Saturday, July 25, 2015

Belgium Part 3: Mannequin Peas and Broozhe

It doesn't happen often but the last night I was in Brussels, as I got to bed, my watch read 7 a.m.When my eyes slogged open three hours later, in time to get checked out of the apartment, I realized why I don't let that happen often; it is a terrible idea. Also, I'm too old for that. I packed my stuff up as quietly and gently as possible, all the while envisioning large gallons of water and coffee and a fresh, hot street waffle as a reward. If anything could make lugging my bag through the cobblestone streets of Brussels to the train station bearable, it was going to be that waffle.

We didn't have a chance to see the darling of Brussels, the Mannekin Pis the day before so we wanted to take a look before leaving the city. We stopped to get both a waffle and a coffee on the way and I can't say I've ever enjoyed something so deeply, with such aplomb than that moment on the street with a 30 pound backpack on my back. And thus was born another favorite moment of mine, apart from the splitting headache, nauseated feeling and the shame and regret that is the quintessential hangover.

Aaaaanyway, here is the photo I took of the Mannekin Pis, a landmark that, much like the Mona Lisa, is way smaller than I envisioned but just as crowded around:

You can't see it there, but he's peeing and he has been peeing since the 17th century. I enjoyed the legends about him, my favorite being that he was a two year old lord who peed on the enemy in a battlefield. My kind of kid.

A bit further down the block we saw this graffiti on the side of a building:

And while I appreciate the play on words, puns make it nearly impossible to Google the thing you want to really advertise. When you search for Manneken Peace the statue just comes up. Oh well. It was time to leave Brussels, a city that wowed me, filled as it is of people that are interesting and fun and the beer and the waffles and ohhhhh I need to go back.

We eventually, if aimlessly, made it to the train station and were on our way to Bruges (which is pronounced Broozhe, something I didn't know until visiting there...instead I was saying Bruise-jes like a dummy) for an overnight stay. It was going to be my first time staying in a hostel so I was little nervous but I'm glad Lauren was with me. She knew the ropes. We got to Bruges in about an hour and walked to the hostel which took about ten glorious minutes of meandering, a bit lost through little enclosures and cobblestone streets. It was a beautiful day and my first impression of Bruges was that it was like walking through a medieval storybook.

We got to the hostel and had booked a private room and I was pleasantly surprised at our accommodations. We stayed at this hostel, which I wholeheartedly recommend for location, comfort and affordability. Staying in hostels, as I would later find out, is the absolute best way to meet other people. There are usually tons of organized activities and free tours and, if  you are lucky enough to be in Belgium, beer tastings. Our plan was to stroll around Bruges, have a leisurely lunch and do the beer tasting.

The layout of the main room of the hostel is set up to look like a large living room, albeit one with a full bar in the center of it. As we sat waiting for our room to be ready so we could drop our bags off, I noticed there was a little library housed inside an old display cabinet. I left a copy of the book I had finished on the plane and was very tempted to take one to replace it. Then I remembered how heavy my bag already was so I decided against it. People were coming and going in the room, many of them fellow Americans but a lot of people were from everywhere in the world, which isn't something that happens to me everyday.

We had a lovely lunch at Aquarel  and people watched, again in awe of how put together and good looking everyone seemed. I mean is it vacation eyes? It can't be, right? After lunch we meandered the city for a few hours, eventually ending up back at the hostel to rest for a spell before...ingesting more beer. 

The beer tasting was being held at the Lybeer's sister hostel, Bauhaus which is located on what seemed like the other end of the earth in the city. If the hostel we chose was on the quiet, reserved side, this one seemed like the Bohemian younger brother. There was a lively bar attached to it that was already very busy by the time got there. We arrived late but not too late for the first taste of Duvel, which turned out to be another one of my favorites. Orval and Duvel...if I had a pair of dachshunds, that's what I'd name 'em. The tasting was being run by a woman, her name escapes me, who was from Chile and had immigrated to Belgium which has now become my immigrate to Belgium. She was knowledgeable and funny and friendly. The other tasting attendees, most of whom were American were by and large obnoxious except for the three young women next to us. They were friendly and smart and two of them were college friends traveling together and one was a Canadian expat living in Ireland and traveling alone. I enjoyed talking to them and hearing about their itineraries and adventures. When we arrived we were told about a pub crawl that was going to take place later on that evening. Lauren and I had decided against it, thinking we could save our 15 euro or however much it cost and tour the city alone. Then we drank a bunch of beer (are beer tastings universally just full glasses/bottles of beer or is that just Belgium?) and were cashing in our one free beer (yes, the beer tasting gave you a bunch of beer and then a token for a pint of beer at the bar, you damn LUSHES) when I spotted a very good looking beardy type of guy headed over to us. He told us he would be running the pub crawl and that we should definitely join. And then, like all good looking and charming salesmen, he convinced us to do it. 

Confession: I have never been on a pub crawl before. At least not one that is organized by a company with a set itinerary. I've crawled to pubs. Is that the same thing? I jest. But this was a brand new experience for me. I think I've stated before that I have a deep admiration for Belgian beer. However, what I learned on this pub crawl is that my admiration is just not as manic as it is for some people. I'm happy to sit and enjoy a few drinks over conversation; by and large the people on the pub crawl were on a mission. Being an introvert who enjoys being around extroverts, I got to do one of my favorite things: sit back and observe. It did make me stick out a bit though since most of the group was socializing and having fun in a visible way. I suppose my proclivity to hang back makes people think I'm not enjoying myself when in actuality that is my favorite thing to do. It also left me wide open to meet and talk with our tour guides who were stone cold sober the entire pub crawl. I got a chance to ogle  talk to the guy who sold us on the pub crawl and who smelled like freshly washed linen sheets and was wearing the most stylish outfit I've seen in a long time. We had a good conversation about Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin and obscure graduate school programs. I talked to a man from Brazil who taught me how to say "pleasure to meet you" in Portuguese which, by the way, is spelled totally different than I spelled it in my head.  In the shadow of a lot of chaotic chatter in an underground cave-like bar called 't Poatersgat, I talked to another guide who, again, was well dressed and put together and told me about immigration issues in Belgium since his day job was as a lawyer and interpreter for the government against people seeking asylum. He was the opposite of me, politically, but we talked about Murakami and all was forgiven. I told him he'd do really well if he came to New York and it turns out he already does. 

The night carried on as it will do and here's a deceptively calm photo I took during this pub crawl. If you are imagining, as you look at this photo that the background is calm and quiet, you are totally wrong. A few minutes after this was taken, a young Scottish man was dangling from the lip of that stone bridge for photos. 

One thing I'll say is that I enjoyed how noncommittal the whole evening felt. I wasn't aware of time or place or anything but the people surrounding me and the crisp June night. As we walked to what would be the last bar one of the guides said to me, "It's almost the end. This is where people get really drunk." And, like a hot, bearded, well dressed canary in a beer soaked coal mine, he was correct. Much of the rest of the evening passed by very loudly and very quickly. I remember dancing with a French man who looked, and I'm talking soberly after the rose colored glasses of a month ago, looked like this: 

...but the only reason he looked like that is because EVERYONE OVER THERE LOOKS LIKE THAT. He wore a cowl necked sweater and was pretty much the definition of refined or "reFOINEd" and so imagine my surprise when the club began to play the theme song to the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and this man mouthed every single word. I was unaware that the Fresh Prince had made it to overseas airwaves. I'm gonna kinda always remember that. 

One of the guides walked me back to the hostel and before I knew it it was morning in Bruges and nearly time for checkout. Ah, vacation. Where time clumps together like sweaty, old spaghetti. No, wait that is just how I felt when I woke up. Lauren and I checked out of the hostel and walked to have breakfast in this amazing little place called Marie's House which had great coffee and a damn fine croque madame. We sat in the front window and while we ate we saw a few fellow pub crawlers, still crawling but out in the daylight with squinted eyes. The day was cold and gray and I needed a jacket since I lost mine in Brussels. I found one and will probably wear it until it disintegrates. Or until I lose it. We walked to the train station to board a train to Ghent where we would spend an afternoon before arriving in Amsterdam. 

Our trip to Bruges was fly by night but memorable and fun. Thinking back on it now, I would have extended my stay in Bruges because I'd like one more day to wander and maybe take a boat ride. I suppose I'll just have to return. Wait for me, French Prince of Bel Air. (Do you see what I did there?)

Stay tuned for the next installment of my trip blogs (I'm not done yet???) wherein I visit a medieval castle in Ghent and arrive, frazzled, in the Red Light district of Amsterdam. Ooooo.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brussels day 2: The Waft of the Waffle

So where was I? Oh right, I was fast asleep in Brussels, belly full of mussels and visions of beer bottles dancing in my head. The morning was chilly and cloudy but I was happy. Through each and every decision and coincidence that had happened in my life up until that moment, I found myself in Belgium. It was, therefore, time to ponder some other surrealisms for awhile. To the Magritte museum!

Here are some photos I took during the walk from the apartment to the museum:

I also took a lot of photos of buildings that could have been ancient wartime strongholds or they could have been the Belgian equivalent of a CVS...I know not. I just know that Brussels is full of beautiful buildings.

My favorite Magritte painting, The Lovers is at the MoMA but what could be better than seeing a lovingly curated set of work by an artist in his home country? I wasn't disappointed. This collection incorporates a lot of biographical information and a decent amount of early work and sketches. It is always fascinating to me to trace the development of an artist through their own work. I got the audio guide, which was exhaustive and which also alerted me to a fact I hadn't known before: Magritte insisted his work didn't contain any underlying meaning. In fact, he bristled at the notion that there was any symbolism at all in his work. I mean, fair enough but walking around the museum, absorbing the vivid and intensely surreal legacy Magritte left behind, I felt depressed thinking that it didn't mean anything. So I've decided to believe that his insistence that it didn't was part of the symbolism of the work. I realize that might not make sense but we are talking about an artist who painted this: it doesn't have to.

Next on the agenda was a beer tour. After leaving the museum, we had about half an hour to get to the meeting point for a four hour beer tour and, guided by the sights and smells of the Grand Place, we decided to get our first street waffle. The Grand Place was busting out all over. Seeing all the tourists and hearing the sounds of a hundred different languages spoken is one of my favorite memories of the trip. Then, when the waft of the waffle beckoned, I answered. We stopped randomly at a corner vendor and ordered two liege to go. Not being fancy with sweet foods, I got mine plain; it was my first time after all, I needed to go slow. Below is an accurate dramatization of me after I took my first bite.

It is now and shall remain one of the top three things I've ever eaten. It was so good, in fact, that I tried many many times during the trip to repeat that first taste. However, repeating that first taste was really just chasing the dragon. Here's me eating one early in the morning after a very late night, also on the streets of Brussels:

It was difficult to move and keep going with life after eating that little bit of other dimensional heaven in a thin paper sleeve, but I managed. We made it to the meeting spot for the beer tour just in time.

I have always been a fan of Belgian beer and taking this tour was the top thing I wanted to do in Belgium. Aside from the beer tastings (and I should emphasize that "beer tastings" really meant "an entire bottle of beer, many of which were 8% alcohol and higher), we would get to take a walking tour of the city and visit old pubs and local hangouts. Our tour guide for the day was a very knowledgeable, very handsome and very friendly man named Archimedes. He was born and raised in and around Brussels and even though this was a prescribed tour with stops specially chosen ahead of time, the tour felt like just hanging out with a local.
Our first stop was the Theatre de Toone, one of the oldest pubs in Brussels which, although I don't have exact years, is probably really, really quite mad old. (That's a very official guess.)

Here's a picture I took and one of the first beers which was and remains my favorite beer of all time: Orval.

Not pictured: Archimedes

Want one now.

Our tour group had about 15 people in it, all from different places in the world. The great/terrible thing about this tour is that there was a lot of beer involved. Great because it was Belgian and we were in Belgium; terrible because, fueled by only one albeit superior waffle, sloppy drunkenness was inevitable. Like most things that happen after day drinking, there was an air of absurdity to everything after a specific, at the time, unnoticed moment. For example, we passed this en route from one bar to another:

Those people are topless and/or naked. I would have thought this a false memory but my camera does not lie. The afternoon carried on as it does while drinking with new friends and I had a wonderful time talking and tasting and learning about beer. Archimedes also threw in a lot of fun historical facts about the places we walked by and the pubs we visited. He also had bee stung lips. Did I mention that?
Anyway, here's a picture of me and Lauren at the last stop:

That plate of cheese and meat was the only thing we had to eat aside from waffle.

The beer in those glasses was the last one of the tour. It was 11% alcohol. What followed after that snap was taken is best recounted in bulleted format, mainly because that is how I "remember" it: in vague statements of memory as opposed to a coherent plot with a beginning, middle and end. Think of this as slightly longer tweets. So here's what happened, as I recall:

  • The tour wrapped up at the bar where we are sitting in the picture above. The tour members lingered here for another beer (or at least ten of us did) and we got to know each other in that drunken way that makes everyone an old friend.
  • Lauren befriended a group of French men on vacation that were not part of our group but they were so friendly and fun and they absorbed us into their plans (after another hour or two of drinking). I remember their first names and they were all super French names like Luc and Jean and Henri? Maybe. One of them was wearing a Pulp Fiction tshirt and we had a long, meandering conversation about Quentin Tarantino during which I kept trying to get him to say "Tarantino" over and over again because the French accent plus that name amused me. 
  • The following phrases were said over 500 times in the course of a few hours: Is good for you? and You unnerstand? You can read those in both an American and French accent if you like. 
  • I was put under enormous pressure, after the French guys found out my profession, to come up with the names of ten French authors. For the first 20 minutes I drew a COMPLETE blank. I literally could only think of the names of Belgian beers and, because I was really hungry at that point, food items. But I came through in the clutch and I mention this only because I think I discovered my super power: naming French authors after 20 minutes after drinking too much. It's my cross to bear.
  • Realizing none of us had eaten, we wandered away from the bar to get some food. It must have been very late at this point because all the restaurants were closing up, though seeing as the sun does not set in Brussels until about 11pm, I have no idea what time it was. After wandering for, oh let's say about two weeks, we found a restaurant willing to serve us but we only had two choices: croque monsieur and spaghetti. Oddly specific yet random menu.
  • This restaurant holds two memories for me. It is the place where a) I last remember having my jacket with me and b) Lauren inspired the entire restaurant to sing a Spanish song. It was a pretty crowded restaurant too so the mood was likely...let's go with raucous. 
  • After finishing up dinner we walked to the location of a big music festival that was happening in Brussels earlier that day. The French guys wanted to see if it was still happening but sadly, it was not. Here's a picture I took of the festival grounds. Not a particularly good one but one that serves as proof that I went there.  
    I think that's one of our new French friends in the distance but who knows?
  • So we then decided to go dancing. I mean, why not? When in Brussels... We ended up getting rejected from one place because, seeing as we are not club goers at all, we were dressed very down in sneakers and jeans. Eventually we ended up at a club that was one of the most stereotypically European places I've ever been to. Especially if it was 1988. It was very late 80s inside that place, the name of which, I have no idea. I just know there was a bright pink and blue neon sign hanging on the wall that reminded me of Demi Moore's apartment in St. Elmo's Fire.  
The club we went to.

  • This club was the first time I realized that you have to pay to use the toilets in many places in Belgium. Something that would vex me for the rest of the trip.
  • We left the club and walked out into sunshine. That's not a measure of how late it was but rather how eternal the daylight is in Brussels. Oh and it was also a measure of how you can really convince yourself that you are younger than you are in reality if you try really hard. 
  • In the cab on the way home our driver drove down a street backwards at a not slow speed and my life flashed before my eyes. That happens to me in New York cabs but at the very least they are driving in a forward direction in NY! After he stopped, a police officer came up to his window with what I was certain was going to be a ticket or some kind of yelling match. Instead he spoke to him in Dutch with what I assume was the verbal equivalent of a jovial pat on the head. 
  • I took this photo on the walk back to the apartment. Apparently Brussels also never sleeps as there were tons of people still milling about at that hour: 

We were due to leave the next (or that same) day and head off to Bruges for a night on our way to Amsterdam. So it was time to sleep for a few hours before leaving beautiful Brussels. I know I promised the peeing boy statue but that will have to wait until part 3: Goodbye Brussels/Hello Bruges, the continuation of a series that I'm positive no one in their right mind is still reading.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Belgium blog 1: Spades and Hangovers

My entire self went away on vacation but only my body came back. And it works in my favor since I got super sick upon my return. In fact, a full two weeks after my return home, I'm still erupting intermittently. Sometimes it is from coughing and sneezing, other times it is from that dull, soundless buzz that begins in one's soul upon landing back home after vacation. I did so many things in the eight days I was in Belgium and in Amsterdam. One of those things was utterly abandoning my plan to keep exhaustive notes for the purpose of recording my experiences in this blog. But I do that every time I go away. (See Paris, Spain, Seattle blogs) I do that, in fact, with every experience I want to put words to...I become hyper absorbed and only get the blurred edges of the experience in any tangible record. I suppose that's a hazard of living in the moment: forgetting that moment as soon as its over. Not forgetting...hazily remembering.

As it turns out, woman cannot live on Belgian beer alone. I learned this in eight days, days during which I traveled with my friend Lauren, often forgetting to eat (something that never happens at home) in favor of taking in all the sights and sounds of one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to thus far in my life. It wasn't for lack of trying...I tried to live on that nectar, painstakingly brewed by men of God, painstakingly enjoyed by men who looked like gods, painstakingly flying me across entire afternoons and nights and plopping me down in the morning with a painstakingly painful pain in my head saying "oh dear god." I traveled this year in the hope of eradicating some of the bad mojo of last year and the pretty awful things that have happened in my life thus far this year. I wanted adventure and new experiences which is all I pretty much ever want out of life and I got it, in spades. Spades and hangovers.

Speaking of, I don't know who is reading this. If you are the kind of person who looks at a hungover traveler with empathy and sympathy, I say thank you and let's get a beer(s) sometime. If you are a person who says things like "you do it to yourself and you deserve it", to you I say...worth it. It was all worth it.

Forthwith, I offer some of the memories, viewed through smudged lenses; I can see them clearly, but I'm going to have to squint.

It started at the airport when I dined alone, storing up fat for my 8 hour flight to Amsterdam and the three hour train ride to Brussels that followed immediately afterward. The plan was to meet Lauren at Centraal Station in Brussels and commence being the fuck out of NYC. I overheard a conversation between two businessmen who were speaking to each other in veiled metaphors and through drowsy eyes. I could’ve been wrong, but I’m reasonably certain they were coworkers who wanted to sleep together. I mean I could be projecting but everything sounded like innuendo. Their southern accents gave away that they were waiting for a flight home; their ordering of more than one glass of wine in the middle of JFK gave away some hint of wanting to not be themselves. Who knows?  I spent my entire dinner dropping eaves and riding that undeniable, incomparable feeling of being on my way to a new country. I paid for my RIDICULOUSLY expensive salad and wine with the smug air of someone with places to go. So what if my place to go was a dirty airport gate with a bunch of cranky travelers? I would enter that metal tube, be propelled across the ocean and wake up in motherfucking Holland. In yo face, I guess?

I was flying on the same airline I usually take, due to its reasonable prices and familiarity. It's an Irish airline and as a result, lilting Irish accents (and accompanying pissed off countenances) remind me of the happiest times of my adult life. My plan was to finish reading my book, delve into an overpriced airline cocktail and fall peacefully asleep behind an eyemask and my ear buds.

However, it was not to be. If you know of an unpleasant flight experience cliché, rest assured that all of them happened on my flight to Amsterdam.
Crying baby? Check.
Angry seat neighbors? Check.
Kicking on the back of my seat for the entire flight? Check, check, check, kick, kick, …..

But still, I felt heartened after I claimed my seat and the rest of the plane boarded: no one sat in the seat next to me on one side. I could already envision stretching out and chillaxing on the aisle! I would wait a polite amount of time and simply slide on over. Then came the announcement that we were delayed while waiting for two more passengers.

Sad trumpet sound

Ok, I’d be stuck in the middle. It wouldn’t be the first time. I could handle it. And then came another bad flight cliche, personified: the big guy. I don't mean fat, I mean BIG. This guy didn't walk, he lumbered. And he was the guy I'd be "sharing" an armrest with for the flight, which was feeling longer by the second. I felt bad being annoyed; it wasn't his fault that my arm was going to hurt. Plus he was a nice guy, if a bit talkative. So here's what I learned about the first new person I met on this trip (in the first 20 minutes after takeoff):

His name was Dominick and he was from Detroit
He hadn’t slept in two days and was very, very chatty as a result of over fatigue
He was travelling with a friend to Brussels for a large outdoor music festival
He snores
He took control of our shared armrest and a few inches of my seat
As nice as he was, I will always associate him with a light cramp in my left arm

First impressions are so hard to dispel. My first impressions of Dominick lead me to believe he knows this. Some part of some part of him knows that I will always associate the memory of the nice man who sat next to me with a persistent, mild cramp in my left arm. That and a heavy, heavy Midwestern accent. He was an amiable fellow so I forgave the snoring; I was too distracted by the annoying baby in front of me.

We landed a bit late which means I had 30 minutes instead of 50 minutes to make my connecting flight from Dublin to Amsterdam. Dublin airport is the airport I know the best since all of my international flights connect through there. I've been there often enough to have a favorite shop. But a visit there was not meant to be. I just made the connecting flight and passed an uneventful two hours in the air and finally I landed in Amsterdam.

The genius of the Amsterdam airport cannot be overstated. The major train hub is right underneath the airport. That right there is some city planning genius. After some massive confusion, largely due to my lack of sleep (THANKS DOMINICK) I found the ticket booth for the trains and within an hour after landing, I was on my way to Brussels.

It was the middle of a Friday afternoon and I was on a commuter train so it was largely empty and, most notably, largely silent. I couldn't help the comparison between commuter trains here in NY and that one from Amsterdam to cell phones, no garbage everywhere in the train. It was pretty amazing. As for the scenery, it was along this first (of many) train rides that I caught a glimpse of my first windmill. And here I'd normally link a photograph of it excepting I cannot find the one I took which leads me to believe that I didn't take one. I think I just looked at it and marveled, in the way that first time visitors to NYC see yellow cabs and marvel. I guess I just kicked it old school and have a memory of seeing something without the filter of my camera. A thing like that...

I made it to the Brussels train station and was instantly confused. I've said it before  and I'll say it again: train stations in foreign countries confound and startle me. Perhaps in my past life, something terrible happened to me in a train station. I'll never know. Thank goodness Lauren spotted me, likely looking like a child with instructions stapled to my backpack and greeted me with the biggest smile and hug. VACATION COMMENCE.

We made our way (a confused, roundabout, turned around way) through Grand Place to our rented apartment. I was kind of glad we got lost because it gave me a good glimpse of a bustling Brussels. My first impressions were how stately all the buildings were and how lively the area seemed.

 We also encountered a local man in a business suit who saw we were lost and offered to walk us to where we needed to be so, friendliness too. It was cold for June and overcast when I got there but I prefer a chill in the air to the sweaty mess I had left back home.

When we arrived at the apartment I was greeted by something I have encountered so many times in Europe: the old mixed with the new (ish). Here's a photo of the entrance to our apartment:

This alley was so mysterious and ancient looking that several passerby would pause out of curiosity to see what could be down there. And here is what awaited at the end of that passage:

A 1980s mall. Our apartment was situated on the 2nd floor of this building, right above a movie theater. Entering that lacquered pantheon to suburban shopping after coming from the medieval decor of the buildings just outside it was jarring and unexpected, but very amusing. We got to the apartment and Lauren, bless her heart had beer and cheese and bread waiting for me. Never forget that first taste of food in a new place, it hearkens what dreams may come.

The apartment we chose was in the middle of town but very low budget. The bathroom was the size of a cubby hole and strangely, when the light switch turned on, the toilet rumbled. I can't explain it, only to say it happened and I have witnesses.

It was decided that we'd have a quiet night (literally the only quiet night of this entire trip) and it was with extreme pleasure that I realized I was in Brussels and I would have mussels. By god, I would have mussels.

Moules. Not pictured: frites.

I'm going to drop some technical terminology to describe this first meal so get ready. It was what people call fucking delicious. We dined al fresco on a cobblestone street and watched a parade of tourists speaking every language and we saw a group of young men, one of whom was dressed as a bottle of Budweiser. I mention this because he will make an appearance in the sequel to the Brussels blogs. After dinner we took part in what I call my absolute favorite thing on earth to do which is meandering through a new city. It was here that I first noticed that people in Brussels are pretty. Pretty people made many appearances during my trip. So there's that. Fatigue settled in and soon after arriving back home, I fell into a deep sleep only to be awoken by drunken voices coming from the shopping mall below. They were speaking Dutch or German, or both or either of those languages with a heavy drunk accent. In my half sleep I heard the conclusion of their raucousness as "Gude nacht, Sven" followed by a door slamming. I pictured poor Sven, left outside in the shopping mall at 5am by his no good friends. Because that is clearly what was said and I can be certain of that because I'd had a lot of wine and was half asleep. So Sven, if you are reading this (and you exist) this one is for you. Gude nacht, sweet Sven.

That's way too much to read. If you are still reading this, hello. I like you. As more than just a friend.

The adventures will continue with day 2 in Brussels, as soon as I get around to writing it. I'm hoping it doesn't take me another two months to update this. Keep hope alive. Here's a preview sentence: Brussels day two will include: the street waffle made by God, a four hour beer tour, a group of French men who quizzed me on my knowledge of French lit (I won, I think), a true Euro dance club, the loss of my jacket and small statue of a peeing boy. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Diary #4: Traction

For reasons that aren't that clear to me, I've been thinking about the concept of being in traction. I find the notion that one's bones and muscles can be controlled and manipulated by a constant pull and lift and pinch really strange and fascinating and I'm a bit obsessed with the sheer volume of trial and error that led to its discovery. I found this definition.
The purpose of traction is to:
  • regain normal length and alignment of involved bone
  • lessen or eliminate muscle spasms
  • relieve pressure on nerves, especially spinal and
  • prevent or reduce skeletal deformities or muscle contractures

I've been reading about it and ending up in really weird internet places and now here I am with a litany of excuses at the ready. Excuses for why my blog has remained in traction, arms and legs elevated, surrounded by beverages with long straws and unable to move its neck much from one side to other in the perpetual glow of a muted television. If only my blog were a real live person; what a good listener he'd be, what a gem of a friend, the prostrate body of which could withstand the weight of my utter nonsense while he was forced to lie in the same position, hepped up on happy pain killers. I could feel okay about giving him some time off; it would be medically prescribed in order for the entries to regain normal length and alignment. Instead I just feel busy. I don't feel like I'm healing. My schedule once again threatens to swallow up my creativity.

I am being hyperbolic, as usual. It has been a scant few weeks since my last entry and yet it feels as though so much has happened. I suppose it has. I was in a car accident. I'm fine. My Fiat was hit by a Mack truck and is less fine. A middle aged man with a medieval bob haircut who was genuinely nice, said he didn't see me as he changed lanes and I believe him. Did I mention he was nice? It was the very least he could be since it was 100% his big ass truck maneuvering fault. Still, being nice on a highway shoulder during rush hour while you wait for the police is the kind of thing you remember. Also, the haircut.

Dramatic recreation of the truck driver's haircut.
As of today, 18 days later, I still don't have my car back but have been told it will be any day now. Like most car accidents, it happened within a minute or two but in that brief amount of time, I contemplated my life and what I was certain would be my death. Is it ok to say that I was ok with all of it? Not happy, not sad, just ok. 

But back to being in traction. If we've learned anything from traction (and really, we should have by now) it is that sometimes the best thing to do to heal is to just be forced to lie still and how I might like that right now. And let's not forget comedic effect. More than once since my accident I've had visions of that old standby comedy bit when someone is in a freak accident and they look like this  

their head swaddled in bandages and the protagonist of the story comes to the hospital and confesses her true feelings to the person only to realize it is not the right person. The real person is in the next bed and he heard everything. She is embarrassed for herself and for the unfamiliar body beneath the layer of bandages but she's relieved her intended audience heard it all anyway. She mumbles a quick "Get well soon!" or something pithy and collapses into the arms of her unharmed love. They leave the hospital together in the same car and they drive home on a highway where everyone signals and no one speeds or has blind spots. THE END.

I didn't realize it until just now, but I guess I've been in kind of a holding pattern since the collision, driving an unfamiliar car, through a still unfamiliar schedule, talking to unfamiliar people and feeling a bit like I could use some traction. Or maybe that's just what feeling vulnerable or fragile is really. Instead of the light, scabbed over scratch on the surface my brain like my usual vague existential dread, this seems more like a pronounced crack right down the middle of my skeleton. I'm not bragging but over my life span, I've noticed a thousand tiny cracks and empty spaces and I've learned to superglue these with a variety of different distractions like a goddamned champ. It's just some mornings I'm driving along in a car that's too big for me, on a road that's too small for me and someone decides something arbitrary like changing a lane and doesn't tell anyone, just does it and my brain turns to lead along with my foot on the brake. And the crack gets longer gradually, creeping right to the foundation. 

I don't know. I'm a little bit strange. Someone a bit more normal or a bit less strange or a lot more this or lot less that would just get a massage, have a cocktail and carry on carrying on instead of, say, reading about a medical treatment she maybe could have needed but didn't. 

A bit more normal...what's that like?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Diary entry #3: I'm behind

Yesterday I realized how behind I am on diary entries. Then, to make myself feel better, I consulted Heidi Julavits' book again and it turns out, her entries were not consecutive either. At the very least, the ones that got published were not. So there. Or something.

I've spent two weeks acclimating my brain and my body to working three jobs. That sounds worse than it feels, honestly. I've been content mainly b/c I'm making more money and am able to live in and work in NYC, the dream that refuses to die despite paperwork, in tripicate, that reads in indelible ink that New York City is a harsh landlord. Going from place to place in such a fast moving area (and I do include Long Island in that assessment) has given my life a kinetic feeling. Commuting, whether in my car or on a train or on my two feet is adequate distraction from my frequent bouts of omygodwhatismylife. So there's that.

This morning I tried desperately to become one of those women. You know those women, the ones who go to the gym at 5am and sweat all their body fat away with ease and grace and smile at the morning with pop music streaming from their earbuds. They have their long, shiny, thick  hair in a perfectly wavy ponytail and their toned arms on display as they run lightly on the treadmill, their brain in meditation mode, their legs on autopilot. They somehow shower at the gym just as gracefully as they do everything else in life and manage to emerge with glowing skin, a perfectly sculpted coif atop their impeccably made up and symmetrical faces. Those women I have spent all my life admiring from afar and wondering how to speak their language. (How you say: please wake me up on time?)

However, something got lost in translation (as per usual) and I set my alarm for 5 but wound up putzing around in bed until it was too late to do more than 30 minutes of "walkogging" on a squeaky treadmill, the rhythm of which was all I had to listen to because I had forgotten my earbuds at home. My extremely short hair was flattened against my round head as I tried not to read the captions on the row of televisions in front of me as they narrated the story of how big the holes in the world are, my body noting every five minutes that I forgot my water bottle as well. I took a shower at the gym but had nowhere to put my glasses so I just showered with them on which has always and will always make me feel like I didn't shower at all. And I guess I "got ready" just like those women if you discount the fact that I forgot my bra, deodorant, and socks and therefore had to go back to my apartment anyway, even after I braved that shower and the alternating images of getting flesh eating disease and/or having all of my shit stolen. I want my effort duly noted. I want some kind of marker on my headstone. She died as she lived: trying to like exercise. If you are one of those women (or men), you have my undying admiration. I'm going to keep admiring you tomorrow as I read my book at 5am over a cup of coffee. I'll get behind on my behind, but I don't want to get behind on my reading.

I type this having not had enough coffee. I'm sure tonight I'll go to bed with the resolution that I'll try again. Maybe I will. And I mean maybe in a way that not many have meant maybe before. Hard maybe.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Diary entry 2: Bodi or Chad or Wax

Yesterday I spent most of my day on the train. I look forward to some parts of Mondays mainly because I'm usually commuting by foot and train and back again which lends itself to uninterrupted free thinking or reading time. The Fire Island revelers start earlier and earlier every year, likely directly proportionate to how terrible the winter was and yesterday it began. I was on a train with a group of five men and one woman who were laughing loud enough for me to hear through my headphones. If this were August and/or a Saturday night, I likely would never have even noticed them but it was Monday morning at 8 am; I think they were drunk already. Since my headphones were on I could only hear muffled conversation punctuated by muffled raucous laughter. Whenever I'm in close proximity to a group of people on the train, my people watching instinct kicks in and I mute my headphones to eavesdrop. I didn't glean anything terribly interesting apart from the knowledge that the group was comprised of surfers, only one of whom was actually from Long Island, a fact I learned as he mentioned having gone to my high school where he claimed to have "hooked up a lot" in the locker room. That didn't surprise me.

I tried to scrutinize them discreetly; they looked the surfer part. All tan and all of them were one shade of blond or another. Their skin made their ages indiscernible but if I was judging by their conversation, hobbies and clothing, I'd say they ranged from 20-45. I instantly invented a whole backstory, social hierarchy and sexual tension between the group's members. I also naturally assumed that at least one of them was named Bodi or Chad or Wax. If I knew anything at all about surfing, I'm certain I would have conjured some tired old metaphor. The only thing my brain could come up with was comparisons to "Point Break".

I want to watch this so bad right now.

I have no idea if surfing is even possible out here. Based on the odd surf shop in random strip malls, I assume so. But I have lived many years in this region and remain ignorant of the surf culture. It seems weird that anyone would travel here to surf.

When I got out of the train at my stop, which happens to be about a mile from the Great South Bay, I could smell the water. I smelled it the entire walk to the library. I thought about those harbingers of summertime and whether or not they'd catch any waves or if they would gleam the cube. Or whatever it is you do when you surf.

I had lunch at a pizza shop which I mention only because as I ate, I sat next to two moms and their rowdy kids, one of whom was named Silver John. I know this because his mother said loudly, many times "Siver John! Please don't do that!" That name plus his rowdy behavior make me think that kid is destined for a career in piracy.

After an utterly uneventful day at the library, during which two, TWO people had to be helped finding 15 or so alphabetically arranged DVDs due to "forgotten glasses", I headed back home on an otherwise empty train. When I got to the Jackson Heights subway stop, I saw a familiar face, my friend Nancy. She was waiting for a train on the same platform and we had a brief conversation part of which I record here:

"I was standing in line behind this slow ass woman who was bending over to pick up some thread on the floor."
"Uhm...what?" I then mimicked someone spotting a small piece of thread on the floor and getting overly excited.
"Yeah, I wanted to ask 'Are you an ACTUAL magpie, lady??"

These are the kinds of conversations I have with Nancy, particularly when we only have three minutes to talk.

That's really all that happened yesterday.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Diary Entry #1: A Proper Plebe

I've been reading The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits which is a diary she kept over a year or so and I'm really enjoying/hating/hatenjoying it. Diaries, including the one you are right this very second reading are usually interesting but sometimes they are bland and/or infuriating. Reading someone work something out in their head or peeping at her life through her own words satisfies the voyeur in me but rankles the advice giver in me. I like diaries and personal blogs in that they are the ultimate form of passive people watching but the starkness and insight they provide seem rife for comment. And then there are the invisible filters. Honestly, while I've been reading Julavits' diary, I'm wondering how much of herself she edits and then I get annoyed that I can't read what she's edited.

At any rate, I'm going to follow her lead and try it a few times, starting today. In her version of her daily diary, she begins each entry with "Today I..." and I will do what I feel I normally do which is change something I've read and admired slightly but distinctively enough to make it my own. So I'm going to begin my entries with "Yesterday I..." Uniqueness for days.

April 13

Yesterday I woke up in the basement of my mom's house. Half my life lately is spent there on Long Island there and the other half in my sister's spare bedroom in Queens. I've been making a conscious effort to be on Long Island more often since my grandmother's funeral, primarily because I feel the need to be tethered to my mother, on the off chance that she needs me for something practical like filling out paperwork or to accompany her for shopping. At least I tell myself that outwardly. I'm beginning to understand that being there helped my own peace of mind more than anything.

My stepdad, grandfather, mother and I ate waffles pretty early in the morning as they had to go to an early Mass. I don't go to church and my plan was to be on the road back to Queens while they were gone. I rarely get to eat breakfast with anyone and it just so happens to be one of my favorite things to do and it is one of the best parts about being at my mom's on a Sunday morning. After breakfast, my mom asked for help (see, good thing I was there) in setting up a snack tray for the guests that were coming over directly after Mass; she and my grandfather are praying the nine day Novena for my grandmother and volunteers from the church come by to lead them in the special prayers. The day before, I had walked in on them inadvertently and it felt like catching someone in an intimate conversation. They were gathered around the dining room table reciting prayers over a picture of my grandmother. The volunteers had brought their daughters who were sitting quietly on the couch and it felt like a family gathering in my family house, comprised mostly of people I didn't recognize. That's a strange, strange feeling.

Anyway, I set up a mountain of cookies, bid everyone goodbye and was on my way back to Queens. I got there in record time, made strides in my perpetual quest of finding a parking spot on the right side and spent the afternoon chatting with my sister as she got ready to spend the next few days at a swanky hotel in midtown for a work conference. She invited me to visit later that night and I called up my friend to join us for a few cheap drinks in a very expensive hotel room. The past few weeks have been harrowing; a quiet chat over wine sounded exactly what I wanted to do. I had a few hours to kill in the interim so I did what I've been known to do: I fell in and out of sleep for a few hours while watching television.

When it was time to go, I got on the bus and rode through Queens with my earbuds providing a soundtrack to the Sunday evening strolls I could see everywhere. Sam Cooke narrates Sunday. I thought about being in my 20s and taking the bus from the West Village all the way up to Washington Heights and I longed for that time again. I've noticed I spend most of my city time longing for another time to happen again. That statement could also apply to back then. Nostalgia is a snake head eating the head on the opposite side for me. I palindrome I.

I found the hotel after skirting tourists and unwittingly holding my breath against the hoards of horse and carriages that line Central Park. At the hotel entrance, doorman actually pushed the revolving door for me which took me by surprise and instantly triggered the "I don't belong here" vibrations at the base of my brain. Those got more intense as I took in the shiny marble floors and was called "Miss" by every smiling staff member that passed. Here's a dramatic recreation of events:

 My friend was waiting in the lobby and we found my sister for her room key and headed upstairs to the nicest, albeit most sparsely decorated, hotel room I have ever been in. It was roughly the size of an apartment, and contained a bathroom the size of my old studio apartment. The view gave me the feeling of being nestled quietly among the surrounding skyscrapers and being in midtown Manhattan and hearing nothing from the street was a bit surreal. There were two mirrors facing each other in the "changing room" and I snapped the photo below, during which I wondered what it would be like to truly be able to afford to stay in such a place on my own dime. I imagine it would feel like looking at the world and seeing your own reflection repeated forever through it; money and all the power it affords must make someone feel infinite.

We needed ice and after a brief stroll around the floor yielded none, I called the operator who said that ice is delivered to the room. So then ice was delivered to the room. I realize at this point in my entry I must sound like a country bumpkin. The reason is because in terms of fancy hotels in the most expensive city in the country, I am one. The man who brought the ice then proceeded, about an hour later to bring another bucket to "refresh" the first one. I had a lovely chat over lovely wine in a lovely room. However, the main thing I gleaned from my few hours visit there was that I was far away from my wheelhouse; I could never be able to relax amid all that comfort.

I made my way back home like a proper plebe and got back just in time to watch Mad Men, something around which my life revolves for the next five Sundays. I'd talk about it now but I don't have world enough or time. It did occur to me that I had just come from right smack in the middle of where the world of Mad Men took place 60 years ago and found myself once again longing for something to happen again that had already happened and that was probably wasn't as good as I thought or imagined. I'm going to jump the gun and assume that the following seven days worth of entries will follow this theme to the letter. Just a hunch.