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I Went: Europe

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Once upon a time, in January 1984, when I was 20, I got on a plane, went to London, spent a semester taking courses in English literature and English history, then hoisted a backpack with a sleeping bag strapped to it and set off to tour the British Isles and the Continent of Europe for two months or so BY MYSELF. I had one sweater, fewer pair of socks and underwear than I like to admit, a copy of Let's Go: Europe (at the time,Let's Go was the bible of the cheap traveler--I've been told its coolness has waned and the preferred travel guide is now The Lonely Planet series), my passport, and a Eurail pass. I was often profoundly lonely and on several occasions found myself in circumstances so desperate or extreme I was afraid for my life, but somehow I escaped not only death but serious injury--for that matter, I was never even robbed, though I was frequently menaced. Considering the class of hotel or hostel I stayed in, considering how often I slept in some isolated compartment of some night train, considering how willing I was to ask for and accept help from complete strangers, it's remarkable nothing truly bad happened to me.

Happy Thanksgiving

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Happy Thanksgiving from Brussels, which is where I currently am. I got here last night with my friend Matthew--before that we were in Cork, Ireland for about 20 hours (more on that visit later); before that we were in Paris for about 52 hours (more later on that visit as well); and before that he was hanging out in the luxurious Belgian penthouse apartment he shares with his partner, Leo, while I was spending my time getting to and from first the Detroit Airport and then Aeroport Roissy-Charle de Gaulle.

At the risk of sounding, uh, neither French nor francophilic, I must say that while I find Paris lovely and charming, I still prefer other cities to it, among them London and Amsterdam. I am glad to be in Brussels, partly because it is where Matthew lives and partly because it is not Paris.

Last night at dinner Matthew, Leo and I discussed the fact that the next day would be Thanksgiving. Matthew, who is British, spent a couple of years in Arizona (this is where I met him) and occasionally (OK, frequently) encountered people who were remarkably ignorant about the world at large and not always very tolerant or even interested when it came to other cultures, so he is sensitive to American arrogance and ethnocentrism. I said I planned to have a lovely Thanksgiving, even though neither Leo nor Matt expressed the slightest willlingness to cook a turkey for me. "It won't be Thanksgiving here, Holly," Matt gently explained to me, "because we don't celebrate Thanksgiving."

There Is No X in....

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In 1994, the landscape of Iowa City was forever changed when the Java House opened at 211 ½ East Washington. Its appearance heralded the arrival of the coffee craze in the general Midwest--sure, there were probably Starbucks all over Chicago at that point, but there wasn't one in Iowa City. (In fact, there wasn't a single Starbucks in Iowa City when I left in 2001, but there's one now, I saw with disappointment, though at least it's off the main drag and not nearly as crowded as other, older, cooler places.)

Iowa City's downtown features an area known as the pedestrian mall, the ped mall for short. It runs through four blocks bounded by Washington on the north, Clinton on the west, Burlington on the south, and Linn on the east. Paved with brick, dotted with trees, well-stocked with benches both in the shade and in the sun, equipped with a fountain and a playground, it's a cool place to hang out if there's no one you want to avoid; if there's someone you don't particularly want to encounter--say, for instance, an evil ex named Adam--you are sure to find him there, sitting on a bench in the sun, hitting on some undergrad who can't understand why this 30-something guy with the crazy eyebrows (his eyebrows were his worst feature, looking as they did like small furry rodents nesting on an otherwise attractive face) is putting on this act of intense and obviously fake sincerity. The restaurants, shops and bars (mostly bars) around the ped mall occupy prime retail space, because it gets so much foot traffic.

Prior to the arrival of the Java House, the only coffee house in downtown Iowa City was a place called the Tobacco Bowl, the retail equivalent of an AA meeting or an indoor cigarette break: no need to shiver in a snowstorm between classes or put up with the boozy smell of stale beer while you get your nicotine fix--heavens no! Why not enjoy a nice espresso instead of a beer and stay warm while you're at it? You can either study the cigars in the humidor--such a variety--or sit in front of a big window facing the ped mall, watching everyone who walks by! I admit I see the appeal of all that, I just don't see the appeal of smoking. I would never hang out there, even with friends who smoked, because I hated how I smelled when I left.

Greetings from Iowa

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I'm currently hanging out at my second alma mater, the University of Iowa. I'm here for a very cool conference on nonfiction, called, appropriately enough, NonfictioNow. I'm having a FABULOUS time, despite the fact that the conference organizers made no arrangements for attendees to be able to use computer facilities for anything: not email, not printing out last minute revisions of papers, not blogging. I'm only able to write this entry due to the generosity of an old classmate, who, saintly, trusting woman that she is, gave me her user name and password and let me log in on her account. My god.... I am still in awe of her benevolence.

But I'm so glad I came. I've been lucky enough to meet up with many old friends, which is always wonderful. I've met new people. Then there's the fact that I get to wander around someplace I lived for eight years. I didn't really love Iowa City when I was here, especially at first; it was cold and midwestern and filled with ugly architecture. But it has gotten WAY cooler in the four years since I left, and there's almost no comparison to what it was like in 1993, when I first arrived.

One of the standard lines about Iowa City went, "Oh, it's a nice little town, but there's hardly a decent restaurant in the whole place!" But now there are quite a few shishi restaurants just downtown. And there are all kinds of cool galleries and shops. And some of the ugly buildings have been torn down and replaced with buildings that aren't quite so ugly. (Though there are still PLENTY of HIDEOUS buildings, so that I still feel I recognize the place, and don't quite wish I could move back.)

Anyway. I'll no doubt have more to say about this trip and this conference when I get back to PA, but in the meantime, I thought I'd give a shout-out to you, my vast and devoted readership, and say HI FROM IOWA.

A Little Distance

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A few months ago I was thinking about how I'd like to spend next summer in Europe, but it would be really inconvenient because the post office will only hold mail for 30 days, plus I have a cat and a house full of stuff I can't just go off and leave. Then I thought about my colleagues who are married or have live-in partners, and how they gallivant around the planet and leave their spouses back home to take care of everything. "That's what I need," I thought. "I need a live-in boyfriend who will babysit my cat and keep an eye on my stuff while I go to Europe for six months."

I told Tom about this. "Holly," he said, "most people want a boyfriend or a girlfriend not so they can go off and leave them, but so they can be with them."

"Yeah," I said, "I know. But I've always thought most people put way too much emphasis on the whole togetherness part of a relationship."

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