Friday, December 18, 2015

Delirium Train Rambles

Once more I can thank a long train for the time and space to sit and write. The following distractions are absent: internet, hostel common room, a new city with unknown streets to explore, a familiar city with nostalgia to crawl around in, new friends to make, old friends to reunite with, weekly Skype lessons, the never ending task that is innocuously called “catching up on messages” but never gets close to being caught up on. I nearly missed this train, staying up until five a.m. this morning for no other reason than it had been awhile since I had a room to myself and fast internet that allowed me to do five different things at once while also packing and streaming new music. I decided that sleeping from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. would be just fine. Then, because plans like that made in delirious morning hours rarely pan out the way one hopes, I slept through my alarm and woke up at 7:54. This was relatively bad news as I was meant to take a shower and leave the hostel at 8:00 to walk to my 8:27 train.

I jolted out of bed covered in sunshine that immediately signaled a much later hour than was good for my situation of train catching, but I took the 10 minute allotment as a challenge and haphazardly rose to it. Maybe rose to it is too benevolent a description- I staggered to it, bleary and confused, but I ended up on the train two minutes before it departed after running down the street so I would have time to stop in at a bakery to get a bag of brown and beige things that my body hates me for eating. I also feel grateful that I have never run out of convenient excuses for why my showering on this trip has approached something averaging once every three days- dear reader, this time I’m blaming the train. So let it be noted.

I just realized I might be too tired to write anything good so this will just be stream of consciousness notes and maybe something good will rise to the top, float above the waste, set itself apart as something resembling a story, something like a narrative finding feet and crawling out of the water onto dry land. Or maybe not. We’ll see. Let’s keep going in delirium…

I’ve spent the last few days marinating in the festivities of a seaside town that never needs much of a reason to throw a good party. Split at Christmas is all white polished stone streets and walls reflecting tinsel and lights and glass ornaments on Christmas trees. Pop up shops and cafes and temporary pubs line the promenade and music stations are spaced perfectly so the edges of sound just barely almost touch but don’t overlap into murky jumbles of discordant pop and Christmas classics. The sun is still out, diligently bright despite the season, even though it leaves around 4:00 now. I spent the last four days lounging and eating and sitting on the water and having long conversations about life over two hour long dinners at a newly discovered favorite place. The waiter roped us in by translating the menu to us in such a loving way that we knew any food described with the softness a man uses to describe a lover has to be amazing- it was, so we went back every day for three days. At various points that waiter was gifted by us the following: endless compliments on his oratory skills and powers of persuasion, a tub of ice cream from the best place in town upon our finding out he had never tried it, treats adults like, and showers of praise heaped upon a tiny blonde child he produced on the third night, as we marveled that this waiter was a mystery we wished to continue unraveling had we more time in Split. We didn’t, and on the last late night star gazing ledge sit session we spun all sorts of yarns about the imaginary life we could have living with this waiter and partying in Split and eating too much soup and pasta and ice cream and teaching his child silly expressions in English. I’m certain that this imaginary alternative life in which we created a commune with a waiter, his child, and whomever else happened to be in his life would have been thoroughly creepy in the absence of the excuse of being totally punch drunk on late nights and too much rich food. Actually it still does sound kind of creepy in retrospect. Dear waiter S- I can’t apologize, you were too good.

As I sit here in rumpled well-worn clothes, full of those beige things and unshowered, recoiling like a cave fish from the light that insists on peering in on me, I’m remembering all the times on this trip I was reminded that Croatian women continue to be impeccably manicured, styled, pressed, and painted like dolls, makeup applied with an expertise I don’t even think my hands are capable of. Meanwhile, as they are waking up and engaging in hours long beauty rituals to create a vision that is effortlessly gorgeous, I continue to be a ragamuffin wanderer sleeping through my shower time, wearing jeans washed probably about a month ago (I’m being generous here), with a naked face save a smear of lip gloss just to say I’m here, I’m trying, at least this little shimmery bit. Actually, who am I kidding, my socks are dirtier than the bottom of those women’s new boots. I’m not trying even one shimmery little bit- my lips are just dry and I found this in the bottom of my bag. You’ve caught me.

I actually fell asleep after that last part and just woke up, foggy headed and, for a moment, unsure of where I was going, rising out of sleep with faint recollections of other trains and times and places. Am I coming from Ljubljana right now, or going to Milan from Zurich, or is this the border hopper from Trieste, or the night train to Venice… no, it’s sorted, the day slides back in the right slot in my brain, I’m on my way to Zagreb. All I see out of the window is mist and fog, and then I realize what I’m actually seeing is snow- snow for the first December in four years, casual snow just drifting down as though it is no big deal that I haven’t seen it for so long and I'm all hey girl, hey, you're looking well, it's been a while. We are reunited on a mountaintop plain somewhere between Split and Zagreb, the trees all black and bare and making tally mark lines up and down the ridges of hills. I tried to take a picture and then remembered my $400 camera is broken, the lens sometimes randomly stopping half way through opening before pathetically clicking over and over in an attempt to finish the job, until I finally just pop out the batteries and put it out of its misery. My half broken camera took the following terrible pictures*. Please enjoy them as best you can- which might be about as much as I enjoyed the brown and beige things I had for breakfast.

*Post-edit: just kidding, I'm in a refugee camp posting this and they won't load.

I’ve somehow managed to sleep through a bit more than half of this six hour journey, something I have up until this point never accomplished. I have also managed to convince myself that sleeping for three hours in this chair means I’ve given myself a blood clot, but that’s another problem for another time. I should get up and do my lunges and toe raises in the stairwell of the space between the trains next to the bathroom, a space that has become familiar to me on all of these trips where I try to get up every hours and work the blood back through my reluctant veins. I like to take my iPod and pretend like I’m dancing. Or sometimes I just dance, because screw it, I’m already halfway there and when you're on a train for hours dancing is as valid a diversion as anything else.

When this train pulls into Zagreb I will be seeing it for the third time- the first time was a train from Slovenia, the second time was a rented car from Bosnia, and now it’s a train from Split. I’ll know exactly where to go to buy my tram ticket, and how much it will be. I know the tram I take and where to get off by sight. I’ve been to this hostel twice before so that will be a familiar place. I have a favorite cevapi restaurant I’ve already decided to hit up, and I have a friend to meet up with tomorrow. Day after tomorrow I’m thrown back into uncertainty when I hop in a van with three other people and head to Slovanski Brod, the refugee camp on the border of Croatia and Bosnia, where I’ll be for seven days.

For now, I think it’s time to go back to sleep. Maybe I’ll even be rested up enough to take a shower tonight!**

**Post-edit: Nope. No shame.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Say the Words

My sister and I did not have a Hallmark card relationship, a sisterhood marked with whispered late nights and secrets kept and us against the world bonds. For most of my childhood, it was me on one side of the sibling equation and my brother and sister on the other. I was the eldest by a margin that wasn’t outrageous distance but was heavy enough weight to sink a space between us that felt at times like a chasm. My brother and sister, only two years apart to my six and four years older, respectively, were the sibling pair of stories and movies and sentimental quotes about brotherhood. They shared a similar space in time, their childhood was more similar to one another than to mine, they had the same interests in sports and music and partying and beautiful women.

Through no fault of anyone in particular, but through a convergence of family dynamics and socioeconomics and mundane fault lines of divorce and child custody, our sibling group was defined in Part One by my being the eldest caretaker of the younger ones, and in Part Two by my staying behind in our hometown with our mother as they went off to the big city to live with our father. I graduated high school and went off to college when my sister was just beginning high school; my brother was not even in junior high. In more ways than I can or care to recount, it was almost, almost but not quite, as though we came from two different families. The context in which we became adults was so radically different, layered on top of the early divisions and necessary separations and sometimes painful realizations of our differences, that it was inevitable that we would find ourselves so wildly and widely scattered.

All I really knew how to do in relation to my siblings was take care of them- I didn’t know how to be a playmate when we were younger because I was washing their socks and brushing their hair and telling them to do their homework. I didn’t know how to be a confidant as we got older because I was shouting at them to hurry up and get in the car or we’d be late; we were fighting on the bus over the chores they had to do when we got home; I was begging them to get out of bed when the alarm went off; I was ranting like an angry mother when they didn’t help me do the dishes or take out the trash. When we went our separate ways and separate houses in high school, the last chance of building a shared childhood that resembled what most would consider normal fell into those three hours between us and I barely knew enough to grieve it because, shamefully, a part of me was relieved to no longer share in the responsibility of caretaking and the endless low level bickering and dividing lines.

We fumbled together while I was in college doing the best we could with what we had- a shaky foundation filled with such radically different paradigms and perceptions of our parents and our respective experiences. My sister was right down the street but I don’t remember spending much time together. When she graduated high school and I graduated college I tried to connect with her in the only way I knew how- with college advice and offers of help on filing out the FAFSA, suggestions for colleges and plans and degrees. I felt that I finally had something valuable to offer to her. I felt like a boy approaching a girl he had been trying to impress for so long, with something he finally thought might work. And this didn’t work. Our conversations around that summer after she graduated were hostile, angry. We fought. I told her if she didn’t get her shit together it would be too late; she told me to stop being such an uptight bitch and thinking I knew everything. I remember one afternoon in the slanting light of a Brownwood summer day when I stood up from the kitchen table after she told me to fuck off. I told her I wasn’t going to help her anymore. I didn’t. I headed off to Japan a month after that, with my sister and I back on normal terms- which was familial loyalty and love but nothing approaching a real friendship or comfortable companionship.

What Japan gave me was a distance from my upbringing that helped me to see how I could actively repair damage. When I was home, in Texas, so close to these people I loved and fought, when I had my deeply ingrained reactions to them and to their personalities, when we were in our years long carefully carved ruts, I simply couldn’t rise above that pattern and see how circular it was- I couldn’t see the path out, the way to walk out of that dysfunction, to rise above it. I didn’t see how I could change to fix it. Half a world away, with stacks of journals filled with my cramped late night writing, halfway through my year away, I saw that what had never been done between my sister and I, what I had never tried, was to just speak to the things that we both carefully never, ever spoke about. She knew what had happened. I knew what had happened. We knew the other knew- and we never, ever spoke about it, or how it affected us so deeply and yet so differently. No one gets out of a childhood without some damage, but my sister and I sat across from one another in our lives and politely looked at one another’s scars and pretended they didn’t exist.  Where we were missing parts that made us unable to do and be certain things, we were cruel- we pretended we couldn’t see the injury, and attacked the weakness as though it came from nowhere. We knew where it came from, but we pretended to forget. I think we wanted to make it go away; but when something you want to forget is buried inside the skin of your sister, what does that make you do? How do you love one another when you are wrapped in things you don’t want to know?

So in the absence of anything else, in the face of an insurmountable obstacle, I had nothing but what was in my head and my heart. I had nothing to give but a reckoning and a recollection. I did the only think I knew how- I wrote my sister a letter. I went through every pivotal experience I could remember, all the points where I remember feeling a palpable cleaving, a line drawn, a stake driven down marking the path that took us away from each other. All the resentments that built from our different experiences. All the times when I had fucked up due to trying too hard to fix something by proxy. All the moments when I had let my insecurities take over, my frustrations drive the conversation. It took me two weeks to write that letter. I cried over that letter. I was so embarrassed that the thought of sending it to her sometimes sent me into shudders of revulsion at how vulnerable it felt to imagine her reading it. I didn’t know how she would take it. I edited it a thousand times and re-read it more than that. I prayed and meditated about what to say. I was sick over that letter. I lost sleep over it. I felt like I was building a fragile and paltry house from scratch with my bare hands, desperately hoping it would be enough to shelter us both while we figured out how to live together as sisters. I ended it with telling her that just because our situation was not conducive to building a strong bond as children, I wanted to take responsibility for it now that we were both adults. I wanted us to choose each other. I wanted her to know that I desperately, for always, had wanted nothing more than to be her sister and I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to have that bond. I sought her, over and over, in every line. It was beseeching and it was everything I had in me. It was dark and honest and terrifying to see out in black and white, exposed. The subject line was an attempt at levity: “Heavy Lifting- Bend at the Knees.”

I sent it and felt like I had reached inside myself and opened a door to expose all the soft parts to whatever might happen. I was casting a net into that wide space between us. I waited for what I didn’t know to expect.

When she wrote me back, I saw the subject line- “Knees Weren’t Meant to Bend that Way”. And even before I opened her e-mail, even before I read a single line, I knew we were finally okay. I read her letter at least 10 times as soon as I received it. I felt, for the first time, what it meant to have her as my sister- not to be her sister. To have her as my sister. To be had by her as a sister. To finally understand one another and to have everything fanned out before the other, a careful, intricate inventory. We had the freedom to look and ask and see, really see, for the first time. Just as if the previous contention had never existed, when I came home we slid into the new space we had made for each other, together, independent of our parents or our homes or our experiences. We had purposefully carved into ourselves a place to put our bond, and having that, finally, was outrageously comforting. We never spoke of that letter again. We didn’t have to.

Six years later, when my sister died, my cousin came to me and gave me a handwritten letter. She told me it was important that I read it, that I know what my sister had thought of me. It had been found in her things while the apartment was cleaned out. I opened the pages, read the first line, and saw that it was the same letter my sister had e-mailed me back in Japan- but it was twice as long. Because it was a rough draft, filled with writing and re-writing, editing and scribbles and scratches and repetitions used to seek out the perfect turn of phrase. Notes filled the margins, her arched handwriting jumping down the sides. The pages were soft, turned over, touched and re-touched. I remembered how I had agonized over my letter to my sister, and I held in my hands the evidence of her exact same struggle to find those words to knit us together, to respond to me in just the right way. That she had done it spoke to the similar ways in which we had both approached that situation; that she had kept it after six years spoke to a level of love and connection that gave me more comfort than absolutely anything else ever could possibly have given me in those days after she died.

If my sister had died without those two simple letters being exchanged, I don’t know how I could have begun to recover from her loss, because I would have been tortured with the knowledge that I had lost a sister I had never been able to have. These were only words- words on a page, on a screen, on a sheaf of looseleaf notepaper in an apartment in Dallas, tucked into a notebook under a futon in Japan. My sister and I healed years of distance and separation and pain with something as simple as words strung into sentences that mapped out our insides so we could finally show them to each other and learn who we were. We were born together through two letters. When she died I knew exactly who I was losing- and knowing the exquisite, detailed nature of the treasure of who she was, and what I was losing, was something I would never have had without our mutual courage in finding the words to give to one another.

Today is my sister’s 29th birthday. In honor of her birthday, and in remembrance of her passing, all I ask of any of you reading this is take an inventory of yourself and the people in your life. What have you not said, or asked, or questioned, that could heal you or someone in your life? It’s only words. It costs you nothing to say them, to write them, to send them. Say the words. Give them to the people who need to hear them- positive or negative, however hard they are. Please don’t deny yourself the opportunity to more fully know, and love, and connect to those around you. Don’t continue to suffer needlessly under misunderstandings, however long they have tangled you up in confusion and resentment. You might leave this world having never heard, or said, the things you need to know or share. I want you to get to the point where you can’t bear that thought, and let that give you the courage to take action.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Right Now in Tirana: Walking in the Rain, Far from Home

I’m in the common room of the hostel, a tourist in my old town, a visitor come to look upon a home that doesn’t exist here anymore. I’m surrounded by off season, odd locale backpackers, a haphazard collection of drifters and penny pinchers and adventurers looking for something off the track of Paris or Venice or Budapest, and so we all find ourselves in the Balkans. The resident cat is pressed, a purring nest of fur and warm, against the side of my leg while I type. It’s been raining for days; it’s that Tirana winter again, a thing that is not so much a festive snowy frosty experience but a damp and dreary situation that isn’t that cold except for the wet, that constant wet.

Since it's not so cold the doors are open to the garden where the mandarins are heavy on the trees, soaked in rain, and I can see the hostel workers huddled in solidarity around a joint, under the eave, watching the same rain slide endlessly over and over the leaves and the mandarins and pound onto the ground. All around me conversations start and stop about this bus or that train or that last trip or the next, do you know how long it takes to get to _________, what currency do they use in _________, do you want to split a load of laundry so we can all enjoy clean socks and underwear for the first time in too long of a time? Syria and refugees and various political and military maneuvers weave in and out of plan making, and the requisite hostel weirdo chimes in with socially inappropriate comments that border on the uncomfortable and often trample right into what the fuck did he just say territories.

Somehow it’s been two and a half weeks since I came to this hostel, with an idea in my head of what I wanted to do with Tirana because I had forgotten that Tirana decides what she does with you, always remember that, and I hadn't. I’ve taken to sleeping in until about 10:00 a.m., crawling out of my warm (comfortable! Strangely so comfortable!) bed in pajamas and knee socks before tramping down the stairs to be fed my breakfast at the kitchen table. I feel like a child, coddled by the adults who cook for me and wash my towels and inquire as to my sleep and ask after my plans and greet me at the door after the day's wanderings like a student come home from school to an expectant mother. Between the rain and the cold and the unexpected turns Tirana has taken, I welcome this situation. I give into long lazy afternoons and unintended surprise naps that sneak up on me when I’m “just going to rest for a second”. I sprawl on bathtubs turned into lounge chairs in the garden and look up through the waxy green of the broad leaves and count the mandarins, listening to birds and feeling the wind on my face, curled up in borrowed blankets and recently purchased thrift store sweaters. I take showers at four p.m., because it seems the best time to get around to it. I’m writing again, something that stopped unexpectedly as it always does and just as regularly slipped back in like an outside cat after a ramble. I climb the precarious ladder up to the roof that is all blues and whites and tile and crisp air, and I look out over the roofs and imagine the people in those houses. The call to prayer winds its way through the eaves up to me sometimes. I always find my old neighborhood and rest my eyes on it for a second. 

People I have met from other countries have trickled in and out of this place, surprise reunions that have been more satisfying than some of the planned reunions I had here in Tirana. I spend time in conversation with them about their journeys but even more than that I spend hours each day, rain or shine, walking. I leave the hostel in the late morning, stepping every time into a swarm of old men and stern faced bartering, the daily pop up market of second hand treasures. The men stand expectantly over their wares, laid out so carefully on dirty white sheets- here, a splay of watches with various ailments, sparkling in the sun if there is any, there a neat long line of battered shoes, worn soft and wrinkled across the toes, the tops flopped over and submissive to the hands that slide over them and make their judgments. The jackets and sweaters hang on swayed ropes pinned to walls; a heaped bin of cell phones overflows beneath them and beyond that old paintings and copper pots and the kind of trinkets one might find in a grandmother's house. I walk through this new to me part of town, through the road called "bicycle street" because it is filled with repair shops and bike stores and more old men on their knees with tools and inner tubes and chains and grease, laughing and doing dirty work for not very much money. I cross the park into more familiar places, to the majority of town that I have tramped across, back down my old streets.

And once I'm in my old places, I somehow feel less sure of where I'm going- I slow down, I certainly wander, I get lost in thought and then I'm just lost, down a random street, getting my bearings. I sometimes stop dead in my tracks, accosted by so many ghosts of memories that I feel I can’t walk through them, so I just stand and let them batter me with an amorphous insistence; they reach in soft fingers and touch even softer parts and I close my eyes and ask for them to please stop. They don’t and then they do, and they slide away and off me and I can walk again. I seek out my old street dog and he is still there and he remembers me but I catch my heart in my throat at how terrible he looks and I think he will probably die soon but maybe I’m just being sentimental. I pet his matted fur and ignore the bones that jut like braille that begs over and over “please take me home please take me home please take me home.” I stand up to walk away and he comes after me a bit, halfheartedly. 

I’ve walked and walked and walked all over this place, retracing my steps and remembering my missteps and I have more than once found myself unable to turn down a street or go back to a place quite yet, but over the past weeks I’ve managed to cover them all. I remember and am grateful that more than anything else Tirana is where I started to learn how to do what I’m doing now- how to live and work overseas and to throw myself into new places and learn new names and routines and find a home and then pick up and leave it again because I want to see as much as I can.

I have about 6-ish uncertain weeks to go before this visa on my new job comes through, and with seven weeks and where I currently am in the Balkans I should theoretically be able to see places I’ve never been and explore into Bulgaria and Romania, see more of Serbia, volunteer, explore. But right now, all I want is to stay in this safe warm place with cold wooden floors and an endless parade of strangers and familiars and stories coming in and out, with conversations in the garden and mornings on the roof and coffee in the park, late night Skype dates and early morning English lessons and books in an afternoon bed.  

Dear reader, I have been officially and wholeheartedly taking a rest. This traveler has earned the adjective weary, not forever but finally for right now. On the horizon is Sweden and a new job and another chance to take up the challenge of starting over and building from scratch, but right now in Tirana I am just waiting for the motivation to move to come upon me. It always does. 

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building, high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small

I saw sickness bloom in fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine

I was walking far from home
And I found your face mingled in the crowd

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hunting on Forking Paths

I ended up in Russia the same way I ended up everywhere else I have lived and worked overseas- by lucky coincidence and random chance. I also have to give props to graduate school end of term work for being so onerous that I finally gave in one night and accepted an invitation to happy hour (eating delicious things hour for me) so I could see the friends whose faces I had almost forgotten, since it had been so long since I had seen anything other than the inside of my school or the screen of my laptop or endless educational journals.

That night I caught up on the comings and goings and social issues of Vientiane’s finest. As it was getting towards the end of term and so many contracts finishing up, much of the talk revolved around who was going where and when. I had already committed to stray cat summer but had made no plans other than “somewhere in Europe”. Joe casually mentioned that Sarah wasn’t able to do her summer teaching job in Russia.

I’m sorry, what?

The unassuming start to my trip- the Russian embassy in Laos. 

Sometimes when I’m making these moves I think of all the choices and luck that have led me to where I am now. Had I not met Joe and Sarah, of course none of this would have happened. But more than that, had I not avoided grad school, or had Joe not shown up, or had he not thought to talk to me about it- all of these things lined up to get me to Russia, which got me to Europe, which set off all of the things that have happened to me this summer. I can walk this back further, to how I ended up in Laos, because big parts of this summer revolved around people I met in Laos- Roman and Maike and Tobias and James. Even further back, I’m on this side of the planet just in time to reunite with Tiara, who’s now in Laos; Sven and Sam, two close friends from Laos, are mere hours away from me at the moment, where they are visiting Andrew, my old co-worker from Laos, who is now living in Albania and working at the same school where Tiara and I worked. It makes me wonder what inconsequential daily choices I’m making right now that will add up to some huge turn of events in my life- meeting someone at a hostel, applying for a random job, making friends on the bus, staying an extra year __________ or going home early instead…

Right now I have a lot of balls in the air for future opportunities of where to go and what to do next, a list of possibly maybes that are all appealing to me. I feel lucky to have had the luxury of turning down several jobs in June/July/August because they weren’t the right fit for me. I’m grateful that I have a profession I love that allows me to work anywhere and pick up work almost any time of the year. I’ve recently hit my “don’t freak out, but start being mildly concerned” number on my savings (I confided in a friend what my threshold was; he admitted that if he were me he would definitely be freaking out). I’m excited to see what kind of choices come out of the position I’m putting myself in right now. I have no idea where I will end up. I have no plans. I just know I want to teach and I want to travel. With those two desires literally the entire world is up for grabs.

The person I was even six months ago could not have handled this. At all. Not one bit. I remember that my greatest fear about going without a contract, walking into summer without a plan for next year, was what if something terrible happened medically and I had to use my savings and couldn’t travel. And that is exactly what happened. When I was diagnosed I was so angry. I couldn’t believe that after all these years of playing it safe, of planning, of being careful, the one time I threw caution to the wind my biggest fear happened.

But here I am, writing this at the border of Montenegro on an old rumbling bus while I wait for my passport. My biggest fear happened. It was the best thing that could have happened. Nothing fell apart. I’m fine. I’m still doing what I wanted to do. I have made decisions others in my place would not have made; I have willfully decided to be financially precarious and hold out until my next job before I pick up the mantle of being a Fully Financially Responsible Person again. I think my diagnosis at the beginning of this summer was the greatest test I could have had. I could not have dealt so graciously with this before my two years in Laos or the year before that in Albania. It changed me. It changed the way I see the world, the way I see myself, the way I view what I’m capable of. Finishing my time in S.E. Asia with that last final blow of a medical mishap was the final step in the process I didn’t know I had started, which was unwinding so much of my fear and anxiety about life and how I was living it.

The fact that so many random coincidences and quite a bit of lucky interventions have landed me right here on this bus seat gives me the freedom to just kind of throw up my hands in peaceful submission. I’ll bring my best, do what I need to do, and the rest is up to whatever mix of people and places and events conspire around me, which is all out of my control. I have a narrowly defined boundary of decision making impact- it’s approximately within the lines of my bone and skin, perhaps stretching out of me into a field into which others can venture and take what they want, but then there goes my choice and control. I can’t even control what my body does at this point, the whys and hows of veins and legs- even this is beyond me. My own body has a mind of its own. This final knowledge made me realize that nothing is guaranteed, and if nowhere is safe, not even my own body, I can be terrified or I can accept that there is an overwhelming freedom in that.

I’ve made a joke out of this being my stray cat summer. To take that further, I know I’ll land on my feet. I don’t when or where or how, but at this point I have made it out of enough that I know I can make it work. I want to push this as far as I can to see what I’ll do. I’m so curious about all of these things inside of me that are unknown, and won’t be activated or brought out until a new experience, or place, or person, or challenge illuminates it, triggers it, opens it up, spills it out. It’s a moment that flips something on inside like a switch, and suddenly there is a great big expanse that you never would have imagined you had waiting inside of you. I want to be open to being opened up like that.

I will probably always get anxious in certain situations- it’s who I’ve been as long as I can remember. I still sometimes have panic attacks that send me into quiet corners to whisper to myself that I’ll be fine, to breathe, to affirm the things I need to say to get out of that swirling falling feeling. I have doubts and get scared. I think of what if____________. That is usually when I know that I’m moving in the right direction. From my earliest memories I have tried to avoid anxiety and pain and fear, and gave myself a lot of anxiety and fear and pain about wanting to be so so careful and clean and quiet and neat and responsible and good, but this was an illusion of security. Bad things would and will still happen, and I was insane enough to think I just needed to be even more careful, as though the universe would tally my concern and correspond my suffering in ratio to it. I’m changing the game into something I can actually win, something that isn't rigged against me from the start. I’m following my fear instead of trying to avoid it; I hunt it down. I make this chase now: I seek it out, I dig it up, I call its name and tell it to show me its face, and then I let it lead me where I need to go, to places I never planned in this world. In my indecision and rootlessness I feel more decisive and focused than I ever did when making plans.

If travel is searching
and home has been found

I'm not stopping 

I'm going hunting
I'm the hunter
I'll bring back the goods
but I don't know when

Friday, October 16, 2015

How a Norwegian Stranger Took Me to Russia from Bangkok

Why do you ask?

The night I left the hospital in tears and compression socks I fumbled back to my friends’ hostel crying in the street, on the train, and back on the street.  I just couldn’t imagine getting on that plane the next morning- my mind was in a million different places, I had to pack, I had to say goodbye to my friends, I had only one pair of these socks, I barely knew what I had just found out. It was too much. I wasn’t going to Russia.

By the time I got to the hostel I had finished up the tears (or at least this first shocked round of them, there were many more to come that month). I told my friends and then went straight to my dorm room and had an addled conversation with my father, who promptly told me that the worst thing I could do was give up a job and a purpose in order to focus full time on the negative project of worrying about what ifs and whys. Over dinner my friends all co-signed my father’s wisdom. I still didn’t want to go, I still had moments of “Seriously, WHAT IS MY LIFE” when I would look down at the beige bandages on my legs, but in spite of myself I realized that I was in no position to make big, rash decisions like quitting a much looked forward to job that would give me the funds I needed to travel when I was finished. So I was going to Russia.

With that I desperately needed to get out and find some distractions from the fact that I would be heading to the airport the next morning at 6 a.m., which was not very far away at that point. On my way out the door I met a boy from Norway in the stairs. I was a frazzled mess, he was all smiles and laid back how’s it going? We talked in the hall, exchanged polite hostel talk, I declined an invitation to go out with him and his friends. Why, he asked? I have to get up early I hedged, wanting to get out as soon as possible, definitely not wanting to talk to a stranger about it. He told me had to fly to Russia the next morning, and also had to be up early, and that was no excuse. Plus, he had to fly alone, which would suck. It was then that we realized we were on the same flight, and within 5 minutes of meeting we pledged to one another we would be sure the other was awake and ready for what would be our shared ride to the airport. I left with a shout over my shoulder to be sure to set your alarm.

The painfully early next morning (dear reader, I did not sleep, I needed to not sleep at the time, but afterwards oh I wanted to be sleeping) he was nowhere to be found. I lurked around the silent bar and reception, the air sticky, the time creeping by. I pestered the receptionist twice to wake him up to no avail. Finally I made her give me the keys and tell me where he was. She took me up and found him sleeping. He dashed out of bed, threw his things together, and then we hustled down the street to find a taxi. Both sleep deprived, we collapsed on each other in the back of the taxi without saying a word and then it was onto the local train and finally the airport train. We stood learning against each other, my forehead on his chest, his arm around me, both of us onto the next legs of our respective trips, quiet and reflective, balancing on the swaying floor with our bags crowded around and under our feet. None of this was strange or awkward- it was just comfortable. We were bone tired travelers who had gone from thinking we had a long, boring trip ahead of us to having a person to suffer with, to help grab bags and open doors, to ask about ________ while the other asked about ________.  You forget what a luxury it is to have a traveling companion until you have one again after a long stretch of solo wandering. Considering the state I was in, I felt unbelievably lucky that we had bumped into each other the night before. He kept saying he didn’t know what he would have done if he had missed his flight, and I was realizing that part of what helped me deal with my flight was that we had decided to travel together.

At the airport it was a quick check-in and we were able to get seats next to one another. I had an aisle seat; he let me put my legs up on him. We promptly fell asleep on each other like tired kids. We woke up to turbulence and he got nervous; I had been a nervous flyer for years and had finally gotten over my phobias so I reassured him with all sorts of nerdy information about what turbulence is and why it happens. We ate our terrible lunch and then talked for a few hours. I told him about the diagnosis I got the night before. He said he was sorry and pet my hair and held my hand and told me a story of his own. Then it was sleep again for him, anxious rumination for me as he leaned on my shoulder. At the end of the flight my legs were so swollen I could barely bend them, and he rubbed my calves for me and assured me everything would be fine. I cried. He was a stranger and didn’t make me feel bad about the fact that he was taking care of me. I cried more out of gratitude, frustration, and pain. The last two hours of the flight I spent in the back by the bathrooms, performing all manner of exercises to move the fluid out of my legs. I went to the toilet to lay on the ground and put my feet up and within two minutes the stewardess was knocking on the door asking who was in there. I went back to my seat to find this new friend in knitted brow concern over me, asking if I had enough water, did I need anything else, don’t worry, we’re almost there. I kept apologizing for being a mess, he kept saying he wouldn’t have made his flight without me and I saved him, so please don’t worry.

We landed in Moscow and almost immediately had to part ways- he was going on home to Norway to surprise his parents and needed to dash across the airport, I had to go through customs and find my way to the driver of the family for whom I would be working. A quick exchange of Facebook contacts, a hug, goodbye, we turned away and were gone as quickly as we had been together that day. I stumbled through customs on numb feet and swollen legs, and it wasn’t until I was home that night at the family’s apartment in Moscow that it really hit me just what an absolute and total blessing it was to cross paths with him.

We kept in touch on and off, and later this summer I mailed him a care package to the army base where he was completing training for his mandatory service. I put it together in Dresden, spending an afternoon heading to a few different places for random things that might be needed or wanted. It felt really good to be able to return the favor of providing comfort and support. When I handed the box over to the woman at the post office tears immediately came to my eyes.

I have historically been the worst, and I mean the worst, at being vulnerable and accepting help. I hate feeling like a burden; I don’t like feeling weak; I like to feel independent and capable. The last three years of living overseas I have found myself in the most uncomfortable positions I’ve ever been in with other humans, often strangers or brand new friends, and I was forced to just let it be and accept their help and trust that it would be all right. The relief and gratitude that I felt in trusting and accepting makes me even more eager to offer help whenever I can, because I know how much it can ease another person’s suffering.

I am going to keep crying in front of strangers if I need to. I’m going to tell people I can’t anymore, and I’m going to trust my friends and family and strangers on the street when they say they can for a while since I can’t.  I’m going to give up needing to be the one taking care all the time and allow myself to accept care. And I’m going to continue offering as much care and comfort as I can, from a place of gratitude to those who allow me to help them. There is nothing noble in suffering for no other reason than you think you deserve to suffer, or that you don’t deserve help when it is kindly offered, or that you need to prove something by doing it alone. Some of my most satisfying moments in this life have been when I have selflessly helped someone else, and I never regretted offering that help. Forget your ego. If you’re in a position where you need help, and people want to give it, let them. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

When Are You Coming Home?

It's been three months since my last day of work in Laos. On Saturday morning I woke up in Czech Republic. Saturday afternoon I arrived in Munich to make my final stop in Germany. Monday afternoon I said farewell to the friend I met in Berlin and traveled with in Prague; we missed each other in Vienna and after Munich he was heading to (still undecided at the time of this writing) and I was on the way back to Switzerland. Tuesday morning I got on the bus from Munich to Zurich, and now, Wednesday morning, I am on the train bound for Milan. Five days, four countries- not my usual style, but it sounds more hectic than it really was.

Home sweet home on my back

Even as I sit here on this train and type that paragraph, and even though I have been doing this for three years now, it still seems totally surreal. I never dreamed of doing this when I was growing up. I can’t say that, as a high school student in Brookesmith, Texas, I had these plans of working overseas and backpacking and conscious homelessness and owning only what I could carry and taking whatever jobs came my way in whichever country happened to offer them. I had no idea that this kind of thing was even possible. Even when I went to Japan, 22 years old, just graduated, wanting a bit of adventure after not being able to study abroad during university, I saw it as My Year Abroad- that one time I did that one thing. Sure, I sold or gave away all my things except keepsakes and clothes, I had no car or pans or sofa to return to, but I knew I was going to return. The year in Japan I collected souvenirs so I could decorate the apartment I would get when I was finished with Japan. Everything I did held the importance of being the first and last time I would have that kind of experience. Or at least that’s how it started.

Up in the air, about an hour from my apartment in Toyama

As the months racked up, I started thinking, somewhere in the back of my brain, that I wanted to stay. Not in Japan, necessarily, but I wanted to stay out. I wanted to keep traveling. I had bumped into backpackers that year here and there, had met people in hostels, had talked to co-workers who were saving up to travel Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia after our contract. I really liked teaching; maybe I would keep doing it? My best girl, Jess, was living in Tokyo and had already started her side business of private tutoring. She had an apartment, and did I want to come at the end of my contract and live with her? Yes, yes I did. My last two months in Japan I was tortured with two conflicting desires: the wish to see my family, to go home, to reunite, to not be gone so long and be so guilty for it, and the wish to move to Tokyo with Jess, work, save, and travel. I applied to programs in Thailand and was accepted. I researched volunteering in India and had more than enough money to do it. South Korea looked nice, Singapore maybe? I applied for a job in Tokyo and the next day it was offered to me- $45 an hour, 25 hours a week. I was 23 years old, no kids/mortgage/marriage, nothing to keep me from saying yes, I wanted to say yes, and instead, I said no to all of it and came home.

Goodbye, land of udon and print club photo booths

The reason? I had this idea that Japan wasn’t my Real Life. And I had the expectation that I needed to start my Real Life, and staying in Japan would somehow be cheating, deferring, stepping out. After years and years of working to get things like school clothes and cheerleading uniforms and my first car and to pay my way through college, working full time and going to school full time, keeping scholarships and three jobs, things in Japan felt too easy. I was only working full time- nothing else. I was making more money than I knew what to do with, even servicing debt back home and saving while traveling. I had never planned on being a teacher, I just happened to become one, and I liked it- and something about how easy, how unplanned, how smooth it all was felt so foreign to me that I didn’t know how to just accept it. The guilt I felt at living overseas, so far away from my family, was another factor. And finally, I had no template for the reality that it was actually a viable life plan to live and work overseas just because you could and you wanted to, so you should. So instead I came home.

I know I wasn’t the best person to be around when I returned home from Japan. My family and friends graciously put up with my reverse culture shock and what I am sure might have seemed like ridiculous homesickness for a place I had only lived for one year, but they seemed to understand that it was more than Japan, it was about wanting to get back out and do more traveling like that. I was unemployed, living with my father, living off of the bonus I got at the end of my contract, feeling simultaneously ecstatic to reunite with family and friends and miserable every time I talked to Jess and heard stories about Tokyo. I knew as soon as I got home that I should have stayed, but at that point I was also stubborn- I was going to make this work.

I made a plan to pay off my debt, get my master’s degree, save up some money, and leave in 2-3 years. I ended up staying double that before I left again, and I have no regrets at all looking back on the 6 years I spent in America before going back overseas. I would never have reconciled with my sister, or spent as much time with my Great Granny, before both of them died. I know that a part of me would have been irrevocably damaged had I not had that time with my sister- the conversations and experiences we shared after I came home were sometimes the only thing that could get me through those first few months without her. Thinking of going through that without the peace of our understanding is something I can’t imagine. I met some of my best friends in those 6 years, and reinforced my relationships with people I had known in college and high school. I met Bobby, who was there for me through the hardest times I’ve ever had and who also supported me in achieving so much, and who is still a great friend to me to this day. I volunteered on political campaigns, served as an elected official, and was a delegate to the state convention. I picked up yoga and became a much healthier person. I started writing much more. I earned two master’s degrees, I became a licensed teacher and discovered a career I love. I traveled all over the U.S., and I made countless memories and connections with my family and with friends.

No complaints about stateside travel here

But the fact still remains that when I came home from Japan I was absolutely, not in any way, finished with working and living overseas. It felt cut short, because it was. The break gave me so much, and I wouldn’t change it. It does mean, however, that I do still have all of this in me that wants to, and needs to, keep going. So that’s why I am where I am at the moment. I spent a summer backpacking to get to Albania, lived a year there, spent a summer backpacking to get to Laos, lived two years there, and now I’m spending a very long summer (I mean, it’s not even summer anymore, let’s be real) backpacking to get to somewhere I don’t know I’m going. I don’t know how long I’ll be there when I get there. I just know, for sure, I’m not finished yet.

I for sure need to make a return trip to Mongolia...

And Estonian islands desperately need more exploring

As a child, a teenager, and even a young adult, I didn’t have the imagination to know that living and working and traveling this way was even possible- I didn’t know anyone who had done it. American culture doesn’t have gap years like European countries, we have loads of student loan debt and very little vacation and a huge country bordered by only two other countries and two enormous oceans. Traveling and working overseas the last three years I have met people between 18-65 who are doing outrageous things on very little money, simply because they saved up, they wanted it, and they are doing it. Growing up in America we have so little contact with this kind of travel, and we don’t know that it’s possible- we aren’t aware of just how cheap it is, how heartbreakingly cheap it can be, to pack a bag and go. If we do want to travel, still, we get locked into our student loans, and then jobs right after college, or car payments, or mortgages, or any other manner of other things. I keep wishing that the gap year culture would take root in America. I can’t think of anything better than telling a teenager to save up during high school so that he or she can spend awhile wandering, exploring, backpacking, maybe working odd jobs, and just seeing the world without having to cram it into the two weeks of vacation we are lucky to get if that.

This little Cortney could have benefited from a year or two of wandering before college

If anyone is reading this and they take nothing else from it, I hope they take this- it’s never too late to do this if you want to do it, people are doing it at every age, and you can do it for as long or as short as you want. It’s also understandable if the thought of living out of a backpack for three months sounds like a really shitty plan and you’d prefer to have your house and garden and family nearby.
In the end you have to choose. I am choosing, for the moment, to be transient. I feel secure in this choice, however, because I built such strong connections and roots back home in the states. I have my family in Texas, the place where I lived almost all of the first 29 years of my life. I have friends I have had since my childhood still living in Texas. There is a whole new crop of kids coming up around me, the babies of loved ones, with whom I am working on keeping a relationship by sending home postcards and visiting when I can. I keep this blog, I keep a google voice number, I write e-mails and FB messages and post pictures and stalk my family members on social media- I spend a lot of my free time and energy committed to maintaining these relationships, even while working and going to school and traveling and doing whatever else I’m doing. I think of people doing this back in the day when all they had was letters or telegraphs, and here I am with FB and blogs and free internet phones and Skype and international mail that takes a mere week- I can’t complain. Nowadays staying in contact is as easy as just deciding that you are going to do it, and I make that decision as often as I possibly can.

Writing postcards in a freezing ger in Mongolia

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my family and friends back home and around the world. I want to return home eventually, but I want to return home happy and fulfilled, not wistfully thinking of how I wished I had done _______ or gone _________ or seen__________. 

I’m an hour away from Milan, and who knows how many weeks or months from my next home, but I know I have more homes than I can count all over this world with family and friends who would welcome me back the instant I called or messaged or Skyped them. I really can’t emphasize enough how much that helps me to know when I’m roaming. For all of you who have opened up your homes and hearts to me over the years, for everyone who wrote me at the beginning of this stray cat summer with enthusiastic invitations and possible plans and suggestions for travel or meeting up, for every message and voice mail and Skype call, I’m reminded that being rootless doesn’t have to mean being without connection, love, support, understanding, and help. I appreciate you all for putting up with me, and for understanding why I have to keep leaving, for now. 

The train is winding through some staggering mountains at the moment, with green at the base and the hillsides as far as I can see and tiny cottages dotting the valleys. A woman is making an announcement in Italian… now French… English will be next. I have the row to myself, a laptop to bang out what’s in my brain, and a good friend to meet up with in Italy. I miss you all, and I hope you know how much, even as I make my plans to head to the next place. I will be home, eventually. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Prague, or, Things Were Stolen and Things Were Found

I’m on a bus, leaving Prague, heading to Munich, where I will wrap up my north to south Eastern Germany tour (that makes more sense in my head/geographically than it does typed out like that). I thought I would spend five nights in Prague, but really I should have learned by now that I always end up wanting more time in a city, and in the end I stayed for a solid week.

I'll take door number one.

Prague was damned near perfect for me in terms of what I like in a destination. For starters, it’s gorgeous, with effortlessly stunning buildings serving mundane purposes like being banks or exchange offices or shopping centers. You can pretty much stop anywhere, look around, and be impressed. Statues that are beautiful and detailed enough to be in a museum are just hanging out on the tops of these buildings, and underneath your feet are endless cobblestones (I tripped, a lot). 

All of this can be enjoyed for very, very cheap prices, from food to metro to hostels. Speaking of hostels, Prague gave me one of the best in which I have ever stayed, and that’s related to another travel bonus- the hostel was recommended by a friend I met in Berlin, with whom I met up in Prague. And since this is me, and y’all know what I like, yes, the nightlife was fantastic. The music, the venues, the bar hopping, staying open until sunrise- it was all there.

A sculpture suspended above the entrance to my hostel

I hate to be the one to say it, but clearly they were sleeping on the guardian job that night...

My first day in town I stayed out all night dancing with my friend and the girls I met in my hostel, my phone and a good chunk of money plus all my keys were stolen, and I ended the night the next morning catching the sunrise on Charles Bridge. I came home and slept about 45 minutes before joining the morning walking tour, where I powered through three deliriously informative sleep deprived hours. The guide grabbed some tea with me afterwards and filled me in on Czech politics and culture and anything else that came up, from Russian and American relations to freedom of speech to good clubs to check out in the area. We parted ways and I spent some time wandering the streets until I came back to my hostel the wrong way and in so doing found what would end up being my daily coffeeshop.

60 euro poorer, phoneless, lockless, freezing, tired, and super happy to see that sunrise.

Portraits of Exhaustion: Reflections on Prague

I ended up back at my hostel for much needed sleep, which I didn’t get. Eight Welsh guys joined the group and they may have embodied the most concentrated versions of asshatted drunken male traveler behavior I have ever encountered in any hostel anywhere in the world. The good thing is they were so outrageously inconsiderate they gave us all lots of good stories which were recounted a few times and worked into shorthand inside jokes mocking them relentlessly, so for that, thanks Welsh 8, you were great. I am still haunted by the sad fact that they ordered themselves into a Lord of the Flies-esque hierarchy that included a leader called Golden Boy and a bottom called number seven, but the peculiarities of hyper-masculine backpacker groups are not something I care to get all Jane Goodall about, so I’m going to let it go. I saw them the last morning, backpacks akimbo, hair devoid of Pretty Boy Grease, bleary eyes all ‘round, and asked if they were leaving. To their “Yes” I simply said “GREAT!” with over the top enthusiasm and a tight smile that communicated I just could not anymore with this. They looked at each other, confused that I was immune to what their mothers had probably always assured them was their boundless charm, went silent (a rarity for them, since they generally preferred drunken singing and loud banter at all hours of the morning), and left. Dear reader, I promise you this- after sunrise on Charles Bridge their departure was definitely my favorite morning in Prague.

Other than the Welsh Invasion of 2015, the hostel was a constant stream of interesting, social people who were down to explore and party together, with many of us staying 4 to 5 days together. We had a kitchen that became the hub of the house for comings and goings and cake sharings and whiskey drinking, as well as salsa dancing and party planning. On the other end of the spectrum I spent almost a full day wandering the streets alone, and I had a couple of lazy late breakfast mornings to catch up on writing and e-mails and job searching. It’s nice to just be alone in a new place, without always having to do something.

Blurry late nights, working hard on the club circuit

Cross cultural sharing- the joy of breakfast burritos has been spread to two more people.

It was also shockingly cold, so I broke down and finally purchased some Winter Clothes. I capitalized that because, for the amount of space they take up and the amount of money they required, I feel it’s necessary to communicate their importance. I haven’t had clothes this thick in over two years, and I already resent them for not being flimsy little things I can buy for $3 on a riverbank in Laos and roll up into something about the size of a deck of cards. Of course, after shivering through five days in Prague, the day after I bought my Winter Clothes the sun popped out, perhaps just to reinforce my trepidation that maybe I was jumping the gun on buying them at all. Thanks, weather, for making me doubt myself and my life decisions…

Probably time to work on winterizing the lower half, but the Converse will serve for now.

When I hit Munich I’ll be there for three days (and I mean it this time, because I have a train to catch and a date to make) before returning to Zurich to regroup, repack, hopefully get rid of half of my things again (whittle whittle whittle) and then hop that train to head to Italy for 10 days. This will be my third reunion of the summer so far, and I have two more planned for certain and a few others I am trying my best to work in. It’s been nice to balance out new places and faces and hostels with catching up at friends’ houses and seeing where they live and work. Having a reunion tour of the people I met while living in SE Asia brings a bit of my Laos life back into the mix periodically, and it feels like a little piece of home is here in Europe.

I still have good daily doses of fear about what I’m doing (I’ve been turning down jobs left and right, medical bills are something I’m just telling myself I’ll pay off when I do get a job, and I need to figure out where the hell I’ll be come Christmas) but I’m still happy to be doing exactly what I am doing. I posted this on my FB right before I headed to Prague, and it still sums up best exactly where I am at the moment:

I've never been one for image crafting, so just to be crystal clear: there truly has not been since I left Laos where I did not have at least one all consuming and fairly terrifying moment of "WHAT THE F**K AM I DOING?" I am 32, with no home, no job, no health insurance, fairly laughable savings, and I am gallivanting around Europe for no other reason than I saved up and planned on doing it this summer and I refused to let medical curveballs get in my way. I absolutely know that plowing ahead was not the most *responsible* decision, especially financially in light of my medical bills, but I am also sure that it was the best decision for me, given the circumstances. I wanted to give up and go home, and I am so glad I did not.
I'm definitely not sure where I'll end up, but right now I know that I need to be walking through the terror moments of "Oh, man, am I really screwing up by doing this?" because I am trying to move into a place where I am radically opposed to making any decisions based on fear. Even before the medical complications, I wanted to do this as an exercise in breaking my super type A, planning obsessed, security blanket ways.
So yeah, real talk, I absolutely have anxiety, fear, and stress about what I am doing and how I am living now (it's been almost 3 months of being on the road with no place of my own), but that is only about 15% of the time. The rest of the time I am having profoundly happy and satisfying experiences and thinking of how unbelievably grateful I am that I refused to let anxiety, fear and stress make my decisions for me.
So with that, I will say Czech Republic, you're up next.”

There is no shame in fear- fear is normal- it’s what you do with the fear that matters. 

Train station walls are pretty philosophical in Prague, as it turns out.