone, on the metro.  We sit together and walk back to the hostel.

I am disillusioned and ready for bed, but M (the English hostel bartender) and S (the Austrian front desk man) are playing Texas Hold 'Em (in this moment, I am missing Elena), and the invite me to join them.  We are shits and giggles, betting with shelled peanuts and wasabi nuts (these are worth 5 euro).  They give me the bag of peanuts and I lose terribly; my nickname is Greece but the boys bail me out.  The material for jokes about nuts is endless.  "Nuts up!"  "Let me just reach into my nutsack here..."  I drink more wine and learn a few words in German.  We talk about everything, we stay up 'til the morning in the hostel lobby, and I work on my poker face.

I love my life.  I love my life.  I love my life.  Even though I often feel some sort of variation of getting left at a cathedral, I am finding more and more that I know how to get home, and the thing about that is, my home is always changing and I never know what will be waiting for me.

This is my new mantra: I am home.  I am home in every moment, no matter the geographical location, because I am living in my heart, which is full like peals of belly-deep laughter.  When we let go, and when we trust that there will be somewhere soft for us to land, we can just be in that woosh of falling.  Falling deeper into self and out of ego, every moment and every day is a new beginning for us.  And maybe this is a broken record, the same old song and dance of getting lost and getting found, and maybe there is no succinct way for me to end this, to connect all the dots.  I am flushed, and this year, no matter if my hand is winning or losing, I am reaching into my nutsack and going all in.

So on that note, Boldog Karácsonyt! Frohe Weihnachten! Feliz Navidad! Merry Christmas!  Whatever you celebrate, may you celebrate peace and love.

Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Common Denominators in Discoteques

The following songs will always, always, always, no matter where you go, play in sweaty smokey grindy clubs:

For this, I am grateful.  Especially the last one, which makes me dance so hard people get out of the way.


I meet Ákos (Ah-kosh), who speaks as much English as I speak Hungarian.  Our conversation is one long game of charades.  His eyes are slow-drunk, delicate sage-green rings that are glued to his cell phone as he shows me picture of a baby girl (not his), earrings (yeah, I don't know either), and takes down my prized facebook information.  "Nem mobil!  Dancing!" I tell him, and we dance our way to the floor, packed with grinding university students, hands waving as house music plays.  Standing by the bar, while I wait for him to buy me a drink, we talk geography.  I don't know how this began -- it was sometime before we clinked glasses of palinka and said egészségérebut after he showed me the earrings picture.  

In what I feel is a quintessential drunk-guy-thing-to-do, he makes a heart with his hands, says "Hungary," and a smile creeps on his face as he tilts his head slightly to one side.  Then, one hand chopping the air in a downward motion (picture hands scowling and shrugging) and with twisted lips, he spits disdainfully: "Slovakia," (Nem), "Romania," (Nem as well), and just as quickly his hands quit dissing other countries and go back to shape his unsteady heart, "My Hungary.  I love my Hungary."  I love his Hungary too.


And speaking of music, I wish you could hear the hallways between periods at the schools where I teach.  They sound like children shuffling and bassy dub-step, which is pumped at full volume through the speakers.  If you close your eyes, it could be a disco.  So far I have not heard any of the classic club stand-bys, but I have heard "All I Want for Christmas is You" and way more Skrillex than I would care to.  

This is the kind of music that is bumping as the kids hang out in the hallways:


We all know what happened when I was in South America.  Cumbia, the ridiculously boppy and poppy music that I couldn't stand when I arrived, eventually became my jams.  Please, please, kéremsave me from dubstep!


Friday, December 9, 2011

Superheroes and other Characters

Today I taught a lesson about Superheroes.  The kids created their own superheroes.  Although no one drew me, I have come to the conclusion that teaching requires super-powers.

Daniel's superhero's power: "His shoes get very bad smell and he kill lots off people his shoes smell."

Robi's superhero!
Name Mr. Awesome
Powers Shoot fireballs; be awesome
Costume awesome face
Statistics (he meant characteristics or strengths) strong, awesome, brave
Weaknesses (before I told him how to correct it, it said "weaks") Nothing because he is awesome!!  xD

This is the primary school where I teach on Fridays.

My desk.  Notebook, water bottle, and To the Top are mine.

Teacher's lounge.

Waiting for the bus.

Home sweet home.  

Quite possibly the cutest carousel ride ever.  The kids ride in baskets.

Waking down the street to my Wednesday school.

Facing Fear, Facing Failure

December 5th, 2011

Tonight I realized why I have so much resistance about my yoga practice, and life in general.

Yoga puts me up against my edges, it stretches me as far as I will stretch (or as far as I think I can), and then some.  While my body folds, I feel every thread of tension in my muscles, and I am disappointed in my own limitations.  I feel like folding, throwing in the towel, getting off the mat.  I wait for viyasana so I can lay with my body, still, not moving.

I don't want to be reminded of my limitations.  While the toxins slip out, the ghosts slip back in and the screeching, it is haunting.  I compare my pose to the person next to me, I silently try to love my body that is so rigid, and I think about a failed English lesson, errands to run (although, in your first two weeks in a foreign country, I think they are referred to more appropriately as "missions"), all of the grudges I hold against myself.

I feel their weight digging into me, pushing every time I pull, a cruel kind of mental and emotional isometrics.

I just want to be free from it.  And isn't that always my story.

But this is the beauty of yoga, right?  You can bring everything to the mat, and it is accepted.

The hitch is, I bring ME onto the mat, and I am not always accepting.

When it's possible to bring only the shiny perfect bits of me to the mat and to leave all the junk behind, will you let me know?  Can I get on some kind of a waiting list?

The point is, I resist challenges, but I also keep inviting them.

Moving to Hungary to teach English was (and is) a challenge.  My ego can feel good about wanting this, about making it happen (because aren't I so cool/original/brave for being here and doing this?), but it's also fucking hard.

I am facing my own failure every day.  Getting lost, failing to communicate or understand, "bombing" a lesson or "losing" a student  -- this has become my practice.

Up against my own edges, I am ready to throw up my hands, and sometimes I do.  Sometimes I can't hold the pose, I can't do anything but surrender to so-called failure.

Or, I can ask for help.  Sometimes, this means taking my tired body into extended child pose, and sometimes it means calling Peter to pick me up because I got lost on the way to school.

It always involves getting over my own ego and tuning into my own needs.

And it definitely involves letting go.

All we have is this moment, which will ease into the next one, and the next, and the next.

Why hold on to what was never ours to hold?  Why grip what is and will always be passing like the clouds?

Why not let go?

My practice is one of letting go, of sinking deeper into poses, or getting out of them entirely.  I am learning that I have a much larger capacity towards letting go than I thought.

My intention in my life is to keep it light.  The lighter things seem to me, the faster they unsnare themselves from all the booby-traps my ego sets.  The ego sits, ready and waiting to pounce, but I am getting lighter on my feet.  I fall for the traps less and less all the time, and I hold more kindness for myself when I get tangled up in then.

Perhaps this is most important.

Not whether we "fail" or "succeed" but that we don't get stuck.

Let us wash our hands of everything that has come before this moment, and not think about the befores or afters, real or imagined.

Let us, sudsy hands at the sink, just be at the damned sink.

And let us, please, when we are sucked in to befores or afters, to guilt or self-hatred, when we lose our way -- let us remember our own lightness, which will always guide us home.

But if for some reason it doesn't, you can always call Peter.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Small Victories: Lost & Found


Kathryn and I walk past stalls selling scarves and candles, superfluous hats (the Bedazzler has made it to Hungary in a big way.  Rhinestones and sequins sparkle on everything.  Thanks, Globalization!).  Christmas lights twinkle and clouds move quick-quick in the hazy evening light.  Beyond stalls of Palinka and sausages, I spot a familiar rainbow of color.  I don't even say hello.  "Eres de Peru?"

Yes.  Yes!  A Peruvian in Szeged at the Christmas market.  Whaaaat?  Victor and I speak easily in Spanish, reminiscing about Peru.  A little bit of my heart is there; just a chunk.  I feel the piece of it missing when I see chullos and speak Spanish.  It aches like a hole anxious to be filled.  It is a gentle gnawing turned ravenous.


I tell Victor that my Peruvian friend John is living in Vienna and might be visiting me, and I will bring him here to the market, so they can connect the way only paisanos can.  John and Victor are both so far from home, from a place that feels a little bit like my home, my Peru.

I miss Peru in a way that says, Don't worry, I know it aches, but you will go back.  I miss Peru because in Peru you say "Buenas dias" when you pass people on the street in the morning.  Here, the custom is to avoid the other person's gaze, or at the very least, return their gaze sternly.

I walk down the street and smile slightly at a tight-lipped old fat man with ruddy cheeks, who looks like he is thinking "Remain your composure!  Remain your composure!" and I burst into laughter after he passes.

Living in a foreign country feels like never getting the joke, but we all know that even when we don't get the joke, we still laugh.

So here I am, laughing.

Or, crying.

It depends, really.


Week one of teaching is over.  I have taught 13 different classes in three different schools.  I have played more Pictionary this week than I have ever played in my life.  When I tell the students I am from California, the girls squeal.  They seem most interested in my least favorite aspects of America: Justin Beiber, fast food, Twilight.  The girls ask if I have seen Twilight, and I can tell they are about to judge the hell out of me.  I say I have not, and for now, I am safe.  

I teach a lesson about giving advice, and Twilight comes up again.

Me: I have a problem.  My boyfriend is angry with me.  What should I do?
Lacus (pronounced Lohtzi): Maybe he does not want to watch the Twilight.
Lacus, I tell him, I have never even seen Twilight.  Can we just get that straight?
Smiling he puts two hands up, Ok, ok, sorry.
We're good, but I suspect the girls are pissed.

They also give me advice about things to do and see in Szeged.  "Do you like China food?"  ... "Go to Karazs square, there is McDonalds."  ... "I think you like go cinema."


I am determined not be the loud awkward Amerikai, but my life here is a series of fumbles.

I get lost nearly everywhere I go.  When I am being kind to myself, I call it wandering, but after a few hours of "wandering" with frozen carrot fingers and shaking legs, tears from the cold and utter exhaustion and desperation of not knowing how to get home, I can no longer sugarcoat it.  With numb and naked fingers or clumsy gloved hands, I fumble for the keys.  It is a victory when I make it into the apartment.

It is a victory when I make it to the school on time, when I catch a bus (and when it's the right bus!) (and when I get off at the right stop!), when no one in class puts their heads on their desk to feign sleeping.  Do you mind if we consider it a victory that they are pretend-sleeping and not actually taking naps?


Lots of small victories.  It seems fitting, in this small country which has had so much suffering, whose suffering you can see in the blocks of housing and on the faces.

May we all celebrate our victories today, big or small, and may we please, please, please, let go of anything we consider to be a failure.  Including, but not limited to, a particular English lesson.

It is what it is.  It was what it was.  And it will be what it will be.

Blessings come in all forms.  Like this morning, when I was running late to a new school for my first day of classes, I wasn't sure how to get to the school from the bus stop.  I spotted a young boy wearing a backpack at the vegetable stand.  "Luthos? Eskola?"  He gave me directions in Hungarian.  I questioned with gestures.  He ran closer to the cart said something to the guys at the stand, then gestured for me to come with him.  We talked to each other, even though we couldn't understand, and he led the way to school.

He found me later, while I was clearing out of a classroom.  "Jessi!" he said, his smile coy and knowing.  "Tomas!"  I grinned.

And then I found him at the bus stop.

Rubbing my tummy, I asked him how to say "I am hungry" in Hungarian, and he shoved his baguette toward me, his eyes at once growing and pointed with concern.

He gets off the bus, and I wave as he turns around to look at me, on my way to Szeged, to my home.  I am on the right bus.  I am in the right place.

Slowly and suddenly, I look around and know -- I am not so lost.