Sunday, November 12, 2017

Travelogue: Autumn Hiking in Slovakia

I've been here and there over the past few weeks, but I haven't really had the chance to sit down and tell you much about it. I had the opportunity to visit a few really interesting places, but I thought I'd share a little bit about a region with which I especially fell in love. 

First of all, I have this nasty habit of booking trips six months in advance with absolutely no clue what my schedule or financial situation will be when the departure date comes around, because when the deals are good, I pounce. So of course, I found myself overlapping with a conference and rapidly running out of cash (typical) but I couldn't feel too bad because 1) I had enough Delta miles to get to the conference on nobody's dime, and 2) it is legitimately cheaper to fly to central Europe and eat really well for a week than it is to just simply exist in Iceland. 

So, anyway. I'll have my roast half-duck and eat it too, thanks.

I went to Prague which was wonderful, but I want to talk instead a bit about my little side trip over to Poprad. In order to up my efficiency, I decided to combine two nights of accommodations with travel time and took the night train both ways. I knew that I wanted to use the six hours to sleep, so I splurged and got myself a sleeper cabin.

Even with the splurge, though, this cost me under €40 total: €14 for a cabin I shared with three other young adults on the way into Slovakia, and €25 for a cabin I shared with two women on the way back to Prague. For two nights accommodations and basically a guarantee that I'd be able to sleep through the trip, I wasn't complaining!

When I booked my cabin, I wasn't exactly taking it for granted that the train company was actually legit. Their website has a good user interface, but the booking and payment process was kind of confusing because you can, apparently, book seats on credit and I wasn't sure how to navigate that. But my friends (from Galway) Dana and Francesca were with me at the train station in Prague to see me off, and everything turned out great. In fact, I can't recommend RegioJet enough. 

Since Prague was the first stop of the route, I boarded and found my linens ready for me to make my bed. I set an alarm for well before the scheduled time to reach Poprad and followed along with our location on Google Maps, then took a snooze. I woke up with plenty of time to collect myself, but I didn't realize that the train attendants would be there to wake us up with a warm croissant in time for our stop! On the way back out of Poprad, my stop was not the first one since this line was the Prague-Košice line, so I boarded to find that my bed had already been made and I had orange juice, mints, and pastries for the morning. That was rad.

What was slightly less rad was that upon my arrival into Poprad, I couldn't check into my hostel until the afternoon and there were still a couple of hours until sunrise. But I decided that I'd take advantage of the good weather and head up to the mountains as soon as the sun rose, because the mountain trains run every half hour and I had read loads of advice from this guy's blog. So, I stashed my bag in the luggage lockers and decided to go up to Tatranská Lomnica at 7:30, right after sunrise. And oh, what a gorgeous sunrise it was!

It was sunny and chilly by the time I got up to the quaint ski town of Tatranská Lomnica, and the autumn view of Lomnický peak was stunning as I made my way to the ski lift and cable cars. I even met a very friendly dog in the parking lot! Turns out, it is possible to hike to the subalpine directly from town...but the trail through the riparian is really just a boulder-logged wash where they had cleared everything out for skiing and I wasn't wanting to waste any time trudging through that. In my opinion, the cable cars are worth it because the trail gets much nicer up at altitude. I was one of just a few people when I got up to Skalnaté pleso, a glacial lake in the valley of Lomnický peak. 

I opted to explore a rim trail that connected Skalnaté pleso with the lower cable car stop, but I only did that for a little while because I realized that I was seeing too much bear scat to feel comfortable by myself. I made my way back and took the small educational trail around the lake, then went up towards the Skalnaté pleso Observatory, which I learned was connected to the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Continuing onward, I reached one of the main trails through the High Tatras, which I followed for an hour or so. I noticed that the trail side-kicked to the summit of a small peak, so I figured I'd go up there and then go back because I could see some weather coming in. Between alpine glaciation and granite boulders and rolling piedmont, this trail was an absolute dream...and the view from the summit, even more so.

Eventually, I made it back to Poprad where I stayed on the outskirts of downtown at the Aqualand hostel near Aqua City, Slovakia's enormous and extensive waterpark. I opted not to visit the waterpark this time, because it was not cheap even with my discount from the hostel and I'd really rather experience an intense Slovak spa session with a group of friends! Instead, I lounged around Poprad for the evening and the next day before my night train back to Prague.

I took a long walk through the city and discovered that Poprad is quite a bit bigger than I thought it would be! I mistakenly thought I could walk to the foothills of the High Tatras, but it ended up being a little bit too chilly and too far. Instead, I spent some time in the gallery Tatranská Galéria

For just €3, I was able to see some Russian originals as well as Czech and Slovak pieces, from sculpture to painting to glasswork and even old pieces of Charles Bridge from Prague. As a nice surprise, I discovered for myself an artist I didn't know anything about before: Ivan Ivanovič Šiškin. His command of light and shadows make his landscapes mesmerizing; looking at one of them is kind of like looking at a photo. You can see some of his work in this video:

There are a lot of things I would still like to do in Poprad and the surrounding mountain towns. More hiking, certainly, but also more exploration of the little cafes and local cuisine. Of course, I get self-conscious about speaking English in a non-English-speaking country (and for some reason automatically default to Icelandic, because that makes sense) but am usually privileged to be able to get by in larger cities. In Poprad, though, English is known but uncommon. As a solo traveler, I didn't want to burden the Slovaks in Poprad with my lack of language skills, which oddly came up a lot because people randomly came up to talk to me on several occasions. I don't know what they wanted or were trying to say, but I couldn't respond, either way!

The vibe in Poprad pleased me in a surprising way. I felt comfortable in the dark, post-Communism air, and noticed the relics of Communism only because Dana had pointed out the square-box buildings to me in Prague and that was fresh in my mind. But Poprad is a quirky place; it's colorful and artistic and friendly but has an almost sinister undertone, unsettling at times. It's industrial and dreary and vibrant and beautiful all at the same time. My charming Slovak host at the hostel sugar-coated absolutely nothing except the delicious Polish caramels she gave me with my coffee. She was easy going and gracious but not overtly so; she dictated her life and her schedule and was sad that the gallery wasn't a night club anymore. I liked her a lot. 

And, I liked those mountains. There are a lot more footsteps for me to take in those peaks, but I am grateful that I was able to get a taste and slip in before the winter snow. Up there, it was warm and Earth-toned and bright; the air more fresh than I've breathed in a while (i.e. sulphur-free) and the peaks taller than any I've summited in some time. I'll be back.

Until then, Slovakia. 🇸🇰

Friday, September 29, 2017

Thursday Came

I wanted to drop a quick(ish) line to thank you all for the support and love you've shown me over the past couple of weeks. I'm on an upswing and feeling loads better; I knew it would happen, but I just didn't know when.

When is now.

Since I am me and proudly a little bit of a cliché, I've been listening to some Coffee & Revolution by Glennon Doyle, and obviously it's been pretty validating. Validation lately for me, though, has been somewhat of an enemy; just in the sense that, for example, I didn't go back to therapy to get validated.

This is probably one of the reasons I haven't been back, besides the fact that life happened and I don't feel like walking out to the 105 and this therapist is at the beginning but I'm not at the beginning anymore...all that to say, I didn't go back to therapy to get validated. I went back to therapy to get shattered.

Shattered to reassemble, shattered to refocus, shattered to repurpose. 

But Glennon's validation is less of a mechanism of self acceptance (it is that, too) and rather more of a charged inspiration for me...mostly because, frankly, she reminds me of myself. 

For now, though, she's making me indescribably grateful. Obviously, though, I'm going to try and describe it anyway.

I'm grateful, and a bit less grumpy, to be in the season that I'm in. Grateful because she's out there doing all of this important inspiring work and I don't have to do it.

Not now, I mean. It may have been obvious to some of you that I've largely backed out of advocacy for the time being, at what seems to be literally the worst time in recent history to do so, but I've done it anyway. I have not done it unapologetically, but I am working on actively unapologizing. 

Because at the moment, I am in a season of peace, of mandatory rest. I often mention off-handedly that my life has never been easier, and this is relatively true. My life has never been easier because right now it isn't really real life, nor is it self-sustaining...but it isn't permanent. And since it isn't permanent, I am free to enjoy the vacation and I'd rather enjoy it than mess it up for myself by lamenting my lack of sustainability.

Despite my insecurities, I have successfully convinced myself that I'm somewhere in the right direction...mostly because of what is feeding and sustaining my heart.

Namely, appropriate things with respect to what I came to Iceland to do. My field, my studies, my project, my professional growth.

It may seem trite and insignificant, but the thing of which I am most proud over the past couple of weeks is the fact that I completed my computational physics project, and I did it correctly, and I did it during a time when I wasn't feeling well. More specifically, it was my solace; even more specifically, the fact that I could still do quantum mechanics was my solace. 

Because when I don't feel well, I can't always do all of the things that my brain has been able to do before. I had a sneaking suspicion that my brain has been long-term healing lately, because a few days before I returned to Iceland most recently, I could play piano again pretty well. I couldn't play a couple of years ago, not really. I couldn't play and I couldn't see and I certainly couldn't do quantum.

But now, I can. And arguably, I can do it better than I could before. I did the work from home during my productive hours, and I can't tell you how happy it made me and how relieved I was that my brain came back, that I came back. This season has been necessary for me to continue what I have always wanted to do; this quiet has helped my brain remember and rebuild and restore. 

I have never in my life been so grateful that my current call is not revolution, but rest. Don't be fooled, though; my rest won't stop the revolution.

It'll help sustain it later. 

My favorite thing. And yeah, they came on Thursday.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tomorrow, Maybe Thursday

Sometimes, as some of you have told me, I am the person through whom you vicariously live. Today, though, I am the person who was in bed, sobbing at 2PM on a work day.

This is working from home.

Today, I finished an article about Prague (which, incidentally, is helping encourage me to plan for my trip to Prague next month) and sent exactly one glacier model run to the supercomputer. 

I haven't really made it any farther than that; I probably won't.

Today is one of those days during which I take every moment as molasses. Everything is intentional. I am coming out of an enhanced-hormone week and into a body-memorized trauma season. I know that this is the problem. I know this. I know.

I eat when I realize I need protein, or when I awaken to the fact that I'm really quite hungry. I do the dishes only because it would bother me if I didn't. I need to go to the store; I won't go to the store. We're on our last roll of toilet paper, but I won't go to the store. The store closes in an hour. I won't make it to the store. Somehow, having no toilet paper bothers me less than having piles of dirty dishes. One is an inconvenience, but the other is a metaphor.

I have a brain that is terrified of itself and feels this intensely, every so often, when it forgets that it's medicated. And this is torture. I know that this feeling will go away, but until then, it's thrice distilled torture. 

And it's irrational. It's not unfounded, but it is irrational. Specifically, I catch myself in my own contradictions, thanks to whatever amount of grace made it possible for me to have a decent memory. For example:

Actual Person From My Life: You are stewarding your life so well.
Me Right Now: I am a terrible steward of my resources.

APFML: You're so brave.
MRN: I am afraid of everything right now.

APFML: You are glowing.
MRN: I am melting.

In fact, the only thing upon which APFML and MRN would probably agree is the fact that my life is unstable and unsustainable. I'm pretty sure that all of us are aware of that; luckily for me, the life I'm currently living is very temporary. Maybe this instability is why people tell me that I'm brave, which is just another way of saying that they wouldn't be so ridiculous as to choose the life I've chosen. You can call it brave if you want to, but I am keenly aware that my so-called "bravery" requires familiarity with poverty and a strong tendency towards masochism. I get it.


Problem is that, maybe, I've healed down to the core. What remains is what has always remained. What's making me cry is what has always made me cry. What hurts is what has always hurt, and with every passing year during which no discernible improvement is made, it hurts again, and again, and again. 

And I don't know what to do. I have tried everything, within the boundaries that hold my safety in any regard. And I don't know what to pray. I have prayed...everything? Perhaps not, but I don't know what else to pray. 

It's an infinite loop without and endgame. 

But tomorrow, maybe Thursday, something will have changed in my neurochemistry and all of this will seem silly. I will be tougher on myself; I'll wonder why I've been acting so angry and irritated or have felt so devastated. I'll forget that it was torture in the moment and roll my eyes at the memory. And tomorrow, maybe Thursday, I'll be a bit more clear-headed and perhaps, hopefully, more productive. We'll see.

Tomorrow, maybe Thursday.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Most Powerful Neurotoxin

Thinking back on conversations I've had in the recent past, during which the generation above me spoke with shaken voices about the troubles to come, I remember being just about as dismissive as you might expect. I remember feeling strongly that we would be warriors, we would be survivors, we would be fearless. After all, haven't we survived worse things? Haven't we faced our fears before? Surely if we press forward in the spirit of defeat, we can't expect a victory.

I've since changed my tune, ever so slightly, to include a few cautious atonal harmonics.

To not be afraid, or to live in spite of it, requires some threshold of masochism. And I am no stranger to masochism; it's basically a requirement for being a student. To continually waltz into situations that are unstable at best, where funding can be as elusive as catching a dandelion seed in the wind, during which I retrospectively find myself counting the minutes between my beginning and my finding out that I have been listening to bold-faced lies the entire time...this is only remotely pleasurable underneath the umbrella of masochism.

Otherwise, it's miserable nonsense.

Maybe I'm extra jaded for my age, but I doubt it; I'm no more cynical than the next twenty-something who is realizing just exactly what we've inherited, and navigating the way through. More likely, I'm overstimulated. I tend to shy away from using the word "paranoid" to describe my biases because my doubts are well founded; however, my insisting that I'm operating between the folds of a completely fraudulent system is probably just about as true as it isn't. Neither, and nor. Truth is what exists, but it's also a limbo; a free suspension of perspective in a medium that isn't quite physical to me.

People who claim to hold concrete, absolute, universal truths make me intolerably suspicious. 

As a scientist, it is my job to observe and report. Observe what is, report what it means. We can pretend that science is a reckless pursuit of absolute truth, but it isn't; science is instead a constant clawing at understanding. And because of who I am as a person, I could quite literally not be anything else.

Certainly, not all of my colleagues are like me, nor would they agree with me on this point. But within my own pursuit of understanding myself and my life, I spill my frantic searching into my work. This is a good thing, I think; a driving force that is necessary to hold my attention since I am, otherwise, pretty flighty. But mistakes occur when I try to make connections that do not exist, or follow lines that branch off in ways such that I later find that I've spun my own web of directionless disaster, having forgotten to look up just for a second.

Perspective is the most powerful neurotoxin.

And when I'm feeling vulnerable or uncertain, much less threatened, my place of retreat is a place in the land of blanket distrust and overarching skepticism. It's a place where I've fastened a shelter of protective canvas around me, and no, I will not come out until I'm good and ready. 

My Instagram Fearlessness has already convinced most of you that I am aware of the beautiful things that exist just outside, and that I live to explore them. This is true, or rather, it is a truth. Another truth is the fact that sometimes my meds mix with my hormones mix with my disease mix with my observations mix up my reality, and I get scared and I need a minute inside.

I think that this is okay, as long as it isn't permanent.

In fact, I've been challenged, with blunt force, to come out of my shelter so that I can breathe the mountain air. And I can, I do, I will.

Just...not until I know that the wolves are far away. Or, more accurately, until I convince myself that I am well equipped to fight them, face them, survive them.