The fire at Notre Dame this week triggered memories of 15 years ago, easily the year of my life.
But first, a back story: My father died in 2002, and just before his death (heart attack, on Christmas eve), I was preparing to send my application for a fellowship in Oxford. We were all in a state of shock and grief, but my mother–always the strong one–told me to go ahead with it. In the middle of making arrangements for my father’s burial, I couriered my application requirements just before the deadline and put it at the back of my mind. There were more immediate things to attend to.
A few months later, while still grieving (I am still grieving a decade on), I received news that I have been chosen as one of the journalism fellows for two terms (spring aka Hilary, and summer aka Trinity) and my study was to focus on the advent of mobile news. That was how I found myself in England in 2004.
Back then, I was an Anglophile (now overtaken by being a Japanophile) and this was the second time I’d be in the UK. Since I was already in Europe, I might as well go to the places I have long wanted to visit. But that time, I was just a poor journalist and I had to go on leave from my company without pay to go on the fellowship, so I had to depend on my meager school allowance and some support from a rich uncle. Looking back, I marvel at how I was able to do things without fear. Make me do them now and there would be a lot of conditions I’d need for reassurance, like having more than enough money in my pocket for contingencies (what if I miss my train or get into an accident?), and staying in at least a three-star hotel and not a hostel (thank God for Airbnb now though). There is really something about being young and fearless (and yes, reckless) that even if I didn’t have much money in my pocket or I mostly stayed in youth hostels, I wasn’t scared a bit. In fact, I had the time of my life.
But traveling alone, and being an Asian woman, is an open invitation for racism and sexual harassment. Not to say that traveling in a group protects you from racists and sexual predators, but there is strength in numbers.
I guess having left my family home at 18 to go to university prepared me to be alert and resolute, especially in a foreign country and in a strange environment. Or maybe, back home, my mother was just desperately clasping her hands together in prayer.
One of the first trips I took outside England was to Paris, sneaking a weekend in between our lectures to cross the English Channel via the Eurostar. I did all the touristy thing in the city of lights–Eiffel, Seine River boat cruise, Arc de Triomphe Louvre, Champs Elysees, Notre Dame.
This was the era before Instagram (born on Oct. 6, 2010). I only had a small Olympus digital camera that I bought for the trip and I have even lost track of the digital folder where I saved the photos in. Thank goodness, I saved some photos in an album in Facebook (not really a smart choice I know) so at least there would be photographic proof of that year.
But there are experiences that you can’t capture in photographs, like when I was approached by an old man on the steps of the Notre Dame while I was taking photos. “Do you want to go to a cafe?” he asked. I was shocked at the intrusion, not even knowing him. I don’t remember what transpired after that, if I even had a conversation with him, but I do recall being shaken and leaving shortly after because I was scared. Interestingly, when I posted my Notre Dame story on Facebook this week, a friend commented that the same thing happened to her in 2003, on the steps going up the cathedral. It would look like a scam or a trap, which thankfully I managed to escape.
That wasn’t the only booby trap that sprung on me during my sort-of Eurotrip (that same year, there was a trashy film, EuroTrip, that was screening; and of course, I watched it in a cinema in Piccadilly Circus, talking about meta though my Eurotrip experience obviously pales in comparison).
While at the Zurich Main Station waiting for the train back to London after a Switzerland trip (with two of my closest university friends who were incidentally also in Europe that time for studies), a South Asian man approached me while I was minding my own business. “Chinese?” he asked. I shook my head. He went on to venture other guesses until I got tired and just told him my nationality hoping he would leave me alone. To my dismay he sat down and continued chatting until he asked me if I was hungry and maybe we could grab something to eat or drink while waiting for my train. I said, no, I was fine, making it plainly clear I wasn’t going anywhere with him. Until the time he was moving to leave, he was still convincing me to go to a cafe (what is it with Europe and cafes and scammers?) “to drink Coke… safe Coke!” he added for good measure and I actually rolled my eyes mentally.
That trip to Switzerland was preceded by a trip to Prague (from where I’d later proceed to Geneva to meet my friends). In Prague, I was going to meet a friend and then join another Oxford fellow and her boyfriend. I took the train to Prague with only a Czech visa (my Schengen visa hasn’t been issued yet, and having a UK student visa allowed me entry to Switzerland) and found myself in a cabin with a Czech lady and a German couple. They were all very nice and acted as my guardians throughout the long journey (it wasn’t all scammers and perverts I encountered in this Euro adventure thank goodness). Then came trouble, literally, as the train encountered engine problems in the last stop in Austria (my memory is blurry but I’m guessing it was Linz) just outside the Czech border. We had to wait for a new train to complete the journey.
Of course the natural thing to do was to just enjoy the detour, but I didn’t have a Schengen visa yet so I was scared to venture even out of the station. The Czech lady and the German couple were going out for brunch and invited me along but I had to beg off. I earlier had a scare when the border police came on board the train to check passports and my mind was already ahead thinking I’d be sent back to England or worst, back home, once they discover I had no Schengen visa and shouldn’t be on Austrian soil. But they let me pass and I considered myself lucky.
On reaching Prague, the Czech lady and her son who came to meet her at the station took me to the hostel I’d be staying in. There I met two American guys, both from the US medical volunteer corps, though now I wonder if they were really that. They were friendly and seemed decent enough so when they asked if I wanted to try absinthe at a local bar one night, I willingly tagged along. We had fun gossiping and I wasn’t really impressed with absinthe (I wasn’t even tipsy) and we went back to the hostel. That was as far as my alcohol adventurism went in this Eurotrip adventure.
Another time in Milan on a trip I had to make for my paper, I went to a park to unwind after an interview. While heading to a bench, a man suddenly sprung up out of nowhere and greeted me cheerfully in his Italian accent, “you have a very good aura!” I was wearing a bright pink top so naturally my aura must have been very dazzling, but I didn’t voice that out. “I can tell you your fortune!” he proceeded. I love fortune-telling, who doesn’t, so out of curiosity, I let him read my palm. I don’t remember the bullshit he told me but I do remember him telling me the caveat, “I can tell you more but you have to pay me 10 euros.” To be fair, he said that in his still-cheerful and non-threatening tone. But I’d rather spend my 10 euros elsewhere so I declined.
Back in Oxford, I had another scare while browsing a bookstore. I felt someone staring at me from across the shelves and true enough, there was a middle-aged man wearing eyeglasses. What was more creepy, he smiled when he caught my eye. Maybe, I thought, I’ve been watching too many of those B-movies that the North Korean fellows liked watching in the dead of the night in the apartment, but I became paranoid and moved to another area. Only to discover, to my growing fear, that the guy was following me. I left the bookstore and went to the supermarket thinking I have shaken him off my track. When I stepped out, I saw him standing inconspicuously down the street. Just like in suspense movies, chilling instrumental music started to play in my head and my heart was doing a marathon as I quickly weighed my options. Do I go to another shop and try to lose him again or do I walk home? Sure, it would be easier to lose him in the crowd downtown but I had a heavy grocery bag and I wanted to go home where I’d feel safer, even if it meant a long walk. I opted to go home, with hurried steps as if I was in a race. After a hundred meters or so, I discreetly looked behind me and to my relief, creepy guy was nowhere. I did wonder: Do I have this sign on my forehead that says I’m gullible or a pushover?
I guess it’s because I’m Asian that even children thought they could harass me. One time, while enjoying the spring sun (a habit I got from the European fellows who would bask in the sun once it shows up in those dying days of winter because truly, from where I come from, I have enough of it) in the alfresco area of a burger joint in downtown Oxford, I became distinctly aware of someone farting. When I looked to my side, there was a boy, not even of teen age, standing on the other side of the picket fence. He was farting and giggling. I belatedly realized he had his friends for an audience and that he was directing his fart at me. I felt humiliated but knew that to give a reaction would give them satisfaction so, despite the temptation to tell them off, I instead took out a book from my bag and started reading, until they left me alone, maybe to look for other POC victims.
In Barcelona, while walking on Miramar Avenue near Montjuic, a young boy suddenly ran in front of me. “Ching chong ching chong,” he chanted, while stretching his eyes with his fingers. By this time, I was no longer easily intimidated and just rolled my eyes and said, “I’m not even Chinese. Go away.”
Then there was subtle racism too in a passive-aggressive way such as being told that “your English is very good” or “where did you learn to speak English?” or “did you study in the US? You have an American accent.” Or being excluded from a game of cricket by a South Asian, who acted like she descended from Aishwarya Rai’s genes, during a retreat for Oxford and Cambridge fellows because I wasn’t considered elite enough (I didn’t know how to play cricket anyway and was more interested in exploring the heritage grounds we were at). You just learn to roll with it over time and not take offense.
After all, this was long before this “woke” era, when you can go viral for committing such racist acts or by simply being an ass. Phones couldn’t take photos then and social media was just in its early inception. In fact, that was the reason why I was in Oxford, to study and learn about the new medium and how best to apply it in my work. There was no Instagram or Twitter, and Facebook hasn’t really fully taken off yet, so if you wanted to document your travel, you keep it in a digital folder and blog about it (maybe in vox or livejournal or blogspot). Come to think of it, by blogging about that period like what I’m doing now means taking a step back in time. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for social media, Facebook in particular, is that some of my photos have been preserved, inasmuch as my memory hasn’t completely rusted over yet, so that I could write about life before Instagram.
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