My daughter turned two years old the other day. She was unnerved when we started singing to her the moment she woke up. We gave her too many presents and she was overwhelmed.
When I ask her how old she is, she holds her two fingers up, crossed in the symbol for good luck.
The heat of the day began accumulating into suffocating clouds right around when the outdoor party was to begin. We loaded her stroller with cake and blankets and walked over to the park with thunder punctuating our footsteps. Her father brought a gold helium balloon, and it bobbed in the wind of the approaching storm. Lightning and rain under the birch trees. I am not a good enough hostess to gracefully pull off a children’s party during a pandemic thunderstorm. The party was from four to six and the storm arrived right on time. Like the other guests, it didn’t seem to know how to leave, and I had to break up the soggy gathering. Maybe, at least, it’s a party that will be remembered!
I vowed that today would be the day I got back to writing. I reminded myself of this goal as I went through the routines of my morning: I tramped through the slush leftover from last night’s storm and thought “I will write today”; I squeezed in next to the furiously sketching man on the crowded metro and reminded myself, “I will write today” ; “Today is the day”, I promised myself, and disregarded the passive aggressive complaints of my art classmates as we jostled for a spot near the model.
And now I’ve made it home. I’m in front of my computer. But all I can think about is how hungry I am.
Oh, it’s a trope, the hunger of pregnancy. There are countless internet forums where women describe their hunger: ravenous, midnight snacking women doubled over from the early contractions of hunger pains. I read them looking for a description of my own hunger, as though hunger were a new sensation. Of course, it isn’t. But, as a woman who spent some of my young adulthood curating a taste for the empty satisfaction of restraint, it has been illuminating to be so relentlessly reduced to the most basic needs of my organism.
I can’t find a description of my hunger on the internet, because my body only became a cliche when I decided not to listen to it anymore. Now I’m listening: for me, being pregnant has been an insistent invitation to feel again all the things that I learned long ago to numb. My hunger is a pile of hot coals in the bowl of my pelvis, covered with grey ash. The coals draw energy from my limbs, creating a draft and blowing the ash fall away until they burn bright. When my hunger is strong I feel weak and sick. Eating can smother the coals for a little while. That’s what my hunger is like. Even though it sucks, I am glad to finally know it.
We planned our trip as far as here. Now we’ll step off of the train into Asia, without language or much of an itinerary. Andrés, my companion, is so comforting. But sometimes I fight with him, because we are lurching forward on this dark train into the unknown, and it is stressful, even a little scary. We are two tiny scarabs scrambling across the face of the earth, fighting off the ridiculous fatigue of train-lag, and I’m the one carrying too much luggage.
I think every Trans-Siberian tourist must feel like an expert by the end of their journey. We’ve assembled the important and viable groceries to bring on board, manipulated pillows to make the cot more comfortable during sleeping and waking hours, invented close-quarter exercises to get the heart pumping again.
Tomorrow, we’ll arrive in Vladivostok, and the next day, we’ll board a boat headed to Japan. From there we’ll take a train…to another train…to a boat…to a train…
Slow travel requires patience and so so many trains.
From Bulgaria to Vladivostok over land and sea. We have months of traveling behind us, and months more ahead. Thousands of kilometers. The final destination is decided, but the route is unknown and complex. We will seek visas that we don’t have yet in hot cities with consulates and colonial histories. We will try to find a beach to rest on. It is difficult to imagine these cities, this heat, this beach, while sitting on a train on the far edge of Siberia, a few miles from China. Eventually, though, our imaginations will draw small lines across the map of South East Asia, and a plan will emerge, connecting our reality with our destination. It’s already happening. All we need is the internet…
The staircase that led down to the gully was painted red and stood out against the light mist that rose up from the spring. Francine let a woman pass Her on the steps. She wore a brown coat, and a crown of leaves haloed her head. On such a mature woman the look was majestic, if a little unusual, thought Francine. The woman passed with a nod, and walked on to blend into the yellow leaves of the forest.
Kolemenskoye park, in the south of Moscow, had become Francine’s Sunday refuge soon after she moved to the city 6 months ago. The park was carefully maintained and heavily trafficked, but mystery managed to hover around the knobby branches of the apple trees, and near the tombstones of the orthodox church’s overgrown cemetery. The public orchards reminded Francine of her family’s fruit grove back home in Minnesota, where she used to spend days wandering along the shore of their small pond. In Kolemenskoye Park, the trees were tied with colorful ribbons. Once she had seen a man, bare chested, anointing himself with the water from the spring. And now there was this woman, dressed as the Queen on the Forest with her crown of leaves. As soothing as the park was, it was also full of reminders that she was far from home.
At the bottom of the staircase, the sound of the spring was loud. It’s path had been guided in some places with smooth round stones. But the rocks were eroding and the stream bed spread, matting the soft grasses into mud. The mist blew off of the stream, shifting into the banks of purple foxgloves and becoming thicker and heavier, and impenetrable to the eye.
Francine was alone here. Over by the bridge, where she had once seen the bare chested man ritualizing in the water, there was nothing but the morphing shadows of mist. It muffled every sound but the popping stream. There was a sudden small explosion by Francine’s arm as one of the foxglove’s seedpods popped, launching the ripe seeds against her bare skin. She brushed her hand over the plant and more seedpods sprang open. It was a miniature fireworks display, fit for a fairy, and Francine remembered how she and her sister used to play with the flowers they found around the orchard, pretending that they were dresses. Francine wondered if her sister’s daughter was old enough to play fairy games. She tried to calculate how many years had passed since they had last spoken, but with a brush of her hand dismissed that line thinking. Seeds sprang out of their pods and scattered over the mud at her feet, and Francine remembered again why she had come down to the gully.
While we were in Berlin, Andrés and I visited a few friends scattered around Germany. These are old friends, from different stages in our lives. Friends who we might never have mentioned to one another if we hadn’t been in their vicinity. They all very generously made time and space for us, rearranging so that we could be comfortable as their guests. Ironically, the knowledge of their sacrifices is what made me uncomfortable!
I try to be a generous and considerate guest. These seem like qualities that would make me an easy person to have over: I’ve learned for the mistakes of some of the guests I’ve hosted, who were happy to fill up my time and space without showing any indication of their appreciation. But after exhausting myself yet again with my own non-stop dinner conversation, after awkwardly paying for yet another round of drinks, and thanking our hosts for the hundredth time for their hospitality, I knew it was time to reconsider the limits of my “generosity” and “consideration.” My feeling of indebtedness was sucking all of the fun out of a rare chance to visit.
I blame my discomfort as a guest on being out of practice: in New York, I haven’t seen most of my friends’ homes. It’s much more common that we spend time together somewhere public, like a museum or a restaurant. As for spending the night at another person’s house…now that I live with my boyfriend, that is something I only do at my parents’ (where being a guest is a whole different art form, unfortunately for them). For the future me and other sensitive souls who struggle with graciously accepting generosity, here are a few guidelines I’ve come up with for striking that fine balance between consideration and discomfort when staying at someone’s house.
1) Unless you have a very good reason to think otherwise, assume that your host is happy that you are there, and don’t think about it again.
2) Bring a gift. Something that is nice, and personal if possible. You can calibrate the size/value of your gift depending on the length of your stay. We did not plan ahead, so we resorted to small, impersonal food items. I was not satisfied with these offerings, and in the end I bought everyone dinner, drinks…it went on and on.
3) Leave a thank you note. Between the gift and the note, you have done your thanking duty. Use “thank you” sparingly beyond that.
4) Unless your host wants to spend every moment together, come up with plans for yourself outside of the house and communicate them clearly. Make sure that they know that they are welcome to join you, but also give them the chance to use your out-of-the-house time to do whatever they have to do.
5) Accept what your hosts offer graciously, without much protest. If they’re offering you their bedroom to sleep, or a ride to the train, its because they can and because they want to. Thank them and leave it at that!
I don’t know why I’ve developed into such an apologetic guest, but this recent experience of staying with so many pragmatic Europeans showed me how annoying a sheepish guest can be. Do you have any “guesting” tips to add to my list?
Traveling, for me, is a state of heightened vulnerability, especially when the travel is done outside of the reaches of my native tongue. Without a home, without a routine, without words and their elaborate meanings, all I have to rely upon are crude sounds and the blunt signifiers of my body. But the movements of my body are infused with culture, too, and even the basic side-to-side shake of a head that I use as a “no” means a degree of “yes” in Albania.
We’ve been traveling the Balkans for two weeks: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. It took me a week to stop feeling unnerved by the humorless looks of strangers, the stares of the old couple following us as we stroll by their porch in the evening, the moody young mother pushing her chubby baby past us in a stroller. The cafe waiter solemnly asking for our order. In the first towns we visited, where the tourism industry seems to be predominantly a local one, I wondered if our blatantly foreign presence was unwelcome. Where are the smiles?
Both traveling and while at home, I smile a lot. I greet strangers with a smile, I smile at my loved ones. I smile at waiters and the workers at offices I resent having to visit. When I’m alone I practice making my eyes twinkle a little, because I like to cultivate a friendly look. Usually people smile back at me, and if they don’t, I understand it as a message: “I’m not interested in interacting with you”. Which is fine. I don’t want to interact extensively with most strangers. My indiscriminate smiling is simply to establish a general good will. My good will, it turns out, is nothing special. It doesn’t actually run that deep.
I’ve realized that here, in these lands of carefully distributed smiles. I might interpret the faces as closed, but the truth is we’ve encountered nothing but generosity and open hospitality. We’ve met strangers who want to spend time with us, who are interested in wrestling with our mismatched languages to learn something about one another. The old couple made endless phone calls at 11:00 pm to help us find a taxi. The young mother laughed as her baby giggled at the silly faces we made. The waiter’s face broke open with a smile when we tried our Albanian phrases on him, and he shared his mulberry rakija with us. Sometimes it even unsettles my jaded sensibility how endless this generosity appears to be: where is the limit? I’m the first to smile, but my limit for friendliness usually comes first. Once again, traveling teaches me that my fascinating (for me) and rapid judgements of strangers are usually dead wrong. Happily, I’m open to revision.
Questions I ask myself as I pack for a 6-month journey. What packing tips do you have?
First choose the bag. Small day-trip backpack, or huge rolling check-on? If I plan on scaling mountains, I’ll bring my sticky, sweat-stained mochila with its dozens of swinging straps.
Next choose what to bring. Do I want to blend into the shadows of forests and mosques? Do I want, for the first time, to dance in a spotlight with tall, sparkling shoes? Will I need the contents of my medicine closet, or can I trust in the remedies of the countries I visit? This could be my chance to read a tome like Middlemarch or War and Peace. This could be my chance to write a tome, unnamed as of yet. This could be my chance to read the James Patterson and Sue Grafton books that wash up upon the shore of my trip. Technology. Shoes. Jackets. Games. These are things that prop me up in my day-to-day life, but I suspect they’ll weigh me down on the road.
The question is: Can I pack a little space to grow?
I did something crazy the other day. Something dangerous. It was risky, and exciting, and definitely scary.
I bought a bathing suit online.
Not just any bathing suit: a red bikini. In a cut I’ve never tried. On the model, the bikini bottom looked sporty and sleek: high-cut legs with an even higher, snug waist band. A lifeguard might wear this swimsuit, or a volley ball player. On my fuel-efficient body, though, those high leg holes could easily end up being snug highlights for the extra I carry around my hip bones. A too-tight waist-band might leave me with bumps in unexpected places. As for the backside…so many things can go wrong! Aware of the realities of my body, I bought the bikini anyway, seduced by the look the model presented me with.
It arrived today, neatly folded inside of a bag inside of an envelope inside of a box. When I held the red bottoms up for inspection, they looked like huge red granny panties. What a disaster: Did I order too large? Slipping them on, I noticed that there was none of the familiar tightness of ill-fitting clothes. They pulled up easily over my calves, my thighs, my hips… suddenly I was comfortably wearing a red bikini bottom, perfectly snug in all the right places! At least it felt that way: the final test would be the mirror. It was time to see how my dimensions looked in this flashy style. Baggy fabric, bulging seams, see-through fabric, strange shadows, these are among the terrible possibilities of an unfamiliar swimsuit. I reminded myself I like the way I look no matter what. I erased the model’s image from my memory and, without sucking in my stomach, I faced my reflection. Incredibly, unexpectedly, joyously, I looked great! It was me that I saw, pale and full, nothing like the model, but rocking a red bikini that perfectly flatters the body that I have. Living dangerously has its pay-offs.