Happy New Year, David Sedaris

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It’s rolled around to January again, meaning I’ve resolved to be a more productive adult. Less marathoning TV shows, less food, less alcohol. More writing, more reading, more documentaries. I usually slip around the summertime, so I’ve got to maximise the next few months.

I’m currently reading David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. David Sedaris is good to read around New Year’s – arguably the most depressing time of the year – because you can choose how to read him. He can either be light and charmingly self-deprecating or poignant and deep. You laugh either way though it’ll either be a smiling giggle or a sniff and a smirk that falls when you suddenly feel profoundly sad.

Sedaris writes what English professors call “creative non-fiction,” which is basically selected life stories, enhanced. In other words, it’s non-fiction because it’s the author’s life, but it’s creative because he doesn’t describe it in a cut-and-dried way. Authors add a clever commentary or inner monologue or stretch the truth, probably? But who knows? No one, really. It’s not like the Civil War where you can look up the facts. I always wonder how much of what David Sedaris is telling me about his sisters and his French classes and his childhood is flawlessly true, acceptably exaggerated, or just false. The quotes get me. Is that literally what your Dad said, David Sedaris?

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The one fiction-writing course I took in college was Creative Non-fiction. I hated it because I kind of sucked at it. I think I wrote two decent stories out of fourteen. It was a workshop course, too, so the professor would pick from our submitted stories the ones she liked, Xerox them 30 times, and distribute them amongst the class of pretentious 20-somethings to read and pick apart. To put the liberal in liberal arts, the professor picked a story by every person at least once, and everyone had to speak at least once each class (she kept track). We’d have to write stuff like this blog, actually. Look at me, being meta. Writing creative non-fiction about my creative non-fiction writing class. My professor would’ve creamed herself though half my lounging, artsy classmates would smirk and say, “it’s all a bit on the nose, isn’t it?”

The only part of the class I liked was reading and analysing a bunch of creative non-fiction. Analysing was pointless because it was someone’s life and how these respected authors chose to express themselves was up to them. That’s the point of creative fiction. To question it all would be dickish. So all I could do was raise my hand, say, “I liked how he used humor,” and get a reluctant check next to my name. I did poorly in that class.

But there’s something reassuring about reading creative non-fiction. Fabricated or not, it still all takes place in our reality, and it’s nice to know that we’re all damaged and insecure. That all experiences and memories and relationships are jarring or bizarre or lovely or reflected upon as frivolous at the time but are ultimately precious.

Reading creative non-fiction like David Sedaris puts your own life in perspective, is my point. It makes you appreciate what you have because while his experiences may be vastly different from yours, there’s something in common there. And while he can be cynical and harsh about things, he’s still writing about those things. They still matter to him. He’s able to find some meaning in them and take that meaning to actually use, to reflect upon, to value. So maybe you can, too. And I can, too. And maybe 2015 will be okay.

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The True Story Of Thanksgiving

I’m closer to the Plymouth from which the Pilgrims departed than the Plymouth at which they settled. This is the second year this has been the case. Normally, I don’t notice, but around Thanksgiving, I do.

The blue dot is me.

The blue dot is me.

The organisation I’m working for is making its annual holiday dinner on Thanksgiving, even though I’m the only American. And the only one who knows what the holiday is truly about. This means I’m not just responsible for baking some pumpkin pies (which I had never done before but was just expected to do); for explaining that Thanksgiving has no real traditions aside from eating turkey (which I didn’t realise til I was asked. It strikes me as very American, this freedom to celebrate however you want); and for upsetting all my co-workers by making them celebrate the holidays in late November instead of late December (even though it was my bosses’ call, not mine); BUT ALSO for setting the record straight about what Thanksgiving is really about, as most non-Americans have no idea.

Then again, many Americans have the real story wrong, too.

I’m here to tell the story as I’ve told it to confused Americans and non-Americans alike. It may be exaggerated or just plain incorrect in places, but it’s closer to the truth than what I was taught as a kid, and it’s a nice mix of America-bashing and heart-bursting patriotism.

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The Pilgrims were Puritans, a strict sect of Christianity. They lived in the Netherlands, which actually let people celebrate whatever they wanted. The reason the Pilgrims were “kicked out” was because they started trying to force their religion on others. In a sense, they were the oppressors. And they wouldn’t stop. So the Pilgrims made themselves unwelcome in Holland.

They came to England to Plymouth, a seaside city in the southwest, got on the Mayflower and left Europe because it was so unresponsive to their religious advances. Ever since that day, Europe has been spared the blue laws, priggishness and blandness that make New England and, let’s face it, all of America seem so unenlightened and sexually-stunted in comparison.

The Mayflower was aiming for Virginia, but unexpected storms in the Atlantic blew it north to Massachusetts. It was too late in the season to sail south, so they had to stay. They landed just in time for winter, named the town Plymouth, built makeshift houses and promptly died of starvation, cold, etc. Those who survived decided they would try not to die in the next New England winter and built proper houses and started planting food.

This is where the Native Americans came in. Namely, Squanto. Why was there just one Native American? Because the rest of Squanto’s tribe was decimated in the waves of European diseases that came up the coast from South America and Virginia. I mean, it probably wasn’t JUST Squanto, but considering how many Pilgrims died in the cold, I’d say the two tribes were evenly-matched.

Therefore, the good Native Americans helped the shivering Puritan cityfolk not die, and by the time autumn came, they harvested all their crops, presumably set some aside for winter, and ate the rest at a big dinner to which they invited the Native Americans to thank them.

It looked just like this.

It looked just like this, I bet.

After this first Thanksgiving (which, please note, did NOT take place the year the Pilgrims arrived, duh), relations with the Native Americans promptly fell apart, and for the next three-hundred years, they were insulted, infected, enslaved, converted, raped, murdered.

But that first Thanksgiving has never been forgotten by Americans. We hold onto that moment of peace, tolerance and generosity in our history for dear life, giving thanks for the fact that it happened and forever striving to achieve that level of magnificence again.

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Why You Should Watch Sleepy Hollow (the TV show)

Sleepy Hollow aired on Monday, so I’m reposting this.

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I love Sleepy Hollow. Slammed for being a bad show, even by my beloved cracked.com, Sleepy Hollow isn’t a bad show because it knows it’s a bad show, so it’s a great show. It’s fun and ridiculous but creepy and bizarre – I chuckle, I gasp, I swoon, I bite my lip, I cower, I giggle, I get grossed out, I laugh, and I cry (not really the last one).

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Sleepy Hollow is a supernatural historical American time-travel police dramedy with a hot British guy (Tom Mison) and a hardened cop chick. Therefore, you will enjoy Sleepy Hollow if you enjoy any combination of the following: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Doctor Who, The X-Files, Special Unit 2, NCIS, National Treasure, the John Adams HBO miniseries, and/or The Walking Dead.

As you can see, Sleepy Hollow encompasses a number of…

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The Closest Thing to a Post about Sports You’re Gonna Get from Me

I’m so sorry it’s been ages since I’ve posted. It’s blogging 101 not to do things like take a two-month haitus. If it’s any consolation, and it won’t be, I’ve been blogging on my work site. This isn’t a consolation because I won’t be providing the address of that site. You wouldn’t want to read my work bullshit anyway.

Moving on, since I’ve last posted, summer is in full swing, and I’m already failing to follow the advice in my summer beauty post because the sun has burned my skin several times, resulting in a tan on my shoulders and chest in the weird shape of the only tank top I ever wore outside. This means I can’t wear anything else except that tank top unless it’s a conservative sweater.

297239994_how_to_do_a_american_accent_xlargeI’m still in England, where I’ve taken to either not speaking much when I meet new people or immediately apologising for my accent. Living abroad confirms to poor ex-pat souls that the American accent is ear-bleedingly bad. It’s nasal and shrill and painful. There’s nothing worse than having a conversation with Brits. Their voices are lovely and intelligent, and then I start talking and get revolted by the noises that are coming out of my mouth. It’s like if a pig started snorting during opera.

I’m taking advantage of being in a country that actually follows the World Cup though. I played soccer as a kid, but even then could never get into watching it. I never understood the whole football thing when I lived in Japan and London. It’s soccer. I’m an American. We are not entertained.

The World Cup, however, is inescapable here. My housemates have been talking about it since I arrived three months ago. They are genuinely excited, which is unfathomable to me. I mean, not that I’m the type to get excited for the Olympics and World Series and what have you anyway. Sports fans have always bewildered me. But genuine excitement? About something that doesn’t really matter at all? About something you can’t even participate in?

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Apparently this attitude is really shitty. I’ve since let it go. I’m making an effort with the World Cup. I’m watching nearly every game, rooting for the USA and England (if they win the World Cup, I’d get a day off work), drinking quite a bit and going to crowded pubs to yell with drunken, angry Brits. It’s great fun, actually. I’m having a lovely World Cup. I know it’s my first one, so I have nothing to compare it to, but my housemate says this year’s World Cup is ‘good’…whatever that means.

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Oh, also, I turned 26 last week. It was an uneventful birthday concluding a fairly uneventful age. Unemployment is no way to spend seven months of your twenty-fifth year.

Anyway, those are a smattering of my thoughts on this Friday afternoon. I know it’s rather ranting and unstructured and more like a diary entry. Let’s hope I do better next time.

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Vanity in the Summer

It’s been a while since I’ve done a decent beauty post, but summer is coming, which means a seasonal makeup shakeup. Plus, I’ve made some new discoveries since my last decent beauty post was back in, like, January.

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Summer’s not really my season. Don’t get me wrong, I love how it’s warm and lovely out. It’s just style-wise I like boots and coats and hats and dark colors. But having never lived in a place that didn’t have four seasons, summer is something that I’ve always had to contend with. So the points below may be obvious to the people who are naturally summery, but for me, I had to consciously recognize some of these things.

1. Perpetually cake yourself in sunblock

IMG_9069.JPG“Cake” is a strong word. SPF 30 is latent in so many products these days. I end up having SPF 30 on my face even in winter just because it’s in the daily moisturizer foundation stuff I use every day.

It is extremely important to shield your face from the sun’s harmful rays, and not just for skin cancer prevention purposes. Sunblock will prevent wrinkles. Did you know that in your grandparents’ day and even during your parents’ youth, sunblock didn’t exist? People just got burned. So if the wrinkles of your elders turn you off, please know you have the chance to avoid that fate – a chance they never had.

2. Tan With Care

This may seem like it flies in the face of #1, but I swear it doesn’t. Sunblock won’t prevent your skin from absorbing the lovely color sunshine can provide. Yes, it will take more exposure to get darker, but that just means you should go outside more. And by “exposure,” I don’t mean waiting for the sunblock to wear off so you get tanned/burned. I mean going outside often with sunblock working at full force.

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Considering summer is the time to show some skin, and tan skin hides imperfections, from cellulite to acne scars, it’s worth getting a bit of color. I’m not saying we should pull Lindsay-Lohans because oh my god look at what can happen there. I’m just saying let some sun get into your skin. A little bit goes a long way…

Tan_HandsWhich brings me to bronzing lotions, which are options, too. I appreciate that they’re safe alternatives to sunshine. Be careful though – you really can stick out like a sore, orange thumb. I’ve never used bronzers because as a super pale redhead, I just couldn’t get pull it off. But I’ve had enough friends who have used them and seen enough pumpkin people to know you have to be ever so careful with bronzers. Less is more. And don’t forget to get rid of the evidence – scrub your hands and fingernails afterwards til there is no trace of yellow.

3. Paint your Toenails

Or do something with them. It’s sandal season, and most people are like me and think feet are gross. Nail polish makes them look interesting and distracts from whatever imperfections your feet may possess.

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I usually paint my toenails a dark blue or dark red because I usually wear black or dark brown sandals. If that seems like too much for you (though I should say I get a lot of compliments on these color choices), a French manicure or a clear coat of polish might work, too. They won’t need many touch-ups over the months because toenails aren’t as prone to chipping elements as fingernails.

4. Use less makeup in general

ft_6caf7da819e724bdf24815aad4c74427As much as I love dark, rich makeup, that style is for winter. Summer is meant for a more natural look. Keep the eye makeup and foundation to a minimum. As for the lips, aim for lighter, brighter lipstick colors or buy some sort of shiny tinting thing. I really like Nivea’s Pearly Shine. I’m still not sure I can pull it off with my coloring, but I’d imagine others could.

5. Exfoliate Everything

I used to exfoliate just my face with the St. Ives Apricot Scrub, but after a trip to a spa where I got this all-over body exfoliation thing, I’ve taken to exfoliating everything once or twice a month. Your skin just ends up so unbelievably smooth, and again, since summer is the season of skin, this is very nice.

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A few things to note about exfoliating everything: first of all, do it in the shower. That should be a no brainer, but still. Second, really scrub every inch, paying special attention to elbows, knees and – this is gonna sound weird – your cleavage (but don’t exfoliate your boobs). And finally, when you rinse, do it really, really well. Get every grain off your skin. This means rinsing nooks and crannies – ahem – otherwise you’ll have a Princess and the Pea kind of conundrum.

6. Dress for Summer as Best You Can

I am not a fan of wearing colors. Most of my tops are some sort of black or grey. There’s a few that are dark green and a few whites for good measure, but I never wear them. Friends often slam me for this, but I defend my monochrome style by arguing that between the red hair and blue eyes, there’s already too much color in my appearance.

This argument doesn’t really hold up. It especially doesn’t hold up in summer. Summer demands color. So my advice is this, if you’re going to wear black, temper it somehow. Wear colourful earrings. Pair a black top with a light skirt. Pair a black dress with brown sandals and a brown bag. Brown is a good summer substitute for black. It’s still dark but more casual. The point is, inject some color somewhere, however you can.

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HAGS

 

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Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Rating: Excellent

Half of a Yellow Sun was a recommendation – otherwise it’s safe to say I never would’ve read it, and that would’ve been a terrible shame. It’s historical fiction, but 1960s historical, which isn’t my usual cup of historical fiction tea. Half of a Yellow Sun also takes place in Nigeria, and I can’t remember the last time I read a book that was set wholly in Africa (even Heart of Darkness had scenes in England).

The history of Africa past colonial times was never taught to me in school. In college, the name “Biafra” may have been in my international affairs textbook, but it didn’t get more than a sentence, and I don’t remember anything about it. I mostly knew the name “Biafra” from the Warren Zevon song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” which was about a Scandinavian mercenary. Mercenaries were used in the civil war in Nigeria – the civil war that ensued when those in eastern Nigeria seceded in 1967 and created Biafra, their own state. The result was a political, military and humanitarian nightmare. Biafra was reabsorbed in 1970.

The Biafran flag (the book's title should make sense now)

The Biafran flag (the book’s title should make sense now)

Half of a Yellow Sun follows those who supported, joined, and resided in Biafra until its downfall. Why these Nigerians chose to secede, what was at stake, and what happened during the war – I shan’t reveal. (I’m trying to get you to read the book, not wikipedia “Biafra”).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I won’t delve too deeply into plot, but Half of a Yellow Sun has five primary characters, each totally distinct from one another and yet thrown together (conflict!). Three of these characters, a preteen from a small village, an educated woman, and a British man, take turns getting a chapter to narrate (in a third person kind of way). The book is also split into four chronological sections – the early sixties, the late sixties, then the early sixties and late sixties again. It’s an interesting approach, but it works extremely well. Adichie makes these transitions totally seamless.

So Half of a Yellow Sun does what historical fiction is meant to do: simultaneously educate and entertain. It does it brilliantly, too – better than any other historical fiction book I’ve read, which is saying something. Other historical fiction books like Gone with the Wind, which is one of my favorites, separates the greater historical context and the plot of the characters (side note: isn’t it interesting how civil wars especially make for great historical fiction?). For example, in GWTW chapters will open with paragraph after paragraph setting the scene, explaining the politics, noting the common trains of thought. Then it will go back into Scarlett O’Hara’s plot line. This system works because now the reader has a context for the plot, but it’s just a bit sloppy. Those paragraphs are the most boring parts of the book. Half of a Yellow Sun doesn’t need to do this. The characters themselves, their own plights, their own thoughts – they speak volumes about the historical context and totally implicitly. In other words, you don’t even realize you’re learning. And isn’t that the best kind of learning?

Finally, Adichie’s writing style, character development, plots – it’s all exquisitely done. Half of a Yellow Sun is just really such a good book. I am recommending it to you, just like it was recommended to me.

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Traveling Solo, Alone in the Woods

There are two kinds of people, those who can travel alone and those who can’t. I’m one of the ones who can’t.

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That’s why Easter break was such a challenge for me.

In England, Easter is a four-day weekend. Good Friday is off, and then they have something called Easter Saturday, the classic Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday. The organization I work for, however, tacked on three extra days because the bosses were heading out Wednesday (Easter Wednesday?) and returning Tuesday (Easter Tuesday?).

I had a solid week off, having only started working two weeks ago. It was too late to plan a trip, and my friends in the UK only had the four-day weekend anyway, so traveling somewhere wasn’t an option. But staying with them in London for a solid week wasn’t an option. And remaining in the tiny British town wasn’t an option.

I had no choice. I had to travel alone.

I don’t do well in public by myself. I love cities, but making eye contact with strangers agitates me, so I never look at anyone as I walk down the street. I never eat alone in public either. “Table for one” are words I will never let pass through my lips. I get everything to go and eat at home in front of the TV. I’m self-conscious. Paralyzed. Fearful.

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People?! AHH!!

Traveling requires a friendliness, openness, curiosity, and a general looking-at-things that I’m not comfortable with doing by myself. Friends make me better. Friends bring me out of my shell. Friends make me talk and engage and encourage me to be active. Without friends, why am I traveling? How could I experience this new place? What would I do? How would I eat?

This Easter, I had no choice. I had to travel alone.

I knew a city was out of the question. Not only would too many people see me alone, but cities are social places. By definition, they are the centers of civilization where the most people are. If I went to a city alone, I would visit museums and galleries and sights, but once the sun set, I’d be trapped. I would want to experience nightlife and wouldn’t be able to (not just for self-conscious reasons, but for safety reasons).

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No, no cities. I needed the opposite of a city. The opposite of a most populated and central place is a most isolated and distant place. I needed to go to the country. So I picked the most isolated and distant place in England – the Lake District.

The Lake District is in the northwest corner of England. It’s so far north, it borders Scotland. The Cambrian hills are 3000 feet high, and their valleys have filled with water – hence the name Lake District. It’s like the British equivalent of a National Park like Yosemite or Yellowstone. Hikers go to hike, climbers go to climb, boaters go to boat.

For the literary, the Lake District was where Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice is supposed to go with her aunt and uncle until a change of plans has them visit Derbyshire instead. Most importantly, aside from a few little towns dotting the landscape, there is absolutely nothing in the Lake District.

To the Lake District, then, I would go.

I splurged, booking a Bed and Breakfast instead of a hostel. I rented a pair of hiking boots in advance from a sports store. I reserved I got my train ticket from London to Penrith, where I could take a bus to Keswick, the little town in which I’d be spending the three days I decided to devote to this solitary adventure into the mountains.

On Wednesday afternoon, I arrived. The town was bigger than I would’ve liked. I was alone and yet surrounded by people. Damn. I went to pick up my boots and then got hungry. I had to eat…

I chose a pub, ambled inside, and glanced around. It wasn’t very full yet. I picked a table for two in a corner and sat down. I agonized over the menu. I couldn’t focus. I felt like everyone’s eyes were on this redhead who for some reason was companionless. I ordered the supposed specialty: a leek and ham pie with “chips.” I also got a beer. I was publicly there alone, so I figured I might as well go all the way and publicly drink alone.

I took out a book while I waited for my food. I couldn’t just sit there. I tried to look casual. The food came, and I ate it, aware of the increasing numbers of people entering the pub. A couple sat next to me. All I could do was listen to their conversation. I couldn’t just tune it out. It was awful.

When it was over, I walked back to the Bed and Breakfast. I showered and spent the rest of the evening watching TV and planning my hike for the next day. It was going to be an eight mile trek around Derwentwater, the local lake. It was a popular hike that took about four to six hours. I had awkwardly gone into the deserted information center in the middle of town to ask if the trail would get flooded because it was supposed to rain. I got an amused look and was told in the Northern accent: “no, it’s been quite dry recently.”

This was my guide. I kept it on my iPhone.

This was my guide. I kept it on my iPhone.

The next morning, I dressed in four thin layers, like the Lake District tourist website suggested, stomped into my rented hiking boots, and put on a beanie. I went downstairs to get my full English breakfast and paid four pounds for a bagged lunch – a sandwich, apple, banana, and biscuits.

This was me eating alone again, but the only other people staying in the Bed and Breakfast was a charming family of four from Scotland. In fact, almost everyone I saw on that trip was a part of a family. It was always the same, too: a pragmatic wife, a joking husband, two eager children, and a well-trained, loveable dog. This evoked emotions in me that another blog post will have to get into.

After breakfast, I put the bagged lunch into my backpack along with a bottle of water, an extra pair of socks, my room key, my wallet, and the painkillers, caffeine pills, and allergy medicine I never go anywhere without. Then I set off.

The path went through farms and fields, rocky shorelines, windswept wetlands, and dense forests. But there’s no point describing an eight mile hike in the Lake District in words:

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Halfway through the hike, my feet began to blister. The hiking boots scraped the back of my heels. The pain brought tears to my eyes. I stopped at a waterfall and sat down on the ground. I put my extra pair of socks on over my current pair and took some painkillers. Then I was on my way again.

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Lunch was my favorite part of the hike because I ate in the wetlands, which I adored. It was a glorious view, haunting and grand. Also the sandwich the Bed and Breakfast owners prepared for me was delicious. Thick slabs of cheese and ham smothered in Ploughman’s pickle, which is a type of chutney. After lunch, I continued on my way.

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When I had about a quarter of the hike left, I was losing my drive. My feet still hurt. I was tired. My shoulders ached from my backpack. The trail just went on and on and on. It was mostly deserted, aside from the occasional couple and family. No one else was alone.

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Finally, I made it back to Keswick after about five hours. I had gone all the way around the massive Derwentwater. I knew the last thing I would want to do was put my shoes back on and walk into town and eat alone again, so I stopped at a sandwich shop and got a chicken and brie sandwich to go.

When I finally arrived back at my room, I took a long shower, changed into my pajamas, and spend the rest of the evening in bed watching TV and enjoying my sandwich. My feet ached, but I felt extremely accomplished. It was a tough but beautiful hike, and I did it all by myself. I felt fulfilled and oddly serene.

The next day, I went into town, returned my hiking boots, and sat on a bench alone in the middle of the swirling crowds in the market square, just looking around. When the time came for me to go back to London, I wandered to the bus stop, made my way to Penrith, and took the train that brought me back to my friends in the cities to the south.

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