This month, I paid $8 to watch a dyed-blonde Julia Roberts prance across the globe, draped in what can only be described as prototypes from J. Crew’s “Ashrams and Anchors” line.
And then, a week later, I did it again.
I freely admit that the five hours I spent watching “Eat Pray Love” were not my finest. But as soon as Liz Gilbert, the author of the memoir that started this whole mess, suffered a new age bullshit-laced breakdown in her friend’s office and declared her intention to run away to the world for a year, I was hooked.
It felt like I was looking in a mirror. At the beginning of this summer, I was what is commonly referred to in these parts as “a hot mess.” My grades were unremarkable, my hair was frizzled, my relationship had fizzled. Instead of a flashy internship or a volunteer position teaching children/convicts/children convicts to read, I elected to study abroad in Buenos Aires. I, too, ran away to the world on a mission to EAT, to PRAY and to LOVE.
There is a scene in “Eat Pray Love” in which Liz takes her sprightly Swedish friend Sophie to Naples for a day because their life in Rome — Italian lessons, elaborate dinners, Vespas — has become a grind. The women order two cheese pies at a bustling pizzeria and Liz digs in. Sophie blanches at the sight of so many calories on one plate and declines.
“I have a muffin top,” she says.
“Poppycock,” says Liz. She too has a muffin top.
Her mouth glistens with mozzarella and self-righteousness as she tells Sophie she is giving up on “guilt” and admonishes her to do the same. They will simply buy bigger pants to accommodate their bigger asses and their centeredness.
This struck a chord with me. My days in Buenos Aires were organized around food — breakfasts of tea, toast and a weird jam whose fruit source I never determined and dinners based on meat, bread and more meat. After a three-hour seminar on playwriting in the era of the Proceso, my classmates and I would smother our feelings in fresh pasta or empanadas.
I clearly remember sitting at the kitchen table in my friend’s host mother’s apartment one afternoon. We were chasing miniature alfajores — dense yet delicate shortbread sandwiches — with instant coffee. Our fingers were caked with powdered sugar and I’m pretty sure I had dulce de leche in my hair.
We moaned like the obnoxious 30-something-year-old women in those yogurt commercials — “Catch the bouquet at your friend’s wedding good” / “Do it with the hot best man on the golf course good” — or like Liz and Sophie.
Fuck the fact that our pants, much like those of Liz and Sophie, no longer fit. When you’re in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I learned, you say yes to everything that is delicious and you worry about your ass later.
I threatened to walk out of the movie theater when an escaped, painted circus elephant with mystical powers walked up to Liz as she prepared to leave an ashram in India for a beach hut in Bali.
“If she gets on that elephant,” I told my friend, “I am leaving.”
Luckily, Liz kept her flip flops planted on terra firma and I kept my M&Ms in my stomach. Though there were no painted elephants strolling through Buenos Aires, there was a large Impressionist-style watercolor poster of Anne Frank in the hallway outside my room in my host mother, Pilar’s, apartment.
Pilar often invited me to her special Shabbat dinners. One of the first questions she asked on meeting me was whether or not I was Jewish. Every conversation we had over dinner turned back to a) the Holocaust or b) which celebrities were secretly Jewish. Pilar’s advice to me on almost any subject was couched in the tremendous losses “our people” had suffered during the Holocaust. I should marry a Jew, Pilar said, because “we run the risk of losing our line again.”
Pilar was very, very Jewish. And she quickly set out to make me more so, with mixed results.
Our relationship was very similar to that of Liz and the brusque Texan she meets at an ashram in India halfway through “Eat Pray Love.” Texan Man repeatedly encourages Liz to shut up and move on using a combination of quotations from “Dianetics” and bumper sticker slogans.
The Anne Frank portrait parked right outside my bedroom was the first thing I saw each morning on leaving my room and the last thing I saw before sleep. My gut reaction was to hate it — and to hate my host mom’s pushy spirituality, just as Liz first loathed her Texan.
I never could quite bring myself to board the elephant, so to speak. But as my relationship with Pilar grew stronger, I fought to look past the kitsch — be it cheap pastels or bumper sticker platitude — and focus on the meaning buried inside of it.
I came to Buenos Aires fresh off a breakup back at Yale. But despite my desire to run away to Latin America and not look back, the mess I made in New Haven was never far from my thoughts.
While lurching from class to club to home again, I stewed. I danced, I laughed, I made new friends. I was even pursued by a pocket-sized graduate student named Mike. But still, I stewed.
After watching “Eat Pray Love” the first time, I actually felt worse. When Liz complained about not having been single since the age of 15, I sunk a little lower in my seat and one of my friends shot me a look that had a built-in finger snap. The impact of this upon Liz was clear from the first scene in “Eat Pray Love.” She visits a toothless Bali medicine man on assignment from a magazine, and instead of asking for wisdom, wealth or perfectly stacked chakras, she wants advice on her doomed marriage.
“DIVORCE IS HARD,” Liz later whines to her happily married New York friends, her gluttonous Rome friends, her spiritually centered India friends and her sex-obsessed Bali friends.
“DIVORCE IS HARD,” Pilar told me between sobs one afternoon after a particularly painful court date with her husband. Pilar’s husband had been trying to divorce her for 15 years, but thanks to Argentina’s archaic divorce laws, there was a chance the union wouldn’t be dissolved until 2015. Despite this, Pilar was in the process of trying to date for the first time in 30 years. We unexpectedly found ourselves on equal footing.
After watching Liz break up with her man candies a whopping six times and seeing Pilar struggle with self and singlehood after 25 years of marriage, I can safely say that BREAKING UP SUCKS.
While my classmates in Argentina took advantage of what my host mom euphemistically referred to as “Argentine hospitality,” I floundered. At the time, I thought it was because I was still hurting, and I was. But I also had no idea how to be with my ex-boyfriend, no idea how to be single and no idea how to be myself.
On this point, I realized, Pilar and Liz agreed: Yes, breaking up sucks. But when you’ve lost yourself, it is a very necessary “sucks.” And you can get past it.
I am not ashamed to say that it took a repeat viewing of “Eat Pray Love” for me to agree.