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.