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.