Why I Travelled to Europe and What I Found Instead

I would like to say that I went to Europe because I wanted to see the world and experience different cultures, but quite frankly, that would be a lie.

Sure, those two reasons factored into my decision to go, but as embarrassing as it is to admit, I really went because I was bored and frustrated. I just desperately, desperately wanted out. I was about to turn nineteen, and some part of me felt like I had never done anything exciting in my entire life–I had never had a true adventure. I suddenly had this insatiable need for excitement that couldn’t fulfilled at home.

So I lied and gave the usual list of reasons for travel to anyone who asked why, and it worked. Cecelia was up for going–we had been talking about going to Europe together since we were fourteen–and my parents and doctors gave me the go ahead. The two of us purchased tickets, and I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation as we rushed to pull everything together.

And you know what? I didn’t find that excitement in Europe. Not at all. I was surrounded by amazing museums, monuments, restaurants, shops, buildings, and parks; I was with my best friend doing the things we had dreamed about doing for years; I was of more than legal age everywhere we went; and there were no adults to tell me what to do and when to do it; but I still found myself bound with the same weird feeling of boredom. I could feel myself still screaming, “I WANT OUT! LET ME OUT! I AM HERE IN THE PLACE THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE LIBERATING AND NOTHING IS HAPPENING!! PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST LET ME OUT!”

And it wasn’t until I was sitting on the Tube on our last night in London that I realized that I didn’t know what “out” was and what was holding me back from getting it. I was vigorously straining to free myself from these mysterious shackles in London as much as I was at home. Some part of me felt like I needed to do something bigger, that really proved that I rapidly approaching the end of my second decade, so I dragged Cecelia to a pub one night where I drank a glass of terrible lemonade and Cecelia ate a salad. But even that wasn’t enough, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my morals to do anything further like ordering a proper drink. So I left London, happy with my experiences there, but still hopelessly trapped.

Then, one evening in Paris, after being embarrassingly and unjustly nasty to Cecelia following an unfortunate Metro experience, I figured out what it was: I could run away from environments all I liked, but I couldn’t run away from my own head and my self-imposed repression.

I have a list of rules a mile long, and I am insanely strict about following them. I don’t curse, and my eyes will actually skip over those words while I’m reading so that I will not say them in my head. I won’t knowingly eat food that has alcohol in it, even if it has “cooked off.” I don’t wear skirts or dresses without bike shorts on the off chance that my underwear might show. If I can’t see at least one rib without sucking in, I drastically cut back on food. I pinch myself whenever I take the Lord’s name in vain (which I do far too often), and I will just leave or pretend I don’t know them if I think the people I’m with are acting inappropriately. And the list goes on. In short, I can be a horrible, horrible prig.

I also can’t escape how mental illness has affected my life. I can’t change that I spent a majority of my Junior and Senior years of high school missing out on numerous social and academic activities because I was in and out of treatment facilities and heavily medicated. Those feelings of alienation and loneliness are going to take a long time to fade, and I don’t think that I will ever fully be freed from mental illness–I’ll only ever be able to cope better.

And what happened then continues to affect me now. This past year has been spent hanging out in a waiting room before leaving for college. It was all about coming up with productive ways to fill my time or things that numbed the shame of being left behind again. Everyone else was doing wonderful, exciting things, living on their own, being independent, and learning while I was tapping away on my computer, grading book summaries, and reading so much that I would end each day seeing double.

They came back home matured and confident, with stories of their adventures, and all I had to contribute was “so I went to this book event in the city about a book you’ve never heard of by an author whom you have probably only ever heard me mention, but believe me, it was really good.”

My life was dull and greyed compared to theirs, and I felt so abandoned and embarrassed to be unable to relate. And more than all of that, I was perpetually aware that if I didn’t find some way to prove myself in this waiting room, I was only going to be stuck in there longer. I spent a lot of time lying about how wonderful it was to take a gap year, and each fake smile and untruth made me feel even more ashamed.

Europe, no matter how wonderful, isn’t going to get me away from being unreasonably self-repressed or ashamed. That can’t be purchased on High Street in London or found below The Eiffel Tower. Even the middle of Lac Léman isn’t going to have the answer. The solution comes from within and being able to forgive and liberate myself, and gaining the ability to do that is going to be a lifelong process.

On the plane ride home, during hour three of eight, I started to think about whether the trip had been a failure in that regard, whether I was returning with the same amount of self-hatred I had before I left, and whether I should have waited to go. Was it a mistake to have gone seeking something I could have found at home?

But after a little more reflection and accidentally dumping a cup of soda in my lap, I realized that the trip had been a success in so many other regards.

Maybe I was still quite ashamed of myself, but I had climbed to the top of Le Arc de Triomphe, even though I am monstrously afraid of heights;

Ah, the weird facial expressions of someone who feels both victorious and like they are going to faint.

I ate three meals a day for nearly two weeks, something I haven’t done since I was thirteen;

I didn’t regurgitate any of the food I put in my mouth;

I only took two real breaks due to anxiety;

Feeling faint and checking my pulse halfway up Le Arc de Triomphe. It was absurdly high, and I nearly cried, but I did not hyperventilate and got to the top.

I only cried from unhappiness once;

While I don’t actually have a picture of me in tears–Cecelia is far to nice to ever take a picture of me doing that–I do have a picture from while I was crying. You’ll just have to imagine me into it–mental photoshop, if you will.

and –though I’ll let Cecelia be the real judge of this–I don’t think that I was quite as priggish as I normally am in stressful situations.

My self-imposed rules didn’t vanish like I hoped, but I learned that I can be braver and take bigger emotional risks than I truly though possible. I got to spend loads and loads of time with my best friend, and I had a monstrous amount of fun exploring London and Paris, my two favorite cities, visiting the Geneva area for the first time, and meeting Cecelia’s French family. I spoke French and managed not to make any embarrassing mistakes. I got to go shopping at my favorite at my favorite British and French stores, and I saw some amazing museum exhibits. And even though this wasn’t the first time I’ve travelled by myself, or even travelled to Europe alone, I feel like I truly proved that I can be an independent adult.

In the end, I got the things I had lied about seeking, seeing the world and experiencing different cultures, and didn’t get the thing, that “out,” I was actually searching for.

And you know what?

I am totally okay with that.

In fact, I am glad that it turned out this way.

Eleanor Does Europe: An Introduction

At the end of May, my best friend, Cecelia, and I travelled to Europe to celebrate the end of her first year at Yale and my nineteenth birthday. It wasn’t the first time we had travelled to Europe or the first time we had travelled together without adults, but it was the first time we’ve ever travelled alone internationally and that made the excitement of going to Europe even more thrilling.

We had an amazing time, and I’m determined to get our experiences down in writing before the memories start to fade at the edges and become tired, memorized stories to be trotted out whenever traveling or Europe is mentioned at the dinner table or thought about in generalizations while staring into space and avoiding reality.

So here is the trip in words and pictures.

Let’s commence.

I’d start at the beginning–posing for a photograph in front of the airport, suitcases in hand, nervous but excited smiles on our faces–but that would be too dull. The details of the check-in counter and how I stored my carry-ons aren’t of any general interest.

Cecelia is on the left, I’m on the right.

So we’ll go in images and moments, the way memories are stored. A little bit about the way I felt on the escalators at Westminster, trying to be blasé and fit in when I actually had no idea where I was supposed to be going, sleeping on Cecelia’s lap on the Eurostar, exhausted, anxious, and happy, or looking up at Notre Dame and thinking, “Hello again, let’s keep up these regular visits because I love you very much.”

For those of you reading this in the archives, here are the links to the posts written about the trip:

Coming Soon

Ella and Cecelia Go to Europe: The Pre-Departure Jitters

In exactly a week, Cecelia and I will be flying to London. I am equal parts excited and petrified.

Excited, of course, because, my goodness, it’s Europe, I’m going to turn nineteen there, and I get to spend nearly two weeks traveling with my best friend. The thrill of getting to have that kind of independence and knowing that I’m quite nearly a true adult is indescribable. Plus, the thought of all of the museums and historical places we’ll visit makes me make weird excited facial expressions that have my parents questioning my sanity.

But at night I have stress dreams of dying on airplanes and having meltdowns in the middle of Trafalgar Square. They’re so vivid that I can feel the fabric of the seat against my thighs and the metal seat buckle digging into my abdomen. There’s whiplash, and I can feel myself falling, the pilot saying, “brace for impact,” and the screams of the other passengers. Or I am curled in a fetal position on the ground, tiny bits of grit digging into my face as I stare at an infinite sea of shoes and grey stone, crying. I wake up, twisted in the sheets, breathing far too quickly, and paralyzed with anxiety. It usually requires the entire one hour and thirty-three minutes of the Downton Abbey Christmas Special for me to calm back down again.

And then there is the fear that my anxiety will ruin the trip for Cecelia. Unfortunately, I get overwhelmed very easily and often need to rest in the afternoons to maintain a certain level of emotional stability. I can only close my eyes and say, “one, two, three, GO!!!” to myself so many times. Too much and I burst into tears, get unbearably haughty, or just refuse to move. And I do not want to prevent Cecelia from doing fun activities simply because I’m feeling anxious.

This trip is supposed to be all about being young, carefree, and spontaneous. We officially decided to go to Europe at one a.m. on a Tuesday morning and then immediately purchased tickets and booked lodging so that unlike the past few years, our European adventure wouldn’t remain purely hypothetical. The whole trip is supposed to be about things like me singing “I Live in Trafalgar Square” in the actual Trafalgar Square just to drive Cecelia nuts:

(Ignore the reenactment of The Battle of Hubbardton, this was the only youtube video I could find with the song.)

It’s supposed to be about sitting in a café in Paris on my birthday and clinking glasses and biking in the Alps near Geneva; and it’s also supposed to be a little bit of rebellion where we get to do things our way at our leisure and no parent or other adult can tell us otherwise.

Disclaimer: Of course, by rebellion I mean one that doesn’t involve clubbing or getting drunk. I’m as straight-laced as you can get in that regard with no cursing, caffeine, drinking, smoking, drugs, or any other morally lax behaviors. (And no, that does not mean that I am a Mormon or an evangelical Christian–I’m Episcopalian–and no, I don’t think that everyone should be required to or frowned upon if they don’t make the same lifestyle choices as me.)

Disclaimer Sidebar: In the spirit of honesty and full-disclosure, unlike the other things, I have tried caffeine before and had it occasionally between the ages of thirteen and fourteen and then once again on my seventeenth birthday. The last time ended with me getting incredibly jumpy for a few hours and then very tired. I do have a picture of my first sip from that day, however. As you can tell from the picture, I think that Coke with caffeine in it tastes funny. I have not had it since, don’t feel like I’m missing much, and don’t plan on ever having it in the future.

Say hello to Cecelia’s elbow. Sadly, that’s probably as close as we’re ever going to get to a proper picture of her on Eleanor Called Ella, so you better soak it in. It is a very nice elbow.

So I hope that when Cecelia and I do arrive at the airport next Saturday afternoon, I don’t find my anxiety in overdrive and that we’re able to enjoy a trip free from any of my meltdowns. I figure that if I truly put my mind to it, I’ll be able to successfully use my coping skills and that with the boost of regular medication and extra Xanax, we’ll be okay.

In the meantime, I will try to stop watching youtube videos of plane accidents, looking up United Airlines’ safety record, and practicing airplane and train crash positions.

Hawaii Photographs

My father arrived home from Hawaii today without his luggage (thanks for that, United!) but with a camera full of hundreds of pictures. I asked him to pull a few together–some highlights from his trip with my mom–and these are the ones he selected.

Ella and The Red Suitcase

So you know how I often like to end a post by writing “in other news” and then throwing in some odd tidbit from my life? Well, tonight I decided to begin my blog post writing by putting it out there that I dislike gardening and then an hour later, I ended up with a full post bemoaning the injustice of having dirt under your fingernails and what a waste of water and energy it is to keep a proper lawn.

But now isn’t the time for griping. Now, is the time for vacation storytelling. And so we begin.

And we begin not at the real beginning but with Monday morning when one of my doctors was shocked by the number of bruises on my legs. This was the result of The Red Suitcase.

Now, I love The Red Suitcase. It has a garment bag built into it for dresses, shirts, blazers, etc, and its wheels are really unrivaled. However, when you are traveling like me, have week arms, and pack ten books (most of which were hardcovers) and a lot of electronics that take up more space than your clothes, you are going to struggle to lug it everywhere. I swear I didn’t overpack, either. I wore everything in my bag, read all of the books, and used all of the electronics, it was just way too heavy.

I take public transportation in the city a lot, and I know that there are a lot of stairs, but as someone who is young and reasonably fit, the prevalence of stairs has never appeared to be a potential problem. That is, until I had to lug The Red Suitcase with me all the way from home to the train station. And let me tell you, when you are carrying a very heavy bag, staircases seem to go on forever.

We went down into the subway, transfered lines three times, into the train station, down to the train track, down off of the station platform into the parking lot, then up the front steps, back down the front steps, up the steps at the station, down the steps from the track, up the steps into the station, down the front steps of the station, up the steps to Cecelia’s dorm room, etc. I’m sure you get the picture.

I didn’t want to hurt the handle or the contents by dragging the bag, so I kind of picked it up by the side-handle and tried to use one side of my body to support The Red Suitcase as I climbed the stairs. And you can see exactly where it was resting each time I carried it. My right side is like an over-ripe banana.

But other than that, the transportation section of my vacation was nice. I like riding on trains. On the long ride out to my grandmother’s, I wrote in my notebook about how odd it must be a conductor, to get to travel to all of these cities everyday, but never get out and explore. And even though you’re traveling in and out of so many stations, there’s a good chance that the only part you’ve seen of them is their underbelly, the dark, damp tunnels running underneath the grand, stone concourses so often the sets of movies and old photographs. Coming back from visiting Cecelia at Yale, I finished up Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Top of the Stairs and caught glimpses of the Sound out of the window. Two women in saris ate curry and the whole car smelled wonderful.

And then, of course, there was the wonderful feeling of relaxation every time I put my suitcase down in the room I was staying in and then finally home. I’m here. I am the proverbial snail, now able to shed its shell and stop lugging my home around with me. Is there anything more wonderful than that feeling of relief?

In other news, while writing this post, my laptop overbalanced on my knees and the top edge of the screen whacked me very hard against the bridge of my nose, giving me a very cute and swollen red bump. Never say that blogging isn’t dangerous.

In other, other news, for the past half hour, Maxwell has been (literally) unconsciously pushing me out of bed. He keeps inching closer in his sleep, so that I have to move over to have space to write, only to have him move even closer. Pretty soon, I’m going to have to get up and walk around the other side of the bed or wake him up and deal with the guilt of disrupting his sleep. Eleanor Called Ella really is your one stop for Eleanor and Maxwell sleeping drama.

On Returning Home and Storytelling

Mom came home from Hawaii today, and I ate slices of sweet dried mango on the green couch while she told me about hiking a trail slick with red mud and snorkeling with a turtle. She brought home peices of sea glass in a sandwich bags and brightly colored snail shells the size of a single clove.

I also gave her a token from my less exotic travels–a rather broken up slice of carrot cake I purchased at her favorite bakery and restaurant, Claire’s Cornecopia. When they were attending Yale, my father had to set a time limit for how long she could savor her piece of cake, otherwise they’d be there for hours. Tonight, she made the cake last through three 20-minute TED Talks, and I promised to buy her a whole cake for their twenty-fifth anniversary in August. She smiled.

When I saw her walking up the front path, I had the funny urge to go running out of the door and leap on her, the way I did when I was three and thrilled to get to see her for a few hours before I went to bed or left for school. But eighteen is too old for leaping into your mother’s arms, no matter how light you are. Instead, I helped her lug her bags inside and asked her about her trip. She started her stories several sentences in, leaving me to wonder who on earth Patty was and why my father momentarily thought he had broken his back. It’s like skipping the first chapter of a book because it looks boring, only to find out that you don’t understand the interesting parts.

I thought about my blog, my electronic storytelling, and got ready to begin posting again, internet access restored after a week of almost no connection. I missed reading Shell’s, Libby’s, and all of my other favorite blogs. I missed sharing thoughts and stories with my mostly anonymous readers. I missed the joy and intellectual engagement of TED Talks, mental_floss, and The New York Times. I missed Humans of New York and perusing artist’s websites. And I missed things that weren’t the internet, like lying in my bed in those early evening hours when the sun light shines through the blinds and creates horizontal lines of light and shadow across my body. I missed the comfort and stability of knowing where everything is and living out of a dresser and closet, instead of a large red suitcase.

And now I’m back home with all of those things. We’re together again and happy. My mother is putting the house back in order, and Max is lying beside me in bed, annoyed that I’m tapping away on the computer and not curled up with him. Pippa went to her prom last night, and my father is still doing something important and science-y in Hawaii. We’re all bursting with things to share, and I’m excited to share my stories with you tomorrow and the next day and the next. Infinite storytelling!

Why Hello There!

While I must admit that the concept of taking a complete break is rather foreign to me, I decided that I really needed to take one from this blog. Keeping a daily blog can often be stressful and exhausting. Even on days when I’ve been teaching for more than 10 hours and want nothing more then to curl up with a book and go to sleep, I still force myself to write a post.

I value writing this blog more than sleep, and I’ve lost one or two hours that I could/should have spent sleeping more nights than not. And when I’m not writing here, I’m still thinking about what I’m going to post, how I’m going to find the time, or worrying about the quality of my writing.

But there comes a point where fourteen months and over 400 posts becomes a little too much and I need to step back and focus on things like vacuuming the embarrassing amount of cat fur under the couch and spending time with my family. So I didn’t so much as look at this blog for the past six days. It’s felt weird, and I’ve found myself thinking about it more than ever. Buying was able to spend my free time trying and failing to beat my dad at a version of Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition from 1979 and watching Downton Abbey (thanks for the amazing recommendation Saturday Evening Porch! I’m totally hooked and can’t wait for series three!) with with my mom. I also managed to get incredibly hooked on tumblr, which a newly formed habit I need to break.

But I’m back and ready to get back into action. And because the story-telling posts are the ones I enjoy writing the most, tomorrow there will be a piece about the time I went to the John and Hank Green Tour de Nerdfighting event in the city.

In other news, guess who graded 112 book reports today!

This girl!

I also hang out at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, where I can be found reblogging pretty images, funny .gifs, and the occasional liberal article.

Me? I Like Walking In Silence, Spinning Stories In My Head, and Trying to Notice Every Detail

Today seems like a good day to tell you some stories about the beach.

Every time we go to our beach house, we try to drive up to a town* about forty minutes away and spend the day there.

My mother likes the stores and galleries. The stationary store there sells the incredibly fancy wrapping paper she adores. The type that comes in huge sheets about the size of poster board and is often so soft that it feels like cotton or a well-worn dollar bill. Sometimes, they’re thin and almost like lace made out of paper, so delicate that you’re scared to touch it, lest you rip it. But mostly, the paper is thick and soft and heavy with excellent “texture and patterns” and “deeply saturated colors.”

She’ll spend hours in there, picking out the best sheets, because Christmas is coming soon, and heaven help us if every present isn’t beautifully wrapped. I’ve been taught never to rip the paper, you have to carefully slide your finger under the tape so it won’t tear, because you can use the paper again, you know. Family and friends say that they always feel bad when Christmas comes, and you finally have to rip it all away. So we go to the stationary store for her and for us because hey, we all rather fond of leather bound notebooks, fancy pens, and stationary, too.

Pippa loves the ice cream. The store there, she says, is the best. I don’t agree, but it’s the rare day that I’ll say no to a cone of Junior Mint–mint ice cream so authentic it’s white with chocolate chips and real Junior Mint candies. In the same store as the ice cream, there’s a fudge and candy shop. The type of candy that gets called penny candy, even though the cheapest thing there–tootsie rolls–cost a nickel a piece. When Pippa and I were younger, we’d load little clear plastic bags full of sucking candies and peppermint sticks and huge chocolate bars and dozens and dozens of gummy bears and worms. “Only two pieces a day,” my mother would say, “And only one if you’re having one of the big pieces.”

When Pippa was five months and my mother was holding her while eating a cone of coffee ice cream, Pippa suddenly leaned over and took a huge, few tooth bite of it. It wound up all over her face, and as my mother stood there in shock and amusement, Pippa looked around with a huge grin and tried to go in for another bite. It’s safe to say that Pippa’s love of sweets has never been a secret. So every time we visit, we walk up to the window to place our orders, and then sit down in the green plastic chairs, warmed by sun, to eat our dripping cones.

My dad goes mostly for the history and adventures. The whole drive up, he points out the historic landmarks, even though we seen them all many, many times before, and tells us their significance. He’s usually read a new book about the subject, and suddenly we’re caught in a deluge of information about the area’s original inhabitants and the first settlers. I find it interesting, I love to know places’ stories, but Pippa always groans and sloaches more deeply into her seat and tries to see if she can stick her bare feet into the pocket on the back of the driver’s seat without getting in trouble.

Frequently, he’ll veer away from the normal route, and we’ll suddenly find ourselves at what looks to be the top of a hiking trail or a beach or a bay or a marsh. We’ll all pile out of the car and follow him as he leads us down some path until we end up some place magnificent. It’s never ever any good to ask him any questions, you just follow him and trust that he knows what he’s doing. Sometimes, after you’ve walked an impossibly long distance, he’ll take a sudden, seemingly strange, turn into the trees, and then we’ll all discover that it was actually a shortcut back to the car, which he somehow discovered even though it was his first time there.

But me? I like walking in silence, spinning stories in my in my head, and trying to notice every detail. Usually, I’ll have the camera with me, and so I’m at least twenty feet behind everyone else, stuck trying to aim a shot just right so that I can remember that scene forever.

Last year when we went to Puerto Rico, I spent the whole time taking pictures of the brightly colored buildings with their huge, heavy dark wooden doors and their European balconies and people.

As I walk, I plan out blog posts, scenes for the novel I’m writing, other pieces of fiction, and just narrate it all. And the words come like the air I’m slowly breathing, smooth and unhurried and easy. I just feel them. And I keep taking pictures and being silent because suddenly being trapped inside of my head is the most wonderful prison in the world.

Later, when I plug the camera into the computer and upload the pictures, it all comes rushing back. It’s like the images have taken bits of that running stream of consciousness and pinned them down with thin, silver sewing pins. I find myself picking back up right where I left off and having new words to weave together with the old ones, creating some sort of braid that strings all of the images together. And it’s wonderful.

 

*It’s the town that Lily lives in every summer!

Ella Explores the Beach

Thanks to a hurricane power outage, please enjoy some teaser pictures from my vacation in this post written before the storm struck. I’ll provide the story behind them as soon as we’ve got the power back!

Sitting In Cars Makes Me Inexplicably Tired

I continue to be monstrously surprised by just how tired eight hours in the car will make me. I did nothing but sit all day, and I’ve been ready to go to bed since I arrived home a little after six.

Stupid hurricane ruining vacation.

In other news, I just discovered this picture of me at the beach with Pippa and a cousin. Pippa’s the cutie in the middle, and I’m the rugrat on the right with the demented look on her face. It’s surprising how much and how little both us and the house have changed since I was four.