Hannah, we care about you and the memories you share here. We thought you’d like to look back on this photo of you from exactly five years ago today.
Do you remember that day, Hannah? “Meet us in the park,” your friends said, “we’re down by the river,” and so you (pictured, left) went, and you all sat in the shade because Ellie (pictured, right), one of your oldest friends, sunburnt so easily. Mark (not pictured) bought everyone ice creams and you lay around on the daisy-jeweled riverbank, the air fragrant with barbeque and coconut sun cream and freshly cut grass, and you chatted and laughed and had a good time. You don’t remember what you talked about though, do you, Hannah, because why would you – you thought you’d have hundreds more of these lazy afternoons, no need to commit every conversation to memory, no need to do anything but feel life wash over you, bask in its pulsing rays.
how happy you are, Hannah. You’re positively glowing. Look how young you are.
Life hasn’t done its damage yet, hasn’t wrinkled that youthful face, shadowed
those shining eyes. This was before The Year Everyone Died, wasn’t it, Hannah?
Before Mark (who took this photo, captioned it “Summer of Love,” and uploaded
it to Facebook for you to enjoy this special memory) was found dead in his
flat, alone, his cat curled on his lap. Before Ellie was found dead, alone, on
the night of Dan’s funeral – Dan
(not pictured) who overdosed, alone, “accidentally” they said but who knows, I
mean they said Ellie died of “natural causes” but what’s fucking natural about
dying at the age of 34? This was before Carl (not pictured) died, alone, jaundiced
and bloated and surrounded by empty whiskey bottles in a hotel room in Beirut.
Before your Nan (not pictured) died, surrounded by family in hospital, a couple
of days before Christmas. Do you remember what your Nan said, Hannah, when you
told her you loved her?
I could bottle up all that love, I could go on forever.”
nobody goes on forever, do they, Hannah? We just thought we’d remind you of
that today, five years since this photo was taken, and what have you even done
with your life in those five years, Hannah, are you making the most of every moment,
are you doing your dead proud? Because you survived, Hannah, and they didn’t,
and your incessant googling of “survivors’ guilt” won’t slacken its noose.
only reminding you of all this because we’re such good friends, Hannah, which
is why we’re on a first-name basis. We care so much about you and your memories, and by care we might mean own, but you don’t need to read the
small print, Hannah – just trust
in our relentless algorithms.
A Tale of Two Rice Fields
While a cornucopia of paper houses burn, I stand transfixed by the flames as they enter into the sky, the fire and smoke interlacing as both make their way into the rapidly-darkening horizon. Perhaps there was a prayer I could have uttered as this shrine of offerings was cleansed by the flames to join my grandfather beyond the mortal veil. Some eloquent last goodbye, proving that our bond as gōa-soon and gōa-kong had something more to it than just pleasantries at weekly lunches. But all I could do was continue to look at the flames as paper bills with inscriptions I couldn’t understand were continually consumed and rebirthed as ash.
was the last day of funeral celebrations for my grandfather, and although I was
surrounded by my family, I had never felt more out of place. A common aspect of
Chinese ancestral worship, even among diaspora, is the burning of joss paper,
paper-maché cars, microwaves, and other objects. These are meant to be
veneration of the dead, a method of providing for them in death what they once
had in life. Once, these beloved objects were buried in the graves with the
dead themselves; now, miniature carbon copies take their place in altars and
shrines all across the world, each a reminder of the deceased’s earthly
possessions. In the end, perhaps it is these mementoes and relics, the ones
that exist only to be bought and burnt up, that tell us the most about what we
have probably never felt as connected to these traditions and practices as I
should be, considering that the people who were participating in these rituals
make up fifty per cent of my extended family, as my mother is one hundred per
cent Chinese-Filipino. In films such as The Impossible and Cinema
Paradiso, tragedies like these are meant to bring families closer together.
In The Impossible, the sheer horror of the Indian Ocean tsunami is
overshadowed by how the Bennetts manage to reunite and emerge stronger than
ever before. Instead, in my personal tragedy, the wave I am faced with is the
deluge of comments in Hokkien from distant cousins and aunties. The only action
is me nodding blankly, trying to pretend I understand a single word they say.
Spoiler: I don’t.
makes perfect sense that we return to our ancestral roots in the face of loss. But
that didn’t seem to help my situation when I was sitting blankly and trying to
comprehend everything, when I knew (and still know) absolutely nothing. Maybe
it is odd that I haven’t even learned the basics of a language I should
probably be fluent in, but am I to blame when my parents only ever seem to
speak their native languages behind my back? That just might be the thing about
our roots and our traditions – if nothing else, we know them, and we know that
they are unlikely to change any time soon.
that’s what we need to know about dealing with the ones that we love when they
inevitably leave us. We all have our routines, our daily rituals. When the
boats of our lives inevitably encounter rough waters, they are our life rafts,
allowing us to at least attempt to begin anew, perhaps better than before. Then
again, is it not these routines and practices that shackle us to the past?
Warren Buffett once said, “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they
are too heavy to be broken.” Past the scent of burning paper and the chain of
white-clad people that made up the funeral procession, maybe all of our rituals
and all of our offerings were designed not for us to forget our past – but to
create a new way forward, our memories merged with our most wanted wishes. Honouring
our past, while embracing the future: isn’t that what we are constantly trying
to work towards?
my grandfather’s passing, weekly Sunday lunches were always a treat: a time for
my little brother to buy toys and a time for my extended family to actually
interact with one another. With one less seat at the table, however, it
sometimes feels as though as there is a spectre sitting at the dining room
table with us. We once went to a different restaurant each week, but I have now
memorized the order in which we go to these establishments, as dictated by my
grandmother – first, Banana Leaf, second, Via Mare, third, Wooden Spoon, and
fourth, Kaya. This weekly rotation of meals and malls is yet another routine,
something meant to keep the train of life chugging right along even with a bump
in the tracks.
there is one thing therapists specializing in grief counselling can agree on,
though, it is that there is no right way to grieve, or even a right amount of
time to grieve for. Reports from the medical department of the University of
California Davis say that expecting one to grieve for a year is but a myth,
because it depends on the person, or the group of people. Some grieve through
offerings and prayer, others through routines that attempt to include the
person as if they were still here with them in some way, but as the saying
goes, “to each their own”.
would say that a world where everyone goes through life with a perfect
understanding of everyone else’s cultural traditions and practices is
impossible. But respect isn’t understanding. We will all face loss at some
point in our lives, and we all will try to find our little ways to cope. There
will be times when we won’t ever truly “get” something, but that isn’t the
point. All we have to do is give everyone their space, and a sign that we care.
We don’t need to understand the exact purpose of what they’re doing, but we can
appreciate it nonetheless. We must all continue to grieve, regardless of our
individual sorrow. Life will go on despite our mistakes, our regrets, and our
lost loved ones. That’s why on the path that we call our lives, the only
possible direction is forward. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. If it is only
in death that we are all truly equal; we must learn to respect the ways in
which we are different before we all end up six feet under.
Art and Good Government
A little while ago, an
old friend who lives in another part of the country was visiting my cottage for
the first time. To our mutual surprise, we discovered we both had a print of
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco “Allegory of Good Government” hanging on our
respective walls. Nor are my friend and I alone: Niall Ferguson, the historian,
in his latest provocative history, The
Square and the Tower (2018), reveals that the very first picture he ever
bought was a print of Lorenzetti’s Allegory. Lorenzetti (c1290–1348) painted
the fresco in a room in the Palazzo Pubblico of the medieval republic of Siena.
The fresco was a revolutionary artefact of the fourteenth century. It portrayed
a vista of an idealised Siena and the surrounding countryside: it is probably
the first true landscape painting in Europe since the Ancient Roman frescos,
and the extravagant city roofscape is testament to Lorenzetti’s innovative
experiments with perspective. But it was not for these reasons alone that I and
the old friend (and, I imagine, Niall Ferguson) had given houseroom to the
The fresco is one of a
pair: on the opposite wall is the “Allegory of Bad Government.” The Palazzo room
in which both are to be found is The Room of Nine, where the Council of Nine
met nearly seven hundred years ago to govern the republic. The didactic purpose
of the frescos is clear from the strap-line at the base of the Allegory of Good
Government, which begins “Turn your eyes to behold her, you who govern her…”
Bad Government depicts an enthroned tyrant wielding a dagger and flanked by the
figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division and War; the streets are
empty, the houses are damaged, the only trader is the armourer; and the
countryside is ravaged – a location for advancing armies. Good Government shows
celebratory dancers in the street, artisans at their various trades in the
shops, and builders among the roof tops raising a new tower; in the
countryside, peasants are working in productive fields, huntsmen are riding
forth to find game, and packhorses are making their way to the city, laden with
goods. The message to the Council of Nine seems clear: take heed that you
govern wisely to bring happiness and prosperity to the republic.
Yet things are not always
as they seem. The Sienese Republic lasted four hundred years, but it was only
intermittently and infrequently democratic. The Council of Nine were a group of
merchant-princes, drawn from families that had long become extraordinarily
wealthy from banking and trading: Sienese families had been bankers to the Pope
and had dispatched traders to travel as far as Persia. The Allegories were
pieces of public art, commissioned by the Council. Were they commissioned to
instruct, or to celebrate? Langton Douglas’s classic 1902 AHistory of Siena is
unambiguous: “…the whole composition is a tract, written in buon fresco, with the object of
glorifying the plutocratic regime”. Certainly, the Council were no strangers to
glorifying projects: the Torre del Mangia – the great bell tower of the Palazzo
– constructed around the same time as the frescos, was deliberately raised to
be the tallest building in all Italy.
However, we (who are
surrounded by public art) must recognise that not all artists who receive a
commission embark upon projects of glorification of their public patrons. There
are, of course, occasions when the aims of the artist and the patron are so
contradictory that the project flounders. A famous and extreme example would be
John D. Rockefeller Junior’s demand that Diego Rivera remove the portrait of Vladimir
Lenin from the mural commissioned to adorn the Rockefeller Centre in the 1930s.
But more often than not, commissioners are prepared to grant some license, and
accept some gentle instruction, from the commissioned.
In 1355, the citizens of
Siena rose in revolt, expelled the Nine, and established a Magistry of Twelve,
chosen from among the small traders of the city. But by that time, Lorenzetti
had been dead for eight years, a victim of the bubonic plague that killed half
the inhabitants of the city – a catastrophe from which Siena never completely
recovered. Who is now to say whether Lorenzetti was the brilliant tool of the
Council of Nine, or the harbinger of the Magistry of Twelve?
2:47 a.m. and my husband Marc hums in his sleep,
as if contemplating something lovely and harmless, say, a buffet of nice
cheese. He garbles
a few words, sounding like an amused drunk, “Gerflah … kezabulla!” Then the snoring
day, Marc is an architect as well as a hands-on father who folds more than his
share of laundry. He takes care of insurance policies and clumps of yucky stuff
in the drain. He thinks my wrinkles and gray hair are sexy. Nearly fifty, he’s
still as trim and athletic as when I first laid eyes on him, back when he was
twenty-one and I was seventeen. But right now I’m wishing we’d never met.
over,” I order, nudging his shoulder not so gently. He lets
out a throaty guffaw, as unflappable in sleep as he is awake. I reach for the earplugs.
can deal with the snoring. The problem is that we bought a house. Buying a
sweater is hard enough – there is nothing in my closet that has not been
returned at least once for a different size or color – but signing the papers
on a house is the most colossal commitment I have ever made all at once.
house is outside of Berlin, where I’ve lived since 1994. Marc is German but I
grew up in Detroit. Our twenty-seven year relationship has grown over time, bit
by bit, like one of those add-a-bead necklaces: blind date, long-distance,
joint lease, one account, two kids… But who said I wanted anything hanging around
“It’s not like the question of coffee or tea,” said Frau
von B, the smirking therapist I visited for years. “You can have both, you know
– a fear of commitment and a long-term relationship.”
After my parents’
divorce when I was seven, my mom, a
free-spirited musician, stayed in the city to face addiction and poverty in a
string of grungy apartments while my dad, a conservative doctor, hightailed it
to the suburbs with his new wife and took up golf. Joint custody left me straddling the divide
between country club and thrift store.
to one lifestyle or the other was impossible. I was a perpetual outsider – be
it at the private academy I attended in Waspy Grosse Pointe or the almost
entirely black Detroit public high school from which I graduated. I was not the
kind of girl who married the boy she took to the prom. But that’s the kind of
woman I’ve become.
“I was seven-teen, going on eight-teen…” This is how I launch into the tale when
people ask how we met. I tell them how I noticed Marc’s elegant hands and calm
gray eyes, how we hid behind our menus, electrified when our furtive glances
met, how neither of us ate a bite, how the very next day, in a rented tux and a
borrowed dress, we endured that all-American rite of passage: the prom. I
hadn’t planned on attending but Marc was curious. He was a foreigner and I had
always felt like one; we made the perfect couple.
Moving to Berlin a few years later seemed the most
obvious thing to do. It was a playground of bullet-pocked streets and
underground clubs. Rent was cheap and so was beer, but
forging my way in a new country wasn’t easy.
Little old ladies scolded me for crossing
the street at a red light. Grumpy bureaucrats refused to grant me permits. People
at parties lectured me on the vacuity of American culture. And I – scrappy by
nature, chameleon at heart – wrangled with them all like a native. My German
became impeccable but I grew homesick for a place that no longer existed. I
could go back to visit, but the gap initially created by my absence had closed.
I found myself paralyzed: committing
to the future meant giving up the past. Waves of depression swelled. When they
knocked me down – panic attacks leading to catatonic days in bed – Marc rushed
in to save me, locking us into the roles of invalid and caregiver, a bond neither of us had imagined: one that
Eventually I sobbed to Frau von B
that Marc was having an affair. She was sympathetic but duly analytical,
diagnosing the situation as a “spätpubertierender Befreiungsversuch” – a late pubescent
made a bid of my own, dabbling in adultery, ditching a floundering career and
embarking on serious self-help: yoga, meditation, retreats – the whole
spiritual shebang. The idea of a fresh start was alluring. I threw away junk,
pureed kale, painted walls lavender. When the dust of mid-life crisis settled,
it turned out I still loved the guy I had taken to the prom. But a little
equanimity only goes so far… Sometimes that guy was just a twit in a V-neck
sometimes he was a divine prince. Watching him drive the car made me giddy with
desire. Every conversation was a thrill. Finding him was sheer luck, a life
together more than I deserved. But over time my fickle heart would beat a
little slower. He’d make a tone-deaf comment. I’d notice that V-neck sweater. Then
it was all downhill again…
stash of Houellebecq novels signaled inner decay. His failure to laugh at a
joke betrayed the icy Teutonic blood in his veins. His inability to appreciate
Radiohead made me wonder how I could have chained myself to someone so
essentially different. Of all the men in the world, why this one?
a shrug, Frau von B once ventured, “Perhaps you use doubt to keep love alive.”
made sense. Any long-term relationship requires a lasting connection. Some
couples worship at the same altar, be it The Muscle Shack or Our Lady of
Perpetual Suffering; others are linked in a mutual effort to sell hot tubs or
save the spotted owl. We bond by playing a never-ending version of hard-to-get
– I am hard to live with, but he gets me.
remain dubious of the happily-ever-after – even though the odds my marriage
won’t end in divorce are no longer as bleak as winter in Berlin. I cope with
the Siberian cold and impenetrable clouds by hiding out in the sauna and
blasting myself with 10,000 Lux. Escape fantasies alleviate the anxiety, but
it’s hard to imagine yourself traipsing around Asia with a backpack when you’re
shopping for roofers in Germany. And then there’s the mortgage, which literally
means “dead pledge”.
Marc first brought up the idea I said, “Are you crazy?”
of interest rates and property tax was a complete turn-off, yet I swooned at
the vague notion of being rooted to a piece of land. My ups and downs might
have become less Himalayan but my neurotic ambivalence had segued from romance
to real estate.
spent weekends driving out to look at places for sale: too big, too small, too
far from the city, too close to a wind farm, under a flight path, over a sinkhole…
Just as we were losing hope we discovered a viable house near a nature reserve.
But we had searched long enough to know that there would always be a hitch.
Asbestos siding was attached to the wood construction using aluminum East
German coins in place of washers.
“You’ll be rich when you take it down,” the owner joked
property also boasted some iffy plumbing and creative
wiring, a buckling roof, a collapsing barn, a handful of dead fruit trees… But the
view expanded to a sliver of lake in the distance. I looked into those calm
gray eyes. It was clear this was the one. Some instinct was always telling me to
run, but a deeper-seated one was seeking home. We made an offer fifteen minutes
So far we’ve torn down half the barn.
3:59 a.m. I am still wide-awake, doubts running rampant in my head like a horde
of mutant hamsters. Will this be our financial ruin? Should
we have held out for a place in need of less improvement, displaying more charm,
closer to the lake? In short: something better?
I wake to a frosty morning, my enthusiasm for the project
having plunged lower than the temperature. We need to drive out to
our little barren patch of Prussia and turn off the water before the pipes
freeze, but I’d rather be on my way to Polynesia – as a different version of my
My teeth clench as we roll through the last
intersection and hit the autobahn. Marc drives: not a prince, not a twit, just
the man I love. Trees
hurtle past the windows much too fast. I feel trapped, at the mercy of forces
beyond my control: time and nature.
“There ain’t no cure for life,” Frau von B used
to sing now and then in her off-key warble, misquoting Leonard Cohen with
I stand in front of the house with a set of skeleton keys in my hand. It looks
worse now that the leaves have fallen.
“I’m afraid,” I say.
“I know,” Marc says.
echoing space is cold and sooty – the coal-burning oven has been ripped out
since we were last here – but the way the winter sun scatters oblong shapes
across the floorboards makes it feel remarkably promising. Marc shuts off the
water and shifts into architect mode, zapping measurements with his laser gun,
tapping along the wall to discern where the wiring runs. My fingers dance over a pane of stamped glass held into the bathroom door
with two S-shaped brass handles – an awkward construction that is nonetheless
We follow the creaky stairs that lead up to the attic, discussing
which walls to knock down, where windows should be. I can see the view of
the lake that is still obscured by peeling woodchip paper, stacks of bricks and
a layer of asbestos. But I can also sense the chaos of construction, the exorbitant
cost, the endless hassle. Marc knows exactly what I’m thinking.
“It’ll be worth it,” he says, taking my hand.
To the Country that Created Us
/labor migrants, turning into
And here’s to where we all began, Here’s to the land that made me And made me who I am M. Mathers
The way home always seemed to me the longest ever taken, as there is nothing in the world you miss and want to see more than your mom frying eggs for breakfast in the small kitchen, while you smell already fried sausages resting several inches from your nose on that brownish fruity tablecloth you saw a fortnight before through Skype. Nobody but that woman who raised you who you are and who you call now every time when you feel like you would be the happiest living being if she was in your kitchen frying those eggs, half of the Earth closer. Probably she is the only reason to take those two long overnight flights and the full day transfer in the middle of nowhere, where only the camels enjoy their time. Just the way she looks at those things coming out from your suitcase, things that are not going to be in the local stores any time soon, probably any time during at least the next two decades. The way she tastes new food filled with another new food, the way she spits it out laughing her guts out, resembling a kid eating Bertie Bott’s who, having taken a green bean, expects apple flavour but gets grass. Yes, she is definitely the only person worth spending every single minute with.
After two days with no sleep
the warmest thing I got leaving the airport was her hug, actually the only warm
thing. My home city seemed to be in bad spirits that morning, as I think is every
second-sorted capital of a “developing” country. That’s their tolerant word to
say it is behind the whole world, even behind all the neighboring countries,
but still a promising word as it has the hint of some hope and even
possibility. In simple terms, everything I saw the first minute I stepped from
the plane was “developing”, even people. After some years living abroad people
always remember things like the wrinkles on their mom’s face, the pastry from the
local bakery, cheap prices for petrol and cigarettes, but other things, like
cracks in the roads and people’s hangover odour shock every time like the first
time. It is not that you forget about them when you don’t see them, but every
time you hope to see less of them and they keep staying and make your tremulous
I-miss-home-so-much feeling fade away.
Development. The only word I had in my mind while waiting for the
taxi. My home country, having once everything, needs to develop for its people
to have at least a decent life, before they can even think about a good
one. It is the largest country in Europe, culturally and naturally rich, but its
people still have to struggle to fulfill even basic needs, let alone esteem and
self-actualization, spending for living expenses about two hundred dollars a
Pressing me with its weight,
like a once-grand, immense submarine, sunk and heavy at present, my country
crushed into me like an enormous concrete wall with no way to swerve to avoid it.
Buildings hastily made of dirty grey Soviet cement panels with their wide
windows-eyes shadowed blue, green and white were watching the trains as they
penetrated tunnels and came back into sunlight like giant worms. They hurried
passing not-painted-since-the-last-century bus stops, next-to-the-subway
markets, president-owned candy shops and football-fan graffiti walls with
writings like “Zero Tolerance”, “Make Russia away again” and “Proud to be son
of this nation”. With every cell of my body feeling like I don’t belong here
any more and will never ever want to, I heard every graffiti letter, every foul
corner, every turnstile and streetlamp whispering my name and saying Welcome
I was looking out of the
window of my taxi with no markings, badges or rear-view mirror, staring at the
streets that were left behind in time, like in slow motion watching every
person going nowhere, standing on the same spot. I have never been to Africa,
but at some point it occurred to me it could look very similar. At least I
would expect it to.
Streets were busy and crowded
though. Never saw them being so diverse, full of people from the Middle East,
Asia, post-Soviet countries; tourists, students, labour migrants, refugees –
hundreds of eyes, sparkling with other cultures, beliefs and customs, were
watching the streets that raised me, the cracks in the roads that drove me, the
benches in parks that were once keeping my secrets. At least those eyes still
shine unlike eyes of those who were born there and who were now living years of
their life in either despair or crying sadness.
Everywhere they are, people
talk. They were talking in the supermarkets, in the subway, in the streets, in
coffee shops, all the way around me. Occasionally and definitely not
deliberately I experienced their words crawling into my head through the ears,
poisoning my guts, which almost totally forgot how to speak my national
language, and spreading like black death, making the rest of my thoughts fall
down sick, not being able to cast a vote any time soon.
Everything they were talking
about was around the prices that were too high for an average family, transport
fees and rent raised almost every two months with no visible improvements,
lowest-quality Chinese products flowing to our market and making our domestic
production stuck, stunned and choked with own goods that people didn’t want to
buy, preferring cheap to good. Gas stations, factories, mines, hospitals, even
supermarkets were sold; the land was dying under the pressure of prices, fields
were divided between the groups that can be defined as those who have their own
crops and make profit out of them, those who rent their fields out to get profit,
those who inherited fields from their parents but leave them empty having no money
to afford the cultivation.
Desperate and poor, having
participated in several revolutions during the last two decades, having lost
hundreds of people in them and thousands of people in actions they still could
not name War, having lost a whole piece of the country’s territory and struggling
to not lose two more, having managed to move thousands of inner refugees and
make the army no one even heard of before, having kicked out the ex-convicted
president and got the candy-factory-owning one, the whole nation was silently
moving from their yesterdays to tomorrows, ignoring the news about politics,
economy and international debts, focusing on their own financial profit,
gaining of which will promote their chances of moving out the country for the
sake of their families.
The nationwide cut on the
exemptions and preferences, cancellation of pensions for elderly in future for
those in their twenties now, introduction of new insurance-only medical care,
reduction of the number of public facility employees led to young and
middle-aged labour force flowing out of the country in order to find their place
and better life wherever.
That very morning, sitting in
my kitchen and watching my mom frying eggs and bacon, I got distracted from my
thoughts by news buzzing on TV reminding the nation of the anniversary of the
loss of the amazing singer, writer, composer and person whose name was known to
everyone in the country and whose death upset every each of them.
Personally I viewed him as one
of those who lived with country in his heart, being the real son of his
motherland. In one of his many songs he said “Every day, about one thousand
of our citizens apply for emigration, every day about five hundred of them come
to a foreign land in attempts to find a better life with the goal of staying
there, these people estranged from their culture, their customs and their
faith, most of them are working as unskilled blue-collar labourers, sometimes not
even getting the status of a citizen of a foreign country to the rest of their
life, and perhaps their problem was the fact that the answer had to be sought
in themselves, and not in the geography textbooks”.
Those patriotic sayings and
songs were pretty inspiring when I was a high school student, but were too weak
to fight the circumstances which led to people viewing their land as something
they want to be far from, the further the better, turning me and millions of
others into people looking for answers in geography books, the worst truth
being in fact that we succeed in finding them. Although the statistics of
emigration and demography definitely should be the thing to be worried about.
The surge in emigration after 2014
forced people to talk about its fifth wave. Soon about a million citizens fled the war in the East, trying to obtain refugee status in
other countries. Financial insufficiency, fast decrease in living
and the lack of work forced citizens to travel
abroad to an extent greater than
ever before. The results of a survey in 2016
state that the majority of people living in my
country said they wanted to leave it and one third of them to never come back. The plan
of the authorities to save the economy by remittances of the residents working abroad and
supporting their families failed, as in the last years immigrants are trying to take their families with them and gain a foothold abroad.
2017 authorities officially reported of forty-two million people living in the country, while everyone understands this number is too optimistic and strongly embellished as well as the official numbers on emigration. In case of emigration statistics, only people
who are eligible for permanent residence abroad are considered
to have left the country, but most of the residents do not plan
to return home and do not live in the motherland, having only business or family
visas for decades. In fact, government and the presidential administration believe that about thirty to
thirty-three million people actually live in the
country. And according to the consumption of bread, some experts believe that
the actual number of the population is twenty-four to twenty-five million. In any case, this number is much smaller
than the official one.
A fortnight before the
Independence Day those TV news dappled with reports about people striking,
budget money being stolen, roads having holes to the extent of people seeing
gas pipes in them, hospitals running out of vaccines, though positively
finished with the special video project “Road to Independence”, which had to be
broadcast episode by episode every day up to the day we should all be proud of
as well as proud of those things our country has reached after the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1991, highlighting the new reforms and leaving aside the
poor life of usual people.
According to the reports in
2015, before the beginning of the armed conflict in the east of the country,
about one seventh of the population was already working abroad. In 2015 it was
stated that during five years migrant workers transferred from abroad about 35
billion dollars, being on the top of the world rate of migrant workers’ capital
flow back to the motherland. For comparison: the country’s estimated budget for
that period was about 18 billion dollars. During later years, the situation
changed and the capital flow became more than 80% lower, as now people move out
of the country together with their families instead of sending them money for
living, which is still now enough, making the country drawn even more.
As stated in the annual global
Wealth Report prepared by the Swiss financial conglomerate Credit Suisse, in
2018 my motherland was in the twenty worst countries in the world, according to
the level of wealth of the population. It ranked 123rd out of 140 countries in
terms of personal wealth. Today one fourth of its population lives below the
too-far-from-being-optimistic looks in other people’s eyes soon became the
usual thing I tried my best to ignore, being pretty successful in it, as I knew
that very soon, in several days, I will land in a superpower on a different
continent, in a land where the majority of people don’t even know where my
motherland is located, as well as nothing about how poor it is, about how poor
the one single country in Europe can be.
Last days of my visit I was
still busy, packing my suitcases and applying for documents to last for another
year. Walking through the streets of the city I was going to leave for unknown
amount of time, I watched people wandering around with baby strollers and
buying falafel in the corner shops. That day I passed the cafe which is
considered to be the place with the best chocolate in the country, which made
me stop and buy several candies that I started eating straight out from the paper
bag on my way to the subway. That moment I was sure my life just became light
enough to bear, because of those new documents flying in my pocket and
hand-made cherry truffle melting in my mouth. By this year, with so much time
away, I totally forgot that before I left it for good, I could not even afford
myself buying things from the shops of that level of fanciness.
That was a beautiful day with bright sunshine over my head, full of great expectations for the country worthy being patriot of, while some drunk students, enjoying their summer holidays, were passing by, on their way to the dormitory, singing songs and chanting “Glory to Ukraine”, to that land that made us and made us who we are, to that land so many of us love the further – the better.
On Discovering Authors
is a book that had been on my reading list for a while. For one, having lived
for a little while in Bombay (I lived in the south where people still call it
that), I have a fascination for the city like no other, a soft spot for any
story that is based here. The nuances are abundant, hard to capture, but so
vibrant when done right. There are some cities like that – more personality
than massive plots of land, that swallow you whole and let you influence them
just as much as they change you. Countless poets and writers have written about
them, and Bombay – amchi Mumbai – as a writer’s delight, doesn’t disappoint. I’ve
read of the drug lords, of a foreign criminal fleeing the cops, of love and of
death in Mumbai, of a feminist writer from Kerela who lived about two hundred
meters away from where I did, on reclaimed land, forty years ago. I’ve watched
all the glitzy Bollywood movies. I’ve been a regular traveler in the local
trains, going back and forth from Churchgate to Andheri, walked along Marine
drive in the rain; at noon; at 3am, the skyline lit up on Diwali; with friends;
with parents; gone for morning jogs; looked out for hours at the glorious
Arabian Sea, and cried. Despite the garbage it keeps throwing back, the crowd,
the inevitable floods every few years, the rain and humidity it brings along as
side products, the sea is undoubtedly one of Mumbai’s redeeming qualities. The
food and the people come a close second. Sita aunty worked in our house,
cleaning dishes, doing jhadoo pocha
for two years. She would call me baby, even as I turned twenty-one. Even five
years after we moved, she still calls every Diwali, and asks my mom “Baby
nothing could have prepared me for this book.
few minutes past or before my twenty-fourth birthday, depending on which time
zone I wish to adhere to, I find myself in a book store, in a quaint city in
Portugal. I’ve been reading about Pessoa, and Lisbon through his eyes, where I’m
spending my birthday weekend, but my mind is elsewhere. It’s riddled with
longing for a city that I met briefly, but that will forever have a place in my
heart; mysterious, charming and often impenetrable, dangerous and alluring,
seductive in its offering of misery and joy in equal amounts, but above all the
presence of possibility – everywhere. Some may call it hope.
are similarities to these two cities, I think, my mind trying to draw
connections in its wandering, to stabilize. While Lisbon is built on seven
hills, Bombay was built on seven islands. It owes its name, and its origins in
a sense, to the Portuguese, who called it Bom
Bahia – the good bay.
spent two hours in my flight here, reading a real account of squatters and
scavengers, of the poorest and filthiest of India, immersed in their world,
holding on to their ray of hope as if my own living depended on it. But the
world I inhabit is vastly different from the ones I’ve been reading about.
beer down, but more drunk on the charming bookstore I’m sitting in, this stark
difference between a world long gone (Lisbon in the 1930s) and a world very
much alive but farther from my reality than I can ever hope to comprehend
(present-day Bombay slums), doesn’t quite register fully.
my birthday, supposedly an occasion of celebration and I can’t be bothered to
fight the cognitive dissonance, so I pick up another book.
Livro do Desassossego:
the Portuguese translates as “The book of disquiet”.
someone who so often finds herself feeling a sense of disquiet, turmoil, anxiety, Desassossego (I like the soft ring to
this word), I feel strangely comforted with this book in hand. Perhaps that is
the mark of extraordinary prose, sympathetic to its bone; a writer that takes
pleasure in language, pleasure in observing, no matter what the subject.
writes of certain kinds of eateries in Lisbon where people with uninteresting
faces, but that have a certain kind of digression from life, are frequently
found. And I wonder if I could be one of those uninteresting faces, in a
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is
a curious title. It refers to a huge billboard near the international airport
in Mumbai, hosting an advertisement of Italian tiles, “beautiful forever”,
behind which lies Annawadi – the slum that makes the setting. This book – Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death,
and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo – is so much harder, because it isn’t fiction.
You grow attached to the characters as you follow them through the sewage
strewn slum lanes. You know these kids live, but that they are always on the
brink of death through disease, starvation or accident. You know they will
fight each other for the aluminium-foil wrapped meals you ate in your
international flights. Maybe you got a business class upgrade. I don’t think I
will ever be able to look at the garbage I throw away in India in the same way
again. We are known to be a dirty nation, we discuss it with our upturned noses
in our posh clean homes. And even so, I never knew how many boys have skipped
school to work in the garbage business, collecting and sorting, that their lives
depend on it, literally; that a garbage bag makes for a bed on nights when
there is a possibility of it being stolen. And perhaps for this ignorance, this
book needed to be written. One feels mawkish while retelling their experience
of the book to another but the writing itself is neither sentimental, nor
crass; it is personal, the details having been so compassionately captured.
try to detach, you try to contemplate on what makes the system, the structure,
such; to think of what you can do as an individual. What can you do, having
turned a blind eye your whole life, beyond the concoction of pity, sympathy,
guilt, shock, helplessness, sorrow you feel inside, for these have no purpose,
It’s easy to spiral down life’s bigger questions as you read this book – the moral dilemma, the frustration at the system. In a place like Annawadi, is a moral compass a privilege its inhabitants can afford, when the choice, every minute, is between watching your family starve, and trying to be correct in a ruthless, unfair world? Katherine Boo captures the essence of these questions in her dedicated narration. One can only imagine the monumental task she has executed with such grace.
tried hard, on that trip to Lisbon, to think about what growing a year older
meant to me. Perhaps I was supposed to have some kind of epiphany, maybe there
were vows and promises to be made about the year to come. The day itself was
only a means to reconnect with people I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Lisbon’s
trams, and the old neighborhood of Alfama, though, were altogether too charming
to entertain such existential thoughts. And wasn’t I there to escape anyway, to
drink away my millennial sorrows, those larger-than-life anxieties? And so I
let the pressure to be more slide.
wasn’t discovered, as an artist, until after his passing, when trunks full of
his works were found and studied, and his genius acknowledged. He lived his
life as a translator of French and English works, none of which were his native
languages. He is now regarded as one of the most significant literary figures
of the twentieth century.
Boo is a journalist who has spent her career studying poor communities. On
being asked in an interview about the slum dwellers’ reactions to her, she said
that she was a circus act to them – a pale-skinned, blonde-haired old woman
following them, asking questions. She went on to say that they had more
pressing concerns, and the fascination wore off soon. There was always more work
to do, families to be raised.
image of Pessoa, hunched at night, scribbling away on bits of paper, and that
of Katherine Boo, sitting around in Annawadi, have stayed in my mind. They
remind me every time I feel “uninspired”, when hope is crippling at best, at
how silly that idea is. That what I do in this life, day after day may
seemingly have no impact, that one ought to create for the sake of creation
itself, for the love of life. And maybe this love for life can make one wander
into dark corners, and light a spark. Compassion, not blame, is the only thing
sure to work in the face of hopelessness. Maybe you’d make a ripple, a dent,
however small – be the catalyst of change, and maybe you’d be forgotten. Who is
to know, in a world driven by the kind of chaos, the mechanics of which, we are
yet to understand. Must the end result be our only motivation for creation, for
action? They’ve given me a glimpse into what it is like to be life-affirming
and desperately sad in the same moment.
Abdul’s words, to be ice, in a world made of water.
two authors I discovered this birthday, Katherine Boo and Fernando Pessoa, have
reignited that little sparkle in my heart. And what more could I have asked for?
Riding the Canna-Bus
I am standing in line in a tent waiting for a van that will take us to the fifth pot shop to open on the east coast of the United States. It is the first day of winter, four days before Christmas. The woman in front of me turns around and introduces herself. She wants to interview me for a story on her website. She is tall and thin and very pretty. She’s got long wavy red hair almost to her knees. When I decline it takes air out of her balloon but still we bond like kids waiting for the bus on the first day of kindergarten. I notice she does her interviews selfie-style, making sure she’s always in the picture. This is a magical day. Outside it is raining but inside the atmosphere is electric, alive with anticipation. People are in awe as if they can’t believe this is really happening. They are relatively quiet, though, lest the spell be broken. One guy in line tells me he went to the very first store, in a small town in central Mass. a few weeks ago and waited in line for hours. That’s in addition to the three-hour round trip. Traffic was gridlocked. Residents complained. Our weed shop is located beside the local hospital. One might think that would be a good match since cannabis products promote health and healing too, but you can’t have cars blocking access to an emergency room. So the police chief came up with this plan for customers to park three miles away at the water park. In the lot I spotted cars from Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Dozens of orange traffic cones line the road outside. They will need to come up with a new plan before the water park opens around Memorial Day. Earlier today the lines were real long but I must have come at a good time. I make it to the check-in table in less than an hour. Three employees sit there with laptop computers while space heaters whoosh out noise. My check-in guy apologizes for the wait. We’ve been waiting eighty years for this, I laugh, so fifty minutes is nothing! Everyone laughs. It’s crazy but true. Federal prohibition of weed started with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and in 1970 Richard Nixon outlawed all usage – even medical – when he signed the Controlled Substances Act. I suppose the government could ban chocolate or coffee or anything they want, whether it makes sense or not. The worker takes my license and enters something into the computer. Beside me, my redheaded friend is reluctant to show her license. You’re not entering license numbers, are you? she asks, because that’s illegal. In reality most of us don’t really care now that we are so close. After a shorter wait in another line we are given tickets that allow entry to the store and we climb aboard a white van for the trip to the Magic Kingdom. You have nice skin! gushes a girl sitting on the other side of my friend. And your hair is beautiful! I thought I heard the redheaded girl mention she has a holistic health company but when I ask her about it she proudly exclaims, I’m a grower! When we arrive at our destination there is a bunch of people waiting in the rain for the return trip. They are holding little black shopping bags that say Verilife. Police and security guards are everywhere. Between paying for police details, a security company, a transportation company and their own workers and expenses, this must be costing the Verilife people a fortune. We all make a beeline for the house, which sits on a small hill across the street. It is a small two-story white building with pillars and looks like a funeral home. More lines, more showing of licenses. While we wait outside, a car pulls into the tiny lot. A woman gets out, holds up a medical cannabis card and is ushered in like royalty. Finally five of us are allowed into the reception room where another worker takes our licenses and does who knows what on his tablet. It is neat and tidy here: white walls and nice wood floors. Bob Marley plays on the stereo. For our convenience there is a small ATM. This is a cash-only operation since weed is still a federal crime – a Schedule 1 drug right up there with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. On the little paper menus they pass out vape cartridges outnumber everything else. I know nothing about vaping. I settle on an eighth of an ounce of Diesel Fire for forty bucks. On the menu it’s got an S beside it for sativa to lift you up. Some of the choices have an I for indica, which has calming effects, and then there’s H for hybrid. At last the French door opens and our little group enters the selling area. It looks like a pharmacy with its shiny steel counter and neat white shelves. While chatting with a guy who seems to have extensive knowledge of the industry my friend tilts her head and swings that curtain of red hair slowly back and forth. One license check while we wait and suddenly I am at the counter. With my luck the FBI will bust down the doors just as I’m taking my money out. The clerk is very cheery and apologizes that he must check my license one last time. He puts a green and white foil pack into a little black Verilife shopping bag with handles and staples it shut with finality. It’s official: after years of buying herb on the street and constantly looking over my shoulder, I have made my first legal purchase. Reefer madness be damned! Waiting for the van in the rain, I share my umbrella with the redheaded girl. What did she buy? A pre-roll! she chirps. We get word that one of the vans has been involved in an accident, so there will be a delay. She meanders back to the white porch to schmooze with the cops hiding from the rain. A girl who lives in a neighboring town tells me she bought a vape cartridge for herself and some flower for her mom who complains that street weed is too harsh. She takes out her pen and explains how it works: the cartridge screws onto the pen and the pen’s battery creates heat that vaporizes oil in the cartridge. According to the menu, the oil is highly concentrated – at least seventy percent THC – three or four times as much as flower. She clicks a button and takes a puff. I hope you’re not driving, I say, thinking out loud. I am, she admits with a guilty grin.
The pothead pickup
location has changed. This time I wait in line in a tent at the old nail
factory on a cold winter’s day. A short brown Hispanic man walks in and stands
behind me. I direct him to the table up front where you have to check in and
show your driver’s license. He thanks me with a happy smile. He’s got paint on
his jacket and his jeans. A working man here for a little relief that he will
pay for with money he earned. Is he legal? Is he illegal? Does it matter? We
are given tickets that allow entry to the store. Do not lose that ticket! This
new location is only a mile from the shop. The female van driver admits she
gets bored sometimes just going back and forth, back and forth. Her teeth are
movie star white. Jimi Hendrix’s bluesy Red House reverberates through the
stereo system and it feels like we are in a concert hall. I buy a Dog Walker
Big Dog Purple Urkle pre-roll for ten dollars. It is packaged in a plastic tube
inside a professional-looking box with an embossed logo. The weed part of it
weighs three-quarters of a gram. It is rolled in very thin paper with a twist
at one end and a cardboard mouthpiece at the other. The label says it has 23.4
percent THC, which is a healthy amount. I no longer smoke so I will slit it open
and use the weed to make brownies. This is ridiculous, laughs an old lady in a
ski parka as we wait for the van that will bring us back. I thought we’d be
able to just walk in like a package store, buy the stuff and leave. That’s how
it was in Boulder, Colorado when I was there, offers a guy who looks like the
actor in Verizon’s Can You Hear Me Now? commercials. Little shops everywhere.
There was a half dozen of them near my B&B and it’s a quick in and out with
no hassle. A young black man talks excitedly about weed investment
opportunities and predicts this market will be through the roof. He bought pre-rolls
for his dad, a cancer patient. A good-looking blonde lady says weed helped her
get through her bout with cancer. I’m surprised she doesn’t have a medical
cannabis card. Gummies are her favorite. She laughs and says she tells the
children, these are not for kids! But what do kids know? I urge her to lock
them up in a safe. The gummies, not the kids! Not sure if she is the mother or
the grandmother. Depending on how the light hits her face, lines and wrinkles
appear and disappear. She could be any age. Are you doing better now? I ask.
Yes, thank you, she says, looking pleased that someone would care. In my mind I
picture a small black safe with a combination lock. Another woman bought some
edibles too and a five pack of pre-rolls. A friendly, down-to-earth woman
comfortable in her own skin. She shows me the foil pack containing a chocolate
bar. She loves chocolate (who doesn’t?) and since edibles don’t kick in right
away she tries to resist the urge to eat all the pieces at once and get too
high. So she alternates them with regular chocolate. She shows me the Brownie
Scout Dog Walker five pack of pre-rolls. They’ve got a high THC content of 30.5
percent. Five potent joints for twenty-five bucks! Thirty including the tax of twenty
percent. That tax is way too high but so far I have heard no one complain.
Everyone is just happy to get some relief. The Hispanic man with paint on his
clothing sits beside me in the van and gazes out the window. We pass a rusting
old RV surrounded by weeds in an empty lot and he gets excited. That’s a nice
bus! he says. She needs some love but that bus has good bones! You know he is a
good man, a hopeful, resourceful man who can probably fix almost anything. You
know he has love for all and you wonder, should we build the wall?
Four Days: A Provocation
“Papers! Papers!” Shouts of armed soldiers wake me as
they tromp through my train in long coats and helmets. So this is East Germany,
1972. We scramble for our passports, watching passengers exit under machine
guns aimed at our train from atop nineteenth-century iron catwalks arching
above the tracks. One blond, Nordic-looking woman is pulled from her seat in
our car at gunpoint, crying and pleading in German, broken English and some
other language I cannot understand. She looks to be twenty, the same age as me.
With my American small-town naiveté, I wonder why having a passport problem is
such a huge crime, and clutch my return ticket. I’ve heard that “police states”
exist, but the phrase hadn’t meant much until now. I remind myself to breathe.
It’s April. My boyfriend Jim and I had taken a break
from our London acting school to travel to Poland to experience Jerzy
Grotowski’s theater. His “Plastiques” method is visceral, explosive, dangerous
– quite unlike the classic British acting methods we’re studying. Jim is a
directing student from Chicago obsessed with theater; I am an
actress-cum-escapee from Vietnam War protests that had overrun my Ohio college
near Kent State, where National Guard troops had killed four students during
riots. We’ve both traveled widely and are supremely confident we can handle
whatever comes our way, though we know little of actual life behind the Iron
We bring pounds as well as dollars, in case one might
prove more valuable than the other, and take a ferry to Calais and a night
train across Europe. We have some food with us but at 5pm – as is routine when
I travel on US trains – I set out to meet the locals. Jim goes the opposite
direction so we’ll have tales to tell at the end of the night. But I find
neither observation car nor dining, just cars of five cabins connected by long
hallways. Everyone seems to have their own food, and there are no extra seats
to sit for a conversation.
I am approaching the last car of the train,
disappointed not to have met anyone, when I hear boisterous laughter and the
clink of glasses. Now this is more like it! After a trainload of identical
compartments, the very last car beckons. Rich polished wood panels replace
plastic and metal; instead of long hallways of blank glass, hall windows are
framed by tied-back white curtains, and each compartment is thickly upholstered
in red cushions. No other car is so inviting. But as soon as I peer into the
first cabin, four jovial men freeze and one barks, “You go! Russian only.” An
armed guard appears from nowhere and hustles me out of the car. I later learn
that since Russians are not trusted to transfer without trying to escape, the
entire car will be detached from our train somewhere in Germany and reattached
to a Moscow-bound train, as if the passengers are potatoes.
I return to our empty seats, find Jim is still out
reconnoitering, and am disappointed again that there is nothing to do but eat
alone and try to sleep upright in a cabin full of strangers, none of whom speak
English. Their collapsed forms are reflected in the window through which I can
see only the black silhouettes of trees flashing by a shale sky. The
countryside is still. We are heading east, just hours from being wakened for
our papers in East Germany.
After being roused again by armed guards in East
Berlin, this time around 3am, it is almost a relief to enter Poland. There are
still soldiers everywhere, but somehow the place seems more human. Maybe it is
the moneychanger, a genial Polish man in a blue uniform with a large brown leather
satchel. He explains in Polish, German and English that we will not be able to
use foreign currency when we arrive, and that he will give us zlotys for our
currencies according to where we are traveling, and for how long. Those staying
with their Polish families will have the least expenses, so they exchange the
smallest amount per day. Those staying at hotels will need a larger amount, and
Americans are expected to exchange the most, even if they are students like us
staying at a youth hostel. It’s not fair and seems silly to exchange so much
money for a three-day stay when we have no intention of spending it, but the
official assures us that if we don’t spend it all, we can get our money back on
our return train. The armed soldier behind him convinces us it is pointless to
“Honey, get up,” Jim shakes me awake. “This guy wants
to buy us breakfast while we wait for our train to Wroclaw.” We are in Poznan,
the nearest large Polish city to the German border. Jim had spent the night
using his rusty high-school German to talk with an affable Polish man in
another car, who explains over breakfast at a nearby hotel that he no longer
speaks with his son, who is Jim’s age. I am taken aback by his sadness, and
wonder what could have gone so wrong.
“So that’s why I talk with you,” the man concludes in
German, “and I show you Poles can make a beautiful breakfast like in the US,
yah?” It is nice indeed – fresh orange juice, strong coffee, thick slabs of
yeasty local bread, savory sausages and eggs, served on elegant china at a
table graced by fresh flowers and gleaming heavy silverware. I think it good
but unremarkable, since it is what you’d get in any Hilton in the States, and
wonder why it makes him so proud.
When we finally get to Wroclaw by mid-day, it is a
relief after so many dreary brown stations to find a large market square
surrounded by handsome five-story curvilinear buildings – they look Dutch to me
– painted in different pastels with geraniums in flowerpots on every
windowsill. I relax in anticipation of a charming jaunt. But as we traipse
through town to pick up our theater tickets, concrete Soviet apartment blocks
loom over us, desolate and soulless. I cannot imagine having to live in such a
I’m used to London’s nineteenth-century brick
buildings fronting streets full of Carnaby Street Mod fashions: bright colors,
polka dots and shiny boots. But I live there like every other student in a
small apartment, known as a flat, decidedly not up to American standards. Our
handsome 1860s townhouse flat comes complete with ancient wiring (each room has
one outlet) and coin-metered gas heat. One night we run out of shillings and can’t
get change – everything in London closes at 11pm then, including pubs – and in
the morning, the wall next to my bed oozes damp cold. The shower is hot for
five minutes until the 20-liter water heater, hanging above the tub, runs out.
There are no bananas or oranges for breakfast because stevedores are on strike.
Electricity sometimes goes out for no reason. All this, to a student like me, makes
London a grand adventure compared to the States, but London is the Ritz
compared to Wroclaw.
Our hostel is minimalist, small and grey, like so much
there, but I really sense we are walled off from the world, behind some kind of
curtain, when we eat. All the metal in all the cafeterias is tin – hollow, thin
and bent – from the coins you pay with, to the rack that supports your battered
tin tray along the steam counter, to the “silverware” we eat with. One morning,
I bend my spoon just stirring my coffee. Thinking of the fabulous breakfast
we’d been treated to in Poznan, I realize the ruling class still reserves the
best for themselves, and think, What is
all this poppycock about a classless society that some American students still
spout? At least the food is plentiful, although it’s the heaviest I’ve ever
eaten. The first night, I have to abandon half my meat-and-potatoes dinner. The
next night I start with an appetizer and never get further: The bland
chicken-salad-like substance swathed with mayonnaise on a hard, pink tomato is
plenty. I am used to some imported food scarcity in London due to strikes, but
in Poland, the only fresh produce I see are scrawny root vegetables – onions, potatoes,
carrots, beets – and some apples. No greens, no juice, no imports. This paucity
of fresh food, the ubiquitous flimsy tin, and the clean but patched faded
clothes of no particular fashion that everyone wears all reinforce the feeling
that we have stepped into a postcard from the past, of peasantry, poor and
While it surprises me to see such poverty in a large
city – Wroclaw is home to over 400,000 people – I am amazed, in the midst of so
much hardship, to find full houses every night at multiple theaters offering
Shakespeare, Polish and other plays, plus a gilded Rococo Opera House with
ballet, opera or symphonies most nights. I am very impressed that this
impoverished population thinks so highly of their culture that they willingly
support the hundreds of actors, musicians, set/costume/lighting and other
tradesmen that make it possible. Only later I learn from a disaffected Polish
professor in the States that the audiences are assured by requiring every
worker to attend X number of performances a year. Free tickets are handed out
by your supervisor and if you skip, he’ll know, and you could be jailed for
defying the State once too often. What an awful price to pay. Yet the price we
Americans often pay for our insistent independence – demanding that all culture
compete in a popularity contest for support – can spur a herd mentality that
lowers the bar so much, it reinforces ignorant insularity. Neither one is
The night we attend Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theater,
spare but well-equipped for tourists with programs and synopses printed in
seven languages, we see Apocalypsis Cum Figuris,
featuring Ryszard Cieslak in the title role. Cieslak is a riveting actor who
uses movement as his primary form of expression, a human Gumby. Using his body
as if it were a trampoline – elastic yet exactingly precise – he becomes, in
his words, “almost without skin, pure discovered nerves.” I’ve never seen a
physical performance so focused and intent. Jim thinks the work inspired, and
talks my ears off afterward.
On our second day, looking for a bakery, we round a
corner into a sudden deconstruction zone. Workmen are carefully removing carved
limestone lintels from doorways and windows of a three-story wall remaining
from an old building. At first, I think, Oh
good, at least they’re not destroying everything historic when they tear down a
building. But then I look closer.
The building behind it, and the one across the street,
and the one down the street, are just hollow historic facades fronting rubble.
They are still cleaning up from WWII bombings, twenty-seven years on! I reel
from the enormity of the destruction these people had faced (the city, then
known as Breslau, had been part of Germany). I am floored by the ineptitude of
the Communist system. London had been badly fire-bombed too, but the East End
and other areas had been completely rebuilt years ago, with brick Council Flats
occupying obvious spots between Georgian terraces. But here, they haven’t even
finished removing the destruction. And what they did build is so ugly: hard,
grey, frowning. Surely the powers-that-be
can do better? I start to realize what it could be like to live under a
system where the State makes all the decisions, and the people make none.
On our third day, Jim and I decide there is so much
yet to see that we go to the local ORBIS office to extend our Visas one more
day, a process we think might take an hour. But the office is full, with
multiple lines snaking around, worse than any US government office, and no one
speaks English. We stand for an hour in one line, only to have Jim learn in
German that we should have been in another. After hours of waiting, only to be
directed to stand in a fourth line, with no sign of real help, Jim blows up, a
typical American (the kind we deplored when we saw them in London), loudly
proclaiming to no one in particular that he would let our Embassy know about
this when we get back. Miraculously they find someone who speaks English, and
by late afternoon our extended Visas are finally approved.
But we are fuming. We had wasted an entire day. No one
bothered to tell us ORBIS is swamped because it’s Easter. Everyone wants to
visit relatives, and since you need an official permit to travel anywhere at
any time, without fear of arrest – I thought of that poor girl hustled off our
train in Germany – thus the lines. But being up front about a situation is not,
apparently, the apparatchik way.
After another day of sightseeing, our four days in
Poland are over. We are at the Wroclaw station, hard-sided valises in hand, but
it is not at all clear which train goes north to our connection in Poznan. None
of the townspeople speak English or are willing to speak German, there are no
framed maps on the platform, nothing but Polish names we do not recognize, and
no official who can help. We stride up and down the platforms, calling out
“Nordlich? Poznan?” and pointing to each train. When at last several people
nod, we hope for the best, and get on. So do everyone else.
There are no seats or standing room in the filled
cabins, so we stand in the hallway, wedged together so tightly spoon-style that
Jim cannot turn around to see me behind him as the train rumbles out. The crush
of bodies is so intense that at one rural stop, a thin old woman, desperate to
get off and not strong enough to push through the crowd, squeezes her cloth bag
and then herself through the only narrow window that opens in the hallway. As
she arches her upper body out, a crowd of upraised arms on the platform pulls
her lower half out, as if this is common.
We ride for over an hour, squeezed together in the
middle of our jostling car, our feet aching, before Jim recognizes a city name.
“Shit, Opole?” Jim leans over me. “That’s on the way to Cracow, we’re going south.
We’ve got to get off this train.”
My heart sinks. I know we can’t cram ourselves through
a window to escape like the tiny old lady. It will be another two hours to
Cracow. If we don’t catch a northbound train soon, we’ll miss the last
cross-Europe train in Poznan, and if we can get a hotel at all with these
crowds, we don’t want to have to pay the top dollar we’ll be charged as
Americans to stay overnight. Plus, our classes back in London start in two
At the next stop, the train waits at the station at
least fifteen minutes with no one getting off when a large man somehow crushes
past us. We grab at the chance to move out in his wake, hoisting our suitcases
over our heads as he has done. But it is nearly impossible. The train has been
waiting at the station so long that no one at the end of the car is willing to
step down to let anyone off for fear the train will start up at any moment and
leave them. All we can do is push and plead, “Aus! Bitte…We need aus! Please… Danke.”
We had moved several feet when I feel my purse catch behind me, but with both
hands supporting my luggage, I can only squirm to pull it free.
Though my head is down, I can see outside light
flicker from the end of the car, only a few feet away, as the Pole pushes
through with Jim right behind him. But my strength is flagging. I am desperate
that the train will start up with Jim off and me on, traveling to God knows
where, with no ability to make myself understood. People around me sense my
fear and start pushing me forward. But my outstretched arms give way under the
weight of my suitcase, and as people push my shoulders, I fall forward over my
case, can’t stop going down, I see nothing but bundles and rough clothes and
worn shoes, I’m choking, almost crushed to the dirty floor, sobbing, “Please
let me out! Stop pushing! Stop it! Jim where are you? Stop it!” when someone
pulls me up and out as I gasp for air.
Miraculously, the train remains still. People pull and
push me again and again until I stumble down the steps and collapse on my case,
shaken like a hen pulled from a fox’s grim grip.
A north-bound train, when it comes, is not nearly so
crowded which is a huge relief. We find seats and I rest under Jim’s wing; by
the time we reach Poznan, I am calmer. While waiting for our cross-Europe
train, I distract myself by watching the enormous black nineteenth-century
locomotives start up. I have never witnessed such creatures before; Western
European trains are all modernized, but here little had changed since the
1930s. I watch, fascinated, as soot scatters in all directions and steam
hisses, the iron bar connecting colossal discs shudders into life as the great
slabs of steel shake, snort and strain to coax wheels taller than me into
urgency, slowly then faster and faster and faster and faster until the muscular
machine clatters away from me in rhythmic momentum. The sheer force of the
Industrial Revolution is still alive! My eyes are teary from the smoke but I
cannot stop myself from walking, then running, with one enormous iron horse
after another until I am left breathless and exhilarated at the end of each
platform, looking for the next train to run with, like a racehorse chomping at
Our train out of Poznan has barely started when,
“Pieniądze proszę,” the moneychanger is back. Only this time he speaks only
Polish as he collects zlotys from our cabin mates without exchanging anything. Oh no; have we been intentionally misled
again? My heart sinks as I fume, You
can’t trust anyone in this country. No one knows anything or will tell you
what’s going on.
we were told we could exchange these zlotys for the British pounds we exchanged
four days ago, coming into Poland,” Jim tries to explain in his rusty German.
“Przykro mi, ale nie rozumiem, mówię tylko po polsku,”
says the moneychanger.
One of our cabin mates translates in German, “Er sagt,
er spricht nur Polnisch, kein Englisch, können Sie verstehen?”
Through this spontaneous three-way translation, Jim
finally understands what’s up and explodes, “Nur Geld?” The moneychanger smiles
apologetically and opens his valise to show nothing but zlotys.
I pipe up, “So how do we get our money back? We
exchanged way more money than we needed, and now we’re going to lose it all?”
The Pole promises to keep our money for us, for when we came back on another
trip. Sure, I think, like it would be waiting for us, no problem.
We’re never coming back after all this…
Jim tries to explain that we are just students and
need that money, it’s ours, not yours, and besides my girlfriend here has been
robbed of all her zlotys plus pounds and dollars from her purse on the Cracow
train. I show him, no wallet.
Finally, after going back and forth many times in
three languages, the money collector asks for paper but no one has any, so from
somewhere he tears off a piece of cardboard and writes something in Polish, and
tells us to take it to the Moscow Narodny Bank in London, and they will give us
our money, but now he has to collect our zlotys. With his armed guard vigilant
behind him, we have no choice but to give him all our Polish money for a
cardboard sign we cannot read.
We’re glum – especially me – about the prospects of
ever getting our money back, but at least we get safely on the cross-Europe
train heading west. This time I do not gallivant through the train looking for
random conversation, and we make it back to class on time.
Now it’s mid-June, and term has almost ended. Jim will
be leaving in a few days to return to the States, and we still have not been
reimbursed, almost three months after we got back. I’ve given up hope of ever
seeing our money again when we get a message to come to the London branch of
the Moscow Narodny Bank.
“This’ll just be another waste of our time,” I
exasperate. “Why do they put us through hoops?” But, just in case, I join Jim
at the bank.
It is a beautiful yet imposing building, full of
marble and nineteenth-century British pomp, completely unlike anything we saw
in Poland. Typical, I sniff to
myself, the top brass commandeer the best
for themselves. But from history classes, I know better. Poland and the USSR
once had plenty of nineteenth-century pomp, most of it completely destroyed in
the war, so there is little left now to commandeer or save. And how well would we have fared, I
reflect, if bombing had obliterated
Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans? What would be left of those
places without the old districts that make them unique? Would all our cities
now be full of cheap soulless monoliths, built quickly to house multitudes
After another long wait, my cynicism melts as I watch
the teller hand Jim a fat packet. “Look at this!” he exults. “That crappy
cardboard sign actually got through to a person! I think they gave us
everything back! I told you this
would work out!” We count the cash – nearly $500, a fortune to students in
I am flabbergasted the scheme worked, and wish somehow
we could have kept that torn bit of cardboard. What did those magic words say?
In a country full of rules, doublespeak, switchbacks and scarcity, what can a
functionary like a moneychanger possibly write to cause the great grey faceless
State to reconsider its usual heartless policy? Has someone been bribed along
the way, or did we happen upon a bureaucrat courageous enough to bend the
rules? Has he been punished for showing us some humanity? Did they reimburse
because they’re ashamed I was robbed on the train? Are we tokens of leniency in
some cold war game in the middle of Vietnam? Or are we simply lucky?
One thing is for sure. Though rude, brash American
tourists still embarrass me in London, and I try to appear as quietly British
as possible – adjusting my accent, my clothes, my hair, so I won’t be seen as one of them – I realize for perhaps the
first time what it means to be free. The old WWII song sings in my head:
“There’ll be bluebirds over / the White Cliffs of Dover, tomorrow just you wait
and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the
world is free.”
I have to admit – pacifist and lifelong Democrat that
I am – that some things really are worth fighting for.
The Dark I Know Well
There is a part I can’t tell / about the dark I know well.
It’s always one of two nightmares: I’m either trapped in a room with a many-faced man, or he’s chasing me into the street outside my childhood home. They always end the same way: I jackknife upright in bed and scream or cry – usually both. It’s impossible to remind myself that they are just dreams.
I am sixteen and volunteering at a gala for
the museum where I spend my summers working with the education program. I am
part of the group who greets the honored World War II veteran. It is my job to
“Thanks, sweetheart.” A customer – a tall
and slender man in a business suit – at the coffee shop where I work as a
sophomore in college shoots me with a toothy grin. He winks and walks away,
laughing with the man next to him.
FORD: I am here today not because I want to
I am sixteen when the eighty-something
veteran sets his sights on me. I do not have time to register his brusque
“c’mere” before he tugs at my waist and invades. His lips are all saliva
against mine. I don’t remember his face. I don’t remember the shocked and
wounded noise I must have made. I remember the applause from the audience. It
was my first kiss.
FORD: Indelible in the hippocampus is the
In the first nightmare, he sits behind a
desk and speaks filthy things to me. I never remember what they are, but they
fall into the room in a blitz. It’s not long before he encroaches upon my
borders, pushes me against a table or wall. I wish he’d incinerate me in the
He grabs my ass. It is one of my first solo
concerts. I am with my best friend, and I have just gotten past the
claustrophobia of knowing there is no easy way out of this mosh pit, not with
the multitude of sweaty, pulsing bodies between me and the door. I do not see
his face. I do nothing, the first and second times. I think it could be an
accident. I want to think it could be an accident. He stops after the
third time, when my elbow connects solidly with his rib cage.
You felt some guilt you had ever let him
I am still sixteen when I sit in my hotel
room on my last night in Moscow with classmates. The door does not lock from
the inside. I am eating pizza on my own when one of the boys walks in, more drunk
than not. I don’t remember what we say. I don’t remember what I feel in those
first moments. A condom falls from his pocket and we are both silenced by the
“How much for a BJ?” I am nineteen in Amsterdam
when a drunk American man and a posse of his friends approach me. He ignores my
answer – “I’m not a prostitute” – and grabs my waist, pulls me to him, and asks
again. I don’t scream. I punch him in the gut and run for three blocks until I
find a burger joint. I don’t cry. I order a burger, my eyes fixed on the door,
and the man behind the counter gives it to me for free. He doesn’t ask who I’m
looking for. He doesn’t ask if I’m okay. He doesn’t ask me to leave when I’m
still there an hour later, still watching, still not hungry.
FORD: I believed he was going to rape me.
I lose my voice the day Christine Blasey
Ford testifies at Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary
Committee. It starts slowly. A scratching as I watch her opening statements. A
deep ache as the questioning goes on. When Kavanaugh takes the floor, it is too
painful for me to speak. By dinner, I am only a low, strained whisper.
The man in the dream has a face. He has
hundreds of faces. He is my ex-boyfriend, my close friend, my professor, my
boss, my uncle, my priest – he is every man, and I am shackled by the violence
in his eyes as he surveys the battlegrounds of my body.
I am nineteen and I am already used to the
constant catcalls that accompany a walk through the San Lorenzo leather market.
I try not to show any hesitation when my professor announces that we will each
conduct individual interviews with the shopkeepers, the men who have spent
months shouting at me, who have taught me that my dress is permission, that my
eye contact is an invitation, that my smile is a promise.
When your eyes can adjust and you see
what’s in view / discolored and distempered smiles that seen you.
I am stumbling over my feet to get out of
my house as the second nightmare begins. I never see his face, but I know that
he is always behind me. I remember the goosebumps his hot breath leaves on my
neck. I can feel the ghost of hands just millimeters away from my waist.
After three uneventful interviews, I am
ready to leave the market when one last shopkeeper captures my attention. I
decide that one more interview can’t hurt. I think my professor will be so
proud until the man answers my questions with unsubtle flirtations. I try to
leave when he asks me to have dinner with him, but he seizes my waist and
brands the imprint of his lips on mine.
You don’t open your eyes for a while /
You just beat that moment down.
It is not fair to her, but Christine Blasey
Ford becomes every woman in her testimony. The only hope we have is if every
man listens to her.
FORD: My responsibility is to tell the
I am sixteen after the bomb drops in my
room in Moscow, and I want to run, but I can’t. I know the boy will say
something – or do something – but I don’t want that. I am rescued by my
friend, a male classmate, who wanders in either unaware or all too aware, and
sits beside me. We talk until the boy leaves and then it’s just him and I and I
want to thank him and give language to my fear, my relief, but I don’t. I don’t
want to cause any trouble.
FORD: I am terrified.
I tell my professor and two other
classmates – a boy and a girl – what happened in the market. They are outraged
and guilty and worried and want to know if I’m fine. I can’t seem to stop
laughing. I don’t know how not to make it a joke. It has to be a joke. The
boy walks me to my next class, watches as I make it to the entrance of the
building, and there are no words to thank him.
I stop running when I hit the middle of the
road. I try to scream but I can only force a long, scratchy breath from my
heaving lungs. I try and try and try, terror growing with every muted attempt,
because if I can just get someone to hear me, I’ll be saved. It never happens
in the nightmare – I wake myself up every time after spending an eternity on
that street unheard. But if I could just get something out – I don’t know what
KAVANAUGH: You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to quit. Never.
Lyrics from “The Dark I Know Well” from Spring Awakening, “The Alien” and “The
Gold” by Manchester Orchestra, and “The Pit” by Sileversun Pickups.
Methods of Escape
An Afghan police officer gestures for us to stop. My translator, Zabiullah, pulls our car over. The streets in downtown Kabul on this summer morning in August 2015 remain largely empty of traffic. Shuttered vendor stalls stand like the vacant buildings of a ghost town and dogs jog down the sidewalks, pausing to rummage in the garbage floating in gutters, competing with boys scavenging through the same refuse.
Jogging to the driver’s side, the cop asks Zabiullah to take him to a bus station. Afghan police earn little and often stop cars and request rides when they’re off duty. Turn them down, you pay a fine. I’m a reporter driving to my hotel after attending an uneventful press conference at the presidential palace. I’m not in a hurry and I certainly don’t need the hassle of upsetting an Afghan cop.
—Get in, Zabiullah tells him.
The cop climbs in the back seat and introduces himself, Naim. Like many Afghans he has just one name. He’s starting five days of leave. He got a ride into Kabul from the police station in Sarobi in eastern Afghanistan, about a five-hour drive, and now needs to catch a bus to his home in Bagram, more than sixty miles away.
He’s more than earned his leave, he tells us. One week earlier, he and other members of the Afghan police, Afghan National Army and American special forces participated in a firefight in Uzben, a village near the Tora Bora mountains close to the Pakistan border. Coalition forces lost Osama bin Laden there in 2001.
By the time Naim reached Uzben, insurgents had set fire to trees. American soldiers looked through binoculars but could see nothing beyond the burning trees. It’s safe, they said. Then Taliban fighters swept down from three different directions through the smoke. Naim ran. He saw police officers and some Americans gunned down. Naim hid in the woods until dark, the heat from the fire searing his face.
At ten, maybe eleven at night, Naim crept out of the woods and made his way to the police station in Sarobi, just outside of Uzben. The dispatcher on duty nearly fainted. I thought you were dead, he told Naim. I’m not, Naim said. We’ve told your family you’re dead, the dispatcher said; I’m sorry for this. Naim punched him in the nose. Now it is my turn to apologize, he said.
He stayed at the station two nights. He called his family but his wife thought he was someone pretending to be Naim because the Naim she knew was dead. By the third day, Naim no longer cared about the Taliban and told his commander he had to see his family. The commander gave him two bodyguards and he drove home to Bagram. When his wife opened the door, she screamed, You’re a ghost! Naim insisted he was not a spirit and walked toward her and she began to cry and wail and sank to the ground. He looked around his house. The tables were filled with flowers. A coffin took up a table. Everything had been prepared for his funeral. He started to cry. For two days, he stayed with a friend until his wife believed that he was indeed Naim. After two weeks, he returned to Sarobi and resumed his duties.
—Have you thought of leaving Afghanistan? Zabiullah asks.
—No, Naim says. If I don’t have money to get to a bus stop, how will I have money to get to Europe?
—Good point, Zabiullah agrees. I had the money one year but still I could not get out.
It had been a simple plan: Zabiullah’s wife, Sweetra, was pregnant in 2014 with their first child. They knew a smuggler with contacts in Italy and he got her an Italian woman’s passport. Sweetra would fly to Italy and have the baby in Rome, making him an Italian citizen. Then she would send for Zabiullah. Borrowing money from family and friends, they paid the smuggler $6,000.
Zabiullah drove her to Kabul International Airport the morning of her departure. They tried to stay calm so no one would suspect what they were up to. Don’t cry, Zabiullah told her, or security will know. He watched her board a plane to Dubai. From there, after a long layover, she’d fly to Rome. He felt so happy when she got on the plane without mishap. He returned home and waited for her to call him. When she did, she was crying. He thought she just missed her family but it was much worse than that. Airport security in Dubai had detained her. Her foot was on the first step of the stairs to the plane to Rome when a guard pulled her aside, took her passport and walked her into a bare room with only a table and two chairs. Who made you this? Where did you get it? the guard asked, waving her passport. He spoke Italian and then English. She insisted she was the person in the passport. The guard kept her in the room for hours before he put her on a flight back to Kabul.
—Don’t ever try this again, he warned her.
Zabiullah called the smuggler.
—You have to do something, he said.
—I have connections. Don’t worry.
Zabiullah was not appeased. He had seen people arrested for drugs on TV, shackled from head to foot, and he feared the worst. He felt like he had lost everything. He’d expected not to see her for six months. Now, she was coming back twenty-four hours later with nothing.
—I don’t want her taken off the plane in handcuffs.
—Don’t worry, the smuggler said.
The smuggler picked her up when her plane landed in Kabul. He drove a black SUV and paid off the necessary people. He took her directly from the plane so she would not be escorted through the airport by police. The smuggler called Zabiullah.
—I’m here. I have your wife.
—It was a very sad day for us, Zabiullah tells Naim.
Naim frowns and pats Zabiullah on the back. After September 11th, the Americans came and everything was fine and then it wasn’t, he says. Nothing is sustainable. That is why everyone is leaving. When he was young, he could go anywhere. Now he can’t. He thinks of leaving but how can he? He’ll go if someone pays.
When we reach the bus station near downtown, Zabiullah parks beside a table where three men sit drinking tea beneath the awning of a restaurant. Two yellow buses pocked with rust stand at the curb low to the pavement on nearly deflated tires. A few feet away a bearded man shouts, Why don’t you accept Islam? Do you not want to go to Paradise? Why do you dress like Westerners? Are you not Afghan? Are you not Muslim? The Holy Koran is the ultimate book of Allah. It’s the one true book. Like technology, the Holy Koran is the final update to everything that preceded it. Do you believe the other books are irrelevant now? Whoever does not believe in the Holy Koran is not following Mohammad and will not go to paradise. The Holy Koran is the last book. No one has the right to change it. People who don’t have faith in the Koran don’t go to Paradise. The day of dooms is for everyone. God will judge us all. I am telling you this because on the day of judgement I will be asked by God if I told the people about the holy book. So now I have tried. People will be divided between heaven and hell. I will be rewarded with good things.
The bus drivers listen to him rant. Turning, they notice Naim, Zabiullah and I watching him. Crazy man, a driver named Mukhtar mutters. He gestures for us to join him and offers us tea. We sit. He looks at his watch. Slow day. It may pick up because many people are escaping Afghanistan. He’s had passengers who have sold everything they have to buy a ticket to Iran, including other bus drivers. He knows of two drivers who just reached Europe. A lot return. They spend all their money and then they get caught, deported. Iran, he’s heard, is not kind to refugees but some people never give up. They collect money and go again. Mostly couples or single men. He rarely sees single women leaving. He gets only good girls on his bus, girls who travel with their husbands. He feels sorry for them when they don’t make it. His brother, Mohammad, sitting across from us, tried to get out but got caught in Turkey and deported. He wants to try again.
—You’re crazy, Mukhtar tells him.
—You’re crazy to stay, Mohammad responds.
Mohammad left Kabul in 2014 after he graduated from Bakh University in Mazār-e Sharīf, a city hours north of Kabul. He had grown tired of living day-by-day and by chance. The chance of being struck by a bullet. The chance of being killed in a bomb blast. He survived a bombing in May in Mazār that killed a small boy. Someone had placed an explosive in front of a pharmacy. The boy was walking past, pushing a cart when the bomb went off. At that moment, Mohammad decided to leave Afghanistan. He knew English. He did not have a wife or other obligations binding him to Kabul. He had no reason to stay. He hired a smuggler and the smuggler put him in a group of sixty-five Afghans fleeing to Europe. He knew some of them. They took a bus to Herat and then walked four hours through mountains to cross into Iran. A falling boulder mangled one man’s foot and he was left behind. Another man fell but got up and kept walking. They carried bread and fruit with them and little more. Some of them threw away their food to lighten their loads. A driver the smuggler hired met them in Iran. Sixteen people squeezed into a car and so tightly that their faces turned red. Six others, including Mohammad, piled into the trunk. It was very hard to be inside the trunk. There were some holes so they could breathe but it was impossible to breathe well and it grew very hot. When Mukhtar asked him what it was like, Mohammad told him, If you want to know more, try it yourself. Twelve other people got in a second car. The rest shouldered their way into two other cars. The smuggler said it would take three days to reach Tehran. When they noticed a police checkpoint, everyone scrambled out of the cars, spread out and crept forward on foot and waited for the smuggler to pass through the checkpoint. They got back into the cars, the smuggler shouting, Hurry, hurry! and drove on until the next checkpoint when they got out again. A few people lost their way each time they stopped and were left behind.
Iranian police caught the Afghans in Yazd, a small town outside Tehran. They had passed the main checkpoint but police were patrolling the road and intercepted them as they tried to reunite with the smugglers. The police spoke to them worse than a farmer beating a mule. They cursed and hit them and the migrants cried but did not resist or try to escape. They had accepted all the risks and knew capture was a possibility. Inshallah, they had said when they left Kabul, God willing we will reach Europe. God had not willed it and they were subdued in their failure. The police took them to a custom house where they worked unloading imported goods. After three days, they were taken to a camp for Afghan migrants near the border with Herat and fed them once a day. The Iranians held migrants with no money indefinitely. Mohammad had nearly $2,000. The police took it when they turned him over to Afghan police.
Now, Mohammad wakes up in the middle of the night furious with the way the Iranians treated him. As if he were illiterate, an idiot, an animal. He is twenty-one. He has a degree in economics. He stares into the dark and imagines himself as an animal in the Kabul zoo, unblinking, enraged, trapped.
Mukhtar grips his shoulder as if to shake away the memories of his failed flight. Mohammad looks down the road at the heat lines rivering the distance into murky waves. He intends to try again. One of his neighbors sold their house to pay a smuggler. Mohammad will go with him and twenty-one members of the man’s family. He has heard that Denmark is accepting of refugees while Germany has begun to crack down.
—You’re crazy, Mukhtar says. Our family is here.
—I will send for all of you later.
—It’s too dangerous. Many are thrown into the sea. You have seen all these things on the news.
—I’m going, Mohammad says.
He looks at Naim and Zabiullah.
—How about you?
They both shrug. They know the stories of people leaving by bus, on foot and not making it. Zabiullah and his wife didn’t make it. Naim has no money to try. They must get exhausted thinking about it. Tired of dreams. Tired of plans. Everyone just wants out. They just want a visa. A piece of paper. That’s all it takes. I know. I have it.
Naim asks Mohammad which bus goes to Bagram. Mohammad tells him and Naim stands. He thanks Zabiullah and me for the ride. His light blue, sweat-stained uniform sags off his thin body and his sunken eyes droop with sleepless nights. He looks forward to seeing his family and forgetting for a while the risks of his job. He receives threatening phone calls from the Taliban. If he returns to Uzben they will kill him. He makes a point of not traveling outside of Sarobi.
—Good luck, Zabiullah tells him.
Naim lets out a long breath. He won’t let threats deter him. When so much could go wrong, it’s important, he says, to keep his life simple.
In Defiance of the Gods
Do it then, you fuck. Fuck you, you think as you lean into the wind and throttle down hard, gunning the bike just feet from the glistening blue Maserati’s rear bumper. You are on the Merritt Parkway in Fairfield County, Connecticut playing 100mph chicken with who you imagine is some trust-fund brat and his platinum blonde female companion who cut you off coming off an onramp about twenty miles back. You caught him on one of the corners and flipped him off, and he swerved and slammed his brakes on in front of you and took off again. But instead of letting it go, you passed him on the right with a high-revving scream of the engine and pulled a quick no-brake downshift, engine braking rapidly and slowing down the bike with no warning.
In your rearview mirror, you watched as their laughter turned to horror and the woman began shouting and slapping at the guy to slow down. No pussy for you tonight, motherfucker. And you waggled a gloved middle finger in the air daring him to come back and go again. He doesn’t though. He’s had enough. He gets off at the next exit to take his pissed off girlfriend or wife or other man’s wife home and nurse his wounds. Or so you imagine.
You are a little disappointed by this. You would have kept playing. You would have rammed that laughter right back down his fucking throat and watched as it got tangled in his silver spoon and choked him to death on the vomit he spewed all over his soft custom Italian leather interior and her $900 Louboutins. Or waited until you both pulled to the side of the road, and he took a swing at you, and you beat his ass in front of his lady. And then she’d step over him lying there knocked out in his Brooks Brothers tweed jacket in one long legged stilettoed stride and jump on the back of the motorcycle and take off with you, manicured fingers entwined in your beltloops like in some trashy novel. Ha, silly harlot. You amuse yourself with this for a few more miles. Fucking bourgeois Greenwich-ass motherfuckers. You listen to the comforting, throaty roar of your parallel-twin in your ears and feel the warm afternoon sun on your face and the wind whipping at your hair, and you give not one absolute fuck.
There is a hubris to you now. An arrogance and superiority of which you have not felt before. The arrogance of the surviving warrior perhaps. The arrogance of having cheated death maybe. An arrogance in which you will come to believe that you are entitled to that of which you know you will not ever return or repay.
You will take risks you would have never taken before. You will push the limits now. You will not care about the consequences. You will take, and you will take. You will bend until things break. You will test until things fail. You will push until things cease to push back. You will not understand why you do this. You will not even consider it then. And you will lash out at those things, and punish severely when very little or no punishment is due.
You will act as if you are immortal. Or immune. Or exempt. Exempt from the norms and standards and rules by which civilized society exists. There will be a new selfishness to you. A new greed. You will be Icarus wanting more and more altitude and daring the sun to melt your wings. You will be David taking Bathsheba from Uriah, sending him to his death. You will be Odysseus wandering, drunk and stupid and risking his life and the lives of his men. You will lack in purpose. You will lack in conscience.
Hubris will be the fuck you to the boyfriend of the grad student you will fuck in your Jeep in the parking garage of CCSU and on her mom’s couch and in hotels and on your own couch while your wife is at church after he calls to woefully ask you not to. Hubris will be the bottles of Grey Goose and Kettle One that you drink and fall asleep with on your kitchen floor with the dog and in your driveway in your car and curl up with an army-issued poncho liner on your back porch when you can’t make it up the stairs or find your way back inside the house.
Hubris will be the morning-after pill that you drive a friend from high school to the pharmacy to buy after having unprotected sex with her at a Christmas party when she was in town for the holidays. Hubris will be the bullet that you accidentally fire into your floor, narrowly missing your foot as you drunkenly unload your Walther PPK one late night, and the racked slide slips out of your grip. Hubris will put that same pistol in your mouth and dare you to end it one day when you are alone and sad and listening to depressing music on repeat. Hubris will make out with nineteen-year-old waitresses from T.G.I. Friday’s in the parking lot of a 24-hour diner and forget to tell them that you’re married, and that you can’t take them home with you.
Hubris will be the voice in your head a year later that says go ahead and pull that trigger, you little shit when a fourteen-year-old kid with a battered AK-47 is pointing it at your chest because you don’t care and because you wonder what it would feel like. Except you will not see a teenage African kid staring back at you, you will see yourself – angry and defiant and full of hate and envy and false bravado. Hubris will look at the tip of an RPG-7 being aimed at your face and not feel anything except fuck you. Hubris will feel anger when you should feel fear. Hubris will feel vengeance when you should feel guilt. Hubris will feel shame instead of sorrow. Hubris will drive you to the end of your physical and mental limits when you should feel need. Hubris will make you feel hatred when you should feel compassion.
Hubris will push away the loves of your life. The kind, and the giving, the beautiful, and the forgiving, the patient, and the sweet. Instead, hubris will attract the vindictive, and the self-serving, the spiteful, and the self-consumed, the poisonous, and the disloyal. Hubris will find the psychotic and tyrannical. Hubris will betray. Hubris will seduce. Hubris will confuse and frustrate and paralyze the heart and soul until you no longer know yourself. Hubris will mistrust and second-guess. Hubris will be destructive and respond bitingly and with sarcasm and cruelty when you should respond with sympathy.
Hubris will be the inferiority complex that drives you to multiple future graduate degrees that you probably don’t need or even want so you can pretend to walk on the other side of the tracks. Hubris will be the six Manhattans and wine that you will slam at a public outing and dinner a decade later in New York City because of your anxiety and your inferiority complex and the lifelong chip on your shoulder, and because you are a semi-functional alcoholic who finds more comfort in the sweet taste of bourbon than anything else in any social situation.
Hubris will refuse defeat with an iron will and an iron fist and instead of asking for help push you to run farther and faster and longer than you ever have before. Hubris will drive you to the brink of your capacity time and again and for no good reason and teach you nothing good because you will learn nothing good. Hubris will only teach you to mask your pain and your exhaustion and your hurt and your sorrow and to put up impenetrable walls around your emotions and to cut off anything and anyone who has ever wounded or slighted you.
Hubris will find you on the other end of the globe, six thousand miles from the place of your birth and your home and your family and your friends, because you have grown to hate yourself and your life, and you are desperately seeking redemption, and you don’t know where else to find it. Hubris will find you plummeting thousands of feet through the air on a rocky KLM flight over Addis Ababa during a thunderstorm as you siphon Heinekens with UN peacekeepers and are mesmerized by the blue lightning striking the wings of the plane while other passengers scream in terror and luggage falls from the overhead bins.
Hubris will decide that fate is the ultimate decision-maker and in regards to one’s mortality, fate has already decided where and when and how your life will end. Hubris will not fear death any longer. Hubris will develop a “c’est la vie” type of philosophy for everything. Or “Insha’Allah:” God wills it. Or: “It is what it is.” Or: “Fuck it.” Hubris will lean into the wind on the curves and not think about the sand or the salt or morning dew still on the roads. Hubris will lean toward the muzzle of the rifle and not think about the 7.62mm piece of steel and lead at the end of the chamber. Hubris will look on stupidly as IVs are inserted into your veins and morphine and antibiotics are injected into them at various times throughout your life and will wonder what the fucking point of it is it anyway.
Do it then, you fuck. Fuck you, Fate, you will find yourself saying. Pull the motherfucking plug. Even though you know you don’t mean it. Even though you know you really don’t want to die at all, and you do feel fear about it, and you really do not want to tempt fate or the gods or God or whatever higher power is in control of the lifespan of mortal souls. And you will feel remorse and regret for ever tempting fate and the gods and God and Mother Earth and everything across the Rainbow Bridge and the pot of gold at the end of it and everything else and everyone you can think of and apologize to.
You will be sorry for disappointing those powers that be and will recount every time you ever have disappointed them when you are staring up at a hospital ceiling one day for days and nights and hours on end. You will vow never to disappoint them or tempt them ever again, just as you have so many other times after you have thought it was the end and a machine gun or rifle or proverbial guillotine or tractor-trailer has gone off over your head or swung across your neck or swerved across your lane, and you’ve promised to live a good life and do good things and help the poor and defend the weak and those in need of your help – if only, if only you could have another chance at it.
When I was eleven, I waited for the school bell to ring so I could go with Sean to this kid’s house to get stoned. I don’t remember the kid’s name; the only impression he made on me was his face: scabbed over, crusted with dried blood all across his chin. Me, unaware of what tact even was, asked him why. He told me that there used to be a pimple there, and he kept picking at it. I guessed he wasn’t too bright. Or maybe he was a genius. After all, there wasn’t a pimple there anymore – but the circumference of the scab seemed a bit overkill for what had probably amounted to just a small bead of pus to begin with. I wasn’t there to look at his titanic scab. In fact, I wasn’t even there for him. I was there for his seemingly unlimited store of green-hued carnal pleasure. The feeling that brought me there, to his house, was my primordial fascination with naughtiness. Marijuana was just a means to that end. I didn’t at that age even like being stoned that much, I just loved the idea of being a stoned eleven-year-old. It was the novelty of it that interested me as opposed to the tool of that novelty. If I were any year above that, I probably wouldn’t even have tried it. After it was legalized, a year later, I never touched the stuff again, not until the eve of my eighteenth birthday, when a coworker goaded me into it. There were several sheriffs in the dining room, and the itch to be dumb and brazen returned. I craved the inside joke of a stoned cook serving a poor excuse for Mexican food to members of the law-enforcement profession. If they were lawyers, I’d probably have pretended to slip and fall instead of smoking the pot, desperate to land refried beans on their Brooks Brothers. In fact, I’d have probably made them smoke the pot if they weren’t stuffy enough to refuse. They probably already do, anyway.
But I wanted to get stoned at eleven so I could be eleven-and-stoned. So, Sean and I walked across a grassy ditch, a small worn dirt path, to the neighborhood across from school. The Kid welcomed us inside, but demanded we take our shoes off. His parents were Chinese, and he’d be damned if we were all about to get geeked out of our minds without first having taken our shoes off before entering his house. He commanded it, as if his parents were primitive gods and we were the primitives offering goods of leather and polyester on a door-jamb altar. If he hadn’t stopped me, I’d have walked right past him to his stash, which I’d already taken mental ownership of. His house was more Chinese than he was, redwood floor and porcelain vases. For a second, it heightened the thrill. It was the closest thing to an opium den that that particularly disgusting rendition of 2010s waspy suburbia could muster. I was going to go up to his bedroom, lured by the blue horses glazed in fine bone china that his mom had bought on clearance from TJ Maxx, when the reality hit that it was all going down right now. I shook a little bit on the inside, but maintained a poker face. On entering his room, The Kid proudly brandished a pipe: a pen cap and casing held haphazardly at a right angle by tin foil. He looked proud of it, so I tried to conceal my suspicion behind beaming joy as well. I’d heard good things about marijuana, everybody does, but burning plastic didn’t have the same tasty appeal, so I was a bit wary. Then, he pulled out the pot in a plastic crystal-looking dome that had once held imported hazelnut truffles but was now brimming with the verdant good stuff. Carefully, he loaded the Bic pen bowl of his Bic pen pipe, pulled out a Bic lighter from his pocket, and paused, looking at the both of us.
“You have to stay here till it’s all over?” he said, but inflected the last word so that the command sounded more like a question. I was confused, and I wore it well enough for him to explain.
“I don’t want anyone finding you after you hit this. No cops, nothing – nobody. This shit is powerful,” he said. I agreed, and because we were all between eleven and thirteen, we’d decided who’d take the first hit by playing rock paper scissors; there wasn’t any other way. On rock, The Kid dropped the pipe and had to sweep all the weed into a nice little line, scooping it back in the bowl with an index card along with dust and tiny strands of hair. In only a moment, the privilege of hitting the pipe first became a guessing game of who’d take one for the team. I took one for the team, being unintimidated by flecks of dandruff and bed lint. They passed the pipe around, and I grew mesmerized by the trading routine that Sean and The Kid invented between them to avoid the now-misshapen melty, hot bowl. They forgot to pass it to me again; I forgot to ask. As they juggled it back and forth, and with each changing of hands, my throat became dryer and dryer as if something both euphoric yet at the same time sinister was boiling in my throat.
“There are helicopters in my head,” I said. They both looked at me with the scarlet slits that had once been their eyes and pointed upwards: I was right below the ceiling fan, which was on. “Oh,” I said to the ceiling as both of them squealed, laughing while trying not to cough. The Kid fetched Girl Scout trefoils from the downstairs kitchen which Sean hogged for himself, scarfing down one after another. The Kid tried to get them out of Sean’s hands so that he could have some himself, but there were only three left that he ultimately handed back to Sean. The sun scorched the room despite the ceiling fan being on full blast, so we decided to go to the treehouse. At least there was a breeze in there.
At the treehouse, we all sat there sweltering but not sweating, arguing over who was going to play music. “The music is important,” The Kid said, “cements the whole thing.” I looked at him a bit funny because the hand motion he used for “cement” looked more like he was squeezing an invisible lemon and hesitantly grinding it into the wood floor beneath us. And that word, “cement.” It sounded way too special to describe what was going on. Three slumped tweens in a treehouse doesn’t call for “cement,” to describe them. It wasn’t exactly a meeting of great minds. In fact, that descriptor was second only to “organic” in how pretentious adjectives could get. Still, nobody was playing music, so I whipped out my phone and went to YouTube on the slow pre-installed browser. I didn’t have a data plan, but this occasion was too special for a data plan. If there’s an extra charge at the end of the month, so be it. Living starts now. I went straight to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, which was a song Sean could get behind but The Kid was vehemently against. He grabbed my phone and put his finger over the speaker while scrolling through his music. He would set my phone down, but pick it back up again when the song he forgot to pause would pipe up again at full volume without his finger plugging it. He kept forgetting to pause it. His forgetfulness apparently annoyed him so much he tossed my phone out one of the windows. It was safe because of the grass, but it was still a severe breach of principle. Sean tried to defend me, and Black Sabbath by proxy, but we independently came to the conclusion that any dissent would mean the end of our pot. So we kept our mouths shut as The Kid went to fetch another pen lid bowl for the pen casing pipe, and a bit more of sticky bud from inside the house. Sean and I stared at each other, having nothing else to stare at or do. We didn’t even know we were staring at each other until The Kid asked what we were up to when he came back and found our eyes locked.
On his return, he didn’t just bring more po. He brought the entire faux-crystal jar of it. In his other hand was a near-full, small bottle of baijiu, that Chinese liquor that’s so rough it almost feels oily when swished around. I assumed that the oily sensation was the clear liquid dissolving the edges of my mouth. I was still very high, but Sean was more high. The liquor didn’t do anything but turn Sean and me both high and nauseous. The Kid tinkered with his phone to play the music he’d been looking for, but eventually stopped trying after several clumsy attempts and no luck. We all pretended that the awkward silence was enough to fill the space that the proposed better-than-Black-Sabbath music would have. The Kid dug around in his pocket and pulled out a pack of his dad’s fancy cigarettes from Hong Kong. They were supposed to have medicinal benefits, but any purported benefits were rebuffed by the health-warning picture that showed some type of indiscernible rot on an unidentified part of the body. The Kid gave one to Sean, who was unreasonably timid with the blinding white stick. He refused to give me one; I was eleven, and apparently that was marijuana age but hardly tobacco age.
Sean was thirteen, so that was a good enough age for The Kid, who was twelve. Sean didn’t want to look chickenshit, so he lit it. I looked over at him as the unholy trinity of sludgy Baijiu, plastic-infused pot, and medical cigarettes turned his face green. He stood up with a slight twirl, but centered himself enough to throw up right in the middle of the treehouse, smothering the pipe bottle and pack of cigarettes in chyme. The Kid hurried us out of the treehouse while he used his shirt to buffer his hand while picking up the shame-soaked paraphernalia. We went back into the main house where Sean continued to spill himself in the upstairs bathroom. He threw up so much that it was almost frightening, so I nursed birdy sips of baijiu to quell any anxiety without pushing myself over to joining him on the porcelain throne.
I decided that I needed to get out, so I left Sean to deal with The Kid. I left the house and walked home, with surprisingly more balance that I thought I’d have. I went to my room, turned on the ceiling fan, and basked in its sobriety-inducing frigidity. I passed out and woke up slightly hungover, but that soon faded. The next day was Monday, and I gave Sean a knowing look as he passed by me in the halls. He gave me a dirty look, but I didn’t mind. I could understand his scorn at me abandoning him. Yet I also felt like a scapegoat for his weak boundaries. Our school was thirty years behind. That meant we got to be taught the normal way, with carryovers and tallies, and we played dodgeball still. But that also meant the school was haunted with ghosts of DARE and Nancy Reagan. I mozied my way to the next class: health. The Friday past had been all about how to not-fuck. It’d worked: over the weekend, I hadn’t fucked. But really, that curriculum depicted women as seductresses that’d ruin your life – with tits, ass, herpes and child support to scare the boys – and how men are suave Lotharios filled with infection and infidelity beneath a California tan that’d render girls unable to be the person the boys would be scared of. The divide-and-conquer strategy got the County quite up there in the teen pregnancy and disease stats, guaranteeing funding to teach the same thing next year because it didn’t work this year. They guaranteed that funding for a decade, unlike Denver, which had to teach about protection. Their curriculum got poorer as a result. The class before that had been about how to not eat food that had been laying out. That lesson was a bit more challenging to someone born into an immigrant family. We rarely used a fridge for things that were cooked that evening, to save energy on snowy nights. But on the Monday, after what seemed to be an Acid Test to three people not yet tall enough to paint the school bus different colors, we were learning a new unit: the perils of drug and drink. I pretended that the lesson was virgin to me. Reaching into my pocket to grab a pencil, my heart dropped a few floors. I’d forgotten that I’d taken a little weed as a souvenir. I felt at it, my hand in my pocket, to make sure it was in fact what I thought it was, and then stopped in a bid to keep it from leaking out of the loosely tied bag. But I was eleven, so the teacher thought I just didn’t have a pencil. She moved closer as my heart raced faster, and plopped a Dixon on my desk. “Don’t you ever come to class unprepared again; you hear me?” I nodded. She went back to her desk and started to teach.
How are you fine thank you
Καρδιά = Kardia = Cardiac = Heart
“Η καρδιά. Yi kardiá. Heart.”
“Η βάρκα. Yi várka. Boat.”
“Η χώρα. Yi hóra. Country.”
Stella is teaching me Greek nouns, and my brain is attempting simultaneous equations of
the endings that make them feminine,
connecting what I can to English (kardia = cardiac = heart), and
regurgitating the alpha, vita, gamma, hoping each letter and word is disgorged of English and comes out clear and transparent, like a leaf bleached of its chlorophyll.
Stella is also a trained philologist. She explains something about feminine nouns, ancient Greek, and English’s similarities: Mother Nature, nations and ships are female. We veer into the subjects of of sexism and language use, but remembering these philosophical discussions won’t be practical when visiting my partner Romanos’ family in summer, we return to the textbook.
The next Wednesday, hours before my next lesson, I practice Greek in the shower. My thoughts are translations: How are you? Today, I have an Adobe Illustrator lesson. I am tired.
—No. Scratch tired. I don’t know what the feminine word for tired is.
“—You don’t know the word for that yet. Wait. Let me try something else.” Stella says that day.
“It’s okay, let’s start all over.”
Sometimes it is as though I am the teacher when I am really just a paying customer. We are back to the script of Unit 1.
Hello, how are you? Where are you from? Which city? What language do you speak? What do you do?
Stella teaches the sentence I work in a library instead. The word librarian is actually harder for me to memorise.
But artist, writer. That word I have no problem with and learned it myself when I had arrived in Athens as an artist-in-residence, a year before I started lessons with Stella. Yet outside of Greece, “What do you do?” begets the answer of a profession that actually pays.
Do you like it?
Whatever it is, I always say yes. With no, it is why not that follows, and who has the vocabulary for that?
In learning Greek, I do not mean to be selfish, but I truly am. I memorise situational phrases, garnish them with non-situational vocabulary to explain myself, my day, my family, my country, the size, its rent: everything is εγώ, ego, I, I, I, I.
How do I say this? I have in yi kardiá mou to make a conversation with Stella and Romanos’ family, but yi varká bringing me those words have not yet arrived in yi hóra mou.
When I’m not working, I’m working on other things. Writing for a grant, responding to an open-call, shifting stanzas and caesuras, reading and researching. The other day, I was editing a poem in the living room when my mother’s phone rang. It must have been my father at work, or an aunt who had called for a quick afternoon chat.
“Yes, yes, and Joey is here too.”
“She’s doing her homework.”
My mother knows the acts of writing and reading in the way she jots down the winning lottery numbers for the day, or checks out the cost and country of origin of fruits in the supermarket. “Homework” is the closest thing she knows of reading and writing that required concentration and effort when I was growing up. So even as an adult, I am bent over in the living room, doing homework.
She grew up in a family of eleven siblings, her parents and a grandmother. She never completed secondary school, having studied until fourteen years through night classes. Her family could only afford to buy fruits that had started to rot, and rarely when they could afford it, the tips of chicken wings. When you are not rich enough to eat but not poor enough to die, what expressions could you have had learned for poetry and art? That was how I was able to excuse my mother for not acknowledging me.
It’s all _______________ to me
Romanos tells me the Greek equivalent of it’s all Greek to me is eínai yiá ména kinézika: it’s Chinese to me.
I laugh, not because it is funny, but because I could speak to my mother in English, and it would be still be English to her. Over the years, I sought to change the hierarchy in my vocabulary. If I was going to give a “lecture” or a “reading”, I called it a “talk”. An exhibition, performance art, or a festival became “show”. A poem, an essay, my research turned into a “story”. And even then, she showed little pride or interest.
I never told her about my despairs: how I was eating Nutella and banana sandwiches daily so I could pay for graduate school and still give her an allowance. How a friend had offered me $10, and I was too proud to even take it until the day I tried to enter the gantry to catch the train and realised there was insufficient value in my card, with no money in my bank account either to pay for the fare.
Throughout our lives, my mother and I coordinated our conversations with similar questions, and answers with nothing more than a few other options, limited by the boundaries and experiences of our disparate lives, the vocabulary at our disposal.
Do you want to have lunch? How was your day? What did you do today?
In silence, I listened to her talk about how the car was dirty again, the increased cost of food, the number of foreigners coming into the country. And I thought of all my monologues with Stella.
It had to do with a fiction piece, my first, to be published in a print anthology to be launched at a writers festival. I said, “I have a story coming out in a book,” omitting fiction, published, print and anthology. Instead of pride, I had said it almost with the defiance of a delinquent who had done something wrong, but needing to be right.
That day, years of the carefully constructed excuse, which had allowed forgiveness, acceptance and understanding for my mother’s lack of acknowledgement, failed.
“I hope you didn’t write about our family,” her tone was flat, cool, warning.
We had looked at each, wondering who had shamed who.
That day, I realised my mother had always known what I did.
And she thought that they were dangerous. I was dangerous.
As a child, I used to say, “How are you fine thank you”, believing those words belonged together in the same sentence. When my mother taught me my first greeting, she was one person speaking two parts of a dialogue. Following sounds instead of patterns, it felt correct to repeat what I heard, rather than how they were coordinated.
Over the years, the answer “Fine” has been revised and updated to “Good”, “Alright”, “So-so”, all of them agreeable, acceptable. Once, however, stepping into Gap at the end of an exceptionally trying day, I decided to reply the chirpy sales girl’s greeting with the truth.
Bad. I watched her hold her smile longer than she had intended, probably to excuse herself from responding. I had violated a script, and she had tripped. She walked away, still smiling.
Ode to our open-minded, modern young men
Forgive them, for they like their women dead
My childhood friend Z. has become a manly man. The green eyes and good smile are still there, their glow slightly dimmed by years of iron-pumping and masochistic nutrition. Yet it quickly transpires that Z. has not truly grown since we were both thirteen, fifteen years ago. This fact I both know and avoid as he invites me to his parents’ place where, naturally, he still lives. Z. cooks me rice and, unprompted, informs me of the size of his dick. (“Just because I’m short, doesn’t mean my dick is.”) What a joy men are! After we eat, Z. picks dead skin off his lips and flicks it into his empty plate. I listen and nod, earn myself “my little Marie’s” by the dozen. Z.’s mother is also called Marie; do what you will with this fact.
When I tell Z. I am a feminist, his smile barely cracks.
Discussing things freely Or how a lifelong friend indicates he’ll let me play inside my little pen, but no further
You know, my little Marie, I’m so glad you’re not one of those hysterical feminists. At least I know with you I can have an honest discussion, we can talk about these things freely.
It’s just that there are some jobs men are better at. It’s a matter of physical strength, and science doesn’t lie. Trust me. Originally, women chose to stay behind and care for the children while men hunted; it’s our history, it’s our evolution. We’re not meant to do the same things, because we’re biologically different. And let me tell you: all those feminists really want is to erase our differences, our beautiful, natural differences.
Well, you’d be surprised, the pay gap isn’t actually proven. If you truly delve into the subject, you will find it’s actually really hard to prove!
I just cannot stand the concept of positive discrimination. Are we supposed to turn away competent men and hire a less qualified woman just for the sake of it? You can’t stand here and tell me that that wouldn’t be unfair! Those feminists, they don’t want equality, they want domination. They just want to flip the whole thing around. And once they get equality, why would they stop there?
I know you’re not like them, my little Marie.
If I don’t see it, is it really there? Or how a lifelong friend responds to the story of my assault
In a decade in Paris, I’ve never seen the behavior you describe. If as many women as you say are being harassed, how come I’ve never seen anything happen?
Really? Can you describe how he grabbed you?
No, no, stand up, show me, it’s fine, you can touch me
Oh, so he just grabbed you like this, with his hand over your back? That’s not exactly…
Oh? But really show me then
Come on, you can put your hand on my ass, really show me!
Ah! So he put his hand on your ass like this?
Then what did you do?
But see, that’s exactly the point, you didn’t go to the police!
Don’t you feel like you did others like you a disservice?
You will single-handedly render the species sterile Or how a lifelong friend responds to the time a stranger yelled at me for turning him down
Well, I understand your point of view, that guy insulted you, but you know me, I’m not like that.
You know me, my little Marie, I’m polite.
And how am I supposed to meet women if I’m no longer even allowed to talk to them on the street?
Is that really the kind of society you want, Marie?
I think it’s a little bit extreme;
It’s not like I’m attacking them.
With people like you in charge, the human race would go extinct!
“Toutes des putes, sauf maman” Or how a lifelong man enlightens a woman about the true workings of her kind
When a woman wears makeup and a skirt in the workplace, what am I supposed to think?
Of course she wants my attention.
No, Marie, I’m sorry to tell you, they don’t do it “for themselves”!
It is scientifically proven.
Studies have shown that when women wear red lipstick, it is because they want to seduce men.
It is scientifically proven! It is actually evolution. We are wired to be attracted to it.
I encourage you to read studies by a very interesting Canadian scholar called Jordan Peterson.
He is a serious source.
I think you should really study his work as carefully as I have; it might help you evolve on these issues.
Let me tell you about mathematics Or how a lifelong friend responds to the fact that 16 out of 100 French women have endured rape or attempted rape
No, it’s not “enormous!”
Mathematically speaking, 16 out of 100 is not a lot.
You’re being so subjective about this!
Believe me, I actually studied math – you can’t say it’s “enormous”.
No, Marie – scientifically, 16% of women is not “enormous”. I know you’re not a scientist, but you can take it from me.
The undoing Or how the last time you hold me feels like a threat
Do you see how aggressive you’re getting right now?
How can you say you don’t feel safe with me? How can you say such a thing, my little Marie?
Are you calling me a rapist?
Do you really want to end a fifteen-year friendship over this?
Come here, let me give you a hug
Here you go, everything’s ok, Marie
Come on, see, we agree on almost everything
It’s just words
I love talking to you
You know I adore you
We agree about almost everything
A Writing Group, and Horses
A writing group is best expressed by a tall Chinese chair in my house, which once had an old typewriter sitting at its top. It said hello to writers who came to my house, with all the letters of its alphabet. But for months now it has been back in its lockable old box in the basement, and there is a Tennessee Walker’s saddle in its place instead.
What, a friend who came to visit me asked, is a writing group?
It’s just like a barn, I said. Horses.
(Writing is all about explaining.)
Why bother with the sport of kings? he said.
Why buy a horse? I said. They’re expensive.
Good question, he said. Why buy a horse?
It takes you places, I said.
It takes you places, he said.
It shouldn’t be more than a dozen people, I said. At the barn. The writers. And of the dozen there should be some just watching, because writers love people watching them. They love praise. They – occasionally – love your ideas about why you didn’t make the jump or you did, they might not mind telling you how, in their opinion, it went wrong. When it’s really good they don’t need to tell you how you made the jump, only how it made them feel; and they don’t dare ask you how you made it; that’s a dimly apprehendable magic, which maybe the best magic is.
Why ride horses? he said.
I know, I said. Why not listen to books on tape. Etcetera. Because, I’ll tell you, they read in overly hammy voices. Trust me. In writing group they won’t read in overly hammy voices. In fact, you’ll yearn for drama.
Yes, you will, I said. You’ll also yearn for people who don’t turn writing group into a group for sufferers. One plain cup of tea in front of everyone. Or gluttons: writers should once in while be as happy with popcorn as Gouda and pastries and wine. Someone who rides a horse doesn’t care what the food is after the show. They just want to know if they passed through the time-space-continuum.
Time-space-continuum, he said. Michael J. Fox.
Where you leave the madding crowd behind, where you become the invisible man or woman who sees all as you go over the jump, I said.
You keep talking about the jump, he said.
From the jump, soaring over, for a moment you’re the sun. Or water over the dam. You see all the things you don’t want writing group to be. You don’t want it to be a church group, people pretending to be saints, wishing people would get sick so they can be the well one going to visit them in hospital with a high-handled basket stuffed with treats. Even if there are books in it, that’s punishment: that’s not a writers’ group. That’s a terribly lonely people group assuming everyone else is as lonely as them. That is not good for writers’ morale, I said.
What do you need for morale? he said.
Horses that are stronger and wiser and much more magical than us, I said. Horses, maybe, are ideas, history, possibility. Heartbeat, maybe.
What else do you see from the jump? he said.
How lonely birth and death are, and marriage, I said. Those things. They’re surrounded by loneliness. Writers remind you you are more than those, and only those. Flannery O’Connor said a short story is the only thing that could have been written to describe what you’re writing about. Hemingway said you’re a professional explainer. Updike said everything can be a work of art; the difference is the amount of care. You I suppose are the carer, the embroiderer, the cleaner.
But they’re not horses, he said.
No, I said, they’re writers. Horses have a math and a heartbeat that’s different than writers; real writers match up with the horses’ rhythm. With bit and stirrups and reins and punctuation they can only hope to change horses’ rhythm a little bit. They know they’re going to live longer than horses, yet perhaps that’s an illusion, because all horses are one, one herd living, never dying, somehow. We people I like to believe are one by one.
What else don’t you want a writers’ group to be? he said.
Flashy, I said. Too grocery-store talkative. People bragging about their damnable jobs, their photographs of children or grandchildren, or, worst, people announcing their new Ph.D. when they join the group, without any sort of levity. They can mention those things elsewhere, I am sure. And if they’re an exceptional writer, they could mention, but still with levity, that Ph.D. I still remember a science-fiction writer who sat with his arms behind his head – he was a rigorous bastard, reminding us like a good Navy ship captain this is a special place, almost a garden place or dream place, though a working place, not the idiot’s real world, this ship you’re on. Or, perhaps, this is the realest, but royalist, world. We could, and should, tip our heads back, and listen, listen, ride together.
What else? he said. If I was starting one back in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts? Oh hear, Walden Pond. Maybe avoid people who say the word genre, I said. Because it means nothing. Except, maybe, you haven’t been published yet. Say novels. Say stories. Say poems.
He laughed. Genre’s a pretty word, he said. What do you want to write a book about?
The perfect horse, I said. The one-in-a-thousand horse who knows it only has so long to live. A horse with a sense of humor and a sense of cunning and a knowledge of when to break the rules.
How does a horse break the rules? he said.
It doesn’t go where you told it to, and you end up glad, or mad, I said.
How good it feels to leave the stable and how good it feels to come back to the stable. How you forget where you were because it was so wonderful. How you talk to the other writers just with a few words and they know what you mean, and they’re quiet when you walk into the barn with your horse following you, and they watch you, and they know you don’t want to talk while you take the saddle off and hang up the bridle and you brush him or her with the curry brush and you let them drink water. That’s the silence after you read. Then someone says hey, saw you coming over the ridge, you looked like an Apache: I saw you there.
Not cultural appropriation? he said.
If you’re not appropriating, you’re missing something, like telepathy, I said.
Hmm, he said. So you can be anybody while you’re out on your ride, he said.
You never know how long, I said. It fades in and out on you like a flower blooming and laughing at you.
Can you mix horses and flowers?
They put a big ring of them around their neck when they win the Derby, I said.
Yes, he said. What else is bad if I start it in Massachusetts? he said.
That you’ve lived there too long, maybe, I said.
Oh, he said.
If you’ve lived there a long time this needs to be like a horse that can go straight up a hill on a cold moonlit night as if he knows there’s food on the other side or a deep quiet lake to swim in, I said. It can’t, your writing group, be too slow and pondering; that’s for the lake. We could all drown with you in your frog pond with the slow sleepy crickets. Your writing group, or your literary journal, needs to be the horse going straight up the hill, knowing something is at the top, or just beyond.
Or you can move, I said. You can figure out how to install yourself in London where the sky surrounds you, clouds and fog so low, so reassuring, and down the street there are people speaking that British music, everywhere you go.
That would be difficult, he said. I don’t have enough money.
Neither do I, I said, but the magic horse can take you there. He won’t charge you. He’ll just watch you now and then, big muddy-lake eyes. He’s very tired. He never gets to sleep much. He never gets to lie down unless he’s about to die. That’s when a horse lies down.
Is that the magic of the horse? That they’re waiting to lie down?
Yes, after they’ve taken you somewhere, they’re grateful they have taken you there, and you’re trying to interpret it, busy chimp you are, trying to share it, trying to make everyone ride with you to the strange places that alternately frighten or charm you.
Does everybody take home copies? he said.
They shouldn’t, except the author, I said. You prove you want to hear it by staying, and you hand your copy back to the author with your comments, which you are always careful to make yearning in nature. You say what you wish had happened, what you still wanted to hear. Or you say don’t change a word, which is the finest compliment.
That yearning thing’s pretty vague, he said.
So’s yearning, I said. You can’t change a writer, I said. They have to change themselves. Ones who have had long periods of loneliness but are now happy are the best. They write from the warm room looking out at the cold. The ridiculous planets become their friends. For example, I remember, dimly, the non-magic of job performance reviews. Think what a writer or a horse would think of a performance review!
Well, they wouldn’t, he said. The horses.
Why not, they’d get a good snort, I said. Think what they’d write if they could write.
You could be writing now, instead of talking to me, he said.
Oh, no, today’s awaiting the charging horse of rejections, I said. Anyway there was never a performance review through which I did not continually think the words I want to quit. That’s a writer. Basically, in some ways, completely unemployable—
Could you share something like that with your writers’ group? he said.
I did, and they didn’t like it. The stated tone is cheering each other on. But I draw the line at cheering on baskets for the sick and pictures of grandchildren and hearing the youngsters insist they’re grownups now and how their employees are confiding in them during the magic of the performance reviews they are giving. I understand all are not as lucky as me, able to write and paint and review and not have to work at a miserable job. But, if you must, put all those miseries of everyday life and relatives into the writing academy. But much, much more. The confidences you aren’t told by others; the photographs of the no longer-living, the blind sorrow of the lost-before-birth; the lost last dreams of the dying – what all these would be if they walked slow and deliberate and sure as a horse into the blazing light. The telepathic dark horse race track. Is this becoming too intense?
Yes, he said, and looked worried.
And, I said, if they are religious they need to put that in a bucket near the door.
Okay, he said. It sounds a little cruel.
If they start talking religion – with the exception of transcendentalism, pantheism, monarchism, science – those are writers’ religions – ask them if they really do think you’re dense, and hope they laugh. If anyone says what matters is how you care about people while they’re alive tell them you’ve heard all the tritenesses and homilies. Tell them you’ve heard it all, but just taking care of the living’s easy. All of you are caring about the dead as much as about the living, is sometimes the essential job of the writer. A historian who works without history books.
Why bother? he said.
Well, it’s the neglected and lost, I said.
No way to tell it, he said.
Then you’re not listening, neither is your horse, I said. You’re riding deaf-mute.
Oh, he said. I do have a fancy pair of boots.
Your horse doesn’t care, I said. The test of you is how nimbly and quickly you can get on a horse without a saddle and without a bridle there, and curl your feet to his or her sides. Though it has been a long time since I have done so.
You can’t do that, now, I’ll bet, at your age, he said. Ride bareback.
Do it every time I write, I said. In my head. And then I ride, or write, to a high place where the writing rites happen, where there’s a fire that’s kept going, writer to writer. There we plan our routes. Our escapes. Our races.
From where, he said. The high ridge?
Yes, as simple as that, I said. And you find your listeners. Surprise – it’s not the other writers, the other people, who are there by the fire, who are the true listeners. It’s the horses, the trees, the mountains. I highly recommend a literary journal or a writers’ group is by mountains. I can’t exactly say why.
Hmm, he said. We have a mountain maybe fifty miles away.
That’s kind of good, but not very inspiring. A hill? Are any of you psychologists?
No, he said.
If one joins, don’t let him invite his students, I said.
His clients, he said. Of course. Problems times two.
For the therapist’s sake as much as the patient’s. The patient’s making up stuff, call it myth-lore making, whatever you like; but then to heap on more heaps of myth-making will gum up any brain. Did you know the brain is white, gray, black, and red?
Sounds a little like the colors of horses, he said.
If you count chestnut as red, I said. Those colors make me think of wet newspaper. Remember, never in your writing group or journal the word genre, it’s like bragging too many times how much you’re willing to pay a ferrier. By the way – each piece of writing is shoeing a horse again, but not with real shoes, with dim magic. Dim math, dim sum.
A lot of writing is just plodding, he said.
But that is the horse and you thinking things over, I said. You never have soaring till miles and miles of plodding and considering all of life’s problems, unfairnesses. And it’s a hello room. Where you meet people you persuaded yourself – you didn’t need or you’ll forget. You know it’s a fine writing group or literary journal when without asking you all polish your horses, with fine brushes and neatsfoot oil, comb out their manes and their tails, clip manes and tails if they’re ratty, all one tribe moving out onto the trail, leaving behind jobs, children, religion, grandchildren, therapists – what you must leave behind, to move together where you’re going, to the place up high. The fire place. Nature doesn’t give us performance reviews. It gives us a quick nod. As Mister Rogers said, we’re perfect just the way we are. We’re all we can be. That’s what nature says.
Do the horses understand fire? he said.
No, they don’t, and that’s why we take them there, to remind them we’re the god of fire, we can start the fire, we can put it out, and we come to be quiet beside it. We’re not afraid of it. Inspires their weary awe.
All that doesn’t mean anything, he said. Gobbledygook, then.
Don’t name your journal that, I said. Or your brain. Look for the good writer, the one who wants to turn himself or herself inside out, is willing, even, to change places with a shadow for several years. The world is fairly oblivious. No one will ever notice, probably, you were a bit of a shadow. The Indians could swing themselves upside-down under the horse’s belly, then right themselves while the horse was full-run.
Doesn’t a horse know it will die? he asked me.
Yes, I said. If they’re by a fire. They all have a glimmer of that by the fire.
Oh, he said, I like that. A Glimmer of That by the Far. Oops – A Glimmer of That by the Fire. Maybe a ferrier is a farrier?
Oh, good, I said. The title is very important. As your own name is, the title is destiny.
Yes, he said. And could that be a racehorse name? The Title is Destiny?
Yes, I said, and I nodded. Don’t forget your boots.
Of course, he said. I’m wearing them.
He was gone. Off to Massachusetts, to prove to Louisa May Alcott and all the vanished, the transcendentalists, among the trees near a mountain or a hill, it could be done.
The Card Players: A Noctambulist’s Guide to Florence
Florence is better at night, at least for the six months of summer. All tourists over thirty retreat to their hotel rooms, the citizens and the renegades emerge, and suddenly the city is no longer a museum: less teeming, true, but livelier. People are out and about because they want to be; not, like my countryman buckling under the afternoon sun, because they feel that they ought to be. I often catch myself wishing guiltily that Florence might always live in the small hours, and if these 22 degrees centigrade could also somehow continue, that would be very nice too.
For me, the colony of lights that speckle the midnight city is always preferable to the monarchic blaze of the summer sky. Florence wilts even the most devoted Aztec, who soon learns why the natives have fled their cauldron in the Arno valley and gone to the beach. Hide thou thy hated beams O Sun: Handel is speaking for all of us come June, when a cloudless day promises a sleepless night of tossing and turning in our superheated garrets like Casanova in the lead-lined dungeons of the Doge’s Palace.
Rather than go to bed, then, I climb to the Piazzale Michelangelo for the famous Florence cityscape. The camera will never do it justice: only by standing or sitting in the Piazzale at night can you pick out coniferous silhouettes in the neighbouring Bardini gardens, a Birnam Wood looming over a Mediterranean Dunsinane. In the absence of colour we rely on mass, and so it is, perversely, that night accentuates the surrounding countryside and makes me feel that I am in Tuscany but not quite in Florence.
What I am in, really, is a natural amphitheatre, and centre stage is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo, a galleon sitting high in the waterline of surrounding rooftops. I am at the heart of something, I know that: Lucca and Pisa downstream, Siena behind me to the south. The wonderful Faentina railway cuts north-east through the shaggy Apennines and comes out on the plains of Emilia-Romagna. We are far from the sea, and yet a few days ago, crossing the Ponte alla Carraia, I could have sworn to a pinch of salt in the warm west wind that blew upstream.
My way home often takes me through the Uffizi loggia, especially at weekends. It was designed by Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Artists earned him the title of history’s first art historian. Statues of famous Florentines people the niches, almost all by different sculptors, almost all stylistically indistinguishable, and one concludes that even in the nineteenth century the people of Florence made sculptures as easily as they made bread, and rather better. There’s Dante, glaring his displeasure; there’s Petrarch, fondling his right cheek as if he were in a Gillette advert; Machiavelli, diabolically stroking his chin. And there is gentle Santo Antonino, the most human and humane of these illustrious faces, one of the few whose eyes have pupils.
Walk through this pantheon at midnight and you have a good chance of catching a performance from a clarinet quintet, whose music gently takes you by the shoulders and says, why not sit for a few minutes? The first violinist, I note with pleasure, is of Indian or Pakistani origin – what an Indian-American friend of mine would be allowed to call a Desi – a rare example of a non-white person who seems fully integrated into an Italian social group and even in a position of leadership. He plays fast legato, largely in the top third of the bow like a fiddle player. Classic FM though their repertoire may be – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is a staple – they animate the loggia with a sizeable audience.
The statues are always there, the quintet is fairly reliable, but sometimes the Uffizi loggia throws up a surprise. Walking through in the small hours a Saturday night, on the home stretch of a lonely gita around the city, I noticed an open door and a massive reclining statue in a brightly lit room full of people. I gingerly stepped in, and nobody seemed to mind. The colossal supine was a second-century B.C. Ariadne Sleeping, which is perhaps what I should have been doing at that hour, but there was nothing in the aspect of the visitors to suggest that it was two o’clock in the morning. Such was her size, I wouldn’t have wanted to be there when she awoke to find Theseus gone.
She is the centre of the room, but not the centrepiece. Everybody is occupied with three enormous canvasses, two of them reconstructions of the other, which looks more like a mosaic than a painting. It is, I learn, Bartolomeo Manfredi’s newly restored I giocatori di carte (The Card Players), and its ruin was a Mafia car bomb that disembowelled the city exactly twenty-five years ago, at 1:04 on May 27th 1993. Five were killed.
I wish that the reproductions could have waited in another room, and that I could have seen the decimated original first. I wish that I could have had a go at making out the gamblers and their entourages: the squire, ready with a cunning plan, tugging at his master’s sleeve, or the bearded elder on the left who keeps his thoughts to himself. The shadow of Caravaggio looms large in the seedy chiaroscuro setting, a murky hideout for those driven underground by Counter-Reformation severity. Eleven months it took Daniela Lippi to arrange the surviving flakes into a skeleton which the reconstructions flesh out, and a beige void still gapes in the centre. But had it not been for the Culture Against Terror crowdfunding campaign, we would have nothing of it at all.
No good happens after two in the morning, they say. In Newcastle, the closest thing I have to a hometown, the curfew falls about four hours earlier: after 10pm it lives up to Alan Bennett’s description of “all vomit and love-bites”. It’s past two in Florence, and about fifty bright-eyed, well-dressed civilians are circling a wing of the Uffizi, celebrating the resurrection of a masterwork, the triumph of craft over violence. If only restoration were always possible.
Trump Rides West
On September 6th last year, President Donald Trump kicked off the autumn campaign season with a rally in Billings, Montana. He’d campaigned throughout the spring, and almost non-stop over the summer as well – indeed, he’d never really stopped campaigning since his own election victory – but now the primaries were over and the country was entering a final two-month period of maximal obsession with the midterm elections for Congress.
Billings was a programmatic destination for Trump. Montana is by landmass the fourth-largest state, but Billings, with a population of only 109,000, is its biggest city. The nearest real city – the glittering cosmopolis of Denver, Colorado – is an eight-hour drive, across the whole of Wyoming and beyond. Billings therefore has a decent claim to being the most provincial place in the entire continental U.S. This meant that the scene at the rally was somewhat exceptional. It was a little purer, a little richer, than usual.
The typical Trump rally has a lot in common with a professional sports event: packed arenas, high-cholesterol snacks, politically incorrect chanting. In the form of protestors, plus the news media, it also features an opposing team, whose members can be booed and jeered, and occasionally threatened with violence. Then there is the unprecedented abundance of team apparel.
Wearable political merchandise in the United States dates at least to the “Log Cabin campaign” of 1840, but has never before metastasized into a fascistic volunteer uniform on the scale of the red “Make America Great Again” baseball hat. If team sports have always been an outlet for tribal and martial instincts, and if American sports have tended to play up the latter angle with all the helmets and pads and Velcro, then the Trump movement seems to have brought that relationship full-circle. NFL-style football jerseys with “TRUMP” and the squad-number 45 stitched on the back are also available for purchase at any rally, along with unofficial items, outside the venue, bearing slogans like “Bomb the crap out of ISIS” and “Waterboarding Instructor.” The MAGA hat also comes in camouflage.
But there are other, more personal displays taking place in the wardrobe department, which the layer of Trump apparel even has a way of obscuring. Certain garments advertise the wearer’s belonging to one of the handful of walks of life that dominate the movement’s conception of itself. These might be, in fact, the most meaningful and prestigious garments worn at any rally.
The foremost category is, of course, Military: There will always be people wearing clothing, patches and hats that commemorate their own service (in the military, or as any form of military-adjacent “first-responder”), as well as camouflage and other designs that pay homage to the troops more generally. Also common are items that associate the wearer with Blue-Collar Labour, typically T-shirts promoting small, local businesses like auto-repair shops and building subcontractors. Another poignant style is Pseudo-Boardroom: power suits, hands-free earpieces, Windsor knots. Agrarian dress is also in: Mostly cowboy-style hats, boots and belt-buckles, but also rustic flannel shirts, John Deere merchandise, etc. Then there are the bikers, hunters, and other rugged types whom I group together in the MiscellaneousOutdoorsy/Intimidatory category. Last but not least comes Traditional Femininity – think short skirts, evening dresses, high heels, lipstick, and the colour pink.
Obviously, a lot of Americans dress in these modes most of the time anyway, without giving it much thought. But a political rally is not a neutral setting. People are gathering to express themselves, under the First Amendment, by their presence. They tend to dress up for the occasion, in one way or another. And the context of the rally invests even the mundane with special symbolism. The “walks of life” looks are speaking directly to the Trump movement’s identity politics in a way that cannot be entirely lost on its participants. Here, under one roof, are all the styles that were once hegemonic in the U.S., before the culture of the big cities took over. Here, to put it another way, is White America, in all its wondrous variety.
The sportsfan aspect was in full effect in Billings. A young volunteer handed out free Trump-Pence beer koozies (the foam thing that keeps your beer can cold), while a terrible hydra-headed queue coiled itself around the snack bar and simply stopped moving. There was plenty of the Trump gear all over, but also a lot more people than usual dressed in a way that vividly signalled sociocultural identity. One in every ten Montana residents is a military veteran, and agriculture is by far the state’s biggest industry. (Montana is also 90% Caucasian – and I saw only a handful of non-white faces at the MetraPark Arena, which was full most of the way to its 12,000 capacity.) But perhaps – with a world-famous person of any kind such a rarity in town – the dressing up aspect was also especially exaggerated.
Who was that guy in an American flag hat, American flag shirt, and American flag shorts? Presumably he doesn’t dress like that normally. One family’s teenagers wore matching plaid shirts and lavishly heeled cowboy boots, topped with green “Make Our Farmers Great Again” caps. Countless Stetsons were lifted off, along with the MAGA/MOFGA caps, for the opening prayer.
I approached a young man named Scott Grow, originally from nearby Glendive, who was wearing a camouflage boonie hat, which is the kind of hat soldiers and Marines wear when they’re trying to keep off the sun or the rain, neither of which were a problem either inside or outside the arena that evening. Grow was also wearing khaki cargo pants. He was, indeed, a former Marine. He turned out to be skeptical of Trump and highly critical of U.S. foreign policy past and present (like many in Montana, his basic instincts were libertarian). After a long period of political apathy, he’d attended the rally to try to feel things out first-hand. He confessed to suffering from some social anxiety that had been exacerbated by the size and mob-like propensity of the Trump crowd.
When we met up at a later date, Grow wasn’t wearing any military-style clothing. He told me that he never really gave much thought to what he wore, but for other people at the rally, he said, “part of it is that it’s just what they wear, for a lot of them. But I would say that there is a percentage that are wearing it to make a statement, either consciously or subconsciously. Especially for military clothing. There’s an identity connection to supporting troops and being conservative – as a side-note, I feel like a lot of that is hollow.”
Scott Grow was an island of circumspection amid that crowd. Generally, the enjoyment and feeling of group affirmation was palpable, and seeing and being seen in the idealised guises seemed part of the fun for many people. Trucker hats, engineers caps, gaily beribboned sunhats, Elmer Fudd huntsman’s hats – all were cushioned against breasts in unison, as the crowd rose for the national anthem. At the anthem’s noble climax, the hats twirled jubilantly in the air.
Pro-Trump aesthetics – or cosmetics, as the case may be – were of particular interest in Montana, where the race for a U.S. Senate seat was being fought largely over the question of authenticity. Senator Jon Tester, the Democratic incumbent whom Trump’s rally was arranged to attack, is a third-generation “dirt farmer,” the only active farmer in the Senate. He returns from Washington D.C. on weekends to work the land homesteaded by his grandparents over a century ago. Six feet tall and 300 lbs wide, he models a vintage flat-top haircut, and three missing fingers from a childhood meat-grinding accident. Such bona fides had helped Tester win very tight elections in 2006 and 2012. But his voting record in office had been reliably centre-left, in an increasingly hyper-partisan national climate. In 2016, Trump won Montana by 20 points, and in 2018 Tester was duly considered one of the Democrats’ four or five most vulnerable Senators.
Television screens and web browsers throughout the state were inundated with shrill, negative, misleading ads, mostly paid for by ‘dark money’ super PACs and other national partisan organizations. “On TV, Jon Tester drives a tractor – but it’s Montana that’s getting taken for a ride,” began one Super PAC ad; “Jon Tester likes to talk about his Montana roots, but the truth is he’s gotten pretty cozy in the D.C. swamp,” went another, laid on by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The Republican challenger was Matt Rosendale, who made an audacious attempt to match Tester’s rural credentials by running explicitly as a “rancher” himself, seen loafing in front of a red barn in his own campaign ads, cows grazing in the background. Rosendale was in fact a former real estate developer from Maryland, who, public records later showed, had bought a ranch to live on when he moved to Montana at the age of forty, but had rented out his land and never owned any cattle himself. “Not a rancher, not one of us!” boomed the ads from a pro-Tester Super PAC. Rosendale was forced to adjust his Twitter bio from “conservative rancher” to “Trump conservative.” A pale and scrawny, almost corpse-like figure, he continued to appear at his campaign events, hands on hips, strapped with the belt buckle of a much larger man.
There seemed to be some confusion at work here. All the evidence suggested that looking like a farmer – or a rancher, or an example of one of the other ideal walks of life – was very valuable to Trump voters. But how valuable was actually being a farmer? I decided to test this by asking people at the rally what they thought of Senator Jon Tester. I didn’t expect to find anyone who would go so far as to vote for him, but perhaps the disagreement would be friendlier than usual. Tester shared the identity that they vigorously claimed for themselves; even as he erred politically, he remained recognisable, surely, as one of their own.
According to Jess Halvorson from the town of Big Timber, a carpenter sporting the camouflage MAGA cap, Tester was “a menace to Montana,” and “not really a farmer, he just does that for press coverage.” A man in a black Stetson and green checked shirt, who preferred to remain anonymous, echoed the point: “I could go sit in a tractor right now, it doesn’t make me a farmer.” (The key question, then, was whether wearing his cowboy hat made him a rancher – but he had also declined to reveal his profession.) A woman in a hot pink version of the MAGA hat, also anonymous, who explained that her politics were mostly informed by her evangelical Christian faith, said that Tester “speaks out of both sides of his mouth,” and only “acts like he’s a good ol’ boy.” Arla Murray, in a straw sunhat bearing the logo of the Republican National Committee, had travelled down from her family’s ranch; she was under the impression that Rosendale, rather than Tester, was the farmer in the race, and would naturally “represent Montana well” for that reason.
When I touted Tester to Bob Berry, who had travelled across the state line from Wyoming for the event, he responded, “Oh whoop! All that third-generation stuff doesn’t mean crap.” Finally – someone prepared to face head-on the reality that Tester a) looked like a farmer, b) was a farmer, and c) also happened to be a Democrat. “What are you doing for me now?” Berry asked, rhetorically, of Tester. But as he spoke, he himself was wearing a red MAGA cap stacked on top of a white Boss of the Plains-style cowboy hat. What was that doing for him now?
Across the board, the partisan impulse was stronger than rural fellow feeling. At the same time, rural identity retained a talismanic value that the movement was not happy to concede to the enemy. Faced with this dilemma – a choice of either softening their disdain for the other side (even in a single, anomalous case), or admitting that their precious rural quintessence might not hold such a strong political valence, after all – most Trump supporters would choose a third option: the stark, paranoid denial of readily verifiable facts about Jon Tester. A constituency accustomed to valuing authenticity above all else was bending to reconcile itself with its appointed leader – the man who values appearances above all, with zero interest in the actual substance of any area of life. This is the “straight out of central casting” administration, in which cabinet appointments are made on the basis of which candidate looks most like the action-movie version of whatever it is they’re supposed to be. Cliché is the only language of this presidency, and this movement.
After Billings, the President’s roadshow – as if seeking urgent respite – made its next stop in a locale far more consistent with both his own enthusiasms and his particular attitude to reality. That place was Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Trump crowd in Vegas was more diverse, more nondescript, wearing less anyway in the hotter climate, and more reliant on the basic merchandise than the crowd in Billings. A detachment of Proud Boys, the “alt-light” group, huddled together in their trademark black and yellow Fred Perry shirts. But a good sprinkling of camouflage was still noticeable, along with the other badges of social honour. I was standing nearby when a couple of isolated cowboy hats happened to cross paths.
“I like your hat,” the first Marlboro Man said with a wink.
“Thank you, sir,” replied the second, gallantly tipping his brim.
Outside, however, hanging around in the sultry night air, was a real cowboy. He wore a very broad, bone-coloured Stetson, and a black, extremely old-looking suit. He wasn’t some modern agribusinessman – he was a genuine Western rancher, a relict from the 19th Century. It was Ryan Bundy.
The Nevada Bundy clan – seventy-two-year-old patriarch, Cliven, and some of his fourteen children, principally sons Ammon and Ryan – have emerged victorious in recent years, not only from two armed stand-offs with federal agents, but also from both the ensuing court cases. The disputes concerned the usage public lands, a central issue in the politics of the modern American West. The federal government owns and controls vast swathes of land across the West, including 85% of the State of Nevada. The Bundys were grazing their cattle on some of these lands, and didn’t particularly care to pay any fees for the privilege. The federal Bureau of Land Management tried to confiscate the Bundy herd. The Bundys, supported by a ragtag group of heavily armed “Patriot” militia-members and other right-wing conspiracy theorists, “stood their ground,” as the saying goes. High-powered rifles were trained on the BLM agents, who were also heavily armed. Later, the Bundy sons occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon for forty-one days in protest. Cliven, Ammon and Ryan spent two years in prison before a judge threw out the case against them, citing prosecutorial misconduct and a heavy-handed and vindictive enforcement campaign on the part of the BLM.
Now Ryan Bundy was running a long-shot Independent campaign for Governor of Nevada, and was pressing the flesh outside the Trump rally, hoping to persuade the crowd to chant “We Want Bundy” inside, and thereby in turn convince Trump to endorse him on the spot.
Like Jon Tester, Bundy bears a physical disfigurement (“At the young age of seven years Ryan miraculously survived an incident in which a vehicle ran over his head,” explains his campaign website). This hard fortune seems to have made him serious and honorable. “Behind my crooked face is a straight heart, and a sound mind,” he told a sympathetic interviewer on a YouTube channel called “Battlefield America.”
At least, he gives the impression of being physically incapable of telling a lie. Outside the rally, I asked him why he hadn’t run for a lower and more realistic office than Governor. He explained that lower offices simply didn’t offer the amount of executive power that he needed. Many of his other very candid statements during the campaign – to the extent that voters ever became aware of them – were alarming. The Bundys adhere to a fringe strain of Mormonism that seems to furnish them with unwavering confidence in their own radical interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, pocket versions of which they carry with them at all times. A Bundy governorship might have led to the de facto secession of Nevada from the Union, with the state guard called into action against the BLM, and legal authority devolved to county sheriffs. Bundy received 1.5% of the vote.
He also assured me that he was “absolutely aligned with Donald Trump.” I’m sure he thought it was true at the time. But it was a mistake, or a misunderstanding. Inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, a rally security agent yanked my “We Want Bundy” flyer from my hand – it was “forbidden” material. The two men have very little in common, personally or politically. The difference between a “conservative rancher” and a “Trump conservative” can be much more than just sleight of hand. The relative ease with which each can tell a lie might be just one element.
In December, Ryan’s brother Ammon publicly broke with both the “Patriot” movement and the Trump movement itself, over their shared viciousness toward immigrants. “[Trump] has basically called them all criminals and said they’re not coming in here,” Ammon Bundy said in a Facebook video: “What about individuals, those who have come for reasons of need for their families, you know, the fathers and mothers and children that come here and were willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually?”
In the end, it wasn’t the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate who won the governorship of Nevada in November. It was the Democrat, Steve Sisolak. A Democrat also won the contested Senate seat in Nevada. Up in Montana, Jon Tester would hang on to his own seat, winning over 50% of the vote for the first time in his three elections, to Matt Rosendale’s 47%. The capture of another Senate seat in Arizona made the Western battlegrounds something of a clean sweep for the Democrats in 2018. This had more to do with the crude superficiality of the Republican candidates than with any great rural swing against Trump. But in the lower Western states, Latino Americans were also asserting their voting power.
On January 14th, 2019, Trump addressed the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the country’s main agricultural lobbying group.
“I like the farmers. What can I do?” he asked the audience in New Orleans, with a theatrical shrug. “I like farmers!”
The hour-long speech included many references to “our great farmers, our ranchers, our growers.” Otherwise it was much the same as any of his rally speeches.
“We are fixing broken trade deals that are horrible,” he said. “When I saw what was going on in Canada, the way you were treated – horrible.”
Trump’s impulsive, theatrical tariff war with China and chaotically protracted trade negotiations with other countries have put great economic pressure on American farmers. A $12 billion farm bailout package is now on hold, due to a government shutdown that Trump himself caused, in frustration over his own immigration policy – which itself has adversely affected many farmers by reducing the pool of undocumented manual labour on which they have long relied.
“We’re going to make that actually easier for them, to help the farmers,” Trump said, to a sustained ovation. “Because you need these people. But we’re keeping the wrong ones out, okay?”
Then Trump summoned up on stage Jim Chilton – a fifth-generation rancher from an area along the Arizona-Mexico border. Did Chilton remove his huge cowboy hat before he took to the stage alongside the President of the United States? Why, of course he did not.
“Mr. President… We need a wall,” Chilton began to an enormous cheer, before explaining himself with a reference to the Vatican City.
“The American farmer,” Trump went on, “embodies the timeless values of America. You believe in hard work and self-reliance. You follow the rules, obey the laws, and respect our great American flag. You are always loyal to this magnificent nation that we so love.”
He brought his speech to its climax with a solemn promise: “To all of the farmers here today and across our country,” he said, holding up a finger, “The greatest harvest is yet to come.”
 The official version is, technically, a golf-style hat. There is a piece of decorative braided rope strung over the base of the peak, which apparently evokes golf – or, at any rate, the country club. For a slightly upscale, and even more golf-inspired option, there are also hats in the Trump Organization’s hotel gift shop range. Putatively non-political, these make use of designs such as the Trump “coat of arms,” an heraldic crest that Trump plagiarized from a British family, adjusting only its Latin motto: from Integritas, to Trump.
 In some cases literally: In Billings, I saw the security team policing the section of the crowd that would appear on camera, behind Trump himself. Several people wearing controversial attire, such as Infowars or QAnon T-shirts, were asked to step out and change into free official Trump merchandise before they could return for their moment of fame. (Infowars is a pro-Trump alt-media organization driven by conspiracy theory; QAnon is a particular pro-Trump conspiracy narrative serialized on online message boards.)
 Do urban liberals dress in an equivalent manner at their rallies? They wear campaign merchandise; they revere witty slogans, on T-shirts or homemade placards. They also developed the pink “pussy hat” for women, presumably as some kind of “answer” to the MAGA cap. (A key online community of Hillary Clinton supporters was called “Pantsuit Nation,” in homage to the candidate’s trademark look.) And perhaps they too wear clothes that place them, explicitly, within society and I, as one of them, just don’t notice as much. But in and around the big cities there is also the power of that thing called fashion, through which people are telling one another, in more complex, roundabout ways, what it is that they are. (For Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, selling apparel made by supportive celebrity designers such as Marc Jacobs worked well; by 2016, this practice, continued for Clinton, had begun to look like an excellent encapsulation of Democratic elitism and myopia.)
 These are official campaign gear – and $45 each.
 A grotesque hint of the real gulf between the President and this constituency, and the cynicism with which he beckons to them across it, came when Trump signed into law a renewal of the United States Farm Bill on December 20th. Trump promoted his own, purely perfunctory role in the legislation by sharing on Twitter a video clip of himself making a novelty appearance at the Emmys in 2005. There he was on stage, dressed in dungarees and a crude straw hat, holding a pitchfork, and singing along to the theme to the TV sitcom Green Acres. This was what he had to offer, and assumed the nation’s farmers wanted to see.
 As with the cases of Infowars and QAnon, Trump’s handlers are happy for endorsements to flow in from the controversial fringe, but not outward in return. Trump was endorsing the Republican candidate, Adam Laxalt.
 Those states, after all, were once part of Mexico – where the cowboy hat itself began life.
In 1937, before the Great Depression released its grip on America, my father and his parents lived in a tent. In west Texas, where they were from, there were still rumors of jobs to be found in California. My grandfather and his best friend made the trip to the coast to find that the only work to be had was picking fruit for ten cents an hour. The two men, who were good pilots and better mechanics, turned their backs upon the so-called promised land and drove east to chase another rumor. They found jobs in the silver mines of southern Arizona, and sent for the rest of the family. My grandmother left her Hill Country hometown and set off for the desert with two small children and all the expectations of a normal life.
Instead of bringing them together, the Depression tore my family apart. There wasn’t enough housing for the thousands of men who showed up begging for work, and almost everyone lived in tents. It was a miserable existence: suffocating when the summer temperatures shot up to one hundred and twenty degrees, and freezing when the winter rains came howling down from Mogollon Rim. Every morning, my grandmother, infuriated at being brought down to the level of a migrant worker, would storm into the mine manager’s office. Eloquent with rage, she demanded that her family be given an adobe house. It turned out to be a drastic miscalculation. The manager got so tired of dealing with this angry young woman that he did the most expedient thing: to be rid of her once and for all, he simply fired her husband. Not surprisingly, the marriage fell apart; almost immediately, my grandmother packed up the children and drove off into the night with her husband’s best friend. My grandfather hopped a train back to Texas, where he would take his own life a few years later.
All those troubled lives were on my mind one morning in February, as I waited for a Red Line train to Union Station. The platform at North Hollywood was populated by two kinds of Angelenos: businessmen in pricey suits on their way to offices on Bunker Hill, and shabby, depressed-looking people headed for sweatshops or janitorial gigs. I was a hybrid, a woman in a suit, bound for a building I didn’t work in. In other words, I was on my way to jury duty.
Everyone complains about having to do jury service, but under normal circumstances I love it – a day off from work, endless possibilities to meet interesting people, and the chance to participate in the democratic process that makes our country great. Today, I was simply glad to have it as a distraction. As the train pulled out of the station, my eyes roamed over the dejected commuters and wondered how many of them actually had jobs. At Universal City, a mime got on the train and sat across from me unblinkingly. It was depressing to realize that a man covered in face paint and decked out in clown clothes was more successful than I was, but at that moment almost anyone could make that claim. Even Briscoe the therapy dog, who was a regular fixture at my church, had a job. As the train rumbled beneath Cahuenga Pass, I tried to ignore the glassy-eyed stare from across the aisle. My mind reeled at the thought of mortgage payments and I wondered if I’d end up living in a tent myself. If anyone on that car wondered about me, they would have placed me alongside the businessmen – a professional, one of those women who had a secure position in some important firm. An employee with a proven track record and nothing to worry about. If anyone had drawn that conclusion, they would be wrong.
The world as I knew it had ended four days earlier, as I stared at an x-ray on my computer screen. Without being asked, I had planned to work late. It wouldn’t do to leave any loose ends that would have to be resolved the following week, because after all, the Federal court had requested the pleasure of my company. It was down in the schedule, and I would be out. Boy, would I be out.
The phone rang, shattering my concentration. “Linda? This is Francine from HR. I have your supervisor here on conference.” It didn’t take an MBA to know what that meant. There was a carefully rehearsed preamble about the bad economy and how it had affected our company. And how sorry they were, but they were going to have to let me go. How much they thanked me for my many years of service. “You’re welcome,” I heard myself saying in a wooden voice. There was a lot more I didn’t hear, about the cessation of health coverage and separation papers that had to be notarized. In a five-minute phone call, twenty-four years of my life had been wiped away like a discarded lesson plan on a high-school chalkboard.
The morning that had not yet dawned up in North Hollywood had blossomed into golden effulgence by the time I got off the train and walked to the courthouse on Spring Street. It was the kind of morning that Californians brag about, a blue, smogless sky and temperatures well on the way to seventy degrees. There was a feeling in the soft morning air that lent itself to optimism. Perhaps I would get on a jury; Federal court paid more than its Superior cousin, and there would be mileage as well. Some extra money and a nice long trial – weeks, hopefully – would buffer the shock of this sudden and unasked for freedom.
Like snowbound travelers marooned in an airport, three hundred of us sat around the jury room waiting for panels to be called beneath big screen TVs turned to CNN. A financial commentator speculated on the housing crisis, the mortgage crisis, the unemployment crisis, and offered as his parting shot the notion that we were not facing a Carteresque recession, but a second Great Depression. Unpleasant images came to mind of breadlines and Dorothea Lange photos, of my grandparents and their year in Arizona. I wondered if unemployment benefits would cover my mortgage, and if not, would I end up in a tent on the banks of the dry riverbed that I saw each day from my balcony. It seemed like a good idea to put some distance between the media and myself, but every seat in the room was taken. Beside me, a pastel and polyester lady was absorbed in a Jan Karon novel. Wedged between the pages was a brass USC bookmark, and I wondered if she was from Pasadena. Perhaps she was one of those Pasadena housewives who were taken care of, financially – someone who’d had the good sense to marry well, or at the very least, came from old money and had never known a day of struggle in her life. I hated her.
At mid-morning the first panels were called. My group was whisked down to the second floor to a plush courtroom worthy of a movie set. After the charges were read to us, twelve names were announced and those called filed one by one into the jury box. My name was number seven. Lucky number seven! The plaintiff, his attorney and the prosecutor eyed us like birds of prey, already planning their preemptive strikes. “Don’t take it personally if you’re excused,” the judge warned us. “It’s just part of the process.”
That said, the twelve of us were sworn in and the grilling began. A questionnaire was passed from one juror to the next, along with a microphone. The questions were basic stuff, outlining the bare bones of our lives plus our prior juror history. But when the form came to me, it read like a litany of every failure and every bad choice ever made. “My name is Linda Critchfield. I live in Santa Clarita. I am unmarried, I have no children, and am currently unemployed.” There, in a Federal courthouse, under oath, I finally said aloud the words I’d never dreamed I would have to say.
After everyone had answered the first round of questions, the lawyers swooped in. The plaintiff’s attorney immediately focused on me, and wanted to know about my previous employment. I described the work I would never do again, preparing treatment plans for orthodontic patients, watching the expression on his face grow increasingly perplexed. After a bemused shake of the head, he moved on to the important question: “Ms. Critchfield, what are your favorite magazines?”
I understood his intention, to get a clearer reading on me, my dead career being too weird to pigeonhole. Things might have worked out differently if I had answered Reader’s Digest or Playgirl. But I didn’t; startled by the simplicity of the question, I cast him a deer-in-headlights look and blurted out the first magazine that came to mind.
“Um … Smithsonian.”
He nodded, a knowing look on his face. “Television shows?”
The American Experience isn’t the kind of program you remember in moments of stress, so after drawing a blank, I shrugged, saying that I didn’t watch much television except for the news. He thanked me and yielded the floor to the prosecuting attorney, who moved on to the next victim. As I watched, he whispered something to his client with a dismissive wave, which I interpreted to mean, “She’s so out of here.” Which it did; my name was their first strike.
Los Angeles was well into the lunch hour by the time we rejects were finally set loose. While we were in the courtroom, the day had changed. The air was too warm, and the sky had become eerily sharp. With nowhere to go and no appointments to keep, I walked around aimlessly toward the Central Library, thinking about the judge’s words: don’t take it personally. I had heard the same thing, more or less, in that last conversation with my supervisor. “I had no choice,” she said. “I had to go by seniority.” One by one, I had watched people leave. Now, it was my turn. Those twenty-four years didn’t matter. They were now ashes at my feet.
Above the skyscrapers, a 747 made a deep curve for its approach to LAX. I stopped, a lone figure among the lunching office workers of Bunker Hill and watched the plane complete its low turn in the crystalline sky. It was the kind of day that pilots refer to as “severe clear,” when everything is visible on the horizon except for undreamt-of catastrophes. I thought of all the people I knew, who in a moment had the rug pulled out from under them, so many dreams that got put on hold, and wondered how many casualties were yet to come. It would be a long time before there would be any airplanes in my future. The only travel that awaited me was a commuter train, taking me back to the Valley where no one awaited my arrival. Maybe I would encounter the mime on his way home from work. He would stare, perhaps seeing through the failure that wrapped itself around me like a serape. But it wouldn’t be anything personal.
The Birthday Party
One hundred years old.
How can one imagine living that long? My fiftieth was a discomforting milestone. Old age creeping up unnoticed, stealthily, sniggering in the background. One husband, two sons. Alive. Limbs and faculties intact. I got away with it? Mirror, mirror on the wall pulled no punches:
“Look at yourself. How much longer? Will you outlast your father?” No. Never. I approached his birthday with considerable trepidation, my emotional baggage heavy. But this day was his. As were his memories. A hundred years of them.
Born in Gowerton, South Wales, to a poor family. Stole coal to keep the winter fires burning. Got to Grammar school, studied Latin, played rugby, kept fit, fit, fit. University. World War II. Squadron leader, the youngest almost ever. Married teacher in Milford Haven Grammar School. Taught, taught, taught. Latin, history, PE. Two children.
“You stand at the blackboard, Daddy, in the picture I have of you.”
Like Sylvia Plath’s father, he spoke German, learnt it in the war.
Didacticism and pedantry still run in his thinning blood even after all those years of teaching. Barking orders, correcting grammar, asking endlessly about my boys’ exam results. As a teacher he put in extra hours, unpaid, for those he felt shared his passion for Latin and Greek. His methods verged on the tyrannical – no benign Mr Chips character he. Renowned for throwing the wooden duster at those hapless enough to mix up their ablatives with their datives, he was also known as the one master likely to get you into Oxford.
I finished my Latin O-Level exam, taken a year early, in half an hour, because, for me there were no “unseens” – I’d seen them all before, with him. Colette, the invigilating teacher, thought me stupid for having left so soon. I got a grade 1. It made me really popular! His delight was marred by my sulking all day as a means of revenge.
Do you remember saying, “I don’t want any fuss on my birthday”? But I know you. If nothing had happened there would have been trouble, some obscure Ciceronian recrimination I would have had to research.
All those years of checking obituary columns and saying, “Ah, I’ve outlived him.” And there’s the rub. They’ve all gone. Mindful of that I gave you the chance to see, reminisce and say farewell to those who played a role in your life.
On the occasion of your hundredth birthday, Daddy, I presented a funeral party for the living.
Marks and Spencer are indispensable on these occasions, as was the wonderful carer who gave up her day to help cater, make tea and keep the peace between visitors and my brother, unnerved by an occasion made more stressful by his Asperger’s Syndrome.
You never did make time to understand him.
He’s always been scared of you, Panzer-man.
As a family we dealt with verbs and conjugations, not feelings. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. Still, we had good holidays, touring Europe with you convivially speaking with the natives in their own language, whether French, German, or Italian. We would look at Latin inscriptions in churches and cathedrals, you translating the bits I didn’t get.
Do you remember those walks across the fields, with our cat, following us with dog-like devotion? You sang about the “tit willow with the rather tough worm in his little insides” plunging into his watery grave. It always had me heaving with sobs.
I was amazed by the forty-six birthday cards. I read each message as we tried to work out who, actually, had sent them. The Queen’s card was particularly impressive, a lovely photograph, quality paper festooned with gold braid.
And she had teeth.
“Daddy, daddy please, put yours in and your hearing aid…”
“What? Enunciate girl! Leave me alone, I’m perfectly capable of masticating with the teeth I have left.”
And so, tired of arguing, I dutifully cut up your food.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
Aneurin, the retired farmer from my mother’s side of the family was the first visitor. He brought a box of butterfly cakes, exquisitely made. I stared at them, remembered childhood, mother. She was beautiful. Aneurin stayed a while, asked about you but didn’t want to see your bedridden self. He explained, “I’d rather remember him in his full vigour.”
I respected that. And understood.
Every woe and frustration, every feeling of helplessness and frailty that you have uttered are magnified to me as I feel equally helpless in turn. When you sobbed I have raged against the dying of your light.
The mayor came to visit, in his glittering regalia, heavy chains almost down to his knees. A short man, made me think of Mussolini and Napoleon. Same height as you. His face fell when I explained that they would have to see you in bed. Our local councillor and childhood acquaintance, invited to the party, had not told them that.
But then everything changed. They saw the photographs. You, young and handsome in your squadron-leader uniform looking down from the mantelpiece at the gathered few huddled tightly in the shabby bedroom. The mayor honed in on it at once, for he also had been in the RAF squadron. His chauffeur took a picture. And you came alive and spoke. Your conversation, animated, enthusiastic as you reminisced and laughed with the mayor, was as a Lazarine conversion.
The young man in the picture speaking through the old wreck in bed.
I was so proud of you.
Of all the cards received, one stood out the most, the one from the ex-pupil who became Head of Music for BBC Wales. A message of heartfelt thanks to his old Latin teacher:
“For awakening my interest in etymology and Roman culture … for giving me a range of English vocabulary which meant I could hold my own in skirmishes with Eton/Oxbridge heavies in BBC London … for holidays in Italy, visits to Pompeii and Ercolano and appreciation of the work of classicist Mary Beard. For always making clear your irritation with schoolboy sloppiness of any kind: of verbal expression, dress or failure to meet deadlines … for preparing me for the discipline required to achieve some measure of success in later life…”
How well he knew you.
I had no idea.
And so, following him, I write down what I cannot bring myself to say in person. I love you, amo, I have loved you, amavi, I will always love you, amabo, and when you are gone I will remember how I used to love you, amabam.
What more is there to say than just that?
The Birthday Party was all going swimmingly. A group of twenty-five were gathered downstairs, waiting to pay their respects. The chauffeur asked for a picture of you with the mayor. Waving your arms, you airily declined with a stern:
“No, no publicity please.”
The sandwiches, the votive offerings of homemade cakes, gradually disappeared with the visitors, leaving me and a few others to recover from the exhaustion of the day.
My father did well, did himself proud on the occasion of his hundred years.
There was one last thing:
“Will there be an article in the Llanelli Star?”
“Well no, you asked for no publicity, remember?”
The answer came, more as an instruction than a request:
“Write something … something modest!”
And so I did.
In memory of Juris Arturs Zarins, 1944–2019.
There is a small nation in the north-east, where cold and dark rule for most of the year. A country that’s spent most of its history in unions with other empires, and freedom has been recent. It’s a country still divided by ethnicities and languages, but united in patriotism. Each year fewer people stay who were born there, but each year some return who never lived there. In 2018 that country celebrated its 100th anniversary as an independent nation, despite spending nearly half that time inside the walls of largest Union in the world. The whole year was one long Latvian birthday party, because freedom is worth celebrating, and democracy is worth protecting.
But freedom comes at high costs, and requires plenty of responsibility. In the first few years after declaring independence, and in the twenty-seven years since it regained it, Latvia learned this the hard way. And it is a lesson, and a price, my adopted home country of the United Kingdom, is learning, and paying, through Brexit.
For a small country of barely two million inhabitants, Latvia has an enormous diaspora, of which I am part. My paternal grandparents left Latvia in 1944, when they were thirty years old and their homeland was twenty-six. This was at the end of three years of German occupation, and their army, civil service and civilians were retreating at the approach of the Red Army. Alongside them, many Latvians fled the returning Soviets, who had ruled the country for a year known as the Year of Terror before the German invasion. The Latvian Army and national guard had been deployed as “voluntary” regiments under German command to fight the USSR on the eastern front. My grandfather had been one of them; he lost his right hand in a grenade explosion at Stalingrad. He, and thousands of others, did not want to face the wrath of the conquering Soviets, and so decided to leave.
Two routes were available for their escape: the official one, to Germany proper, on ships provided by the German navy to ensure a willing workforce after the war they knew they were losing; and the unofficial one, in fishing and leisure boats arranged by non-violent resistance groups, to Sweden. No one knew before they went which vessels would be safer; the German ships were larger and stronger, but also an easier target in the busy Baltic Sea. No one could know what was waiting on the other side. Sweden was neutral, and Germany was losing the war, but Latvia had belonged to Germany. As history would have it, more Latvians died on route to Germany than to Sweden, but more also made it there alive. In Sweden the diplomatic resistance continued, but the Swedish government also gave in to USSR demands for the mass extradition of Baltic soldiers, on the motivation that having fought for Germany, they were war criminals belonging to the Soviets. The overseas efforts to free Latvia were silenced until the 1980s. No one knew this then, of course, so as my grandparents stood on the western beaches of Latvia and decided where to go, nothing was certain, and everything was dangerous.
They went to Sweden. My father was born there, and thirty-three years after that I was born there. Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union, but the white and burgundy flag hung in our house, and a large map of Latvia hung like the portrait of Scarlett O’Hara in the hallway. National identity can be strong for a people in exile, even for the generations who weren’t born there. Latvia was our promised land, and when the Singing Revolution came, we sang along with it. For freedom.
My grandfather died shortly after my father was born. My grandmother died shortly after Latvia became independent. A few years after this, as a result of a referendum where my mother let me tick the box for “yes”, Sweden entered the European Union. Latvia’s rapid financial growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, following reforms and an embrace of market economy, led them to EU and NATO memberships in 2004. At last it was a true independent nation, free to join whichever union they liked, on equal terms and in the national interest. Because freedom is precious, and democracy is not to be taken for granted.
The financial crash of 2008, however, hit the small nation hard. The EU membership had made investments and subsidies possible, but it also made it possible for people to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Latvia now has the highest annual population loss per capita in the world, with low wages and struggling markets keeping poverty levels increasingly high. Freedom comes at a cost, and Latvia is a nation struggling between the benefits and consequences of union memberships. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has increased its presence in the Baltic states, and Latvia has called for action on Russian cyber interference. Freedom is threatened. Which means there is even more reason to celebrate it.
2018 was a year of Latvian celebrations, and I took part in as many as I could. In July there was the Song and Dance Celebration, a tradition that not even the Communist rule of the 20th century could extinguish. On 14 November, I went to a concert[£] hosted by the Latvian Embassy at Wigmore Hall in London, that celebrated Latvian culture, independence and long standing diplomatic relationship with the UK. EU flags stood like comrades alongside the Latvian ones on the stage, in case there was any doubt. Only a few days later, I went to Riga to celebrate the actual Independence Day, on the 18th of November. A flower-laying ceremony and speeches by the President, light shows and a torch bearing procession, with a finale of spectacular fireworks over the river Daugava were on the agenda. But the most political part of the day was probably the military parade along the 11 November Embankment in the early afternoon. Participants from all aspects of the Latvian army and its NATO allies, were on a long display through the city, with military aircraft, vehicles and weaponry to complete the image of a country prepared and capable. The parade was a message, just as much as the burgundy and white flags were, just as much as the singing of the national anthem was. 18 November was the highlight day of a monumental year, with promoted patriotism and pride the likes of which I have never seen. To not be swept up in it and feel pride of my link to Latvia was impossible.
Other eastern European nations, like Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland, also celebrated their centenaries in 2017 and 2018. They are young nations that still remember being on the wrong side of the iron curtain. For them, being free and part of international organisations such as the EU and NATO, under their nation’s own name and flag, is not only about diplomacy, but of survival. From liberal Balts’ perspective, the UK’s departure from the European Union is not only incomprehensible, but possibly disastrous.
However, isn’t it hypocritical to celebrate one’s own independence, and simultaneously condemn another nation’s fight for it? Regaining control of borders and laws and financial expenditure in the name of a beloved home country was what drove both Latvian independence and Brexit. As a young European enjoying all of the four freedoms in a country different from that of my birth, I am a staunch Remainer who didn’t get to vote. But singing for one independence whilst screaming at another has made me reassess them both. My relationship with Latvia has been accompanied by the developments of Brexit. I first visited Latvia in June 2016, a couple of weeks before the referendum. In July 2018, I attended the Song and Dance festival and travelled around Latvia on the same day as the Chequers deal was published. On the night that I attended the Latvian concert in London, the government debated and signed the final deal only a few kilometres away, before further cabinet resignations. And exactly one week after the Independence Day festivities in Riga, EU leaders endorsed the Brexit withdrawal agreement. And now, the consequences of Brexit remain uncertain while the future of Latvian independence remain threatened.
It’s a fine line between patriotism and nationalism, and its placement seems to differ depending one’s perspective of it. The rise of populist movements across Europe, from the Sweden Democrats and Alternative für Deutchland to the Five Star Movement and Front National, has given love for one’s country a bad reputation amongst liberals and lefties. The populist party in Latvia is also Euro-sceptic, anti-establishment and prominent; but instead of nationalistic it is pro-Russian.
Some of the reasons why people in the UK are keen to leave the EU, such as free movement and financial contributions, are some of the strongest benefits of the membership for countries like Latvia. Cooperation and unity are in the national interest, particularly when the threat of an absorption into a different kind of union again looms over its borders.
To be patriotic, to worship freedom for your country, might be linked to a nostalgia for something that might never even have existed; a myth passed down between generations. That’s certainly the case for me and Latvia; I don’t know anything about what it was like to live in Latvia under occupation, or what its independence truly means. Neither did my grandmother. The political and economic difficulties the country now faces is the reality of a dream housed by us in the diaspora. It is easy for us to be patriotic for Mother Latvia, living with university degrees and job prospects and the world at our feet in London, Berlin and Stockholm.
I imagine it’s the same for some Brexiteers. The inherited mythologies surrounding the Empire, tough and free in the weathered landscapes of the island nation that rules the waves, become stronger in times of hardship, when one might feel ruled by the waves of Brussels. To be patriotic is to want freedom, no matter what that dream is built upon, and regardless of what the reality of Brexit means. To be patriotic, might also be to be nostalgic. I find myself empathising with those Leave-voters there.
So in the same year that Latvia celebrated its independence, the price of the UK’s independence has become evident. Perhaps the only way to be truly free is to challenge our own double standards, in order to respect other people’s wishes and opinions. If individuals are allowed to be free, they are able to create unity. Only through unity and respect, can we be truly free.