“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that
self may prove to be.”
– May Sarton
Odd as it sounds, I have great affinity for A & W. From one moment to the next, it changed the course of my life.
I went to a school with a lot of tough-assed kids. I’d come from the small prairie city of Saskatoon to take the epic leap from elementary to junior high, and walking the halls of St. Mary, I felt like I’d been dropped into the middle of New York City. The students ranged from grade 7 to 12 and I was terrified. With a tumultuous and unpredictable home life, I was scared of my own shadow and deeply insecure. And you know how bullies love a kid who exudes fear.
My first tormentor, Iris Kessler, sat behind me in far too many classes. Each day she would threaten to beat me up after school and every day she would ridicule whatever I was wearing. There was no pleasing Iris.
For six long years I had to adroitly maneuver through the landmine of the most rag-tag group of kids the school had yet seen. I wasn’t a nerd, I wasn’t sporty, and I wasn’t cool. I fit nowhere. I made random friends with other strays by default.
One of my dad’s new colleagues had an older daughter who attended a nearby public school and she introduced me to the forbidden world of smoking. I saw this as an opportunity to be cool and gain a little acceptance, so I gave it a try. I bought menthol cigarettes to make it more palatable and I made a point of being seen by the tough gang while deeply inhaling—a real accomplishment in their eyes—and I was thrilled when one of the toughies verbally admired the feat. After a nasty bout of strep throat, I quickly realized that I detested smoking and knew it was an incredibly stupid thing to do to my young body.
By grade 10, I was frazzled. Late in grade 9, I tried to get a transfer, but the school powers decided I might be worse off at a neighboring school. They took my desperate request seriously, but I had to stick it out another three years with the ‘meanies’ and crazies.
But something magical happened just as I entered my senior year. I was a highly motivated kid seeking independence. I’d babysat since 11, but didn’t much like caring for toddlers. I’d been impatiently waiting to reach the legal age of taking on a real job and I applied at A & W. It was a natural choice, because it was a family favorite since my sister and I were old enough to sing their (ad) theme song. I was immediately hired and began working 3-4 shifts a week, taking as many as 200 orders a night as a carhop. Oh, how I loved it!
My first day on the job, I waited on an adorable boy named Chip who had a white convertible. Chip, you could tell at a glance, was top-of-the-heap popular.
“I would sure love to see you with that hat off. I’ll bet you’re even prettier with your hair down,” he said as he handed me a $5 tip for a coffee. I’m quite certain I floated back to the waitress’s station on the wings of ecstasy.
Next came the unexpected miracle. All of the kids I worked with were from other schools (or colleges) and all automatically assumed I was cool! I looked “normal,” I acted the same as they did, and there was nobody to tell them any differently.
Overnight, I had a shiny new life. I attracted the attention of a cute boy named Dennis who was two years older and worked in the kitchen, and we began dating. I was allowed to go to Boston Pizza with my workmates after our late night shifts and formed all kinds of bonds and friendships. Our awesome and quirky manager thought I was great and treated me well. These people saw who I was, accepted me, and my confidence (and social life) soared. With my new sense of self, the bullies dropped to the wayside.
Working at A & W was the catalyst for a complete self-esteem makeover and my imprisoned extrovert was able to break free without fear of derision. It changed my life profoundly.
Into adulthood, I discovered a new, expanded version of the A & W effect. Solo travel. Going to a different country alone gives one a sweet slice of freedom. When you meet strangers, there are no preconceived notions of who you are, what you should look like, or how you ought to behave. There is no history of things you said that didn’t sit well, actions you took that others thought were stupid, or blueprinted ways of communicating.
In Italy, I was mistaken for a “famous authoress traveling incognito” (as I’ve mentioned before). On the same trip, my two new gay friends, Wayne and Bruce, asked if I was really the heiress to the St. Hilaire fresh spring water fortune in France.
I wore pretty dresses on my stupendous Italian dates and sped around on Vespas in the middle of Rome with my new friends. I held hands with Bruce from England as we entered the Vatican, looked at each other and burst into tears while Wayne from L.A. irreverently rolled his eyes and made wise cracks.
I fearlessly meandered from Rome, to Florence, to Venice, to Capri in posh breakfast cars and seedy midnight trains. I had heady moments of déjà vu in Florence on the Ponte Vecchio and walking the back canals of Venice and couldn’t get lost if I tried. Because I owned Italy like a Medici, I always had an invite or three each night. I was in my element and emancipated from any self-imposed regulations based on my Canadian life.
When my girlfriend left the island of Mykonos on a trip to Greece, I felt liberated. She was in the midst of a toxic marital breakdown that had tainted our vacation and had caused a raucous argument between us. No longer caught up in the melodrama that was straining our friendship, I leapt around the island like a gazelle.
I bought fresh flowers to fill my small suite and went out to the corner bars until the wee hours to have fascinating conversations with Greeks of all ages and walks of life.
I ran into Patrick, the village icon whom I’d met on a previous trip seven years earlier, and he invited me out near the island of Delos (the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis) on one of his daily fishing excursions. I snorkeled topless as I watched him deftly dive—apparatus-free—down to depths I couldn’t imagine while he dug for sea creatures. We sunned and drank piney Retsina while he dined on fresh urchins with olive oil and crusty bread. There was no one to insinuate that I should put my top on or tell me when to get back to the island. (And no, I did not have a Shirley Valentine boat moment with him, but it’s my favorite scene!)
In Portugal, I roamed Lisbon anonymously to find myself swept away by a tall, charming Frenchman. No one had an entrenched opinion of me or how I should behave, so I felt free to join the ranks of lust-crazed Lisboans making out everywhere without compunction. I had complete autonomy to do as I pleased and I embraced it with every cell of my being.
We can be 100% authentic anywhere, but my point is that we’re usually not. Our jobs force us to behave, dress, and act sometimes in ways that stifle the hell out of us. Our familial roles may be so ingrained that we run the risk of alienation should we opt to behave differently or make radical new choices.
Cultural mores can squelch our natural urges. I would never, ever have done what I did with the Frenchman in Calgary. Our public displays of affection would have been the source of a whole lot of eye rolling, gossip, and outright disgust. In Lisbon, it was a cultural norm and I absolutely loved it. More so than that, it was as though I’d broken out of shackles.
Are their two lives within you? I mean the one you’re living and the one tucked away, as yet unlived. Most of us secretly believe in our greatness, that, given a chance, we could accomplish amazing things.
Have you secretly harboured an escape where you play the starring role, incognito, in a foreign land?
Is there’s something you’ve been hankering to do that’s wildly out of the box?
Strange things can happen when the unlived is made manifest. Weird rashes disappear. Health conditions go into remission. New people show up. Opportunities materialize. Odd sensations of bliss bubble up.
Maybe it’s time to go find a new sub-culture of beings where nobody knows your name. If there’s someone you’ve yearned to be, a soul-ache that on your deathbed you’d regret not having expressed, today just may be the day to hatch a plan.
Viva la vida loca!
You can visit me at www.wandasthilaire.com for an author overview.
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