I’ll never forget how lonely I felt in Tallinn—standing like an island in a rough sea of early twenty-somethings about to embark on another Friday night bender. Me: at least seven years older than all of them, remote, and incapable of conversation. Them: throwing back can after can of Baltic beer to keep pace with drinking games I’d long tired of, swapping taunts, high-fives, full-toothed grins, steely-eyed and sure-footed, engaged in that tacky peacock kind of flirting I knew some of them would never outgrow. All of us: tossed in the storm of incorrigible youth.
Ava was with me only a week ago, but we were elsewhere then. (Copenhagen.) Her train had been late, and I paced back and forth beneath the massive clock in Central Station, hoping she would save me from the reality that I had no one there. (She did.) My hostel was hotelish: sterile, automated, indifferent to chance encounters. So I was lucky to have met her last August: Finn by birth, Dane by residence, then a bleach blonde sore thumb on the Amalfi Coast. She shared a pizza with me. She spoke too many languages. She said, If you’re ever in Denmark. (I was.) Read More
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Oscar and I landed in Budapest on Gypsy Christmas. Officially called lomtalanítás, it’s the one day each year where residents are free to toss their junk, en masse, onto the sidewalk for collection. We hadn’t exactly studied up on the city beforehand. Like much of our homework that semester, it went undone. And thus we were not aware of this annual “event.” In fact, we found ourselves in the Hungarian capital only because, in late July 2011, it seemed more off the beaten path than any of our other classmates were willing to venture. So after having dragged our suitcases along the sweltering city streets, dodging mysterious, man-high piles of garbage while searching for our hostel, our instincts felt vindicated.
Casa de la Musica was a technicolor funhouse of a hostel in the Palace District of Pest. In its courtyard, chest-deep in an inflatable pool on the afternoon of our arrival, we met Albert, a German physical therapist who learned The King’s while studying in Sydney. The only thing more delightful than Albert’s accent was his grasp of American slang. “I hear the ruin pubs here are shit,” he told us, leaving out the crucial definite article. So it wasn’t long before the three of us—”the wolf pack”—were huddled around a table at just such a pub, arguing with a few Swedish girls about whether it was stupid for a modern country to have a monarch—a tradition they adamantly defended. I found Albert in a stairwell making out with one of them maybe thirty-minutes later. “International relations done right,” I thought. Read More
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I wish everyone a life of streets and alleys, lanes and country roads. Wet, dry. Narrow, wide. Busy, quiet. Lit, or dark. They are, and they have always been, my escape. My feet follow them, one in front of the other, as I struggle with what feels so heavy on my shoulders. And I’m reminded when I look down, or in fatal despair, toward the sky, of my place in the Universe. That is power.
Thinking back now, I remember more of them than I would have guessed yesterday. One memory leads to another, and then to another. They head in this direction and that, woven together, related but distinct, emanating out from the center, creating a pattern that no single one would hint at. In whole, they map so much of where I’ve come from and who I am. Read More
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Her husband doesn’t call anymore. We leave our phones in the room now anyway. Too many pretty people here. White pebbles and locals raised in a land without modesty. She takes her top off like all of the other girls, lies diagonally to the water. Evenly tanned chests lap up the brutal rays. A joint sticky with sunscreen and a wet copy of Cat’s Cradle. The pages smell like sea salt. She asks me if I can afford another two Coronas. I tell her that I’m beyond broke; it’s time to go home. She says that she’s beyond broken; she’s never going home. Lies and lies and lies and lies.
It took me too long to learn her name. She knows this. I had to ask for the last time last week. Two towns ago. A little coffee shop in the Jewish Quarter. A honey cake I bought her because this city is known for them. She says that hers are better. I don’t believe her. She stirs her black coffee without reason. Without blinking. I justify my work for the Galactic Empire. She tries to explain what the food is like in Ljubljana but never comes close to convincing me she was really there. I tell her it takes more than miles to get away from what we’re leaving behind. No response. Read More
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Faith reveals to me that she’s a DJ from D.C. and a budding bisexual over two pints of blonde at the hostel bar around 1:00 AM only twenty minutes after I arrived and keeps glancing at her phone because she’s expecting a text from the cute bartender she met last night at a burlesque show who swore she would be free after her shift this evening and wants to meet-up at an after-hours discotheque that she’s been dying to check-out and now I’m being roped into tagging along even though I’m exhausted but of course I cave and call a cab because I can’t stand to say no to new adventures or pretty girls or nights beyond prediction.
She talks to our driver in French with an accent I can tell he finds atrocious and honestly so do I but then again I speak so little and the words she says sound right and her pace is probably fine because he continues making conversation although it dawns on me eventually that it’s only to keep her from getting keen on the fact that he can see down her shirt in the strategically tilted rearview as she leans forward from the backseat to paint her lips in cherry black and while I make a solid effort can’t manage to mime this to her subtly enough for it to not be awkward so I must admit to myself that he may have won this round and I hope he hits a moose on his return trip to the city. Read More
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I worry about our obsession with vanity. Not Hollywood stardom or photo-shopped hips—although those too are troubling. I’m concerned about our pedestrian vanity. You, me, that woman we walk by on our way to the coffee shop. We care less about who we are than who we want the world to believe we are.
We are, in a very real way, the Mad Men Generation—we are all our personal ad executives and our product is “Me.” Our ability to transform the ordinary, a mural on a nice day, a coffee on a dreary one, into the extraordinary would be uncanny if it wasn’t, apparently, innate. We are all prodigies. Our medium is social, and our means is the lens. Read More
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I met a boy in a car and he asked me if people were born sane or insane. His name was James. He was twenty-four, from Florida, and had a slender build. He had copper, messy hair and a burnished red beard. It was six and a half hours to Belgrade and he was, the entire time, beautiful.
But it wasn’t just that. His personality was magnetic. He threw off immediately any suggestion that we were destined to be strangers. And he told stories with his emerald green eyes. They spoke with equal parts intensity and indifference.
By the time Sarajevo faded in the rearview mirror, he had confessed how he found his way into the backseat of that beaten up Peugeot crawling over this once-war torn country. He self-described as a member of the Entitlement Generation and said he couldn’t imagine being forty, divorced, and trapped in a corporate office in Orlando. So he quit his job, broke-up with his girlfriend, and boarded a plane to Portugal. He started heading east and he’s mostly out of time in the Schengen. He plans to keep heading east and is thinking about Australia next. From there he tells me he wants to sail to South America. Read More
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You see, I travel—often, and preferably, alone—because traveling makes me feel small and when I feel small I learn big lessons. Not every trip reshapes who I am as a person or how I see myself. Sometimes it is a gentle nudge in the ribs, a reminder about this or that. Be decent. Be slow to anger. Talk to strangers. Other times, it shakes me.
Somewhere in Belgrade, maybe it began in Sarajevo, I was shaken. At first a sneaking vibration, until I felt it, and then once I felt it, it grew stronger until it cracked my foundations. In short hindsight, I wrote to a friend:
“I think if I boiled the trip down to a single lesson…I’d say it’s just to live life with purpose in whatever it is you’re doing. The rest will take care of itself.” Read More
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I haven’t seen the skyline since going underground at Jamaica Station, but I can feel the weight of Midtown overhead. A high school couple sits across from me, their interlaced fingers forming a brown and white zipper between their knees. They make me intensely optimistic about the future. She shuts her eyes and grimaces cutely as his lips pass from her forehead down the bridge of her nose to her own expectant mouth. It’s a display I would normally loathe, but I remind myself that modesty always plays second fiddle to first love, and now I am unable to look away. With Spirits in my ears, I smile and absorb the affection they’re filling the air with.
I meet Steve at his apartment in the East Village, which is “Oh, that’s trendy” according to every person who asks him what neighborhood he lives in. He opens all the windows, hands me a Brooklyn lager. We celebrate the virtues of Summer Fridays. A text message takes us to a beer garden in Gowanus then to a shuffleboard club around the block. The cheapest beer they have on tap is served in a mason jar. No one is surprised by this. I lunge with the tang like a gladiator and always end up in the kitchen. I put a chalky hand on Jeff’s shoulder and he tells me marriage changes nothing for our generation. Read More
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I’m on a train, heading back to New York City. It’s a Sunday around dinner time. A man, maybe seventy, seventy-five, walked into the café car sometime shortly after we pulled out of Union Station. At first, I didn’t notice him. Just another traveler looking for another seat. He finally sat across the aisle from me. We’re surrounded by seven or eight people now, many of whom are drinking beer or half bottles of wine. (How tragic to drink a half bottle of wine by yourself on a train on a Sunday.)
I’m facing south, my back to the north, and our train rushes toward New York City. The water, trees, and towns are flying by me while the grey sky looms ominously over all of it. Before we had escaped too far out of the District I pulled myself out of my seat and wandered to find a bathroom. The bathroom in the café car had a little sign on it, five by five or so, navy blue with a yellow border around the outside, letting me know that it was out of service. So like a man who had just returned to shore after being at sea for ages, I ambled toward the next car and the next bathroom as the train tested my balance. I hurried as best I could. I was concerned leaving my bag unattended. But I had done it anyway, putting a grocery bag with my black dress shoes on top of it out of hopes that a potential thief would not notice the thousands of dollars of electronics nestled in a three hundred dollar bag. Read More
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