Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Americans in Prague

Things Get Distorted
According to my land lady who heard it on the news,  88% of Czech citizens will travel abroad during the summer holidays. In Prague, a city of 1million permanent residents, I suspect the number is higher. I do not hear Czech spoken on the streets. Charles Bridge is impossible to cross. I ran into a lot of Americans. You know how you sometimes look at your family in disgust and think, "My God, how are we related?" And other times you look at them with writhing dread and think, "My God, we are related!" This is how I sometimes feel about being an American Abroad.

“Is this butter?” he asks as he shoves a white package almost into my nose.
I am in the super market mulling over what I want to make for dinner. Pasta? Gnocchi? Rice and beans? Something cheap, something quick and easy. While I am now adept at figuring out which pasta is overpriced, it is still a new place and I stand with a serious expression scrunching my face, basket at my side.
“Is this butter?” he asks. He is tall, taller than me, looms a bit, too close.
It says, in French, “la beurre” in the top left corner. The package, which I took in my hand to get it out of my nose, feels like butter. “Yep,” I reply. He marches away towards the check out line where his father leans over the counter towards the woman, as if he cannot understand her perfect pronunciation in English of the price.

“Yes, I will!” the girl child wails, pulling the full length of her tiny arm, twisting to get out of her mothers grip
“No. You hit me. You don’t get dessert.”
“Yes I will!” the girl is not longer wailing but stating. She’s played this game before.
“If you hit me one more time, you will not get dessert.”
Ah. So we’ve moved to the future tense now. The game has changed. The girl is winning or has won and she knows it.
She hits her mother again.
They are lost in crowd moving across Charles Bridge.

In the Asian market, she greets me in czek and tells me the price of the green curry paste and coconut milk, her broad face has a bright look, not a smile, but a cheerful look all the same. When I pause and smile at her apologetically, she says “Oh sorry!” and proceeds in a clear American (to my ears) accent. She wants to know where I’m from and says that she thought I was Czek, she wouldn’t have known I was American. I tell her, “I take that as a compliment” and she laughs. I ask where she learned English so well. “Oh I’m from the Phillipines.” Ah. Yes. Perhaps to compliment on this is an insult, but she sounded American herself, as at ease in English as a teenager in blue jeans with holes in the knees.
I want to ask how she came here to a city of tourists, a steady outsider in a sea of constant outsiders. But I don’t. I ask instead about the price of vegetables in the city. She tells me which mini markets have good vegetables and that her little asian market specializes in Phillipino food. She tells me to come back and I say that I will.

“Oh my god, I just can’t even deal,” she says, throwing her intentially messy hair back over her head, eye liner carefully applied, bright pink lips, pink nails, iphone held in one hand sunglasses on head. “I need to go back and put deodorant on for, like, the first time today.” The other four laugh. Georgetown Villanova Penn State Syracuse. Sweatshirts reveal their towers of learning. Here to “study” for six weeks complex subjects like literature, politics and economics. One coughs and shifts her lighter to another hand. “I just can’t go out again tonight, I’m too sick, I’m still drunk,” one says. “Do you remember the part where Dylan got left behind? We were totally lost.” “Wait, you got back into the strip club? How did you do that? Why did they kick me out and not you?”
            They hit on the Czech guy working the counter. “Do you work here every day?” they ask in raspy voices, louder than the background music or the running coffee maker. “We’ll be in every day” they say to reassure him that he means something to them.
He smiles a delighted smile, a smile that lights from him like a benediction. It is the same he will give me when I murmur a quiet “thank you” as he hands me my check. I leave him a tip to say “Sorry.” Sorry for the Americans. Sorry for being… us.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Last from Abroad

13 hours till the USA. 

1 year. 9 days. 

Nine countries. Uncountable Bulgarian towns. 

An upswing in my social media popularity that I expect to disappear immediately upon arrival home. 

A new language in a new alphabet. 

175 students. A plethora of Slavic names. 

Explaining again and again how to say my first name and settling for something like deena or Dawna. 

Getting lost. Getting unlost. 

Shopska, French fries, white cheese, kamenitza. 

A flood. Two earthquakes. 

4 visits from home. 

A GRE exam. An acceptance to graduate school. 

Friendships that acted like family. 

And some that didn't. 

It will take me fewer hours to get to the USA than it took me to get from Bulgaria to Croatia. 

My first holidays away from my family. 

My first holidays in Bulgarian. 

Homemade coconut curry accompanied by a movie. Lots of movies and tv shows. 

Salsa dancing. Only dance I'm still any good at by this point. 

Folk dancing. 

Red wine. 

Speech and debate. Night trains. 

Ciao This Life. 

Chapter concluded. 

Long term narrative effect: to be decided. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

She said "No. Stop."

Yesterday, I watched a man my age follow a woman my age, his friend, with a camera. The light was gold and she was beautiful. She had dark eyes against her gold hair. She stood with elegance.

She did not want her picture taken. She did not like pictures taken of her. She said, "No. Stop."

There was a moment of waver. A moment of insecurity in her "No. Stop." To say "No. Stop." takes courage, a strange courage, a courage it should not require.

 He kept coming. "Please, just look at it me; it will be great."

It will be great.

What people assume when a beautiful woman says no to her picture being taken is that she is insecure. She does not know that she is beautiful. If she can see a picture of herself, then maybe she will know that is is beautiful.

That is the story we tell. Is it true?

The one who takes a picture has power over the person whose picture they are taking. They have the tool, the capturing method, the weapon. They aim. They shoot.

When a beautiful woman [a woman, a man, a person] says "No. Stop." maybe she is saying that she refuses his power over her, his claim to her beauty, his desire to use it to make a beautiful picture.

I use "her" and "him" but the genders can go either way. But the power dynamic is more clear in "him" taking a picture of her", as in the setting of my story. I do not see women chasing men to take their picture in golden light of an evening in the woods.

It, the picture, will be great. What about her? Maybe she feels like he is removing her beauty or reducing her to it (are these not the same?).

Maybe she just doesn't want the camera in her face.

Maybe she wants to see if he will accept a No.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A City of Whistlers


I hear whistling everywhere I go. I hear it from my window from the guys doing construction on the building next to me each morning when I wake up. As I walk from one place to another, whether climbing a hill to see an ancient library in an ancient monastery, or take the tram to Prague 4 to raid the Program's library... I hear whistling. The cheerful, unspecific whistling, no particular tune. The whistling while you work. Or on the way to work. Or wherever. People also whistle to call out or to get attention. But the Cat Call is conspicuously absent here, just a lot of little human birds singing along through the cobbled streets.

Part of the Prague Whimsey: "The Dancing Building", aka "Fred and Ginger"

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Perfect Metaphor

"We aren't knitting a sweater here. We're quilting. We're finding and making tiny pieces and then arranging them into a whole. We have one shard of pottery from an archeology dig and we don't know if it's a bowl or a cooking pot or what. So we keep finding fragments and brushing them off and then we'll have what we need."

Patricia Hampl on Memoir Writing as said in the Savoy Cafe (Prague) last evening over dinner

All it takes is the right metaphor for a way forward to come clear.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

One Year

A year ago, I got on a plane in the Washington Dulles airport and flew to Bulgaria.

A year ago, a saw the last of Maggie Pre Babies. A year ago, I had lunch at the French Embassy with Natalie and Robbie. A year ago, I visited the Bulgarian consulate and got my visa.

Today, I spent the morning in my pjs writing. I spent time in McDonalds to use the internet. I saw writer friends in Prague 4, a 30 minute tram trip from my apartment in Prague 1. Today, I will have dinner with two fantastic peer writers and Patricia Hampl. Today, it is going to rain and cut the sticky heat with a sharp knife of lightening, like the kitchen knife Robbie gave me as a going away present, one I used almost everyday.

In nine days, I get to return to the United States and see my family and friends. I've missed it in one way or another each day for the last year. Soon. So soon.

Thanks, Europe, for the year.

Special Shout Out to Bulgaria (duh), Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Turkey, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.

I'm ready for those Pennsylvania slow summer sunsets. Any day now. Any day.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Terezin: "The Beauty/How it Matters"

Sit with me and tell me once again
Of the story that's been told us
Of the power that will hold us
Of the beauty, of the beauty
Why it matters

-Sara Groves "Why It Matters"

I think of this song, not directly, not in quotations, but I think towards the shape of it in my life as I walk through a museum after Terezin.

Terezin is a town and former concentration camp (Nazi, WWII era) in the Czech Republic. My writing program took a trip there yesterday, saw spaces where lives were undone. And also, the places that lives were lived.

In the museum, the top floor is dedicated to a display of art that was composed in the nearby ghetto, the last work of thousands who lived there.

Pictures, stories, poems, cartoons, children's operas, music sheets, a newspaper the teenage boys composed each day of local events and escapades. Someone organized an orchestra of the talented musicians who were there. They held concerts.

When the Swiss Red Cross came through, some painted pictures of the darkness and smuggled them to other countries. Ultimately, the Red Cross reported that things were fine in Nazi Czechoslovakia.

They weren't.

In the end, the majority of those who lived in this space were sent on trains to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers. They made their art in the shadow of current and future loss.

Christian Wiman notes in "My Bright Abyss: A Memoir of a Modern Believer" that there is two kinds of art (I paraphrase here): that which drives towards life and which drives towards the self.

I could not have made what they made, they in a circumstance beyond what I've known. I've had loss and watching things die. It takes people with you to keep making things.

Standing in a field, thinking this over, I had no thoughts but strong desires and instincts, tangible imaginations: I just wanted a baby. I wanted a baby after all the children who were executed. I wanted to paint a picture with the strong stench of oil paint on my fingers. I wanted to cook a huge meal and feed it to a table of friends, a large glass of wine at each seat. I wanted to dress up, touch perfume to my neck, and go dancing. This instinct, to make in the face of destruction, I think this is a human instinct, part of the goodness still residual in us. I don't trust it or foster it.

In Sarajevo, a man named Vedran Smailović regularly playing his cello in ruined buildings during the Siege of Sarajevo, most notably performing Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor (wikipedia). There was destruction: so make.

it's protest of the darkness
And the chaos all around
With its beauty, how it matters
How it matters

I don't know that art itself will save the world. I don't believe that humanity-alone can save itself. But if I were to write a manifesto for myself, a hope of what making would do, it would be this: to make art that draws towards life. Only that. Towards life. I would be humbled more than I could say if anything I do, whether writing or otherwise, would accomplish such a thing.

Monday, July 07, 2014

A Final Goodbye

Dear Reader for my Bulgarian Year,

Many of you have followed along with my year in Bulgaria. And for that, I thank you.

 I left Bulgaria on June 29th around 1am. My taxi crossed the border to Romania along with several large buses from Greece and Turkey and trucks carrying produce. I arrived at the airport at 2:45am in Bucharest and waited until my 8am flight, awake and tense, curled up on suitcases and watching Season 3 of “Grey’s Anatomy” (seriously, nothing like blood and guts and dysfunctional characters to keep you awake to watch your stuff).

The final days were stressful and oddly empty. I had a few structured goodbyes but even the classes were largely empty. It was almost summer holidays, of course. Who can compare to the allure of summer holidays and the anxiety of living them fully? Not one soul, my friends. Not one soul.

The weekend before, there was a severe flood. I was going to write about it but somehow couldn’t quite yet. It was part of saying goodbye. The destruction of part of my town was a surreal experience. I helped one afternoon with mopping up mud in one house, children’s toys and blankets sitting outside to dry. And then it rained and the grief of the house owner came with the rain and seeing undone work and the loss of years in a night of water and bad piping.

Who to blame? Everyone looked for someone to blame.

The priest of the local Orthodox church also died the night before I was supposed to leave. His reputation went before him as a kind and gracious man. He had established a home for women from abusive situations or as a step to leave prostitution. He was a man respected and loved. I attended the end of his funeral on accident, waiting for my last Bulgarian sunset in the garden beside the church, wondering what people were doing loitering outside. I saw the casket covered in flowers ready for burial in the garden. I only learned later that it was the priest people said I should meet but whom I had never been able to.

Rosi, my Bulgarian instructor and friend, came with me to Varna to catch my transport. Peter, her husband, drove. Radost sat with me in the back and we had silent dance parties to the radio. They are a family I feel as if I have known for longer than a year. Hopefully, my winsome portrayal of Pennsylvania will convince them to come for a visit.

And then I crossed the border to Romania, across the bridge from Rousse spanning the Danube River.  Then a short flight. And now I am in Prague.

Prague. A city of magical buildings. After a year of Dobrich and Balkan life, I find Prague large and strange. Gothic and Baroque and Catholic. I do not know these buildings and feel odd in their streets. I’m here to write but it’s been hard to do that yet with so much imposing grandeur and a complicated living situation. But it’s starting.

Being around a whole posse of writers is a breath to me. My lungs feel full of air. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Energy and motion. I just finished lunch with the two other nonfiction writers in our crew. It’s the feeling people describe as finding “my tribe”. There are probably others, but having Julia and Lara is like have a little tribe. Being in your 20s and memoirists will do that to individuals.

I’m in love, but not with Prague: with the writers around me.
That being said, Prague is astoundingly beautiful.

I’ll more about Prague another time, perhaps. Not that you, my blog reader, necessarily want to know about all my travel destinations. There are stories that can be told, though, stories worth hearing. It’s so different from all I’ve known this year. I can feel my “Bulgarian showing” as the other American teachers used to joke. One of the writers has been to Bulgaria and it’s been nice to compare stories from our travels there. You’ve been to Rila? What did you think? Sozopol during summertime is just a party town but you’ve been there in the off season? Perfect. Isn’t Sozopol perfect in off season?

I’ll be in Prague till July 26th. On that day, I head home. Blogging may or may not happen with any regularity during that time due to writing focus in other places. Think of me.

I’ll drink a proper Czech beer for you.


Saturday, July 05, 2014

Doctor Who in Bulgaria

It’s really all about learning to be human. On being human.
As alien as the Doctor is, what character can really be more human? He’s complicated and loving and angry and bitter and spontaneous. There is no character more human that the Doctor: because he feels alien.
Feeling alien is part and parcel of being human. It’s tied in with our nature to feel somewhat disconnected from life and lives and the earth. Journey. Pilgrimage.
I watched Doctor Who throughout my time in Bulgaria. Seasons 5-7 twice.
So I was in Seasons 5-7. I watched to the episode that Amy and Rory leave. And I was crushed. Broken.

I think the diversity of opinions about Doctor Who confirms its strength. Different people have related with different seasons, doctors, companions. And the debates are fierce. The show, however, weathers these changes and allegiances. It’s a rare show that is supposed to change on a regular basis and then succeeds at it quite impressively. People stay even when they’d prefer Donna Noble to Amelia Pond to Clara Ozwald. Or so-and-so to David Tennant to Matt Smith. It’s a franchise built to change and to be flexible. That makes it enduring as well.
I’m an Amy Pond girl, myself. And Matt Smith fan.  I don’t think it’s Clara’s fault she’s so terrible but the blimy writers who suddenly lose the ability to conceive of interesting villains.
But within all of this, it’s the humanity that interests me. The key idea seems to be: what is humanity? What are humans? What is virtue and what is vice? How do we live with both living and raging inside of us?
Even the Doctor, our ultimate hero, is vulnerable to the vices that define his enemies. “We have grown strong in fear of you” one Dalek (a classic enemy) notes. “We find your anger beautiful. Perhaps that is why we have never been able to destroy you.” Anger and loss and grief are as part of the Doctor’s character as his spirit for peace and quirkiness and need for friendship. The Doctor needs what we all need: companions on journies. Someone to tie us down. To remind us of what is really important.
“Don’t travel alone” River Song tells him. (And what happened to her, seriously? But that’s a writing problem in the larger arching plot). Don’t be alone. Something goes wrong in each of us when we choose to let isolation and individuality define our stories.
There is also a sense that his directionless is part of our human experience too. He’s constantly moving, much like our current times, but he moves to help others. He carries his home, The Tardis, with him, but is still in search of some kind of stillness that he can also participate in. He needs peace, not simply unmoving, which is a sign of his withdrawal.
All of these things I have seen myself struggle with in Bulgaria this year. I have felt isolated and alone and found that everything was better with a companion. The darkness inside of me was resistable when I had someone at my side. I have felt the grief and bitterness of past harm overwhelm me. And I have still gotten up in the mornings to teach those I was asked to teach, like the Doctor still showing up to save the world--though he was a good deal happier about the process than I generally was AND I don’t know that my classes will save the world.
And the direction he ultimately found was home/ A home he thought was destroyed. While I don't ‘have the destruction of my home on my conscience, I do know what it is to feel like home is destroyed and cannot be returned to. But this year has changed that. My home is not my whole family but the members of my family. They are the individuals I love and who love me. And I cannot live without them, not the way I tried to live this year. I had no idea until I went on the other side of the world what community and blood relatives gave me in life. I cannot wait to go back to being angry at them over their stupid life choices and their judgement of me: because I can be angry in person and not suffer the loneliness of my own absence.  They, and their messed up lives, are my home. Me and my messed up life need to be with Them.
My students asked me in the last month, “What is the first thing you will do when you get home?”
Cry. Cry and cry and cry because I am so happy to be there and happy to get to be unhappy there and miserable and disappointed and hurt. Happy because it is there and by them and not by other strangers in this world.

“At least now I know where I’m travelling: I’m travelling home.” –Matt Smitth Doctor, 50th anniversary episode
Me too, Doctor. Me too.