Spanish Lessons

After nearly a month in France, we arrive in San Sebastian, in Basque Country, Spain. The official language here is Catalan, although Spanish is widely spoken too. After training myself to speak only French at all costs, the language transition is…rough. Every interaction feels like a multi-car pileup in my brain between two years of high school Spanish, 4 years of college Italian, a month of French immersion, and the out-of-control tractor trailer that is a lifetime of English trying to make a dramatic comeback.

My first time attempting to order pintxos (the famous Basque version of tapas) at a San Sebastian bar plays out like this:

Me: Bonjour. Buongiorno. Hello. DAMNIT. Hola.

Bartender: [Rolls eyes and gestures to coworker who speaks English to come over and help the dumb American]

English-speaking bartender: Hello! Can I help you?

Me: Oui.

Bartender: Oh! Parlez-vous Francais?

Me: No.

San Sebastian

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Due to a poorly timed housing switch, Nick and I have to check out of one Airbnb and wait at a park for 3 hours for our next Airbnb to open up. It’s super hot and we have all our stuff with us — three months’ worth of suitcases and gadgets and grocery bags full of olive oil and half-eaten salami. We pile our stuff on a bench that’s partially shaded by a tree, near a playground where kids are playing the internationally beloved game called “Run in a circle really fast while yelling at the top of your lungs.”

The park is a square surrounded by local businesses — pintxo bars, a bakery, a pharmacy, a butcher, an optometrist, and secondhand clothing boutiques. Nearly every wall and empty surface is tagged with graffiti calling for Basque independence. It’s mid-morning but the mood is gregarious, with the kids yelling and people drinking wine and laughing at the outdoor tables of the pintxo bars.

Nick and I take turns going for walks to pass the time. Shortly after he wanders off toward the bakery, an old woman in a long floral skirt, matching floral blouse, nylons, and low heels walks over and sits on the opposite side of the bench. She nods at me, smiling, and says, “Buenos dias.” I do the same. It’s quiet for a moment, and then another old woman in a matching floral outfit appears out of nowhere and sits down next to the first. They immediately start talking and giggling. I can barely handle the cuteness when another one shuffles over. Then another, this one using a walker and accompanied by a nurse. Before I know it there are 7 or 8 impeccably dressed elderly Basque women and a few nurses crowded around me on the bench. They are speaking fast in a mix of Spanish and Catalan. Every few minutes, one of the women says goodbye and leaves, which prompts a brief moment of silence followed by dramatic murmurs as the remaining women discuss her private affairs. As far as I can piece together, the juiciest dish involves diner (money) and a no-good hermano. The women seem to barely notice me and my teetering pile of luggage parked right in the middle of what is clearly their daily gossip sesh. I try not to move too much, lest they get skittish. I want to remain an honorary member of these Basque Golden Girls forever, and then I remember: Nick could come back at any moment and ruin everything. 

Remember that scene in The Departed when Matt Damon has to text Jack Nicholson to warn him the cops are planning a raid without taking his phone out of his pocket? I use the same technique to text Nick, my phone in my lap, eyes darting sporadically toward the screen as I craft my message: 

ive joined an old lady gossip group don’t get 2 close or youll scare them away!!!!!!

A few minutes later Nick appears on the other side of the park to survey the scene for himself from a comfortable distance. He sees me surrounded by floral-clad women, our massive pile of luggage perched in the middle. Two more women have scooted their walkers up to join the conversation. Their nurses are hovering nearby. I’m sitting as stiff as a mannequin, pleading with him with my eyes across the park not to interrupt this perfect moment. Nick steps behind a tree to conceal himself, but I can still see him. He’s laughing and laughing and laughing.

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I’m at the supermarket down the street from our apartment in San Sebastian. There’s a sample plate of chorizo out on the deli counter, where I’m surveying the cheese selection and mentally reviewing my deli ordering vocabulary. Another customer walks up and takes a piece of sausage. I absentmindedly take one too. We’re both standing there chewing, and suddenly the guy is jumping up and down, fanning his mouth and speaking in lightning-fast Spanish, looking at me to commiserate. “No hablo español,” I say apologetically. “Picoso!” he gasps, pointing to his throat. “Picoso!”

“Oh!” I think to myself, “Picoso must mean spicy!” My eureka moment is interrupted by a fire in the back of my throat. “Si! Picoso!” I choke out. Some vocab lessons are more painful than others.

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San Sebastian

We go to the butcher to pick up something for dinner. An old woman is in there with a wire-haired terrier on a leash. The dog’s name is Jorge, pronounced Hor-hay, which I only know because the woman is talking to the butcher and pausing every couple seconds to yell “JORGE!” and yank on the dog’s leash. Jorge is, to put it mildly, losing his shit. And who can blame him, because he’s an excitable little dog surrounded by vast quantities of meat. Jorge is bouncing around, barking hysterically at the jamon iberico hanging from the ceiling, nipping at the glass case of sausages and chicken thighs. “Jorge!” the woman scolds, “No, Jorge! No! No! Jorge! Hor-HAY!” I am examining a jar of olives on the shelf a few feet away, silently vowing that when I return to America, I will replace the phrase “like a kid in a candy store” with “like a terrier in a Spanish butcher shop.” I’ll never forget you, Jorge.

French Lessons

Oregon State University, 2003

The worst grade I ever received, in 16 years of schooling, was a C- in French my freshman year of college. After a particularly disastrous oral exam in which I claimed my father was a mango, my teacher took me aside and said, “What you’re doing is, you’re laying down and peeing into the air, and the pee comes back down on your own face.” I nodded somberly. I had no idea what he meant, but I knew I sucked at French. In one way or another, I was totally peeing on my own face.

—–

Montreal, 2016

Fast forward to present day. Nick and I are kicking off a multi-city tour through Europe with a stop in Montreal, a city where 68% of the population speaks French. The majority of people here speak English too, but I’m dedicated to learning French, to getting it right this time.

On day one, I’m trying to order a sandwich in French and completely butcher a simple sentence. “Désolé,” I say, “my French is so bad.” The woman at the counter smiles and says, in perfect English, “Thank you for trying. It means a lot to us when people try,” and then, with a wink, “especially Americans — no offense.”

——

Nick and I are at a sushi restaurant in Montreal, and we’ve managed to interpret almost the whole menu except for one word: “homard.” “What does ‘homard’ mean?” I ask Nick, who doesn’t know either. We’re stumped, and too hungry to spend extra time figuring it out. We order other things. They’re delicious.

Walking home from lunch, we round a corner and come face to face with a towering billboard with a picture of a lobster on it, labeled “HOMARD” in 10-foot-letters. “So I guess homard means lobster,” I say, craning my neck to read the rest of the text on the sign. It’s an ad for a lobster festival, but it might as well be a giant vocab flashcard. That’s the beauty of immersion language learning: half the work is just paying attention.

—–

There’s so much that I genuinely enjoy about being in a new place where I don’t speak the language. I love the richness of new sounds in my ears, the mad rush to figure things out before making a fool of myself (that almost always ends in failure), the feeling of sparks in my brain as new connections are made, as greetings and advertisements and interactions start to make sense. But there’s one thing I really miss: making jokes. It’s hard to be funny when you only know about 10 words of a language and 4 of them are “Where is the bathroom?” 

One day I’m standing in line at a coffee shop. There’s a big cookie sitting out on the counter. It is, in my estimation, hilariously big.

Oh my god, I realize, this is my chance.

I order my coffee (“Je voudrais un cafe, s’il vous plais”) and then I pick up the cookie and point to it, eyes wide. “Grande!” I say. This is literally the most complex joke I can create at my current level of French: pointing out that a big cookie is big. Is it even a joke? Maybe we’ll call it “observational humor.” Or prop comedy. If only I had an oversized hammer to smash my grande cookie.

I stand there frozen in my silly facial expression, holding my cookie prop aloft. There is a horrible moment of silence. And then she’s laughing. She’s laughing really hard. And I don’t know if she’s laughing with me or at me and even though I’m 99% sure it’s the latter, I don’t care. I made a joke in French. And I killed.

A couple days later I try the same line at another cafe. The cookie isn’t as big. The barista is confused. I walk out in shame.

—–

Paris, 2016

From Montreal we head to Paris, which is nearly empty because everyone goes on vacation in August. Most businesses are closed, and for a few weeks the normally loud, bustling, crowded city has the vibe (and population) of a small town. Thankfully there’s a fromagerie next to our apartment that’s still open. A mother and daughter work there, and although I can’t understand most of what they’re saying, I understand that the mother is teaching the daughter the trade, with the expectation that the daughter will take over the business one day. I ask for their recommendations and say “oui” to big chunks of Brie de Meaux and aged chevre. I buy apricot yogurt in a pretty glass jar.

—–

While walking around Paris Nick and I stumble upon a boutique called “Winona.” I get so excited I run inside. The store is empty (because it’s August) except for a single saleswoman. “Je m’appelle Winona!” I say to her triumphantly, as if I’ve cracked some kind of code and won the game. She looks vaguely amused and slightly concerned, the same reaction one might have to a young child professing their love for an oven mitt. My friend Sarah will later point out that this is kind of like walking into a Forever 21 and yelling, “I’m 21!”

—–

I love ordering espresso at brasseries. Specifically cafe noisette, which is a shot of espresso with a little bit of steamed milk. I love sidling up to the bar next to old Parisian men pounding white wine at 8AM. “Une noisette, s’il vous plais,” I say, and then I stand there sipping from the little ceramic cup, watching, listening. An espresso in Paris is always around 1 euro, but the price varies a bit from bar to bar. When I’m done, I ask, “C’est combien?” (“how much is it?”) and this is when all my illusions of being a cool, polished, French woman come crashing down.

I don’t understand French numbers, which is partially my fault for not studying them hard enough, and mostly France’s fault for making them CRAZY CONFUSING. Once you get past 10, the phrases to describe numbers get more and more ridiculous. “Ninety-eight,” for example, is “quatre-vingt-dix-huit,” which translates to something like, “Four twenties plus ten and eight.” 

So while it seems simple, asking a bartender how much I owe for my coffee, in reality I might as well be saying, “How much is my coffee but could you answer in the form of an old-timey riddle in a language I don’t know and also speak as fast as you possibly can?”

So every time I take my last sip of espresso, I ask “C’est combien?” only to stand there, slack-jawed and confused as the bartender responds with a jumble of French math equations.

“C’est combien?” I ask again in a more high-pitched tone, leaning forward, tucking my hair behind my ear as if I simply didn’t hear the answer the first time. They say it again, slower and louder, and I’m finally cornered in my incomprehension. The bartender, rightfully annoyed now, repeats the price one more time, as loudly and clearly as a cranky preschool teacher. Defeated, I hold out a handful of euros and have them choose the correct change.

—–

Nick and I meet up with our friends Sarah, who’s French, and Shawn, her American husband, for a road trip down the French coast. We go to Brittany and eat massive piles of fresh seafood. We buy striped shirts. We drink sparkling rosé. We head south toward Spain. During a long stretch of driving, as I’m annoyingly reading every road sign aloud to work on my pronunciation, Sarah looks at me in the rearview mirror and says, “Winona, your French is really good.” This is maybe the best compliment I’ve ever received. The only thing that might be better? If she said, “Winona, there’s no pee on your face.”

All I want is a little window to watch the world go by

(A poem from Paris)

Paris windows

All I want is a little window to watch the world go by.

Is it so much to ask,

for just a little window

with a flower box of pink peonies, always blooming,

and a clear view for miles

in every direction?

 

All I want is a little window that looks out

on city streets (Paris, ideally, or somewhere else where people wear great shoes)

and gravel roads winding lazily toward nowhere,

and fields of lavender, and a turquoise ocean,

where the sun rises and sets over the same horizon.

 

From my window I’ll see

everywhere I’ve ever been and

anywhere I might be going,

memories and possibilities illuminated

like streaks of green light trailing behind fireflies.

 

I’ll sit on my windowsill and eat “what ifs” like chocolate truffles,

letting them melt on my tongue,

watching the world go by.

Days stretch into miles stretch into

years stretch into knowing that I don’t know anything at all.

 

All I want is a little window.

All I want is the whole world.

Nashville Saved My Soul

Nashville Saved My Soul

I drew this a couple months after we moved to Nashville. It was a random doodle made while messing around with a new brush pen. But it’s also one of the truest statements I’ve ever written. Nashville saved my soul.

Nick and I moved here a little over 3 years ago, ready for a change. We weren’t happy in Portland anymore. We weren’t happy in general. We sold everything that couldn’t fit in my Jetta. We said goodbye to all our friends and family. We drove across the country toward a new life. The radio broke in Nebraska and for hours and hours there was only silence and cornfields and a terrified voice inside saying, “My God, I hope we’re doing the right thing.” We watched the sun rise over the mountains in Wyoming. We stayed the night in a room full of ventriloquist dummies in Kansas City. In the middle of one 12-hour stretch of driving, Nick missed the exit for Starbucks and I legit almost broke up with him. And then we came around a bend and saw the Nashville skyline and suddenly we knew that yes, this was not only the right thing to do, but we could do it. Because we did it.

Nashville taught me how brave I can be.

Nashville welcomed us with open arms. The city is growing so fast — and not always in positive ways — and while I know that must be hard to stomach for people who have lived here all their lives, not one person ever projected that onto us. Every single person we encountered, from new coworkers to baristas to neighbors to Comcast repair guys, had one thing to say: “We are so glad you’re here.”

Nashville taught me about kindness.

That’s not to say that first year wasn’t hard. We didn’t know anyone, and even though everyone was super friendly, translating casual friendliness to genuine friendships is tough. Plus, I worked from home. I was so grateful to have Nick by my side but I missed my friends so, so bad. It was, without a doubt, the loneliest year of my life.

Nashville taught me how to be lonely. How to feel it. How to not be scared of it.

And then, slowly, we made friends. We invited our neighbors to hang out on the porch, and they invited us to their monthly friend group dinners. I got part-time retail jobs in addition to my writing work and bonded with my new coworkers. I met my friend Lauren when she came in to a shop where I was working and mentioned she was reading a book on organic cotton. “I LOVE organic cotton,” I said. “Wanna be friends?” She said yes. There are so many people here that I love so much, and it gives me endless delight to trace the line of our friendships back to those first interactions: a conversation about writing, a yoga class, an anti-NRA protest, a free coffee sample, a smile, and some small talk. These moments led to tea parties and road trips and Harry Potter literary discussion groups and unforgettable nights in smoky karaoke bars and the kind of friends who show up at your front door with flowers and a hug on the night your family dog died, saying “I’m so sorry. I love you.” (Thank you, Christiana.) This city has given me friendships I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Nashville taught me how to find my tribe. 

I’ve told this story many times, but now I want to tell it again: When Nick and I first visited Nashville, about 6 months before we moved here, we got caught in a rainstorm and sought shelter in a cute little coffee shop. We ordered pastries and coffee and at one point I looked around and said to Nick, “I think we’re going to move to Nashville, and I think you’re going to work here.” It was one of the clearest intuitions I’d ever had; a premonition, but also an invitation from the city: come here, and see what happens. So we moved to Nashville, and Nick emailed that coffee shop the day after we arrived, and they hired him. And then the pastry chef at that coffee shop left, and the owner said, “Hey Nick, you want the job?” and Nick, the brilliant baker who had never been able to get a job at a bakery in Portland because he hadn’t gone to culinary school, got the chance he needed. Less than two years later, he had become the executive pastry chef at one of the nicest restaurants in the city.

A few months ago, that same voice that told us to move here started saying something different: “It’s time to go try something new.” I didn’t want to listen, because I love this place, these people, our little house with a peach tree in the front yard. But for whatever reason, Nick and I knew, with growing certainty, with grief and gratitude: it’s time to go. Now there’s a “for sale” sign in our yard, the Nashville chapter coming to a close (at least for now), and a new chapter of our lives about to begin.

Nashville taught me to trust my intuition, even when it breaks my heart a little.

So what’s next? Well, we’re not really sure. We’re going to travel for awhile: starting with a Celine Dion concert in Montreal (naturally), meeting up with friends for a road trip along the coast of France, exploring the British countryside, and working on our Italian in Rome. I’m going to write. Nick is going to bake. We’re not quite sure where we’ll land after that. Maybe we can figure out how to live in Europe in for a bit. Maybe we’ll head back to Tennessee. Maybe Oregon for awhile. Maybe DC. Maybe (hopefully) somewhere near a beach. I don’t know where we’ll end up next, but I know that Nashville will always feel like home.

I am so excited for our next adventure, and I feel extremely lucky to be able to do it, but I’m also heartbroken to leave this place. In a way though, if it weren’t for Nashville, we wouldn’t be doing this. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote I love: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

Nashville taught me I had wings. And now it’s time to use them.

But Don’t You Miss The Ocean?

Santa Rosa Beach

As a birthday gift to myself this year, I got in my car and drove to the beach.

I used to live less than an hour from the beach: Oregon’s pristine stretch of Pacific accessible via a casual car ride so short you didn’t even have to pack snacks. If I decided I needed some beach time at 2 in the afternoon, I went.

Now I live about 8 hours from the closest beach. I never thought I would live so far away from the ocean. But hey, sometimes you take a weekend trip to Tennessee and fall in love with it and end up moving there without giving much thought to the whole “landlocked state” thing. And three years later, you still love it but my god, you miss the ocean. You miss it so much sometimes it feels like your soul is drying up, that salt water is the only cure.

One of my coworkers at my retail job is from San Diego. The first thing we said to each other after finding out our shared west coast origins was, “Don’t you miss the ocean?” I don’t even remember who asked who, but the answer from both of us was an instant, desperate “YES.” During one of our first shifts together, it was a slow night so we both huddled around the store computer scrolling through pictures of beaches. We kept pointing to the blue water on the screen and saying, “Look! Look at it!”

There we were, two women from the west coast whose winding, unexpected life paths had brought us here, to a little store in a big mall in the middle of a city in the middle of a state in the middle of the country, staring longingly at photos of waves and sand. Dehydrated kindred spirits.

Sometimes I wonder about where we’re from, where we end up, where we’re meant to be.

I believe I’m meant to be here, now, but I also believe that where you’re from is a powerful force. No matter where you go or how many times you reinvent yourself, you can’t change your origin story. There’s a kind of spiritual gravity that pulls you toward home. It’s a constant. A barycenter. I’m from a rainy evergreen forest in the Oregon coast range. That will never not be true.

———

After 8 hours in the car, I finally pulled into the driveway of the tiny cottage I’d rented in Santa Rosa Beach. I got out, stretched for a half-second, and then willed my stiff legs to jog the block and a half to the beach.

I gained speed as I approached, shaking off the long drive and sprinting down a wooden walkway that clattered with each step. Then, finally, I was there. Sand. Waves. An endless horizon. The water was a brilliant shade of blue-green. Look! Look at it!

I didn’t cry when I saw it because there was no overflow of emotion. Instead, I felt instantly, perfectly balanced. Filled up. Satiated. I sank down in the sand, staring out at the waves, and didn’t move for hours.

I got a terrible sunburn. And I did the exact same thing the next day, and the next, and the next.

I had packed a stack of books and journals, thinking this alone time would be perfect for catching up on reading and writing. I don’t think I touched a single book. Didn’t write a word.

I just spent time with the ocean.

My last night in Florida, I wrapped myself in a chunky cardigan and walked along the beach as the sun went down. What began as a very pretty sunset soon became a truly spectacular one. The sky burned bright orange. The sand sparkled. As the light dimmed, the choppy waves transformed into two-dimensional planes of blue, green, and silver; a Hokusai print come to life.

A breeze rolled in and I pulled my sweater a little tighter around my shoulders, smiling, contented.

It was all there: where I’m from, where I am now, where I’m meant to be.

Small Talk

Nashville downtown

I’m holding my hands above my head in the x-ray machine at the Nashville airport when I hear a phrase much more interesting than the traditional, “Look straight ahead and hold still.”

“They make the chips fresh in-house!”

The voice is coming from my right, and as soon as I’m allowed to move I look over to see who’s made this ebullient pronouncement.

It’s a male TSA agent with a bright, round face speaking to his coworker, a woman with perfectly coiffed blonde hair. She looks at me and says, “Come on, honey,” motioning me out of the machine. Then she turns back to her coworker. “So they make ‘em in-house, huh?”

“Yes!” the man says emphatically. “And don’t even get me started on the queso.”

The x-ray monitor lights up to indicate my necklace — I always forget to take off my necklace — and the blonde TSA agent starts patting me down while her coworker breathlessly describes a queso sauce that “tastes like liquid gold.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I finally interrupt. “What restaurant are we talking about here?”

The man lights up. “Moe’s Southwest Grill!”

“Really?” I say, “I never would have thought they make the chips in-house.”

“They do,” the man says, “and they’re the best chips you’ll ever have.” He leans in conspiratorially, and the other TSA agent and me huddle closer to him. “Now here’s what you do,” he whispers. “You tell them to to put the chips IN the burrito. It gives it a crunch.”

The three of us stand there, blocking the growing line for the x-ray machine, talking about crunchy chip burritos, until someone behind me clears his throat loudly. The TSA agents frown at the prospect of cutting our conversation short.

“You have a good day,” I tell them, gathering up my laptop and shoes from the conveyor belt.

“You too, darlin’!” the woman says.

“And try the chips!” the man shouts as I walk away, both of them waving me off as dramatically as if I were boarding an ocean liner bound for the new world.

I dump my stuff on a bench down the hall from the security lines, and my boyfriend Nick, who was in another line, joins me. “Guess who makes their chips fresh in house?” I ask, and tell him about my chatty interaction with the TSA.

He laughs. “That was such a Nashville moment,” he says. And he’s right.

——

When we moved to Nashville from Portland, one of the things I was most excited about was the warm, talkative culture. It was evident from the first moments of our first visit. Everyone from grocery store cashiers to people in line at coffee shops to diner waitresses (especially the diner waitresses) seemed poised and ready to greet us with a sweet “Hi y’all!” and then chat our ears off. I loved it. It felt open and fun and social in a way that I wasn’t used to.

Portland is known as a friendly city, and it is, no doubt. Walk down the street and catch a stranger’s eye and you’ll probably get a warm smile. Maybe a nod of the head. But in Portland, spontaneous interactions tend to end there. There’s a formalized friendliness but people also place a premium on privacy — yours and theirs — and will clip conversations short to ensure that privacy is maintained. “Hi,” “How are you,” and “Good” are usually as far as things go. Until you really know someone, there’s a certain level of guardedness on both sides.

As a naturally perky, social person, this often frustrated me when I lived in Oregon. But what I didn’t realize is how much that culture had shaped me. When I moved to Nashville, the effects of my Pacific Northwestern upbringing became abundantly clear: I didn’t know how to chat.

I noticed it first in interactions with neighbors. In the South, neighbors are kind of a big deal. You get to know them, they become friends, you share gossip and garden vegetables, you invite each other over for dinner, you yell conversations across the street, from porch to porch. I immediately loved this cornerstone of Southern culture, but I also didn’t quite get it. I happily said hi to my neighbors when we crossed paths near the mailbox, but then they’d follow up with “How’s your day going?” and “What are you up to this weekend?” and “Did you see any lightning bugs yet?” and I’d clam up, feeling trapped and panicky. Even if the conversation was interesting and flowing well, there were times I found myself backing away mid-sentence. I was so used to brief interactions, so unsure of where these new social boundaries were and how to navigate them.

As the months and years passed, I started to feel more comfortable with this Southern brand of small talk. I got really good at it, in fact. People wanted to talk to me, and I wanted to talk to them, but more importantly, I wanted to listen. I’d regale Nick with stories gathered from strangers at the post office and the hardware store. “So when he was 16 he qualified for the national gymnastics team but then he cut his hand on a broken bottle and he knew, instantly, that even if it healed, he’d never backflip onto a parallel bar again.”

“Who is this you’re talking about?”

“Some guy getting gas at the pump next to mine.”

As a writer, these interactions are goldmines. Stories are everywhere — on the tip of every stranger’s tongue, waiting in the wings of every passing “hello.” The truth is, we all walk in and out of each other’s life stories, but in the South, those stories are being composed verbally, every day, out in the open. The chattiness of neighbors and bartenders and church ladies here isn’t just charming, and it’s certainly not superficial; it’s what makes life feel rich and vivid. It makes you realize that we’re all part of the same tapestry, our overlapping anecdotes and experiences coming together to form the biggest, weirdest, most beautiful story of all.

It adds a layer of surprise to everyday life, too: you never know who you’ll meet, and you never know what they’ll say.

——

I’m back at the airport, Dallas/Fort Worth this time, wandering around between flights on my way back to Nashville. Nick went back a few days before me for work so I’m alone, lugging a backpack full of Christmas gifts, trying to decide where to eat. I’ve passed the same Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk and exorbitantly priced “cantina” multiple times and am about to opt for a Hudson News trail mix dinner when I see it: a streamlined airport version of Moe’s Southwest Grill.

I giggle to myself while standing in line, and I order a burrito with chips inside. The burrito isn’t great, but the chips are good.

I sit alone in the food court, watching the business travelers rush past my table. I wish someone would slow down for a moment, so I could catch their eye, say hello, and tell them about these chips.

Safe and Sound

Hilo, Hawaii

When Nick and I lived in Hawaii for a semester in college, the most popular song on the radio was called “Safe and Sound,” by a reggae band, Rebelution. This song was on all the time, everywhere. It played on fuzzy speakers in the background of the cafes where we ate ramen and loco moco. It blasted from surfer kids’ boomboxes in the courtyard between classes. It was constantly on the radio in the beat-up Volvo wagon we bought on Craigslist for our road trips to the beach in Kona. We sang it to pass the time on the soggy, sandy drives home.

It was the soundtrack to our lives in this beautiful, strange, new place. Nothing — not the smell of hibiscus or the taste of lilikoi or the sight of a surfboard thrown in the back of a rusty pickup truck — evokes such a strong memory of our life in Hawaii as this silly reggae song.

We were living in Hawaii when the earthquake hit, a 6.7 that shattered glass in our kitchen and shook our 11th floor apartment so intensely the steel structure beneath our feet made a crackling, metallic moaning sound that still gives me goosebumps. When the first tremor was over, we ran outside, still in our pajamas, and sat on a hill to wait out a possible tsunami. I was so scared I refused to go back inside any buildings all day (and avoided going inside whenever possible for weeks after), so we just drove around for hours, listening to the radio. I sang along to the lyrics, “We’ll be dreamin’ safe and sound” over and over and over.

Two and a half years ago Nick and I moved to Nashville. We love it here, but things have been hard lately. We miss our family and friends back home so much. We feel torn between settling down and seeking out new adventures. Both of us get overwhelmed by all the things we want to do and how quickly time seems to pass. How do you stay centered in the present when all the possibilities of the future are tapping you so urgently on the shoulder, saying, “Hurry up! Hurry up!”? How do you maintain old connections while creating new ones? How do you stay grateful for where you are while dreaming about where you could be?

One night, in the midst of a heavy conversation about all this, we decided to go downtown to take a walk.

We were standing on the pedestrian bridge that spans the Cumberland River and overlooks the downtown skyline — one of my favorite places in the city — when I heard what I could have sworn were the opening notes of “Safe and Sound.”

“Do you hear that?” I asked Nick.

“Is that… Rebelution?” he said quietly, straining to hear.

The music was drifting toward us over the water, hanging in the humid evening air, faint enough to have been a daydream. But as the song started building, it was unmistakable. We hadn’t heard this song in nearly a decade, but there we were, watching the sun set over Nashville, singing along to every word, giving each other looks that said, “How crazy is this?!” 

Turns out Rebelution was playing a concert at the outdoor amphitheater a few blocks away. We couldn’t see the stage, which underscored the feeling that the music had reached out and found us at exactly the right moment. As the last note faded, it occurred to me that standing on that bridge, suspended between past and future, this silly reggae song was a whisper from a former life, a reminder that everything will be OK.