Sunday, October 9, 2016

Notes from My Socialist Hellhole: Healthcare

We just wanna go our own way,y'all. 

By the time I had lived in Sweden for only two months, I had gone to a women’s health office, the normal doctor’s office, an emergency dentist, the normal dentist, the emergency room, and the weekend urgent care clinic. Aside from having a surgery or cancer or intensive rehabilitative care after a catastrophic accident (no, really, universe, I can do without that) I have already experienced every aspect of the Swedish healthcare system.

Seeing as how many people are concerned about what might happen if America adopted similar socialised medicine to Scandinavian countries like Sweden, I thought I would let y’all know my firsthand experiences (spoiler alert- they were all great).

First off, as a worker in Sweden I am treated exactly like a Swedish citizen in terms of all social benefits. There is nothing a Swedish citizen receives that I do not receive. I was given a Tax ID number as well as what is called a “personnummer”, which is basically the equivalent of the American Social Security number. This personnummer and all my relevant information are stored in a main database. This database is accessible by every single health care provider and pharmacy. This means that anywhere in Sweden- if I show up to an ER in the south, or a doctor’s office in the north- I have a complete and accessible medical record. It also means I can fill a prescription at any pharmacy in the country, because they will have my prescription from my doctor.

As to payment: you pay 200 kronor anytime you see a doctor, which is about 24 USD. This is for any doctor’s visit, from a regular doctor to a weekend urgent care clinic to the gynaecologist to my vein specialist center- 24 dollars. This is all you pay, even if during that visit they perform tests or draw blood or take a urine sample- 24 dollars, you are done. And after you have paid 1,000 kronor out of pocket, or about 120 US dollars, you don’t pay anything out of pocket the rest of the year.

Here are my experiences with healthcare in Sweden thus far:

My first visit was, characteristically enough for me, to the ER. Only my second time out in Sweden with my friends, I went to an after work event and was knocked out on the dancefloor. A very tall and very drunk Swedish man got *really* excited over the huge balloons being tossed around the crowd, and decided to clock one with an uppercut. I turned around right as he did so, and he caught my jaw instead, which threw me back in a cartoonish way, laying me out on the ground and knocking me out for a second or two. I came to in my friend’s arms, as he carried me off the dance floor. We took a taxi to the ER, which is where I found out that I had been issued my personnummer (this was right after I got to Sweden, and I was waiting on the letter to arrive, but I was already in the system). The receptionist took me straight back to see a nurse immediately, who took all my vital signs, talked to me, did a test you do when someone gets knocked out, and then gave me a stretcher with clean sheets to lay on while I waited. She also gave me ibuprofen and water. I waited, yes, for three hours- but I have waited far longer in the ER in the U.S., I had been triaged as soon as I arrived, and like anywhere, had I been in immediate danger I would have been seen immediately. 

I was seen by two doctors who performed extensive tests to check for concussion and any problems, they took my full medical history to update the system (since I was brand new) and they allowed me ample time to ask questions. They were professional, kind, nurturing, and helpful. When I checked out the ER bill was 400 kronor, total, for everything, which is about 48 USD. I left knowing there would be NO surprise bill coming later to shock me.

My second visit was for my annual well woman exam with the local midwife. I called in on a Friday and asked to set an appointment; they told me to come in on Monday anytime after 3:30 for a walk in appointment. I admit I was skeptical that I would be waiting for hours. I showed up at 3:30 on the dot, took my number… and waited for less than 20 minutes. Many times I have waited double that WITH an appointment in America. I was taken back and seen by a nurse midwife in a cheery and bright office/examining room, where she took a detailed medical history, let me explain any concerns I might have, and then took the time to explain the medical system to me, how to make appointments, and where to call in an emergency. She performed the exam, drew my blood, and took a urine sample. I asked her how much I owed and where to pay, and she laughed. For a full consultation, a pap smear, a blood test, and a full STI screening I paid 0 dollars. I didn’t even have to pay for the office visit, because every woman in Sweden gets free pap smears/well woman exams. 

My third visit was when I was lucky enough to get strep throat. I woke up on a Saturday morning with all the symptoms, and this was when I discovered another useful aspect of Swedish healthcare: the 24 hour hotline staffed with nurses who will answer questions, triage you, and give you numbers and addresses of healthcare providers. I called the hotline and was given a number for an urgent care clinic late Saturday afternoon, and since I didn’t have a fever I accepted an appointment for the next evening. I went in the next day five minutes early and was seen right on time. I was given a strep throat culture test and a full examination, and a prescription for antibiotics. Again, I only paid 24 dollars, flat, for the office visit, because all tests are included in that. My antibiotics were 20 kronor- about 3 USD.

Unfortunately, my strep throat lingered and did not go away, so for my fourth experience with Scandinavian socialised healthcare I headed off to my vårdcentral, or local health center. This is where my midwife office is located as well. The vårdcentral is like the main health building for your local area, and a variety of doctor’s offices are housed all together in a big building. And no, it is not austere and cold and made of concrete blocks. It looks like a nice government building, the main reception is staffed by friendly people, and the main waiting room has lots of comfy chairs and magazines and a kids’ play place. You can walk in at any time, without an appointment, and be seen during normal office hours. 

Again, I was worried about how long I might wait. But again, I walked in without an appointment and was seen by a nurse practitioner, alone, in a private, bright office with a window and plants and the cliche doctor’s office cheesy nature posters, within 20 minutes. She triaged me, took all my info, and ordered a blood test to check for infection and told me I would see the doctor. I was given a red laminated card to take down the hall, walked right in, and got my blood test immediately. The results were processed within the 15 minutes I sat waiting to see the doctor, and he gave me a thorough check-up and asked me how I was adjusting to Sweden and where I had been before. He prescribed me new medicine and gave me a note for my employer. He also scheduled my appointments for a referral to a vein specialist. I paid my 24 dollars and left, knowing there would be no bills following me for the blood tests, because it was all covered.

My experiences with the dentist were similarly fantastic. I chipped a filling on my first day of work in Sweden, and after I got over strep I went to the emergency weekend dentist, where anyone can just walk in. I still hadn’t learned my lesson, and went in expecting horrendous wait times, frankly based on experiences I had had in America at dental offices. Instead I was given a number and told to come back in an hour and a half. I came back in an hour and twenty minutes and was seen right on time. The dentist looked at my tooth, poked around in it, tapped it, and gave me an x-ray. She declared the filling was just chipped, but was still sealed, and it would be fine to wait to see a regular dentist. I asked her how much I owed and she laughed. “We didn’t do anything, you don’t owe anything!” I was seen by a dentist, a dental hygienist, given an exam and an x-ray, and that was all free.

I went back to my vårdcentral, which also houses the dentist, and made an appointment for a full check up and dental cleaning for three weeks in the future. I went in on the set date, was seen right on time, had a thorough mouth exam by the dentist, had my teeth cleaned by the hygienist, and had an appointment set to fix the filling. Dental prices are different from other health services, but for all that I paid about 120. My filling will cost about 100. 

Finally, I recently had my appointment at my vårdcentral with the doctor concerning my legs, so he could refer me to a specialist. I showed up on time, was seen right on time, and he spent over half an hour listening to my history of symptoms, giving me various tests, and asking questions. I was referred to a vein specialist, he ordered a blood test, and he ordered an appointment with the nurses to fit me for new stockings. The order for the blood test is in my file in the database, so I can show up at anytime the vårdcentral is open, tell the receptionist I am there for my blood test, give her my personnummer, and they will do it at my convenience.

To make a long story short, I have received nothing but thoughtful, qualified, and timely care from friendly health care providers in comfortable and enjoyable offices and examination rooms. I can say it has been better than the healthcare I have received in America, from the environment/cleanliness of the offices and exam rooms to the consistently positive bedside manner and thoughtfulness of the providers. There is often some fear that you will be treated like a number, mindlessly pushed through a bureaucratic nightmare of cinder block grey prison cell like examination rooms, with austere and somewhat dingy surroundings. People often wring their hands about waiting times, or death panels, or whatever else. No, y’all, just no.

Most of all, I love the peace of mind that when I leave the doctor there is no waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering how much a random follow up bill will be. Due to the vårdcentral system, I have seen the same doctor and the same nurses in my local community. I recognise the  receptionist ladies, they remember my name and face, they ask my how it’s going adjusting to life here, it all has the pleasant feel, almost, of going to your local library. However, just to clarify, I can go to any doctor, anywhere in Sweden, whenever I want. 

I also want to add that for anyone under 18, anything to do with health has no payment at point of service- from dermatologists to dentists (yes, even braces) to all immunisations to anytime you go to a doctor- no one under 18 has to have money to see a doctor for anything, ever. This means that as a teacher, I know that all my students are taken care of, from their bodies to their teeth to sexual health to their mental health. I cannot put into words the peace of mind this gives me, as someone who is in a position where I need to constantly think about my students on so many levels. Not having the stress of wondering if they are taken care of health wise is incredible.

I have now lived and worked in two countries with exceptional health care- Japan and Sweden- and I have far preferred both experiences to anything I have received in America. It is extraordinarily difficult for me to listen to the outright lies that are told about socialised healthcare by people who have never lived abroad and have never experienced socialised healthcare firsthand. I have friends all over the world, I have traveled extensively throughout the years and met hundreds of people in hostels, and I have never met a single person who envies the American healthcare system. 100% of the time when we talk about it they express outright pity and disgust. We are all entitled to an opinion but when you have an opinion that is totally not true about a system- socialised/public option healthcare- which every other country in the Western developed world has, it is very frustrating. 

Any system created or run by humans will have inherent flaws, and I am certainly not saying socialised healthcare is perfect, or that people in Sweden never have bad experiences with the system. But when the flaw of the American system is that people can be financially destroyed or die if they get sick, I think that is a fundamentally irreconcilable flaw. When the richest country in the world has citizens crowdfunding for medical bills, or putting plastic jars in convenience stores begging for help with a child’s chemo, we should be ashamed. Frankly it angers me that other countries have taken better care of me than my own. I showed up in Sweden and was taken care of with no questions asked as soon as I had a visa and I was in the country- in America, I worked and paid taxes from the age of 14 and could not afford medical care until a decade later when I finally was lucky enough to have a job that gave me good benefits- a privilege millions of Americans don’t have. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Right Now in Sweden: Saturday

In the early hours of this morning, I sat on the floor listening to the sound of Waylon Jennings on a record player. My friends were asking me about Texas, and what it was like, and the windows of the living room framed the milky grey night that was not quite dark, the kind of night you start to get in this part of the world this time of year.

All of my friends at the gathering were born and raised in Sweden, but the records stacked next to the player were the soundtrack of my childhood, as curated by my parents, aunts, and uncles: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen, more classic country than I could count.  As I sat listening to music that reminded me of home, my first home, the place I was born and raised, I realized that this time here in Stockholm, from January  until I leave in June to visit Texas, will be the longest I have spent in one country since I left America in 2012. That five and a half months out of four years would be the longest I had been in one place was a realization that dropped into my lap with a palpable weight.

In the punch drunk early morning wanderings of conversations and music and bookshelf exploration I felt a jumbled, heady mix of all my other homes, Japan and Colorado and Albania and Laos and Sweden. There was a refracting multiplication, a shattering of walls and distance, and all crashed together to clamor for a place in the nostalgia that fell around me.  All these other lives I know how and where to live, what they are like, the food I would be eating, the languages I would be speaking, the rhythms the days would have. If it wasn’t a record player in the living room in Stockholm it would be the garden of the hostel in Bangkok, or a sweat drenched backporch at a house party in Laos, or dancing on bars in Japan, or roaming the streets of Tirana with the gang. It would be long sunset rides on the bike path and sleeping under a clean spread of stars in a tent. The infinite number of possibilities of choice for where and how to live was dizzying.

I have been here in Sweden close enough to call it five months, which is damned near close to my consistent calculus of Country Comfort, which has always shown me that somewhere right under six months is the moment when things change in a new place. Suddenly, without my having quite realized when it happened, Stockholm became another city, in another country, where I know how to live. And live well. I can thrive here. But this means that Stockholm is also destined to be another city I leave. It will be another place where a parallel, potential me could have continued, but didn’t. It will be a ghost town of what ifs and unmade choices. It will forever be a place I will look back on, once I have left it, with nostalgia and longing and imagined futures that never came to be.

I never really thought about this when I started moving around. I knew, in an abstract way, that every choice cuts off every other choice. I know, philosophically, that we are all making thousands of choices every day that irrevocably change the course of our lives, from what we are doing to who we are meeting to where we are living. But it hasn’t been until I have immersed myself in these radically different places, and then left them, and left with the knowledge of exactly what I was giving up, that the enormity of that really sunk in. I can do anything, anything at all, anywhere I want. But I can’t do everything. This is the constraint. The whole world is before us, all of it, in excruciating detail, begging to be explored, and yet we have to select a small sliver, the tiniest corner, a fraction of a fraction, and immerse ourselves in that, to the exclusion of all the rest. Even if we live a nomadic life, we are only ever living that one life, that preciously pathetic little thread that weaves through the world, so fragile, and so short, but all we have to gather all of everything we are ever going to know, and love, and see, and have.

I am at peace, most of the time, with all of these other lives I have left running without me. But sometimes everything blurs and gets tangled, like in early morning milk grey nights, and the surreal convergence of something like Waylon Jennings and Stockholm is like seeing into a parallel universe. So I sat on the floor of and told stories about Texas to my Swedish friends, wondering about the people and places in the story, and wondering about what kind of stories I will be telling when I talk about Sweden in the future, once it has become part of my past. And then everything slid back into place, one frame, one clear line. I felt my cold feet on the wooden floor, and my hands clasped around my knees, and the crackling of the record player at my back. For now, right here, this is home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

100 Days of Studying Swedish

I love the way Swedish verbs work, so I don't have to. 

I have now lived and worked in four countries other than my own: Japan, Albania, Laos, and Sweden. In every single case, I made an effort at committing time to learning the language, with varying degrees of diligence and, as a result, varying degrees of success. In Japan, I willfully chose to be illiterate so I could focus on conversational skills. There is a standardized Roman alphabet for the Japanese language, so I could read and teach myself out of books, and practice talking in my day to day life. By the end of my year there, I could hold basic chit chat conversations with taxi drivers, make niceties with my neighbors, effortlessly fling out all the set daily polite phrases for a myriad of interactions, and I had a firm vocabulary of the specifics of my life: the post office, the bank, the doctor’s office, buying things, ordering in restaurants, etc. 

Getting a fortune poem I could not read on New Year's in Tokyo.

Albanian was a similar level of fluency, aided by the fact that I could read signs everywhere and everyone assumed I was Albanian so they threw the language at me from the start.

Oddly enough, though, to make it to this Albanian beach I spoke Spanish with the Albanian hotel owner, who was giving me directions in Italian...

And then came Lao… learning Lao was rough, due to my transition, because from the first month I was counting down the days until I could leave. Of course, all that changed eventually, and as soon as I decided I was staying another year I threw myself into actively trying to learn the language. Unfortunately, this had to be shoved into the corners of life that were not taken up with grad school and work and being ill for a year with mysteriously bum legs. As a result, I am most ashamed of my effort in Laos, because I spent two years there and ended with less language capability than Japan and Albania.

Thankfully not everything required translation.

What I learned from the experience in Laos is that, no matter how long you think you will be in a country, yes, yes, the answer is always yes, you should start learning the language from day one. So impressed with this regret was I that I even stuck to this while traveling for half a year- I made active efforts to pick up day to day phrases in German, I endeavored to finally learn to read in Italian correctly, and all over the Balkans I was netting phrases- especially in Croatia, where I spent the most time. When I returned to Albania for a long awaited visit, I busted out all my old study sites and reviewed the language so I could use it every day. I don’t like to make the same mistake twice, and I hate feeling like I missed out on a learning opportunity.

I did as I was told.

So with all that in mind, here in Sweden I am approaching my most difficult task yet: I am living in a country where virtually everyone speaks English to a fluent level, and I am the most committed I have ever been to learning the language of my host country now that I am free of grad school for the first time since moving overseas. I am using two apps I highly recommend, Memrise and DuoLingo, and I strictly use my bus ride to and from work (about 20 minutes one way) for language study. My record keeper tells me I have used both apps every day for 100 days now. I amaze even myself at that kind of commitment, starting, as it did, when I was firmly in the “what the hell is my life?” blues.
What is difficult is that I find my level of self-consciousness in speaking a foreign language is directly proportional to the likelihood that the listener speaks my native language very well. So, in Japan, or Albania, or Laos, where I could assume the listener is not likely to be fluent in my language, I would gladly fumble through, hoping that my meager efforts would at least be met with understanding, or an appreciation I was trying to integrate. But here, in Sweden, the thought of speaking is almost paralyzing to me. I know that as soon as I start fumbling through the words, the person will rescue me, effortlessly, swooping in with a delivery of my own mother tongue, expertly spoken.  It makes me even more embarrassed to be mono-lingual.

I like knowing enough Swedish to read passive aggressive but funny notes on trees exhorting dogs to think of the children.

The real issue is that sometimes the ease with which I move through the world thanks to English really shames me. I think back to all the times I, as a foreigner speaking English, have been accommodated, have been understood, have been helped. I have a habit of ending up in foreign hospitals- every time, the nurses and doctors spoke at least enough English to explain to me the general idea of what they were about to put in me/cut out of me/test me for. I have never been shamed for not speaking the local language. I recall, fondly, the man who owned the shop in my building in Albania, who patiently typed out my total for groceries in the calculator before I learned the numbers in Albanian. No one has made me feel stupid, less than, or worthless for my lack of language skills. When I compare this to the rhetoric I have heard hurled at those who do not speak English, I feel even more guilt.

I know there are lots of people who have lived in Thailand or Laos or Albania or Japan or Sweden for years, and can barely string together a few sentences. Why? Because they speak English, and they run in English speaking circles, or hang out with locals who also speak English. Of course, when English speaking Western people do it, we give it cute names like Inter Nations or Couch Surfing or Meet Ups. We rest on the fact that it’s okay, most people speak English, I don’t need to learn (fill in the blank local language).  Sometimes, our friends who are citizens of our host country even graciously excuse us by making fun of the pointlessness of learning their language, going so far as to express surprise and ask “Why would you learn_________?” We should be asking ourselves why it is considered okay for western, English speaking people to not integrate, not learn the language, and not “assimilate”, even after decades of living in their host countries, but non-Western, non-English speaking people are seen as willfully ignorant and stubborn for doing the exact same thing.

And sure, you can come back at me with a very logical response- English is, for all intents and purposes, the unofficial global language. It is the most popular second language worldwide. The thing is, I’m not talking about purely logical or useful arguments for English. I am concerned with the ways in which people who speak English are absolved of responsibility for learning the language of their host countries, while those who don’t speak English are often judged very harshly, even in countries where English is not the mother tongue, but is rather the unofficial second language. Take my situation- I moved to Sweden, and I speak English, and thus no one gets prickly at me for not knowing Swedish. If I had moved to Sweden and spoke Spanish, French, and Italian, but knew no English or Swedish, I would suddenly be lazy or refusing to integrate or isolating myself. The only difference is that in the former case I was lucky by birth or opportunity to have learned English. And this is a problem- conflating English knowledge with intelligence or willingness to adapt or integrate, when most of the time it is just luck of the draw, pure and simple.

I have studied Japanese, and Albanian, and Lao, and I never became fluent in any of them, but the effort of trying to understand made me feel better than resting on the (unearned) laurels of my English ability. I have terrible pronunciation, my grammar structure is awful, and Swedish prepositions confuse the hell out of me, but I just remind myself that verb conjugation is so much easier than Spanish, at least it isn’t tonal like Lao, and I don’t have to learn an entirely new alphabet like with Japanese. So on my 100th straight day of studying Swedish, I will say I plan to continue studying Swedish, in spite of all the assurances that it is pointless and impossible to learn. I can say one thing with certainty- no, no, no, the Swedish chef is NOT speaking Swedish. But I do think I sound like the Swedish chef when I speak Swedish.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hay Bale Bus Stops and Telling Estonian Time

This is a journal entry from four summers ago, about one of my favorite and first experiences traveling solo.

There is very little information about Saaremaa online in terms of traveling on your own, so I headed into town this morning to work the information center. I found out that there was only one bus for the national park I wanted to go to, and it left within the hour. No problem, I have a bike, let's go get sunscreen and a towel. The pedal of my bike falls off, thankfully on the way back from the store, but unfortunately on the way to the stop for that lone bus which can get me where I’m trying to go. So I’m dragging my dead horse of a bike, hustling back to the bus stop for my ride, and stop to check my "watch" (my useless cell phone, with no reception, a dead box of a mid 90’s Nokia which has no idea what the internet is). It's dead, having decided that being useful in any way at all was not what it had planned for this trip. I feel it was a direct retaliation for my having said, right in front of it “This is my useless phone, which is, at the moment, just a large and strange watch.” I make a note to myself that technology can be vengeful when insulted.

I abandon my one pedaled wonder to the safety of a bike lock wrapped around a park bench and dart into a watch shop. There I buy the cheapest thing I can find- a hot pink kids' watch that conveniently says "hour" and "minute" on the appropriate hands, as well as "past" on the right half of the face and "to" on the left half. After the digital face of my previous watch the lesson was appreciated. The woman tries three different times to put it in different gift bags before she finally understands that hot pink plastic bling is all mine- there is no future birthday party with a cherub faced niece or nephew, no small child at home to whom I will give this, no student of the week prize this shall be. It’s for me, the sweaty 30 year old woman standing in front of her. I try not to feel insecure about my purchase, although her unwillingness to acknowledge it’s for me makes that hard. I leave the scene with the following score: down one bike, up one dead phone, up one slightly condescending kiddie watch, and down a bit of pride. Not my best travel game, but there is no time to think.

Oh, one more thing to add to the score card- then it starts to kind of rain. I have half an hour left, no lunch, and it’s raining just enough to warrant some sort of protection, but not enough to really be a respectable rain, so now I have to buy an umbrella for a rain shower I don’t really respect. The umbrella, thankfully, is not child sized but it is adult priced and I try not to think of how much the umbrella, the watch, the sunscreen, the towel, and my pride have cost me thus far.

I continue down the street, trying to regain my “Isn’t this CHARMING! What a lovely little island!” gusto while juggling all my new possessions that bear witness to this comedy of errors morning. My stomach protests that it has not gotten in on the gift action, so I stumble into a bar and get some pastries to go. I snag an apple off an old woman at a produce stand, and I’ll be thankful for this later. At this point I can see the bus stop, and the watch tells me with its labeled hands and patient face that I will, in fact, make my ride.

I sit on the curb and eat my pastries under the probing eyes of a small child. I instinctively pull off a hunk of pastry to share with her, stopping just in time to remember where I am- this is not Albania, and this is not a wide-eyed homeless Roma child. Her mother sits right next to her, in neat, tailored clothes. I am wearing dirty backpacker things, a scarf tied in my hair, mud crusted hiking boots on my feet. I am eating with my hands on the ground. I should be the one receiving handouts in this situation. I stop myself from bordering on child harassment and remind myself that sometimes not sharing is caring.

For the next hour I’m on a compact local bus, taking a winding route on pristine two lane paved roads- narrow, well-marked, flanked on both sides by thick woods unless it opens up into a sprawling field dotted with sheep or haystacks. People slowly siphon off at stop after strangely random stop- this one is an ornate wooden bench crouching on the side of the road, this one is a tree like any other but apparently it’s The Bus Stop Tree, this one is simply the side of the road on one of those open stretches with a sign planted like a “We conquered this for transportation!” flag. 

A small wooden bench, for your comfort, Weary Traveler

The bus driver periodically glances back at me, brow furrow ever deepening with each stop at which I do not depart. Between my umbrella and backpack it’s clear I’m a tourist and I’m certain he does not want to be responsible for me if I end up somewhere I didn’t know I was going. I want to tell him that not knowing where I was going has been a constant theme of the last year, philosophically speaking. Physically speaking, not knowing where I’m going has a relieving, tangible quality to it. Drop me anywhere, I want to say. I’m trying to find something anyway. I want to figure it out. I don’t say this, because that would be bizarre.

We drive on, just the two of us now, after I assure him that yes, I do want the last stop. His reluctance to take me there should have given me pause, but it didn’t. I’ve been trying not to pause too long and think about most things lately.

And so at the end of this gorgeous drive through isolated back roads I get dropped at the end of the line- a cluster of random buildings where there is no one in sight. I walk into a dusty “Can I retire now? It’s been a long job and I’m tired” town hall. I am greeted with a girl who looks to be about 15. She works the front desk, but it looks for all the world like a child playing make-believe in the unused front room of her grandmother’s house. This freckled young state employee tells me to walk 3 kilometers (back the way I just came) and turn right at the Vilsandi National Park signs. I use the bathroom and check the bus schedule on the way out- there is only one bus going back that evening. I have all afternoon and into early evening before it leaves at 6:45, but I have no idea what I’m doing and no idea how long it will take.  

I wander on down the road in utter solitude for half an hour.  I’m getting my wish- drop me anywhere, indeed. I don’t see a soul who could help me anyway. I sing some songs to myself. I think about my sister. I think about my family. I stop for a moment and put my hands on my knees and have to shake my head because this doesn’t feel like real life. The sky is too huge and I feel like I could slip into it and disappear, sliding out of the world down the curved slope of that blue bowl. How am I just cavalierly traveling around Estonia alone, hopping ferries and buses, walking down roads so far from home and my family and all that we’ve gone through? How did I get here? Is it okay that I’m here? Where is my sister? Where is the part of me that was a sister to her? I’ve stopped walking forward and have wandered into the edge of the trees already without realizing it, so I sit down and wait because I’m going to cry. I do, leaning into a tree. It’s not long, but it means something serious and it’s rough and it hurts my head terribly once it’s all out. When I’m finished I stand up and keep walking. I think of my sister, still. I feel like she’s in me somewhere. I’m carrying her down this road. I start crying again, but I keep walking. I stop crying as suddenly as flipping a switch. I’m used to this manic grief by now- the way it comes in, unannounced, demanding. The way you can’t stop it and it feels like something else in your skin. The way it leaves just as quickly and makes you confused.

I walk further on down the road and find myself back to a normal feeling. The eventual signs point me off the highway where I take a sun dappled gravel road through a tunnel of dense trees, a situation so idyllic that if it were depicted in a romantic comedy I would have rolled my eyes. An information center crops up in front of me, but because it’s awkwardly grouped with someone’s home and tool shed it looks like it stumbled into the wrong party and is just hanging out in the corner hoping not to be seen. Despite its obvious reluctance to help I go inside. There I find tons of brochures in a variety of languages- Finnish, German, and Estonian- but not so much in English. By not so much I mean nothing at all. Everything inside is spotless, made out of warm wood, hardy looking, like things get cold here more often than not. The woman working there is very kind but we can’t talk to one another. I wash my tear stained face in the bathroom. I am feeling better. This is relative to how badly I have felt for the last two months. It’s still better.

I’m sent on my “destined to get lost in the forest and eaten by marauding sheep” way with a map in three languages which I cannot read because dammit, America, where is your language education system? I wander in the general direction of the woman’s ambiguous gestures as to where I should begin my doomed adventure in missing American girl tourism, and commit to joining up with a dirt road whose main qualifier for my trust is that it is the only thing that looks like it could be a road to somewhere.

There are no trailheads; as I learned from my morning’s googling the trails are simply old post roads that are now grown over. I quickly come to a double fork which isn’t on my map, so at this point I can’t even read the lines on my map, much less the lines that snake into languages I can’t understand. It's fine though, I have a real watch now, and it's hot pink, and it tells me which hand is which. This probably makes me an expert at navigating. I take the left fork. I pass a farmhouse, and it seems exasperated with me, as though it knows I don’t belong here and can’t read languages in which it is probably fluent, and no one who has worked in or around it would be caught dead with a hot pink watch.

And then I don’t pass anything for a long, long while.

I am not altogether certain I know where I am, or how to get back. I wander for about two hours, but when you see no one, and hear nothing but the wind in the trees and in the waist high grass, this solitude feels like a much wider space, in good and bad ways. I mark my trail and take pictures along the way, and at one point I make myself shriek out loud in terror when I imagine returning home to edit the pictures only to discover a stranger in one of them- someone lurking in the bushes or standing at the edge of a field, waving. Why, brain? Really? Seriously, I will never run out of ways to torment myself.

Photo credit goes to crook of a tree and my self timer. 

I manage to make a loop back and lose my way about ten times, but eventually the information center sprouts awkwardly on the horizon again (in the opposite direction in which I was walking, might I add). I follow the gravel road back about 30 minutes before I need to catch my bus, and arrive with plenty of time to not get abandoned.

Since the bus stop is of the variety that is simply a sign on the side of the road I sit on the now useful map in the shade of a hay bale in someone's field and read a book. 
Hay poked and hungry, the view from here.

I stop reading the book and go back to thinking. I start to cry and stop thinking and go back to my book, the words blurred, the haybale sticking into my back, everything around me smelling like places I’ve lived in Texas. I’m alive and alone in the middle of nowhere alone in a country I know very little about, but I feel more comfortable than I have in a very, very long time. I lean into the hay bale some more. I pick up my book and the words are clear and I keep reading.

I begin to get a bit nervous when the bus does not show up at 6:45 as promised, so I abandon my hay bale to sit right under the bus stop sign, where I can see the road stretching, empty, to my right and left. I amuse myself by taking a self-timer shot at the middle of nowhere bus stop. 

I really should have made better plans. By better, I mean any at all.

The silence keeps getting louder and closer, gathering weight, leaning on me- I forgot how long I was used to the mid-level, constant cacophony of an urban center. I'm moved to take deep breaths and look around and swing my arms and just feel what it feels like to be in that kind of silence. Somehow that kind of heavy quiet seems even more tangible when you experience it with the trappings of civilization around you- a paved road with no one on it, a bus stop with a fresh, bright blue sign on a perfect new post, a tidy little farmhouse in the distance. Not a sound, from bird or animal or car or even wind now. I sit down and take out my book again. More time passes. I begin to think that I am about to have to walk back to that dusty little town 3 kilometers up the road and beg someone to let me sleep on their floor. My choices, from what I remember, include a gas station, a grocery store, the tired old city hall, and a few tightly buttoned and rather cold looking farmhouses.

My happy little watch continues to tell me bad news about how long I’ve been waiting. It’s like that really positive person who can’t read a room and barges in and talks about how great things are when everyone is stressed out. I get it, happy watch. I understand where the hours are. I know where the minutes are. I certainly know where I am- alone on the side of a road, waiting at a bus stop, living on faith the bus will come. Shut it with your helpfulness, all right? Right before I’m about to give up and walk to my floor sleeping hobo fate, the bus comes. I make up with my watch. I grab my umbrella. I almost forget my book. I leave an apple core behind.

Within an hour I’m back in the center of that charming little town, where there is Italian food for dinner, and the bike is still in front of the town hall, and my watch is telling me that it is 10:00 at night although the sun is still giving off a warm watery glow like headlights through a fog. I walk home washed in a sunlight that I’ve never seen, because I’ve never been in this part of the world, in this time of year, at this time of night. I look at the way this nighttime strange season sun falls on my arms and feel it on my face. Soon my street sign with an impossible amount of vowels comes into view, reaching out of an ivy covered fence with a maternal sympathy that seems to understand I have had very little of familiar signs today, and to come on now, you’re on the right path.

I realized that all this time I had been worried I couldn’t do this, but I am doing it, right now. I did it today. I did it the day before. I’m going to do it tomorrow. And I’ll do many, many more things like it. A fear I had never admitted I had stands up inside me now that I’ve finally called its name. And then it leaves me just as quickly, now that I know it’s not real. I feel it slide down my arms, peeled inside out, slipping off my fingertips, and I think this is probably the point where so many times before I would grab onto it at the last minute and wrap myself back up. This time I leave that inside out fear crumpled behind me on the sidewalk. And then I walk alone for the first time that day.

The remains of the day.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Right Now in Sweden: Coffeeshop Lurking and Getting Back on Track

I am sitting in the coffeeshop that became my second home during the long dark days of the Drowning in Work and Hating All the Things chapter of my life here in Sweden. That chapter was about three months long, which, as far as chapters go, was a bit longer than I think anyone wants a chapter to be, especially one like that.

I came here today without work to revel in the fact that I can bring my personal laptop, not my work laptop, and write something for myself, instead of writing pages and pages of feedback on essays, or boxes and boxes of PPT presentations. Unfortunately, my computer rebelled against my months long refusal to submit to the endless pestering from Windows 10, and somehow in the night last week it decided to go rogue and "upgrade" against my will/without my knowledge. Now, either the word "upgrade" needs to mean something else, or I need to call what it did to itself something else, because no improvement has been made. I now have a tragic interface that is so desperately trying to be hip that I just want to wrap my arm around Microsoft and say "honey, I know Jobs is gone, but... you're still not the cool one." Everything has a self consciously "edgy" and "clean" and "geometric" feel to it, and I keep getting notifications at random times, and something called Cortana never stops asking me to ask it anything. The only thing I want to ask it is why it's here, which seems to be rude, even to a computer program who showed up uninvited. I also don't want to get petty, but this is the worst time to get awful on me because my work romance with a Macbook Air was already making it hard to come home to this old beat up thing. 

Speaking of old beat up things, I have decided that the best way for me to move forward with Sweden is to give her a clean slate, and firmly quarantine the first three months in a box labeled "Work Experience and Professional Growth", as it was certainly not very much of a living abroad/setting up a new life/enjoying new discoveries kind of experience. Since I have only been here since Jan 3rd, but I didn't really feel like I started living here until about a week ago, I am saying, for all intents and purposes, that my time in Sweden, as a country, as a home, not just as a place that gave me a job, is starting April 1st. That gives me two and a half clean, fresh, unsullied by stress and work surprises months to dig in to my new home. I am coming to  America for a visit this summer, and I need to have a place I want to return to in August. I would hate to leave Stockholm in June still feeling lukewarm about it, and return for another 10 months to be tepid and uncommitted.

When I look back on Laos, I loathed living there from the end of August until the beginning of January. Hell, my finally starting to like Laos was such a revelatory aberration I wrote an entire blog post about the first time I really enjoyed myself there. We're talking a bit over FOUR MONTHS before I warmed to it, and by the end of my first contract I was signing up for a second year. Albania was easier, but it still took me a good three months to get in a real routine. In general, no matter how many times I've moved countries, (four times now!) it seems like the first month in a new school/country are just full on, the second and third months you are still figuring life out and settling into a routine (where is the gym? how does the post office work? where do I find peanut butter?), and then you build on that routine for a few months so that by month six, you really hit your stride. Month six is when you have worked out all the kinks, big and little, you know your way around the entire city on bicycle (Japan), foot (Albania), scooter/tuk tuk (Vientiane) or public transpo (Sweden). You have favorite places and a rhythm and a social calendar and all in all you've created a new life in a new place.

I will say, it isn't that different from my experience moving from Texas to Colorado. It just fundamentally takes time to set up a new life from scratch. I think that is why, perhaps, people might turn back when they move somewhere new. Sometimes it feels really uncomfortable, and lonely, and you think you have made the worst decision ever. But come on- ANYTHING is going to feel bad compared to a place where you know your way around, you have a ton of friends, you know a good chunk of the local language/culture, and you have a place in a community that is familiar. That feeling of strange newness you get when you travel? It's enjoyable only because you know it's going to end and you are going to go home to your familiar house. But when you move countries every few years, that feeling, that exact same experience, is stretched out for a few months, and you have the burden of knowing that the only thing that will make it go away is for you to turn wherever you are into your home, because you aren't going back home- you ARE home, even though it doesn't feel like it.

But for all the discomfort of that process, for all the pain of unknitting myself from an amazing community and going into an unknown place to start all over, that is exactly what I find so fascinating. Over and over again, it is the same thing- I go somewhere, it's meh to mildly uncomfortable to uninspiring, I question my life goals/decisions/capability to be an adult, I get furiously disappointed in myself for needing to bounce around so much, I chastise former me for making such a dumb move, I bathe in nostalgia and longing for My Last Home, which is now the best place in the world since it is not where I am now, and I generally just doubt my entire existence. Eventually, things start clicking into place. First this, then that. Small things, they give you a bit of ease, but not much. Then bigger things start to fall in, and then you start to understand the language around you and realize the two months of study have paid off, or you finally get your visa/ID card/work permit, or you witness the first change of seasons. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you realize, as you are walking down a street, that everything around you makes sense, you know exactly what stop you need to get off at without thinking, you have things like a favorite grocery store and burger joint and yes, even a favorite coffeeshop found under duress and kept to enjoy newfound freedom in.

When this nostalgia/doubt transition hit me in Laos, as I was pining for Albania, I thought it was due to the stressful nature of the huge life changes that were happening. When it hit me in Albania, as I left Colorado, it also made sense because I was leaving all my friends and family right after the loss of my sister, But since it is happening again, in the exact same way, here in Sweden, I now know that this is just the way it goes when you pull up your roots and roll on down the road to the next place. It is entirely possible that, a year from now, as I am nearing the end of my contract in Sweden, I will be feeling the same reluctance to leave as I am now. If anything else, I'm curious to see how I will feel when I get there. And I have to live here, and stay here, to get there.

I think now, the question is when will I tire of the novelty of the process of moving, putting down roots, building a community/life, and then pulling up roots to start all over again. I am feeling, for the first time, like I can see where this might be winding down. I don't mean at the end of my contract here in Sweden, not necessarily that soon; it's more like the idea of "I could do this forever" has now been replaced with "I wonder what I will do when I am done with all this moving around?" That, in and of itself, has been an interesting new development. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Praying for Sunshine

I took this picture when it snowed again, after I thought it wouldn't be snowing anymore. I was not that impressed.

About two weeks ago, I woke up to find my living room filled with patches of unexpected sun. It terrified me. I jolted out of bed in an instant panic- it had to be 9:00 a.m., the sun was the smoking gun of my lateness, how had I slept through my alarm?! I was so convinced, I didn't even bother looking at the time until I was halfway dressed- just kidding, it was 6:45 a.m., and my alarm was set for 7:00. Pun totally intended, that was when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. The sun was coming back. I was starting to see the completion date of my seemingly insurmountable pile of work. I was almost there.

Sunset from my work window- this was a twofold victory. I was leaving work at 5:30 with a rare empty backpack, AND the sun was setting at 5:30, instead of 3:30

Today, when I got on the bus to come home, it was 7:40 and it wasn't dark. The sun had just set, but everything was still illuminated in that blue light wash of where the sun had been, and night wasn't there yet. It was absolutely, categorically, Not Dark. I felt something inside of me peek out and survey Stockholm as though, until that moment, it had never really seen it. It has been dark for what has seemed like much longer than the three months I have lived here. Well, not "lived here", exactly. I moved to Sweden on January 3rd. I wouldn't say I have been "living" here, though- I've been here, as a location in space, but being and living are two very different things. I have often joked it has felt a bit like a work release program. Work, home, work, home, repeat, filling in any random blanks with frustrating setting up life errands, or sick days, or absurd visits to the ER for concussions. More on that later...

All the good things I mentioned in this post almost two months ago still stand, but basically immediately after that post all the difficult things stood up even taller, and ever more infuriating things came out of the woodwork. Between that army of work difficulty, no sun, and a collision of 3 weeks of flu and strep throat with huge work deadlines, I was at my wit's end. I was working mornings, days, evenings, and weekends. I was waking up in the night, terrified I had slept through my alarm and would miss a class, or a meeting. No, it was just 3:00 a.m. and another night of interrupted sleep. Many, many days I would be on the bus to work, in a cold, grey morning, exhausted from stress, and think back to balmy Laos days at a school where I felt capable and competent, in a town bustling with social activity. And then I would make myself stop thinking of it because it just made me feel worse to feel incompetent and overwhelmed, in a cold (literally and figuratively) town shuttered for winter. I knew what I was signing up for (not really, but I had an idea that it would be more than I bargained for, and it was), so I just put my head down, shoulder to the wheel, and got to work.

Real talk- sometimes my efforts to put my shoulder to the wheel ended up in just draping myself, exhausted, over the wheel. And maybe hoping it would roll over me and put me out of my misery. 

But, just like everyone always tells you things do, this, too, has passed. I spent the first half of this easter break (five days) getting caught up, and finally FINISHED, on this backlog of work I inherited (inheriting work is less cool than inheriting money, in case maybe you were wondering). That left 5 days of 100% guilt free slothing around, sleeping in, interneting until early hours, catching up with friends in person and on Skype, and finally finding time to update this blog with a rambling jumble like this.

In reality, it was perfect timing, because I think basically no one has a life in Stockholm in January and February. The short periods of sun, which happen right when you are stuck in work, have the paradoxical effect of making one feel that the days simultaneously never end, and also never happen. You feel caught up in this muddled, surreal world of snow and cold and wet and dark, with blurry lines of marking time and experience. Couple this with a claustrophobic experience of all encompassing work, while also trying to settle into a new country and feel connected, and it's basically a recipe for a really difficult time. Pro-tip: if you move to a Scandinavian country in the middle of winter, take over a position in the middle of the year with no training, and then inherit a lot of unknown/undone work, and then you get sick a lot, and you have difficulties with getting immigration stuff sorted... well, good luck.

I'm coming out from this fog of work right as the sun has decided to come back to Sweden. This week I have wandered streets I have never explored before; I have seen the city in the sun, and it honestly looks and feels like a totally different place. I can finally say, in all honesty, I am living in Sweden, not just being here. Everyone told me the spring would be amazing, and I feel even more grateful for it, thanks to how hard the first few months were. This happens every.single. time. I throw myself into unknown situations, and every single time I'm convinced I'm going to fail, and then I don't, and then I am so happy I did it. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson by now, but since I haven't, I guess that means I have to keep flinging myself into uncertainty.

We're all quick to judge
And slow to learn

Friday, February 12, 2016

Where I've Been, Where I'm Going

On June 16th, 2015 I left my home and my job in Laos to start Stray Cat Summer, so named because I didn’t really think I would be rambling, unemployed and aimless, much further past the summer. It ended up stretching all the way through fall and into the winter, and didn’t come to an end until the next year, on Jan 3rd, 2016, when I rolled into Stockholm (literally, on yet another train).

As I'm sure surprises no one, I kept notes and maps and journeys listed along the way. I just went back to look them over, now that I have had a spare moment to write, and these are the final numbers.

In 202 days I covered 5,750 plane miles and 8,448 miles overland. Those numbers encompass two planes, five ferries, fourteen car trips, seventeen trains, and seventeen buses. I was in 14 countries and visited 37 cities. 

Poor Thailand- it wouldn't fit on this map, but I was there for one last wonderful hurrah

Most of the writing I did during my travels was fairly self reflective (navel gazing, let's be real) and I realized that so many of the notes and stories of what I was actually doing never made it here on the blog, because I was so immersed in what I was thinking (this is also probably no surprise to anyone who knows me well- I live in my head). I'm hoping, now that I have a bit more time, that I can go back and fill in the blanks with stories and adventures and anecdotes, if only so that I don't forget them as they go slipping out the backdoor of my brain.

I have been here in Sweden six weeks already, and even to type it out shocks me a bit. To say that it has been an abrupt and jolting transition to go from Stray Cat Summer/Fall/Winter into a respectable job at an academically prestigious and rigorous school would be a gross understatement. I have taken over mid-year, and not just for the previous teacher. He left in October, and the classes were tended to by in-school subs who took on the work in addition to their already full schedules. Due to the hectic nature of the transition, every week since I have been at school has been an adventure in What Do I Have to Do that I Don't Know I Have to Do? This has been a frustrating situation of really being the fault of no one in particular- it's just an unfortunate convergence of bad timing, making do with in-house subs, and each well meaning person thinking the other well meaning person had taken care of __________ or communicated _____________ or followed up on _____________, which resulted in a lot of things not being taken care of, communicated, or followed up on.

And so I transitioned back into my profession in the most challenging of ways- mid-year, with no previous experience in the curriculum, setting up a new life and a home and a career in yet another new country. And here, dear reader, is where I made the fatal error.

I let Sweden trick me with how Swedish I assumed it would be.

What I mean is that, when I headed off to Japan at the ripe old age of 22, having never been anywhere outside of the U.S. save Mexico, I had a healthy respect for what I was doing. I was prepared for it to be insanely different, I was freaking out about the job, I knew zero Japanese, hell, I was foolishly in love with a Mormon and was worried about maintaining our long distance relationship, the list goes on. When I moved to Albania, I was a new teacher, heading off to start my career. My sister has just passed away, things were rough, and Albania was a small country no one had ever heard of (but the U.S. State Department had a lot to say about healthcare which I am thankful I did not read before I moved there). And finally, we have Laos, which is an absolute gem but also absolutely a difficult country in which to live, from infrastructure to healthcare.

So, to be honest, after tucking three countries under my belt, and after roaming wild and free for almost seven full months, I accepted this job in Sweden and thought it would be easy peasy to just roll into town and set up shop. It ticked all the boring boxes- first world, great social safety net, Stockholm is a well run and neatly organized Scandinavian city, I would have things like fire alarms and regulated traffic and public transpo and free healthcare. It would be so smooth. Neat. Easy. Clean and safe and simple.

Which is why, when I found myself wandering the streets with a check worth my first three weeks of pay, crying in the snow in the dark at 4:00 p.m. thanks to bank bureaucracy, I was shocked. Sweden had made me cry, in less than a full month? What the hell? How did this happen? 

I suppose this is, in some ways, a good thing. I had been worried that Sweden would be too safe, normal, similar, and, if I may say so, a bit boring compared to Japan or Laos or Albania. What has happened, however, is that I have been hit in the face with the biggest challenge of my teaching career, on top of what has turned out to be a country transition that has been, while much easier than any other country, still challenging in ways I didn't expect. Sure, the basics are much easier- the public transpo, the healthcare, my lovely and fully furnished apartment which I was so lucky to get my co-workers told me I could never, ever mention again how I got the place, because it was too infuriating. I'm taking aerial silks lessons again, I can drink the tap water freely, the traffic follows consistent rules. 

But the culture is still very specifically different, in subtle but frequent ways. My check cashing adventure was one example; my experience in public places with mores of social interactions is another. The darkness, y'all, the darkness- the cold was not nearly as bad as I expected, but I have to say, when the sun deuces out at 3:30 p.m. it definitely is hard to keep it together. Living in the suburbs again, after being in the nucleus of the thriving hub of the community of Vientiane, has been the biggest transition. I went from a lively expat community to an endless parade of hostels and couchsurfing with friends to land in a wonderful little apartment in a very beautiful but very quiet (and dark, did I mention dark) suburb. I have loads of excellent friends here- it's just that we have to actually plan get togethers, instead of just bumping into each other on the riverside. The pace of life in SE Asia, and life on the road, is what I find myself missing the most I suppose.

That is not to say that I am not enjoying Sweden. I have, as I said, great friends here. I have had some dumb adventures already. My students are absolute gems. The studio where I take aerial silks is fantastic. I am reveling, and I mean REVELING, in the glory that is having my own apartment again. I can be alone, for hours, and have privacy and peace and quiet. I have a real kitchen again for the first time in two years, and every Sunday I have cooked and roasted and meal prepped. Being in cold weather has been excellent for my legs. Healthcare, y'all. Healthcare. And even this trial by fire of learning IB will all be worth it.

I wrote in my journal, as I was on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, that this January to June I was going to devote myself to radical self care and self improvement. After months and months of erratic sleeping schedules, terrible eating, stressful times of uncertainty, and the fear of having no health insurance, Sweden, with all its predictability and stability and safety, could not have come at a better time. It's good to push oneself, but past a certain point it's just self flagellation. In the past six weeks I have been clocking eight to nine hours of sleep a night; I've been eating more vegetables in a day than I was getting in a week; I'm working out again, between belly dancing and yoga and aerial silks and strength training; I'm studying Swedish; I'm reading books and journaling; I'm learning so much at work and taming my ego about needing to know everything; I'm hanging out in libraries again; I meditate every day. Things are really good, even though they are so vastly different from where I was six weeks ago that I sometimes cannot even believe I am the same person, and this is the same life.

When I look back on how exhausted, confused, and scared I was the day before my first day of work, and I think of how I feel now, I can only be amazed at how resilient and capable humans can be when thrown into strange situations. In its own way, taking over this position, in the middle of the year, was just as much a leap of faith as it was for me to leave Laos in June with no plans or goals. I find it interesting that I traveled for a little more than half a year, and now I will have about half a year here in Sweden as I learn the ropes of this new job. That will add up to an entire YEAR where I have thrown myself, again and again, into personally challenging, scary, and daunting situations. And up to this point, I haven't failed. I see no reason to think I would start now.

I look forward to seeing where I'll be come June, when I will have come up on a full year of confronting my fears over and over, and pushing myself into uncomfortable spaces to see how I'll feel there. And I look forward to seeing so many of you then, because I am coming home to Texas this summer. And, um, it will be Stray Cat Summer Part Two, so, if you have a couch...

Monday, January 11, 2016

24 Hours from Rome to Ljubljana: Waitress Doctors, Bridge Physicists, and Taxi Guys

The moon on my last night in Rome

I'm currently in a coffeeshop in a small town in Italy outside of another small town and the story of today is a story for a proper blog post*. It was tiring and stressful and filled with pain and wonderful people and it all turned out okay.
I head to Slovenia tonight. I am dreaming of the bed that awaits me- or, hopefully awaits me, since I haven't booked anything.”

*Three months later, here’s that backstory post.

James and I have this history where we wait until the last minute to get food before rushing off to our respective trains, well and properly late and terrified we’ll be left behind. Thus, the last night in Rome, for old time’s sake, we were darting through the streets, weaving through pedestrians, stopping for on the go pizza, and then, in a final dramatic moment, I rolled my ankle and fell to the ground in the train station parking lot under the weight of everything I own. It was, in terms of collapsing under all your things, quite graceful, and I managed to not tear my $125 “your legs suck at being legs” stockings, so all in all, I was still happy.

We managed to shuffle inside and up to a café, where a very concerned waitress gave me latex gloves filled with ice. James was already dangerously late for his train, and after trying unsuccessfully to convince me to go back to his family’s apartment, he reluctantly left me to sit with my situation.

Behold! The glamorous life of your wandering narrator. 

I confess, as he walked off to a train to get on a plane to get on another plane to head back to Australia, and all the shops were closing around me, and families were helping each other with bags and friends were walking in laughter and conversation, this was one of those times of solo travel when all I could think was “Why the hell am I making this so hard on myself?” The waitress who had gifted me these homemade (handmade, is that too much of a bad pun?) ice packs chewed her lip and looked nervously out at me as she busied herself counting down the till and cleaning up for closing time. Right before she left for the night she came over with another set of ice packs and asked me, in a speech in English that sounded considerately and carefully rehearsed while she had been sweeping, if I needed to see a doctor. If so, she could call one for me.

At this point my ankle was throbbing, but to be fair ice pack gloves given by a friendly waitress in a train station for free was exactly the extent of the health care I could afford, so I politely declined. She seemed to doubt my ability to make good decisions at that point, but, having done all she could, she left me to die alone in the woods wait for my train.

I managed to limp down the stairs with my backpack, front pack, and roller bag (aka the Roller Bag of Shame, which has garnered, at every single hostel, a slightly sneering “geez, do you have enough STUFF? remark, no matter how many times I tried to explain that while everything fits in my backpack my legs are not into heavy lifting anymore and I have to parcel these things out, and furthermore, this is everything I own in the world, back off). Never forget that backpackers are, first and foremost, very self-righteous about what good travelers they are, and carrying a roller bag is a clear symbol that you need too much to be on a trip at all, so you should probably just give up and never leave your town. I wanted to shake my fist at these gap year know it alls and rail about near death experiences and biopsies in Albania, or wax survivalist about eye metal and crazy dogs in Laos, or reminisce about washing clothes in buckets and squatting over “toilets” all over the world, roller bag be damned, but I finally stopped fighting this issue. I have a pink roller bag. I am not a real backpacker. I submit to the judgment of 18-20 year olds who are on their first trip. So let it be written, so let it be done. But wait, back to the story I was writing…

Of course on top of the ankle thing and the too many bags experience, I also was stopped by security and had to find my ticket on my quickly dying laptop. Satisfied that I was not going to cause any trouble, I was permitted to make the first limp of what was going to be a very, very long journey. Thankfully, I was blissfully unaware of that truth.

Once I was in my night train compartment I rigged up my handpacks again, and in spite of looking kind of insane by virtue of balancing leaking udders of watery gloves on my foot, I still made friends with my bottom bunk neighbor, a Ukrainian born physicist who was studying quantum mechanics in Austria. He had just been at a conference in Rome. Describing the talks at the conference made for some enchanting bedtime conversation about the nature of the universe, which led to politics in Russia, which put me right to sleep with a head full of weird visions that made even weirder dreams.

The next morning the train got into the Venice train station far too early, and Venice, enjoying her off season break, was not planning on waking up for two more hours. I had entertained the idea of dropping off my trio of bags in luggage storage to go for a nostalgic reunion wander of the city, but at twelve euro a bag that was out of the question so I pouted a bit and settled for committing to watching the sunrise from the bridge. I draped myself over my things and dozed for about an hour on the train station floor, because these are the things you do when you’ve been traveling for twelve hours already and can’t afford things like bag storage. I elevated my foot in the interest of my cranky ankle and thoroughly enjoyed the kind of sleep you might imagine you get on a cold train station floor. That is to say, I awoke with a start several times, reached for all my important things to be sure they were still with me, and then passed back out to await another theft nightmare.

Me and everything I own (which is somehow still too much, per every hostel receptionist ever) at very too early in the morning to be smiling about anything.

Right before the sun came up I schlepped all my belongings out into a cold morning, all blue and black clouds and silent streets. I had never imagined I would ever see Venice like this, having visited the first time in the high heat of summer during full on tourist time. I thumped my Roller Bag of Shame up the bridge, recalling the first time I had fought through sweaty crowds to do the same thing two years prior. 

At this point the physicist appeared, toting a vintage camera with a cumbersome assortment of lenses, the burden of which was clearly a joy. Without speaking we acknowledged the other. We leaned over the railing of the bridge to watch the sky make changes, and to periodically take pictures of those changes if they particularly impressed us. He kindly took this picture of me.

Loosely titled "Unbrushed Teeth and Unclear Ankle Injuries: A Homeless American Abroad"

It wasn’t the best sunrise of my life, but it felt triumphant because my ankle was only mildly whining in complaint and I felt out of the woods in terms of an injury that could really derail me (train pun definitely intended there). I spent a leisurely half hour on the bridge, waiting until the sun was well and truly up, and then, armed with detailed instructions from (a website I highly recommend!) I returned to the train station to start what I thought would be a relatively easy trip to Slovenia.

Dear reader, I should know by now.

The first train, an early morning hop from Venice to Trieste, was quite simple- a ticket purchased at a kiosk on my own, a quick two hour train, and here’s Trieste, thank you very much. I had decided to play it by ear- if, upon arrival, Trieste enchanted me, I would stay. If not, I would continue on to Slovenia, specifically Ljubljana. Trieste failed to impress on first glance, so I quickly started to work out the next leg of my trip: walking from the train station (with the Roller Bag of Shame and my other two bags, all on my now yelping ankle) to the historical tram, which would take me up a mountain to some small town no one knows of: Villa Opicina.

Somehow this simple task took me about three hours. Just trust me, it was a mess. From trying to find the tram tickets to politely enduring the rants of the local raving man who haunts the front door of the kiosk by the tram tracks, to getting a terrible dinner and then losing twenty euro down a grate, it was a comedy of errors, all acted out while I played the role of Itinerant Donkey, American Laden with Belongings. The tram, once it was found and a journey purchased and a raving man avoided, was a funky little Luddite adventure up a mountain, but it did, accurately, end in Villa Opicina and not down the side of said mountain.

Elevation, historically

And here’s where it all really fell apart, against the background of my now shouting ankle.
I had about three hours to kill, and I imagined a quaint nook of a small town Italian train station, in which there would be some charming café with wi-fi and pastries and coffee, where I could blog and Skype and relax before I continued on. I walked into a café to get directions for the Villa Opicina train station, where, supposedly, a train hopped the border into Slovenia. All workers, the manager, and the customers overhearing my query for directions assured me that I was going to find no train there, and that they had no idea what I was on about but it seemed like a strange and pointless desire to get to Slovenia this way. Undeterred, I soldiered on, ignoring my ankle, which wanted very much to deter me and go awol. I just had to do the following, covering about two miles with all my things: walk into town, go left through the roundabout, go down the hill, turn right around the corner, and then head down a long, empty, one lane paved road to the train station.

The real climax of this story is as follows: picture me, draped in bags and limping down the streets, sweaty, tired, and having a yelling match with my ankle about what I could expect from it in terms of being functional. When I hit the empty, one lane paved road to the train station I readily engaged in delusional expectations that I would still be greeted by my quaint nook of a small town Italian train station. Even as I began to walk past squat, dim buildings that were definitely part of the train station I brightly pressed on, pretending I didn’t see that the last possible building that could be the train station was also dark. Empty. And definitely closed. A printed sign, which did little to communicate any type of authority or trust, assured potential passengers that if they simply showed up in time for the train, tickets could be purchased on board.

Faced with these facts, I decided I needed to give up, pack it all in, and just build a home and a new life right there. Clearly there was no other option. I dropped all my bags and lay on my back in the parking lot to put my legs up (the legs, having grown jealous of the attention I was giving my ankle, had decided they, too, needed to make their protest known). There, alone, on my back in the watery dusk light in the middle of nowhere in a tiny town nestled outside of another tiny town I decided to think of every horror film I had ever seen. This was probably motivated by the unnerving arrival of a single 1980s style sedan, occupied by a lone man, who, poor guy, seemed immediately sinister given the context. I looked up at the sky and wished I had a phone to call a taxi, or even to use to pretend to be talking to someone who would notice my absence should the man in the car live up to my dreams, but my phone had been stolen in Prague. Fantastic.

The sun was setting. I was on my own tired, bored, and hungry, and potentially getting ready to star in Silence of the Lambs: Italy Edition, or, Why the F*ck Didn’t You Take a Plane? I realized that walking back into town would mean walking back to the train station again when I had to come back, but I resigned myself to the task in the interest of food and being alive. Goodbye, potential new home- it was good while it lasted. Goodbye, man in the sedan- I’m onto you. Halfway through the return trip I came across a creepy gate covered in broken mirrors. It seemed like the best place to take a self-portrait that really summed up my mood. It also reinforced the horror movie plotline in my brain. I walked a bit faster.

Mood like...

Thus, roundly defeated, I returned to the café and told my story. All workers, the manager, and the customers overhearing my story chimed in with the advice that random pieces of paper printed and stuck to doors with tape were not to be trusted. I should let the manager call a guy he knows, and that guy could take me across the border to the train station. The manager looked up trains that were guaranteed to run on the Slovenian side, picked a time, called the guy, and set me up to wait in a corner, where, as luck would have it, I ended up getting my charming Italian café experience (I ate far too many mini-cheesecakes at this point, but what is too many, really, when one is on such an arduous journey?). I did take the precaution of e-mailing my friend and telling her that I was going to be getting in a “taxi” that wasn’t so much a taxi but more like pre-planned paid hitchhiking across the border, but basically if you don’t hear from me in a few hours I’ve been abducted by the friend of the guy who manages _________ Café in Villa Opicina, Italy.

Dear parents- don’t worry, I’m always making back-up plans!

The guy shows up in a rush because he has to take the Russian choir singers somewhere since he’s their official driver. He tells me how nice they are and how well they pay for his services while they are in town. A laminated sign is hastily procured from the floorboard, and even though it, too, is nothing more than a word document printed in landscape with large letters, much like the train station sign no one believed, somehow this has the power to convey to me that he is legitimate, and that once I am safely dropped off he will certainly be making a u-turn to pick up a gang of golden voiced Russian lads.

Against a backdrop of Balkans political talk we make a breakneck dash across the border, his choirboys weighing heavy on his mind. He drops me at the most forlorn train station tracks have ever crossed, with a final note to remember that things were better in Slovenia about ten years ago and to be understanding. I promise I will, and I hurry off to buy a ticket in a lobby that looks like a hospital ward. A tiny old man sits in the corner, nursing a hot chocolate. Above him a bizarre old movie poster tries to peel away from the wall to submit to the floor, which is strangely tiled and worn down by a time before, when this was perhaps not so desolate and apocalyptic. My handwritten ticket tells me that there is one track and one train, and I get on something that looks like your grandma’s living room in the 1980s- that is, it’s comfortable, clean, and hideous, but it feels homey and dependable. I rolled into Ljubljana in the dark, tramped a final walk with my ankle screeching an assurance that THIS WAS CERTAINLY THE FINAL WALK, and arrived at a hostel that thankfully had a vacancy. It was about 24 hours since I had left Rome. I slept for 12 hours straight that night.

All I could think, as one mishap after another befell me during that long, long day, was how much more fundamentally hard it is to travel alone, on so many simple levels. There is no one to watch the things while one of you runs off, unencumbered by Roller Bags of Shame, to find information/get food/buy tickets. There is no one to keep you company when you walk down a long stretch of road, past creepy empty boxcars and wide open fields and into dark train stations at dusk. There is no one to consult about what makes the most sense, doing this, or doing that? There isn’t, simply, a companion with whom you can share a “Seriously? This is bullshit” glance of solidarity and understanding. Maybe, if you’re unlucky that day, there is an argumentative ankle to talk with, but I mean, one usually hopes there isn’t. Usually it’s just you, and whatever you’re doing, and however you’re trying to get there.

So many times on this trip I have gone into situations without a plan, or with fuzzy information, or with a general idea but definitely not specifics, and it’s all worked out. This is what I was hoping to understand about traveling this long solo. I wanted to know what it was like to throw myself on the mercy of whatever might come my way to help me. It might not be the way I would have chosen it, or the way I expected it, but I’ve always been taken care of; I have never gone without food or a place to stay or a way to get where I need to be. The travel magic thing about going it alone is that while it’s definitely you, single-self, marking a solitary line through a journey, it’s also all the people who, upon seeing your aloneness, step in and help out of generosity (or pity, but I’ll take that, too).