Chameleon Chapter 1 - Realizations

I realized just how chameleon-like I had become when I was sitting at a quaint restaurant with three couples who were all involved in academia at the University of Oxford.  I was cautiously sipping wine when I had a moment of clarity.  How the hell had I gotten here?  The short version was that I had flow from Copenhagen earlier that day and arrived to Oxford from Gatwick by bus.  I was met by my friend James at the bus station – we explored a little, had some tea and cake, and then had some beer over a game of backgammon.  Eventually, his partner Alex came home and we left for dinner by walking through a field behind their apartment to an old farmhouse that was now a restaurant. 

Turns out that I was interested in this world just as much as the world of city-biking, partying, and live concerts that I had left in Copenhagen.  I was deep into the conversation – sitting with a fancy napkin on my lap and hoping that the wine glass I ordered wasn’t ridiculously expensive because there were no prices on the menu.  I just dove in head first.  This was my life now (at least for a few days) and I was going to fully commit.  I did pause for a brief moment of egotistical awe.  I impressed myself! I was able to make this transition so quickly.  From a partying, lawless vagabond in Copenhagen to a polite, initially-refrained, gentlewoman in Oxford.  This wasn’t the only quick shift that I had made during my trip, but it was certainly the most extreme.  And like a chameleon, I had adjusted to my environment as best as I knew how, and it seemed to be working. 

During my moment of self-congratulatory reflection, I realized that so many of my previous experiences had been preparing me for this exact moment.  While at this point, I felt like I was born to move and feel comfortable in different worlds and around people with different world views, the truth is that I’d been honing my skills over time and they had simply gotten particularly good.  I felt like I had a superpower. 

The “long-version” of this story is that I had come from Copenhagen where I was hanging out, smoking weed and drinking with my Argentine friend Elisa who I met in India, but who lived with her Danish boyfriend Martin, in Copenhagen.  The night before I left, Elisa and I had stayed out until 2 am with some of her friends at the restaurant where she used to work.  We didn’t arrive at the restaurant - which was technically a cocktail bar and high end barber shop – until after it had already closed.  We planned to stay for one drink (famous last words) and ended up staying for hours.  Things got sloppy – the French bartender was making ridiculously strong drinks while simultaneously hitting on, and insulting everyone as only a Frenchmen can.  Meanwhile the Italian chef, Elisa and I were debating global politics as well as what songs to play much too loudly for a bar that is closed.  The next morning, I managed to get up on time to make it to my flight to Oxford to hang out with James and Alex who I had met just a month earlier in Lebanon.  Alex was good friends with Osama and we all visited Beirut at the same time.  We had such a good time in Lebanon, Alex and James both convinced me I should come to visit in Oxford before they left to move to Sydney, where James would be returning home after 10 years in New York City – where he and Alex had met. 

Are you still with me?

Alex was getting his PhD at Oxford and was in the final days of his time there.  The dinner was with a colleague in his department, Angelika, whose husband happened to be one of the Vice Chancellors of the University of Oxford.  His other friend was a woman who was also in his department, and her partner who no one else had met yet. 

This was the first time that everyone had gotten together like this.  And when I found out about the event, the first thing I was worried about was what to wear.  My only dress was dirty, as well as my romper, which I could spruce up a bit in a pinch.  Luckily, I had gotten some new jeans in Denmark and with some second-hand sandals I had also picked up in the same flea market and a little lipstick, I was semi-presentable. 

So, here I was.  Less than 24 hours earlier I was getting drunk and high with a group of hard partying, restaurant employees from around the world and now I was sitting at a table in a tiny restaurant as the 7th wheel with a group of serious academics.  I was demure at first.  Really keeping my ears open and trying to keep my mouth shut, but enjoying the new space.  Then I started to loosen up, talking to Angelika about finding our family members in Spain and telling other stories of my travels, interspersed with listening in fascination to the Vice Chancellor talk politics – at the University of Oxford, the UK, Europe and the US.  I spent some time discussing yoga with Mark (the partner no one else had met yet) and laughing at the jokes James made – because they were really funny.  Then I got a little too comfortable and I told the story I heard on NPR about the moose in Alaska who would get drunk from the rotting crab apples that had fallen from the trees in town and end up standing motionless, totally out of his gourd in public places filled with people.

This was much less sophisticated than anything else anyone had been talking about, but I didn’t realize it until I had gotten halfway though and noticed I had the undivided attention of all of these academics.  I looked across at James and Alex, a slightly panicked look on my face.  James’ eyes exposed how desperately he was trying to figure out how he could support me in this once I wrapped up this pointless story that was only loosely connected to what someone had briefly mentioned just a moment before I opened my big mouth.

I got too comfortable!

I forgot where I was!

I recovered somehow.  And luckily had laid on the Bango charm well enough beforehand that people seemed to be giving me the benefit of the doubt – chuckling politely before shifting to another topic.

Truly, the group hadn’t seemed to mind – although it’s very likely I had brought the conversation down quite a few intellectual levels. “But Oxford is so stuffy anyway!” – I told myself.  “And my conversational style here is refreshing, it’s not too uptight, it is self-deprecating and goofy.  People respond to that everywhere!”

Afterwards when Alex, James and I talked about how dinner went, Alex couldn’t help but bring it up.  I laughed it off and told him, “It worked still didn’t it?”  That’s the other thing about being a chameleon, it doesn’t mean that I’m not actually myself in these different situations, which is something that I am the most proud of.  I can’t help being my self-deprecating, weird and goofy self.  And I like getting other people loosened up enough to not take themselves too seriously.  It doesn’t work all of the time, but it works a lot.  

During my trip I learned so many things in ways that I wasn’t anticipating.  For me in particular, I learned how much I like to be alone and anonymous in public places.  How difficult it was at first, feeling like everyone was aware that I was alone and thought it was weird.  And then how freeing it was to come to the realization that everyone else was wrapped up in their own shit, no one cared about what I was doing, especially because I wasn’t making a scene. 

I learned that I like to have time and space to quietly reflect and think.  That I can operate quite well without that time, but I’m better for it if I take it. 

I learned how much I truly love the process of things – of taking a journey on a bus, of making a meal, of drinking a beer, of human interactions about anything.  I love the duration of things and observing the ways that people operate and accomplish tasks.  I love the way that people interact and approach issues and triumphs. 

Finally, I learned that I’m very, very good at adjusting to the situations I’m presented with.  I can fit in many situations.  I judge less and roll with more.  I think I always knew I had that in me, but this was the first time that I was exposed to such extremely different situations in a short amount of time and that’s just it – I could happily adjust.  It makes me feel both comforted and lost.  If I can fit in almost anywhere, where do I actually belong? How do I maintain my authenticity and my own values while shifting between different worlds with different people? Those are questions that I am excited to continue to explore, but for now what I do know is that like a chameleon, I can change to fit my environment without losing myself at my core.  I can “make myself at home” almost anywhere and I can connect with people with an ease that can both excite me and make me feel lonely.  And I think it’s pretty cool. 

So here it is, a collection of memories, of short (and not so short) stories of my five-ish months of world travel.  I didn’t send any official updates while I was gone, but I dutifully kept a journal.  And in the final weeks of my trip, I started to write down some of my favorite stories, while my memories were still distinct and clear.   While I was still ‘in it.’ While I could still smell the sweat of the passengers in the stale air of a microbus in Nepal, feel the chill of a sharp wind on the side of a mountain in New Zealand, and the dry, slow heat of the Spanish sun.  While I could still distinctly remember the awe I felt seeing the Himalayas for the first time and while a sneaky smile still easily crept on my face when thinking about all the ridiculous things I did traveling alone.  While I could still remember the knowing looks and eye rolls I’ve exchanged with people whose language I don’t know, but who were sharing an experience with me.  I wanted to write down some of my favorite stories before they got muddled with my life back home.   I wanted to write them down mainly (selfishly) for myself, but also in case anyone gets bored enough to want to read about all the weird, wonderful, intense, hilarious, breathtaking, mundane, difficult experiences I had over my months of travel.  The truth is, most of these are not unique to me, maybe they are my once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but I truly believe whoever goes out into the world with their eyes and hearts open can have similar experiences. 

Some of these stories are about some of my most extreme chameleon elements, others are just memories that I love.  The stories are in no particular order, but the first one I wrote is about how I found the notebook that I started writing in – which was towards the end of the trip.  Essentially I’m starting closer to the end than the beginning and the order after is scattered randomly after that – which is another example of the things I learned to let go of a bit more while traveling.  I love the process, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be so ordered.  I like to scatter some randomness in there, and see what that does.