Time to Dance
I woke up early in a Galway hostel feeling sad to the bone. I tiptoed out of the dorm room to the dining hall. As I waited for my brown bread to toast, I scouted a place to sit. All the tables were filled with early-rising backpackers but I saw one open spot across from a slight man twice my age. I hoped I wouldn’t have to make conversation.
“Good morning,” said the man, looking up with kind eyes. “How are you?”
I immediately broke into tears. “I didn’t think it was going to be like this. I’m really lonely.”
He paused and took a sip of tea. “Well, that’s good; don’t fight it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, thinking he hadn’t heard me.
“When you feel a feeling really deeply, and you don’t fight it, that’s when life opens up and you see it in a new color.”
He took another sip. I was silent.
“And with every new color, the world is more beautiful,” he said, smiling. “The loneliness won’t last. But the color will; it’s yours to keep.”
The Dream Scenario
I was fresh off a lucrative summer business venture as a cutlery saleswoman in Minnesota. It was one neighborhood, Sunfish Lake, that had put me on the map. I had made my way around the lake selling hundreds of knives—all from referrals. It was effortless and I was astonished. On a stage at the end of the summer, I accepted a two-foot trophy adorned with flaming knifes. I was at a convention somewhere in South Dakota and hundreds of people were standing and applauding.
“Hannahan, I have big plans for you,” said my manager later that night.
But I had my own. I had saved enough money to take a semester off from college and travel abroad for the first time. I planned to tackle Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, England, and Scotland for five months on my own.
I imagined walking through the streets of Paris at sunrise, wearing a scarf tied with a sophisticated knot and red lipstick—the scent of pain au chocolat wafting from a patisserie. A sepia-toned slideshow of me coming of age flashed through my mind —getting cultured, swept off my feet, picking up a little Italian here, a bit of French there.
But a month in, it looked different. The only things sepia-toned were my teeth from chain-drinking cups of Barry’s Irish tea. I spent the days wandering the streets of Dublin, Belfast, and Galway—getting cold, then returning to a hostel to read left-behind novels in my bunk. At night, I’d venture out to a café, eat leek soup, and journal about a guy I missed in Milwaukee.
Some moments felt great, but they were fleeting. I would stand on a bridge with a pretty view, peel an orange, and while eating it feel at peace. Then when it was gone, I’d think, Ok, now what?
After talking with the man at breakfast in the Galway hostel, I decided I needed a change of scenery to get my trip back on track. What better place to see new colors than in France? I thought. The City of Light, the Riviera, Provence—I can’t go wrong. But when I got to Avignon, loneliness tracked me down again. I began to second-guess my decision to travel alone.
I should have known this would happen. I had grown up as an observer—watching my siblings and friends who seemed to be able to immerse themselves in the present, living from moment to moment. I had wondered what that felt like—not to be thinking about what was going on all the time, but to truly feel it. Traveling alone seemed like the answer. I would be open to anything. But as the days went by, I went further inward—wrapping myself in layer after layer of gauze. I felt like a failure.
In Avignon, I wandered around the cobblestone paths looking for a spot to read until my train left. I was lugging around my backpack, which had grown to the size of a well-fed seal.
Then I saw them.
Willowy bodies fanned across the lawn by the Palais des Papes. They looked like a shoot for an edgy perfume ad. A mating call. So much bare skin. So much snug fabric. There were six guys and one girl, who was wearing a bustier. Some were playing instruments. Some sang along. Others were just splayed out on the grass, soaking in their collective coolness. Modern-day Sirens. I couldn’t stop staring.
The girl motioned for me to sit down. “Come,” she said smiling.
Does this kind of stuff really happen? I thought.
Any other time I would have made up an excuse, but I was so desperate to feel something different, I sat down. She asked if I was American and I asked if it was obvious. We laughed. I asked if she was from Ireland. She was from Germany, but her English teacher was Irish. She pulled a German/English dictionary out of her purse. She told me her friends didn’t speak English well but she wanted to learn because she was a poet.
“Why English?” I asked.
“It’s simple. The word ‘strawberry.’ It’s so beautiful. In German, it’s ‘die Erdbeere,’” she said with a pinched face.
“Straw-ber-ry,” she repeated, smiling, like she was tasting one for the first time.
Then the guy in pleather pants stood up and said something in German.
“Come,” said the girl, gathering her things. “It’s time to dance.”
“Thanks, but I have a train to catch.”
“What time does it depart?”
I considered lying, but couldn’t. “Ahh, 8 o’clock. The last train to Paris.”
“Not a problem.” She turned to her friends with a hand in the air. “She will join us.”
The guy with the sleeveless half-shirt slung my bag over his shoulder and stepped into the group of guys walking away.
I smiled at the girl, trying to hide my apprehension, and followed.
We stopped in the parking lot next to a dirty white van with no windows and, as I soon saw, no seats—the exact vehicle I had been warned about in my elementary school Stranger Danger classes. I hesitated, but thought, What are the chances? then ducked into the back.
Leap of Faith
First it sounded like a bathtub-sized pumice stone exfoliating the bottom of the van. Then there was a bucking bronco jolt. Thrown forward, we braced ourselves on whatever we could: amps, boxes, a cooler, my backpack, each other.
The driver turned off the chest-thumping techno music and said something in German. Everyone laughed but me.
The girl translated with a smile, “We are stuck. Stuck on a rock.”
At this point I knew three things: We had been driving for over an hour on the highway, we had turned onto a dirt road, and now we were in the middle of the woods somewhere outside of Avignon.
My scalp got hot and prickly. Did I really get into the back of a windowless van with strangers? I thought. Mostly male strangers! How could I be this dumb?
“Remember, Coletta. All men are scum,” my dad had said, making eye contact over the kitchen counter the night before I left.
My brother, eating a chicken wing over the sink, looked up. “Yep.”
My other brother, sitting next to me, nodded with raised eyebrows.
Damn it, am I going to die? I wondered. I mean, what’s really going on here? A drug cartel? Gang initiation? Organ poachers? Nooo, the girl is nice. I can trust them. They just love to dance in the middle of the day…in the middle of the week…in isolated places far away from where they could have danced. Yeah, this isn’t looking good.
I pushed myself up from the ratty blanket covering the floor of the thick-aired van and craned my neck to look out the only window in the back. The tops of spiny trees appeared as the wake of dust settled behind us.
I sat back down, faking a smile. The guy in the passenger seat hopped out and slid open the side door. We crawled over the cords, snaked in tight piles.
The girl turned to me. “We are close. We will walk,” she said, lacing her arm through mine.
The cratered road ended at a clearing. We were on a peninsula on a lake and there was no sign of anyone in any direction. A few minutes later, the guys pulled up and unloaded a generator, a card table, two huge amps, and a turntable.
One of the guys cracked open the cooler and passed around cold, stubby bottles of Bière Spéciale as the punctuated beat climbed. The tightness in my chest began to dissolve. Oh my god this is really happening. The same three notes repeated. Then faster.
Woven into the mix, a deep voice boomed, “Tanz, tanz, tanz, tanz.” Then on a loop, a sexy woman inhaled. Then exhaled. The music ramped up until we were like stones getting polished in a rock tumbler. There were only eight of us, but we stayed close as penguins. Bumping into each other, trying on each other’s moves. We danced like this for hours. Wild. Drumming up clouds of russet dust.
I looked at the girl in the bustier. Eyes closed. Head riding the beat like a boat in the waves. She was the queen and this her land. She swirled her arms through the air and moved her hips in her first language.
The sun toasted our heads and noses and cheeks. At one point the guys pranced with spaghetti legs in a circle around the girl and me. I couldn’t stop smiling. If we had spontaneously ignited I wouldn’t have been surprised.
And then when my limbs felt phantom, the beat cranked up again until it exploded. Our hands shot up into the sky like it was the end of a 20-year drought. And we danced even harder.
The lake breeze crawled over the peninsula and threaded though the tall grass, clearing the dust. The pretty, controlled movements I learned in dance class as a girl unfastened until I was a crane building up momentum to fly off the lake. I thrashed my arms, fanned out my chest, and lifted my face to the sun.
I wanted to run at life, jump up, and wrap my arms and legs around it. I wanted to bury my face in the buttery light bobbing and weaving through the reeds and curl up with the earthy wind, carrying the thaw of spring, until morning. I felt it sneak up the back of my shirt as I twirled. A thousand pounds of self-consciousness and fear unspooled from around my body.
In a few hours, I’d catch my train at Avignon, waving as the van pulled away. But for those moments, as I danced with strangers in the middle of the woods, thousands of miles from home, I saw the world set ablaze, filtered through the hues of spontaneity, trust, and abandon—colors that were now mine for the ride.
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