129 Ways To Get a Life
129 Ways To Get a Life (The Podcast!)
8. "Take Several Short Vacations Instead of One Long One."

8. "Take Several Short Vacations Instead of One Long One."

A story of marriage and monsters.

I am 21-years-old and I am about to get married in Budapest. 

My friends and I are at a bar called Szimpla, not to be confused with the restaurant Szimply, where we had eaten earlier that night. Szimpla is a former factory that has been transformed into a multi-level club. We are on the first floor by the bar, and a crowd of revelers have gathered to watch as my soon-to-be betrothed fashions a wedding ring out of a plastic straw. 

I feel a rush of giddy glee, knowing this is nothing serious and far from real, but nonetheless the moment is big and the celebration is grand. 

The ceremony is quick. Not sure if we exchanged vows; if we did, they weren’t anything memorable. Still, he gets down on one knee — quite unsanitary, the floor of that club was disgusting — and slides the plastic ring on my finger. The crowd cheers as an overly excited onlooker announces, “You may now kiss the bride.” He does, we do, and just like that, the Italian man from the bar and I are married.

The partnership, of course, isn’t legally binding, and the relationship doesn’t even make it to sunrise. 

The next morning, my friends and I checked out of our Airbnb and boarded a flight on the discount gem that is Ryanair. We landed in London a few hours later; home, or at least, home for the semester. Budapest felt like a dream as we rode the Tube back from Heathrow to our cramped and chaotic dorm rooms in East London. I marveled at how, just three days prior, I’d sat on this same train, an unmarried 21-year-old American idiot studying experimental theater in Mile End. Now I was still unmarried, still 21, but I had a story – a wild story, a worldly story, the kind of story that would fit seamlessly into the plot of the long-awaited Mamma Mia sequel (Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! Banger of a movie. RIP, Donna; Hello, Cher). 

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Reflecting on that weekend in the context of #8. “Take Several Short Vacations Instead of One Long One,” I am somewhat shocked I was ever the ridiculous 21-year-old who’d marry a stranger she met at the bar. I don’t recognize that girl at all – she’s grown up now. But as I think about that weekend, and all of the weekends which elicit stories worth writing about, I am intrigued by the patterns which emerge. Many of my adventures were abroad, and most took place between the ages of 21 and 24. Revisiting these shenanigans feels like flipping through the scrapbook of someone else’s life. Was that me who shared a Before Sunrise-esque dinner with a stranger in Paris after missing the Eurostar back to London? Did I really spend a night at Shoreditch House grilling Banksy’s art dealer for dirty details until the wee hours of the morning? (Yes to both, and not to brag, but the art dealer DID tell me who Banksy really is). 

I’ll admit it. I feel jealous of my 21-year-old self. And there’s a pang of something else, something I can’t quite place – nostalgia, wanderlust, restlessness? 

Or maybe it’s fear: the worry that the era for adventure has passed, and now, to seek out what #8 is suggesting, a short vacation where "something could happen," would be a fool’s errand. When considering how to satisfy this list item, all I could see were horrific visions of myself alone in a hotel room in Hudson or maybe Charleston, just waiting for and willing a story to unfold.

And so, unsure I was capable of embarking on an organic adventure within the confines of my current schedule and savings account, I decided to open the task up to others. I asked friends for their vacation sagas, hoping to find a common thread that would lead to a life-altering conclusion about love, life, and everything in between. Or more honestly, perhaps I was searching for evidence that movie moments like Budapest still happen even after you grow up and turn 28. 

The stories I heard were fantastic; tales of growth and healing and hurting and peace. Of friends coming into their own and lessons in mortality and the kindness of strangers. But unfortunately, after those interviews, I felt stuck. I was like a gluttonous pirate sitting on a pile of gold, with no clue what to do with my newfound bounty other than shout “arg, shiny!” The tales were treasure, but I couldn’t figure out how to tie them all together and back to 129 Ways

Stuck and seeking a distraction, I decided to call my sister. I thought we were just going to catch up — I had no idea that our conversation would provide the rude awakening which helped me to pinpoint what had gone wrong with my writing. I was telling her about the guy I had been seeing and my plan to break things off with him. I was disappointed it wasn’t going to work out; I really tried to give this one a shot. She commiserated, then asked if he’d read my blog. I was thrown by her question.“Yeah, he did,” I told her. She asked what he thought, then admitted she’d been wondering how prospective partners might view the project. I think, without explicitly expressing the sentiment, she worried it would be a turn off. “When you started the Substack, I thought it was a bad idea,” she confessed. “I just thought you were going to end up disappointed if you didn’t find a guy.” 

I was floored. Though the focus has of course been dating, the heart of this project has never been only about finding a person; it’s about finding myself. About breaking out of a shell and unlearning bad habits and trying new things. And yes, the hope is that through this process, I will open myself up in ways I have not before, which may help me to find my person. But I didn’t intend it to be so one-track minded that my audience would read or listen and wonder what the people I date will think — or worse, assume dating is the only goal of the project. One part is not the whole. 

After speaking with my sister, I revisited the interviews I’d recorded and realized what is missing from these essays, and maybe also from me, is depth. My false-wedding weekend in Budapest was nothing more than a party trick – a funny but forgettable night. It was what I thought people would want to hear. Wild and wonderful, the epitome of 21-year-old chaos, but that’s about it. 

Then I remembered another story, this one about a little vacation that meant something very big.

That same year abroad, we find 21-year-old Emily eating alone at a restaurant in Capalbio Scalo, a railway village along the mid-coast of Italy. It is the only restaurant in town and it is my second night dining at the establishment. A table of older Italian men sit nearby and whisper while they watch me eat. I pick at my plate of pasta and sip on my glass of wine, keenly aware that everyone is aware I’m the only tourist in this town. 

The night before, I’d sat at the same table and explained to my befuddled waitress that I was in Capalbio Scalo to see acclaimed artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Tarot Garden,” a prolific sculpture park depicting the 22 divinatory figures. I’d first read about Niki and her garden in a New Yorker article earlier that year, and my heart was set on seeing the structures. (I could wax poetic about Niki de Saint Phalle but for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply encourage anyone who wants to know more to read this article. It’s worth it.)

In Capalbio Scalo, I was confused not only about the general absence of fanfare, but also the distinct lack of public transit. I had assumed the home of Niki de Saint Phalle’s life’s work would be a massive tourist attraction. And I wasn’t wrong. The problem, my waitress explained, was that visitors of the garden don’t stay in Capalbio Scalo, population 551. Tourists go to Capalbio, the picturesque Italian village miles down the road and up a hill. 

Accurate depiction of the situation

I was crestfallen and concerned. How would I ever get to the sculptures? I had come all this way for nothing. Luckily, my waitress took pity on me, texted her friend, and asked if he’d drive me to and from the Tarot Garden. He obliged, equally as confused as she that I’d ended up in Capalbio Scalo, but happy to help. 

I spent the next day lost in a wonderland, exploring the masterwork of the troubled artist whom I’d developed a major creative crush on. Entirely on my own, I reveled in the peace of the park and wandered for hours, exploring every inch of what de Saint Phalle described as her “garden of Monsters.” I was overcome by the beauty and inspired by the sheer scale of what she had created. It was an absolutely perfect day. I could have stayed there forever, but the park closed at 7:30pm. 

My ride – I’m ashamed to admit I do not remember his name – picked me up and drove me back to town, smiling gently as I gleefully recounted every inch of what I’d seen. I’m not sure what he thought of me, but I’ll always be grateful for his kindness. He dropped me off and we bid arrivederci. 

I floated back to my hotel on cloud nine, in awe of what I had just experienced. Visiting the Tarot Garden was all I’d wanted to do since arriving in London. When it proved improbable to get there for a quick weekend trip (Capalbio is hours from any airport), I devised a plan to instead extend my time abroad. I’d get there on my own, no matter what it took.

What it took was working on an olive oil farm in Cortona (another story for another essay) in exchange for room and board. I spent the first half of my summer whacking weeds and snipping saffron in the hills of Tuscany. At the end of the exchange, I was stronger than I’d ever thought possible, perfectly tanned, and only a quick train ride away from the Tarot Garden, which would be my final stop abroad. 

I look back at my time in Italy and I do recognize that 21-year-old girl. I know her; I still am her. Determined, delusional, dedicated, and dreamy. I wear that summer, and those memories, like a badge of honor on my sleeve. It is an experience that is wholeheartedly mine. 

What else is mine is the final part of the Italy saga, and this is a story I will tell for the rest of my life. 

On that second night, after my magical visit to the Tarot Garden, I moseyed back to the restaurant. I took my seat at the same table I’d occupied the night before. I ordered pasta and wine and smiled at the group of Italian men staring at me. 

Halfway through my meal, I noticed an older woman, the owner of the restaurant, join the gentlemen. She looked over in my direction. Murmurs were made. I watched genuine confusion cross her brow as she whispered to the waitress. 

At this point I started to worry I was about to have a Taken situation on my hands and perhaps the Italian locals of Capalbio Scalo were not as friendly as I’d thought. My heart quickened as I watched them watch me. What did they want? I began prepping my escape, plotting how to contact Liam Neeson, shoveling pasta for sustenance, when the owner walked over to my table. 

“Okay, we’ve talked. You can live here if you work in the kitchens.” 

I nearly choked on my noodle. The table of Italian men broke into grins and waved. My waitress joined the owner and stared expectantly. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. They want me… to stay? I politely declined, paid the bill, and went back to my hotel. I left Capalbio Scalo the next morning.  

To this day, I have no clue what inspired the offer. My best guess is that it was so strange for a stranger to visit this town, not to mention that I was there on my own, everyone assumed I was some kind of wayward runaway in need of a home and some help. It was a heartwarming and hilarious gesture. 

Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d said yes. If I’d thrown caution to the wind and just stayed. I’d definitely have picked some good knife skills and could probably make a mean rigatoni. 

Now seven years older and a little bit wiser, I confess: #8 scared me. I was sure this prompt would be a letdown. How could I ever have a trip that lived up to the carefree nights of my 21-year-old self? But then I realized that just because these days a “short vacation” looks more like people gathering somewhere simple, cooking and laughing and lounging, doesn’t make it any less of an adventure. It’s just different. We go to bed way earlier and usually the only people getting married are the ones who actually planned a wedding. 

And though I didn’t use the stories as much as I’d planned, the interviews were a crucial piece of this puzzle. Each tale contained a nugget of wisdom.

Meaning can come from anything and any place – for my friend Nina, it was a power drill and a rooftop on an art farm in Nebraska. Strangers do not always equal danger, as proved by my cousin Sarah, who had to rely on the kindness of others when stranded in Europe after an erupting volcano rendered her flight back home nonexistent. And also by Karly, who hopped into the van of a girl she met in New Zealand and journeyed through the wilderness with her for three days. I was reminded that sometimes you’ve gotta go with the flow, like Kyra did when she accidentally snuck into Berlin’s infamous KitKatClub. And that life is both incredibly short and very long, a lesson Maddy learned after watching an elderly man die in a two-room hospital in Capri. 

I was particularly struck by what my friend Charlotte said when recounting her recent solo trip to Ireland. She was in a pub in Galway, sitting at a table, reading alone. That’s when she was befriended by Judy, a Scottish musician. They spent the night drinking and discussing life, love, and everything-in-between.  

“I’ve always been really optimistic about people. I feel like that was renewed there and I have this new vocabulary for this way that I spend time on my own. To be able to rely on myself is a really exciting thing I was able to discover.”

Charlotte reminded me that magical movie moments can, and still do, occur. It made me wonder… what will happen the next time I lean in and say yes to the unexpected? Where will I be? Who will I be? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out. 

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Next Up…

#9. Sit on a park bench and feed pigeons. This will be an interview featuring SPECIAL GUESTS Randa and Harry of Good Hang! Wahoo!

Also friendly neighborhood reminder that 129 Ways is also on Spotify.

129 Ways To Get a Life
129 Ways To Get a Life (The Podcast!)
A series in which a 20-something exclusively follows the advice of a dating column published in 1958 to explore modern love and life.