On the Seriousness of Christmas


She believed in Santa.  A man who jingled in the skies.  She did not necessarily believe in the chimneys and Rudolph, but she believed in the magic.  She heard the bells and said to her parents, “Don’t you hear them?  I can hear them.  I hear the bells.”

She was never quite sure who Santa was, but the world was small to this seven-year-old and she was certain she could figure it out.

Once, she thought he might be Frank Sinatra.  She just pretended Santa was a fat man with a beard to make her parents happy.  She wanted him to be dapper even if she didn’t yet have the word for it.  He sang about chestnuts roasting on an open fire and he seemed to want to travel back to another time, a magical time.  She would stand on the front porch, smell the cold and look up toward the stars, and yearn.  This meant something to her even if she didn’t yet know the word nostalgia either.

Her parents would slow dance in the living room, the seven fishes cooking in the kitchen.  Family would come.  There would be presents and laughter.  She would wear her favorite burgundy dress with a pink ruffle hidden inside the sleeve like a secret.  She thought it elegant, and no, she didn’t know that word either.  Her uncle had brought it home from Germany.  She didn’t understand what he was doing there, but he sent her books and beautiful clothes.  He didn’t have children yet and she felt special.  Like maybe, just maybe, he was her Santa.

And now each Christmas, she sets up the tree and hangs up the lights.  She pauses with each ornament before hanging them on the tree.  A red sparkly glob of painted string; a plastic elf that looks as if he ate children for dessert; a chipped nutcracker; a crumpled felt drummer boy; and even a shiny plastic Muppet character whose name she can’t recall.  She would never get rid of them even if she could no longer remember where they came from.  Only that they came from before.  They all came from before.

She cooks the seven fishes; she had long ago given up believing.  She listens to Frank Sinatra and tears up.  I’ll be home for Christmas, he sings.  If only in my dreams.  

There is no Santa.  Still she steps outside and looks up at the stars.

Her seven-year-old self whispers, “You aren’t alone.”  And for that moment, she is comforted.

On the Seriousness of Tourists #16


Whenever I tell people that I went to the Yucatan in the summer of 1983, that I slept on a beach in a hammock, that I ate live conch cut out of the shell, that I hiked into the jungle led by a machete-wielding man named Alamon, that I crawled deep into cenotes not fully excavated, they tell me, “that’s how you got into travel.”

I say yes and let the moment pass. It’s the cool story.

But it’s not the real story.

I was 15.  My parents said I could go on the trip if I saved 150 dollars.  I still have the passbook.  I permed my hair so it would look good wet.  No one told me it wouldn’t look good dry.  I was battling an eating disorder, but that really wasn’t a word everyone knew back then.  I managed my life on 700 calories a day and threw up the rest.  I still put baby oil on my skin and got almost as dark as my hair.

For three weeks, five teenagers led by two high school biology teachers and a professor from Texas would travel the Yucatan in a white Volkswagen van.  O the privilege!
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There was a popular boy—the son of my father’s best friend—whose older brother I had crushed on since I was ten.  There was a boy with hearing problems with wavy  brown hair and tawny skin, who was definitely going to be handsome, but like any teen in the 80s who was different, well, he was different.  There was a girl who flirted between popularity and toughness.  She was Italian with permed hair too, but she carried herself like a jock, and somehow made the bad hair and the over-tan look good.  Plus, she talked to boys like they were human.  Let’s face it, she scared me.  The last girl, a quiet girl, a girl I had never heard of (after all, we were in a school of about 2000), was, well, she was going to be my friend.

To see the weeks slipping away, was to watch me become invisible.  My breasts were big and I was all bones.  I was so uncomfortable in a bathing suit, in my skin, I used any excuse not to disrobe.  I snorkeled, mostly, with a tee-shirt.  While the boys ignored me, I felt the eyes of men on me.  I curved inward.  The two boys and the popular girl became fast friends—they quoted movies to one another like witty banter.  I didn’t get it.  But still, I tried to think of a quote from a cool movie, a pretentious movie, any movie, Bambi, and I just couldn’t.  (I still can’t.)  The other girl and I ignored them and looked for snakes and scorpions and iguanas.

We all drank strawberry soda straight out of the bottle.

The other girl, the quiet girl, was long-legged and without curves.  Her hair was long and unpermed.  In the heat, it grew big and wild.   She chewed straws when she was bored.  She tied her baseball shirt up around her waist in a way I had not seen before.  She found a baseball cap and plopped it on her head.  Sometimes she wore it backwards.  (Remember, this was 1983 and just not done.)  She looked for iguanas and she quoted movies.  She was my first hipster.
And soon, she quoted movies more than she looked for wildlife.

I was alone.

My journal entries from that trip are full of loneliness, but there are glimpses of insight.  I celebrated the day I talked to the popular boy about a book he was reading.  “He laughed at my joke and it wasn’t that funny.  But I bet this changes nothing at school or when our families get together,” I wrote.  I was right.

I began taking my photographs more seriously.  At first, I had used the camera to hide, but soon I just began observing.  One of those photographs I framed and gave to my mother.  She hung it in the kitchen.  Now it’s in my studio.

The night we slept on the beach, I had my period.  This was not Venice Beach; there were no bathrooms.  So I buried my tampons outside, saying a little prayer to a god I didn’t believe in that a pelican wouldn’t dig them up and choke to death.

My heels blistered from a hike and I fashioned mole skin from palm leaves.  I never once complained like the other girls did.

Not seeing the value in the tee-shirts and the tchotchkes, I came home with my journal and my pictures; they were my memories, they were my gifts.  I had more than fifty dollars left when I arrived back in the States.

Maybe that trip is the origin of my love and need for travel.  But what I learned on that trip was how to be alone and be okay with it.  It would take much longer to learn to love it.

The trip was the beginning of me.

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.


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 #10



I tell John—not his Karen tribe name, of course—that I live in Los Angeles, California.  He asks for me to point to it on the worn and dirty map hung on the wall of the wooden house he built himself.  He was proud of his home on stilts, trunks he had cut down as a boy, a symbol of burgeoning manhood.  No electricity, no plumbing but a panoramic view over the endless jungled mountains of northern Thailand.

I point to Los Angeles on the map.  I yell Hollywood.  He looks at me blankly.  I am embarrassed, but he doesn’t see that. I don’t know why I yell when I am pantomiming in different languages, a prejudiced vestige in my reptilian brain.

“Alec, Alec,” he says, “pin it.”  And I do.

I become another pin on John’s map of visitors who help with his 100-year-old rice farm.  There are pins in Italy, in France, in Germany, in China, in Australia.  I am the one pin in the United States.  I represent all of us.  I hope I do okay.

“Alec, Alec,”   He shows me how to use a manual plough.  The tangled roots, lifetimes old, have a particular direction in mind.  One different from John’s path.  I push, my shoulders pressing into the hot metal bar, my feet slipping in the mud.  Those roots are stronger than me.  Getaway plough.  I nearly ruin a terraced paddy.

I end up standing knee deep in a paddy pulling the mud into the swampy water.  This is only the first step in the year long process of rice farming.  “Alec, good.”  He gives me a thumb’s up.  He catches an eel in the water.  He kills it by whacking it on a rock.  “Lunch,” he says.  He’s taken to teasing me, so I am never sure.

Cooked over an open fire, we eat it for lunch over rice.  Rice his family and village handpicked, rice his family and village hand threshed, rice his family and village stored and sold for their survival.

On Venice Beach, I can get my name written on a grain of rice.  I never do, it’s ten dollars.