Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chapter 3 - Norma 'Juliette'


12 years ago. COLLEGE. When you start college it’s like taking out a clean, crisp sheet of white paper. No marks, no mistakes. And hopefully, by the time you start college you are old enough to appreciate that fact. I was. I started college with a new name. Even though very few people know this, my full name is actually Norma Juliette Harcourt. Norma. Heaven help me. My mother was a devoted fan of Agatha Christie’s novels, and having just completed the novel ‘The Third Girl’ the day before I was born, she decided to name me after one of the main characters. Leave it to my mother to choose the most insipid character in the book. In fact, having read everything Dame Christie has written as well, I believe my mother chose the most colorless, uninteresting character in any of Christie’s books. It’s my opinion that she followed my plain first name with the rather extravagant ‘Juliette’ out of some last minute remorse. My first name followed me painfully throughout my school career and caused me considerable grief, right up until I found out Marilyn Monroe’s birth name was Norma too. Suddenly ‘Norma’ didn’t seem nearly as terrible as it had. Of course, when I started college that didn’t stop me from telling everyone I met that my name was Juliette Harcourt. Even Norma Jean saw the marketing value in a name change.

With my new name all sorts of possibilities opened up, and I was ripe to take advantage of them. I was a woman with a Plan. So ‘Norma’ became ‘Juliette’ to her professors, ‘Julie’ or ‘Jules’ to her close friends, and once ‘Jewel’ to a lover that I would have gotten serious about, except he didn’t fit in with my Plan.

The Plan was, and had been, to travel. It really didn’t matter where; I just wanted to see the world. I remember exactly when I realized there was a great big world out there just waiting for me to explore it. Our family went on a camping trip to Victoria B.C. when I was seven. While I was there, I met a French girl named Celeste, and a brother and sister from Quebec named Jaques and Adele. Jaques and Adele spoke a little English, so we all managed to communicate fairly well. At one point, I was trying to explain something to Celeste but I just couldn’t make her understand. In stepped Adele and a stream of French bounced back and forth between the two with much waving about of hands and animated facial expressions. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever witnessed. Celeste’s eyes lit up with understanding as Adele explained what I had been trying to say. I ached to be able to jump in and speak that beautiful language. As the weekend progressed, Celeste and Adele tried on a few of my ‘American’ phrases, and I parroted their beautiful language at every turn. I may not have known what I was saying most of the time, but yes, they assured me, I was pronouncing it correctly. By the end of the long weekend, I had mastered counting to ten in French, but more importantly, I had found something I really loved. Languages.

As much as I loved the exotic sounds of other languages, soon it was the cultures and customs attached to other countries that became the fascination. I knew whatever I ended up doing to make a living had to involve travel. In high school I studied French and Spanish with travel in mind. In my senior year, I met with my guidance counselor, Mrs. Whitney, to prepare my applications for different colleges.

“Have you any idea what you want to do Norma?” she asked, peering at me over her reading glasses.

“No ma’am,” I replied quietly.

“Your grades are excellent, and I see you have done well in your Spanish and French classes.

“I love languages,” I volunteered.

“Mhmmmm.” She made a note on a piece of paper and looked again at my transcripts. “Mr. Thomas tells me you are quite the writer as well. I read the piece you wrote in the school paper about our exchange students from Japan. You captured the challenges of coming to a foreign country very well. I appreciated learning about some of the differences between school in the United States and schools in Japan too.” She smiled encouragingly at me.

I tapped my fingers nervously on the binder in my lap. “I have always wanted to travel,” I blurted out suddenly.

Mrs. Whitney sat back in her chair and removed her glasses. She towered her fingers in front of her and rested her chin on them. “Have you considered Journalism?”

I hadn’t.

“I think you should,” she said thoughtfully. “You have a unique voice. Depending on what you write, you could pair that with travel.”

Gradually, I let this new idea wash over me. I loved writing. I wanted to travel. I had never considered a career that involved both of them. In the pit of my stomach I felt the first flutters of excitement. “How do I find out about that?” I asked her eagerly. Mrs. Whitney put me in touch with the head of the Journalism department at the University, and after meeting with him, my course was set. Juliette Harcourt had a Plan.

Fast forward twelve years. My Big Plan is a reality. I am 34 and busy. BUSY. In my work as a feature writer for various magazines, I spend several weeks a year travelling and then writing about it. Great life. Still, sometimes I wonder if I am the only one in the universe that operates at warp speed all the time. Then I talk to my best friend Laura and I realize it’s not just me…for most of us life is just a collage of moments crammed up tight next to each other so we can fit as many into a day as possible. I’m not sure what our motivation is for living like this, but at some point, I decided I wanted off the ride. At least occasionally. The quintessential queen of ‘Plans’, I found myself without one. I just knew I needed to humanize my life a little and slow down, so I could actually feel the moments I was in while I was in them. I needed to find a way to take some time out and let myself just be.

I had this vague idea of joining a book club or knitting group or taking a gardening class – I was pretty unfocused to begin with. But once I made the decision to steal moments from my own life, I couldn’t let the idea go. The intrigue was irresistible. I started to feel like a secret agent planning an undercover op., except the op was my own life. I kept living my life at the same frantic pace, but just under the surface the idea had taken hold, and I walked around every day hugging it tight to my chest.

As it turned out, just opening myself up to a change in my life was liberating.

Still, I had no idea that my life was about to change in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

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