Sunday, March 13, 2011

journey's end

I made it to Kenitra. Friday, the 11th. The 11 month mark of Bryan's passing.

Took the morning train from Meknes, an hour and a half's journey away from the Imperial Cities and into the French-built urban sprawl on the Atlantic Coast that seaps out of Casablanca and Rabat. As I've traveled the last two weeks around Morocco, I've explained my mission many times. My grandfather at Port Lyautey as the French shifted power back to the Moroccans, his stories, his death in 2008. As they love George Washington and that snippet of American-Moroccan history, the people I've spoken to have seemed surprised and impressed that I have this link to Morocco, and that I've come so far to pursue it. But they remind me there is no real spot to focus my pilgrimage on. "There's nothing there now," they always say. The American base has long since been handed over to Moroccan forces. Kenitra itself is a not a tourist destination. An ordinary city without any sites in the guidebook, any reason to advertize itself to tourists.

I got in a taxi and told the driver to take me to the military base. He drove me through the suburbs of Kenitra, the Moroccan version of McMansions lining the streets, SUVs parked in the drives. Then a sudden thicket of trees and a gate. Base Militaire. Armed and uniformed Moroccans at the gate. I told one of them my story. He listened kindly as I strained in French to impress it upon him. "C'est interdit," he said apologetically. No one allowed in without authorization. I smiled and told him I understood, I just wanted to know where it was. God knows I looked bizarre: scraggly American with a bulging hiking backpack, standing outside the gate of a Moroccan military base in some unimpressive town. I lingered a moment, hailed another taxi, and found myself with a driver who spoke only Arabic. I managed to communicate I wanted to go to the train station, but the rest was a loss. He insisted on talking to me the whole way, sometimes turning to me as if waiting for a response. Je ne comprends pas, monsieur. He kept going. Whenever we passed a policeman he made note of this to me, pointing, "La police, la police," waiting for me to nod in confirmation (that's a cop all right), then shaking his head. I started to get nervous. Finally the taxi swung through to the station and I was overcharged (as expected) and caught the train to Marrkech.

Did it matter that the ultimate destination of this trip was so meager? A locked gate. Interdit. An ordinary, anywhere sort of city. I'm not sure what I expected. I think I just wanted to put my foot down. Kenitra didn't much matter-- the journey to Kenitra did. The six weeks of travel. All the Moroccan strangers who wanted to have mint tea and hear about my grandfather and tell me about George Washington. Kenitra was just symbolism. Through the six hour train journey I sat watching the rain turn the red clay earth a vivid and bloody scarlet. A family shared the compartment with me, the little boy, no more than 3, chomping through a Happy Meal before getting out his toy cars and using my backpack as a race track for it. His mother offered me some of her meal (it's considered very impolite in Moroccan society to eat in front of those who may be hungry). I thanked her and declined, returning to the window and the vast roll of Morocco passing away from the train. Her son raced his Hot Wheels down the straps of my battered backpack.

Yesterday morning I woke up in Marrakech and walked into the Djemaa el Fna. I hadn't made it as far as the orange juice venders when a girl came up to me; a young Asian in skinny jeans and red plastic sunglasses with a distinctly American voice asking, "Are you alone?" Well.... yeah. "Can we be alone together?"

She had arrived last night from Madrid, where she's studying for a semester. A friend was supposed to meet her but her flight from Rome was canceled, and 19 year old Alex from Chicago was alone, intimidated and sans French in Marrakech. So for the day I played tour guide. We went to the Palais Bahia and I explained what I know of the intricacies of Arab architecture, the symbolism of the zelij and the 99 names of God in calligraphy over the doors.  I showed her how to pick out a restaurant (always look for an outdoor place where Moroccans are eating-- it will cost half as much and likely be twice as good) and gave her a lecture on tagine, pastilla and the standards of Moroccan cuisine. We were treated to tea and a demonstration of natural medicines and beauty treatments at a Berber pharmacy. We went through the souks and I helped her haggle for a caftan and babouche. We toured the beautiful Ben Youssef Medersa, a 16th Century Koranic school where young men went to live and worship and study. We had coffee on a cafe terrace looking over the Djemaa el Fna at sunset, the lamps coming on in the food stalls, the smoke curling up from the grills, the belly dancers and Berber musicians drawing in the crowds. We had fried sardines (Morocco's number one export, you know) and couscous at one of the grills where the garcons hang around, ready to charm you and tease you in virtually any language. Alex wanted to smoke hookah, so we caught the night bus to Gueliz (Marrakech's chic ville nouvelle neighborhood) and found a place. The waitress spoke little French but wanted to hang out with us, so between tables she'd stop and smoke her Gauloise and laughingly struggle to make conversation ("Demande ta amie.... si.... si elle mange avec..." she mimed plucking at sushi rolls from a plate. Ask your friend if she eats with chopsticks). A waiter teasingly warned us we'd never find good Moroccan husbands, sitting in sheesha bars. I asked him if he could find me a Moroccan husband and he laughed-- "Can you wait two minutes?"

We caught a taxi back to the Djemaa el Fna, had spicy tea with a riad owner who spotted us wandering and told us we were not allowed to leave Morocco until we had real Saharan spice tea. He gave me a lecture on ettiquette when I blew on mine to cool it-- it's a grave offense to Moroccans. It means you're in a hurry, that you don't honor your host enough to sit at leisure and talk. So we waited for our tea to cool, waited for the sheer fire of it to burn down our throats ("Moroccan viagra," Jamal joked) and made our way back towards our hotels. Alex thanked me. "Even if my friend had come, I don't think I would have learned as much about the culture or met so many people today," she said. I told her it was my pleasure, and it was. After traveling so long, after developing so much reverence for this country, it was good to go full circle: from culture shocked American princess crying in her room two years ago to solo traveler serving as tour guide and translator, salvaging someone else's weekend in Marrakech.

Tomorrow I get the flight to London, then on to Detroit Tuesday morning. I'm exhausted and malnourished and my clothes all smell, but I'm happy. For the first time since last April. I am happy.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

traveling across morocco with a chicken

From a Marrakech street vender I bought a battered copy of Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights. An Afghani who grew up in Britain, Shah and his wife bought a house in the shantytowns surroundings Casablanca, and the book is a narrative both of his attempt to make himself at home in Moroccan culture and to understand the rich and enduring tradition of Moroccan storytellers. At one point he complains to his maid that he still gets ripped off like a tourist when he goes into the Casablanca souks. Her advice? Carry a sieve. Because no tourist would be walking through the market with a sieve.

Today walking through the Meknes souks, I saw something unexpected. From the souks of Marrakech, Fez and Essaouira I've grown used to the sensory pleasures of Moroccan markets: heaping piles of olives, dates and figs, perfect cones of spices rising from buckets, leather babouches and caftans in every imaginable color, tagines, glittering silver tea kettles, carefully arrayed collections of Berber jewellery and rugs.  The Meknes market is different. With the beautiful Moroccan crafts are the less pretty practicalities of life: cheap made in China shoes, plastic toys, bottles of shampoo and packages of toilet paper, cardboard boxes spilling produce. I was walking through the lines of stalls and came upon a box of tiny, fluffy chicks dyed bright blue, pink and orange. Vibrating with life and huddling together, a pulsing box of babies. I stooped to pet them. "Deux dirhams," the boy said to me. About 25 cents. I've seen birds in the souks before: lovebirds and parakeets and canaries suspended from poles in their cages, waiting for homes. But what do you do with a purple chick? Is it a pet? A cheap plaything till it dies? And by what miracle does this box of chicks chirp away unmolested in a country that seems to have more cats than people? I held one in my hand, gently running my finger over the soft down. I thought about Tahir Shah and his sieve in Casablanca. What if I traveled across Morocco with a chicken? No tourist would have one, of course-- the boys would quit yelling "Hola, hermana!" at me. I'd have a little cage to carry her around with me and at night I'd spread her feed over the bedspread in my cheap hotel rooms and she'd sleep in the warm cup of my hand.

And at the end of the journey? I'd give her to a sheep farmer or an argan oil collective outside Marrakech and she'd lay eggs for the farmer and spend her life at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. It would be a great test, to travel over Africa attending to the welfare of something so small and vulnerable, and a kind of Zen exercise in freedom from attachment. Be at peace, little chicken. Inshallah, we will meet again.

My time is running out, though: tomorrow morning on to Kenitra, then back to Marrakech tomorrow night for my last weekend with the henna artists and Djemaa el Fna storytellers.

But next trip, certainly. Morocco with a chicken.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

george wash-ing-ton

A six a.m.bus from Essaouira to Marrakech, a seven hour train from Marrakech to Fez, and voila-- Kelsey of Arabia, alone in the Imperial Cities. Approaching Fez, one's approaching a tremendous fortress-- the world's largest Medieval city enclosed in stark and intimidating walls, and inside an impossible maze of blind alleys and steeply rising, sharply twisting streets. The medina of Marrakech is an exercise in patience and memory-- the medina of Fez is an exercise in futility. I arrived to my plush, British-owned riad to a flurry of apologies that they were overbooked and all they could offer me was a makeshift bedroom: a massage table padded with blankets in a room used for storing luggage, available at half the price of a proper room. The British proprietress seemed slightly repulsed when I enthusiastically accepted.

Riad Verus had an interesting mix of people of solo travelers that made up for my exasperation with Fez's impenetrable size and lay-out. I met an Australian sheep farmer on a year long tour of the world with stories of travels through India and Mongolia, South Africa and Kenya that belonged in the Thousand and One Nights. An Irish guy and I hiked up the Borj Nord to watch the sunset over the whole sprawling panorama of Fez, the lights flaring one by one across the city, the call to prayer rising from the minarets, then back down to the medina for tagine and talk about arthouse movies. I smoked hookah with an American girl working on her MFA in painting at Yale and her Moroccan fiance. "We need to find you a rich Moroccan husband with a riad so you can stay and keep her company," he told me. I told him I'd send for my hope chest. I don't think he believed me.

I gave up quickly on Fez. The philosophical and political heartbeat of Morocco, home to some of the world's oldest and most prestigious medersas, a university older than Oxford and Cambridge-- all of it is deeply embedded in the twist of the medina streets, and after all the leisrely cups of tea with the Essaouira hippies, I didn't have the stamina. So today I caught the train to Meknes and installed myself in a cheap hotel with what the proprietor referred to as a "Turkish toilet" (a hole in the floor-- I'm delighted they blame the Turks for this). Meknes is Fez in miniature. An easy-natured place with an illustrious imperial history (home to the infamous and strangely revered Moulay Ismail, who decided to give Versailles a run for its money and took a few Christian slaves to get the job done).

After dropping my bags at the Hotel Nouveau (with the Turkish toilet), I wandered into the medina. The covered market in the souks is a bizarre mix: half candy store, half butcher shop. You enter to teeming piles of Moroccan confections (gazelle horns, sugared almonds, nougat, baklava) and around the corner find stall after stall of dead animals and blankly staring, severed heads. I bought a mix of sweets and sat at a cafe in the square with cafe au lait. A man in a wheelchair, one leg missing below the knee and severe burns over his face, was wheeling around with a hand extended for alms. I put a dirham coin in his hand and extended my white box of sweets. He looked confused. "Le gateau?" I nodded and he grinned and selected a choice bit of nougat and nut.

I crossed the splendid, intricately designed Bab Mansour, the gate to the Imperial City and wandered in search of the tomb of Moulay Ismail. An old, toothless, skinny man in a baseball hat that said Jesus is My Boss came up to me-- the usual friendly rush of Bonjour! Ca va? When I said I was not French but American, he switched fluidly to English and asked what state. Whenever I say Michigan, I get a blank stare. Sometimes to explain I say, "it's near Canada" or "it's near Chicago" ("ah yes, I know Chicago" they always say). But the man had a triumphant look on his face and said, "The Great Lakes!" He drew the mitten in the air with his finger. "I have never left Morocco," he said, "but I know the whole map." He welcomed me to my "second country."

"Because, did you know, Morocco was the first country to recognize American independence. From George Washington. Did you know this?" This is an oft-repeated piece of history Moroccans extend as a greeting: within it, I think, an offer of solidarity as post-colonials, as old friends. The way Moroccans laboriously pronounce George Wash-ing-ton breaks my heart. I thanked him. My second country. His lined face and toothless mouth reminded me of my Papa (how it exasperated my grandmother when he wouldn't wear his dentures). He told me the easiest way to make it to the mausoleum and said that if we saw each other again, inshallah, perhaps we could have tea and he could practice his English. Inshallah, I echoed, and went off to the mausoleum.

Just a few days left in Morocco. How deeply I will miss this place.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

africa unite, cuz we're moving right out of babylon

This morning, after the rain had stopped and I was fortified with cafe au lait, I was walking through the medina and came upon a box of mewing kittens. I stooped to pet them and a little boy toddled up, no more than three years old, grinning at me and reaching to pet the kittens, too. I chattered to him in scraps of French and English, he to me in Arabic and toddler babble, smiling merrily all the while. Together we enjoyed the pleasure of encountering small, fluffy kittens in a box in the street, still wet with rain. He turned and ran to his mother, a veiled woman watching him on the other side of the narrow street. I stood. "Vous etes tres jolie, madame," she said to me behind her scarf. You are very pretty. I have heard this sentence about twenty times a day since arriving in Essaouira, from the boys in the street who want to know where I'm from and welcome me to Morocco, from hippie guys in the shops who want to show me Berber jewellery and embroidered caftans, who want to know if I like Cat Stevens and if I've been out to Jimi Hendrix's place yet. I'm not pretty, but I understand that I vaguely fit an ideal: a blue-eyed, busty American girl with a heap of dirt blonde curls and an easy smile, either brave enough or merrily stupid enough to be wandering around Africa alone. I thank them and pay no mind. When the woman said it I felt shy and flattered. Not the kind of pretty the boys want to believe, but the kind of pretty that will talk and pet kittens with a little boy on the street.

Any exchange with women here feels like a great privilege. Moroccan women are hardly an image of oppression: you see them in the street with their beautiful multi-colored scarves and caftans, whipping through the medinas on their mopeds or playing on the beach with their children. Very few are in burkas, but even those who are give off a certain proud mystery. The teenage girls in skinny jeans and pretty sweaters are no different than the girls I teach how to write poetry at Shelter of Flint. But women do not work in the shops, do not call out "Ca va?" in the streets, do not wait tables in the cafes or sit in those cafes, for that matter, and so traveling in Morocco makes you feel like a kind of third sex. Not one of the men, but not quite one of these women, either. That compliment offered on the street was gratefully received.

But back to those boys.

There are certain things you're not supposed to do if you're a female traveling alone in Morocco. You're not supposed to admit you're on your own, for one thing. You're not supposed to indulge the attentions of strange men. But the laughing charm of the hippie boys and my spiritual connection to them, my unspoken gratitude towards them, gets the better of me. Yesterday I sat drinking tea in a leather shop with a burly dreadlocked guy, Titi, who showed me pictures of the trips he leads through the Sahara and talked about music. As he poured tea he started singing Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." "Singin' don't worry about a thing, cuz every little thing gonna be all right." Bryan's brothers picked out that song for his funeral. Bryan had an unashamed love of Bob Marley. Often I'd climb up the stairs to the apartment and find him in the bathtub, his shaving mirror propped on a chair, listening to Bob Marley or Chet Baker (or on an espeically pensive day, NPR). It was one of many eclectic, lovely facets of Bryan. When he died, I used to walk around for hours at night listening to Bob Marley on his mp3 player. So to hear a guy in Essaouira sing that as he poured me tea, just hours after I'd spread the ashes.... A great stab of pain and a wave of wonderful sweetness hit me all at once.

Tonight I went into a clothes shop to find a souvenir for a friend. He requested "one of those outfits Arabs wear when it's hot," so I discussed this with a young shopkeeper in full Tuareg garb-- djellaba, a mile of scarf wrapped and knotted around his head. Uncertain of the Muslim gender taboos and whether it's ok to buy clothes for another woman's husband, I said it was for my brother. "What size is your brother?" he asked. About six foot two, medium build meant nothing to him so I drew a JJ-shaped outline in the air and the man sorted through piles of linen and cotton. His friend came in and they insisted on celebrating my purchase with a backroom jam. No joke. They broke out castanets and drums and their fingers worked fast and beautifully over the skins-- in this town of Jimi Hendrix's ghost and the Gnaoua music festival, all the hippie boys are musicians. The Tuareg boy, Yassine, asked me if I would go have tea with him. It's right at the top of the list things you shouldn't do: accept dates from strange young men in Africa.

So we went to a cafe on the port and had whiskey marocain. He told me about the Tuareg tribe in south Morocco, his family there, how he learned English from hanging around the gas station in his village where the Sahara tours would come through and fill up, the many traditional uses of that impressive Tuareg headress. As nomadic people, the Tuareg use the scarf to strain water, to sleep on when they have to set up camp for the night, to bundle things they need to carry. He told me he wanted an American girl to marry-- "The Moroccan girls," he said, "They just want money to buy nice clothes." I steered the conversation away from nuptials, but as he poured tea I imagined what it would be like, my first post-Bryan kiss from a tall Tuareg boy on a fishing port in Morocco, with the sweet aftertaste of mint tea in our mouths.

And then he started singing Bob Marley under his breath. "Africa unite, cuz we're moving right out of Babylon...." and I laughed. "Why you smile?" he demanded. Bob Marley, I said. I like him, too. He started telling me his favorites and we sang verses back and forth, me giggling. Sun is shining, weather is sweet, make you wanna move your dancing feet. Those tacky, infectious melodies universally adored. Bryan in the bathtub, the scrape of his razor and his cigarette dangling out of the ashtray.

Well, even with the romance of the port and the sugar buzz of the tea, Tuareg boys are still good Muslims. We exchanged email addresses and parted chastely.

Off to Fez tomorrow. I will miss this place badly-- this town glittering with significance on the Atlantic Coast.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

the end of the artist as widow

I woke full of the thought of it. I dressed and took the urn out of the locker and left the hostel. Walked down to the port, quiet still at 8 in the morning, and scaled over the low stone wall, dropping down to the the thick crunch of sea shells and pebbles. On the other side of the port the beach stretches away to the Atlantic and you can walk for miles with the camels and the girls who jog in their headscarves, down to the very end of Africa, perhaps, but this side is quiet, littered along the wall with broken wine bottles (shamed Muslims drinking in secret), no beach but slick stones leading out to the crash of the waves. I slowly, carefully picked my way to the edge. No one there but farther along the wall a fishermen with his line cast. I dug my hand into the urn and tossed a handful of ashes, then another, the dust spreading over my hennaed hand and dissolving in the air, stirring into the waves like milk. Then I upended the urn and let it all go. That was it. I turned and picked my way back over the rocks, over the seashells and litter.

I didn't cry. I had no psalm, no song, no prayer to recite. I've loved him since I was 14. I have grieved. I have carried his urn over my back across three continents. And I'll carry the pain back with me-- I'll declare it at customs. When the henna has faded and the only thing staining my fingers is the usual fountain pen India ink, I'll keep writing all this down, keep explaining. I'll take it to my grave with me. What song is there to sing, what prayer to offer? What god do you thank for a life that's given you so much so quickly? And what god do you blaspheme and curse when it's all taken away? To what god do you beseech for mercy, for the strength to endure your losses? Allah, sung from the minarets? The god of the tormented Krakow synagogues? The god of Spanish cathedrals or the god of Baptist churches in Flint's burned-out, boarded-up neighborhoods?

Does it matter? God of Moroccan strangers watching over hungry cats and lost Americans. God of widows turning sleeplessly in shabby hotel rooms and hostel bunks. God of grandfathers who fill your head with lovely places, like Spain, like Morocco. God of the beautiful friends and family you ache with love to go home to. God of uncertain futures. God of Marrakech henna artists. God of Vernors cravings. Hamdullah. Amen.

I neared the wall to climb back over and heard someone call, "Bonjour, madame!" I turned. A young man was standing there smiling. "Ca va?" Ca va bien, I smiled. After the constant lure of the Marrakech merchants, it's good to be back in this town and be able to smile and exchange pleasantries again.

"Are you a painter?" the man asked. No, I said, puzzled. "An artist of some kind, then?" he insisted. A writer, I told him. "Ah," he smiled triumphantly. "Have a nice day."

I couldn't stop myself. "Why do you ask?" I called after him.

He turned. "Because only an artist would be here, on this part of the beach, so early in the morning."

I threw the urn away. On the port, a trash can near the grills where men throw olive oil and spices on freshly-caught fish and sell you dinner for a few dirhams. That thick black plastic box tossed in with the orange peels and fish bones, with the empty crates and cigarette ends. We all die, the man in Marrakech told me. We must think of it everyday.

And thinking of it, I sat down in a familiar cafe and ordered coffee, wondering what to do with the day.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"I'll come across the desert with no shoes on, for I love you truly or I love no one."

During my day in Tangier, through the long wait between the ferry arrival and the Marrakech Express, I enlisted a personal tour guide. They wait on the port, flashing their official badges and readying to negotiate a price. The guidebooks say its hardly worthwhile-- another hustle in the Tijuana of Morocco-- but a middle-aged midget (is that pc?) with a faint American twang to his English approached me and I couldn't resist the idea: fresh off the ferry from Spain, American widow being led through the streets of Tangier by a midget with an American accent.

Through the tour Hassan gave me the usual scattered chronology of Moroccan history: Berbers and Arabs, Phoenicians and Romans, Portugese and French. I was more interested in having a Moroccan at my disposal to answer my long brewing questions: Moroccan politics, Islam, women, Gaddafi, the waning Obama enthusiasm.

And the feral cats.

Cats in Morocco are everywhere. In the streets, in shops and bus stations-- everywhere. Hassan told me the story of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him, I should add, sitting under the ubiquitous portrait of King Mohammed VI), who once sat to rest and had a cat curl up and go to sleep on his cloak. Rather than disturb the cat, he cut the cloak around it and forever granted the cat a special significance in the Arab world. Cats should be fed and made welcome, their quiet intelligence to be admired, Hassan said. Later that night at the station, I watched a man pluck a bit of meat from his sandwich and extend it to a scrawny, one-eyed feline prowling under the tables.

This morning, walking to the Marrakech Gare Routiere, I passed the men outside the terminal who unfurl their blankets on the hot cement and lay out their cigarettes and miscellany to sell. A cat was trying to get a solid grip on the scruff of her kitten's neck and drag it back to the cardboard box against the wall, where an unseen litter mewed and cried. One of the cigarette sellers jumped up and went to help the mother; not taking the kitten from her but, crouching low and bearing the weight of the kitten in his cupped hand while the mother quickened her pace and steered man and kitten toward the box. A neighboring vendor watched laughing merrily and calling to him teasingly in Arabic. My eyes welled behind my sunglasses. I'm not all that sensitive to the plight of feral cats, but it was the perfect image of Moroccan kindness to carry with me on the bus to Essaouira.

A year and a half ago, Bryan and I made the bus journey from Marrakech to Essaouira, this white-washed, sun-drenched town on the Atlantic where the fishermen drag in the sardines and the hippie boys go windsurfing and offer camel caravans out to the beach mansion where Jimi Hendrix and his entourage smoked opium and lived out their hedonistic Oriental fantasies. We caught a taxi from the station to the medina and were just through the gate when Bryan stopped, frantically patting his pockets and asked, "Did I give you the bag?"

The son of a bitch dropped the bag that contained all our cash and credit cards in the taxi.

In the most desparately ambitious French of my life, I dashed to the taxi rank and gave my frantic story to the next driver waiting (as I type this I can see his young, handsome face with Malcolm X glasses). He listened, sorted through my ranting French, and took great pains to make sure I understood what to do. Return to the station and find the security officer, who will have a file with picture IDs of all the drivers. Explain to him. He will track down the driver.

Laden with our bags, we rushed to the station, my eyes beginning to stream, Bryan chanting, "Please forgive me, please forgive me...." At the station we waited for the officer to return to his desk and I collapsed. A ticket seller with a weathered face visored by a baseball cap jumped down and crouched in front of me, smiling. "Pourquoi les larmes, madamoiselle?" Why these tears? He joked with us and tried to entertain us while we waited for the stern and uniformed officer with his hopelessly large box of mustached Moroccan faces. We walked back to the medina, two totally penniless Americans in Africa. We went to the police station where I further strained in my hysterical French, but there was nothing for them to offer. The bag was lost, not stolen. They typed up a report in Arabic and we signed it, uselessly.

Over the next three days, we lived off Moroccan charity. A hotel manager not only gave us a room on the good faith a Western Union would come through for us, but offered us a loan for food that we were too ashamed to take. The girls at the internet cafe let us run up a tab as we sent our SOS home. People in the streets of this small, easy-natured town approached us and offered help, seeming so genuinely concerned and stricken with sympathy for two careless, privileged white kids. A young man with good English and a love of America paid for our taxis and served as our translator as we went to the taxi office to see if anything had been turned in, if anything could be done. For three days, as we took our empty bellies as penance and went to bed early, hoping our wire would be there in the morning, we learned a lesson in humanity. Not just a rebuttal against the ignorant things people would like you to believe-- that Islam is a violent religion, that Muslims hate Americans, etc., etc.-- but that perhaps that primitive childhood lesson, never talk to strangers, isn't so wise. Our Western Union salvation came from Bryan's parents and when we saw all the familiar faces on the street we could grin and say yes, all was well. We could pay the hotel manager, the internet cafe girls (who humbly refused my offer of interest). And with the constant call to prayer from the muezzin and the Hand of Fatima hung on every taxi dashboard and shop register, it was impossible to separate that experience of sheer human goodness from God. I think it was here Bryan made his famous witticism, "I'm going to convert to Islam and change my name to Cat Stevens." I think he was only half joking.

We stayed in Essaouira a week. A man selling camel rides on the beach heard our story and, in the October off-season, offered us a room in a plush British-owned guesthouse for a few measly dollars a night. ("I like you," Aziz said to me once. "The British walk around here so unhappy"-- he turned down the corners of his mouth and blew out his checks in a Hitchcock-esque grimace-- "but you two smile.") Bryan chatted with the hippie boys in the music shops and tried out the guitars and traditional instruments. I'd leave him with his Coke and his sketchbook on a seafront cafe when I went to swim and inevitably return to find him sharing cigarettes and laughing with some hustler who'd tried to sell him fake Ray Bans or hash. Bryan had an easy, genuine charm that people warmed instantly to, and the men of Essaouira loved him.

When Bryan died, I couldn't think of a place better than Essaouira to scatter his ashes. The place where the most was demanded of us. We spoke often of Essaouira, how much we wanted to return there, the characters we met. Over the British rails, the Krakow trams, the ferry from Spain, the Marrakech Express and the bus to the coast, I've carried this urn and brought us both back. I've checked into the hostel where we shared our last few nights here (I expected to find the tacky Jimi Hendrix mural weeping tears of blood, but it's been painted over). I've chosen my spot near the port where the fishermen bring in the sardines and throw the heads to the hungry cats, as the Prophet Mohammed would want. I walked over the beach at sunset weeping. I walked through the medina scanning for familiar faces, wanting to stop the hippie boys and ask, "Souvenez-vous? Remember that handsome, broad-shouldered American boy with the ragged Chuck Taylor's and the Ali Baba beard? It wasn't so long ago-- say you remember, please, please, say you do. Priez pour lui. Pray for him. Et priez pour moi, s'ils vous plait."

Tomorrow I'll spread the ashes. Tomorrow I'll let go.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

marrakech, day 2

My second day in Marrakech. Woke with my Chinese (not Japanese, as my conversation with them last night proved) roommates still sound asleep and lingered over my mint tea and bread with honey and butter, reading. Into the sqaure, so much calmer, so much quieter in the morning, before the tourists come in and the snake charmers and monkey handlers ready to greet them. In my last post I mentioned the aggressive merchants, but I should mention the most aggressive are the women who do henna in the square. In their long caftans and veils, they overturn crates on the ground and sit with their syringes full of henna, calling after females relentlessly. If you come close to the vendors near the spots they've claimed, they come after you, syringe poised, reaching for your hand because as soon as their work is on your skin, you owe them. But this morning, with that syrupy mint tea singing in my veins, a woman called out to me in beautiful English and I couldn't resist. I sat on the milk crate and had my right hand decorated in exquisite arabesques and flowers, the henna curling up my fingers and down to my wrist while the woman, Jemilah, asked me how old I was, if I had a boyfriend, what Michigan is like, and explained the designs. "This one's for good luck," she said, drawing a flower in the center of my hand. "Soon, you'll have a husband." I smiled. In Granada, outside the cathedral a fortune teller seized me, dragging her sprig of rosemary over my hand, and told me I was a strong person, that soon I'd be married and have two children. It's all sillyness, but pleasant prophecies are nice to turn over in my imagination after a long time of not being able to imagine myslef happy ever again,

Somewhere in this journey, it feels as though my life circled back to me. After Bryan's death, it was like being shoved in a dark, windowless room with the door locked behind me. Like sensory deprivation. My sense of taste was totally gone-- for months I just ate tuna sandwiches dripping with horseradish so I could taste something. I had no desires, no interests. I slept poorly. I grieved myself into stomach ulcers that were further complicated by an infection, and I became sick. The process of mourning has been hideous. But somewhere on this trip I found my thought process shaken out of its dull repetition. Not grieving in Flint, but free to do as I wished in beautiful Krakow, Spain, Morocco, with grad school waiting for me and a new life to begin when this journey is over. It's as though someone opened that door, flicked the light back on and told me I was free to go. I don't have to sit in the dark anywmore. So there is still grieving to do-- Marrakech breaks my heart, the ashes will be scattered this weekend in Essaouira, and I'm still mending, still healing-- but I guess a sense of beauty and the richness of experience has returned to me. In the morning sun, in Africa, with a woman practicing an ancient tradition on my hands and promising me love and happiness.

Later in the day, after touring the Majorelle Gardens and having salade marocain in a cafe for lunch, I toured the souks looking for the right pair of camel leather babouches (slippers) for my sister. The Moroccan merchants, with their indefagitable charm, always ask, "Is this your first time in Morocco?" No, I get to smile-- my second. Today, with one man, I admitted my story. My dead boyfriend, me chasing his ghosts through the souks. "How many times he died?" the man asked. I was confused. Surely this man was Muslim, not Hindu-- how many times do we get to die? I quickly puzzled it out in my head. "Oh-- how old? 26."

"You have babies?" he asked.

No babies, I said. Just a lovebird.

"We all die," he said. "Sometimes very young, sometimes not. We must think of it every day. We will die."

I didn't say it, but I thought, yes, I do think of it everyday. We die. And everyday I choose to live despite that fact. In the brilliant sun and colors of Morocco, in the snow and industrial desolation of Flint. And I'm even learning how to be excited about living again.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

kelsey of arabia

My first time in Marrakech, it frightened me. It was September 2009 and Bryan and I had stayed up all night at London Luton for the flight to Marrakech. We arrived to feral cats skulking around the airport and taxi drivers to confront in my lousy French. The taxi driver turned to scold me when I began to fasten my seat belt. Trust Allah, he told me. You don't need a seat belt in Morocco. Through the anarchic traffic of donkeys, mopeds, bicycles, cars and horses, he took us to the gate of the Medina and dropped us off. We would have to walk to the hotel, he explained. No cars go in the Medina. This registered as impossible to us. But we hefted our big backpacks onto our shoulders and trekked into the maze of the Medina. In the walled old city, the streets narrow and winding and crammed with pedestrians, cyclists and stoic donkeys pulling their loads. Women passing in burkas, men in hooded djellabas. Merchants leaning out of their shops to call to us, promising the premium quality of their goods. We were helplessly lost. A boy no more than 12 came up to us. We asked where our hotel was and he insisted he take us. We followed him through the narrowing maze of the streets, the stone ceiling soon dropping over us, claustrophobia quickening my heartbeat. It was soon evident the boy didn't know where the hotel was either, and he stopped at those rounded doors recessed into the stone walls to knock and ask, again and again while my fears rose. We saw a rabble of feral cats consuming the remains of a chicken in the street. Finally we were at the door of our guesthouse, our young guide demanding payment.

When we got to our room, I fell on the bed and cried. As a traveller I'm hard to ruffle. I started traveling at 18 with a one-way ticket to Paris. I've slept on the floors of train stations and airports. I woke up once in a Dublin hostel with a drunk Englishman leering over me ("And who's little girl is this, then?"). I once checked into a Prague hotel and saw a dog fight outside my window. I worked in a homeless shelter in Ireland. At 18, I would call my Papa who would tell me, always, "Stay calm." That as long as I kept observing and thinking there was nothing I could encounter that I couldn't handle. From traveling, I learned a certain stoic calm.

But Marrakech was beyond my exhausted senses. The confusion, the claustrophobia, the aggressive approach of the Moroccans, the total otherness of it. I cried and cried and repeated I wanted to go home. I had never responded to a place with so much fear. Bryan settled down next to me and pressed me to him and calmly talked me through it. We would sleep and eat something. We'd go back out and try again. If I didn't like it we'd go to back to the airport in the morning and fly on to Paris ahead of schedule. We went up to the rooftop terrace that night, watching the smoke curl up from the grills in the Djemma el Fna, listening to the call of the prayer from the minarets. I fell asleep on the roof, my head in Bryan's lap until he gently woke me to go back to our room.

And in the morning, armed with maps from the guesthouse, a good night's sleep and a proper Moroccan breakfast (msemen slathered in butter and jam, coffee strong enough to stand your spoon up in, fresh orange juice), we fell in love with Marrakech. The ingenious charm of the hustlers, the ancient beauty of this city and its peculiar smell of mint tea and donkeys and sunbaked stone. Bryan said Morocco felt "holy." I thought so, too.

When I got off the overnight train from Tangier this morning, I shifted my bag onto my shoulders and navigated my way through the Ville Nouvelle and into the medina. I had that proper Moroccan breakfast (with two coffees) on my own. I made my way to the hostel and then into the souks, into the familiar confusion and the barrage of voices. My Andalucian tan and curly hair has the merchants stumped-- all day I've heard "Ola, guapa! Ola, hermana!" And when I ignore that, "Bonjour madame!" and then, finally, "Hello, British girl!" The women hidden in the drape of their burkas and the old men in the pointed hoods of their djellabas, the feral cats and the donkeys are still here and the Medina traffic of bikes, donkeys and mopeds is still perilous. Instead of a beautiful guesthouse room to return to with my boyfriend I have a lousy hostel room to share with three traumatized-looking Japanese students and an urn tucked away in my backpack. It's the widow's reconquest of Marrakech (and me a Kelsey of Arabia with my scarf and poor but functional French).

Though I've been confident and self-sufficient without Bryan, Marrakech seems a very different place without him. I remember our old route through the souks and the Medina beautifully. But I see the curve of a door where I stopped to snap his photo, remember his exasperation when I insisted on stopping to pet every donkey we encountered (how I pitied their sad lot then), the terrace of a cafe where I remember lingering over tea and pastries with him and it hurts, it hurts. I thought of Marrakech as ours. As it becomes mine it seems a lesser, duller place, even though the same snake charmers practice their arts in the square and the muezzin calls the same haunting prayer.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

sunbathing alone

My last night in Seville, two American girls checked into my room.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"Ohio," they said. "You?"


"Do you play euchre?"

Dios mio. I would'ved run at Olympic speed down to the shops below for a deck of cards and a bottle of riojo, but alas, we didn't have a fourth (the skinny, 4-eyed German girl with the Schopenhauer paperback didn't look eager to learn regional card games). Me and the Ohio gringas sat up talking. When asked why I'm traveling, etc., I don't give my gloomy specifics. Just traveling, I say ("Oh, are you, like, finding yourself?" a California girl on a Seville walking tour asked me). But when my Buckeyes asked, I gave them the brief sketch: traveling in Morocco with Bryan, his death, the ashes.

"That's intense," one of them said.


It was almost as good as a conversation I'd had earlier in the day. Walking in Seville, a rabble of pubescent boys came at me, rambling in Spanish. I smiled, no habla espagnol, and kept walking. "English!" one of them called. I turned.

"We are... we have... gymkhana," he said, extending a piece of paper to me. "Can we take a picture with you?"

I asked what a gymkhana was, and from there group attempt at explaining in painful English, it sounded like a kind of scavenger hunt.

"So you need a picture of an American for your gymkhana?"

"No, not American. A person... who is.... a person from...."

"Foreign!" another yelled.

"The feet!" cried another.

"A picture of a foreign person with..." His friends yelled, helping him find the right word. "Las sandalias," he finally said.

"You need a picture of a foreigner in sandals?"


I agreed. A 12 year old Spanish boy slung his arm around me and another snapped a photo. They thanked me and I walked on, captured for Spanish middle school posterity.

I had hoped to go from Seville to Barcelona. I woke up painfully early, hefted my bag to the train station, and got in line. But the 8 o'clock was full and the rest were high speed trains at twice the price. I didn't throw a dart at a map of Spain, but I looked at the departures board and decided on Cadiz. Travellers I'd met in Andalucia said it was not to be missed-- glittering coast, relaxed vibe, plenty of sun. I found a hippie hostel run by an aging British surfer with a rooftop terrace to dull the ache for Morocco: hammocks and potted plants and French kids bumming cigarettes from each other. Perfect.

I've been wandering around, taking long walks on the beach (Spanish girls sunbathe topless-- the Midwestern, euchre player in me is scandalized by this), languishing in the hammock with books and sangria. A vacation in a vacation. Resting up for Morocco and the sensory demands of the Marrakesh souks, I think.

Yes, Morocco. Monday.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

in seville

One of the pleasures of traveling alone is the chance encounters you have with people. Without a companion to constantly talk to, there´s less of a social barrier between you and other travelers, locals. In Granada I had perhaps the most extraordinary chance conversation I've ever had. And it began (I'm not sure if I'm more mischievously amused or embarassed to write this, with my mother, in-laws and UM-Flint faculty reading) with a remark about my boobs.

At the foot of the Alhambra, in the Albazyn, the old Arab neighborhood, I stopped at a shop. There was a blouse hanging outside it: one of those tunic style things the Spanish girls wear, loose and flowy with a slightly scooped embroidered collar to show off your lovely collarbone (if you're a lovely Spanish girl, of course). Indigo with pale blue embroidery. But, a small. I asked the shopkeeper if there were any mediums. "No," he said, "But that will fit you." I asked if I could try it on. He considered this, looking over his shoulder into the small recess of his shop. "Okay," he said. "I will wait outside."

Alone in the shop with the lanterns and tagines, I wiggled it over my t-shirt and stood in front of the mirror, deliberating. A touch snug, as expected. The man came back in. "Very pretty!" he said. A little small, though, I insisted.

He considered this.¨"It is only because you have the...." He pinched the fabric above his nipples and drew the shirt away from his skin, creating imaginary breasts.

If I were an American heiress in a Henry James novella, I would have fainted and my chaperone would have come to collect me and fire off incensed letters to the ambassador. Being a Flint homegirl, I laughed. "I´m sorry," he said. "I didn't mean...." I assured him it was okay and we began chatting. Typically I find when you travel in major tourist areas people don't ask you much. They know why you're here, and they want you to spend your money and get out of the way. The Spanish are quite different, though. I get asked all the time-- wth seeming genuine interest-- what I'm doing here, what I make of it. It's heartening. So I told my Moroccan shopkeeper I was en route to Kenitra. And it turns out Kenitra is a few kilometers from the town where he grew up.

"I was born when your grandfather was there," he smiled.

He told me about the relationship the Moroccans had with the Americans stationed at Port Lyautey during the 50s and 60s. The jobs the Moroccans took on base, how they learned English from the Americans. The Moroccan girls wooed by GIs who were whisked off to the States, never to return. In his halting English, he told me about when he was a student in Tangier in the 80s, how he fell in love with a British girl and took her home to meet his family. In the town there was a familiar beggar, handicapped ("in a chair," he said, spinning imaginary wheels) and living on the streets. When he took his British amoureuse home the beggar began chatting to her in perfect English and as a young man it was a revelation: this tolerated charity case, this friendly bum had a flawless command of English. It changed his idea of the man, he said. From then on, when he returned home to visit he always sought the man out and gave him a little money and talked with him a while.

"But I think he is dead now," he said, shaking his head. "He was very unwell."

I asked him if he thought it was safe for me to travel to Morocco now. The protests on the 20th were largely  peaceful and whenever I mention to people here that I've been nervously putting off my journey on to Morocco, they laugh at me (silly gringa, scared of the Arabs) and say Morocco is safe. Morocco is not Libya, not Algeria. My Moroccan friend said the same. "Safer than Spain," he said. I bought a different blouse a beautiful pomegranate color and continued my walk through Albazyn, swelling with happiness of our encounter but still not entirely at ease about Morocco's political climate.

And if I don't make it to Kenitra (again), what will that mean? Will I have carried this urn across Europe only to carry it back home? I don't know.

As another Papa pilgrimage, I took the train to Seville last night. I don't remember much about Seville, only that he was here, briefly. I've spent the day wandering this beautiful but vast and labyrinthine city. The largest gothic cathedral in the world. The Alcazar. The Golden Tower where Colombus set sail. Flamenco dancers performing in the square for Euros from charmed tourists. The sad streets of Santa Cruz, the former Jewish district wiped out during the plague and the Inquisition. The old Moorish minarets converted into bell towers, topped with defiant crucifixes. What streets did my grandfather walk down? Did he take his tepid beer standing at one of the high sidewalk tables? Did he eye the pretty girls walking under the orange trees in this vivid, extraordinary sun? Did he have his love for Don Quixote then, or did that come later in life?

Off to Barcelona tomorrow morning. Morocco next week. Hopefully.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

at the top of the alhambra i sat down and wept

While I walked up Sabikah Hill to the Alhambra yesterday morning, I thought about a book I read before I left on religion in India and how the varied and ancient traditions of the country are reconciling themselves with modernity and Western influences. I found the passages about the Jains especially effecting. Striving toward freedom from attachment and desire, toward divine cosciousness and peace. The book followed a Jain nun on her walk from town to town, only taking food when it was offered to her, dressed in rags and carefully sweeping the road in front of her to avoid harming even the measliest bug. I find most of my friends are proud cynics and atheists, religion an irrelevant notion, a system of antiquated superstitions. I'm precisely the oppposite. On a good day I can believe anything, so long as its based in compassion and charity. I like the idea of god and the spiritual rituals that order and sustain life. I still cannot quite settle my mind on the idea Bryan and Papa are in heaven with harp-strumming angels, drinking black coffee and waiting for me, but I prefer to think there's a grand design, a meaning to things. I think it was Einstein who said that you can live as though everything is a miracle or as though nothing is.

I could've been a Jain nun yesterday, walking up that hill, lush and green and swelling with birdsong. Scaling the division between Islam and Catholicism, Europe and the Arab world that makes Granada so beautiful and fascinating. With my poor toe, I haven't had as much exertion as normal, and I could feel the difference yesterday, my heart thudding in my chest as I climbed and climbed, passing the statue of Washington Irving (a famed visitor at the Alhambra) and the fountains. A meditative walk. A "what am I doing here?" kind of walk.

After three weeks, I should know the answer. The obvious one is I'm traveling to do what I thought best with Bryan's ashes, to pay homage to my grandfather, and give myself a greater peace of mind (though perhaps not divine consciousness). But no one goes to Morocco by way of Poland.

When Bryan died, I soon after wrote a letter to an old professor and asked him to recommend some books to me. In those long, quiet days after the funeral, all I wanted was to feel the ground beneath me a little more solidly. I wanted to reinforce all the things that made up my sense of self. Books, writing, travel. And if I pushed myself through the motions of being me, than eventually it would all come back, and I wouldn't feel so painfully self-conscious and uncertain. I'd get back to being myself, no longer a grieving negative of that old self. So I've tried hard to do that, tried hard not to ever question the life I've been given or allow myself to sink into self-pity or pass the days in bed. And that, I think, is what this trip is about. To return to old places-- pre-Bryan places, like Poland-- and to reclaim for myself some of the places I think of as "ours," like Morocco. And to find some new places inbetween, like Spain.

But also, I realized, to feel a little more at ease with death. Where better to go than Europe to understand and accept that time passes, that we die and that's okay, because there is no other option. Away from the American culture of rebuilding and constantly starting anew, to this continent where people devoted their lives to the construction of cathedrals they wouldn't live to see completed. To these places scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars and commemorated in multilingual plaques. To run a hand along a stone wall and murmur a prayer in a church that's been their since the black death. A church that used to be a mosque, in this beautiful city where the Spanish routed out the Moors in the name of the Catholic church. Yes, we die. The centuries carry on without us, though sometimes if we're good they'll put up a statue of us for the pigeons to shit on.

So I approached the towering palace. I got my ticket and found myself in line behind a quartet of Americans. Two pretty girls in expensive looking boots and jackets with their fashionably rumpled boyfriends. They looked like they could've been Kennedy heirs, or Harvard students on spring break. They looked like they stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad. I looked like Little Orphan Annie. One of the boys kept nattering on about Ferdinand and Isabella in a precociously gravely voice, and every so often his girlfriend grinned and pulled his mouth to hers, obviously pleased with herself for finding such a good looking and clever boy to explain Spain to her. I couldn't help the thought: they did not climb the hill thinking about the Jains. They would not retun to their shabby hotel rooms to an urn. I felt-- I don't know. Embarassed for myself and ashamed for feeling that. For feeling jealous I've been denied their seeming privilege and ease when I ought to be full of gratitude for a life that's allowed me this journey, these sights, these ghosts of the Spanish Inquistion to mull over.

And finally into the Alhambra. Relic of a lost way of life, a lost paradise. Columned palaces with their every inch covered in tiles and ornate arabesques. Pools glittering in the courtyards. Then through to the Generalife gardens, fruit trees and succulents and palms. All of Granada, all of Andalucia sweeping below. I sat down on a stone and cried. Not because I don't look like I stepped out a Ralph Lauren ad, I don't think, but the whole of it. For all the reasons I was at the top of the Alhambra. It was a rare outburst, and it startled me-- I'm not much for crying. And once it started it was hard to stop. I climbed the towers to the highest point of the complex, still sniffling. Crept slowly down the narrow dungeon stairs, sniffling.

I walked back down the hill and sat at a Moroccan place near the Plaza Nueva. Mint tea to sip while I made sense of the day, slowed myself back down. Te magrebi, I told the waiter behind my sunglasses. He asked something and I had to smile and make my daily confession here-- no habla espagnol. He shifted to English, laughing easily when he couldn't remember the word he wanted. Infectious Spanish happiness. My tea came, and though it wasn't as sweet and replenishing as I remember in Morocco, it was good. I returned to normal, back to the eager tourist. My waiter walked past me, his shift over. "Bye, gringa," he grinned at me. I laughed, delighted.

Monday, February 21, 2011

your greatest american hero

Food is my least favorite part of traveling. From the pages dedicated to eating-- what, where, how much--  in guidebooks, I'm guessing this is abnormal. There are too many vagaries: do I just sit, or is it self-service? Is the menu in a language I understand? Do I tip? How do I signal for the bill? Then there's the added trouble of vegetarianism (or more precisely, picky pescatarianism). I prefer to buy and cook at the hostel, or cobble together al fresco sandwiches. I'd rather eat like a bum on a park bench then sit awkwardly alone at a restaurant with a menu I can't translate. And as my Papa used to say, "Eat to live, don´t live to eat."

But today is my 25th birthday, and I've just arrived in Granada. I decided that merits a proper meal in a restaurant. As an appetizer I sat in the sun on the Plaza Nueva and had a mammoth glass of sangria. Giddy and empty-bellied, I started walking and was soon happy for anything. A little empty restaurant near the Gran Via allured; menu in English in the window. Inside two ancient Spanish men sat smoking and watching a dubbed 80s TV show (Greatest American Hero) in the shabby decor (Coke cans and cheap wine in the deli case, tacky souvenirs on the counter, old pictures of Granada on the walls). I thought of Atlas back in Flint-- that coney island near Bryan's place on Augusta with the terrible formica and the angry old Greek owners. Perfect.

The menu was a useless lure, as neither spoke the language. When I ordered water-- agua--my waiter stared at me as if astounded and repeated, "Agua?!" Si, senor. I pointed to the daily special: fried fish. My waiter relayed this to the cook and settled back with his ashtray to watch TV while I scratched in my journal and listened to my birthday dinner pop and crack in the grease.

What arrived was not fish. It was a heaping mix of shrimp, octopus and something else, fried all to hell. A plateful of eyes, fried black and wishing me happy birthday indeed. Were I at home, I would have insisted, "This is not fish," and sent it back. But an American alone in Granada, eccentric enough, apparently, to order water, no Spanish save a few phrases and what a lifetime of Taco Bell commercials have taught me, I felt I'd made my order and we had to get along, these little eyes and I. I tried not to look any of it too closely, thought of the Omega 3s and ate. I managed about a quarter of the plate before giving up. Heavy with grease, still a touch tipsy, I went up to the counter. The cook gave me the loveliest, proudest smile and said something I'll never know, but can only imagine: wasn't that wonderful? Don't you love Spanish cuisine, American girl? Aren't you delighted you spent your 25th birthday with a plate full of dead shrimp eyes? The waiter had moved on to an old Western, more Spanish voices thrown over ruddy American faces. I smiled and paid. I walked toward the hostel chanting "Don't throw up, don't throw up."

Back to the hostel kitchen tomorrow, I think.

Dead urchins aside, it's been a pretty good birthday. To Atocha Estacion this morning, drinking coffee and waiting for the train to Granada. I have a great affection for train stations, but Atocha is quite something. The main hall is swallowed up by an atrium, all palm trees and towering fronds, a pond to sit and watch the turtles slowly carry on with their day (with my bulging backpack and lingering limp, I felt great kinship with the tortugas this morning). Then all the Japanese tourists and I climbed on for the 4 hour journey to Granada. Out of Madrid, the red clay earth undulating in hills dotted with low shrubs. Then in the last two hours, Andalucia and the kind of landscape I have never seen. Sweeping landscapes: the orchards, the Sierras, the verdant grass. The Japanese girls behind me started making these wonderful yipping noises in excitement as they took photos through the train window; a kind of shrill oomoomooyeye that made me giggle into my hand. And Granada itself, beyond my still slightly nauseous powers of description this evening. The tightly winding streets like I remember from Morocco opening into European boulevards. The Arabic tiles and the Catholic churches. The sun and the ruins, the Alhambra on the hill and the mountains in the distance. The fruit trees already dropping oranges on the cobblestones.

Spain was a kind of impulse when I planned my trip. I wanted to see Tomcat in Poland, but there was no inexpensive way to move between Poland and Morocco-- I need to go via Spain or circle back to England and fly from there. I checked out a few guidebooks from the library, skimmed them and decided Spain sounded okay. The whole of the trip was hard to plan. When Bryan died, I was told to take things one day at a time, and I accepted that advice and clung to it as my means of daily survival. Shaking myself out of that mindset and trying to imagine myself alone in Europe, in Africa, was nearly impossible. I made the most basic itinerary, booked the necessary flights and left. So I arrived in Spain with just a few ideas-- the Prado, the Alhambra, Barcelona-- and no real preparation. I have never traveled this way before: without expectations, without a schedule. Truly discovering things as they come and making of them what I will.

And never have I fallen in love with a place so instantaneously, so blindly as I have Spain. The easy-going, easy-humored nature of so many of the Spanish. The thrill of the journey into Andalucia and Granada-- a city I couldn't have dreamt up. These clashes of culture-- finding traces of my beloved Morocco when I woke to the disconcerting news protests have started in Casablanca and Rabat. Drinking sangria in the sun.

... but still some underlying sadness. A birthday alone. Just an urn to greet me when I climb the stairs to my hotel room. The memory of my last birthday-- margaritas with Bryan, a bottle of perfume (my first and last grown-up birthday present from a boyfriend). No cake and ice cream, just a plate of blackened shrimp eyes (I'm sure I'll dream of them).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"about suffering they were never wrong, the old masters"

I woke to rain drumming on the roof. Rolled off my hostel bunk for my complimentary croissant and coffee and decided it was a good day for museums. With my hood up and my toe still tender on the cobblestones, I walked to the Prado. When I arrived in Madrid yesterday, it was one of the most immediate and intense first impressions I´ve experienced when coming to a new city. Love at first sight. The fabulous, stylish people in the subway after the serious faces on the Krakow trams. The flood of sun. The balconies hanging over the calles, lined with plants and drying laundry. There´s a certain epic grandeur to Madrid that registers with the usual ideas of European cities-- the palaces and parks lined with classical statues and fountains, like Paris, like London-- but it seems more easy-humored, more colorful, more sincere somehow. On my meandering walk to the Prado, snapping pictures as I went, it occurred to me: why have I never been to Spain before? This is my 4th time leaving Michigan for Europe. In 2004, England, Ireland, France, Poland, Czech Republic. In 2006, England, Ireland and Poland. Then in 2009 with B, England, Holland, France and Morocco. Why have I never ventured toward the sunny (with some exceptions for museum-going days), stay-up-late-with-wine-and-friends, lust for life kind of places? Why so much Britain, so much Eastern Europe, but no Spain, no Italy, no Portugal? Because I´ve never fallen in love with any Spanish writers, perhaps.

So into the Prado, and an item crossed off my art snob bucket list. The in turns celestial and bloody sprawl of Spanish art: all those Madonnas in the lapis lazuli folds of their robes attended by the seraphim and cherubim, all those Christs bled white on their crucifixes and the martyred saints I never remember. Those artistocratic Goya ladies with their fluffy black curls and corseted waists. Velazquez´s peculiarly beautiful dwarves. El Greco´s elongated faces and vivid colors. Those chubby Reuben nudes. Threading through the Saturday crowd of tourists, I found myself drawn, perhaps predictably, to those sad-eyed portraits of women, inevitably the story of their widowhood adjoining. Like Goya´s "Maria Teresa de Vallabriga." I kept thinking of Auden´s "Musee de Beaux Artes":¨ About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters."

In my 11th grade humanities class at Central High School (another hollow structure on the Flint landscape now), Mr. Eufinger said something that has always, always stayed with me: art never gets better or worse, it just changes. I find that calming. Even in those colder climates of my previous travels, whether at the Louvre or the Tate or the Metropolitan Museum, the idea of art and the echoing voices of creative expression provides my greatest solace. I think Auden was quite right. We happen to share a birthday, Auden and I: the 21st. Perhaps Monday night in Granada I´ll raise my sangria for him and toast the poets and the Old Masters and the young literary aspirants attempting to find a place among them.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Yesterday my cousin sent me an email about a letter he recently found, written to him by our grandfather the day he was born. The letter welcomes him into the world and ends, "I won´t write again until you reply." In the Krakow internet cafe, remedying a little Michigander homesickness by Youtubing Motown jams, it made me laugh out loud. I´ll be 25 years old Monday, but still the thought of the loss of him makes me feel small and young. Orphaned.

Limping over Krakow yesterday, Tomcat and I forfeited a last adventure for some relaxed "cafe tourism." Final stops in the ongoing wine and coffee crawl: some Celestial Seasonings at the American book store (Massolit), apple pie and espresso at a traditional cafe near the market square, a final glass of mulled wine at a stylish Kazimierz bar with antique portraits lining the walls. I finally asked Tomcat about her grandfather. Our love for our lost grandfathers forms one of our common bonds (as well as literature, wanderlust and languishing in cafes), but I have only ever known the briefest version of the story. So between sips of latte she told me. An intelligent, engaging man. Well-traveled, eloquent. The war broke out when he was 11. His parents hosted and hid Polish political figures and figures of the underground. He served as a courrier in the underground and was captured and imprisoned. He and a friend escaped a concentration camp and went into hiding. On his 17th birthday, the war ended--the most wonderful of presents. But so many of the details, she said, she´ll never get to ask. He died suddenly of cancer when she was 18.

I´ve often thought I lost my grandfather at that agonizing moment, too, between adolescence and adulthood, when the sense of identity with family (or, at least, one´s favorite family) deepens and one wants those stories fleshed out, made more palpable, more personal. I know my grandfather´s stories: selling American cigarettes on the black market in post-war Paris and London to pay for the days in museums and the nights in the Pigalle. Waterskiing in Lebanon. The factotum of jobs in Flint and his studies, his vast knowledge of literature and history. His incomplete novel. But so much more I wish I had committed to paper, and no one seems able to give me the information I want. He was a radio operator on maneuvers in Morocco, but what was that daily life like? I overheard him once talking to an Ethiopian nurse and mentioning his time in Addis Ababa, but what was he doing there? And for how long? And what was the first impression of a young Irish-American from Detroit suddenly transplanted to Africa?

I offered to Tomcat that perhaps our literary impulses are our grace. Always our imaginations to turn to-- the myriad ideas, however idealized, of who are ancestors are, how they brought us to this moment, gave us these thoughts. The idea of our papas and their fabulous destinies. Krakow and Flint. WWII and decolonizing Morocco. All the places inbetween. Perhaps they crossed paths somewhere in Europe, sometime in the 1950s, two men nodding to each other across a crowded square, or in a tram car. Like the black and white faces, the chiaroscuro of thoughtful gazes in old photographs, on the walls surrounding us as we had our drinks, shared my last night in Krakow. Who are these people? How did their images end up on these walls? And isn´t it somehow more wonderful, perhaps, to imagine than to know?

And now I´m in Madrid. Bryan´s urn jostled through the Metro and stored carefully in a hostel locker. Papa´s ghost hanging pleasantly over Spain (I know he was in Seville for a time, but Madrid? Ah, let´s just say he was). It´s warm and sunny and the people in the subway look like extras from Almodovar films. The swelling in my toe is subsiding. There´s the sun and the Prado and churros waiting for me tomorrow. What more could a girl-- even a widowed, spiritually orphaned one-- desire?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

swearing in polish

"Teach me a swear word in Polish," I said to Tomcat last night as I hobbled out of Krakow's main station and headed toward the tram.

"This is not the kind of cultural exchange I would like to promote," she smiled wryly. "I'm a good girl."

(I'd like to note, however, that she knows how to swear in English-- and I'd bet in Spanish, Portugese and Lithuanian, too.)

I wanted to learn this so I had something more interesting to mutter to myself than that ordinary, colorless English "fuck" each time my foot hit the ground. Yesterday we took the bus to Zakopane. Just a few miles from Slovakia, an exquisite resort town in the Tatra Mountains. 2 1/2 hours from the spires and flat blocks of Krakow, through the suburbs to the spreading fields and thickening trees, the acute triangles of the red roofs on their rectangle houses, like a lovely child's drawing. We walked through the crowded markets (fur and wool, hats, clay cups for hot mulled wine, postcards, stuffed animals, goat cheese, t-shirts), took the cable car up the mountain, squeezed in with the Poles on their winter skiing holiday. Stunning views from the top. Walking along the snowy paths beaten ice-slick by thousands of boots, and me trying to keep my footing in a pair borrowed from Tomcat's mother (silly American-- arrived in Poland in February with nothing for her feet but a pair of ragged Converse). Awkward footing. My big toe, left foot, started to feel strange. We took the cable car back down and had a hearty lunch at a traditional restaurant: roasted goat cheese with rowanberries, pierogies with mushroom and cabbage, "mountain tea" (which is allegedly a mix of vodka and tea, but I suspect includes tea the way that Long Island iced tea does). Walking along the rows of wood lodges, restaurants and carnival games, that big toe started to ache and ache. By the time I made it to the foot of the mountain to watch the ski jumpers practice, my eyes were stinging with tears and I was sweating from the pain and mountain tea. My big toe swollen like a plum in my borrowed Polish shoe. Fuck.

In a (rare) moment of self-pity, I said something about my "continuing bad luck." Tomcat gave me a quizzical look. "But this trip's been going very well, hasn't it?" I didn't mean this trip, which has been wonderful: full of good friends, beautiful sights, things to turn over in my tired head. I meant the continuing bad luck of my life since last April. My ongoing Book of Job. I was supposed to leave this mentality back in Flint. In the perspective of all my grief and loss, and my gratitude for the friends helping me travel the world and shake off my mourning, what's a sprained toe?

Today my toe is still swollen and aching after soaking it in a pot full of hot water at the dorm (please forgive me for sticking my foot in your crockery, headmaster). Limping through the city and the market square, determined to enjoy this last day before flying off to Madrid tomorrow morning.

Krakow has been a pleasure. I visited the city 5 years ago, but I don't remember loving it like this. The museums. The sorrowful history and the stoic, serious faces in the trams. The innumerable luring cafes with their jazz on the stereo and chic design-- espresso by lanternlight with oil paintings on the walls seems so much more delicious. Tomcat's intelligent and witty company. Art Nouveau interiors of old Fransiscan chapels. The sharp cold and vivid sun. Tram lines hung over this antique city like an electric spiderweb. I haven't learned to swear in Polish, but I've relearned a few phrases, and the one I seem to use the most is dzienkuje. Thank you.

Monday, February 14, 2011

please remain quiet and respectable

I don't dream often of Bryan. I had a phase of vicious recurring nightmares in the spring and summer, but since, my few dreams of him are very good. In most I'm unable to really connect with him-- he's preoccupied, talking to someone else, working-- but I am always happy to see him and follow after him, and he always looks healthy and exquisitely handsome. They're reassuring glimpses of him in another life, where he is healthy and well and does not need me. The other night I dreamt I found him with another girl. I wasn't hysterical about this, but quite calm-- get rid of her, please. He seemed noncommital. Perhaps he would, perhaps not. I was patient but firm.

I woke from this dream in a dormitory bed in Krakow, Bryan's urn in the wardrobe. Sometimes waking life is far stranger than even the dreams formed in the mourner's subconscious.

I am staying with my lovely friend Tomcat (longtime friend via writing and online travel communities). Having a beautifully English fluent, licensed tour guide at your personal disposable is quite a luxury. Days wandering the city, scaling up the passageways of Wawel Castle, through the streets of Kazimierz (former Jewish district, now a bohemian enclave of cafes and boutiques), stopping to admire monuments and the details of the architecture. What does this say, Tomcat? Who is this, Tomcat? What does all this mean? I fear I'm trying her patience (in my high school French class, the teacher told us if ever we were embarassed or confused in Europe to just explain, je suis une americaine stupide-- I'm a dumb American-- and all would be forgiven), but I am grateful for the intelligent company.

In some way, I hoped this trip would be a return to form: an end to the grieving me, who can indifferently pass the day YouTubing British sitcoms or wandering aimlessly around Flint lost in thought, and a circle back to the passionately curious me. The adventurous me, who traveled the world alone and spent days trawling city streets and art museums for mental sustenance. England was a bland start (how I mourn your Walmart takeover, your flavorless Americanization), but I am slowly waking up in Poland. My mind begins to spark and reel. Who are these kings and saints, their echoing voices in this beautifully preserved cities? Perhaps the alcoholic vitality of cherry vodka and mulled wine (not together, of course) helps, too.

Yesterday we toured Wieliczka salt mines-- impressive, vast system of mines dating back to the Middle Ages, complete with chapels carved out of salt, the slowly eroding faces of the Virgin Mother and King Casimir the Great. A sign on a chapel wall said, please remain quiet and respectable. I thought that the best possible advice for a tourist--a widowed one with a head full of strange dreams and a brain cranking and shuddering back to life after too many episodes of Nevermind the Buzzcocks and The Royle Family. Please remain quiet and respectable; observe all this, process it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

r.i.p., proper caffs

My first week has passed-- off to Poland tomorrow. This adventure has yet to feel adventurous. England is too familiar, my friends here too numerous and longstanding. Inevitably when I travel I hit that "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" moment, but still, I don't feel aware of the distance between Here and There.

In some ways, England is not quite as I left it the last time (leaving London for Marrakesh with Bryan)-- there's no stepping into the same river twice, of course. The recession and its associated misery is immediately evident here: the articles on unemployment and intensifying racial hostilities, the boarded up shops, the growing number of methadone clinics. And while McDonalds and Burger King are a familiar blight on the English landscape, since that vagabond honeymoon of sorts with B, Wal-Mart has taken over, Starbucks are pushing out the "proper caffs" (as they call their lovely local tea shops), and at the edges of the cities "retail parks" are spreading. Don't let the word park fool you-- they're out of the way strip malls of big box stores built around parking lots. Little America Townships spilling over the UK. Another something for me to mourn. At 20, the UK seemed a literary aspirant's refuge; at 25, it sometimes feels like America with prettier buildings and funnier accents.

Of course, I've changed too. Beyond my inventory of gains and losses, the growing up and the shifts in perspectives and values (no stepping into the same river twice indeed). In my year volunteering with Oxfam, I never really warmed to Oxford. It always seemed exclusive and unfriendly; a playground for old money and antiquated notions, with a postcard prettiness I distrusted. But returning this week for the first time since 2006, it felt like paradise. The bookshops and the constant crank of passing bicycles, the gargoyles leering from the stones, the gardens sprawling from the Isis. As I get older, I think I become more comfortable with my own intellect, and feel more at ease with the life it entails. Keeping it real in the Rust Belt grime has done me no favors. I could use some a prettier place to ride my bike and drink my Earl Grey. Handsome boys in glasses to lust over between the library stacks. It makes me more anxious for those grad school letters soon to start arriving. To settle down in a new life-- be done with this rootless, homeless, widowed one.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

country and western

There is no escaping American culture. My friends like Family Guy-- reruns nightly on the BBC. The charm of it alludes me, so I stretch across the rug with a newspaper or my journal. Last night I heard one of their familiar, grating voices say, "And now here's Conway Twitty." I looked up and the usual cartoon cut to a video of Conway singing that terrible, sappy song earnestly into the camera. This one:

Bryan had an extensive repertoire of tacky songs, and "Hello Darlin" was one of his standards. In the old house at Augusta, during his teenage years, his neighbor's daughter Brittany had a phase in her pre-adolescent summers of spending long afternoons in the bath with Conway Twitty on her portable cassette player. Bryan used to sing those god-awful songs to me, teasingly. He never remembered many of the words so he made them up as he went along, coaxing them into that low talk, talk, siiiIIINNG crescendoing rhythm of "Hello Darlin" (hey there Kelsey.... I sure am hungry....I'd like a saNDWICH....). We had the song played at his funeral, rippling laughs across the parlor. I don't think I've heard it since, and then last night, thousands of miles from home, Conway Twitty crooning into the TV while I skimmed through an article on Vivienne Westwood in the Times.

The immediacy of janky pop culture is a crushing defeat when you're a snob like me. I would prefer to only be moved to tears by, say, the elegant melancholy of Tennyson (ghastly through the drizzling rain/ on the bald street breaks the blank day)-- not swallowing hard lumps of Conway Twitty twang on a crass American cartoon. It's hard to laugh at country music when you hear lines like, I'm doing all right, 'cept I can't sleep, and I cry all night till dawn and wince with empathy.

It's been 10 months, and still, at times this is so impossibly painful.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

green and pleasant land


Drive to Detroit with JJ, flight to Charlotte, flight to London Gatwick, bus to London, tube across the city, train to Birmingham New Street, connection to Walsall and friends and finally, deliriously exhausted, arrival. In England with my boyfriend's urn, a bottle of antibiotics and a bag bursting with American junk food for my friends (skip the cherry wine and maple syrup-- bring Cheetos and Milk Duds).

Leaving Gatwick, the first sign I saw as the bus pulled onto the expressway, said, CHANGED PRIORITIES AHEAD. It seemed an ideal first signpost for this journey. Changed priorities indeed-- the grace of British understatement.

On that sleepy-heavy, hungry journey between the airport and my friends, I decided when I die I want someone to come back and spread my ashes here. On the rail line, or on the coast.  I've spent a great deal of time in Britain since my first journey here at 18, and it always feels like a kind of second home. I love it: the dirty dishwater skies meeting the vivid green patchwork farms, dotted with fluffy sheep. The brick row houses extending forever; their walled gardens and bicycles and bins jigsawed into the lanes. The quiet figures on the train, lost behind their newspapers and novels. Who was it that said when good Americans die, they go to Paris? Nevermind Paris: England is the good American's deserved refuge.

Thus far, days in the West Midlands-- urban, industrial Birmingham and its sprawl along the canals. Dissolving persistent jet lag and lingering pneumonia cough with milky tea. Stretched out with Martha Mai on the living room floor with the Independent scattered around me, remembering how vicious and good British journalism is, investigating quite what the British make of Obama. Walks around Walsall admiring the usual pleasures of this functional, ordinary sort of town: the smell of curry wafting out of the Asian neighborhoods, the people dashing between doors in the eternal grey drizzle, the spires of the churches and the gaudy neon of the innumerable takeaways (my favorite, though I've never been, is the American Burger Bar, with the stars and stripes glowing in the window). Good conversations with Matt and Manda, Lindsey and Stuart. Cuddles from Martha, nearing her first birthday as I'm nearing my 25th.

Matt was cooing to Martha this morning and said, "Someday I'll tell you about your posthummus godfather Bryan." I erupted in giggles and announced it was making the blog.

Post-hummus Bryan.

Keep calm and carry on.

Changed Priorities Ahead.

Monday, January 31, 2011

the grief tour: stop no. 5

Bryan and I were blessed to have many longstanding mutual friends. Some of our dearest and best friendships, though, were made more recently.

I met JJ and Amber in college. My urban hippie friends with the endless tab at Good Beans, quick wits and compassionate intelligence. You need good friends to combat against the grim realities and encroaching miseries of Flint, and JJ and Amber are my favorite Flint folks. When Bryan and I reconnected, they quickly welcomed him into the fold. The Good Beans roundtable and the vegetarian dinner parties. And since Bryan died, they've mourned him with me. I could not have endured the last year without their constant goodness: their reminders of Bryan's wonderful qualities when all I could think of was the loss of him; their exquisite meals when I had little appetite; their epic Tours de Flint when bed seemed so much more inviting than the seat of my Schwinn.

My other favorite Flintite is Sue. Every girl needs a Sue: a beautiful person to check in on her and keep an eye on her spiritual needs. Sue lost her brother a few months before Bryan passed, and we have been allies in grief. Sue has given me the things I didn't know I needed, like stress-relieving yoga classes, walks in Formar and a weekly invitation to join her at church.

I wanted to leave a little bit of Bryan at JJ and Amber's home in Mott Park. So last night the four of us took the urn, the Kool Aid, a cup of coffee, and a jar of Daassa feathers out to the backyard. Under the tree, under the window of the living room and dining room where we spent many a night laughing and eating JJ's fabulous curries. A little more of Bryan committed to the Flint snow and soil.

"God gave us our relatives; thank God we can choose our friends"-- Ethel Mumford Watts.

the grief tour: stops nos 1-4

I've lived with Bryan's urn for months-- the sight of that neat black box with his name and date of death printed on the lid has become familiar, comfortable. The thought of opening it and confronting his remains has been frightening, however. I didn't want the first time I opened the urn to be in Morocco, alone. This week my friend Reid was in town and I proposed a Bryan tour of Flint: the places we think of him happiest, the settings of the memories we cherish most.

Friday, my sister, Reid and I took the urn and got in the car. I brought along the Kool Aid packets left in the kitchen when Bryan died. Kool Aid was one of his shameless indulgences, like box mac n' cheese and tacky classic rock songs on the radio. When he died, I couldn't bring myself to part with those packets. At each stop we would scatter a little bit of the ashes with a packet of Kool Aid.

no. 1: Augusta

 Bryan's family moved off Augusta and out of Flint years ago, after his father's remarriage. Through high school it was the place we gathered. Bryan and Reid and a shifting crew of others playing music in the basement, Parry and I on the steps. Bryan's eternally messy bedroom with the kitsch bird wallpaper and the posters of John Lennon and Bob Marley. Chance, the family's fat, asthmatic Maltese ever wheezing on the sofa. I had my first kiss in that house. My first "I love you."

The new owner kindly listened to us explain and gave us permission. We sprinkled the ashes (and Kool Aid) in the backyard.

no. 2: Doyle Ryder
According to legend, Bryan was kicked out of kindergarten his first day. "Don't bring him back here," the teacher told his anxious father. "There's nothing I can teach him." Bryan was sent to the Gifted Program at Doyle Ryder, where he famously cowrote a play about JFK in fifth grade, discovered Nirvana and created a series of ceramics called Hawaiian Grannies.

Reid chose the big tree at the far end of the play ground as our site. It was here, he said, their group made its beeline at every recess: the most secluded possible place to light matches and swear.

Through grief, I've enjoyed those moments I get to learn something about Bryan: memories I don't have, moments in Bryan's history I wasn't there. I like being given things to imagine.

  no. 3: Flint Farmers' Market
Bryan and I had our first and last dates here. When we began talking again the summer of 2009, he mentioned he had never been to the Farmers' Market. I insisted he had to. I remember little about the walk through the market, but I remember the walk across the parking lot. A car pulling out of a spot, Bryan walking in front of me, and how I reached out and touched the small of his back. The car was the excuse, but it was a necessary first move. A first touch daring a touch-back.

Our last trip to the market was the Saturday before he died. When we pulled in Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator" was on the radio, and Bryan insisted we stay in the car until it was finished. It was one of those songs Bryan sang to tease me-- the kind of thing I found unbearably bad. "Love in an elevator, living it up when I'm going down..."

Lunch break: Halo Burger, Saginaw Street.

no. 4: Montclair
Through our high school years, if we weren't at Bryan's house, we were at Parry's. In Bryan's last months, Parry was home again for a brief interlude before grad school, and it became a place to gather again.

Bryan passed away here, and for me, at least, it seemed appropriate. I met Bryan through Parry; I saw him the last time here. The circle of our brief years together closed in.

By the end of the day the ashes were less scary. Familiar now, comfortable. Scattered over stories, two of my favorite people laughing and remembering how good Bryan was to know. How good he was to grow up with.

I feel prepared to handle this alone.

Friday, January 28, 2011


 No account of my widow experience would be complete without a post dedicated to Daassa. (Though I think she needs no introduction-- surely half the people reading this have been nibbled by her).

My last semester at UM-Flint I had three classes with Dr. Matt, finishing up my Francophone Studies minor. When Dr. Matt passed mid-semester, Dr. Daassa took over those courses. A friend of my mom's had a brood of hand-weaned baby lovebirds up for adoption, I had maternal girl-in-love desires to indulge, and I thought Daassa was a nice name: I liked the francophone Arab connection, the personal tribute (we already had two zebra finches: Little Bree, named after a friend, and Danzig, attesting to both Polish history and punk rock pedigree). Daassa was our baby. If you've never encountered a hand-weaned lovebird, they're like tiny flying dogs. They want your attention. They want to play and sit on your lap and be stroked. They're loyal and jealous of anyone they have to share their master's attentions with (thus, all your patiently endured hookbill bites). 

Most of our domestic details were procured to satisfy my aforementioned maternal ends (the houseplants, the birds), but Bryan loved the hell out of Daassa. His dad likes to tell the story of my trip to North Carolina last March to visit the last of my grandfather's nine siblings, Uncle Brian and Aunt Barbara (who passed in November). I neglected to call for a few days, and Bryan nervously called his dad, worried that I'd fallen in love with a southern boy and taken off forever. "You think I can get custody of the birds, don't you?" he asked.

When Bryan died, Daassa grieved. She gave up her favorite hobbies (sitting in the windows of our Thomson St. apartment, yelling at the birds outside), growing quieter, more defensive. At night she'd fly to the back door and squawk, as if waiting for him to come in from work. Her year of napping in the hollow of his collarbone, preening him and flying around the apartment with his cigarettes was over. When we moved back to my mom's, she was harder and harder to coax back into her cage, and I eventually noticed she'd made a project of peeling off the bathroom wallpaper. We shared our grief, widow and semi-orphaned bird. One night she sat on my shoulder as I went through Bryan's things in the closet. After a while I noticed I had a tear-soaked lovebird pressed to me. 

In the months since she's returned to her happy, playful self. I find I worry about her more. Over the summer, Danzig the finch died and I gave his partner away on Craigslist. Bryan's things were given to his family or boxed up for Salvation Army. Daassa is the last relic of my life before April 11th. I have nightmares about her meeting cruel ends with ceiling fans and my sister's cats. I worry over her diet. It's imperative we survive together, bird and I. I worry she'll grieve for me when I'm away 6 weeks. And I'll miss waking up to her chirps and fixing her bowl of corn and peas and almonds while I wait for the kettle to boil.

It'd be lovely if I could show her a map and let her go. "Meet me in Rabat. Tap three times on the window of my hotel room."  Unfortunately the only trick I've ever managed to teach her is "kissing" (I say "Kiss me, Daas!" and pucker my lips, and she presses her beak to them). Map reading and transatlantic flights are still beyond her.