By: Jen Shoop

“There is a bigness inside me.”

I wrote this on a plane ride from Amsterdam to Berlin when I was 20. I remember it scrawled in loopy cursive in my tattered journal – the cursive a kind of personality I was trying on at the time, as ill-suited to my hand as the ambitious words I’d written with it. I’d just visited the Rijksmuseum, and reconnected with a childhood friend of my brother’s, proving in some way that I was worldly and capable. Pantomiming sophistication, I had bangs and a credit card and I spoke nearly fluent French. At some point as we’d meandered to the hotel from a loud brasserie-type dinner, we skirted the Red Light District, and my brother’s friend told me: “That look you’re making — it’s just like your mother,” by which I presume he meant I looked off-put, or worried, to be out in a foreign city amidst its raucousness. (My mother would not have approved of the late night walk alongside the brothels of Amsterdam.) I adored my mother and missed her horribly and had wept like a baby into her coat when she materialized in the lobby of a hotel in Dijon a few weeks prior, but I felt dressed-down by his observation. You might be in Amsterdam, he was saying, but you’re still the Jen I know. He would later sleep on the floor of the hotel room so that I could take the bed. I don’t know how we hadn’t worked out the arrangements before then (ah, to be 20), but I suppose I’d assumed I’d crash on a couch or that there would be twin beds. Instead: “Your mother would kill me if I didn’t,” he explained. “So would your brother.” Generous, courteous, and avuncular — but I felt like a child.

The next morning, I sat on the tarmac writing feverishly about my chrysalid self. I did not know what I meant by “bigness,” just that I felt destined for other things. I wanted to shed my girlhood, to re-cast myself. Mainly, I wanted to be seen as smart and independent. This was why I had strenuously pushed to study abroad, even though I was desperately in love with my new boyfriend (a young Mr. Magpie) back in Virginia and had cried the entire plane ride from Dulles to Charles de Gaulle, and sniffled while en route to the smaller Lyon St. Exupery after. AirFrance lost my luggage, and I cried on the phone to my father about it as soon as I got in. I was disgusted with myself for my childlike puling but I was also disoriented, and scared, and, you know — “it’s never the cream,” anyway. What I should have said was: “I miss you so much, and I doubt my decision making in coming here,” so that he could have reassured me that I was doing something necessary and fabulous that I’d never regret. Instead, I sniffled about the bags on the public phone on the first floor of the hostel I was staying in the night I’d arrived, before the University had re-directed us to our individual lodgings, which were strewn about the city. The phone was at the foot of the red carpeted front stairs, so fellow patrons stomped by and through my threnody. I felt disastrously alone.

But that phone call ended, and my luggage was restored to me, and I moved into a small and barn-like first floor apartment that opened up to an interior courtyard from which I could see a small square of cerulean each morning. The apartment itself had no windows and a mouse problem. We learned to thread our plastic bags of food through the brass chandelier at night by standing unsteadily on the kitchen counter — otherwise, the mice would feast at midnight. You could hear them running down the walls after dark, inches from my pillowcase on my lofted bed. When I approached my landlady about this, she shrugged and said, “Bienvenue a France.” My Dad proposed, in earnest, that I buy a cat. I did not, and instead felt sorry for myself, until I realized that the rodent infestation was an invitation to get out of dodge. And so I did. I traveled nearly every weekend (and some weeks) of my time there. I visited many cities across Greece, Germany, Italy, England, Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and of course France. At the time, you could take 30-40 Euro flights all over Europe and the trains offered student/junior rates, so the transit costs were more than reasonable. I often stayed with friends also studying abroad across Europe, or split a hostel room with a fellow student from my own program. On all of these trips, I’d write detailed itineraries in my pocket notebooks, jotting down museum hours and addresses, how to get to/from the airport using public transit, hostel reservation numbers, and the like. I learned I preferred to travel and sightsee in the mornings, walking the cities by foot and stopping in to see highlighted landmarks and especially art museums by midday, and then shopping and reading in the afternoons. I was nearly always early to bed (unless visiting my dear friend Allison in Rome, who would take me to bustling, exclusive clubs and parties with actual Italians — she always knew how to get on a list, much to my persistent wonder) so I could get started early the next day.

I once splurged at a luxury hotel in Berlin when I was in the city by myself for one night — my travel companion had split off for Ireland — and felt like a sophisticated world traveler. I wrote my parents a long note on the hotel letterhead, reassuring them (and myself) that I was looking after myself. I then spent a small fortune phoning Mr. Magpie from the hotel room. I had earlier that month called my father in a panic because the airport hotel I’d stayed in outside of Heathrow had insisted I’d made a string of room service charges (I hadn’t), but I’d been in such haste to get to my flight, I’d given up and paid for them anyway. My Dad was financing most of my travels that semester, so I felt guilty about the overcharge. “It’s OK. These things happen,” my Dad had said. “The hidden costs of travel.” I never told him this (sorry, Dad), but I privately considered my hotel splurge in Berlin and my long distance call to Landon “the hidden costs of travel,” too, as it was the only time in my life I have ever traveled entirely by myself in a foreign country, and I felt cut-loose, groundless, and lost in ways the comfort of that hotel and the connection to Mr. Magpie assuaged. I made up for the extravagance by staying in the cheapest hostels I could find on my next excursions — which included a room in Venice that had an actual hole in the wall, through which you could see people walking by, and a shared room in Prague with something like 20 bunk beds in a row that had me awake all night clutching my belongings to my chest. (My travel companion and I switched accommodations in both situations the following nights.)

But all this to say, fully recognizing how privileged I was to be traveling on my father’s dime, and also acknowledging that I am playing the world’s tiniest violin in even contemplating these grand experiences as character-cultivating:

I was learning to listen to myself, and to take care of her. If my dad noticed the expense of that Berlin trip, he never commented. His silence, too, a lesson: I trust you; you should, too.

Somewhere between my epicediac plane ride to Lyon and that lonely night in Berlin, I had begun to settle into myself. I was still open desire, pointed anywhere — I could not tell you what “bigness” I was after — but I had begun to feel my own shape.

I turn 40 this summer and find myself laughing and cringing at the Jen presented on this page. She was sheltered, and nervous, and navel-gazing, and hungry in ways she couldn’t parse. But as I’ve written elsewhere recently, the Jen of 20 raised the Jen of 40. Experience is an effective teacher. I’m grateful for her garish missteps and weepy phone calls and especially the audacity of her decision to travel all over Europe because of a few mice. (I may never again have the opportunity!). Mainly I’m thankful that she tapped into herself as she wandered through ancient towns, fighting off disillusion and self-doubt by instead repeating: “There is a bigness inside, and I must find out what it is.”

What was the bigness I was sensing? Have I found it?

Last week, Mr. Magpie and I went to see the new Bonnard exhibit at the Phillips Collection, and I was moved by the narrowness and intimacy of his subject matter. Most of his paintings (and there are many!) portray views from rooms he worked in and loved; interiors of homes; his wife in a bathtub; his many dogs; the gardens of his various habitations. For Bonnard, the worthiest subjects were sitting right next to him. Which is to say that we might go searching for grand castles and banners and regalia but find that the most valuable things in life fit on the couches of our living rooms. I know I’ve found that bigness. I went searching all over Europe and through most of my 20s and part of my 30s to get to it, and here it is: a small life, lived fully, with a pen in hand and a loving husband and children in heart. What more is there?


+On my reunion with my mom in Dijon.

+What are your favorite souvenirs?

+On my grandmother losing her only daughter to cancer.

Shopping Break.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the links below, I may receive compensation.

+Tinx just went wild over this liquid blush in shade Dolce Vita, saying it achieves the effect of “running up a flight of stairs” or “just having made out with someone.” Ummmm sold – I ordered on the spot. Two other blushes I love: Merit’s Balm Blush in Stockholm and Apres, and Goop’s Colorblur — I love all the colors but especially Afterglow during winter. I wear either Merit or Goop daily! Now going to try the Nars!

+Mentioned in passing yesterday that Lake just launched its new spring collection. I’m obsessed with this “brunch dress” (would be great for Easter) but also love the shorter hammock dress (available in two great patterns) and the pima long-short sets continue to be my favorite pajama style!

+Chicest crossbody bag — love the green trim.

+Great oversized, boxy, logo-less sweatshirt for lounge.

+My daughter played with this at a friend’s house and literally would not put it down. A fantastic travel toy idea – I am packing for summer trips.

+I was just raving about gingham and discovered these High Sport-esque gingham pants from Sezane’s new collection a minute too late — looks like they’re sold out in most sizes, including my own. Snag if you’re lucky!

+I just bought mini this bikini. She loves bikinis!

+Speaking of Sezane, their latest mini launches have been selling through crazy fast. From this past Sunday’s launch, you can still sang this beautiful embroidered shirtdress (another Easter contender — Mom, you’d look amazing in this) and this pretty caftan-like style.

+This sage green floor lamp is under $100 and would look so chic in a nursery or reading nook.

+Speaking of lighting, a reader requested table lamps for her family room. Our interior designer is proposing gourd lamps in a fun color that look like these. I also have always loved this one from Aerin.

+This tissue box cover sparks such ridiculous joy for me. I can’t explain it but I hated seeing that damned Kleenex box! This one reminds me of a high end fabric by Schumacher.

+I love this travel cosmetics case when I’m going anywhere by car — if traveling by plane, it feels so bulky / takes up a lot of room in suitcase. It holds everything!

+These toddler espadrilles from Gap are adorable!

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10 thoughts on “Bignesses.

  1. I absolutely loved this essay! I so wish I had taken the opportunity to study abroad; I missed out on something expansive and eye opening, all because I was afraid of what I’d be missing out on during my regular school year.

    1. Hi Mary – Thank you so much for letting me know! I’ve done similar in other areas of my life – picked the safer bet and always wondered what if I hadn’t? I feel you! xx

  2. What a beautiful and evocative reflection, to echo the other commenter. I so recall that feeling of trying another personality on for size while studying abroad but sometimes getting hung up on my own selfness. My study abroad experience in Nairobi required that I swiftly adopt an unflappable, bombproof exterior and blase confidence in navigating the city, lest I make myself even more of a target than I already was as a very obvious foreigner. A real fake it till you make it situation! The best judge of my success is was if the public minibus conductor didn’t try to overcharge me on the fare after I told him my destination. The day he tried to try his luck with me but quickly relented after I shot him a look over my sunglasses was the day I really felt like I MADE it. And then there were times when my carefully constructed edifice just wasn’t enough. All learning experiences that I carry with me.

    1. OMG! Love the look over the sunglasses! Epic! This visual is going to stick with me and bolster my confidence when I need to “shoot the look” next…

      You absolutely nailed the sensation I was trying to capture in this essay with this phrase: “trying another personality on for size but sometimes getting hung up on my own selfness.” Yes! Exactly so!


  3. This was such a beautiful evocative piece. I felt wistful for my European travels in my 20s. Those first glimmers of adulthood and independence came rushing back to me. Reading your essay, I am so glad you got to watch Before Sunrise! Thank you for making my heart sing and my brain recall. I went to the Bonnard exhibition this past Sunday. I was reminded (as you mentioned) of the intimacy and beauty he documented and how much of it was so close at hand. I was not familiar with the large works; the palette he used for the larger works was more bright and joyful than I had expected. The work that resonated with me the most was the small portrait of his lover/muse as she put on her black stockings. So quiet and so revealing. I am already planning my return trip! It is an exhibit that warrants several visits.

    1. Thank you so much – it’s so insightful you referenced “Before Sunrise,” because it, along with “The Worst Person in the World” (a Magpie – was it you? – mentioned this in the same breadth as the Linklater trilogy), dredged up a lot of memories about the wandering and energy of my early 20s. I remember after “Worst Person in the World” in particular talking to Landon about how when I was in my 20s, I felt like this unbridled energy/drive pointed in any direction, attracted to anything that seemed exciting.

      Thank you so much for writing —

      I’m so glad you loved the Bonnard as much as I did! I loved that painting too and was generally moved by the sequence of portraits of his wife in the tub. So intimate and mundane but exceptional and I love the way he plays with framing / depth (there are often doorways, panels of wallpaper, edges of mirrors and windows). You begin to see the fundamental shapes of things.

      I think because of Tilly I was moved by all the dog portraits (!). And also the still lifes of his desk — in their own way, creation stories?


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