“if the world seems unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest that it is not surprising that things should be thus. We are the playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiseled the mountains. Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is overwhelming. But it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.” — Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
On the flight home from Paris, I watched this beautiful French movie (I watched three actually, and I’m totally counting The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past as one) and I’ve already forgotten the name of it, but it involved 6 people and their lives that are changed because of one fateful trip to the airport. One such person was a mother with grown children who decides to commit suicide rather than undergo chemo therapy again. At the airport she meets a famous author, bitter and hardened by writer’s block, and they spend just an hour together before she departs. Their stilted, though generally upbeat, romance doesn’t change a thing in the end, and this point in particular, filled me with dread. And I thought dread feels a lot like anticipation – my heart swells like a vacuum bag about to blow its load all over the living room. I felt it also when the foul man in Sofia tried to touch Ellie’s face. I felt it too in Paris when we were wandering the streets in the rain and a man walked towards us with his penis dangling out from the top of his jeans. It flapped comically as he walked and only I saw it and then Ellie said something about the hotel we were looking for and the dread stopped and it was just us again, lost in the rain in Paris. I fear this fear, this anticipation that seems to tumble out of me like wine just opened–glugglugglug–like my heart isn’t pumping, but jumping. I know there are a lot of uncertains ahead and I fear also that I am fixating on the stupid little irritations, like I am reading a novel of my life, but only the punctuation. Thinking about how AT&T overcharged me again, how I’m broke but not, how I’m home in a city I can’t claim as my own, how I’m filled with a nostalgia that seems more imagined than real and the injustices pile up and up, all of them all over the world, to people who’ve suffered more than I can even invent, but lately my response has been to shrug, to throw up my hands and say nothing, because confrontation brings about the dread. Too.
But I don’t want to whine. The world is too beautiful and seeing it is bigger than my fears of it. For now, at least.
Unlike the continuous, enduring contentment that we anticipate [from travel], our actual happiness with, and in, a place must be a brief and, at least to the conscious mind, apparently haphazard phenomenon…The condition rarely endures for longer than ten minutes. New patterns of anxiety inevitably form on the horizon of consciousness.” ~Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
As if a 5-week, 5-country journey weren’t enough to satiate me, I’ve been prolonging a somewhat lazy fascination with travel by reading about it. I almost bought an Alain de Botton book in Romania, but it was like 8,000 lira (lei? leva? I don’t even remember the currency anymore), and it was all about working, which seemed like a really masochistic thing to be reading about while on vacation, so I bought Neil Gaiman instead and for the rest of the trip thought there were demons in the bus terminals. But at least I wasn’t thinking about work. Except I was, still, despite being sometimes surrounded by six-thousand year old ruins, beaches as white as cane sugar and water so clear I could see the hundreds of tiny fish swimming around what would have been my ankles had the sight of them not propelled me out of the water immediately because I don’t want fish touching me. Gross.
But as I’m reading about travel now, in my mostly furnished new home, the quote above seems apt: we’re happy with the idea of place, but the reality of it never aligns with our physical discomforts, mental anguish, and the litany of worries we bring with us everywhere we go. The carefree me I thought I would be in Greece was in actuality the same me that has become rather miserly and easily annoyed by things like never knowing where the next bathroom was going to be or if the next guy fidgeting with his pants was going to flash me (as happened in Paris and almost happened in Hania) or if we were going to be able to find a cheap hotel before it got dark and the demons came out of the bus terminal. As much as I tried to take a Scarlett O’Hara approach to each difficult situation, I couldn’t stop myself from being me, which as you can imagine, annoyed me even further. Suddenly, everything seemed ridiculous. We moved to a new city without jobs and then flitted off to Greece, making our lives the epitome of transience, which seems really freeing until the thought arises, “Well, okay, but what now?” And yes, that’s a lovely temple, but what am I doing with my life?
Now that I’m home, in the sense that I now have like 37 pairs of socks to choose from, as opposed to 7, and I can pretty much order pizza without getting sympathetic looks from people about my pronunciation, I still have no idea what I’m doing with my life, but I feel much more at ease about it. There’s something about having drawers for things that’s really comforting.
Aside from the constant worrying about my 5-year plan though, the biggest barrier to the enjoyment of our travels was not knowing the language(s). Even the most basic gestures, nodding for yes, shaking your head for no, weren’t applicable and in some countries, the gestures were the complete opposite of what I expected them to be. To say No in Greek, you make this face:
You tilt your head back and lift your eyebrows and quiver your lip as if you’ve been stuck in the Himalayas for days and have just realized that your best companion dog, whom you thought loved you, is going to eat you alive in the next ten seconds. Okay, that last part’s probably not true, except how would you know, unless you’ve been in that exact situation and lived to tell about it? That’s what I thought. Anyhoodle, in Northern Greece, we had the most trouble getting around, prompted mostly by communication barriers. Greece has a pretty good long-distance bus company, KTEL, that doesn’t post their schedules ANYWHERE. You just have to show up at one of the stops and hope that you don’t have to wait for hours. If you call trying the main bus station, they will tell you that the buses only go to Athens. If you try going there in person, they will answer all of your questions with this face:
I think sometimes this face meant, “I don’t know what you said but I am too proud/lazy/bored to ask you to repeat yourself, so I will just shrug and hope you will please go away now.”
In Litochoro, which is at the foot of Mt. Olympus, in a four-star hotel called Olympus Mediterranean, I asked the concierge, Where is Mt. Olympus?
What street is this hotel on?
Do you even work here?
Nobody in Litochoro knew how to get to Delphi, and I don’t mean like people we asked on the street, I mean ticket sellers at the train station, information booths, and multiple bus terminals, so we ended up in Larissa, where I immediately lost the mittens I just bought, then we realized we forgot our camera cord in Romania, then we found out that the bus to Delphi didn’t leave until nightfall. At this point, we almost gave up and went back to Athens, but we didn’t come 8,000 miles only to cry on a bus to Athens over a pair of admittedly expensive glove-mitten hybrids with thinsulate lining. We came to see the world! And the mittens would really only have obscured my vision of the world anyway. So we stayed all day in Larissa, taking pictures of ourselves making Greek Face, and we caught our bus, then we caught another bus and made it into Delphi around 10pm. Was it worth it?
(A work of short fiction by Anna Pulley, written on a bus ride from Larissa to Delphi, Greece. Pictures by Ellie Kaufman, natch, except for the candle. That’s all me.)
I’m on a fishing boat crossing the Black Sea and all I can think about is you. Or rather, all I can think about is your father, who you said was murdered on a fishing boat, that the whole ship was murdered actually, and I thought when you told me that, it meant something.
Just like I thought it meant something when you invited me to your apartment to make fruit salad before the Halloween party. We cut up pomegranates and someone took their shirt off so it wouldn’t get stained and it was probably me because I am that obvious. I dug my fingers into the messy fruit, letting the juice run down my hands and arms and wishing desperately that you would lick them clean, but you didn’t. You made me go to the Halloween party, then drive a girl to Skokie, then come back to your apartment and watch two episodes of The Ali G Show, which I did not find entertaining. Then, only after all of that did I wrench the remote away from you. But I still did not kiss you. Instead, I asked you, matter-of-factly, if you wanted to have sex with me. You said you weren’t sure.
We kissed and it wasn’t great, but the moment was and I climbed on top of you and tried to run my fingers through your hair, but couldn’t because it was too thick with curls. I flung my glasses across the room because suddenly everything about me seemed like a barrier between us. You told me, Put Your Mouth On Me, and it was the hottest thing anyone had said to me ever. Eventually you stopped me. You said it wasn’t right. You said that a lot in the eight months we were and were not sleeping together. And I said I would never speak to you again, the weight of my promises dissipating before the words even left my mouth. Afterward, when I could not find my glasses, you said you loved blind girls, which was the closest I got to a declaration of love from you.
I thought if you would never love me, then I would fill you with the words you never felt.
We had one perfect day together, buying beechwood sheets at Bed, Bath and Beyond, and laying on the couch while you watched football. Maybe we ate something too, probably you cooked for me, which you often did – exotic things, with produce I didn’t even know existed before you came and plucked them easily from shelves and bins, as if these things had always been there, next to the Granny Smiths, and I was just too blind to notice.
You weren’t very attractive, except you had a boy’s ass and tiny hands that I adored and didn’t care were covered with warts. You finally burned them off, when you fell in love with someone who was not me, who carried you across state lines and didn’t burn for you the way I did, like liquid nitrogen. By that time, I really wasn’t ever speaking to you again, not because of my own doing, but yours. You kept your promises where I could not.
The night after we fought over your ex, I thought that would surely be the last time we ever slept together. I wanted to hurt you the way you hurt me – effortlessly. Then I begged my way back into your bed. You said you had a fever and I said, That’s Okay, and that I would just come over to sleep. You said, Okay, so I put a coat on over my penguin pajamas and walked the two blocks to your apartment. I could smell your illness as soon as I walked in and it didn’t repulse me. I wanted it to enfold me because it was warm and tangible and you. Slowly your hands traced circles on the fabric near my outer thigh and you were turned on, despite the fever or maybe because of it, and you made love to me like you were trying to snuff me out.
The morning you left me forever, you asked me what I wanted for breakfast – eggs, bagels, toast, yogurt, mangoes, orange juice, tea? – and I couldn’t decide so you made everything and I ate and drank every last drop you offered. I must’ve known that I would never get anything from you again. After breakfast, I skipped home and texted at least three people about our reconciliation. I was so happy for those two blocks.
You read me stories and poems about people you loved who were not me and it made me love you even more, so I wrote too and filled whole books with the words you never felt because I thought if I stopped, even for a minute, the loss would become unbearable.
At the tacky Christmas sweater party, I took pictures of you looking in every direction except towards me. You wore a dark blue sweater that you often wore that wasn’t remotely tacky and when you left that night without touching me, with all the other guests, I jingled the bells attached to the cats holding Christmas presents on my sweater and burst into tears.
Some other night that was nowhere near Halloween, we put on costumes and went dancing. Your ex was there and I drank too much and tried to kiss you in front of everyone. You said I was Too Much. You said I was All Over The Place and left me there. I don’t remember much else, though later you told me I propositioned someone you loved who was not me. I do remember getting fucked by a girl named Martha in the bathroom and being really proud of it. Martha took me home, not you, and we fucked again and I faked a hundred orgasms to spite you. Then she left her glasses on my end table and I don’t know how she drove home without them. A few days later, she picked them up and we had the kind of conversation that strangers have and I never heard from her again.
I bought every book you recommended and every CD. I bought them because you loved them and I thought if you loved them then I would love them because I loved you.
Over Thanksgiving, you went home to people you loved who were not me and I had dinner with your ex – takeout because we both couldn’t cook – then we tried to get drunk, but each bar we went to was more depressing than the last, so we gave up and went back to our empty apartments alone. When I picked you up from the airport, you gave me a pair of Smartwool socks, and I again thought that meant something. What’s Your Favorite Color, you asked and I thought you really should know that by now, but said, Red, anyway. The socks you gave me were not red, but purple, and you said, It’s The Best I Could Do.
When we weren’t sleeping together at the moment, I hated seeing you because you looked happy. I felt you owed it to me to sulk a little, at least. But you were charming and funny and you kept writing stories about people you loved who were not me. So I wrote terrible poetry about you, where I called you Goldilocks because I thought you’d hate being feminized. And I read books about zombies and serial killers to frighten myself out of loving you. Only then I dreamed you were dying and it was my fault so I stopped reading and began listening to Evanescence for 6-8 hours a day. I sang and danced in front of the warped mirror from Target in my bedroom, endlessly on repeat. For a few moments during those days and days of Evanescence, I forgot about you. And I’ve continued to forget about you more and more, with different music and lovers and in different time zones and seasons and countries. Only sometimes, like now, on this fishing boat on the Black Sea, with my lover of two years, I forget that I’ve forgotten about you and remember how I once knew a girl who filled me with words.
Having left our camera cable in Romania, we got a little behind on posting pictures. Now that we’ve moved in to our apartment in San Francisco and found the local Radio Shack, we have the technology for a little time travel. Behold:
The palace at Knossos, near Iraklio, Crete. (Or as the locals say, Creta.)
Leading to the exit of the ruins.
There wasn’t a whole lot of pretty in Iraklio, but there were some nice views of the sea.
View from the Hotel Sappho in Mytilini, Lesvos.
Same view, during the day.
A street in Mytilini.
Skala Eresou, where Sappho spent much of her life.
Sunset in Skala Eresou.
More Skala Eresou.
This is when Anna tried to break into the castle at Mytilini, because it was closed.
View from the castle.
Some soldiers marching in Mytilini, the day we left.
Coming soon: Turkey!
We left Sofia, Bulgaria this morning, on a a train heading back to Greece, where a man begged his way onto our train car, under the pretense of his brother needing money for a “new kidney.” He wouldn’t leave, despite Ellie’s no’s in at least 4 different languages, going so far as to then try to “caress” her face, if caress can be used negatively, like “I want to caress him with the dull end of a razor.” I jumped up to push his arm away, at which point he then asked me for money…which worked, naturally, and I gave him both my wallet and my phone number. His stench stayed with us much longer than he did, and it made me think I might hate trains, and Europe, and men.
I started a Neil Gaiman book (my first!) and as I read, I couldn’t stop thinking, he’s fucking Amanda Palmer, and how wrong/right that is, like spaghetti and sour cream or remakes of Fame. It makes me want to write ghost stories and then never sleep again because I would be too terrified.
We only had one day in Sofia, which we stuffed full of art galleries and churches (There’s a Sofia church in at least 4 cities we visited) and long walks and an amazing vegetarian restaurant that’s run by the same cult figure as Victory’s Banner in Chicago and yes, even a movie, which was Fame, which was delightful and perfect for my soon-to-be-fever mentality and made me wish I had a talent for performing arts. But not really because then I’d have to be either THE BEST or commit suicide. After Fame, since it was already 10pm and we were in a mall, we ate at Pizza Hut for the second time on our trip and agreed to never speak of it again. But I must! Because they had a non-smoking section and they took my credit card and the vegetarian dishes not only existed, but were clearly marked and they had fresh squeezed juices and profiteroles. Pizza Hut was, quite honestly, the second most enjoyable dining experience I’ve had in the last month, which makes me wonder if they are actually better restaurants or if I am so starved for familiarity that I will swoon over having a multitude of crust options. My new Romanian friend Roxana said people will dress up to go to Starbucks in Bucharest, which reminded me of the time I convinced my friends to wear prom dresses to McDonald’s and then made out with a 17 year old named James, which was a BIG DEAL at the time because I was like 13, which made him practically my father, so I dumped him 10 minutes later for being a pervert.
And let me tell you about Dunkin Donuts, which was the first sight seeing we did in Sofia because it was right next to our hotel and because they had donuts with names like The Mozart. I don’t think I even liked donuts before I had The Mozart. Or classical music. But now I like them both and it’s all because of a Bulgarian DD, which was also a KFC. Never have I seen people clamor over cups of mashed potatoes like they did here, like the second coming was in those cups. Which it probably was. Like I said, I’m a believer now. Because after everything, the traveling and getting lost and looking for street names you can’t even pronounce and figuring out which gesticulation most effectively mimes “movie theater” (which is not, by the way, holding your arms out wide and mouthing the word big) and the crowds and the cigarette smoke and the smog – after all that, you just want something to be easy. Corporate imperialism provides that. So there, I’m not ashamed I ate at Pizza Hut twice, because I’m over searching for an authentic that doesn’t exist. And because, seriously, 4 different crust options!
On a rickety train to Sighisoara, Romania from Brasov, Ellie was sexually assaulted by several men on the way to the bathroom – they slapped her ass and laughed and gestured lewdly simply because she was female and foreign. One of the train employees was there and shrugged his shoulders like, what do you expect me to do? When she then kept walking, he made kissing noises at her back.
I’ve been stewing on this for days now – I dream about it even, and in my dreams the taunts and jeers and insults and bodily violations of my life as a woman are all lined up, a thousand plagues of the powerless, and all I can do is sit there and take it. When I was idealistic and stupid, I fantasized that my future husband would be someone who would fight for me (apparently I saw lots of fisticuffs in my future). I don’t know if I really valued brawn or if I’d just seen too many shitty movies, but in moments like the one on the train, I forget that I’m a pacifist and thirst for justice, even if that means violence. I hate the helplessness – not just from “officials” like the train operator or police, but that we are made that much more vulnerable without even the words to defend ourselves. I had an actual, legitimate wish the moment Ellie told me what happened to be transformed into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to shut them up, instill fear into those who try to make people feel small.
Then I thought about how grateful I am that I’ve only been spit on and groped and nothing worse, which is a small victory, I guess, but also incredibly depressing. I can’t escape the knowing that things could always be worse, that the harassment will continue no matter how much I wish it to stop and that all I can do is ignore it, which all too often feels like giving up.
I remember in high school once, I was running along the Rillito river for track practice with a friend and a car drove by and a guy leaned out and slapped my ass, laughed hysterically, then drove off. My friend caught the license plate and she urged me to file a police report. It took much convincing – I was already jaded, it seems, and didn’t think it would lead to anything useful. But I did file a report eventually. I felt both righteous and ridiculous answering the cop’s questions. No, not my breasts, just my buttocks. Well, yes, I guess he did squeeze some. A squeezey slap. No, it didn’t really hurt. No, there are no marks. The cop was really gracious about it, but you could tell he felt put upon. Or rather, he knew too that my case was hopeless.
The train to Sighisoara ambled on, of course, pitching and groaning as if giving birth, and for the first time, I really longed for home. Not suffocated by cigarette smoke, not living out of a bag and trying to learn 6 vital phrases in yet another language in yet another country on a train to yet another citadel church fortress plateia hotel. I’m losing the tolerance to be lost every day. I’d like to hole up somewhere for good and drink too much coffee in a place with toilets really nearby, that are actually toilets, with lids and flushers and a well-stocked supply of toilet paper.
Is that too much to ask for?