Under the red awning funky multicolored lights twinkled, music thumped, and the restaurant bustled with activity. Servers carrying precarious trays of beer squeezed in between large groups of friends guffawing at each other’s tales, families laughing at the fathers who were trying to get down with the beats, women on girls’-night-out leaning close together to be heard over the din, and… me sitting by myself in the center of it all. After the hostess faltered after I held up the “number 1” sign to signal that I was dining alone and her attempt to seat me at a table off to the side by the kitchen, it became apparent that at Spiler’s in Budapest’s trendy Gozsdu udvar that people never ate alone. Or, more specifically, no one went to Gozsdu udvar, an alley of funky cafes, hip bars and eateries, alone. But I had selected my own company, and I had selected this place for dinner, and I was determined not to be cowed by the raucous environment and the fact that in my solitary state, I did not belong.
After I gave the hostess a look saying, “no one puts Baby in the corner”, she seated me at a table for two in the center of the action. I could watch everyone. Everyone, I realized, could watch me. I had a decision to make: sit there in discomfort or decide to own it. It was my very first solo vacation in a foreign land; I was supposed to be having fun. Instead I was like a shrinking violet, apologetic for bringing a disease that one wants to get: the prospect of loneliness. But I was alone by choice and I wasn’t lonely. I decided to own it.
Squaring my shoulders and leaning back in my chair, I looked about the room like I owned the place. I ordered my food with confidence and selected the Magyar Vandor Ale as if I did it everyday. I took out my journal and wrote. People who are writing look important. They have thoughts. Important ones. So much so, they should be recorded. So I wrote down my very important thoughts of what I ordered for dinner (salmon with cucumber salad). I made eye contact and directed the servers to me when I needed important things. Like dessert. “See?” I projected to everyone, “I eat dinner alone all of the time and I like it.” Yep. Everyone could watch me.
If they wanted to. It took me awhile to realize that nobody wanted to. They had other things to focus on: their companions, their food, beer, and trying to hear over the noise. The only one watching me was me.
The problem wasn’t the restaurant or the atmosphere or the other diners. It was me and my decided lack of self-confidence. It didn’t matter if I was alone; I was a paying customer, and everyone treated me well and were very helpful, including sharing what they thought I should see in Budapest. I alone had the problem with my act of being alone. Dining at Spiler’s reminded me that everyone has their own concerns; that if I had friends or my husband with me, I would have never eaten there– it was too loud; that I chose to be alone, chose my own company, and therefore, in order to feel like I belonged, I needed to accept myself; and that when I need confidence, I could always fake it.
Looking south across the Danube under the grey clouds sat Gellerthegy (Gellert Hill): dark, dead, unwelcoming. Budapest in March, unlike California with its early buds and blossoms, still slept in its winter slumber. Although it sits atop both the city and the “things to see” list, I wondered if it would be worth the climb. Was really now the time to see it in its barren tree glory?
Six months before I decided that I would visit Budapest. By myself. Partly to satisfy a life-long dream of exploring a foreign place alone and partly just as a personal challenge, could I do it? Could I handle a language as complex as Magyar that added numerous “k”s and “z”s to words? The forint whose bills started at 500? Could I navigate my way through streets that were unpronounceable? Could I spend a week in my own company?
Budapest was easy. Ridiculously so. First, basically no one else in the world speaks Magyar, but almost everyone in the world (it seems like) speaks English. English was their default. Most Hungarians were fluent, and if not, knew enough to get by. The menus were translated. At first I felt the thrill of ordering off a menu I couldn’t understand and then my waiter came by and flipped it over– to the English side. On the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel, I acquainted myself with the Hungarian Forint, and by the time I reached my destination, I had the amount ready to pay him, tip included (10% as is customary). Because I spent so much time researching my location and mapping out how to get places beforehand, once I checked in I set off to the Chain Bridge and Buda Castle without assistance.
My own company was a bit more complex. If Budapest’s default was English, mine was go, go, go, plan, plan, plan, do, do, do. My energy lately had been spent outward, unfurled in all directions. Solving problems, planning lessons, listening, cajoling students, cajoling adults, grading papers, leading, following, going to meetings, commuting, organizing, and on and on. Just “being” fell to the bottom of the list. More frightening was looming feeling that I was not enjoying basic pleasures anymore. Everything felt like something to do, as if I was on autopilot through my life. My creative zone eluded me and even sinking into a good novel seemed out of my grasp.
Even on a trip by myself where I could be my own boss, I fell into this default mode. Following my itinerary, I made sure I saw the sights that were “worth it”. My first day of exploring Buda Castle, St. Matyas Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion was quite nice, but my second day making the trek to City Park, going to the zoo, walking around the Jewish Quarter, and then going to the Opera left me feeling flat. These were things that I felt like I “had” to do. Maybe it was because all of them were on the Pest side of the Danube: the flat, more developed and trendy area devoted mostly to hip clubs and shopping.
Gellerthegy called to me, but I resisted. There were other things to do and see, like take a tour of the stunning Parliament building. Surely this was more important than climbing a barren hill. Then I thought about being part of a tour group and following close behind the guide to hear. Then I thought about other people in the tour. Then I thought about the time schedule. Then I realized that I didn’t want a schedule, other people, or a guide. In fact, I was perfectly happy looking at the outside all lit up at night from across the river. That was enough for me. What I really wanted to do was walk up a hill.
The next morning was cloudy as I struck out down Karoly Utca to cross over to the Buda side via the spare, white Elizabeth Bridge. Before I could reach it I was distracted by the shops on Vaci Utca and meandered down the narrow street of knick-knacks and souvenirs. It deposited me in front of the Grand Central Market, Budapest’s largest market. The first floor was rows of fresh fruits and vegetables, rich-smelling smoked meats, cheeses, pastries galore, and paprika stands. Tucked in the back was a dairy stand selling fresh yoghurt, my favorite treat. I purchased a cup of yoghurt and a cinnamon apple strudel and had a little picnic on a park bench. The yoghurt was light and creamy with just a hint of tang; the strudel was warm and crisp, just sweet enough. Sated by my treats I made my way upstairs to the maze of shops selling wooden products, Rubik’s Cubes (invented by a Hungarian), dolls, purses, glasses, every kind of good that could feature the word Budapest on it.
Because of my detour I crossed the Danube on the green Liberty Bridge that placed me at the base of Gellerthegy. I began my ascent at my own pace. The hill was quiet with only a few people about. The trees naked limbs cast a sharp silhouette against the clouds. Vista points along the way allowed one to stop and soak up the panoramic view of both sides of the city: the bridges lacing the Danube; Margaret Island parting the river; the hills rolling into Slovakia; Parliament and Buda Castle just dots on the landscape. My pulse quickened as photo opportunities revealed themselves to me. Slowly with heightened awareness, I let my surroundings speak to me as I photographed the scenery. Time, people, concerns all fell away as I entered a quiet space of focus. Everywhere, it seemed, called to me. Shyly emerging from scattered branches, flowers dotted the hillside. I walked up to the Liberty Statue at the top of the hill of a woman holding up a palm leaf to the sky. The clouds dispersed to allow the sun to streak though, shining gentle rays of light upon all, revealing the hill, the flowers, and myself coming back to life.
There they were, the choices. At first glance they seemed identical: blue ball caps with red “B”s. But one was not as vivid, it’s “B” lacked flourish, but it was fifteen dollars less expensive. The other was the official hat for the MLB. The salesman wanted me to be informed, but I knew I wanted a bona fide Red Sox cap. I didn’t fly across the nation, knowing nothing about baseball, for a less pretty hat.
He seemed pleased with my choice, and as he cut off the price tag and removed the card stock from inside the cap, he taught me how to speak Bostonian. “See this word?” He slid over a piece of a paper with the “khakis” on it. “This is how we say car keys.” He handed me my cap and nodded in approval as I put in on my head to head back on the tour of the Freedom Trail with my friend to try out my new lingo.
We arrived at Bunker Hill shortly after the time they stopped letting people in to climb up to the top of the monument. I asked the guard, “Are we too late to climb up?” He looked at me, looked at my hat, “How can I say no to someone wearing a Red Sox cap?” and let us up. At Louisa May Alcott’s house, the tour guide complimented me on my hat, as did other people in and around Boston. I was confused. This was Boston; didn’t EVERYONE have a Red Sox cap? What was so special about mine? But then again, everyone in Boston is really nice.
But a part of me thinks that they must have seen that I was not from around there. I was too bundled up (it was below freezing most of my trip) or my hat was just too new or I pronounced my “r”s. Their kindness and recognition of my cap may have stemmed from their appreciation that I took pride in their city. People are generally nice and want to be helpful, but when you show that you are enjoying their home, that’s where we get into what it means to travel.
This played out to almost comedic effect in London last fall. Steve wanted to eat at some top-tier restaurants, and we chose Pollen Street Social, a recipient of one Michelin star (a crazy hard achievement). I wore white jeans, a teal sweater, and pink loafers while Steve wore a short-sleeved plaid button down shirt, untucked with jeans. I kept asking him if we had on the appropriate attire, and he assured me that it was “semi-casual”. However, I suspected that London semi-casual is a whole different thing than America’s version. As we entered the posh and modern dining room, we knew we were quite underdressed.
Floor to ceiling windows separated the kitchen from the dining room revealing master chef Jason Atherton and his team working away at their creations. Our server showed us our seats among men in sharp suits and women in fancy dresses. We explained that we were from California. We tried to mask our discomfort of sticking out like sore thumbs. We had been to nice restaurants before, but this was something else entirely. I felt like a novice trying to play in the big leagues.
Servers came by with our wine and amuse bouches of mushroom tea with cream, goat cheese churros with truffle oil drizzled honey, polenta muffins, and black olive crackers. One asked me if I had food preferences. Finally Steve ordered the fourteen course tasting menu while I stuck with a regular entree of the red mullet with black and green olive purée.
Steve’s little courses started to appear at our table, and they surprised us by bringing me tastings, too. One of Atherton’s signature dishes is the Deconstructed English Breakfast– an eggshell filled with finely chopped sautéed mushrooms, a tomato purée, eggs made into something like a cream, and ham. Mine was made especially for me without the ham. Throughout the night various servers stopped by our table and chatted with us about the food, European wine versus Californian, and our homes. They wanted to know what they could convey to the chef, especially when I couldn’t finish my dinner. What was my reason for not cleaning my plate?
At dessert, they brought me out the tastings even though I said I was full. We had frozen caramel corn over sweet cream and creme anglaise, cucumber yogurt foam with strawberry coulis, frozen banana dark chocolate Grenache, and white chocolate sorbet with lime. One of the desserts was was topped with blueberries, and I told Steve that I hoped they didn’t bring me a taste since I dislike blueberries. I wondered if we were being recorded, because when that dessert came out, they only brought one for Steve.
We observed the other diners. They talked amongst each other; the food, the service, the ambience seemed to be an afterthought. This was just another Monday night and another dinner for them. They took it for granted that they could just go such a restaurant and have such a meal. All received good service, but none garnered the attention we received. We were there for the experience, and everyone who worked there responded in kind and seemed determined to give us the best experience possible.
When we went to Simpson’s so Steve could have the prime rib, we had a similar experience. Simpson’s is a London landmark; it’s been there since the 19th century and was even featured in Downton Abbey. They are famous for carving the prime rib table side. Steve researched the restaurant beforehand and learned that it is customary to tip the carver. When the carver came to our table, he and Steve got talking about prime rib, and he carved him an English cut, an American cut (thinner), and the much coveted end cut. When Steve tipped him, he smiled and said, “You know the tradition.” When he could, he stopped by our table and chatted some more, and before we left the manager stopped us to talk to us about our meal and the speech David Cameron gave that day. Again, they wanted us to have a good experience.
It felt like we had on London’s version of the Red Sox cap; everyone responded to our enthusiasm. People take pride in what they do, and they want to share what they know or their skills. It seems to come down to the fact that no one wants to take the other for granted. We don’t often have dining experiences like these, and it also appears that they don’t get a plethora of diners who are there for the experience.
Two thoughts come to mind as I write this post:
1. I realize that I am preaching to the choir. My readers (who mostly consist of my friends and family– Hi, friends and family! Thank you for reading!) are those who would enjoy everything a place has to offer.
2. Much of this joy that we experienced is a result of being present in the moment. We were paying attention; we weren’t diverted by our phones or other concerns. In my quest of focusing on how to “be”, these moments provide a good lesson on how to give attention.
Now the question is how to create this sense of wonder here at home. How can I break out of taking my hometown for granted?
Yesterday I wrote about the struggle of finding the balance between “doing” and “being”. My thoughtful readers chimed in reminding me that some times life just asks us to “do” more at certain times; that busyness is not necessarily bad but we need reminders to slow down; and that for some of us “doing” is a way of “being”. As I reflected on this dichotomy, it occurred to me that I can just “be’, but in order to do this, I have to be somewhere else.
The places that came to mind where I have been the most calm, aware, and in tune with my environment are visiting my parents and lying on their couch, hanging out with my grandma in Michigan, morning walks in Palm Springs, walking on the beach with my friends in St. Augustine, or wandering through Central Park. It’s even better if I have a camera in my hand and my senses become attuned to sights of beauty. Being away means that there’s nothing really required of me. I just have to BE there.
But one memory stands out the most for constant, sustained BEING: Rome.
Rome is an attack on the senses; it is a perfect place to “be” because it is unapologetically itself. It calls on you to be aware as the past and the present are melded into one. Our modernized apartment in the ancient Monti neighborhood revealed its past as brickwork peeked through the paint and the stairs leading to our door followed antiquated building codes. At the piazza down our cobblestone street, barely wide enough for a Fiat, bright young things continued the tradition of congregating around the fountain at all hours of the night drinking wine and solving the world’s problems. Make a right at the piazza and you find yourself facing the Colosseum surrounded by vendors selling cold sodas and tourists toting selfie-sticks. Ruins, art, and churches are everywhere. Rome startles you as you daringly try crossing the street on faded crosswalks, praying that the drivers will either stop or drive around you; yet it lulls with its umbrella pines, sidewalk cafes, sunny warmth. It asks you to slow down and savor the moment.
Steve and I landed in Rome after having spent two weeks in London and Paris, respectively. Unlike the other two capitals where we had planned what sights we wanted to see and where we wanted to eat and had our time determined by reservations, we hadn’t done much prepping for Rome. After the orderliness of London and Paris’s refinement, we found ourselves in a city that followed completely different rules and no plans. The first day set the tone as we explored our large apartment that beckoned relaxation and wine drinking. We set out to find our wine, cheeses, artichokes, and olives. The afternoon was spent enjoying our bounty before heading off to explore the piazza for a late dinner.
We did what you expect travelers to Rome to do. We saw the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiori, the Spanish Steps, the Keats-Shelley House. Since we had no set plans, we went back to the Forum again. However, we took our time. We lingered. We ate gelato. We drank wine. We had late dinners.
None of these quite compared with our experience at the Borghese Gardens. We planned on going to the Borghese Gallery, but tickets have to be purchased in advance and they did not have any extras. No Old Masters for us that day. Instead we eyed the pedal carts that people rode around the park. Soon we were off and away, Steve pedaling our cart (my feet didn’t reach), laughing as we coasted down a hill narrowly avoiding tourists. After almost three weeks of walking, it was freeing to explore on wheels. We rode around the park as I hopped off with my camera to snap whatever caught my fancy. Soon we passed a stand renting out golf carts. You can imagine what we did next.
“I’m driving in Rome!” Steve called out as we zipped away to explore another part of the park. The next we knew we were racing against a group of teenage boys.
After we returned the cart, Steve found a place to sit down and have a beer, and I found a quiet garden with a boat pond. I made my way through this sanctuary and enjoyed the stillness of the afternoon and watched the ducks and turtles lounge in the sun.
This place, this city’s only request that we just “be” and be present.
“There are some people who go through life doing things rather than being,” said my best friend on the other end of the line. I knew where this was going, what she was hinting at.
“Are you saying I am a doer?” I asked.
“You’re not just a doer; you’re an exceptional doer.”
She was telling me in the best way possible that I might just be doing too much. This is not something I haven’t heard before. Normally I shrug my shoulders, so what I do too much. I can handle it. Except this time it’s true. I may have just gotten myself too busy and it’s impacting me in weird ways. For instance, I showed up late to a meeting that I swore started at 4:30. I’ve been going to these meetings for two years, and they start at 4:00. I’ve double-booked myself, and in my mind I envision being at both places, but it’s not until later that I realize that I cannot be two places at once. Every morning now I have to write myself a to do list just to remember what it is that I need to do– because I’ve been forgetting.
I do a lot at my job and I do a lot at home. There is always something that needs to be done. Even when I travel, I like to visit cities, places where there are things to do. Sitting on a beach or by the pool does not appeal to me. (I’m not going to divulge what I do because 1) I don’t need my readers telling me I do too much, too, 2) I don’t want it to be like I’m saying, “Look at me! I do everything!”, and 3) this is not a busyness competition: we’re all busy.) And as my friend reminded me, sometimes we make ourselves busy in order to avoid “being” or reflecting or processing emotions. Busyness keeps keeps the internal messiness at bay. There is some truth to that.
My problem is that I don’t know what “being” looks like. How does one just “be”? Is it sitting in a chair doing nothing? Can one do something and be at the same time? I imagine it involves “being present” and “in the moment”, but if I wonder if I’m present, does that mean I’m not? I didn’t ask my friend the definition of being and how to be; we spent all of our time discussing the consequences of doing too much.
So that is my goal this week: to find time to just “be”. I don’t have a real plan on how this is going to work out, since I don’t know what it means to “be”, but I’ll do it anyway.
Monday Motivators was started by my friend Laura who decided that we could all use a bit more motivation in our lives to take on personal challenges. Check out her blog; she’s a lot of fun AND she is a recent FitBit convert (so she can totally hang with me).
Last week my personal challenge was to walk 65,000 steps, or 13,000 steps a day, in five days. I knew this would be hard, but the week before I handily accomplished 60,000 and my confidence was high. Surely, I could sneak in an extra 1,000 steps a day.
Instead, something else snuck up on me. My weekly total was 53,342. This sounds like a lot, and it IS a lot. For me, it was pretty low. On Monday I woke up feeling pretty tired, but I tried to get in my steps and even did a step aerobic workout when I got home (I live by workout videos). Even with this effort, I missed the 13,000 mark by 800 steps. I shrugged it off; the deficit would be made up on Tuesday. The next morning I felt worse– exhausted, kind of swimmy, with a headache that throbbed behind my left eye, and everything I ate or drank tasted like bile. I still went to work, hoping that once I got there I would feel better and knowing my job was to chaperone students on a low-maintenence field trip. I still did not feel better. This followed for the entire week and culminated on Thursday when my left eye felt like it had looked at the sun too long (even though I was indoors) and could not regain its sight. Nothing was getting done; the papers remained ungraded and the steps remained untaken. I went home and walked to the couch. Friday resulted in the same action. I spent most of the weekend recuperating. It wasn’t until Saturday evening that it started to abate, and while I feel much better today, I know that it just went into hiding; I’m not out of the woods.
The good news is that I got in a lot of steps today. I worked out and went for a four-mile walk. My goal this week is back to 60,000. My friend Ginger, who also has a FitBit, challenged me to the Workweek Hustle competition to see who can get the most steps. Hopefully between feeling better and a good dose of friendly competition, I will make it.
Monday Motivators was started by my blogging friend Laura who is motivating herself and others to accomplish the things they want to do for the week. Go over and check out her blog and be her friend. She is awesome.
Challenges: They get me in trouble. I cannot say “no” to them. So when my blogging buddy Laura started her Monday Motivators to challenge and motivate herself and her friends to do whatever it is they need to do that week, I signed on immediately. My challenge: walk 60,000 steps in 5 days.
The fitness powers-that-be suggest 10,000 steps a day, but working at a school and being on my feet all day helps me attain almost 6-8,000 steps. Walking to the mailbox and regular daily living walking helps make up the difference. That’s not very challenging. 12,000 steps requires more from me, and to reach that goal, I need to come home after being on my feel all day and do a workout. That is a challenge.
But I made it. I actually did a little over 60,000 steps and here’s my plan of attack:
1. Wear the FitBit. My FitBit tracks all of my steps, and sometimes after I shower, I forget to put it on right away. That means I walk around the house getting ready for work and those steps are not tracked. This can add up to over 500 steps!
2. Plan ahead. Last week I knew I had an all-day meeting Wednesday, a book club in the evening Thursday, and a tuckered body on Friday. These days were going to be low-step days, so I planned to work out Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons. On Monday and Tuesday I exceeded 12,000 steps in order to make up for the rest of the week’s deficit.
3. The mini-challenge. On Thursday and Friday, know that I would need to get in some good steps at work, I gave myself mini-challenges. For example, during class I checked my steps on my FitBit (I love my FitBit) and challenged myself to walk a certain amount of steps in a limited amount of time. This had an added benefit of keeping my students on task: at any moment I could be doing a lap around their desks.
4. Take the long way. My classroom is close to everything: the front office, the library, the bathroom, the elevator. Fortunately my room is on the second floor, so there is ample opportunity to take the stairs. However, with everything so close I often create “long ways” of getting places. It might take a minute or two longer to get somewhere, but the steps add up quickly (you’d be surprised).
5. A little help from students. Some of my students know that I am trying to get in my steps. Some cheer me on, while others are sneaky. One day a student called me over to him. After walking across the room to see what he needed, he grinned, “Nothing. Just helping you get in some more steps.”
This week has less demands on my time, so my goal is to reach 65,000 steps.
Readers, if you have not met my lovely friend, Laura, click on the link above and check out her blog. Let her motivate you, too!