Tag Archives: Wanderlust

Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

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The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

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Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

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Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

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The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

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Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

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So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

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Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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A short to-do list, because YOLO (sort of)

It’s been a month of milestones in our little familia. My son started kindergarten at a new school that we’d been hoping to get into since before he was born. He’s been adjusting well and we are loving the community. I turned 40, and have returned to teaching (college Spanish) part-time. But I want to share with you two “smaller” parenting firsts that happened yesterday, and the things they made me think about.

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Yesterday was the first time since starting my new day job that my husband wasn’t home in the hectic final minutes before we have to be out the door in the morning. I had to get my son to school, and had to be at my job by 8:40. After being a stay-at-home mom for 5 years, this made me feel like quite the independent working parent: It was So Damn Stressful. And that’s with an only child and teaching just two mornings per week! More importantly? I believe with all my heart that single working parents who still manage to be present with their children are the greatest unsung heroes of our society. Hats. Freaking. Off. I bow to you. That’s all I will say about that for now, even as I acknowledge that no words can do justice to my deep and abiding awe for these superheroes.

Yesterday was also the first morning I dropped my boy off for school at the curbside, instead of parking the car and walking him in. The school’s driveway is a few feet away from the entrance, and there are adults lined up to help escort the kiddos from the parent’s car into the school. Full disclosure, I had trouble sleeping the night before. What if, in those few feet between my car and the school entrance, someone intercepted him? What if, once inside, he didn’t go straight where he was supposed to go? Are kindergartners really ready for curbside drop-off? What if it made him upset, and made me late for class?

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When we finally pulled into the school driveway in the morning, the school principal happened to be there. She walked over, opened his car door, and with a huge warm smile, offered her hand. He went so happily and proudly with her, I had to call him back just to give him a kiss goodbye and wish him a good day! (I also wanted to give her a hug.) I drove off to work basking in a soft wave of relief and of pride in my big boy, and only the slightest stirrings of “he did make inside, right … ?” It was a small milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

As a fervent believer in reincarnation, I don’t subscribe to the old adage of You Only Live Once in a literal sense. That said, this lifetime is the one that matters to me now, and boy is it a precious one. After delving into deeper questions on the passage of time in my previous post, this time I got to thinking about more practical aspects of the question, what do I really, really, really want?

I prefer talking about to-do lists over the idea of one big bucket list. For example, I’ve started thinking about an empty nest to-do list. Oh sure, that’s roughly 13 years away. And you know what? I remember 13 years ago like it was earlier this morning. So I have a good sense of how fast the next 13 will go, and I want to at least have a plan when the time comes. Part of the plan is to travel more with my husband. Also, if I haven’t had the opportunity, to learn/perfect more foreign languages. I will research and write more books, hopefully (in theory at least) at a faster pace than now. I’m also looking forward to binge-watching all the TV shows I keep hearing about which I never have time to watch. (Was Mad Men really that good? What about Downton Abbey? No spoilers please!)

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Our little familia riding the London Underground from the Natural History Museum to the British Museum (April 2015)

But enough about stuff down the line. Assuming good health, what do I really, really, really want in the years ahead of me now? Here are some things, in no particular order.

  1. Research and write more stories (and be less scared about pursuing publication)
  2. See Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher
  3. Eat “freshly” smoked salmon in Alaska (and Norway)
  4. Learn to make handmade pasta … in Italy
  5. Have a Thai massage in Thailand
  6. See the Danube River separating Buda from Pest
  7. Shower my family with crazy wicked fierce lovin’
  8. Eat street food in Vietnam (my palate is more excited about this than my heartburn-prone gut is)
  9. Amsterdam: Pay my respects at Anne Frank’s hiding place, and ride a canal boat … and a bike
  10. Learn to knit?
  11. Eat a Belgian waffle purchased from a street vendor in Brussels
  12. Dance more
  13. Sydney Harbor
  14. African safari
  15. Learn more about wine
  16. Walk on the Great Wall
  17. Edinburgh …

Sensing a trend here? Yes, with me, it often comes down to travel. Beautiful, restless, put-a-stamp-on-my-passport-NOW-please, Wanderlust. By the way? I hope to do most of these things with my beloved husband and our sunshine boy. And I’m leaving a lot (like, all of the Americas) out. Not to mention the many places we want to take him where we’ve already been! It’s okay if we don’t do all these things. But I believe we can do some –even many– of them. What’s not okay is to not even dream them. I’ve never been shy about dreaming big, and it has never led me astray. Dreaming big and loving big, that’s the plan.

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This brochure for a trip to Thailand and Bali came in the mail recently. My son and I spent that afternoon poring over the details, and it was the best day-dreaming conversation we’ve had … so far!

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Wanderlust

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Of all the unexplained compulsions in human behavior, wanderlust has got to be my favorite. I blame my parents. In my early childhood in Puerto Rico, when my father was in medical school and my mother was the sole bread-winner for our family of five, they still managed to scrape together enough money to take us to Disney World a couple of times.

Orlando (1977 & 1979). I’m the youngest.

Later, in the three years we lived in Albany, NY while Dad was a resident in rehabilitation medicine, we’d pack the five of us into the family car, and set off for Manhattan, Toronto, DC, and many other places. There was never a lot of money, but my parents understood well the importance of expanding our horizons. So I learned early on, for example, that eating food from a grocery store–rather than a restaurant–for at least one meal a day is an excellent way to save money on a trip.

Roadtripping in the early 80’s

Upon completing his residency, my father moved our family back to Puerto Rico, and made a vow: That one day soon, he’d take the five of us to Europe. The year was 1985.

In summer 1987, la Familia Falcón embarked on a three-week tour of Europe. And that was it. THAT WAS IT! Before the trip, I thought historic sites in Europe were these boring, abandoned places, visited only by a handful of rich eccentric types. It was confusing that my parents wanted to take us there. But I quickly “got it.” There’s a whole world just beyond my own, awaiting exploration. There are people very different from me … and ultimately not that different. The world is terrifically big and wondrously small. It’s okay to see things differently, and to think and be different from my previous beliefs. Magic is real, and wealth isn’t a pre-requisite for it. It’s possible to be many miles away from home and still experience a powerful sense of belonging. These were just a few of the lessons learned.

The Falcón’s at the Roman Colosseum (1987)
My parents have made good on that 1985 promise many more times than their children or grandchildren could have dreamed.
Madrid (2006)
And they sent each of us on plenty of solo adventures, too.
Clockwise: A summer in England (top two on the left -1992); semester abroad in Spain (1994); camel ride in Egypt (1999); eating pizza sold by weight in Verona (1999); Santorini (2000).
Imagine my delight when I met my husband David, and learned that he suffers from the same travel restlessness as me. Soon, we were engaged, and the adventures continued. Which brings me to the present(-ish), and to my point. Mark Twain said it best.
Oh please, please-please, SEE the world as much as possible. It’s one of the best things you could ever do. And with enough planning and flexibility, it can also be done on a budget.
After we had our son Eric five years ago, our travels definitely slowed down. We are now a very frugal single-income household. Last year we had hopes of visiting Spain on the 20th anniversary of my semester abroad there. Alas, the expense would have been unwise; we didn’t go. Yet David and I continue to agree that any extra money is set aside so we can see our country and the world as a family. Both he and I count travel–and a love of reading books–as the most profoundly enriching experiences of our formative years. This is precisely what we dream for Eric during his childhood. Not surprisingly, he is a natural little wanderer like his parents.
This world map with color-coded pins for places dreamed, planned, and visited is one of the best Christmas presents David has ever given me. (2013)
When we returned from a 12-day roadtrip to Canada and New England last summer, the moment Eric realized we were done travelling, he sat down on the family room floor, and cried, “But where are we going tomorrow?!” Here’s a picture from our trip to London when he was a year old.
Did you know you can fit your stroller–opened, with your baby strapped in–into the backseat of London’s famous black taxis? He loved that! (2011)
Guess what? We’re thinking of taking him again in just a few weeks. David has a work trip. Eric and I could tag along. This trip has been over a year in the making, and we have never thought longer or harder over a travel decision. Among the factors to consider? 1-I’d be alone with Eric in London, not seeing David until the very end of the day. On the other hand? 2-I could be alone with Eric in DC, doing our routine stuff, not seeing David for an entire week. Only one of these options gets me eating scones with clotted cream and jam … in friggin’ England. Yeah, I like what’s behind door #1 better. Do I still wonder if it’s the 100% sensible thing to do? All the time. Our finances are a far cry from when we had two incomes and no kids. Just in case, don’t tell Suze Orman on us, alright? Not to mention my anxiety-prone self is coming out full force, conjuring fantastically awful mental scenarios about things that could go wrong. (I am a superior catastrophizer.)
But we’re still seriously considering it. With David’s expenses covered, the trip would be a fraction of what it would cost for the three of us. There’s this wonderful phenomenon called tax refund. The curiosity and wonder of a five-year-old child are like lightning in a bottle. For me, besides the chance to give my boy an invaluable experience, it’s also an opportunity to overcome an anxiety. And a priceless reminder that the world is still within reach and a relatively safe place, no matter what dire news stories tell us; that it is ours to experience and love; that I can go on travel adventures long after my carefree “younger” years, this time, as the mom. I still don’t know how my parents took their three kids on all those trips. Sometimes, it occurs to me, they must have decided to just go for it. Life is short. There’s a time for prudence … and a time for scones. This time I want the scones. I hope you will find whatever your metaphorical “scone” is, and go after it. Dream it, map it, plan it, and go. I’m telling you, it can be done, and it is WORTH IT.
You see, I’m not kidding when I say we love to travel. Here’s a sampling of some of our pre-parenthood trips. Clockwise from top left: Toledo (2003); Grand Canyon (2003); Paris (2004); Ireland (2007); Innsbruck (2008); and Maine (2008).
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