A frigid night in Lyon. I lay in the routine position: awkwardly inclined like a sausage propped against a toaster, neck strained forward, sweating into my body brace. It’s the nightly ritual: a wistful trail of martini with lime (affordable and effective!), google searches, flight scanners, sound clips and calendar dates. I haven’t travelled since I made it to France and promptly broke my spine. Mobility lurks in the distant future, and in my fervent, drunken dreams I seek vengeance for lost time: travels awaiting, work to be done, things to be lifted, reckless thrashing at concerts, less-awkward coitus.
A second martini, a third martini, a realization: I am in an optimal situation to make a bet with myself.
Buy a ticket somewhere, make yourself go. Come summer you’ll be able. Pick a place.
The place is Copenhagen, the challenge an eight-day music festival, camping on private farmland, a very eclectic setlist (see below.) I’ll have no friends, no contacts, maybe even no tent (will I even be able to carry one by then?) The ticket price isn’t bad; this month I can skip meals. I hardly eat anyway, too depressed. It’s December. The festival is in July. I am four martinis deep. I buy the ticket.
Alone on a train crammed with day-drunkards lugging cases of beer back to the plots of land they had fought to stake off a day in advance. Other festival-goers were traveling in close-knit social groups and possessed advanced technology such as human food and beer coolers. My mission: infiltrate a group. Gain its trust, gain a patch of its grass to sleep on.
Niko was chubby and slouched back in a blue folding chair. His camp, notably playing decent metal, had regurgitated itself into the staked-off walkway between blocks of tents. At first I thought he might be dead of alcohol poisoning, but he reached out to me as I passed with my pack, slurring in Danish and throwing up bullhorns. I stopped for a beer. Danes speak beautiful English and carry beer with them everywhere.
I pretended to look for a different spot to pitch my single tent, then came trotting back to Camp Niko. “Guess I have to live with you guys,” I shrugged. Didn’t give them much of a choice.
Potential expansions to this blog post included:
Planking every morning for my back, much to the amusement of other campers.
Peeing in my tent accidentally – trying to aim into a bag?
Almost tipping over an employee trailer, from the inside (employee was present.)
The time I woke up with a video on my phone of an uncircumcised penis wearing sunglasses and laughing — no recollection of this being recorded.
Names — Niko, Lasser, Chris, Christina, Bender? The one always wearing overalls with no undershirt, what was his name? Biscuit?
Spoke at length with Chelsea Wolfe and Amalie of Myrkur, nearly peed myself a second time.
Camp Red Warszawa was a camp of female punk rockers and their pleasantly drunken male cohorts. I stopped in and noticed Dunner immediately. He was nearly seven feet tall, had crappy tattoos, was wearing socks and slip-on sandals. He held a water fountain on for me while I rinsed the salt/dirt/beer/urine from my face.
I taught him how to pitch a tent properly. He had propped it up, damn city fool—what did he do? Poles inside the tent? Man, if that whole ordeal wasn’t to become a really effective metaphor. He gashed his hands open on the metal stakes, I tasted his blood in my mouth, tasted his mouth on my mouth.
Eight days. Survived.
August 5, 2015
Kristina, smexy red-haired hot-blooded sugar mama waitress wonder woman, booked us a night in a swanky hotel called The Phoenix where all of the highbrow employees didn’t even bother to hide their confounded staring — what the fuck are these muddy brokeass chicks doing in our establishment? We got stoned, delineated The Friend Zone, shared our ex-boyfriend histories start to finish and fell asleep to late-night Danish television: documentaries on hawks, strange compilations of sleeping people dressed as animals, surveillance videos of empty hallways. There are so many questions about the Danes that will never be answered.
Sick in the shitty hostel: Lame efforts to get out (invent a tolerable mucus metaphor?)
Not worthy of further elaboration.
this is why I haven’t written about any of this
Dunner’s apartment took me a bit aback. I hadn’t expected a 35-year-old seven-foot Danish metalhead to be so neatly organized or so devoted to such a strict color scheme (purple and orange — how thoroughly metal of you.)
We had agreed to one (1) weekend visit. By that I mean we were both drunk in the dark in his dilapidated, bloodstained ten-person tent on Night Eight Of Roskilde and I straddled him on the twin inflatable mattress and said, “Can I come visit you when this is over? Just for a weekend,” to which he (presumably) agreed.
But the weekend after the festival, the flu set in. Everyone said it was due to over-inhalation of the piss-dust for which Roskilde Festival is particularly notorious, which might be true. I spent the one (1) weekend visit collapsed on Danish Dunner’s Danish furniture, blowing chunks in his Danish toilet, sliming up his purple Danish shag rug. When the weekend was over, he headed down south with a group of friends, a trip he’d had planned all year. I bought a bus ticket to Berlin. He left the apartment, lingered down in the stairwell blinking up at me, wrapped in a blanket in his doorway.
My entire three (3)-week stay with Dunner was to be an eternal series of us saying goodbye for the last time, once, twice, three times. I repeatedly intended to leave, but was repeatedly too ill to go. Week One I passed locked alone inside his apartment, without a spare key to leave or go buy medicine or food. When he returned he found me red-eyed in a blanket fort re-watching his downloads of The Simpsons, having subsisted on canned tuna and corn for three days. On Week Two, he made me an offer: he’d cancel his family vacation if I canceled my bus to Berlin. We started Game of Thrones. Life was free and air-conditioned and Dunner cooked a good deal of dishes involving bacon while wearing nothing but his boxer briefs. On Week 3 he drove me to the hospital, where I was curtly informed that the antibiotics I needed were impossible to acquire in Denmark. We explored the Danish countryside, the harbors, the farms, the flatness, the city — through the remains of the destroyed Youth House in Norrebrø, in and out of squats, over public structures and playgrounds and cemeteries, where the trees smelled mysteriously of semen. I limped around and he limped with me, just to make me feel better.
When I was well enough he dropped me off in Copenhagen, his eyes rimmed with tears, pressing his spare apartment key into my palm for “just in case.” He told me he loved me. I told him I was late for my bus.
Ferry, København to Berlin
August 22, 2015
Yesterday I received my Spain placement. In IBIZA.
IN MOTHERFUCKING IBIZA.
Perhaps this is some kind of sick joke from the higher powers/malignant forces of evil in the world? The exact last place I would have chosen. Nasty tourist rave-kid madhouse in summer and a total ghost town in the winter. Mallorca (the bigger island) is covered in mountains, a cycling paradise, good climbing rocks. Ibiza is covered in used condoms, discarded bikinis and probably AIDS. Do I have to get a Brazilian now? Will they even let me access the island without one? I will trade my post with someone, if possible. Otherwise… I don’t know, I’m so conflicted. Who am I to moan and groan, homeless as I am? Beggars can’t be choosers, and at this point I’m only a step away from beggar. Might as well get the visa and see where it goes from there. Going back to the US is not a viable option. It’s not what my gut is telling me to do, but my gut is also not feeling Ibiza.
More good news — French debit card has been shut down, I just got a text that my phone usage rates have gone up to 3€ a minute, my bank login info is stuck on my computer, which is still in Milan — sometimes I am a dipshitty, rookie traveler. Another white kid with a backpack. I brought too many clothes and the wrong type of shoes, gave up on my only pair of pants too early (although the thigh holes have been giving me rashes and I already failed at fixing the shorts.) I’m too grubby-looking to avoid being surveyed with considerable distaste in public but not nearly grubby enough to be taken seriously by other hobos. I feel an urgent need to somehow turn all my shit a darker color, maybe sprout a couple of natty dreads for Street Cred. Darken my sleeping bag so I can’t be found so easily at night. Urban camouflage? Dirt is not dirty enough — I mean what can I use, like actual shit?? Certainly not DYE. That costs money and requires washing services (those cost money too.) Now I need a shit phone with some breed of prepaid plan. I’m the fattest I’ve ever been and my fucking back aches like a shitty ole bitch.
Tired fatty just wants to lie down.
the bike trail ends before the bridge so we take the gravel path
continue north, beside the river, splatters of mud up our backs
so important, those bikes: a black fuji fixed, an orange 80’s peugot
a blue gitane with purple bar tape (though he preferred green)
the bars he had set up at the good shop downtown, a gift for the girl
he said he loved
The stories are clawing at my insides.
I’ve been on the road for months now, haven’t paid rent since May. Been living out of a sack, the same peeling yellow plastic bag of crumpled clothes that still smell like air-conditioning vents and jaundiced summer subway air and the sad empty space under hostel beds no matter how many times I’ve managed to launder them, at least until I discovered the indispensable trick of stuffing a sack of espresso grinds in my pack. Keeps yeh fresh.
The backpack pockets are crammed with paraphernalia of the deliberately homeless, essentials built up over months of wandering: a watercolor palette, crayons charbon of different hardness levels, an emergency thermal blanket and a roll of duct tape, a pack of band-aids, a rather rag-tag assortment of crumpled condoms, a glue stick and sewing supplies, four or five dirty kitchen spoons – I collect spoons wherever I go, the way most people collect accidentally stolen pens — a torn Ziploc sack full of pennies and two-cents and Danish kroner and Moroccan dirhams, my loose bus/café fare.
In the top of my pack I have clipped the spare keys to Dennis’s apartment in Ishøj, Denmark, which he insisted I take just in case I decided to come back. “You know that’s not possible,” I told him. “This is it. I’m sorry.”
Still, he insisted. I guess some folks just need something to hold on to.
FIVE MONTHS AGO, the end of April in Lyon. The sun was beginning to make appearances from time to time, people blinking sluggishly up as if in a state of mild surprise: « Qu’est-e que c’est ? » I had just turned twenty-two on a brilliant rainy day with a double rainbow smeared across the sky. The wind was turning, getting warmer, buzzing with a hint of electricity, a hint of change.
School was not going so well, mainly because I was giving up on it. Spending more and more time in the real world instead of the classroom, traveling instead of studying, speaking French instead of taking notes in it. I had bombed a final already and suspected I might blow a few more in the coming week. My mind had been made up; I was not going back. I watched idly as the other study abroad students packed their suitcases and figured out their flights home, made plans with their families for their return, registered for classes in the coming semester. I had decided to move to Spain and teach English and was waiting on my formal acceptance letter. In the meantime I searched online for volunteer jobs across Europe; tutoring, gardening, painting, repair work, childcare, whatever I could get. I wasn’t sure where I would travel, only that I would.
Camille and I met on the 30th of April. We had matched on Tinder, which I had downloaded that morning on a whim, and scheduled a date for the same night without hesitation. I rode up on my bike, tires slicing lines on slick pavement, and found him next to the fountain at Terreaux in Lyon city center. He had arrived early. He smiled at me. His eyes were a fiercely glowing blue and we were both wearing flannel shirts.
Our first date lasted twelve hours. Our second, over forty.
Within the week I had found a job bartending at a dingy little pub in the center of Rue de Sainte Catherine, Lyon’s most notoriously filthy and unscrupulous pub street, under a tightly-wound, beady-eyed little Frenchman with a temper like Mount Vesuvius in Year 79. His name was Tom. On my first night, Tom approached me and said curtly in his dreadful thick French accent (for, although we conducted the interview only in French and he knew I was fluent, refused to speak French to me): “Gessica. You must clean ze farst bathrhoom. You go to ze middle of ze bar, you find ze glove, you pick up ze vomit and you trow it away. You do not trow away ze glove. Okay? It iz ze only one we have-uh.” I approached the bathroom with a deep breath and an open mind, C’est que du vomi, can’t be that bad, to find a partially-digested pound or so of what appeared to be a rump of ham artfully deconstructed and spewed into the men’s urinal. Scooping out the chunks with my single preciously-gloved hand, I was soon fishing out handfuls of pubic hair and unidentifiable slime from under a small lip in the bottom of the urinal – quite possibly more pubic hair than vomit, of which there was plenty. When I asked my coworker when the urinal had last been cleaned, he looked at me like I was insane. “I dunno,” he said with a shrug, “Not since I’ve been here. You don’t clean the urinal. Takes too long.” Silly me.
Later, Tom informed me that the customers were not allowed to bring cups into the street – not even plastic ones. “Oh really? Okay,” I responded with a nod. In ten minutes or so he came back and demanded, “Gessica I must see you outside, NOW.” The bar was swarmed with customers and I had an entire row of pints filling, but my coworker urged me out. “Run, run, go go go! Don’t make him wait!” In the street Tom started shouting and throwing his stumpy little hands about. “I do not want your o-pinion,” he said hotly. “When I say somezing to you, you do not respond Oh rheally? OH-KAI. If I say somezing to you you say Yes sirh, yes Tohm. Nozzing elze. I do not hire you to listen to your o-pinion. UNDERZTAND?” He was a head shorter than I and I was acutely aware that I would be able to break his nose with only a minimal amount of effort. “Yes, Tohm.” A growl through tightly clenched teeth. First night of many, folks.
YET IT WAS WORTH IT, every second of it. Cam and I had fallen in love perhaps the moment we met, then a little bit more every passing day. He was raised between Grenoble and Côte d’Ivoire in Africa and had taught himself perfect English through punk rock music. We could talk and joke for ten hours without noticing the time, bouncing between French and English, learning from each other. He was a world traveler, a constant nomad, loved camping, hiking, trail running, cycling and good beer. He looked like a tattooed lumberjack and, just like an Oregonian, he refused to use an umbrella in the rain. In short, he was perfect, and though I was wary, I let myself fall.
It was late May when I received my placement in Spain, in the Balearic Islands. I was working a private party at the bar, got the e-mail, went through the rest of the night in a daze. At home I woke up Cam to tell him, stammering, unsure of how to approach the subject. There was stillness, silence. We were both stunned, though of course we’d known it was coming. Perhaps we’d thought it wouldn’t happen, that reality would never set in — but there it was, inconveniently, as reality tends to be.
It was fast, all so fast, and then he was slipping away before I even had a chance to make a decision. He would not ask me to stay, because he knew better than to try and hold me back, but was unwilling to stay together if I left. Cam does not believe in the possibility of long-distance relationships, and a year ago I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly. Now, I’m not so sure.
I’m willing to try. I know it will be hard. Mais je ferais n’importe quoi, pour toi.
He was a nihilist to the core, embittered, chasing the life he believed he was supposed to have. Done with all that now, he said. Much like his predecessor, he now wanted stillness. He sought routine. He hated France, but felt he had no choice but to anchor himself there. I could taste his nomadic soul, like the other half of my own, but he said he didn’t want to be wild anymore. Said he didn’t own anything, no house, no car, no nine-to-five grown-up career. It was time to settle down.
“Then this can’t work,” I told him. “If you’re looking to settle, you’re not looking for me.”
He was mine, and I loved him, and I might have been the one to tame him. But I let him go.
In early June I applied for a position at a children’s arts camp based in Rovereto, Italy. I interviewed over Skype the next evening, and the program manager told me she needed me to start in four days. In a whirlwind I packed all of my belongings, scrubbed my apartment from ceiling to floor, and rode around the city like a madman tying up loose ends. There was no time to be heartbroken. I hopped a bus for Pavia, crossing the Alps away from everything I had come to know and with absolutely nothing left to lose, for I’d already given it away.
Ca va aller.
-TO BE CONTINUED-
And for those of you who are interested, here’s a low-quality video of me being a high-quality employee at the pub in Lyon.
Started work this week. I guess I’m a teacher now.
I too find this hard to believe, but it must be true because I hang out in the teacher’s lounge and use the teachers’ automatic espresso machine and can make copies, like as many copies I want of anything I believe needs copying. I stand in front of classes full of high-school shitheads and get to choose whether they call me “Jess” or “Prof” or “Prof Jess”, which does have a pretty nice ring to it, and I get to pick on the ones that won’t shut up when I’m talking. The other lady teachers invite me to smoke with them behind the building and the only male teacher, Stéphan, asked me out for a pint today, to which I agreed, and though he does have an admittedly nice ass for a 42-year old man I didn’t read too much into the offer, considering he wears a wedding ring and it was only three in the afternoon.
So we meet up in the lounge, and after only a few words Stéphan turns and storms out of the building, me at his heels, his long woolen coat blowing up behind him. He unlocks his little two-door silver Peugeot and drops himself in, lighting an enormous hand-rolled cigarette. “I’m so furious,” he breathes, launching into a French/English mashup tirade about some stupid worthless connasse of a colleague he’s got. I give some sympathetic nods and occasionally even make mouth noises, though I cannot make out enough of either language to know for sure what he’s actually on about. Despite his fuming he is driving quite cautiously along, taking great care to stop at each and every yellow light; I am becoming aware that he is pumping the car full of weed smoke. He might have noticed me sniffing. “You smoke?” he asks.
“Sometimes.” A sheepish smile. It’s a Friday. He hands me the joint and I take a drag.
Potentially stoned by now, Stéphan seems to relax a bit. He rolls his shoulders around, tosses his head, and leans over to pick up a CD case on the floor by my feet. “Now this, this is a record I’ve done,” he says, stopping at a green light.
I trade him the joint for the case and point ahead. “You sing?”
“I rap.” A clear emphasis. A car honks from behind and he steps on the gas. “Do you want to hear it?”
Trapped in a rather unfair position, I nod. I extend the CD towards him, but he hastily waves it away. “No, I’ll do it for you live.” As if I’d bought a ticket. Lucky me!
Now, if you have ever heard a middle-aged caucasian Frenchman rap in English, perhaps you can share my sympathies. Stéphan The Rapper lays his lyric on me soft and sweet with the rhythm of an elderly woman crossing an unstable wooden bridge, with the sporadic jerking of a newly severed limb, with the intermittent forgetting-of-words demonstrated by any human being doltish enough to attempt rapping in his or her non-native language. He beats the steering wheel with his palm at times, accentuating such elements as the “brightly shining bosom” (beat beat beat) of the woman he has targeted in his make-believe audience and, after he has presumably bedded said woman via his untold libidinous rapper talents, the way she “screams” (beat) his “name” (beat) “in bold lettahs” (beat beat).
I am focused on the road, 60% of my fist in my mouth to keep from spitting up on the dashboard, eyes watering from the thickening smoke and the emotional torment of not cackling aloud. Stéphan, noting this clear enthusiasm, entreats me to four complete raps, each one more graphically depictive of his palpable sexual prowess. I am relieved as he finally parks alongside a curb boldly marked « PAS DE PARKING » and we walk to the pub, him chattering all the way. At the bar I sip on the beer he slides me, grateful for something to occupy my hands as he guzzles three full pints and rants at the barmaid, with whom he is on a first-name basis.
After about an hour Stéphan is ready to go. I reluctantly follow him back to the Peugeot which, remarkably, is without a parking ticket. We’re on the road for all of thirty seconds when he veers slightly into oncoming traffic, self-correcting with an abrupt jerk of the wheel and an “Hup, sorry, I’m a bit drunk now.” Contrary to what you might think, dear readers, I do have my limits, this being one of them. I ask him to pull over, claiming to have a friend up the street just a block, waving my hand in an indiscriminate roundish direction. “Ah, I’ll just park here,” says Stéphan gaily, and rolls his two right tires up onto the curb. This is fine with me. I am out of the car and jogging in the opposite direction. “Thanks for the pint, Stéphan!” I shout behind me, not looking back.
Yes, thank you, Stéphan. I sincerely look forward to working together.
Salut, all. I know it’s been a while.
Been thinking lately of how to tell you about these last two months, what I should or should not say. I could tell you about loss, which has become an all-too familiar concept; I first lost my mobility, then my parter and best friend, then my grandmother, all in the span of a month. I could tell you about the journey of quitting anti-depressants for good; or, in the medical vein, I could tell you all about commuting by ambulance, being bathed by home nurses, weekly doctor’s visits. I could tell you about the hard stuff, the long nights full of tears and paint and candle wax, the physical pain and frustration that has come from walking, sitting, sleeping, the fight to maintain a firm emotional footing throughout this incredible storm.
But these are the grimy details. They’re only slivers of the bigger picture of this autumn, a season that will forever stand out to me as one of transformation.
The loss I’ve endured here has thrown into stark definition the things that are most precious to me, the values I most firmly believe in, and more than anything, the incredible blessings that remain in my life — the crazy people, most of whom are at least as fucked up as myself; the love I’ve felt in their little care packages and postcards; the support over Skype and phone as my family processes the death of our matriarch; the thrill brought on by a gust of wind lifting my hair as I cross the bridge over the Rhône, those surges of energy that make this earthly existence such a beautiful and heartbreaking thing to behold.
My way of life is a source of confusion for some; I’ve been described as chaotic, messy, out-of-control. But the reality is that I am needlessly ambitious; I want to plunge my body into all the beauty and darkness and laughter and sadness of this world all at once. I cannot compartmentalize my experiences nor my emotions, and I accept this — I am a tempest, a raging inferno of passion and melancholy. I thrive in chaos, I love with unrelenting intensity, and for this I offer no apology.
Because I broke my spine, all of life has taken on an even higher value. I now recognize the worth of every footstep, the power in the mere ability to stand, the incomparable vivacity of flying through city streets on two wheels, of screaming sweaty in a concert hall densely packed with bodies, of inhaling lungs full of cold river wind. I have forged connections here with other human beings and recognized the resting beauty in the ones I’ve left behind. After Christmas I’ll start living without the back brace, and I will set forth on my quest to live and experience more, to push myself further and beyond my limits; I’ll thumb my way around Europe, scale mountains, have more explosive romances, swim naked in oceans, and I will do this all with the unshakable conviction that life is best spent in the corners of chaos and passion.
And yes, I will keep climbing trees.
Mrs. Thelma Marie Anderson
12 May 1924 — 3 October 2014
Last letter to Grama
You are a special kind of person, the kind that deserves to be reminded of how wonderful they are two hundred times a day. If I didn’t know you heard it enough, I would have said it too. Then, of course, I’d have to tell you I was lying and that you’re terrible. But I think you’d know the truth. You’re a smart lady.
You’re also strong, the strongest person I know. Your strength lives in all of us, and I feel it in myself every day. It helped me fly out of the United States and it helps me every time I have to make a choice or fight a battle. I have always and will always admire you, and I will think of you when I am scared or alone. I will carry you with me everywhere I go, from one side of the earth to the other, to the moon and then back home for a midnight tea party. You have always been my safe haven. I will love you forever, and keep you forever as a beacon of strength in my heart.
GO GET ‘EM, TIGER.
With infinite love and laughter,