Wednesday, 24 August 2011

XI. Cheerio England, Hello America (Viz., New Jersey Suburbia)

I'm finally back at home, after an extended six-week stay in Oxford that has made this the best summer of my life thus far, followed by a three-day Pearson Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. Back at home, where nothing has changed since I left last October. And I mean that literally—my room is in the exact same condition; every book on my shelf, every item in my closet, every box against the wall, every stuffed animal on top of my dresser is still where it was. Even the bedspread and sheets are the same. It's a wonderful feeling: as much as I embrace change, home for me has to be familiar, has to be comforting. A stable harbour to which you can always return, no matter how long you've been away (and in this case it was over ten continuous months).

More importantly, my parents, sister, and grandparents have not changed either. They welcomed me back with very open arms, and I felt as if I had left only yesterday. No culture shock at all; the jetlag was the only physiological indication that I had been away for such a long time. The heat, however, was insufferable. All 33 degrees (I'm still on the Celsius scale) smacked my face like a solid brick wall when I stepped out of the airport. I think the highest temperature that I experienced in Oxford this summer was 28 degrees, and the humidity was not nearly as high. The weather in England may have bipolar disorder, but that is precisely the reason why I love it; I'm fascinated by the clashing of sunshine and rainclouds, the unpredictable switch between extremes that are never too extreme. The only downside is that you never quite know what to wear—what you put on in the morning is bound to be inappropriate at some later point in the day.

With the overabundance of sunshine, our vegetable garden has been as overproductive as ever. We have tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and string beans of three different varieties every night for dinner, but there's no way we'll be able to finish it all. It's such a welcome relief after eating mostly dining hall and restaurant food, which was always a bit too heavy. And it adds tremendously to the comfort of home; nowhere else can I pop by the kitchen and pluck a freshly picked tomato or cucumber from the table at any time.

There are some new things in my life, though. Some important new things: a laptop and a phone, both of which I really need. I currently have a beautiful silver-white HP Pavilion dv6500 Special Edition notebook, but it's four years old now and still on the Vista operating system. It's also not very portable, as it weighs over seven pounds with the extended battery. As reluctant as I am to let go, I know the time has come, because I have finally found an adequate replacement: the Sony Vaio CA Series laptop in lightning white.

I admit that I bought it mostly because it looks gorgeous, with rounded edges and a special glow from the encasing material. I wanted a white laptop that did not have a black keypad, and this was literally the only one I could find after months of research. I was very tempted by both the Samsung Series 9 and the HP Envy but neither looked or felt completely right, and I didn't have the heart to make the investment. I also knew that I definitely did not want to convert to Mac (purely as a matter of principle—I don't want to own too many Apple products). My new Vaio hasn't arrived yet, so I can't judge its performance, but with an i7 processor and 8 GB of RAM I'm pretty confident that it will be more than up to par.

My new phone is the 4G Blackberry Torch 9810, also in white. That was a much easier decision for me, as getting an iPhone was out of the question; once I saw it in the store I knew I had to buy it (I find it interesting how I'm either absolutely certain that I want something and will make a blind purchase based upon raw instinct alone, or spend loads of time vacillating between the options, carefully weighing all the positives and negatives). I've always resisted the idea of getting a smartphone, as I'm already overly addicted to my e-mail, but the phone I had been using before going abroad was an LG with the most basic of functionalities, and felt completely out of date. I still haven't quite familiarized myself with the layout and features of the Blackberry but I'm sure that in a week or so I'll be twiddling away at hyper speed...

Material possessions aside, I've been relaxing, truly relaxing, for the first time all summer. Perhaps a little too much, as I need to work more on fellowship applications and think about my senior thesis and continue making preparations for the Lexicography Society I plan on launching in the fall. The start of the semester is in just two weeks, and we are going on a family vacation to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina for all of next week. There isn't much flexible time left, and too many things are looming on the horizon; they have become all the more tangible now that I am one degree closer to reality. I'm very excited to be a senior at Columbia, but I am definitely not ready to graduate. I want to be back at Oxford next fall, as none of the graduate programs in the States interest me at the moment, yet that is not at all a guarantee. My backup plan is to get a job and see what happens. The uncertainties are quite daunting. I do trust circumstance and serendipity, however—I always have, for better or worse.

Having said that, I'm going to stop dwelling on the future and look back once again. There's a huge amount of material to reflect upon, and now that I'm physically removed from it all, it'll be much easier to do so. I meant to write this chapter right at the end of Trinity term, but things were more hectic than I had anticipated and the transition to summer was quite abrupt; my job began several days after I moved out of Pembroke. It wasn't nearly as overwhelming as last summer had been, even though I didn't have weekends off and the hours were sometimes quite long. The important difference was that I didn't feel any pressure: having six extra weeks in Oxford without any academic obligations was a miracle.

What was more miraculous was the fact that my office was in Pembroke, so I already knew all of the buildings and administrators. I was living about a mile away in a part of town called Jericho, which has a quaint village-like feel. Walking through Oxford's side streets and main thoroughfares every day was always a delight, and one weekend when my friend Morgan visited I had the opportunity to explore many of the colleges that I hadn't ever been to. I think we overused "lovely" to describe everything—the horticulture is absolutely astounding in its diversity—but you can't use that word enough in England, particularly when enormous specimens of wisteria are involved.

My Street in Jericho

Flowers in Merton College

View from Christ Church Meadow

Worcester College

Magdalen College

Keble College

I was working as the personal assistant to James Basker, the founder and director of Oxbridge Academic Programs. He also happens to be an English professor at Barnard College, so there's a good chance I will see him around campus. Three of the nine Oxbridge programs are based in Oxford, and Pembroke has hosted the original program for high school juniors and seniors (the Oxford Tradition) since its inception in 1985. The students are from all around the world, as are the faculty and staff; it gets more and more international every year. As I detailed in Chapter IX, meeting people from diverse backgrounds is something I thrive upon, and this job allowed me to do just that.

My main responsibility was to manage Professor Basker's very busy schedule, which involved confirming and coordinating numerous appointments. There was also quite a lot of printing, photocopying, and scanning, but it was the complete opposite of the traditional 9-to-5 office job. I never knew what was going to happen each day. I almost always had various errands to run outside the office, such as delivering letters and packages (the post office became my best friend, its lengthy queue my worst enemy) and shopping for all sorts of items and gifts (including a shoe brush and an unlocatable upright desktop file holder). The task I most enjoyed was organising the invitations and catering for two garden parties, one in Oxford and one in Cambridge. Both were well-attended and graced with gorgeous weather and snazzy headwear in the most exquisite of settings.

What I've learned from working these past two summers is this: as organized and borderline obsessive-compulsive as I am, I love randomness. I wouldn't be able to tolerate a monotonous, predictable job. I need something that's crazy enough to always keep me from twiddling my thumbs, but not something so crazy that it'll exhaust all of my mental and physical energy (I don't think my reserves are as boundless as they may seem). My job this summer struck just that balance. It was quite intense at times but I always enjoyed what I did, especially because I found it very easy to get along with Professor Basker, right from the beginning. He is an incredibly accomplished individual, as the success of the Oxbridge programs will attest, and a brilliant academic as well. I sat in on his lecture on Samuel Johnson and could feel his passion from the way he gestured and articulated his thoughts.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the job was the effect it had on my health, as I both ate and slept very well. I had breakfast and dinner with the program, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hall food in Pembroke was better than it had been during the year, due to a greater selection of main courses and a permanent salad bar. Because breakfast was quite early, I had to wake up at half past seven every morning, which eventually pushed back my bedtime to just before midnight. Given the extremely unhealthy sleep habits that I had developed since high school and perpetuated to some degree at both Columbia and Oxford, this was a miracle. Never again do I want to stay up until three, sometimes even four o'clock in the morning to work on an assignment.

As hectic as the job was, I was able to make a weekend trip to Sheffield to visit family friends, which had not worked out in December due to inclement weather (there was a severe blizzard up north). This time, apart from a delayed bus departure from Oxford, everything was perfect. My hosts were very gracious; even though I had not seen them in fourteen years I felt completely comfortable at their house. It was a veritable stroll down memory lane because I did revisit Broomhill Infant School and actually remembered it—nothing has changed, apart from a Children's Wildlife Garden that has been added on the side. I also saw parts of Sheffield University, including the chemistry lab that my dad used to work in, and a downtown area. The city isn't nearly as industrial-looking as I thought it would be; it's replete with Victorian architecture and there are big trees on every residential street. Walking around is quite a workout, though, due to all the hills.

In the afternoon we drove around the breathtaking Peak District to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which currently has an exhibition by Jaume Plensa featuring human bodies built out of letters, as well as a 50-metre curtain of poetry that visitors are encouraged to jingle as they walk down the main corridor. I'd like to install such a curtain in my own house someday...

Broomhill Infant School

Sheffield University

Downtown Sheffield

Jaume Plensa Exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

My second major goal for the summer was to visit Oxford University Press, and I was able to accomplish it just four days before I left. General visitors aren't allowed to enter—the imposing façade, dominated by four giant columns, isn't very inviting—but fortunately Jesse Sheidlower had connected me with Michael Proffitt, the OED Managing Editor. (Jesse is the Editor at Large and directs the New York office; I had e-mailed him about my plans for a lexicography society.) Michael gave me a tour of the Dictionary offices, which are very open and spacious, but so quiet that I was afraid to breathe as I tiptoed past.

We talked for an hour about everything from the OED and lexicography in general to my specific plans, and he has confirmed the unfortunate fact that dictionary-making is viewed by most people as too esoteric a field for general study. Precisely the opposite is true—lexicographers need to engage directly with the general public, and not exclusively with specialized industries or academia, in order to track the shifting meanings of words and the creation of new ones. My goal for the Society is to spread this awareness through monthly meetings (most of which will feature guest speakers) and smaller workshops; I want to eliminate common misconceptions and demonstrate how important lexicography is as a field, and how it can in fact be studied. I have an incredible network of support and resources for this project, but implementing it may be difficult if there isn't enough student interest. I'm going to do everything I possibly can to get it going, though. One of my friends at Columbia has promised that he will inaugurate a Cheese Appreciation Society if I follow through with this, and if that isn't motivation enough, I don't know what is.

Apart from a brief shopping excursion in London (which was primarily spent in Harrods and Selfridges and resulted in the purchase of a long-sought-for wide-brimmed straw hat), and a day trip to Broughton Castle with the Oxford Tradition, I haven't been to nearly as many places in England as I would have liked. Prior to beginning work this summer, however, I was able to visit the countryside for Tony Allan's birthday party. He's one of David Kirke's good friends, and lives in a village near Oxford surrounded by picturesque open fields. I met many interesting people there, including Tony's lovely daughters and a professional astrologist who read my horoscope.

I'm not incredibly superstitious, but I have always been interested in astrology as a science, because I do think there is something to be said for the location and time of your birth. She first told me some general things that were very appropriate but could also apply to anyone, within reason: I have intense emotions, I am an all-or-nothing person, I can be quite intimidating because when I want to get something done, nothing can stop me. But she also told me something quite specific: that I am a creative writer. Not a journalist or an academic, but a creative writer. The writing was important, she said. I had to keep doing it, because I would go far.

I do believe her. But I also know that there are no guarantees in life. Writing is one of the easiest things to avoid if you can help it, because it is so damn difficult, and it doesn't get much easier with more experience. There will always be some days in which you seriously question yourself. I haven't had too many of them lately, but I also haven't been updating this blog (which I've come to call a "blovel," as it is structured like a novel) as regularly as I had wanted to. "Real life" gets in the way, even if it's the precise thing that you are writing about. The words don't always come by themselves, even when they should, even when there is time and space for them; in fact, they often come by themselves when you don't have the time and space to record them. Or sometimes they come but aren't arranged in the right way. There is always a certain amount of effort that needs to be exerted to get them out properly. It is immensely frustrating but you have to do it, because the rewards are incalculable.

Underneath all of the momentary doubt, I know that I will always keep writing. I may stop temporarily—the hiatus might last for months, even years—but I will always return. I don't know what my profession will be, but I will always have at least one novel-in-progress, including this one. I will always be travelling the scenic route, seeing and doing and exploring and trying new things and meeting new people. That is absolutely essential in order for the writing to continue. And that is how I want to live.

I'm wary that this chapter will be an unwieldy length, but I need to backtrack even further to Trinity term. The ending of my long but brief academic year at Oxford. It had a crazy start due to May Day shenanigans, as I've already recounted, but nothing too ridiculous happened after that. My friend Zach and his friend Zach came to visit for several days, and the timing was perfect. Shortly afterwards, I attended my first ball, at Pembroke, which was infinitely better than prom had been (and it wasn't just because of the exorbitant amount of alcohol). Several weeks prior I went to Stratford-upon-Avon with my friend Xandra to see Cardenio, the "lost" Shakespeare play. Although it wasn't authentic, the storyline was riveting and not at all predictable; we couldn't even tell whether it would be a tragedy or a comedy at the intermission. We also went to see a local production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which featured a real turtle.

Pembroke Ball

Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre

Near the end of term I worked several shifts for At Your Service, a catering company for high-profile events in the Oxfordshire area. My first was at a wedding at the Conservatory in Luton Hoo Estate's walled garden. I was one of the three people assigned kitchen duty, so I helped the chefs prepare and arrange the food on the plates; it was quite fun (especially the tiny hors d'oeuvres, the parts of which had to be positioned just right). My second event was much more eccentric: a very special birthday party in the countryside. The theme was "Lovefest," and it was displayed quite prominently—there were red heart-shaped signs on the one-way path winding up to the house, "LOVE" in man-sized pink block letters mounted on the hill in the backyard (they looked spectacular when illuminated against the dark sky), roses placed over the plates of all the female guests, banner-length pink and white flags, and a red and white dress code that almost everyone followed. Despite the ostentation, it turned out to be quite a well-coordinated affair. There was live music from an alternative rock band, a roaring bonfire, twenty teepees for the overnight guests, a giant tent for the dinner service, and even a hot air balloon. The planning must have been insane.

Throughout all this, I was taking the two papers that I had been anticipating since Professor Lynda Mugglestone e-mailed me with the list of options last April. I hadn't been sure about Michaelmas or Hilary, but my decision for Trinity was definite: History of the English Language (with a personalised focus on lexicography) and Virginia Woolf. The former was with Professor Mugglestone herself, and the latter was with Alice Stainer, my tutor for the Tennyson paper in Hilary. Once again I was one-on-one for both, and I was able to choose the topics I wanted to write about every week. It was exactly how I had imagined it would be, despite my high expectations. Professor Mugglestone is an absolutely brilliant teacher, overflowing with information about anything and everything related to the English language; I always walked out of tutorial practically vibrating from the energy that had mounted in the room, and feeling both more frustrated with and awed by the complexities of definition. I examined not only the Oxford English Dictionary but also Samuel Johnson's Dictionary and the earliest monolingual English lexicographers, and my final essay was on Urban Dictionary. Because I was scrutinizing definition in practice and as a concept, I had to be more careful than ever before with every single word I chose to use in an essay; the metalinguistic levels were overwhelming.

But it was just the beginning. I've had a general overview of topics that I could easily spend one entire term studying in much greater detail. Coincidentally, Oxford is launching a new MSt in the English Language next October, which is exactly after I graduate from Columbia. It's also paired with internships with the OED, something I hadn't thought was possible. Dare I say too perfect to be true?

My Woolf tutorial was just as intense and incandescent. I revisited two novels that I had read before, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and gained a newfound level of understanding of each. I read five that I hadn't yet encountered: The Voyage Out, Orlando, A Room of One's Own, The Waves, and Between the Acts. Now I am convinced that Virginia Woolf is my writer. I understand her in a way that I have not understood any other novelist; I share her feelings about life and nature and interpersonal relationships. She has captured things that I had thought were ineffable, like the distance that is always present between two people, no matter how intimate they may be. The failure of communication through words. The tension between the realm of consciousness and the material world. The importance of the moment, which is temporally transient but psychologically permanent.

Like Virginia Woolf, I believe in the importance of the moment. I said this in my last chapter and I will say it again. I think of my whole life as composed of them. They are what I remember, what I write about. What I render immortal through the act of writing itself. Moments of feeling, moments of discovery, moments of understanding.

Munich did indeed happen, and it was full of such moments. But I will explain in more detail in Chapter XII, because I want to end this chapter with my tribute to Virginia Woolf—my Mrs. Dalloway party. An event that was an indelible part of my Oxonian experience, because of what it represented: the bringing together of people I knew (but who didn't necessarily know each other) for no ulterior purpose. The underlying principle was what mattered. I had met so many different characters, from literally all walks of life, during my year abroad, and I wanted to gather them all in one room, just to see what would happen. I knew nothing could possibly go wrong, because I had no expectations or even a possible agenda. Once again, I put my entire faith in Circumstance. And she treated me well.

The original date of May 14 didn't work out because there were some issues with the location. But the actual date was more appropriate, as it was the middle of June, exactly when Clarissa hosts her party in the novel. It ended up taking place in the JCR, which was a better environment than I had anticipated. The exact location almost did not matter; it was the particular combination of people that made the evening so magical. Like my New York party, it could not have happened in any other way. It was much more similar to the book than I had imagined possible.

I bought the flowers myself, bright purple osteos that had arrested my eye at the market that morning. I wore my special green dress. I prepared some classy drinks and nibbles, and Sam Baker supplemented this with a remarkable array of his own (including two jugs of homemade elderflower gin that disappeared within minutes). I brought the book and read aloud select passages; there were more spontaneous readings throughout the course of the party from other guests. It was a little flat in the beginning, but quickly came together when more people began to arrive. I swear I can pinpoint the exact moment when everything clicked, and the conversation suddenly became much more free-flowing and dynamic.

Sally came. There was a brief crocus in the flame moment that was completely unexpected, just as it had been for Clarissa. Dr. Bradshaw was there too. He caused quite a stir with his incessant laughter. The Prime Minister also made an appearance, but was much more discreet.

And Peter came, impeccably dressed and with a surprise of his own. He was the last guest to leave.

Septimus did not come. If he had, it would have disrupted the integrity of the party, I think. He was not supposed to come, despite his intention and his promise. Ironically enough, he did commit suicide in a spiritual sense; he seemed very different the next time I saw him. But he was the original inspiration for the party, because he recognised that I was like Clarissa Dalloway. For that I will always have him to thank.

A Party to Remember

One of the trinkets of advice that David Kirke has always given me, and followed scrupulously himself, is "Just connect." That is what started everything in the first place: one simple meeting, one simple connection. That is how it always begins. As long as both parties are willing to take the risk, something will be created. Something will happen. It may be of infinitesimal duration, or it may be as endless as the universe. Who could possibly know?

Oxford, and Europe in general, have allowed me to fulfill Kirke's advice to my greatest possible extent thus far. I am back in America now, but I know I will return someday. I have to. There is so much more that has to be done, so many more connections that have to be made. This also applies to my last year at Columbia, in the most cosmopolitan city in the world. I'm very happy to be back. As magical as England is, it's about time I returned to reality, at least for a little while.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

X. Limited Days of Limitless Time: A True Story

I have always believed in Irony and Circumstance. I was a bridesmaid at their wedding, in fact. It was quite an unexpected affair.

But such is life. Without unpredictability it would not be nearly as much fun (or dreadful). And with unpredictability, with chaos, there are moments. Moments in which you truly feel, or truly believe, or truly understand something—or all three at once. Moments of incandescence, as I like to call it. Like Virginia Woolf, I fundamentally believe in their importance. [But more on that in a future chapter.]

This is why I always take risks, regardless of the potential consequences. I almost cannot help it. As long as there is a possibility of attaining one of these moments, I will take the risk, the leap, the plunge. And this is why I decided to travel alone over spring vacation. For the first time ever, I put my complete faith in letting my future unravel all on its own. Spontaneity was my guide. And she guided me well.

As much of a control freak as I am, I also accept that there are some things you cannot control in life, or measure in any way with mathematics. Nature, love. The two are inexplicably intertwined. They are by definition always a surprise. There are patterns that can be traced, but they are embedded in a deeper chaos that nobody can ascertain. Nevertheless, we keep trying. We keep trying.

So much has been said on nature and love. So many stories have been told, and almost all are trite to some degree. But no two are ever the same. Because it is different, every single time. It is always unexpected, and usually Ironic. The Circumstances have to be willing. It's an endless genre, really.

I was not sure when I would be able to tell my story. Ever since last spring, I have been waiting. I thought I would be waiting for a long, long time. Because this time, it had to be right. I did not want to make another mistake. And over the past few months, there have been moments, moments that suggested that maybe, just maybe I would finally attain incandescence. Ineffability. What I had once glimpsed and wanted to have again, for real.

But until now—or, to be more temporally precise, until two months ago—I had not attained it. The moments were all superficial. Fun, but ultimately superficial. And I knew this all along.

I suppose I should begin at the beginning. I had not known it was the beginning then, but that is what makes the story so wonderful. Premeditation ruins the honesty, the integrity of things. It just happened naturally, as the Circumstances permitted, and it was perfect.

From Paris, I arrived in Madrid exhausted to the point of collapse. I had spent a sleepless night at the Orly airport because my flight left at 6.30am, and the metro is closed from 1 to 5am. Lugging my 20kg rolling suitcase and a 10kg handbag, I managed to get to my hostel at 10am without getting lost, prepared to sleep all afternoon because I was planning on meeting a friend for dinner and drinks. But that could not happen, as I was not allowed to check into my room until 3pm (they had to clean everything). So I sat in the lobby until the lounge was available, and moved there. Since the Wi-Fi connection was quite good, I replied to emails and did a final read-through of my submission to the New York Times Modern Love Essay Contest. My first paragraph directly stated that although I knew many people in stable, happy, long-term relationships, I knew I would never be in one myself, because things are always complicated when I am involved. I think I submitted my essay a little before Volker and his friend came in.

Sparks did not fly, trumpets did not blast, angels did not descend from the heavens—either literally or metaphorically. I want to make this absolutely clear. Sure, I thought he was attractive, but I had encountered many attractive people on my travels and was not interested in a fling (not to mention the fact that I both looked and sounded like a zombie given my sleepless night at the airport). And to be perfectly honest I didn't even notice his attractiveness at first because I was so dead tired. We talked for a bit—his friend could only speak German—and from this conversation I gauged that they were nice, friendly, cool people. They had arrived the day before and were leaving the day before I would, so they were also staying for six days. At that point I realised it was 3pm and I could finally go to my room, so I did. We made no promises to hang out or meet up or anything; it was just a brief conversation that started because we happened to be in the same room at the same time. Merely a matter of coincidence.

That was Thursday. On Friday I went on a walking tour and met this very intriguing Polish boy. He resembled someone I had once known and trusted very strikingly in appearance, but thankfully not in personality. I could instantly tell that there was something strange about him, but not necessarily in a negative way. He is an artist and used to operate his own advertising agency and is currently building a house with his own bare hands in a small Polish village. He also claims that he has died three times, used to be a fish (among various other animals), and has a shaman. He had just spent three months exploring the depths of Colombia and Peru. We spent the entire day together, trekking all the way from the Royal Palace on the west side of the city to the Crystal Palace in Retiro Park on the east side. He was leaving on Sunday afternoon, so we agreed to meet on Sunday morning to go to El Rastro—the biggest open-air flea market in Europe.

On Friday evening I met up with my friend again, very late, to go out. In Madrid (and all of Spain, for that matter) this means 1am, midnight at the earliest. We went to a trendy club that was quite far from my hostel; I didn't make it back until almost 6am, throwing my sleep schedule even more off cycle. But we had been planning to go to El Escorial on Saturday. The problem was that for some reason I could not call my friend's cellphone with mine, and the phone in the hostel could only call other landlines, so we had to communicate via email. We agreed to confirm where we were meeting at 11am, but I overslept and was not able to get to the computer until 1pm. My friend had sent me a message, though, suggesting we meet at a certain metro station at 1pm. There was no way I could make it in time, so I sent her a reply telling her this, but I still really wanted to go to Escorial because it was supposed to rain on Sunday, it would be closed on Monday, and Tuesday was my last day in Madrid. I also did not want to go alone. So I wandered into the kitchen to make myself some tea and figure out what to do.

Volker and his friend just so happened to be in the kitchen, drinking soup. I remembered them from our first conversation and asked if they had any plans for the day. He said that they didn't. I asked if they wanted to come with me to Escorial—if we left within an hour we would make it there by half past three, and it did not close until seven, so there would be just enough time. They agreed without any sort of a reservation. It was as easy as that.

On the bus Volker sat next to me and his friend sat across the aisle. I had asked him to write some German vocabulary into my little Rembrandt notebook (which I always carry on my travels and ask people I meet to write in). We talked about random general things and at some point I remember asking him for his email, just so we could stay in touch. He did, but he also gave me his mobile number and his address in Munich, where he is attending university. And somehow we were able to call and text each other, even in Spain.

Escorial itself was lovely, and four hours of time was perfect; we were able to explore all the areas of the monastery at a leisurely pace, and see the outdoor gardens as well. It was definitely nowhere near as extravagant as Versailles, which I had visited exactly one week prior, but its austerity had a beauty of its own. When we returned to Madrid in the evening we went to a popular chain restaurant, Cervecería 100 Montaditos, for their signature little sandwiches and litres of sangria (only 2 euros each!). We returned to the hostel at midnight and showed each other YouTube videos in the lounge until 2am. He asked what I was doing the next day and I mentioned the market and he wanted to come too, but I had to wake up early to meet Piotr (my Polish friend), since we had planned this in advance. So I suggested that he text me when he arrived at the market and we would figure out how to meet up.

The market was wonderful, and very vast indeed in scope, but overpriced (as such things usually are). After an hour of milling around we decided to go to the museo de la Reina Sofia to see Dalí and other modern art, as it was free on Sunday. The collection was immense—the biggest I have ever seen of Dalí's work, actually. I could easily have spent half an hour standing in front of each one of his paintings, but I'm not sure if my faculties of perception could have handled it...

Volker had texted me while I was at the museum, and we arranged to meet at 3pm back at the hostel to go grocery shopping. I had volunteered to cook dinner—my specialty fried pasta, as always—because the hostel had a clean and spacious kitchen, and Spanish cuisine is both unhealthy and unpleasant (in fact I would say it is worse than British, which is definitely saying something). Then we watched part of a movie in the lounge, as there was a nice TV and a respectable collection of DVDs. It was still a bit early, though, so Volker suggested we go to the Las Ventas bullring, as he and his friend had visited earlier in the day and bought tickets. None of us knew exactly what would happen, but I was intrigued because it is one of the main things to see in Madrid.

Although the bullring itself was very impressive and the tickets were quite cheap (3 euros for the very top seats), the performance was traumatising. I will not go into specific details but I will say that they stabbed the bulls to death after about ten minutes or so of "torturing" them, and then a team of horses heralded by a fanfare would come out and drag the bull away, leaving behind a trail of blood. This happened over and over again, and the steady rain only heightened the drama. After three bulls, each of which was worse than the previous, we had had enough and left. I cannot believe this is still legal in Spain. Here is my video footage of the heartless affair.

Dinner was a wonderful success—I used pesto this time, which always works wonders. We had wine as well and strawberries for dessert. Then we went back to the lounge to watch some more movies. First Legally Blonde just for laughs, and then after much deliberation The Pianist. Let me just say that I had no idea what The Pianist was actually about (I did not know it was a WWII film set in Nazi-occupied Poland); all I knew was that it involved, well, a pianist, and was on the sad and serious side. But we had to see it because Volker is a pianist himself—he plays, composes, improvises, and teaches—and on that level alone the movie was perfect.

Volker's friend fell asleep midway through Legally Blonde and was literally knocked out for the rest of the evening (an ability that I quite admire because I cannot ever take naps, regardless of my level of fatigue). The three of us were on the couch, Volker in the middle, and Volker and I were lying next to each other sharing a pillow because it was just big enough for two people. We weren't holding hands or anything, but our arms were touching. And in retrospect I suppose there was a steady buildup of tension, but I was actually paying attention to the films (and asking Volker to translate all the German), so I didn't really notice. Not to mention the fact that there were some other people in the lounge, several of whom were watching with us, but everyone left sometime during The Pianist because it was getting really late.

At one point about two-thirds through the movie, I sat up to drink some water, and he sat up too, and when I settled back again his arm was around me. It was natural, though; I had almost expected it would happen. We did finish the movie, which was incredibly sad (but with a bittersweet ending), and listened to the theme song over and over again. He took out his phone and we played each other more songs on YouTube. It was nearing 3am at this point. And then, just as naturally, I sort of turned toward him and the tension was finally released.

Some minutes later, though, the person on duty at the hostel just so happened to come into the room and switch on the light. But it was good timing because I was getting extremely tired and we wanted to wake up early the next day to go to the park together, since he and his friend were flying back to Germany that evening.

I remember feeling a little strange when I got back to my own room and tried to fall asleep. I wasn't giddy or anything—rather, a little exasperated at myself. I did not want to have another fling and here I was, in Spain, hooking up with a German boy who I probably would never see again in my entire life unless I visited him in Munich (which I did admittedly want to do, as I had only been there for one and a half days over winter vacation and it was too dreadfully cold to really enjoy the city). But it had been nice, another in-the-moment type of thing. Nothing to complain about, really. I was just being ridiculous.

The next morning we woke up early as planned and bought bread, cheese, ham, and tomatoes for a picnic. It was a beautiful day, very sunny and in the 20s (Celsius). We walked to Retiro Park, which I think is even prettier than Central Park in New York. After the picnic, we decided to go on a boat ride in the beautiful lake. But his friend did not want to come (he probably suspected something at this point), so Volker and I went alone. It was perfect. He rowed for the most part, as I am quite terrible, but I did try and wasn't a complete failure. Then we lay down together in the boat and just talked about things. I felt as if we were in a vacuum, completely detached from our physical surroundings—it seemed as if we were drifting forever, without even the concepts of space and time (the last time I had felt this way was in Budapest, when I went to the hot baths). There was Spanish music playing in the background too, from a band on the shore. And since it was a Monday morning the lake and park were not crowded at all. I could not resist the opportunity to make a lovely little video.

The rest of the day just unfolded by itself, as is always best. We walked back to the main plaza to go to the Museo del Jamón because Volker and his friend wanted to buy ham for a souvenir (it's a Madrid speciality). Then we went to McDonald's for ice cream, walked across to the other end of the city to see the other park, and lay in the grass there for a bit. After this we had to return to the hostel, as Volker and his friend had to be at the airport by 8. When we went to the kitchen to throw some things away, we were alone for a moment, and he suddenly said, "I am really going to miss you," and kissed me. I was a little startled. He sounded so sincere. And we had only spent two and a half days together.

I walked him and his friend to the metro, where we said our last goodbyes. And that was that. He left, and as I traced my steps back to the hostel, I suddenly realised how much I would miss him too. I started crying a little; the tears sprang from out of nowhere. I texted him to thank him for the candy he and his friend had given me (giant key-shaped Haribo) and for the lovely time we had spent together, and he texted me back, saying that he too was reflecting on our time in Madrid, and that he wanted to see me again as soon as possible. I sent him an email in response, to which he replied the next day—again, perfectly. That was the start of the email chain.

On my last day in Madrid I went to the main museum, Prado, and spent the entire day there (I had done more than enough walking around outdoors in the past week). It felt strange to be alone. The tears came again, from nowhere, on and off, off and on, like a light switch being flicked arbitrarily. That was when I truly realised how much I missed him and how much I wanted to see him again too.

Plaza Mayor

Royal Palace

Bear Eating Naturally Fermented Berries (Madrid's Symbol)

El Escorial


El Rastro

A Wonderful Hostel-Cooked Dinner

Lake in Retiro Park

Museo del Jamón

My plan was to fly to Venice the next day, stay there for two nights with some friends from Columbia, and then take a train to Siena to stay with a friend who was studying there. She said she could definitely host me for two nights (until April 11, the day before my birthday), which was perfect because I intended on going down to the Amalfi coast for my 21st birthday. I had a friend who lived near there; he is also on an exchange program at Oxford but is based in Siena. We had planned on taking the midnight bus down together on April 11, because that was when he was returning home. The problem was that he was having guests over that week so he could not host me himself, but he promised that he would ask one of his friends. At this point he still had not confirmed, though, and I had been waiting for his final reply for almost two weeks—I really wanted to book my flight to Dublin, where I was planning on staying with friends from April 14-17, from Naples as soon as possible. But I could not do it without confirmation.

I began to reevaluate things. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be partying it up with the Italians on the Amalfi coast after all, as ideal as that may sound for a 21st birthday extravaganza. And then I thought that maybe, possibly, I could go see Volker in Germany. It was a random crazy idea at first, but the more I thought about it the more it didn't seem completely infeasible—I hadn't booked anything, after all. So I emailed him to ask if it was feasible, and he replied that if it could happen it would be like a dream turning into reality. He was at home until the 26th, on vacation, and his parents were fine with having me over, even though they did not speak English. I wanted to take the train because I had already been on four plane rides in the past three weeks and would be on two more before returning to Oxford. But I had no idea how far away it was—about 1150km. He lives in western Germany, in Neuwied, a little town that is about 20km from Koblenz and an hour south of Cologne.

Because I wasn't entirely sure how I wanted to arrive and was busy sightseeing with my friends, I did not book anything in Venice. I had looked up the trains and realised that it would be about 12-13 solid hours of travel, and more expensive than taking a plane. But the only option was Ryanair because there were no easyJet flights to Cologne from Pisa, and Lufthansa was way too expensive. I had only taken Ryanair once before (from London to Rome, the first destination on my winter trip), and even though I arrived with all of my luggage and limbs intact I swore that I would never take it again; I had felt highly uncomfortable with not only the flight itself, but also the booking process (not to mention my extreme aversion to its yellow and blue colours). In Siena, though, on my first night, I properly sat down to book things. That was when I realised something terrible: my wallet, which contained both of my debit cards, was missing.

I did not panic. My friend was with me the entire time and the apartment she lives in is insanely beautiful (think high sculpted ceilings with chandeliers, lots of paintings and family photographs on the walls, antique furniture), and I was in denial. I knew that it could not be stolen. I always keep my wallet in my handbag, which is on me at all times. It could only be missing if I had taken it out and put it somewhere. Which was possible, but the problem was that I could not remember when I took it out. The last time I had deliberately done so was at the McDonald's in Madrid to show Volker a picture of my sister and my driver's license, but I had definitely put it back. In Venice, however, I had emptied out my entire bag to fit in a beach towel, so it might have been lost in the hostel. The thing is, I would have put it in my suitcase or my carry-on bag—and it was not in either of those. Luckily, all of my euros were in a separate envelope, and I had more than enough to tide me over for the rest of the trip.

I called the Venice hostel and they said they would call back if they found it, but they never did (it turns out that I must have lost it in Madrid after all, because last week my mum told me that it had been mailed from the U.S. Embassy in Spain to my house—and miracle of all miracles, none of my cards were missing!). My only option was to call my parents and have one of them give me their credit card information so that I could book the flight. They were obviously not pleased with the situation, but after an hour of vehement pleading my dad relented. I was also Skyping Volker at this point. The flight on Ryanair was, I thought, the only option, and I was still hesitant to book it, but I knew I had to—it was past midnight, the price had gone up by another 20 euros, and I was technically leaving the next day. But then Volker said that he would do a last-minute search for a cheaper flight. And miraculously, he found one—on Germanwings, which is a very reliable airline. It was actually about 25 euros cheaper than the Ryanair flight. While I was booking (it was nearly 1am now), I was still in denial that this was all happening. The fact that I was very unfamiliar with Germanwings only enhanced the unreality of the situation. It almost seemed like a joke, as official as the website looks. Part of me was convinced that the airline did not exist. But I successfully booked the flight, and boarded the next day.

I arrived at the Cologne-Bonn airport at about 6pm, half an hour later than planned because there was a delay. I expected that I would have to take a train to Neuwied; Volker said he would text me about how to get to his house. And he did, but he was at the airport waiting for me—he had driven all the way there in his little red car to pick me up. We had a bit of trouble finding each other but it all worked out, and then I was in his car on my way to his house. It was, to say the least, surreal (although the highway did remind me of the New Jersey turnpike, funnily enough).

When we entered the house a lovely blonde lady welcomed me with a big hug and she looked very much like Volker, so I could only assume that it was his mum. His twelve-year-old brother was there too, and soon his dad had also returned home. I was not nervous at all, even though I could not communicate directly with his parents and only in a limited capacity with his brother, who is learning English at school. There is so much to be said for the language of expression, of gesture.

After a delicious dinner, Volker told me that he wanted to take me someplace special, the top of a hill with the best view of Neuwied—especially at night, when everything is illuminated. We went on foot, and it was a little tiring but the view was well worth it. We first sat on a bench and talked and then we moved to the grass, which was clean. He lay his two extra jackets down and we lay on top of them and gazed at the stars and listened to more piano music on his phone until almost 1am—so it was technically my birthday at this point. If it hadn't been slightly chilly I would have wanted to lie there until we fell asleep.

The weather was appropriately uncanny on my birthday: it was hailing. On and off, off and on, all day—like me and my turbulent tears. But the periods of sunshine were all the more transcendent because of it. Volker and his mum gave me a lovely scarf at breakfast with a cute little card and I was happy. Very happy. Incandescently happy. I didn't need to have a proper celebration; just being with him and his family was enough. After breakfast (which, like every meal in his house, involves an inordinate amount of tea, the best tea I've ever had), we went shopping for some ingredients that his mum needed and I purchased breadcrumbs because I wanted to make my special rice and chicken dish for his family at some point.

When we returned to the house we went downstairs to the piano room and he played for me. The tears came again, despite my efforts to hold them back. When he touched the keys it was like magic. I cannot quite explain. Not just the music itself, which came so smoothly and effortlessly, but also his expression when playing—so carefree, so detached from the physical present. He sort of looks off into the distance, as if he knows, as if he feels, exactly what will come next. It is a skill I have always wanted to have. He does a lot of improvisation and can transpose pretty much any song after he hears it; his version of OneRepublic's "Apologise", which I requested, was particularly exquisite.

We had homemade tortellini for lunch courtesy of his mum, and then drove to the house of his best piano student because he had to give a lesson. Afterwards he took me to the Rhine, which cuts through his town, and we walked along the shore and onto a very cool bridge. There is an island on the river directly beneath the bridge that is only accessible by it, but the gate was locked, so we clambered over illegally (which makes everything all the more fun and memorable). We settled onto a little area of sand and rocks that jutted out into the river and talked endlessly. When we finally decided to leave it began to hail again, and at one point it was so heavy that I was clinging onto him for dear life, on the staircase leading back up to the bridge.

It soon passed, however, and we made it back to the car, wet and laughing. He drove me to his church, which was empty of course, and played me more piano (the videos are linked above). Then he said we had to go to this amazing Thai restaurant in town, Yum Yum, because he is familiar with the owner and eats there very often with his family and friends.

But we did not go there. Instead we drove into a residential area and parked in front of a house. It turned out to be the home of one of his best friends, Willy, and five of his other friends were gathered there as well—they had prepared a surprise party for me. I hadn't been expecting it at all; although I had been a little suspicious because he was getting an inordinate number of phone calls all day, I thought nothing of it because I am so gullible. There were many different cakes, one made by Volker's mum that very morning (which he had somehow hidden in the car without me knowing), one made by Willy's sister, and an assortment of German delights. Best of all, there were seven kinds of tea, including a special variety (pineapple) from Munich. Not a single drop of alcohol, and I did not want any. They sang to me and we ate and talked and played silly games—including one called Psychopath that had me stumped for two hours (I had to guess what "disease" Volker and his friends had based on their actions and responses to my questions; it was utterly bizarre).

When we got back to Volker's house it was past midnight, but we still had time to watch a film. His room has slanted ceilings because it is on the very top floor, and he has a projector that can be directed onto one of the ceilings, so it was like being in a special movie theatre. We lay on his bed and watched 21, which I had never seen before, and it was perfect—not only because it was my birthday but also because Volker loves maths; besides music it is his passion. And after it was over we listened to more music and softly sang together and then talked about some more serious things—i.e., where exactly all this was going—until 4am.

I was still a little uncertain at this point. Distance tends to make relationships very, very difficult, if not impossible, but it always depends on the couple. And I wasn't sure if I wanted to take the risk, as blissfully happy as I was. I was in a bubble in a bubble in a bubble—on vacation while on my exchange year in Oxford while still being a student at Columbia—and I was worried that once I got back to "real" life I would reconsider things. But we talked about this, and he said that he wanted to try. And I was willing to try if he was willing to try. Even though I had known him for such a short amount of physical time I knew that I could trust him. I knew he was genuine. I knew he would keep his word.

The next morning, I booked my ticket to Dublin. The cheapest flight turned out to be on the 19th, so I had to adjust my schedule a little, but I wanted to stay in Germany for as long as possible. Two days was no longer enough. And it worked out for the best because one of the friends I was visiting had come down with strep throat, so she wasn't sure if she could accommodate me from the 14th to the 17th.

Here is where I will stop with the day-by-day narration of detail. I have already established a sufficient framework. For the rest of this chapter, I will only sketch impressions, and focus in on specific moments from our week together. Because when you spend every waking hour with someone, for seven whole days, in an environment where there are no pressing real-life concerns (school, work, etc.), time really does seem limitless. One day blurs into the next. It is the impressions, the moments that one remembers.

We went to the most romantic and magical of natural landscapes. Long winding dirt paths through lush verdant meadows, and fields and fields of the brightest yellow flowers I have ever seen. The shores of the Rhine in Königswinter, which is very close to Drachenfels and has made me determined to find a real dragon. Several more rock beaches, where we lay down and listened to the rhythm of the waves and soaked in the sun and skipped stones. The wine mountains near his town, where he used to jog every morning (it is the perfect environment because of the high elevation, panoramic views, and intoxicating scent). The woods near his old house, which enclose a huge meadow where he used to play when he was little. The beautiful park owned by a friend of his family, where I picked a bouquet of flowers. The only landscape I did not experience was a desert, but Volker showed me the sauna in his basement, which is an adequate metaphorical substitute.

We read aloud to each other. He read excerpts (in German) from a biography of George Washington Carver and Into the Wild, one of his favourite books. I read sections from Einstein's Dreams, a series of profound meditations on time, each of which presents a different hypothetical universe. In one, everything repeats itself. In another, there are no memories. In a third, everyone is immortal, and the population splits into the Laters and the Nows. In a fourth, mechanical time and body time are separated. In a fifth, there are only images. We talked about all this, and related it to what we had experienced together.

I spent time with his parents and with his little brother, who is perhaps even more obsessed with maths than Volker himself. We exchanged many riddles, all of which were ultimately solved. We spent more time with his friends at their houses, and visited the bistro that they all established and operate together. I met friends of his family at church on Sunday service. We even visited his grandmother, and she gave me a pair of lovely slipper socks that she knit, which I wear very often now.

We also made two day trips. The first was to Cologne, where we met up with one of my friends from Oxford who lives in Düsseldorf. We climbed all the way to the top of the cathedral and my legs almost died—it was 509 steps and the spiral staircase was incredibly steep and narrow (even at the halfway point I thought I was never going to make it). Before we left I bought an enormous dark brown loaf from the bakery for his mum, just because I wanted to give her something and because I love bread.

The second trip was to Koblenz for Bundesgartenschau (BUGA), a garden show in Germany that changes places every two years. This was the first time it was in Koblenz, and the city had made extensive preparations, building not only quirky installations but also a magnificent cable car across the Rhine. Most of the show was within an open fortress on a cliff, and consisted of resplendent floral displays and strange constructions, including what I hope was a mock graveyard. Best of all, there were numerous random places to sit or lie down, most of which we took advantage of: lounge chairs, beanbag cushions, and even an inflatable bed with "nature" noises emanating from the ground nearby. It would have been perfect had it not been for the fact that various people were staring at us and taking photographs of us too (the main demographic for the show was elderly couples and families; we may have been the only young couple there). At one point, when we were on the orange cushion (definitely the most comfortable), someone actually said "They have courage." But it was funny, at the very least.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to the Emerald Isle, and step one degree closer to reality. As much as I wanted to stay even longer I knew that this was the right time to leave, because I felt terrible for sleeping in his bed (he slept in a cot in his brother's room for the entire week), and we would be seeing each other again in Munich in two months. Now those two months have become two days—I leave on Friday and will be staying until Monday. And I know that when I see him it will be as if the two months apart had never happened.

I wrote him a letter. I hadn't been planning it; the words just came to me, spontaneously, at 3am on the day of my flight. They kept coming, in waves, in oceans, and I could do nothing but write them down. I finished the letter as he was driving me to the airport. He said it was ineffable.

We are from different cultures, we speak different languages, we live in different places, we have different academic interests. But we can understand each other, despite all this. We think, we feel, in the same way. Our minds are parallel, or perhaps complementary. And I am going to learn his languages (German, numbers, music), just as he is learning mine. I am giving him words, my words, pieces of myself. He is giving me words (and numbers) in return. This is just the beginning: our Chapter One.

But I end this chapter with no more words. Only images.