On the Seriousness of Tourists #15

When I was sixteen, we went to visit the Italian family who had sent their daughter to live with us for a summer; she had been our exchange student.  She wore her jeans faded and tight.  She once sat in my Dad’s lap as a joke, or at least that’s how we choose to remember it.  She had wavy dark blond hair and wore the high-heeled sandals I begged my mother for.   When staying with us, her chatter was ripe with stories about Milan and fashion.  She was 18.  I was 14.  My parents dragged us to the sights we’d seen dozens of times.  We lived here, we didn’t want to be tourists.   Yeah, yeah, that’s the Empire State Building.  Yeah, yeah, that’s Washington Square.  Yeah, yeah, this is what New York pizza tastes like.  Here, try a bagel.  She was a nuisance, not an educational experience.

Then my parents made my sister and I take her to our community pool.  She wore a purple string bikini.  She didn’t bother with a tee-shirt.

Italians girls in the 80s didn’t shave.

Her purple string bikini bottom was outlined by blond-ish black pubic hair.  She didn’t notice anyone staring.  She seemed all too happy to be there showing off that bikini when my friends and I weren’t yet allowed to wear them.   (Although in retrospect, do I really know what an 18-year-old Italian teenager from Milan is  thinking when visiting a suburban community pool in New Jersey? No I don’t, but at 14, I hadn’t learned empathy.)  She threw down a towel just like any other teenager and slathered on baby oil.  She looked at my sister and I who were busy trying not to notice her full breasts, narrow waist, and round hips.  “Ciao,” she said and pulled out a book with a couple kissing on the cover.  She got lost in the sun.   My sister and I (and our friends) stared at her pubic hair and the ease with which she laid there.

I pulled my shirt down to my knees.

Two years later, my family visited her family at their summer home in Lake Como.  It was a old storied home carved into a hill.  Her mother served us chicken in aspic.  I remember candles, dark wood, and lace.  It was an event, I remember.  It was gourmet, my parents told me.  It tasted like chicken-flavored jello.

That is my only memory from the visit.

In the faded album I’ve carried with me from home to home, there is one page allotted to the Lake Como visit. Not one person.  A sixteen-year-old’s vision of travel.   And the only notation in the album?  “A good time!  I guess!”

Today, I concentrate and try to conjure the smell, the sights, and whatever transpired to make it “A good time! I guess!”  I cannot even remember where we slept or what we did.   Even at 48, all I see is the teenage girl so confident in her purple string bikini.

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On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #11

Near the river, Budapest.

What’s not in the picture is what I couldn’t bear to see.  I didn’t crop it later, I didn’t edit out his image.  I just moved my camera to the right and snapped.

We Americans like our gadgets in vibrant colors.  My toaster is a shiny teal.  My friend’s stove is fire-engine red.  We like our bumpers painted even if we grumble when they get scratched.  We like our celebrities suffused in soft light.  That way, they never age.  We like our bathrooms large and shiny.  We joke, but we call our toilets thrones.

Frankly, we usually like our strangers to be shiny, pretty, and in vibrant color too.

Walking through Népliget, I am not alone.  The first cool day in Budapest in more than a week, the city was promenading, licking ice cream cones, playing table tennis, posing for selfies.   Old, young, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, we all wanted that breeze on our face.

What I couldn’t unsee, what I couldn’t take a picture of because it would be too rude, too invasive, too salacious, too too was an adult-sized pram and in it, an adult-sized man. Homemade from a metal container, the pram’s bed was a human-sized sardine can.  Unpainted, it was what is was: worn and dull metal.   The wheels were the wheels of a ten speed.  The handles were maybe from an old shopping cart.  It was brilliant and ugly and real.

I looked and didn’t look.  I refused to gawk, although how could I know?  Maybe I was.  I reddened.  I smiled.  The women smiled back.  The man laid there unaware, his body not well covered.  His knees were knobby and his legs curved inward like a runway model’s thighs.  He had longish brown hair parted on the side.  Someone had taken the time to make sure his part was straight and the bangs brushed from his brow.  His nose was aquiline and pronounced because he was so emaciated.   His almond eyes were brown and not lit from within.  I wondered if he were day dreaming and enjoying the sun on his face.  I hoped this was true.

Let’s face it, we might venture a private utterance of grotesque—incongruous to a shocking degree.  I thought it.  I looked and didn’t look at this man stowed, albeit in loving comfort, into a tin can.  But look harder.  This scene wasn’t shiny and packaged for tourist consumption.  What I saw were women bonded together as kin telling stories and making one another laugh.  Women who cared for a fellow human.   Women who pushed his carriage from where ever they lived to enjoy a summer day in this tree-lined park.  In another life, this man might have been a prince.

These women in polyester dresses and comfortable sandals played cards next to the man in the pram.  We all felt the breeze.  They were truth in beauty.

On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #9

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She looks happy, doesn’t she?  She goes between pretending to be Elizabeth Bennet and Aero, her avatar in Skyrim.  Next time we bicker about which footpath to take, I expect she’ll say, “Fuck you, Mr. Darcy,” and hit me with her imaginary sword that’s 27 fire power.  She’s got some bad temper.

She can’t be bothered with the topographical maps or even the compass.  She was sorely disappointed that I bought one made of plastic.  She wanted one straight out of Pullman’s The Golden Compass—all brass and steampunk.  She tells me she wants to feel her way west like true explorers do—she sees herself as Aero jumping over cliffs and forging rivers, meeting strangers and completing quests to save a village, stumbling into caves and finding magic treasure.  I think she’s delusional in her view of the world.

She loves staying above the pubs between those daily 15 miles, but she complains they don’t serve red wine.  I listen to her vacillate between the lamb stew and the salad.  And when she chooses the lamb stew, she complains about how she’s aging into a very wide woman.

I know behind that temper and fantastical thinking there is a woman who worries no one truly loves her.  I see her darkness and her hurt in all the spaces in between.

She’s laughing now on that stile, telling me to hurry up and that she gets final say on the photo.

I’m going to ask her to marry me at the end of the Dales Way.

I hope she says yes.

On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #8

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Do you think he’ll notice if I snap this picture?  It’s an atmospheric shot of this cafe, you know.  It’s not that he is one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen.  Although, you know, he is.

If I had an Eat, Pray, Love life, he would smile and say hello.  He would ask how long I’ve been in Cuba.  He would laugh at my Spanish and say it endeared me to him.  He would brush the bangs away from my face and stare at me in that way, you know, that way. He would repeat my name when I introduced myself and it would sound beautiful on his lips.  He would smell like bourbon vanilla.

We would have too much to say to one another over just one espresso.  We would spend the whole week together and he’d show me the real Havana.  We would walk down the narrow streets and lean into one another.  He’d kiss me and I would finally understand what living in the present means.

And you know, then he’d ask me to move here and I’d write a book about our love and I would make a million dollars.  Elizabeth Gilbert would call to congratulate me and we’d be best friends.

Okay, I snapped the picture and I see that he’s glaring at me.  That’s not good.

I am going to back away now.  I am going to slowly back away before anyone yells like last time.  I am not going to trip and fall and rip my skirt.  Because then, you know,  I’d have to walk all the way to the hotel with my underwear showing.  What’s the chance of that happening twice?

Bookstore Therapy

A punch of depression.  That was what I felt last night in the twilight hours of the day.  I was early meeting a friend and so I wandered into a bookstore.  I touched books and connected with authors I had forgotten. (Amazon’s recommendations aren’t as tactile as a pile of books.)  I read a Nikki Giovanni poem and missed my mother.  I saw Cathleen Schine had a new book out and bought it. I have followed her writing career novel by novel. Awash in the smell of paper, I sat in an aisle and read two chapters of a fantasy book.  I let my fingers run over the impulse buys on the counter—all the knickknacks my mother would have bought to stuff my stocking.  I smiled.

Bookstore therapy. It works.

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On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #7

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Yesterday at the Louvre I saw twenty tourists taking pictures of a picture of the Mona Lisa.  It was so cute how they all obeyed the no photographing the Mona Lisa warning.  But why snap a photo of the tiny photo on the placard?  Why do people do that?  Silly tourists.  Go buy a postcard.

Today, I went into the cutest little market that sold fowl, just fowl!  Can you believe that?  Everything looked so fresh.  It almost made me want to cancel my Blue Apron subscription and cook for myself.  Why don’t we have fowl markets in the States?  I suppose we need the super-supermarkets so we can just work, work, work.  The French are just so much more civilized, yes?

Anyway, do those people who take the picture of the picture of the painting put it in a slide show?  Do they show their children?  Do they look back on the picture of the picture with nostalgia?

Well, I am sure everyone will love this picture of chicken.  It’s just so artistic, and I mean, it’s educating you, yes?

On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #6

Look at me! IMG_0909.jpg No makeup. No fishface kiss at the camera.  You won’t see this picture on instagram.

Do you see my pants?  I think they’re made of burlap!  If Mom saw me, she’d tell me I looked like Gravel Gertie.  Yeah, I don’t know who that is either.

I ripped my only pair of pants jumping off a milk truck.  A milk truck!  Actually, that’s a whole other story.  I bought these pants at a market—like a Target, but outside.  Pots and pans, and pants and shirts, and sandwiches—little buns with slices of pig’s head.  No, really, they were yummy.

My teeth have a cruddy film on them because I just can’t brush them well in the jungle. And do I care?  No.  I’m in the jungle!  I’m sleeping in a hut on stilts—with no electricity, no plumbing, and an outhouse.  I feel like Robinson Crusoe!

I do have four mosquito bites on my ass.  They itch so bad.  I need to remember to DEET my butt so when I pee in the outhouse at night, I don’t get malaria. Now that would suck.

You know what’s most amazing?  I haven’t looked in the mirror in days, days.  Days!  And it’s interesting, I haven’t, not once, compared myself to another person, noticed my short legs or my squinty eyes or my big calves or even felt fat.  Actually, to tell you the truth, I haven’t once felt bad about myself.  Actually, really, I haven’t thought much about myself at all.

Why do you think that is?