The wheels on the bus went round and round, inching me ever closer to the emotional cesspool that I called middle school. Each bump in the road made my CD player skip, a serious grievance when the likes of Eminem and D12 were spitting straight fire on the 8 Mile Movie Soundtrack. I was 12 years old, and boy were daddy issues all the rage back then. My relationship with my family could barely pass for one - when I wasn't completely consumed by the internet, I spent most of my time plotting new ways to sneak out of the house to hangout with the kids my mom warned me about. Other miscreants that were sure to guide me off the straight and narrow.
It was during these times that I was given the greatest gift.
I often tell people that I’m terrible at math, partly because to this day, I still have no fucking clue what sort of financial wizardry was used to conjure up two tickets to Europe from the earnings a single mother working midnights for minimum wage. That year, my sister and I were gifted the opportunity to spend our summer vacation with our aunt, uncle, and cousins in Germany. To call it selfless would be putting it lightly; it took far too many years for me to truly understand this.
Fun Fact: My ticket specifically was purchased last minute, because in my mother’s own words “You were such a little shit and didn’t even deserve it”. She was absolutely right - weeks earlier I tried to punch my sister but missed and broke a TV instead. Nevertheless, I found myself in the privileged position to be on a completely different flight, all on my own. Having never flown before and lacking a cell phone, I was dropped off at the curb and somehow managed to make my way through the airport and plop my bad little self into a window seat. From there, I marveled at the hustle and bustle of the ground crew preparing for takeoff. As we taxied towards the runway, I plugged in the free headphones and tuned into the radio just in time to catch Abba’s "Mama Mia" play as the engines at full thrust pinned me to the seat. My my, how can I resist you?
One could say I experienced immense growth in Germany, particularly after my first visit to a nude beach. I soon learned that 11 PM was Titty Time on TV and soon thereafter began resenting Europe for sending all the prude pilgrims to found America while the kinky ones got to stay behind. But of all the memorable moments in the Motherland, the best were yet to come. To my surprise, my aunt and uncle planned a road trip to visit Romania during our stay - having left as a refugee at the age of 3, this was a very big deal. I was super excited! Right up until the point where I realized that the only means of transportation for all 6 of us was a 1988 Honda Civic. With no air conditioning. About 6 hours into a 14 hour drive, I came face to face with the wrath of pre-pubescent German angst as my cousin attempted to stab my eyeball out with the pointy end of a croissant. The motive? I held my ground and didn't allow him to occupy more space. To nobody’s surprise, this is why NATO exists.
Actual photo from that day. From left to right - my sister, cousin, and me. It was a long fucking day.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by the sight of a spectacular cabin in the woods surrounded by mountains. We were one of a few families sharing the space and I recall having big dinners with friendly strangers, bottles clinking late into the night. Stories of drunken shenanigans were shared around the bonfire by the adults while us kids entertained ourselves by finding tons of shit to burn. I remember looking forward to the day when I would be old enough to drink and share funny stories, just like them.
One morning, I discovered that the women had left for the day to explore a waterfall somewhere in the woods. Not wishing to spend any more time with Mr. Prison Pastry Strudel-Shanker, I made up my mind to chase after the waterfall, contrary to popular opinion. I wandered alone in the countryside for a whole day, walking from village to village, peak to pond. Rural grandmothers greeted me while feeding their chickens, I crossed paths with deer, and truth be told - I was grateful to have never found what I was looking for. Realizing I had but a few hours of daylight left, I gazed down a dirt road until the lines converged, thanked the earth for refusing to adhere to edges, and retraced my steps slowly.
That night, a new family had arrived at the cabin. They had a daughter my age named Oana - our eyes widened in unison at first glance. Of all the beautiful things I’d witnessed that day, she topped the list. We talked for hours on end; I told her about my adventure and sheepishly asked if she wanted to sneak out with me at night to see the stars. She nodded enthusiastically. We walked in the dark holding hands until we reached an open field, basking in countless photons from distant galaxies. She leaned in with her eyes closed. It was my first kiss.
The following school year, bus rides got a lot quieter. I opted to leave my CD player at home and spent my mornings thinking about all the places I had yet to explore, and people I was destined to fall in love with. The greatest gift I've ever received was the awakening of unbounded, hopeless romanticism for the world and it's people.