Eric wants to know about teaching English. He has a lot of questions about his new career and can sense that am a minefield of answers. He is correct, but he is also a white boy with a ponytail and I don’t feel like educating another one of those right now.
We’re sitting on the floor of the Malaga airport, right in the way of everyone crossing Arrivals. He squats flat-footed and I’m sat atop my rucksack, chatting because I can, because my bus is a ways out, and because I must keep my mind active or risk prompt collapse from jetlag.
“This airport is evil. See the benches?” I gesture so Eric can see. “They put the bars on there to prevent sleepers. You gotta sleep underneath on the granite. I like it though, you can put your luggage there as a sort of guard wall. Block the masturbators.”
Eric is astounded that I have said “masturbators” aloud. He is from the East Coast of the United States and he moves pianos for a living. His ears are gauged, like mine. I assumed he would understand these things for some reason, a rookie mistake. “Masturbators? In the airport?”
“Oh, they’re everywhere, airports included,” I nod with affliction. “But that time I was out in the open, on the ground behind a cement column. The masturbator was facing me, sat on the bench. I woke up to him there watching me sleep. There was an airport worker down the way, saw the whole thing. Didn’t do shit though.”
“Wow,” says Aaron. “I don’t think I know any girls that’s happened to.”
“You do, dude. I promise.”
It’s possible Bators are more common in Europe where freedom is an actual thing you can feel and live, not like in the states where it’s a mythical idea like World Peace or Equal Rights. The Bator is an unfortunate by-product of the knowledge that one may do as one pleases without threat or fear of punitive consequence, paired with the painful dilemma of being a horny old fuck.
To be fair, now, there is certainly something about a good vista that just makes a person want to ejaculate. I’ve definitely rubbed a couple out on the tops of mountains before. That shit gets me hard. I’d bet money a lot of these dudes are just extreme nature enthusiasts (don’t worry, I don’t have any money.) I don’t need to hurl myself on a bench and crank it while watching a stranger sleep, but maybe it just depends on the particular stranger or whether or not I’ve taken my meds that day.
I tell Piano Guy about my full working list of Bators — the Guy On The Cliff, Shirtless Park Guy, the Guy On The Lookout Bench, the Guy Downhill Looking Up, the Lurker In The Meadow, Sleeping Bag Guy and the assorted collection of Brazen Beach Fellows. Piano Guy, having gotten exactly 0% of the information he had been hoping to extract from me, has heard enough. “Wow,” he says, “that’s terrible. I’ll keep an eye out so I can do a quick getaway if it ever happens to me.”
“Yeah, it won’t.” I get to my feet and heave my pack back on. Fucking white guys with ponytails don’t know shit about life.
Vienna. Wien. Wiener. Ha ha.
A pulse in the dead heat. Espresso with cream.
Who are you reading? (Hustvedt and Foer.)
Gothic churches, pointed spires, Flak towers that fired 8,000 rounds a minute at Allied forces, including my paratrooper grandfather. Did you know, he would say, that I went up in an airplane twenty-one more times than I came down in one?
Wind. Lots of it.
The fading gloom in Fabian’s massive modern office-turned-flat and his cologne, clearly he has spruced up. He talks of schnapps, good for a stomachache.
A dim, colorfully lit Hungarian café, a nude female mannequin wearing the head of an unknown antlered mammal with eyes on the wrong side of its head — “probably some art piece,” says Fabian, and shrugs.
Onion soup and tea and a seconding of the schnapps notion from the owner of the restaurant (did I ask?), a thin, dramatic woman with spiked bleached tips and a long brown skirt. Fabian drinks three beers and uses Facebook on his phone.
Café Kafka (real), Café Jenseits (smoky 1920’s), Café Sperl (just old), Café Europa (three levels, each one murkier than the last — here Fabian orders a Frankfurter, tells me to “punk up” and drink more Fernet Branca), Café futurgarten (predictably trendy, as a name without capitals will always indicate), Café Phil (for sophisticated hipsters), Café Espresso (a dim bar packed with cool chainsmoking millennials: all seats taken, so Fabian decides to lean up against the doorjamb. I make eyes with a fella in the window. We watch each other, then he watches me walk away.)
Fabian, now drunk, launches upstairs into the swanky wine-and-cheese event of an elite facial reconstruction academy. It is quite small, private, a suit-and-tie affair. Fabian bursts in, raincoat dripping, and shouts (in English, for my benefit) about wanting to eat their “tiny breads” (appetizers.) I am behind him, an actual homeless person. The man who chases us out wears a beige paisley suit worth more than any dwelling I might ever aspire to own.
Hi, I’m Viennese. I study architecture. My grandparents were Nazis, but I’m a vegan socialist. I climb mountains effortlessly, speak English fluently, and my university is paid for. Now you decide, who won the war?
For those too ill to eat:
Sobriety: an unreasonable choice.
Jägermeister: a solid choice.
Fernet Branca: a safer choice.
Averna with lemon: a poor choice.
Café Kreisky and vomiting discreetly into the bright red toilet, Café Bukowski with Charlie himself gazing out from all angles, daring me to do it again (but this time with gusto!) Hey ladies, I think perhaps we should take a cab home. No worries, I’ll pay for it! I’m fine, just going to the toilet. Just real quick.
Small red flecks in the water. Scheisse.
Only one night in the Wien ER (Wiener. Ha ha.) I have become an avid hospital tourist. Thricely stabbed before anyone can locate my artery, as usual, then the waiting room until I’ve been bleeding backwards into the empty IV bag for a while. I sleep in a chair because my friends have to sleep in chairs. We’re there from 1:30 to 5 AM. Stomach virus, Gastritis, the docs tell me. Non-fatal, in spite of the blood in your vomit. Take some carbon. Where shall we send your bill, Miss Worley?
A couple of shows: DOA, a handful of unknown Viennese punk bands at Venster99, Midnight Priest from Portugal way out at Erdberg, me jogging through the industrial district to catch the metro before midnight as I’m still too ill to crash on an addict’s living-room floor. Sometimes I still feel like a phoney — not dirty enough, certainly not a satisfactory alcoholic, sometimes I walk into vintage stores — sometimes I even buy jeans at H&M. Gasp, don’t tell the punks that. But look, I gotta buy pants somewhere and fitting this ass ain’t easy.
One failed departure from the city leading to a short campout at the Westbanhof station and a re-assesment of my mental capacities (Westbanhof is not Hauptbanhof, whether or not you speak German, you scheisskopf.) So back to the house I trudge, and as I am “well” it is high time for a drink — make that three beers — during a Quebecois film about two lovable virgins aspiring to bone each other in public places — 3x4cls of Jäger for 7.50€ (bargain) on the steps of the Volkstheater with Lia and her lipsticked Viennese friends — then one last café to top it all off, tucked under the Gurtel, blacked out on all that Jäger, a couple hours of Actually Dancing to an American swing playlist, and a trek home that I do not remember.
I catch a ride out of the city the next day with a sculpture artist and an atheist physicist Syrian refugee who’s into heavy metal. We listen to the Cypress Hill Black Sunday album on repeat.
That was my Vienna.
“Life is too short to learn German”
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.
Italy reeks of love in its dirtiest places.
The decrepit autostazione in Milan is sufficiently reminiscent of Greyhound to feel strangely homey: molding brick building under wet-orange sky, shuttered business counters, two broken payphones, five different men from five different ethnic backgrounds aggressively eyeballing me all at once beside the unabashedly romantic spray paint on the wall:
EMI TI AMO
PER FAVORE CHIAMAMI 39666-6666
A tall gentleman in a basketball jersey sucks his teeth at me and fingers the crotch of his acid-washed jeans. I sit on my pack, toying around with my trusty invisible prison shiv until someone else’s father pulls up in a family-sized hybrid. An athletic young girl bursts out screaming, “JESSI?”
My ride’s here. Sorry fellas.
VALERIA IS EIGHTEEN and she’s 100% ready to marry her boyfriend. They are fiercely in love, fighting every ten seconds and sucking face every twelve. He grabs her gullet with his hand and squishes her lips together when he kisses her; I’d rip a nut off a dude if he ever did that to me but it’s somehow aggressively romantic in a way that could only ever make sense in Italy. I’m staying with Valeria’s family for two weeks. Her mother Viviana cooks every meal for us all and if I try and help out in the kitchen she gives me an affronted look and chases me out, “Certo che no!”. The results are similar if I attempt to pay for anything or, for that matter, refuse food to any degree. This is the only time I feel at risk of being physically harmed.
Vale tells me her parents are prolonging their unhappy marriage for the sake of their children (who, like my brother and I years ago, strongly oppose this decision.) Vale takes Prozac and is recovering from anorexia, although she’s bulimic now, and her younger sister suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, so the two girls combined are basically a whole me. After divulging this information, Vale hugs me and tells me she loves me. I feel pretty strongly that she is the real reason I’m here.
Saturday 13 June
Went out in Pavia tonight with Valeria and her friend Erika (also eighteen), had a fancy Pacino cocktail at a fancy bar stocked with fancy booze and got bored listening to loosely-translated high school drama for the better part of three hours. Worth it when Vale dragged me over to a circle of her boyfriend’s hoodrat buddies as they fervently freestyle rap battled in a narrow alleyway, enthusiastic neighbors cheering from the balconies above. The city is beautiful, not too touristy, all cobblestones and golden-burning lamps, the smell of hot pizza and waffle cones and sweet chestnut trees in the muggy air. Italy is a magical place. Almost all the graffiti I’ve seen is some sort of romantic declaration — one notable anonymous vagrant even devoted an entire pillar on the Ponte Veccia to a four-stanza poem about losing his wife. I admit, I’m probably once again experiencing The France Effect – the one where you leave France and everyone’s nice all of a sudden and the world is shiny and bright and new, nobody rolling their eyes at you and saying “Mais NON, evidemment, c’est pas possible–“ even though all you want to do is buy A MOTHER FUCKING STAMP
I could stay here.
(Side note: mosquitoes notably aggressive.)
Tuesday 16 June
There’s a thunderstorm today but little rain, the kind of thing that could take down a forest back in Oregon. Exhausted, running on 6 cumulative sleep hours in 60 hours total due to mosquito hunting and general insomnia. The (incessantly overbearing) director of our program looks like a shrunken head with a body still attached and she haunts my dreams, which doesn’t help. Woke up today thinking that I was back in the bar in Lyon and had fallen asleep at work, which is not altogether unreasonable. Head pounding, but have yet to slay any youths. Received one love note, more hugs than the rest of my life combined and probably Hepatitis B from high-fiving so many nose-picking buttcrack-excavating little gremlin-people. The young ones are fucking adorable. The old ones, meh. Two of them are chubby little fuckboys, a head taller than the others. Hobbies: screaming, humping myself and the other children, hiding under tables during lessons. I gave one of them the most epic punishment today – private one-on-one in the classroom with me while everyone else played outside. Instead of bashing his fat little fuckboy face in, I explained some prepositions, smiled, looked him in the eyes, was the absolute best tutor I know how to be. The worst kids deserve a chance, they’re like that for a reason. That is more likely an excerpt from a teacher’s self-help forum than my own original thought, but either way — this kid better have a fucking reason. Seriously. Somebody somewhere better be beating him.
Last night Valeria and I rode around Pavia on her family’s little Vespa. We went for pizza in the city center by the Duomo, and later got gelato with Stephano’s boisterous plump sister in his “bro’s” gelateria. Stephano tells me enthusiastically that Detroit is the best city in the world and wants to know if it really contains black people. His “bro”, the owner, looks like the type that would leave a severed animal head between your sheets if you crossed his clan or engaged in consensual intercourse with his daughter: fifty-something, gold chain around a thick brown neck and greasy crumpled eyelids, expertly slapping gelato onto cones with the finesse and determination of a man who’s highly trained in pistolwhipping. Though I can comprehend a fair amount of Italian I was rapidly fading from my one hour of sleep the night prior, so the evening blurred out into a delusory stream of white-green light and milk cream and Valeria’s strained, amorous laughter. Stephano’s sister speaks decent Inglese, she worked at Epcott for a year in 2004, and told me a hilarious bunch of rapid-fire stories, namely one about her endemic struggle to “hold a fart during scary events”.
Saturday 20 June
Milano has fashion in it. I don’t get high fashion. I think it’s a cult and that its followers are a bunch of witless swaggery capitalist sheep-drones.
This city is more sterile than the Italy I’ve become accustomed to. The Duomo is the most fantastic church/building I’ve ever seen, though it looms out strangely from the city like an ancient twisted wizard’s island from a featureless sea. Antiquity, evidently, was washed from Milan years ago when it went out of fashion. Perhaps now it’s coming back. Too bad architecture isn’t like high fashion, you can’t just fish back the charm of an ancient villa like you can bring back bellbottom jeans. CAN YOU, GIORGIO ARMANI? YOU SICK CHEAP FUCK.
(Note: the mosquitoes are black with white stripes and iron rods that pierce through denim. Repellent has no effect and they can hang on while prey is running away. Have counted over 90 bites. Melanie says they go for the legs as gravity sucks all the blood down there.)
Monday 22 June
I’ve been moved to a new family. At first I wasn’t too happy to change over, feeling pried away from my perfect dysfunctional unit (I felt uncomfortable at all the right times, yet loved enough to make up for it — just like home!) But this new family… they are so happy, genuinely a happy family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person before. Fabrizio fondly refers to his two daughters as his “little shits”. He tells me about the trackmarks in the ditches of his arms, remnants of the junkie life he left behind when he decided to settle down. Having loved an addict for over a year, Fabri’s stories haunt me in a profoundly saddened way. I find myself swallowing and blinking too much, listening to Patricia talk about making her husband turn back in the morning on his way to work if she’s forgotten to kiss him. Blow-drying Sara’s hair, helping her with math problems. Marta texting (she’s 14 and refuses to speak English to me) but with a grinning family selfie as her WhatsApp background. They break my heart in two.
(Mosquito update: Bite count past 120. Have bandaged up a select few, thought Patricia might barf when she glimpsed that one on the back of my calf)
Tuesday 23 June
Italy is killing me. I like it a lot, but this is the least healthy I have ever been. Exhausted, craving sugar, won’t do planks. When I tried to reason about portion sizes (“I’m American, I can’t eat this much real food!”) Fabri said tomorrow they will give me one tomato and one apple to eat. Probably an improvement from the literal bucket of pasta a day I’m being shoveled (not that I’m complaining.) Nobody even lets their kids walk to school, which would be a 3-4 minute journey, maybe 8 if they’re rolling horizontally. My awe is profound. Each of these people consumes enough carbs a day to feed a small village, yet you could fit two of them inside of me. If I ate one Italian in a day, I would likely be consuming fewer calories than I am currently being fed by Italians.
Wednesday 24 June
You wouldn’t guess where I got bit by a mosquito last night.
Thursday 25 June
A CIRCLE OF ITALIAN PARENTS DISCUSSING GENITALIA
Pattatina: “friends of bird”
Fabrizio explains the process of seduction: “A bird fly in the world and meet a potato…”
Pattatina: literally potatoes, child appropriate
Pussy (English): Italian mothers believe this to be child appropriate (“sounds so cute!”)
Da hole: Fabrizio believes this to be the superior option, appropriate for all ages
I have decided that my future estate shall henceforth be titled Pattatina Palazzio… or just Da Hole. Not sure. If the actual look and value of my future estate is to be taken into consideration, Da Hole is certainly more appropriate.
Saturday 27 June
Just booked a dirt-cheap flight to Copenhagen. Remember that ticket to Roskilde Festival?
Patricia is evidently not the last-minute type. Her immediate response was to ask, “What are you doing with your life? What are you running away from?” Well, Patricia, thank you for asking. I would say that for the moment I am traveling the world and rocking the fuck on. I am running away from my dysfunctional childhood-induced pathologies and my fear of commitment to the real world. Just kidding, I can’t say that in Italian.
Fabrizio wrote me a card that says, “WE CONTROL YOU EVERYWHERE.” He handed it to me and said “Remember, don’t make the gay with the ass of the other.”
Fabrizio gets it.
Monday 29 June
Spent the night hooliganizing the Milano Marpenza airport. My only shorts decided to blow out in the crotch. Have stitched up with dental floss.
Slept on the floor of a toilet, in my opinion a highly underrated place to sleep – dark, quiet, locking door AND private stall? Not to mention the toilet itself. I mean it’s basically a hotel.
Woke myself up twice on the floor shouting “Okay, everybody, time to go… time to go, come on guys…” believing wholeheartedly that I was wrangling a field full of children. When I rustled and the light flicked on, I realized rather hollowly that I was trying to rally my rucksack, perched on the toilet in my blurred-out line of vision. I’m gonna miss those little fuckers. A little bit.
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.
Just returned from Paris, two weeks living with basically the staff of the UN. How I ended up in a Villejuif apartment with two Turks, a Syrian and two Australians (one of whom is also Chinese) I cannot tell you. That last sentence was a lie, I am going to tell you now.
I met Leanne (Australian #1) kind of because we had a class together but mostly because four years ago she suffered the same exact type of spinal injury, except hers was for an acceptable reason (falling down a flight of stairs) rather than a dumbass reason (falling out of a tree.) Leanne is the definition of badassery: 30-something, multiple (legal!) passports, over 60 visited countries under her belt (her life goal is 200, lofty considering there are only currently 196 in existence.) She has been a dirty hippie and a rich bitch, been fat and been thin, and has left a trail of lovers all over the world (basically I’m aspiring to spiritually become her.) Leanne’s magnetic personality and clinically confirmed “unrealistic optimism” about all things in life make her an exceptionally adaptive human being and quick to build a social circle, hence the mixed-heritage carpool plan. We (the Syrian, the American and the other Aussie) “helped” her move out of Lyon to join her Turkish boyfriend Ilkem and his roommate/best mate Erke at their flat in Paris. (Worthy of note: Erke and I shared a white-hot romantic chemistry which culminated in his uncomfortably placing a hand on my shoulder/armpit area in the kitchen on the fifth or so night and stammering, “You’re good.” Mon dieu, Erke. Seductive skills top-notch.)
Aside from this whirlwind romance, the highlights of the trip are as follows.
- Commuting: Driving in France is a lot like being on a bumper car track if everyone else on the route has had a considerable amount of wine and a couple hits of crack cocaine. On the freeway, after being cut off by a middle-aged fellow in a small van, Leanne honked and Gareth stuck up his finger, and the force of his gesture fired an invisible channel of lightning directly up the man’s ass. He immediately began screaming and swung the van as near as he could alongside us, rolled down his window and slapped at the rear view mirror on our car, finally managing to knock it sideways. He continued in this manner for the better part of ten minutes, not allowing us to get away, throwing things (mainly lighters, what a sad waste of lighters which are often inconveniently expensive in these parts), swerving and basically having a time of it all over the freeway. It was almost cute, in a way.
- Getting cozy: Sharing a single-sized futon every night with Gareth, a lovely gay Chinese-Australian fellow, which was pretty easy for him as I now sleep like a log thanks to a combination of busted back (read: no moving) and a good-sized dose of Nortriptyline (read: no moving, no dreaming, no breathing or making of sounds whatsoever); more difficult on my end due to Gareth’s considerable snoring problem and random jerking about of limbs. Usually this resulted in sleeping Gareth slapping the side of my ass, which did not have pants to cover it after night #2 when I gave up on that venture. Anyway, Gareth and I got real close real quick.
- Nightlife: Had a nice little break from street harassment, believe it or not, but traded it in for a lot of bar harassment. One guy asked to take a picture with me in the bathroom, and before I had a chance to refuse he leaned over to snap a selfie and hurried to set it as his Facebook profile photo. Another night, a little tiny Arab guy drunk off his tits actually bought me a rose from one of the unfortunate souls that toots about selling single flowers out of bouquets at bars on the nightly (a common profession in France though doubtfully very profitable.) Little fella just couldn’t take no for an answer and consorted to kissing me all over the freaking face while I mostly just made noises and swung my hands about in a flurry, turns out I really need to work on my ‘no’ skills. When he stumbled to the toilet Gareth and I ducked out and jogged a good half-mile away from the bar, only to realize his scarf was gone. Though I offered in earnest to replace the scarf, as it was 100% wool it was clear that neither of us actually possessed the replacement funds; we opted instead to go back. Of course, we ran into the little meatball halfway up the hill and were forced to duck into a fancy Chinese restaurant to escape confrontation, where we were promptly seated and served with shrimp crisps while we perused the menu with no money. Leaving was uncomfortable.
- #MuslimXmas2014: A valiant effort on Leanne’s part to get the Turks, both raised Muslim, excited for a Christian holiday. It ended up being pretty fucking adorable: some really terrible Christmas music accompanied by Erke crooning “Jesus, Jesus” over and over, a baby tree topped with a mishmash star I folded out of wrapping paper, a raclette dinner, a small white elephant exchange and a breakfast of TimTams (a fine Australian delicacy/art form), shitty mimosas and earl grey, all helped along by that friend among all cultures, a healthy dose of Jackie D. We ended the day by smoking under the eiffel tower, as one does.
- Getting lost: Busting out on my own now and then, wandering through Belleville and hunting for street art, discovering “the only 666% metal bar in Paris” which was important, though laughably over the top, getting lost in the international district, drinking espresso between old French men and their newspapers, eating the best almond croissant I’ve ever dreamed of, bumbling through vintage shops, and trancing out watching an old homeless man feeding pigeons, surrounding him like gusts of wind in enormous waves.
- La Vielle: One grey morning in line at the bustling pâtisserie, a lovely old Parisian woman fawned all over my hair, so curious about my life and studies, insisting I had to see Florence because apparently Florence is just the best place ever. She then bought me an entire box of baby macarons and wished me a très bonne fête, which blew my heart up like a gross meat balloon to the point of bloody bursting.
- Queueing: The Catacombs, bane of my existence at this point. Number one thing I planned to visit, and visit I did — three days in a row without ever getting in. The queue is a debatable 2 to 4 hour wait, they stop taking people in an hour before close, AND close two hours early sometimes without warning, hooray! The catacombs literally employs people to just hang about near the end of the queue on the daily and tell folks who have been in line for hours that they probably won’t get in, which is likely the second worst job to have in Paris (#1 is definitely working the counter in paid toilets and turning away people with no money who need to shit.) Fortunately the hours on hours spent queueing for the ‘combs was time enough to make fast friends with a lovely group of British/English gals on holiday from Sheffield-slash-Yorkshire-I-never-quite-figured-it-out. Awesome people, feminists and kindred spirits with whom Gareth and I spent
- NEW YEAR’S! Jogging through the Paris metro with a gaggle of people all shouting and laughing in different languages, bursting out of the elevator and scattering up the hill in Monmarte, pushing up towards Sacre-Coeur and the bustling crowds of semi-drunks all singing and screaming and kissing each other, the sky alight with gold and bursts of fireworks, the tower and all of Paris sparkling out before us. We shared two bottles of cheap champagne and a beefy cigar (which I then pawned off on a drunk in a truck — we concluded cigars are on the whole little more than a really nasty-tasting design to stroke the male ego.)
To think, last year at New Years I was sick with the flu in my brother’s old twin bed, asleep by 9 PM. Feels like eons away now, a different era — or maybe it’s just hard to see through all the torrential merde that 2014 slung about. Shitfest that it was though, it was transformative beyond measure. I see myself so much clearer for its trials and triumphs; my awe and gratitude are too great for words — for the incredible love and incredible loss, all of the pain and the enormous joy. I’m resting with open heart and open mind for new lessons, new adventures, new chaos and new passions.
Buckle up, ladies and gents — 2015 is gonna be a wild one.