Devoid of a plan

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…

Kolemenskoye Park

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.

Guesting

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?

Our hosts in Konstanz brought us swimming.

What does friendliness look like to you?

Homemade mulberry rakija and Berry’s from the backyard, compliments of the chef.

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.

Baggage

Questions I ask myself as I pack for a 6-month journey. What packing tips do you have?

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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?

Flirting with danger

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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.

Perspective shift

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Lying on my back with my legs in the air, I can reflect on how beautiful my feet are. The blood that has pooled in my toes drains back down, joining the reverse current of a rare low tide. I am fascinated by the pulse of the vein near the tendons that link my toes to my ankle. The left foot has a slower pulse.  It pushes my skin with less vigor than the right one. I wonder what this means.

I have wide feet with high arches. The curve of my insole gracefully hugs the ball of my other foot. It is comforting to nestle my feet together like this. My feet have always been beautiful to me, even when I suffered from not enjoying my body. My feet are very functional. As a child, I was barefoot for most of the summer, even in the city (I’m not sure what my parents were thinking). Now I take care of my feet: in the shower I scrub them with pumice, and at night I rub some coconut butter into my soles. I don’t paint my toenails, because ever since I temporarily lost eight of them the polish seems to do more harm than good. I still let vanity persuade me to make bad shoe choices though, and even now I am nursing four blisters. These feet get me around. They hold me up. They are the perfect place to begin a perspective shift: feet to the sky!

 

 

 

I’m bad at Good-Byes

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“I’m no good at good-byes.”

Have you said this before? I certainly have. And I’ve chosen a life-style that, until recently, had me saying “good-bye” every few years as I moved my life around countries and continents. In every new city I fantasizing about starting a home there, but soon I knew (even if I didn’t admit it to myself) that I would be leaving. “Good-bye” became a part of every interaction, every experience, every home, even if the actual leave-taking was months or years away. When I finally left a place, I mourned the life I abandoned. I dreamed of a victorious return. But then I moved on. My real home was my parents’ home, and it was potent enough for me to feel content with my dozens of makeshift ones around the globe.

I’ve now lived in New York for longer than I ever lived anywhere besides my parents’ place. Time, relationships and maturity have helped me start a real home here, a home of good friends and layered experiences. I am making this home with someone else, and we have decided to leave it. The “good-bye” we’re planning is a temporary one (we will return!). Somehow, though, this leave taking is dredging my soul in an unexpected way. I’m just no good at “good-byes!”

We plan on leaving for 6 months. We will be traveling around the globe, together, being a home for each other in the midst of new places. But I am sad to leave what we have here: The home of our routines. The home of our proximity. Leaving is scary in a way it never was when I was in my twenties, when I hadn’t let myself commit to anything yet. “Good-bye” for this temporary leave-taking looks like a mishmash of hasty coffees and dinners with friends I only see occasionally. It looks like a party we haven’t planned yet, and trips, canceled and undertaken, to see my beloved parents and my far-flung friends. It looks like a real good-bye, a messy one. The kind I’m good at.

I feel like I am losing something because of this good-bye. We are losing jobs. We are losing that comfortable rut that we’ve carved to bind the weeks of the past with the weeks of the future. But these are things we want to lose: that it why we are making this jagged leap in a new direction. Is it possible this feeling of loss is simply a by-product of all of the bad good-byes I have said before, both the heart-wrenching and the flippant? Maybe there is a ghostly raft that floats deep inside of me of all the people and places I said good-bye to and left behind forever. They are mad at me for taking leave so dishonestly (“I’ll be back!”). This time I mean it though. I’m just no good at good-byes.

 

Self Portrait

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This is a self portrait I have been working on. It is oil on a medium-sized canvas. I like painting self portraits because it’s interesting to look at myself this way, with such intensity but also without judgement.

Looking at the painting, though, I can see that there’s a lot of work to do, especially on the nose!