Monday, September 30, 2013

be here now

So.  I haven’t really done anything particularly noteworthy in the past week.  Shocker, huh?  With the exception of my beloved Vikings coming to town and gracing us all with a victory (and all the fans in purple and gold slept with smiles across our “Minnesota Nice” faces), this week has been as nonchalant and nondescript as a pair of loafers.  I walked.  I talked.  I ate.  I slept.  Ta-da.

That is not to say, however, that my mind was not the typical buzzing beehive of thoughts that I know it to be.  On the contrary, this in-betweener week of catching my breath after Paris and gearing up for a long weekend in Italy has had my brain working overtime.  So since I don’t have much to report on what’s been going on in the world around me, I’ll give you a peek at what’s been going on in the world within me.

I don’t know about you, but when life slows down for a minute, it’s as if my brain feels the need to pick up the slack.  Not just pick up the slack… more like grab the baton and sprint the final leg of the 4x100m relay.  It’s as if there’s a little person inside my brain who takes a look around, notices there’s not a whole lot going on, then proceeds to throw a house party and fill my brain with a hundred new guests to jump on my couches and break my family heirlooms.  Things to think about, you know?

One of those things would be school.  For those who aren’t aware, the world of academia in England is run far differently than it is in the States.  At home, I am used to a grading system broken down into numerous assessment categories.  Like any normal student, I’ve always seen homework and quizzes as a necessary evil.  You know that phrase, “You never know what you have until it’s gone”?  Well I sure do, and all I can say is never again will I resent that portion of my grade.  I have tasted and seen a course grade that is divided in half.  HALF.  An entire semester rides on one 3000-word paper and one two-hour final exam.  And here’s the catch: they still assign homework.  And they still expect it to be done, lest your grade suffer.  Even though there is not a homework category.  There’s a British word for this theory; it starts with a “B” and rhymes with “frolics.” 
So there’s that.  Those 13,000 words and eight hours of testing on goodness knows what.  They hang over my head, swinging back and forth like a pendulum.  Eventually the day will come when I actually must do these things, and that is perhaps the worst part.  Eventually.  Not now, but in the future.  And in the present all I can really manage to do as of late is worry about them.  And about anything else I can come up with.

William Shakespeare (only fitting to quote him while writing from his homeland) once coined a phrase for this phenomenon.  More than that, he wrote an entire comedy on it (the operative word being “comedy”).  Much ado about nothing.  Loosely translated, this saying refers to a whole lot of freaking out over something that really doesn’t matter one bit in the grand scheme of things.  It happens to the best of us, really.  We stare at the present, fail to see a solution, the wheels fall off, and sometimes we burst into tears over not having a plastic folder.  That happened to a friend once.

Here’s what I mean.  All too often throughout this week, I have found myself using silly amounts of mental energy on things other than the present moment.  When I find myself with free time, I am constantly making a mental checklist of all the things I need to accomplish in the next few days.  As I go down the list, the items never fail to trip me up.  I start to freak out about my lack of progress on papers due at the end of the semester (which, yes, is an area of valid concern, but should not be awarded nearly as much apprehension as I’ve been giving it) and then I freak out about not knowing where to even begin.  And after all this emotional energy’s been spent I look down and realize that all I have to show for my efforts is a vacant Word Doc and a blinking cursor. 

When I’m not worrying about school, I’m worrying about money and how much it costs to even breathe in London.  Every time I swipe my card and work out a rough pounds-to-dollars conversion in my head, I cringe.  Then make mental notes as to how on earth I will ever survive at this rate.  (Is pick-pocketing inherently frowned upon as a practice?  Asking for a friend.)  I really am being frugal.  Honest.  Even ask my dad. His eyes are on my bank account like white on rice.  Nonetheless, I face the greatest woe of every study abroad student: money running from my wallet as if it’s the nose of a sick kid with a sinus infection.  Terrible visual, but I think you catch my drift.

I’m not always worrying though.  (Really, I’m quite fun, I promise.)  Sometimes I’m wishing.  Especially when I see things in London that launch me into a spell of nostalgia.  I’ll be strolling through Hyde Park with great friends on a beautiful fall day, and then something about the crisp fall air will have me craving September in Minnesota, sipping coffee with my mom in Adirondack chairs outside by the fire pit.  I’ll pass a Christmas display, and instantly I’m imagining the elation I will feel when I’m reunited with the people I love come December.  (And yes, you heard right.  It is October 1st and the British have already begun to deck the halls.  Too soon.)  I’ll grab a tray in the caf, frown at the poor excuse for a meal, and quickly find myself wishing for my mom’s cooking.  I’ll chat with friends and family from home and find myself counting down the days until I can talk to them face-to-face.  I’ll be wishing I was elsewhere, completely unconscious of the magical place that surrounds me at present. 

It’s absurd when you consider it.  How do we so easily disregard what is here and now for things past or future or thousands of miles away?  Because we choose to.  No matter how often we tell ourselves we can multitask, the human mind can hold only one thought at a time.  Just one.  It can be about anything in the world, but there can only be one. 

It will work out, the future.  It really will.  It has to.  I’ve been assured by someone who never breaks His promises that it will.  These impending moments, these scary future things that I don’t know how to handle right now, will come along in time.  And at that time, I will have what I need to get through them.  And once they’ve come to pass, I’ll probably smile and look around for a second and think, “Well that wasn’t so bad after all.” 

But that’s the crux of it.  Moments come to pass.  The good, the bad, and the ugly: they do not last forever.  They are gone within the bat of an eye or the snap of a finger.  Sometimes we spend those moments tangled up in our own worries, wishes, and wonderings, and we miss out on the present that’s right here before our very eyes.  I know for a fact that when December rolls around I won’t want to leave this place.  Sure, I’ll be thrilled to return to all that I love about home, but I’ll be just as sad to say goodbye to all that I love about this home-away-from-home.  While right now I feel like I have all the time in the world to enjoy London, the realization that this time will come to a stop is daunting.  I am nearly a third of the way through my time here, and even as I type that I can hardly believe it is true. 

The other day I stumbled across a simple phrase, a mantra, if you will.  And like any intelligent twenty-something girl I decided to make it my mantra.  At least until I find a new one.  This one is for real, though, because I made it my lock screen on my iPhone.  I mean business.  “Be here now,” it reads.  Short.  Simple.  Profound. 

It means, “Your Twitter feed has not changed in the last sixty seconds, but this conversation with these friends around this table in this café will.”

It means, “You’re fine on time, but look up now before you miss the way the sunlight peeks over that lovely brick flat with the red window boxes.”

It means, “I know you want to text your friend at home about this, but save it for later because the sun is shining and we're going on a bike ride in Hyde Park.”

It means, "I know you have a million things to do, but cool your jets.  Now is the time to spare thirty minutes for One Direction music videos, because boy bands are good for the soul."

It means, “Yes, your tweet was oh so witty and we’re all loling, really, but the cute waiter would like to know what you’d like for lunch now, please.”

It means, “While your mother is a wise and gracious listener, perhaps you might grab your Bible and your journal instead.”

It means, “Don’t blink.  You may never know what magical thing is in store for you right in this very moment.”

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

au revoir, reality

As I look back on the last four days, the absurdity of the events hits me like a load of bricks.  Allow me to explain myself…

Let’s start with Thursday.  Thursday was the Cinderella of all weekdays.  Thursday had an early wake-up call to take care of some housekeeping details.  Thursday survived on bread and water, in a sad, sad attempt at being frugal.  Then Thursday’s fairy godmother arrived just in the nick of time in the form of a little black dress from Madewell (with POCKETS), black tights, and suede wedge booties, and whisked Thursday away to the ball.  But not just any ball…  The ball.  The one that bears the oh so humble title of London Fashion Week. 

Since I’m still on a Fashion Week high, humor me for just a moment.  Let’s pretend I’m some top-dog fashion journalist from Elle or Vogue or what have you (pick your poison), and I’m here to give you the super-exclusive scoop from Fashion Week, straight from the Miranda Priestlys of the world.  Okay?  Okay.  Ahem.

Halfway through September we find ourselves making the switch from Spring/Summer into Autumn/Winter, trading flip-flops and suntans for leather boots and rosy cheeks.  This season there are a few trends on the horizon that are worth checking out: sweet pinks, nature-inspired prints in earthy tones, brightly colored geometric prints, and Victorian-inspired lace.  Now remember: true personal style comes from choosing the pieces and trends that work for you and fit your unique style from what the fashion deities present to the masses and incorporating them into your day-to-day.

So with that in mind, the two trends that caught my eye on Thursday were christened “Pretty in Pink” and “Victoriana.”  Before you shy away from this bright and girlish hue, try to give pink a bit more credit than she is normally awarded.  Pink is more versatile than you think (rhyme not intended).  She might take on a more light and playful form in blush, a more deep and sophisticated rose, or anything in between.  While the models donned pink from head to toe, this looked rather ridiculous if you ask me.  I presume I’m not the only one to prefer pink in smaller doses, like a bold pink lip or a blush pink collared top.  Or a bright pink lightweight sweater, dark wash skinnies, tall brown leather riding boots, and a sparkly statement necklace.  But that’s just me today.  The “Victoriana” trend also piqued my interest.  A chic and polished monochromatic look, Victoriana gets her depth from the refined neutral color palette and flirts with girly lace and ruffled detailing for a bit of added flair.  It’s timeless and elegant, but can still take a more scaled back air when paired with denim.  So the next time you find yourself perusing the heavenly realms of fashion retail, use the free hand that’s not holding your Pumpkin Spice Latte to snatch up a few of these new runway hits.

Wasn’t that fun? 

After a late night dinner at a pub near London Bridge, my girlfriends and I caught the next bus home to Kensington and slept like babies, weary from a long week of school.  It was a pretty low-key weekend of some much-needed R&R.  We watched a few movies, ordered takeout, and kicked back like any exhausted college student.

HA just kidding we hopped on a train to Paris for the weekend.  Oh, semester abroad, you have my undivided attention.

Friday afternoon I frantically loaded up my extremely large and in charge backpack (naturally I was running just a tad behind schedule) and headed to King’s Cross / St. Pancras station for my first ever train ride.  Apparently the rest of the world has already been on a train like a million times so the experience has lost its luster.  Sad.  Blessed is she who was raised on minivan road-trips for she will be impressed by train rides. 

Just a wee bit excited...
I digress. 

We arrived in Paris around sunset, dropped our bags at our hotel, and took the Metro over to the Seine River for a boat tour.  Now about the Metro… While taking the Tube in London makes me feel posh and cultured, taking the Metro in Paris makes me feel like I’m entering the Twilight Zone.  It twists and turns and whines and you literally feel like the train will lift off the tracks.  It’s a miracle I survived to blog about it.

Once we climbed the steps out of the Underground, there lay the dazzling City of Lights.  At night, Paris is lit like a glorious Christmas tree and its sprawling streets are lined with looming romantic style architecture.  On the boat, we caught our first glimpse of the illustrious Eiffel Tower and watched it glitter away on cue at ten o’clock sharp.  Breathtaking.  If you’d like to see it for yourself, I have approximately 47 shots coming from every angle.  And video footage.  Go big or go home. 

Now nothing says “Paris” like a Nutella-filled crêpe prepared right before your eyes by a street vendor.  Ah.  Heavenly.  It was the perfect end to our first night in the city, and a well-deserved treat after a long day of travel.  

Saturday morning we resurrected our sleepy bodies from our cozy hotel beds for a bus tour of the city.  We saw a wide variety of monuments, buildings, and shops.  We got a taste of home as we passed by the original model of the Statue of Liberty, which resides in the center of a lovely Parisian park as a tribute to its French designer.  We marveled at luxury retailers, like Hermes, Longchamp, Louis Vuitton, and the original Cartier.  (Later we returned to walk through these famed shops, only to mourn the prices that were outlandish even before the damage of the dreaded exchange rate.)  We passed by locations where many famous people lived, worked, and died: the site of Napoleon’s burial, the Ritz where Coco Chanel spent her last days, and even the office of Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau.  (To my dad who raised our family on the film series starring this outrageously funny character: merci beaucoup.)

After the bus, we spent about an hour trailing through the Musée du Louvre, eyeing world-renowned sculptures, paintings, jewels, and the like.  I especially loved The Wedding Feast at Cana, a depiction of Christ’s first miracle and also the largest painting in the museum, and of course, everyone’s favorite leading lady, Mona.  (I’m convinced she is the inspiration behind Tyra Banks’ “smile with the eyes” mantra for her Top Models.)  I am in absolute awe of the remarkable talent housed in that fantastic place.  It reminded me of what a beautiful thing it is that each and every one of us has a unique and incredible talent to offer, whether we’ve discovered that talent yet or whether it is still waiting for us, buried under an X on a map.  Once we find that sweet spot, that place where passion marries ability, we find magic.
I've grown a few inches.  You could say I've been eating my Wheaties.
Even the ceilings are masterpieces...
After a morning of soaking in the Parisian atmosphere, lunch and caffeine were in rather high demand.  We found rejuvenation at a charming café then headed out for some shopping.  The streets were drenched in sunlight, casting a radiant glow on the stunning window displays.  Nothing, however, could beat the glow on each of our faces following the next few moments.  Our group of six American girls stepped into Michael Kors to explore the shelves of flawless handbags, wallets, and watches that we all adore.  As we chatted with the friendly employees, one of them nonchalantly tossed into the conversation, “Oh and the real Michael Kors is upstairs.”  As if it were a mere afterthought.  As if it wasn’t the most jaw-dropping news we had heard all day.  Sure enough, a few moments later, THE Michael Kors came down the stairs, dressed in a military style jacket with jeans and dark aviator shades.  He looked cooler than ever.  The shop-girls urged us to go meet him.  Well you don’t need to tell me twice… I walked straight up to him, flashed my most winning smile, and said hello to one of New York City’s finest fashion designers.  Mr. Kors was friendly and laidback, asking each of us where we were from, seemingly happy to run into a group of fans from home.  We even got a picture.  Ah.  I was absolutely star-struck.  Running into a famous fashion designer in his own store in Paris?  What sweet serendipity.

We finished off the day with a sprint back to the Eiffel Tower to catch the sunset (unwanted but necessary exercise since the French seem to have only two words in their culinary vocabulary: bread and cheese).  Oh that view.  It couldn’t have been more worth the effort.  We spent hours laughing and chattering beneath the Parisian monument, embracing our American girl status and taking more photos than is ever necessary, and making a point to just pause and be as la Tour glittered away above our smiling faces.

As our jam-packed weekend was coming to a close, we hit the streets again Sunday morning to take full advantage of the last eight hours in Paris.  First stop of the day was Notre-Dame, and we had the opportunity to walk through it during a church service.  It was inspiring to see a place that I’ve always associated with people who lived hundreds of years ago still being used today for the same purpose.  The enormity and intricacy of the architecture and the spectacular artwork blew me away.  On a lighter note, the cathedral totally brought me back to an old cartoon that my kindergarten self was obsessed with, Gargoyles.  Long live the nineties and long live my strangeness.

Next on the agenda was to visit the Lover’s Bridge.  This bridge across the Seine River displays a romantic tradition where couples attach a padlock to the bridge to symbolize their undying love for one another.  The keys are tossed into the river, never to be seen again, while the love between the two lasts forever.  Not wanting to miss out on the tradition, I made a lock for my parents, the dynamic duo that enriches my life each day.  Mom and Dad, I aspire to have a love like yours someday.  Your sacrificial love means more to us kids than you’ll ever know.

Last but not least on our own whirlwind Tour de France was the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées.  The Arc de Triomphe is a tribute to those who fought in the French Revolution, and it stands in solitude in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle.  Extending eastbound from the monument runs the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, a world famous Parisian street known for its cinemas, cafés, high-end shopping, and the manicured horse-chestnut trees that line either side of the avenue.  It’s no secret: this lovely locale is known as “the most beautiful avenue in the world,” or as the French say, la plus belle avenue du monde.  Since we already felt we were lost in a dream, we chose Häagen-Dazs as the perfect last meal in Paris.  I do believe that when Audrey Hepburn said, “Paris is always a good idea,” she was referring to indulgent French desserts just as much as the magical city itself.  Because why not eat ice cream and crêpes for dinner?

And with that we boarded the train and returned home to reality.  Or whatever you would call this.  My voice is gone, my feet are bruised, and I am completely spent after a weekend packed to the gills with activity.  But my eyes have witnessed the magic of new places and glamorous experiences, and my heart is full.  Au revoir, Paris.  Until we meet again.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

that one bit I forgot about


Now it’s time for the part of the show where Katie remembers she’s a student and students must go to school.  Even when said student is vagabonding throughout Europe for a term.

Monday morning rolled around in that snarky, ha-ha-you-forgot-I-existed sort of way it always does and jolted me from my sleep with everyone’s favorite iPhone hit, Marimba.  It was time to get reacquainted with things that have been zipped away in a backpack for a spell.  Trivial things like college-ruled paper and No. 2 pencils.  Things that I have happily neglected for the past, oh, 107 days or so. 

The day began like any other, with a croissant and yogurt (the breakfast of champions) in the caf in Atlantic House basement (the place where champions go to dine).  In true European form, showers were skipped and it was dry shampoo to the rescue.  (Yes, British Kath is eco-friendly and conserves water.  Save the whales.)  I slapped on my new Clinique lipstick (because the color is called intense and obviously I mean business) and pulled on my Hunters.  Quick pause for the obligatory first day of school picture message to mom.  And we’re ready.

My first class was Intermediate Microeconomics.  I should’ve known something was amiss when the young, twenty-something guy who walked in behind us, asking if this was in fact Microeconomics, turned out to be the professor.  Not what you want.  Little Einstein skipped the syllabus and dove right in to the first day of the curriculum.  With my trusty turquoise Sharpie pen clenched tightly, I kicked out a solid four pages of notes.  That’s four pages front and back, mind you.  Between furiously copying down the slides and attempting to interpret his thick German accent, I did not retain one ounce of knowledge on the subject of microeconomics.  Go team.  Conclusion: This man talks at the speed of an auctioneer and is, perhaps, too smart for his own good.  In other news, you need a significant understanding of calculus to pass this class, which was unbeknownst to me at the time of registration.  The last time I took calculus was in high school three years ago, and even then we spent more class time doing yoga and playing Heads Up 7-Up than deriving things.  Pray for me.

Class number two was as inspiring and hilarious as class number one was terrifying.  Honestly, what’s not to love about a course on leadership taught by a Scottish man who promised an A right off the bat?  Not only is this guy an absolute hoot and a half, I actually feel like I’m going to learn some valuable life lessons this semester.  We spent the whole first class talking about our own personal heroes and what makes a great leader.  Perhaps that discussion sounds a bit elementary for an upper-level university course.  In that case, my answer was just as elementary.  I chimed in saying my dad is my personal hero, because he never quits, never fails to make me laugh, and never forgets to tell me he loves me.  (Awww.)  Regardless of its simplicity, I walked out of class feeling grateful for the great leaders that have impacted my life and encouraged to follow in their footsteps.  Appreciative and motivated—two extremely rare first day of school sentiments, am I right?

After a break for lunch at Whole Foods (a delicious and nutritious reprieve from my strict diet of croissants and only croissants), it was on to the one class I had been waiting for: FASHION MARKETING AND MERCHANDISING.  And was it as absolutely marvelous as I had hoped it might be?  You bet your Jimmy Choo suede booties it was.  Within the first few minutes of introduction, it was clear: my prof is the real deal.  Her résumé boasts all kinds of glamorous fashion-related jobs, including work as a buyer for Jaeger (a British luxury clothing retailer), as a marketing consultant for Harrods and London Fashion Week, and as the Head of Marketing for the famed shoe brand, Hunter.  She, ladies and gentlemen, is the woman who transformed the Hunter rain boots that were once just a practical work boot into a multinational fashion statement.  A fashion statement that I myself was employing in that very classroom at that very moment.  As if I wasn’t already paying attention… 

Know what else just rocks?  At the beginning of class, Abby and I were just casually chattering away with her about how she couldn’t figure out her new iPhone (people who are friendly and candid from the get-go are winners in my book) when somehow Pinterest came into the conversation.  (Typical.  When does Pinterest not come up in a conversation of mine?)  Now, get this: she had never heard of it.  She had not yet been introduced to the highly creative, intuitive, dare I say productive world of pinning.  That poor woman…  Well, as they say, one good turn deserves another, and that, folks, is how I introduced the woman who made Hunter boots famous to Pinterest.  We had her logged into the app and integrating Pinterest into the curriculum before we walked out the door in her blessed boots.  Oh and our homework was to comparatively analyze the merchandising methods of two different clothing stores.  You heard right.  My homework was to go shopping.  Snaps for Fashion Marketing.

My last class, Research Methods, was with the same professor who taught Leadership earlier in the day.  By 4:30 in the afternoon when class began, the man was as lively as ever.  This guy is more like the class clown that just so happens to be the highly educated professor.  The earlier class was a pretty even mix of both study abroad and regular Richmond students.  This last one, on the other hand, was all Richmond upperclassmen, except for two: Abby and myself.  We walked in to find every seat taken, except for a lovely pair in the most sought after location: front and center.  Sweet.  Needless to say, we survived the next hour and twenty minutes’ worth of course introduction and overview, complete with loads of good-natured teasing from the professor.  Multiple times throughout class he warned Abby and I (the token American girls) to steer clear of our many European male classmates.  “Wolves in sheep’s clothing, lasses!” 

Our professor wasn’t all pranks and jokes, though.  After class, as everyone was leaving, he introduced Abby and I to some of our classmates, and then pulled us aside to ask us how we’re liking Richmond.  Then he asked the all-important career question: “What do you ladies want to do?”  (If I had a dollar for every time I’m asked that question, I wouldn’t even need a career.)  He then looked each of us right in the eye and with the utmost conviction urged us to take every advantage of being here.  He informed us that we have been sitting in class with royals and billionaires, children and grandchildren of people who are doing incredible things.  He repeated to us that our being here opens up a goldmine of opportunities for our future.  It is to our great benefit to not just live the length of our time in London, but to live the depth of it and seize every opportunity.  My parents gave me similar advice a couple days ago, after I had a minor panic attack over money and planning and fun things like that.  (I know what you’re thinking… “Wait, Katie having a mental breakdown?  That is absurd.  This girl is as emotionally intact as a cucumber.”  We all have our moments, people.) 

Anyways, what my professor and my parents reminded me was Carpe Diem.  Look beyond the worries, realize the possibilities, and start seizing the opportunities like flowers in a field.  And with this schedule of only two days of school a week, it looks to me like I’ve got plenty of time for that.

Here's a peek at what else I was up to this week...

London, you have such a pretty face, you should be on a Christmas card!
Harnessing my inner Hermione Granger at the Harry Potter Walking Tour.
London Eye.
Cheerio, Ben.
Hillsong Church London.  May or may not have cried tears of joy upon arrival.
And we're still gorging ourselves on croissants...
Exploring Notting Hill.  Unfortunately, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were not in attendance.
Traveling with tennis players means Wimbledon is a must.
The best travel buddy a girl could ask for.