world and heart, explorer slender; tracing lines both true and tender

erstwhile & anon

Posted on May 8, 2015

As usual of late, my brain flits like a hummingbird over a thousand blooming thoughts. Sometimes I wish that I could simply take all the things that I’m holding, undam them like an exhale, and you could catch it all up and know everything. Afterwards, we could take a nap.

There has been a distinct change in the air. Lima has dipped under autumn’s gentle sloping roof, on its way to the valley where gray lingers, the nights are cooler. I knew it was coming. I’ve spent many moments with my cheeks pressed towards the sun and wishing it was here to be mine forever. But still, I don’t regret the sudden inclination to wear flannels and drink tea. There is something about being chilled that I associate with a sort of strange, sweet autonomy.

And me, I’ve seasoned, too. I think I was holding onto a bit of skepticism and reserve, but I have since found a deep joy in my daily Peruvian life.

Going to Machu Picchu was, unmistakably, a turning point for me. It was last minute, makeshift, rife with harrowing issues, and it was unequivocally amazing. Something about the soft rain and damp dripping down yellow buildings and shiny green leaves. It was nice to be in my own headspace, it was nice to greet my backpack like a good friend. And, then of course, there is the Amazon, the crown on the top of my wayfaring glory, a reverie realized. Mostly, though, I am tremendously relieved to have stumbled into parts of Peru that resonate with me. A complete indifference to Lima has been a weight on me these months. And, even such brief jaunts into adventure and extraordinary, unbelievable beauty has made my crappy job completely worth it.

Words can hardly express how deeply and thoroughly I adore my roommates. We are a triple venn diagram of distinct colors, overlapping enough to create gorgeous new shades of common ground. We don’t have to spend every waking moment together, but we choose to, because we are lucky and we want to. There flows an incessant volley of wisecracks, bright ideas, dirty jokes, devotion, confessions, and counsel in our life shared round the clock. I like how they ask me for things. I like how I don’t ask for things and they don’t get mad when I take them. We tremble with our mouths covered, shaking with laughter over secret chat rooms at work, two feet away from each other. We make up names, take naps in the park, recline over coffee and indulgent food. We daily tease, spin tales, plan exploits, bare hearts. One makes farting noises in the stall next to the second, and all three dissolve into hysterics of different pitches. Pink post-it notes scrawled with affection and encouragement appear in hidden pockets. We clink glasses brimming with sticky, tropical concoctions; we curl up on the couch in nightly, girly unanimity. Trouble-making and peacemaking ensue with equal solidarity.

I am happy. It is an incessantly beautiful thing. In many ways, I look in the mirror and feel as though I have finally arrived. Not in the sense that everything in my life is idyllic — quite the opposite, in fact. And not in the sense that I have abandoned my eternal exertion towards betterment. But first and perhaps foremost, I look and see a woman, one that finally holds some of the womanly qualities revered in the heart of a girl who has felt perpetually young.

There are other things, too. I have been gently cultivating small, humble habits that bring me disproportionate amounts of gratification: I am learning the art of cooking for one, and have found it to be surprisingly satisfactory. I floss every night. I set goals for myself and inch towards them. Sometimes I workout until I am panting, and then later I will see real progress. I try to drink at least a liter of water each day, if not two. I may despise my job, but at the very least, I have finally nailed down the difference between affect and effect, and how to spell exercise correctly, the first time. I have come to even small terms with the question mark of my future. I read my bible each night and feel its vast gravity —  as a thing in and of itself, and on me.

I am deeply pleased, presently, as a whole. When I pull it apart, as I always do, and examine why, I think it would be this — that I have somehow accidentally struck balance, as haphazard and valuable to me as striking gold. Because I am rectified with my past and hopeful about the future, I can look straight across the expanse of the present and feel contentment well up within me, even if here isn’t quite it, yet. Think of it like this — if even one of these is heavier than the other, how hard it is to walk in a straight line! No wonder it’s so easy to lose one’s way. This, and, I think I am coming to decide that happiness isn’t quite what I thought it was, after all.

As for the rest of it, the yes, but, the and?, it always seems to come back to writing. I am an island of hopes and potential bobbing in a sea of questions and fears and false starts. But, I am coaxing myself into composure, and more importantly, realization. As it pertains to you, I hope to say that you’ll be hearing from me again very soon, sooner than a eighty-eight day drought.

so far

Posted on February 9, 2015

Lima is an undulating surface, a breathing organism composed of a thousand tiny parts. On a map, the size of Lima is dwarfed by the enormity of the country, of the continent itself, kind of like an ant hill in the scope of a desert (in fact, Lima is in the middle of a desert—it is the second largest desert city in the world, behind Cairo). Bend down and close one eye, however, scrunch up your nose as you take a closer look, and the city focuses into a vast, teeming world of bodies. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around, when I stop to try. That driving down the Pan-American Highway along the jagged, cloudy coast from one end of the Lima province to the other would take the greater part of two hours, no traffic. That in the States, you can get to whole new cities within the same amount of time; in Europe, whole new countries. That the largest district alone is home to one million inhabitants, five times the size of my own beloved metropolis.

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The city feels like a contradiction, much of the time. It is vast here, and crowded, a fact that inevitably ushers in predictable side effects, but Lima somehow remains impervious to overarching stereotypes. The walk to work in the morning is a cacophony of brain-jarring honking, the language drivers use to communicate their impatience, their friendly greetings, their malevolent greetings, their boredom. But I can stroll through a maze of streets in various neighborhoods and not see a soul, lights quiet in every building. Where is everyone? I think. Where are 9 million people, if not here? There is an atmosphere of dirtiness that hovers over just about everything, and yet the sidewalks and parks of my district are very consciously immaculate: flowers bloom in unnecessary, though appreciated diamond shapes in the middle of highway islands; grass is trim and perfectly angular around every edge of landscape; city workers take their time painstakingly scrubbing out trash cans and raking fallen twigs. The water here is a terrifying, living fiend, a silent powerhouse roiling with enough force to immobilize grown men, but the fruits of this country are bright and huge, bursting with color and juice and flavor, unhampered by GMOs. I’ve seen slums pushing up the sides of distant hills, so poor that even public education is out of reach, and I’ve seen five story malls made of glass or built into cliffsides overlooking coastal vistas.

Lima confuses me with its absence of smokers and beggars. It surprises me with the sudden appearance of construction sites in the middle of a now-gaping sidewalk (construction that often continues well under a midnight moon). It frustrates me with its magic act inventory—my favorite grocery store items stocked for a few days and then suddenly gone for weeks at a time, only to show up on the shelves later, unabashed. I will become a quick-handed hoarder, stashing absurd amounts of lemons and soy milk.

I think what catches me the most is the general apathy of Limans. I do admire how laid-back they are about everything; when they honk at impossible traffic, they don’t honk with anger, it is the simple and calm stating of a fact: I am here, I am not slowing down, I would really rather you didn’t cut me off but it is expected and I will remain unsurprised, unfazed. They ride on overflowing buses decades old, or perhaps they walk; they show up each day at jobs they like or they hate. They go out to eat and lounge in parks and swarm the beach. They live and die in Lima. But it doesn’t strike me as a positive kind of relaxed, a hippy or surfer or rasta go-with-the-flow. It feels more like a grim acceptance, a lazy contentment, a firm stoicism. I am perfectly willing to concede that I haven’t, after all, hung out intimately with very many Peruvians. But so strikes me the heartbeat of Lima.

Language is, unsurprisingly, where it’s at for me. The corner of my paper brain has been dipped into a pool of new language and I am predictably and serenely gathering it into my fibers. I could sit in that stifling box of a room at the Spanish house and turn out little kid exercises complete with cartoons and dialogue bubbles for hours. I pepper my short, middle-aged, and excitable Peruvian tutor with questions, and, happy to oblige, he jumps up from his chair and scribbles vocabulary and pronunciations on the white board, giggling and apologizing all the while for his corny jokes. Then we sit and drink anise or coca tea, and sometimes he’ll ask us about our lives or philosophies, slowly and in Spanish. I know that in part, he’s encouraging us to use the few words we’ve stockpiled, but I can also tell he likes us and simply wants to know. His tone is professional and casual, but I never miss the curiosity that tilts his chin, the inquiry brightening his eyes, the high peak of the question mark at the end of his sentence.

I like when he gets shy about using what little English he knows; his voice gets softer and quiet. He’ll turn turn to us, lean in close and almost whisper the elusive word with his eyebrows hunched in uncertainty. My favorite is when he asks us to repeat difficult pronunciations like follow and humor and scrutinizes our lips. He claps and rejoices if he understands or learns something new, and shakes his head at confusing things like homophones (piece and peace). I’ve come to realize that if I had students like him, or a class like ours, I would find incredible satisfaction from teaching English. I love this damn language to a delirious depth. Or any language, for that matter.

I wish that I could report that I liked my job, my raison d’être ici, if you will. As I sit on a blanket in the grass and eat my lunch every day next to my roommates who preen and nap in the sun, I think about how disappointing it is that the reason I chose to go down this road is the very worst part of the trek. It is simply a matter of switching perspectives, I suppose, but it doesn’t make the fact that this is necessary any less regrettable. One month in, and this gig has perhaps sunk the final nail into my 9 – 5 (or rather, 8 – 6) coffin. It’s not the worst thing in the world; my optimism and practicality reign supreme in the darkest of hours, regardless, and there are many things about my life here that I deem satisfactory, if not wholly awesome. I am, after all, in South America. I still like to zoom out on the map in my brain and watch my little black dot, my minuscule silhouette poking around south of the Equator.

And then of course, there is Spanish, and there are my friends. Language and people, the two largest motivating factors behind my existence, my real raisons d’être. Communication and sharing, you could call them. Empathy and generosity. Understanding and love. I like to don rose-colored glasses against the harsh glare of disillusionment, especially when it blazes fifty long hours each week, to hold out in the hope that I don’t fully understand all the reasons why I’m here, but I will, sometime.

introduction

Posted on January 19, 2015

I am a coastal summer baby, I am a magic act. Nails sunset orange, hair stiff from salt, the days slip by and my skin constantly blooms deeper shades of pink like a photo in the darkroom: who knows where color will splash, what shapes will emerge with enough patience and prayer? Here, the sun comes and goes with frequency, but when it’s out it is as warm and strong as the arms that used to wrap my grateful, shivering little 8-year-old body towel-tight. It would be impossible for me to disassociate warmth from being tucked in, from being secure and content.

My hands smell like char from the burnt piece of cardboard I was using to light the oven pilot, though I have given up and instead opened a bottle of Chilean wine (Peruvian is, sadly, far too sweet). Much of this city is in a similar state as my apartment: well taken care of, but ancient—on the verge of being obsolete. I can’t say it isn’t charming, however. Why does retro ever have to regress? May your scripty fonts and cool color palettes live on forever.

Life in Lima isn’t too far of a stretch from life anywhere else; you acclimate to the oddities—to the incessant honking and suicidal traffic; the universal, resolute ban on toilet paper in the toilet; the hazy tint of polluted atmosphere that invariably accumulates from a population 9.5 million strong and hemmed in by mountains—and then continue on in the regular, upward pursuit of being a better (or perhaps just happy?) human. You learn to boil your water as quickly as you learn enough Spanish to get by in a city that has neither clean taps nor English speakers.

Lately, I hum an unbroken tune of appreciation, a sustained note of acknowledgement. It’s remarkable how different your headspace is when your clothes live in drawers instead of packing cubes. Even two weeks in, the roiling pot of life calms to a manageable simmer and things become more clear. I am continuously reminded that I have, indeed, passed some of the lines I drew for myself, and that I am, perhaps, a version of the woman I’ve always wanted to be after all. Even little things take my breath away sometimes. I also know that I have never gotten anywhere single-handedly, and that I am unequivocally lucky. It’s possible that I am repeating old sentiments, but I promise you, the view from this side does not get stale.

I like the grind, the in and out of days. Traveling certainly allows for the reinventing of self; living a daily life puts a patent on the new you, if you want it to. And gee wiz, do I ever want it to. I take advantage of a quotidian existence by tucking fragile, fair-haired hopes into the folds of my free hours. My time here has, and will continue to have some major drawbacks, but I never expected perfection when I took this internship; I wished only for progress. The fact that I might get friendship under a golden sun is as sweet and unexpected as the summer in January.

respite

Posted on November 19, 2014

It’s been five months and fifteen days since I boarded a transatlantic flight. Open your palm and grab a handful of time, that’s how long it feels like it’s been. I am sitting on a couch in the living room of a hostel I have called home for the past three weeks; Cat, the confoundingly altruistic owner, is gone for a few days and asked me to watch the desk. Since my people are on other adventures, I have been spending the evenings watching Gone With the Wind, listening to Nick Drake and Copeland and Fleetwood Mac and Ella Fitzgerald, sewing the holes in my pants, and drinking hot chocolate.

I’ve been wishing that I had something definitive and profound to tell you in these last weeks, but I have to admit that my brain’s been somewhat muddled lately. Between gobs of work in France, next to no alone time, the drug of Balkanism, and the impending doom of the end of this trip, I am, embarrassingly, a mortar and pestle mash of thought.

It’s weird thinking about France after having left, after this time of living in Bosnia. Sarajevo is like a warm bath for sinking into with slowness, compliance and rapture; it is comfortable and you often think with regret of the moment in the future when you’ll have to get out. The warm steam of life wafting up around this city makes it hard to look out at past or future. I digress.

France was a home, France was a dream, France was the blink of an eye. It was a world and a life so wholly unto itself; my memory of it is encased in a see-through bubble, some dreamlike snow globe. And because even up there, perched on the hillside in the Alps, each moment was new and unpredictable and strange. Constancy is such a rare commodity when you’re on the road, even when you get off it for six weeks.

Looking back on it is a lucid and quiet slide show. I see and feel the upward slope of the wooden floorboards in the kitchen, the particular smell of the neighbor’s house that sometimes still teases me from mugs of tea or old clothes, the eternal awe of high peaks, the exultation and indulgence of eating elaborate meals after working to the bone. Mostly I see shafts of yellow sunlight streaming through the kitchen window and coming to rest on the wood of the kitchen table; here, there is a blue glass of spoons, half-eaten circles of cheese, the absent-minded spray of loose tobacco. I think: boxed wine, music upon music, hands stained orange from fruit juice, black fleece, sea salted butter, burred puppy fur, floor mattresses.

The vast majority of our time was spent working, and working rigorously. But oddly enough, that’s not what’s left over when memory is sifted through the strainer of time. It’s certainly not as though it didn’t happen; I have the thighs to prove my time of carrying crates of fruit twenty kilos strong up an incline, the biceps to prove lifting and dumping them into a crusher. We were tired, but we were happy. Our satisfaction came instead from the magnetism between kindred spirits and the knowledge that our presence was a blessing. From the start, we fit in; from the start, we were enchanted.

Aurélie owns a juicing business. Her particular plot of Alps was rife with fruit: apples, pears, grapes so native and so old that no one knows the strain, the elusive quince. She is a shrewd, quixotic, and absolute human being, unlike anyone I’ve so far met. Her respect first, and then her friendship, was gratification of the highest order. Even then I remember feeling the jealous privilege of understanding who she was, and the bitter regret that she would change the moment I left and I would again know nothing. She is a volatile spinning universe attached to nothing; she is gravity and change incarnate.

Our days off were spent in bed, or hiking, respectively. We delighted in food and cooked incessantly, filling the kitchen with fresh picked tomatoes, a thousand types of cheese, chocolate and peanut butter, pasta and shrimp and pie and curry and ham. Every morning we woke up to a loaf of bread on the windowsill, left in the early hours by the baker in town. We put butter on everything. We never stopped drinking wine.

Life there is a tangled web. There are people in and out, always, and they are the type of people as unexpected as a midnight doorbell. You get used to things changing on a dime. We had barbecues with the neighbors, we drove for miles through the mountains, we stuttered our way through French. There were marijuana plants taller than me in the gardens, there were affairs and triangles, there was family love and family fight. Our nails stained dark brown on the first day, and stayed that way until the last. In the basement we found wine barrels carved with dates from 1647. During pressing hours we dunked glasses into whole barrels of fresh juice; our clothes were so sticky that the bees followed us around in reminiscence of plague days. We never dreamed from fatigue, but we stayed up late watching movies under the blankets.

I am pleased that I got to share time there with Caroline and Sean. Looking back, I think I would say that it was a thing that needed to be shared, that certain truths were meant to be unearthed together. I’ve grown and solidified and become newly self-aware during my time in Europe and my time alone, but it doesn’t make the challenge and gift of friendship during such intensive experiences any less worthwhile. I am humbled by and grateful for the unfolding of growth in front of me by my friends, and of their input into my life.

When I think about who I am and where I stand, I feel level and at peace. This is remarkable and brings me to my metaphorical knees in thanks and awe. At first, I wondered if such a thing would last. These days, I wonder where it will take me. When I think about the end of six months, I feel a grief that stems only from the joy of having lived, and lived well. In such cases, you can’t use the definition of regret or hunger; it is simply a deep and thorough acknowledgment. When I think about the future, about Peru, I feel only a calm and almost uncurious readiness, which I ascribe to a profound faith in certain things that stretch across realm and reason.

In my right hand I grasp nostalgia and gratitude, the gift of a season; my left holds up the hope and riddle of the future. The rest of me is submerged and dispersed in the sea of the present, a pretty place indeed.

mountains and valleys

Posted on September 17, 2014

Sarajevo is another bright, clear moment shining out amidst the whirlwind of travel. Sean and I had been trudging our way down the sticky, crowded coast of Croatia when we decided to head inland on a whim, in order to meet up with a friend Sean had made at a hostel the week prior. Saša is a beautiful man, his family unusually warm, and together they have built a life that is stunning in its uniqueness. The constant realization of how lucky we were to be staying with them made Sean and me keep whispering and motioning to each other behind their backs about how awesome this was.

The city itself is small and sweet, like a candy I could pop in my mouth and savor for days on end. The general remarks about it revolve around the weirdness of seeing bullet-studded communist buildings in the foreground of a towering glass mall, modern and black and huge. But I was more interested in the compact old town where Turkish vibes of coffee and tobacco and silver and textiles intoxicated my senses. Sarajevo is a perfect blend of history and mystery, East and West.

I know I’ve been harping on how much I’ve been eating in Europe, but that particular week takes the cake, pun intended. I’ve heard that skinny people can eat more, because they have more room to expand; perhaps I am walking proof. I felt like the girl who blew up like a blueberry and had to be rolled out of Willy Wonka’s factory, in every good way possible. We ate Eastern Europe’s best ćevapčići with pita and yogurt, Belgian waffles topped with ice cream and berries and nutella, sweet roasted nuts and Turkish delight. We found a somewhat rare microbrewery and quenched our thirst with homemade red beer. Saša’s parents, who are earthy, fun-loving, and intelligent people, bought and prepared for us an enormous traditional Bosnian lunch, complete with hot soup with homemade noodles; shopska salata; roasted potatoes and carrots and roast pork with real, thick-cut bacon; sautéed mushrooms; and finished with dense, sticky baklava. Every day we sampled a new regional wine from the cozy, tasteful wine shop that their family owns.

Saša is the definitive expert of all things most awesome and excellent in Sarajevo, and he took us places we would have never otherwise found. These places included a small tea shop on a quiet road, right around the corner from the bustle of the main square, reminiscent of Teavana except more local, humble, and just all around better. It is owned by a German man with the gentlest eyes you have ever seen, and not one day passed where I didn’t spend hours drinking his potions and listening to classical music. The three of us also had a date at a restaurant owned by a friend of Saša’s, where we whiled away the evening learning how to swirl, smell, and taste our way through each glass of Eastern European wine—wine supplied by Saša’s family store. But of course, the owner and chef brought us two veal specialties, one tenderly topped with mozzarella and tomato, and the other warmly roasted with potatoes. Another night we walked through dark streets void of humans and up to a seemingly innocuous door, which swung open suddenly to a magical and humming dining room with a cobblestone floor, a roof open to the starry sky and walls completely covered with vibrant plants and Bosnian trinkets. Here, we ate cheese and bread and small bites of fried chicken, lucky to even find somewhere to sit on a weekday night.

I don’t think there was one moment that wasn’t beautiful and marvelous and pleasing. We chuckled together to the old classic Donnie Brasco, hoofed it up an enormous hill to regard the stunning valley below, drank Bosnian coffee and smoked watermelon hookah. I marveled at the way Saša’s father doted on his mother; at their warm, elegant home in which we were wholly welcomed; and how the three of them have built a beautiful and thriving business, defying the relative poverty of their country and the complacency of its citizens. Between our laughter and our Brooklyn-Italian accents, I found joy and satisfaction in watching Saša let himself completely loose inside a glass of wine, in hearing his knowledge and well-wrought opinions, in making another friend that makes life worth living.

After that, Sean and I unexpectedly decided to go our separate ways, and I continued back to Croatia solo on my way to Italy. Dubrovnik was the last main city I had yet to visit on my coastal tour, but sightseeing by that point had gotten a little stale, so instead I hung out with new friends, went kayaking across the sea to an island, and jumped off rocks and swam until my feet went numb. On the ferry over the Adriatic to Italy, I bumped into some delightful Finnish girls that I had met in the city and we spent the night eating nutella and pringles and playing cards. I taught them how to play Go Fish; they were tickled.

Now that Italy has come and gone, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the place. Couch surfing was pretty much completely out as an option, lest I drown amidst the seedy romantic invites of clamoring middle-aged Italians. I did spend a great week in the mountains between Rome and Naples, volunteering on a farm and guesthouse. It’s funny how different every experience can be; this one was so much more about the relationships I made and not about the work or knowledge gleaned. Don’t get me wrong—hauling wood and pruning fruit trees with a sparky old man that doesn’t speak English taught me more Italian than I ever expected to learn and I am well grateful, but there was something especially remarkable about accidentally staying up late every night and discussing politics, the existence of free will, and boys with your three roommates and girlfriends—one each from Brussels, England, and Australia.

The family that owns the farm gives off the impression that they are only living together out of familial obligation, and that perhaps ten years of volunteers moving in and out has become a bit tiring. Nonetheless, I found contentment watching the rain and mist move across the solemn mountains from tiny craggy towns; swimming in the iciest, bluest mountain pond; getting caught in a downpour and hitching to town; sharing beer and ice cream at a dusty, plain cafe-bar full of Italian, card-playing men; participating in my very first yoga class; hurtling down curving mountain roads and shouting Italian songs about gelato at the top of our lungs; listening to an orchestra play ‘Figaro’ at a nighttime street festival in the mountains; exploring town on foot, buying market sunglasses and eating ice cream with friends; drinking wine in front of a stone fire; frying zucchini flowers and eggplant with a smiling, toothless Italian man while he riveted me with his life story (the one where he breaks both his legs while drunk in his twenties; quits drinking; finds scuba diving; works with and worships rare, ancient books; travels the world; and now farms around Italy to be near his darling daughter). And between each of these moments, I laughed and told jokes and discussed life with my new friends, pleased as hell.

Rome next, for the express reason of meeting my sister and brother-in-law. There we spent together two and a half beautiful days, not nearly long enough. My sister proved the benefits of doing your homework before you show up; she knew where to find a handful of exceptionally good experiences in the enormous sprawl that is Rome. One food tour, three historical sites, two mouthwatering dinners, and about fourteen cones of authentic gelato later, I am left standing alone on a train station platform, overcome with homesickness. I spent the rest of the week wandering around the city in a considerable haze, sleeping and somewhat disconcerted and realizing I hadn’t spent any time planning my next moves. The combination of having no clear plan or direction and not knowing the next time you are going to see anyone in your family can really set a girl back. For a minute there, I lost almost all of my self-possession. Luckily, I had a few enjoyable moments in good company; the brother of a childhood friend happened to be in Rome after a European tour with his band, so that was cool.

I dunno, I just didn’t have great luck in Italy after that. I was feeling very done with Rome by the time I left, especially after being approached by two different creepy men, getting bed bugs (I counted—well over seventy amazingly itchy bites), catching a ride and then running out of gas, catching another ride that was five hours late, spending more money than I needed and wanted to, being forced to stay up late three nights in a row based on surrounding circumstances, and descending into my rare trifecta of misery (cold, hungry, and exhausted). Not that it was all bad; I spent one relatively pleasant if not awkward evening in Turin, and had a couple enlightening conversations with nice people along the way, but I gotta say, I was immensely pleased to get to Lyon. Almost the moment I left the company of Italians and entered that of the French, my state of affairs spiked upward.

Vive le freaking France. I’m not sure I’m just relieved to be out of Italy, or if anything that strikes me as vaguely familiar feels like balm to my soul at this point in my travels (completely plausible), or if I just really like it here, but everything about my last few days in France has felt incredible. I adore practicing the language, even if my grasp of it is barely loose. Or perhaps it’s the fact that autumn is tumbling across Europe, but there is something in the air here that is making me very happy. It’s giving me the feeling that I would very much like to come back again and explore even further, to stay a while, to live, to learn. I’ve barely been here but I can’t help but feeling like I really like France.

Anyway. These last few days I stayed at an apartment with a handful of French kids and blended in with the comfortable, fun daily routine like I could, or did, belong there. In fact, I didn’t see a lick of Lyon except for a few main drags during two different nights—a shame, since I hear it’s charming. But, I can hardly complain, because I couldn’t have spent a more enjoyable weekend. Thomas (pronounced Toe-mah), my host, has a personality that is both delightfully down-to-earth and funny, and we hit it off immediately. My three days with him and his roommates was pretty much completely comprised of sleeping, eating and drinking. I tried foie gras and French blood sausage, had beer and mussels and fries (moules-frites) at the most idyllic medieval festival you have ever seen, took two naps, won a game of pool, rode rental bikes home at five in the morning, and taught English while lounging in the grass. I am very grateful to those boys for being as hospitable and kind and fun as they were. They brightened my spirits immeasurably.

I am doing well; I have regained the ground under my feet. But as always, ceaselessly I wonder what’s next, what is to become of me? To what will all this lead?

For now, my faithful friends, I have found myself in the Alps on a juice farm that is so picturesque that I’m afraid I’ll never leave. I can’t wait to tell you all about it, next time.

daze

Posted on August 25, 2014

There is a lot you could say about travel. There is a lot, in fact, people do say about travel. They say that not all who wander are lost (Tolkien), that the world is a book and you must travel to read more than one page (St. Augustine). They utter clever things about the boredom, the lack of control, the discovery of travel. Proverbs tell us that it’s the only thing we can buy that will make us richer. 

That’s the funny thing about travel. It means something completely different to each person. It wears about a thousand different hats. And even more than that—if you asked a nomad what traveling meant to him five minutes later, he would probably give you a different answer (or I would, anyway); it is ever evolving.

It is inherently and deliciously unpin-down-able. It is like the boggart in Harry Potter, snapping into a different shape depending on who stands before it, looking, daring, dreaming. Travel changes as you do. And the unbelievably best part about it: travel is capital “G” Good regardless of who or where or why. I may get discouraged, I may be confused, I may feel alienated from my drunk, very-not-homesick fellow travelers, but this is a fact in which I have never lost faith. 

***

Something happened to me somewhere between Bulgaria and Croatia. I’ve been wondering with a kind of constant hum of curiosity if—or how, rather—I would change through my travels. I figured I might not even find out how until I returned back to the setting where I was someone else, months ago, until I could find a familiar backdrop to compare new Tiffany to old Tiffany. But I already feel different. 

 

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

 

On the twelve hour bus ride from Sofia to Zagreb, we paused in Serbia at a rest stop next to the highway. The driver gave us forty-five minutes to sit or stand or smoke. I didn’t have any Serbian money to buy a coffee, so I walked over to a large swath of grass and laid down under a big tree. As I put my hands under my head, as I took in the cool softness of the grass, as I stared at the blue sky and the gold evening light through the branches, I performed my habitual evaluation of self and soul. And you know what I realized in the quiet? That I didn’t have one measly thing to complain about. That I was completely at peace. It wasn’t a grand moment, it wasn’t sparkling or particularly special. I didn’t feel that weird, occasional sheen of contentment that coats the world in a splashy soundtrack and an overly forgiving optimism. I simply was, and everything that was, was good. That’s when I first noticed it. 

I think I might be attaining the thing I’ve been wanting all along: not simply being comfortable with travel, but being comfortable with existing at all. 

***

The American travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux, said that “[t]ravel is glamorous only in retrospect.” I certainly understand the sentiment of this statement, as I am more often stressed, inconvenienced, and scrambling than I ever would be at home (though to be honest, I was also often going without, pushed to limits of resourcefulness, and uncaring about shower frequency even before I left). As I stood wearily waiting for a bus with two travel friends on the side of a dirty gray highway after a long, disappointing morning looking for a beach that never surfaced, one friend observed, “Travel is so often just waiting around.” I laughed and agreed. 

But in spite of these things, it’s remarkable how often I catch myself thinking, Gee wiz, Tiffany, you are one lucky duck. I pause and look around, blinking, almost disbelieving. I keep having those moments that are so beautiful and surreal you might have seen them in dreams, or maybe just movies. If you were to take pictures of these moments, they would be of the sort that used to make my stomach lurch in painful desire and envy when I saw them on my computer screen at home, at work. As one who strives for continual contentment, gratitude, and optimism and is therefore loathe to complain even in inconvenience and ill fortune, I might argue that traveling is every bit as glamorous as one would hope, even when it’s not. Because, even when it’s not, it’s still Good. It is not for nothing that travel is a subject so frequently immortalized into quotes like the following, after all:

“Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear. Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art.” – Freya Stark

 

Pula, Croatia:

  • Tossing myself into the streets of Pula after twelve hours on a bus, six sleeping on blue chairs in a bus station, five walking around Zagreb, three on another bus. Getting caught in the rain, getting lost, getting an accidental ride and a new friend. Waking up to a warm woman and homemade Croatian liquor at nine am. Not knowing we should sip, instead of throw back. Putting “fire breather” into google translate and laughing in two different languages. 
  • Wandering around the ancient, seaside town full of warm yellow stones with an old friend. Delighting in company over twelve cappuccinos in a row. Deciding to go to the cinema in the evening, because why not, seeing a refreshingly excellent film and walking out into the balmy, starry, bustling night with a joy that rolls into involuntary laughter. A long, pretty day.
  • Sitting on a third story balcony of a charming labyrinth hostel and watching a yellow crescent moon rise. The flowers below are purple and pungent, the voices of vacationers bounce off cobblestones and hit me like a serenade. 

Rijeka, Croatia:

  • After squishing into a tiny apartment with thirteen other couch surfers, we made friends with two and went hiking up one of Croatia’s coastal monsters. Didn’t know starting at the bottom by the beach means hiking for over four hours and not actually making it up to the top. But we picked fruit off the trees along the way, sweat through our clothes and packs, talked about our lives, flexed our muscles and then came back down. At the bottom, we quenched our thirst with beer, our hunger with fresh grilled fish, our heat with blue water. 
  • Swimming in the Adriatic is spiritual. I’ve been practicing my breaststroke. The salt makes my bony limbs bob on the surface without any effort. I roll with the waves. I do all of this alone. When I’ve reached some deep outer limit, I peer down past my ghostly legs—blurry, like a vision—and regard the earth’s surface ten, twenty, fifty feet below; the sea never stops being wholly transparent. I face the deep and drink in all the enormous shades of blue that make up the water, the sky, and the mountains in between. From where I tread, I am immersed in God’s glory. I revel in my smallness, I let my heart sing praise, I give myself over in trust. 
  • Divine good pleasure would have it that we be accepted as couch surfers into the home of one bright spark named Iva (pronounced Eva), against most odds. Iva was also hosting Philip, equanimity incarnate. While the two make a delightfully magnetic couple, the four of us together make an equally merry and rapturous affair. I knew I was in love when Iva shooed us into the kitchen as soon as we showed up at ten pm to insist that we immediately start eating cereal. Fast friends, we conquered the town: huge watermelons, late night Croatian pastries (burek), playing and making up games on city monuments, a purring black kitten named Poe, porch side haircuts, lazy afternoon Disney movies, sneaking on the back of busses and then seeing who can stand the longest with no hands, diving into the sea, wondering about life and love, sleepy cocktails and serious talks. 
  • Staying in one place just long enough to feel like some small secret has been given to you.

“A journey is best measured in friends, not miles.” – Tim Cahill

 

Venice, Italy:

 

Venice is even more charming in real life than your idyllic brain could imagine, but dare I say, perhaps, too charming? Admittedly, my mother and our friends and I didn’t make it much past a small radius of San Marco Square, the most heavily touristy section of the city, but every perfect corner turned seemed to reveal another perfect alley or small square (campo) just like the previous one. It’s not that this is such a bad thing, but repetition and familiarity tend to breed apathy and ingratitude, and I don’t like to take even one minute in this wide world for granted. To top it off, the city is spotless in spite of the hordes, a fact which struck me as incredible and eerie. Such perfection comes off as contrived. It felt like Venice was bracing itself against the tourists, holding its breath until they all went away and it could return to itself. I don’t blame it for that, either; it is decidedly overrun. Of course I don’t actually have any idea, but the spirit of Venice that I imagine is much seedier. In the meantime, it is both alluring and suffocating. 

Naturally my favorite part was spending time with my mom. It was funny; being there with her made me feel as though I had stepped into a time warp or something, like I pushed a big red pause button on backpacking and was instead on another vacation with her like we always went on growing up. If felt uncanny, but okay. The apparent and sudden normalcy of getting what I’ve been craving—to be with my family (in Italy no less)—was a bit startling, especially since I knew it would end in a few days and I would be returned to myself, this new life. We spent our last evening just the two of us drinking white wine on the Grand Canal while the sun set, talking and treasuring.

 

The rest of Croatia:

  • Plitvice National Park is a sparkling diamond, as long as you can see it between the heads of a hundred other people squished on a tiny footbridge. Here, you will follow a path of thin wooden planks that wind across bright blue water—something like a fairy tale. Little schools of fish will hover by your feet. Waterfalls emerge from exotic looking greenery and mountain cliffs alike. It will feel like if you bent down and even touched the perfect water, some awesome and terrible consequence would suddenly befall. You won’t realize that you left your debit card at the ticket office until you try to pay for the hostel the next morning, in a city three hours away. 
  • What better way to finish a day traveling to Zadar than by going swimming at midnight? Walks down the pier turn into walks on the beach turn into sinking under dark water warmer than the air. Stars toss themselves across the black dome above, rocks glisten in the moonlight on the sea floor below.
  • Split’s got an old town to make the heart melt. It’s like some beautiful combination of Venice and the Caribbean. Sitting in the balmy shade of a palace’s ruins, drinking coffee and looking over the blue sea is made sweetest by the knowledge that I can stay here as long as I want, that there is absolutely nothing keeping me from enjoying this with everything I’ve got. 
  • A little bit gutsy and stubborn, we slept on the beach for two nights in Makarska. It was fortuitous: we found two floaties on the shore just waiting for us to use them as mattresses. Headlamps, sleeping bag, and wet wipes—what more could you need? We were completely prepared. The first night was interrupted by, in retrospect, a hilariously friendly hedgehog, and the second night by an enormous thunderstorm. The first morning we woke up and simply went swimming, immediately. The second we woke and chatted amicably with the man who let us take shelter under the roof of his open air cafe. A beautiful, crazy, practically obligatory experience in the roving timeline of a backpacker. I mean, let’s face it—I see some pretty amazing things in many of my days, but falling asleep under a navy starry sky to the sound of softly crushing waves in Croatia is pretty special. 

“Traveling is brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

 

***

I suppose out of all the differences wrought in me from June 4th until now, the biggest thus far is the one where I am no longer demanding what the heck but instead inquiring, calmly and peaceably, ok, what’s next, then? Ironically, I feel as though I am standing on solid ground. The path my feet take is still black and shrouded in mystery, but I step with more sureness than I ever have yet.  

To me, at this moment, travel is a means to live with intention. Before I left, I found the idea of being able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, a bit appalling. And after I left, at the beginning, I was rent asunder by the fact that traveling—having no real plans, schedule, structure, industry, familiarity, community, and therefore distractions—makes every question and doubt you’ve ever had about your life and your place in the world that much more large and unavoidable. You are forced to face yourself head on; you can do whatever you choose, and you must. At the end of each day, none of it has or will matter, except to and for you. 

I have always tried to live intentionally, to maintain a habit of looking honestly at myself and striving for constant betterment. To live with intention means living each moment on purpose, each day decidedly, each second with forethought. It means not going through any motions, not slipping into unconscious habit. It requires discipline. It means changing, adapting, growing. It is awareness first, then choice, and finally, action. 

In travel, I have found this way of living to be both easier, and necessary. Honestly, it didn’t take me very long to get used to having absolutely no obligation to anything except myself. Each day is a blindingly white slate. And the key, I think, is in knowing that it doesn’t matter so much what I do, but how I do it. Life will always, after all, barrel on, but how I choose to act and react is entirely up to me. I realize these are not new ideas, but travel’s way of emphasizing this point is why I have come to like it so much. To me, traveling is like a beautiful marriage between freedom and opportunity. These things allow me to prod myself into exactly who and how I want to be. And, I think I might have some pretty good ideas about that whole business of existing. 

I finish writing this and send my greetings from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today was perhaps my favorite yet, but I’ll tell you about it another day. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one last nugget: 

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure—self-determined, self-motivated, often risky—forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of mankind—and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins

bulgaria

Posted on July 30, 2014

Bulgaria has made me a spoiled fool. Three long weeks has replaced stamina with surrender, obscurity with family. Any firmness of mind or body that I’ve built up over the last month and half of traveling solo has been rounded out by profuse amounts of Bulgarian generosity and food.

 

Food:
If, instead of Israel, the promised land had been located in Bulgaria, Moses would have not have described it as flowing with milk and honey, but with yogurt and feta. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter what kind of edible surface you present to a Bulgarian; slap some feta on it and give them a glass of liquid yogurt to polish it off, and they will be happy as a peach. But speaking of honey, I’ve never been the biggest fan. Inasmuch as I have a rather dictatorial sweet tooth, I can appreciate it, but the flavor is somewhat off-putting. The local honey found in glass jars at stands on the side of the road in Bulgaria, however, is gold by the spoonful. I also think it would be a safe bet to say that I ate a salad comprised mainly of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and oil (shopska salata) at two out of three meals, every single day. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to order this salad at a restaurant and receive it with the slices of tomatoes still warm from the sun, since most homes and businesses alike use their given property for flourishing gardens. It’s very fortunate that I’m not a vegetarian, else I forfeit a huge element of cultural cuisine (and I daresay, turn pink from tomato consumption). I was lucky enough to eat a couple excellent home cooked meals with rabbit and lamb, and on several occasions what I would liken to our version of hamburgers and hot dogs, except pre-cooked, highly seasoned and not necessarily warm. Funnily enough, Bulgarians aren’t too big on beef, because they claim it is too dry. Bread accompanies every single meal, but, bewilderingly, it’s generally just a sleeve of very plain sliced sandwich bread. You will often see a Bulgarian with an ear of corn in hand, or sunflower seeds between the teeth. They are exceedingly proud of their watermelons, and rightfully so. My favorite meals were navy bean soup made from scratch by Snejana’s hunched, hobbly, and firecrackery grandmother (from the navy beans just picked out of their huge garden in their tiny village), and the Bulgarian version of stuffed peppers. The simultaneously doughy and flaky breakfast pastry log filled with feta ain’t bad either.

 

Language:
My mom once told me a story that went something along these lines: as a tiny thing, I was very excited for the first day of first grade. I had been looking forward to it with the undiluted fervor of a seven year old, and got on the bus that September day with cheeks brimming over with smiles. So you can imagine my mother’s dismay when I came home to her later, wracked with tears. “What happened?” she cried. And I stammered out between sobs, “I thought they were going to teach me how to read!” Right then and there, she sat me down for my first lesson, and the rest is written history.

Snejana taught me the Slavic alphabet during my first few days, which allowed for three weeks of entertainment and satisfaction on my part. As someone who feels the most at home with her nose in a book, it’s a really interesting sensation to look at text and have to study it, to have to sound out each letter again, one at a time. No longer is looking at a word insta-comprehension. I spent my days having staring contests with menus and billboards, willing them to give up their secret sounds. I’m happy to say that I almost always won.

Maybe around half of their alphabet uses the same symbols as we do, but they stand for different sounds. These, as my lovely linguist host happily informed me, are called “false friends.” The trickiest part is not memorizing crazy new symbols that look like hieroglyphs, but remembering that the x is an h sound, that a B is a v sound, that c is an s, and so on. It’s an amazing thing to see a word that, at first glance, looks devastating in its unfamiliarity, but after a few seconds of studying reveals itself into “bistro” or “garage” or “vodka” (бистро, гараж, водка, respectively). I love the bluntness of Bulgarian spelling; there are no special exceptions or magical transformations. What you see is what you get, so if you can sound it out, you can say it. My delight at putting together the sounds “oo-ee-skee” (found in the world уиски) and realizing I was reading “whiskey” was boundless. Of course, more often than not, the words I managed to decipher weren’t anything resembling an English word, but this had no effect on the pleasure of my pastime. As it turns out, learning to read at twenty-five is just as awesome as it was at seven.

 

Favorite moments:

  1. It’s interesting to me that I didn’t realize until this trip quite how much I love being in the mountains, any mountains, be them Irish, Czech, or Bulgarian. So it’s not terribly surprising that my first favorite thing happened in the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria, when we visited one of the famous monasteries, ancient and solid, sleeping quietly between the shoulders of the hills. Almost the minute that we pulled up and put the car in park, the rain started. Scampering over the gorgeous stone ground and under the vivid berry trees, we found cover in one of the outdoor corridors that rings the church in the center. I stood under an archway and watched in awe as mist tumbled across the peaks, as huge bolts of lightning snapped and the thunder sounded like ripping sky. The rain transformed everything into its darker, wilder and more bewitching self: the surrounding forests, the striped towers of the church, the very stones of the earth. We waited for two hours for the rain to let up—slightly—and ducked into the church where we were greeted by smiling, bearded monks. We marveled at the artistry, pointed and spoke in whispers, craned our necks to see the painted ceilings. The walls are almost black, not because of some ancient fire, as we found out, but because of the millions of candles that have been burning smoke like patient prayers for years and years. I desperately wanted to walk around every corner of that beautiful stone place in the dark green hills, but it had already been three hours, the rain wasn’t stopping, and the courtyard was flooding. It was one of those rare experiences where everything is just as incredible as it sounds, where life in reality actually matches the dreams you’ve dreamt.
  2. Snejana’s father-in-law grew up tucked away in the some of these hills, along a river called Arda. He knows a place on this river that you can go, if you know about it, to sit along the quiet banks and take dips and relax in a very old-timey, simple, this-is-out-of-a-book kind of way. If you’re so inclined, you can bring picnic food, or beer, or a grill for barbecuing. Pitch a tent and stay the night, if you want. The water moves languidly slow, and it will be that perfect temperature that will never make you cold enough to want to get out, but is nonetheless perfectly refreshing. It’s clear enough to see straight to the bottom, flowing from a pristine mineral spring in the mountain, untouched by human hands the whole way down. The sand you sit on will be soft and warm from the sun, and the rocks you find here and there will be every color imaginable: blood red, caramel brown, robin’s egg blue, tiger stripes. You will probably spend the day floating on your back down the river and then doing breaststrokes back up. You will swim longer than you normally do, because it feels so good. When you do get out, you will lay on your stomach and let the sun dry you, listening to the sand crunch under your towel like you did when you were a kid. This makes you miss your family, but you think about how beautiful this is, how unexpectedly perfect, how lucky you are.
  3. Two days before I was scheduled to take a bus from Haskovo to Croatia, Snejana’s sister-in-law and her boyfriend invited me to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, since it was in the direction I would be heading anyway, and they were driving back that night. I could simply take the bus from Sofia in two days, stay with them in the meantime, and explore the capital. Sure, why not? Mariana and Kiro, like the rest of my adopted Bulgarian family, are lovely souls. My third favorite Bulgarian moment was spending the first evening in Sofia with them, walking around the beautifully lit up city as they pointed out everything they could think of to tell me about the buildings and the history, in either good or charmingly broken English. We got a 2-liter of beer (yes, they have those) from a walk-up window and sat in the park and drank it, because, Kiro said, I couldn’t drink in parks in the States. We were just another young group of friends among the many that sat around in the nightly gathering place, talking and laughing. We chewed and spit sunflower seeds, we discovered the hilarity of the word “cucumber,” we talked about all the things we would do if (when, says Kiro) I come back to Bulgaria. I suppose I don’t need to elaborate much why something so simple felt so damn good.

Everything else:
I am immeasurably lucky to have experienced the past three weeks as I did. I think I got a more varied, well-rounded Bulgarian cultural experience than most Bulgarians do in six months. Authenticity couldn’t have been more prevalent if it sat in my lap. Who else could have spent a leisurely ten days laying on the Black Sea, eating fish and ice cream, taking walks around town? What tourist gets to stay in a small city out of the way of every tourist destination, where hardly a soul speaks English, in a comfortable and cozy home chock full of family? Or who travels to one of the tiny, almost identical villages where the kids used to grow up before they all moved to the cities, where grandmothers still raise chickens and grow their own food and wear thirteen colors at once? And who, might I ask, can do all this and still have time to explore the capital of the country, completing a tour-de-force from sea to mountain to river, to suburb to village to city?

I got much more than I bargained for when I timidly asked Snejana in the height of my loneliness if I could come visit her while she stayed in her home country for the summer. I was folded into a family life unlike any I’ve seen on this Earth yet, and learned a bit about what it really means to take care of your family, no questions asked (and no blood needed, apparently). I became familiar with the black and white stripes that paint every pole and every sidewalk across the country. I learned about Bulgarian history, real estate, prices of cars, gypsies, social habits. You still might not believe me, but I swear I got a tan. I learned that Bulgaria is comprised almost exclusively of brick and concrete. I continued my European trend of being stuffed full to exploding. I relaxed, I slept well, I finished four books. I swam a ton, I went dancing. I nodded and smiled while the throaty sounds of Bulgarian floated around my head. I watched the village storks make their enormous nests on the highest point in town, and swoop after tractors in search of mice. I conquered another step in the mastery of photography. I sat under the shady ceilings of grape vines that climb every single establishment, public and private. I hardly spent a dime. I have completely and immeasurably indebted myself to a family that is generous as a rule, and would hardly comprehend repayment.

Off to Croatia to travel with my good college friend Sean for a while, who has been volunteer farming in Norway for the last two months. Feel free to check out his adventures over at beardlessfarmer.com, if you’re so inclined. And, I’ll be taking a brief jaunt to Venice to hang out with my mom, go figure. Where once I was alone, I am now inundated with companionship, and I couldn’t be happier.

I think we could call it all a success, yeah?

daily

Posted on July 15, 2014

The farther east I go, the happier I get. The cities get more dilapidated, and the languages get more alien, both of which things I find fascinating and charming.

Budapest is a real trip. My jaunt was only two short days, during which time I found things both to like and dislike. More time, I’m sure, would balance out the scales in one direction or another. At the very least, I can really get behind those baths. But who couldn’t?

I actually stayed in a hostel for once, which was an excellent choice, as it was in an ancient Hungarian apartment building, complete with rusting wrought iron railings and cracked marble stairs. It was tucked off a humid, tree-laden street that I liked the best out of all the streets. Despite my cold, I took a walking tour bundled up in the rain and thunder, got an excellent history lesson of Hungary, and made a friend to hang out with the rest of the day.

Of course I loved the central market, chock full of produce, sausages, souvenirs (which also get better towards the east), and authentic food. I ate the biggest lunch of goulash stew and Hungarian gnocchi and bread and wine and a cheese pastry, and ogled all the traditional fabrics.

My new friend and I ran over to one of the Turkish baths on the Buda side of the Danube before they closed, which was amazingly worth it. It was tiny and cavelike, dark and stoney. In each of the four corners of the main room were four different pools, each a different temperature, ranging from cool to scalding. The middle pool, the biggest and surrounded by thick columns, was perfectly warm and glistened under a ceiling of dark red and navy and amber stones, backlit by the sunset. I liked to lean back, slowly fill my lungs full of steamy air, floating and bobbing and staring at the jeweled stars.

It was also women’s day, and I have to admit that I admire Europeans’ seemingly complete lack of modesty. My favorite was the gorgeously plump Hungarian woman doing splits next to me in the water on the pool stairs, without one stitch.

Budapest also boasts of ruin pubs, which is one of the few ways, apparently, that you can get me to go out at night with enthusiasm. The country is pretty poor, even enough to prefer leaving crumbling buildings standing in favor of spending money to tear them down. So, a few years back, someone brilliant rented out an abandoned basement, added a few touches but mostly left the decay to speak for itself, and sold some alcohol. Meant to last for the summer, voila, ten years later there are ruin pubs all over the city, each with its own complete and varied personality.

I had a bananas train trip to get to Bulgaria. It took a total of 31 hours, which I wouldn’t have minded so much if there was toilet paper in any of the bathrooms. But as it turns out, yours truly is tremendously researched and took the advice of fellow travelers to always carry tissues, in general, but especially into bathrooms. Forgive me if my facts are a little hazy, but at various points in the middle of the night, I’m pretty sure I passed through 4 countries (Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria), which makes for 6 passport checks, one each for entering and exiting. This does not include copious ticket checks. I should also mention that upon arriving, Snejana had a hardy laugh at my delusion that there would be wifi on the train. I have been spoiled with all these touring buses; Eastern European trains are decrepit metal things, and the stations they stop at are literally piles of broken cement in the middle of dusty, blank, overgrown fields. I was supposed to transfer twice, but at each stop I made, I was told something different in something barely resembling English, and I ended up changing 5 trains and 3 different arrival times. However, I made excellent headway on my book and made friends with a Canadian and two Swedes (who had ice all over their faces but warmth in the surprising favors they paid me). My optimism was barely spoiled, save for anxiety over being late for my hosts.

And anyway, the duration was more than made up for by the infinite fields of bright faced sunflowers, spanning the rolling earth and being tucked in by a sleepy horizon.

It seems what they say about Americans and Europeans is true. Americans are much quicker to offer smiles and jokes and warm words, but once a European has decided to like you, you become, in the truest sense, bonded for good. And so shines through a truth of my own: I dearly wish we could just combine the best of the two. I wish that I could receive easy and reassuring countenances when participating in transactions in the public sphere, and that I could also find depth and intimacy and sincerity in the various relationships forged throughout life. This is a subject that I’ve thought about and discussed at length, and it’s even so much more complicated than it seems. It fascinates and saddens me to no end.

My friends in Bulgaria have not strayed from their culture; I have been treated like a daughter and sister with an obviousness that embarrasses me. In general, I have a difficult time being taken care of. I get flustered and internally troubled when my own blood does the normal things that families do to tend to one another, until I can calm my soul with some Tiffany-approved compromise of gratitude and contribution. Being here among a family with whom I can only speak half the members thanks to the language divide, and yet still being given unquestioning acceptance and consideration as though they have known me since birth rather than yesterday—this is a marvelous feat that confuses, blesses, and discomfits me. Offering money, cooking, or cleaning is not only refused, but occasionally offensive, and I am grieved that I can’t even communicate anything more than a measly thank you in the right language.

Save for one, these past days have consisted of waking up around eight or nine, eating a breakfast of bread and cheese and Bulgarian meats, throwing on suits and walking down the hill to the beach, where we stay til the afternoon. I am by far, without a doubt, the palest creature for miles and miles, though if you’ll believe me, there are now parts of me that more closely resemble butter or honey. Lounging and whatever and nothingness ensues for the afternoon, until I am introduced to something delightfully Bulgarian for dinner. I’ve eaten more cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta than I have ever eaten. Yogurt abounds: various strains of sheep, ox, and goat yogurt; cold yogurt soup with cucumbers; yogurt stirred with water and salt and drunk. Everything, everything is salty. At night we take walks around Sunny Beach or St. Vlas, eat treats and marvel at the parties and pleasantries. You can buy tiny fried fish (with skins and heads and tails, all) for a snack, or you can simply choose to put your feet in a fish tank for a titillating cleaning.

Yesterday we drove to Snejana’s tiny village where her mother’s house still stands. We picked fresh figs off the tree in the garden, and sat in the shade eating peaches while the juice dripped down our chins. She showed me an original part of the wall that was made solely from interlocking sticks and mud. The family relations and local men that are fixing up the house smoked cigarettes and told stories in a magical dappled sunlight.

Afterwards we walked over to a botanical garden in the same village, an unexpected trove of vibrancy in the midst of the neighborhood’s quiet abandon. An enchantingly short woman with round glasses and white hair and rubber shoes walked us through the flourishing entanglement, gabbing quickly in Bulgarian. Her family boasts over a thousand different types of cacti in their greenhouse, and she pointed out myrrh, lime trees, kiwis, eucalyptus. I am wholeheartedly seduced by the light, the heavy air, the green and the glass, the discipline and the dirt. I could have kissed the smiling wrinkled faces of the women under whose hands such life propers, as they sat among hanging gourds and outdoor sinks.

I apologize in advance; there have been several occasions already that I have forgotten my camera. It seems as though when I do bring it, I don’t use it, you know? Maybe when the iPhone 6 comes out (soon?) I’ll splurge and upgrade from the 3 to the 4 so that these pictures that I can snap from my pocket, at least, will be worth something.

My brain flits over plans and potentials most waking hours. My heart is receptive, and I’m trying to comb patience into the threads of my being until it stays there.