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!

Friends 2

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“I was a little girl once, just like you,” my Granmi tells me. It’s fall, and we are sitting together on the front steps, sharing the woolly blanket my ma and pa keep in the truck of their car. It smells of gasoline and scratchy crumbs are stuck between its matted fibers.

On the street, fall leaves pile up against the fences and gather thickly in the crook of the roots of trees. I want to shrug out of that too-hot blanket and fly down the steps. I want to find a good stick, and I want to poke at the leaf piles. There are worms and rolly-pollies hidden in their damp centers. I like to collect them in jars.

“When I was a little girl, we lived in New York City. I used to play with my dolls on the sidewalk in front of the house. I had a little pram where I could fit them all in, and I’d roll them back and forth.” My Grandmi tugs at the blanket and pulls me closer to her bony leg. She smells of dusty flowers and pennies.

If I were alone, I’d take of my shoes and find some mud. I like to watch it ooze between my toes. If the mud was thick, it tickles a bit between my pinky toe and the other one. I would mix the worms and the role-pollies with mud, and sticks and leaves. I would feed my potion to the trees, to help them survive through the winter.

“And wouldn’t you know it, I was shy, too. Exquisitely shy. Just like you are, my dear. Do you know that you are shy?”

The blush that reddens my cheeks feels just like a dirty scratchy blanket. There is a tree in Mr. Neilson’s yard that has a lot of eyes. I love to sit in that tree. If I were there right now the fall air would cool my cheeks and I would leave my muddy footprints on the branches. The tree would thank me for the potion, and let me stay there as long as I wanted. My Grandmi is old, and so is the tree, but only the tree is my friend.

Friends

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Irene thought it was Jacinta she saw at the market that Friday, but the other woman’s behavior was so bizarre that she couldn’t be sure. It was stir-fry night, and Irene was standing by the shiitake bin when, across the room, she saw Jacinta. Or, at least, the woman looked just like Jacinta. She had the same long hair, expertly curled at the ends; she wore the same colorful, conservatively styled clothing that Jacinta had been wearing every time Irene had seen her. She even carried the same purse. But this woman pushed her shopping cart so sluggishly that, for a moment, Irene worried that her new friend might be ill or, worse, under the influence of one of those sedatives that were becoming so popular among certain women.

It didn’t seem like a good time to say hello, so Irene was turning away to hide among the mushrooms when she noticed a man walking a few paces ahead of the-woman-who-might-be-Jacinta. He was middle aged, but wore his long hair combed into a ponytail. Wire-rimmed eyeglasses and a grey cardigan gave him the look of a librarian. He turned to say something to the woman pushing the shopping cart, it was something humorless, a command or a criticism. The-woman-who-might-be-Jacinta detached herself from the cart and moved towards a tall display of pears. Irene worried that the woman might chose one of the green pears at the bottom of the pile, and send the whole display tumbling to the floor. She worried that she’d have to help, and by helping she’d have to interact with this woman, this woman who might be her friend, but had none of the qualities, at the moment, that made her friend someone she’d want to be friends with. The-woman-who-might-be-Jacinta chose a pear from the top of the pile. She looked at it blankly, then dropped it into a plastic bag. Just as Irene was turning to push her own shopping cart away, the other woman turned. Their eyes met.

“Hello Jacinta, so good to see you! How are you?” Irene called across a display of red tomatoes. Her good manners saved her from freezing at this critical moment. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be saved from the cold fist of mortification when the-woman-who-might-be-Jacinta turned away without a smile, without even a spark of recognition in her dull eyes. The woman walked away with a pear sagging in her plastic bag. She handed the bag to the long-haired man, who held up the pear, glanced at Irene, and walked away. The strange woman followed, leaning heavily on the cart to push it ahead.

“How strange,” Irene thought. “Jacinta must have a doppelganger, right here in our little town. I hope I never have to run into her again.” And she wandered off to find the asparagus.

 

Spirit of the Day

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On my way to a somewhat business-y meeting, and I pulled an Elk card from my “Animal Spirit” deck. This means that, among other things, I have strong father energy, and that I can come off as pretentious. I don’t want to be condescending to the older woman I’m having dinner with (nor to anyone else in the world)…the card suggests that I eat and drink carefully to achieve balance. That might be a challenge with this particular dinner date, but I’ll give it a try!