Booktalk #1: Rules of Civility

Today, I finished one of those books that made me really reluctant to leave the world of its characters, but also excited to evangelize its wonders to anyone I know willing to listen. That would include you, blog readers 🙂

10054335It was Amor Towles’s 2011 novel Rules of Civility.  I’d love to discuss!!

I was inclined to like it from the outset because it is in many ways an ode to Modernism, my favorite era/movement. Still, it was the characters and their dialogue that surpassed my expectations.

Set it Jazz Age NYC (mainly 1937, but told in one extended flashback), its main characters are forging their fates on several interwoven echelons of society. It features the narrator, Katey  Kontent,  now on my list of favorite protagonists.

One resonant passage comes toward the end, as she is contemplating the trajectory of her life, some aspects of which she steered, and others which were decidedly haphazard.

“It is a bit of a clichĂ© to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time – by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?”

The -arkies and I have been grappling with such decisions lately, and I know we’re not alone among my other friends. This is one of those “brief periods” that confronts us with one crossroads after another in a relatively short span of time. They feel hugely decisive in influencing the lives we hope to have. In some ways, what happens is often out of our hands, and it would be presumptuous to suppose we can dictate it all. “Man supposes, God disposes” etc. Beyond that, it’s senseless to agonize over every decision because the outcomes are unknown regardless. And yet… our futures must be acknowledged consequences of our choices. It does matter that I chose to study medicine in Budapest and not epidemiology in NYC. In saying yes to one life, I said no to another. I’ve always been one to wonder what the road not taken holds, even if I am contentedly traveling down the other.

Katey addresses this, too:

I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.

It’s not a new sentiment. Tomas Tranströmer writes that every life “has a sister ship”, which Cheryl Strayed (whose latest book is not-so-coincidentally linked in my last post) says we can only salute from the shore of our lived-in life.  Arthur Miller said that all we can hope for is to “end up with the right regrets”.  Maybe I have to learn to eschew the negative connotations of “regret”, since, in fact, it is necessarily a byproduct of a life with choices.

Today, I got home at 3 am.

It all started yesterday – It was one of those make-up days we had to repay for the previous week’s vacation, but this time, “Saturday was Friday”. That meant that we all had to be in Histology at 8am, and then I had Physics labs until the early afternoon. Most of my classmates also had Statistics and Chem lab, so it was really a full day of school on the weekend.

Since Saturday was thus pretty much shot, we had a late group dinner at 8:30 at a restaurant called Kompot Bisztro, walking distance from my apartment. It’s on a promenade where they’ve already put up Christmas trees and lights, which is ushering in the holiday spirit every time I pass through at night. (Even the shopping mall has beautiful, decorated trees every 10 feet — I have a feeling that Christmas will be especially festive around here.)

I’ve said before how all-around lovely the people in my class our, and the dinner, which removed us from the frenzy of lab and stress of dissection, only affirmed that. There we were, at a long table in the middle of the restaurant, easily conversing about school, food, our respective countries and customs, and laughing all the while. Great people, great time. Our waiter was amiable and accommodating, and spoke English and a few words of Norwegian and Japanese that he eagerly practiced. When he found our where I’m from, he eagerly told me about his upcoming trip to Wisconsin and Illinois. Oddly enough, ESPN was tuned on in the background, and one of the (football?) games broadcast was U of L’s (Jarkie, you’ll be glad to know that this prompted a conversation about the correct pronunciation of your beloved hometown!).

By the time dinner (salmon pesto pasta, somlĂłi for dessert) was over, it was after 11 pm and the restaurant was closed. I’ve said before how 11 is pretty much my bedtime nowadays, but not yesterday!! The night was young, and we were going out!

Although the subways stop running relatively early, the tram line nearby operates 24-hours, so we shoved ourselves in and took it down to Oktogon. As is probably common with nighttime outings, there was some confusion as to where we were headed/whom we were meeting (a flamboyant Hungarian named Szoltán, as it turned out), but the delay was minimal and we proceeded down Andrássy Avenue to a club called “Instant”. It was only my second time on Andrássy, and my first to realize what a grand area it is. It’s on my list of places to explore, both during the day, with all its sites and shops, and at night, when it’s lit up and comes alive.

Budapest has quite an active nightlife, and there were people out and about on the streets and in the trams having a good time in various states of inebriation 🙂 Generally, nothing too wild, though. So, onwards we walked toward Instant, and my first club experience (am I one of the few Duke students never to have set foot in Shooters?!)!  There was a line to get it, but our group got VIP treatment and were allowed almost immediate entrance! #wheelchairperks  That said, “going out” in a wheelchair can be kind of a sticky situation, since crowded dance spaces and spontaneous destinations of unknown accessibility  are the lifeblood of nightlife. Everything worked out so well, though, thanks in large part to the consideration and understanding of these lovely friend/groupmates of mine 🙂

Instant  is one of Budapest’s so-called “ruin pubs” (note the hanging fish in photo. Continuing the surrealist ambience, there were also flying rabbits and probably other bizarre decorations that I didn’t take it). Despite the initial throng of people, the inside was pretty spacious. Some of the group separated to dance and mingle, but most of us found a table and just hung out for a while talking.  Before I knew it, it was past 2am! I wasn’t tired, but it was getting late (so late, it was early!). B was kind enough to escort me back home, since the trams were still quite crowded. The most unpleasant part of the evening was probably finding ourselves next to a far-from-sober guy on the tram who kept toppling a bit too close for comfort, but B put him firmly back in his place!

And with that, I found myself back in the apartment after a fun night out in this new city I’ve come to call home for now. This late-night partying is definitely not something I can imagine doing on a regular basis, but it showed me that the elements of a good time (friends, food, fun) can be present even outside of a cozy apartment/dorm, where most of my socializing has been known to occur.

Surprisingly, I was up and at ’em by 10am this morning, and now I have a hopefully productive Sunday of work and relaxation before me. Still, I plan on returning to my early bedtime tonight.

On another note, it’s 11/11, Veteran’s day, and there 50 more days left of 2012. Here’s to making them count!