Paris Fashion Week: Day 1.1

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The old woman next to me begins to clear her throat immediately after sitting down, the phlegm dragging against her esophagus until it makes it way into her mouth and screams for release, finding an exit between her parted lips. After a ceaseless twenty minutes of this, it becomes obvious that this is a condition that plagues her chronically, and it will be a condition I will be plagued by for the next seven hours to Paris.

“Give her a cough drop?” a friend advises via text.

“Is it alright to kill grandmothers?” I respond.

Four months of Bikram yoga have done wonders for my in-flight anxiety (though, apparently, not my tolerance). The plane hurtles forward until we are airborne. I breathe deeply and hear my half-naked teacher with the shaved head and the impressive ab muscles screaming “Puuusssssshhhhhhh the floor away! PUSH!!!!!!!” – only I imagine it’s the plane pushing from the earth, which gives the whole venture a deceivingly safe quality to it, one I would not ordinarily fall for. For the rest of the flight, we travel over the Atlantic on a pair of sturdy, invisible arms, which provides me with more confidence than any scientific tutorial on aeronautics.

An hour in, the flight attendants are making their rounds with the usual “Pick Your Poison” routine.

“Beef stroganoff or cheese ravioli,” a man with a tidily tucked shirt and a gold wristwatch asks me.

Neither?

“Beef.”

The girl next to me practically giggles with delight at the sight of her vegetarian platter, a steamy, potent combination of rice and curry. I look down grimly at the tray in front of me: shrink-wrapped white roll, a triangle of nuclear cheddar, something you might call a salad, and gray mess of overcooked beef and dry mashed potatoes sweating under a plastic cover. I find one carrot and two pieces of broccoli and forgo the rest. Better safe than sorry.

I drape my men’s coat over my head and do my best to fall asleep, which I think is successful in that I wake up hours later to the familiar sound of the food and beverage cart hulking down the galley. “Breakfast?” he asks. These questions always seem misleading, as though from them you could distill what is actually coming. “Sure,” I say, and then I remember that American Airlines has removed 90% of the components of their continental breakfast option, leaving only a sad croissant clinging to a paper doily and a round plastic container of orange drink.

Just beyond the bulkhead, I see a woman with shaky hands paw around for butter and jam to adorn her infinitely superior croissant, which stands, tall and flakey, upon a proper dish. I seriously want to know the cost difference between a shitty croissant and a real one, and if it’s done less as a measure for cost effectiveness and more to just further accentuate class hierarchy in life.

“Actually, it’s okay,” I say, handing my tray back to him, like a prisoner who would rather starve than suffer the indignities of his jailing.

Our tires hit the ground at 7 a.m. As usual, it’s darker outside than you’d imagine it to be. Here, the sun feels like it doesn’t come out until noon. I follow Business Class out the doors and trail the same silent parade of plastic wheels over red carpet as we walk through the white metal and glass corridors towards a “Sortie” sign.

French customs is the usual, disturbingly casual affair. I am asked no questions. My passport is stamped without hesitation.

Bonjour, Paris.

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Twelve Days of Christmas: 1.1

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One

People fall asleep over Kindles and Macy’s bags filled with Christmas presents. I’m using the big luggage — the sporty one a friend of a friend left at his apartment two years ago, filled with size 43 golf pants and men’s dress socks. He chucked the clothes and gave me the bag. I aired it out for two weeks. Just in case.

I’m sweating in my coat. It’s always the same thing – leaving twenty minutes late and running for the train, standing in front of my luggage, back aching under the weight of iPads, iPods, copies of The New Yorker. L Train to E Train to Air Train. JFK to LAX.

Waiting on the platform, I had this random flash, a thought that heated up and spread through every cell like wildfire, a feeling of this parallel reality, something that could have been had I not made a certain choice a few years ago, standing on a street in the middle of frozen February. And in that thought, I wasn’t going home to Los Angeles for Christmas; I was going to London. I felt everything within seconds: the tired familiarity of inconvenience, the dulled enthusiasm knowing that whatever was waiting for me at the other end was going to take me eight hours to get to, the realities of some long distance relationship that never happened.

Five dollars for an AirTrain card and I’m sitting next to two traveling salesmen in their late 30s, talking about their holiday plans. “Chillaxin’” the one guy says. Twice. He talks loud enough for me to hear. I turn sideways, praying to not be somehow invited into this conversation. We slides through Brooklyn neighborhoods with their thinned out trees, traffic on the highway cut into immovable veins of red and white. My reflection is an opaque thing on the glass in front of me, wrinkleless and ethereal, reality minus ten or fifteen years.

“When’d you get married?” the one guy asks the other.

“Twenty-nine.”

“See, I got married at twenty-five and it was a real eye-opener. The bills started coming in. I mean… that was reality.”

There is a pause here, where the other guy – the one sitting next to me who says things like “chillax” – does not know what to say, how to empathize or contribute or generally make his friend feel as though he’s not the only one in the world who has ever felt this way. After six seconds of silence, he simply fills the void with “What was your first sales job?”

It must be hard being a man sometimes, running towards and away from feelings, in denial of things that are clearly there. Or maybe they’re not there. Who knows. I’m not a man, and after dating in New York for three years, I’m vaguely convinced they have no feelings, no heart. That’s the bitterness creeping in.

The airport isn’t busy yet because I’m leaving a week earlier than everyone else. One of the TSA employees talks to me while I pull back on my jackets and boots on the other end of the security screening. “So tell me,” he asks, “are you still modeling?” Yeah yeah yeah, I say, and then I mention my writing. “Good for you,” he says. Then he says how he can spot the girls – these models – a mile away. “They’re like unicorns,” he says. They’re always the same: tall, happily disheveled, little to no makeup. It’s good to know there are other people wandering around the airport looking like genetically gifted homeless people.

“None of that stuff matters anyway,” he says. “When you get to be my age, all you want is a girl who can make you a good cup of coffee. You understand what I mean?”

I do, sort of. The part of me that sort of doesn’t makes a joke about putting my French press in the fridge overnight.

“You come to just want a friend,” he says.

“When does that happen?” I ask.

“Around forty… fifty years old.”

“Oh, good,” I joke. “I only have to wait ten to twenty more years.”

And then I jam my laptop into my carry-on, wish him happy holidays, and head towards my gate. I feel like I am always having these conversations in airports or with cab drivers — pulling my shoes on, wiping sleep out of my eyes, juggling baggage, saying “uh huh, uh huh” while someone tries to kindly impress upon me some meaning of life.

(Photo: Courtesy of Tandem Research)

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I get in from my trip to Table Mountain just as I’m supposed to be on a van headed to a work event for an evening spent with booze and light snacks in one of Cape Town’s most “breathtaking settings.” I need a break. No more wine. No more canapés. No more breathtaking sunsets. I need to sit and do nothing. I want to eat hummus out of a jar with a spoon and watch really awful movies that were never released in the United States. I want to talk to no one but the wall in front of me.

Leah, the Guest Services Director, however, does not see it that way. I see her on my way in. Fuckity fuck. Now what.

“Leah,” I start, thinking that I am somehow going to wrestle my way out of this evening on account of my running late, “I’m supposed to be leaving for Summerton Ridge right now but I haven’t had time to change.”

Leah scans her thick packet of various itineraries. She’s having to deal with two hundred guests going to about six different places, all via different vans and buses. We are like pieces of luggage getting sorted at Heathrow International. She is on the verge of hating everyone.

“Yes,” she says, not quite picking up on where I am going with this (or, maybe, totally picking up on where I am going with this).

“Do I have time to go up to my room and change?”

“You look fine, dear!”

I glance down for an aerial perspective of my outfit: distressed jeans, tattered Brooklyn boots, my black coat, a bag with a giant bottle of water in it slung across my body. I look as though I’ve just come back from some thrifting expedition in Hipster Town.

Leah grabs me by the shoulders and turns me round, sending me through the revolving doors towards a van with “Summerton Ridge” clearly printed on a sign. I climb aboard, reluctantly.

On the van already are people who have taken the time to shower and change. These are proper grown ups with groomed hair and freshly applied lipstick. God, I’m such a child. Modeling has instilled in me a careless whatever-ness that does not make me well suited for the real world. I’m like Anne Hathaway’s character in Rachel Getting Married, here to destroy everything with my inappropriate crop-top and an alcohol problem. I do my best to make up for this with biggish words and an intellectual cadence. Don’t look at me, it says. Listen to my $200k education!

The van takes the long way, getting lost a winding, beautiful road until it deposits us in front of an estate that looks as though it’s undergone one too many renovations. The bones are old, but the surface is suspiciously contemporary. Kind of like the building equivalent of that “Catwoman” beast of botched plastic surgery, Jocelyn Wildenstein.

Someone leads us through a hallway lined with artwork until we are on a patio looking out onto a bay. The sun sets over Cape Town, the lights from expensive condos twinkling into significance as the purple and pink give way to navy, a bluish bruise blackening in time.

We dutifully take pictures.

Tables are set up in a room, covered in full bottles and empty glasses. Two young men play contemporary music on classical instruments. Servers have started to walk around with a whole host of uncomplimentary – and fairly disgusting — snacks: Japanese sushi, Indian samosas, Greek spanokopita. Something for everyone and no one at the same time. In desperation, I start eating fistfuls of almonds and biltong, swiped from little white bowls.

Without my boss to trail around, I am left to fend for myself. I travel from brand new acquaintance to brand new acquaintance with the dutiful peckishness of a hungry little mouse. What did you today? Where are you from? How many hours did it take for you to get here? And you? And you? And you? Right now I am craving — more than anything in the world – a sit-down meal and a meaty conversation.

Just as I suspected, I look like a stowaway who snuck into the event for some free booze. I am the youngest person here by at least ten to fifteen years. There are women in kitten heels and silk blouses.

I find one of my newer friends, a gentleman that reminds me of Stellan Skarsgård, who I met the evening previous. I make some comment about my attire.

“It’s been noted,” he says.

I’m pretty sure he’s kidding. I really hope he’s kidding.

I take another handful of almonds and biltong. The two gentlemen playing in the corner have begun their rendition of “Call Me Maybe,” with no hint of irony. I take this as my cue to leave.

“If anyone asks about me, tell them I’ve gotten food poisoning,” I tell New Friend, and then I escape up a set of stairs, past people drinking wine in weird living rooms, and towards the road, as though I’ve just been freed from an abduction.

Eating Standing Up

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Berlin: Day 2.1

“You stay out until it’s daylight.  Really daylight.  When you get home, everyone ugly.  You ugly.  They ugly.”

Luchy is in the backseat, rolling his rs and making Google Translate look like an elegant solution to turning Italian logic into English phrases.  Luchy is short for Luciano.  Half the time they call him Mario.

We’re in the car, headed back to the hummus/chicken place for Mediterranean breakfast round two.  “I hate hummus,” Luchy says.  “Every morning the same thing.  Too good.  Make me fat.”  And then he looks out the window and says, “It’s extremely wet what’s going on.”  I think he means the rain.

The next day Luchy will tell me he wants to make his English better but that would be a total and complete tragedy.  The beauty of Luchy is the shit that comes out of his mouth, so ill-pieced and random it rests somewhere between ESL and poetry, which would make sense given that back in Italy, Luchy is a professional writer for television.

Brannon tells me this and I laugh, thinking he’s got to be joking.

“No, I’m serious,” Brannon says.

Half of the group is already there and has been for the last two hours.  The table is littered with uneaten flatbreads and empty bowls of hummus.  Two or three juice boxes sit in between.  “I keep trying to leave,” says one guy next to me, exhausted and with half his face in the palm of one hand, “but everyone just keeps coming.”

The kid from California by way of Israel is talking about some pill he took last night that made his face all red.

The boys step into City Chicken to order the usual.  Jonas says you just have to go in there and whoever shouts the loudest gets their food.  There’s no line or common courtesy, just a hierarchy of noise.

Everyone sits outside talking and eating, drinking brown tea out of glass cups.  Alone and in search for water, I walk down a sidewalk paved with stone like broken teeth, chips of gray all pushed together in the space under trees.  Men sit outside of restaurants – at least the ones that are open because it’s Sunday and I am in Europe.  Most everything’s closed.  I’m not used to this inconvenience because in America we traded “God’s Day” for capitalism.  Things are opened 24 hours, 7 days a week, 362.5 days per year because God didn’t want Americans to rest, God wanted Americans to make money.

The only open bodega is filled with cheap bottles of wine and hundred-year-old candy that sits in Plexiglas organizers, fallen sugar pushing into the corners like dust.  I grab a bottle of water and hand a two-Euro coin to a cashier with a free hand.

“Have a good one,” I say, forgetting I’m not back home.

***

Battina finds a parking spot at the entrance of the open air.  “Open airs” are what they call outdoor parties here, though I think the term infers that it, like the other weekend parties in Berlin, starts on a Thursday and ends on Monday morning.  Not calling it an “open air” might incorrectly suggest there’s a limit, and people don’t come to Berlin for time limits on their rage fests.

What is likely the most terrifying thing I’ve seen possibly ever is walking towards us: a man, probably in his late forties or fifties, with a creepy, blissed-out grin stitched on his face, a massive load of snot hanging from his nose and holding court, refusing to fall.  It looks like his brain has started the slow descent from his skull and through his nose, looking to find a more hospitable environment, say, the floor of a gas station bathroom.

If a government ever needed an effective PSA for the war against drugs, this guy would be it, bar none.

We follow him through the entrance.  At a distance.

Some chick under a tree takes my money and stamps my hand.  At the end of a path, kids dance in a large sandy patch, a river and an active train track just beyond them.  The red and yellow siding of a speeding S-Bahn passes in the background, behind bodies pumping their fists and gyrating at various degrees – depending on how much MDMA they have or have not taken.  My favorite is the kid in the tracksuit who reminds me of a friend back home.  He grinds his jaw furiously and stares straight ahead, his angular shoulders moving back and forth in very precise time with the music.  It’s maybe 4 in the afternoon; he’s probably been up for 36 hours.

Bump bump bump. 

More indecipherable dance music.

More bodies bobbing around.

Jonas says that the open airs used to be done illegally, though here “illegally” seems up for interpretation.  The cops didn’t really care what went on.  Apparently the parties haven’t been as good for the last few years.  A few different ones have shut down for various reasons, party tourists ship in every weekend from around Europe, corporate sponsors have come in, companies like Red Bull and Lucky Strike donating tents and umbrellas to provide shade for sweaty, dehydrated junkies.

Junkies or not, it’s a nice enough, weird enough crowd.

A storm broils overhead, blackening the afternoon until it starts raining huge, fat, chilly drops.  People cluster together under the tents and trees while the diehards remain on the dance floor, raising their hands to the sky like that the opening scene in Blade, only without the blood raining from fire sprinklers and vampires and everything.

The music marries thundering booms while lightening cracks overhead, close enough to make me nervous.  I bob around under my umbrella, having brought an umbrella to an open air because I’m turning into my mother.

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Berlin: Day 1.2

Jonas picks me up from the airport in a tiny car filled with little toys and empty water bottles.  “What’s this?” I joke, holding up a miniature plastic gorilla and a miniature plastic beach chair with red and cream stripes.  “I don’t know,” he says, “it’s not my car.”

I grab a 1 Euro coin and try to jam it into the beach chair.

“It doesn’t fit.”

We take the long, scenic route even though I don’t know this until four days later when we are driving someone else back to the airport – only we take the fast way, through bigger city streets and along highways.

Everything is greener than a big city should be; there are trees on every street, sprouting up next to apartment buildings and hovering overhead.  I say something like “It’s so beautiful” and Jonas tells me that it is now, but in the winter it’s something different.

In the winter it is gray and horrible and every tree is a shuddering, rattling mass of brittle twigs.  You can count the hours of daylight on one hand.  At least that’s how I imagine it.  But winter is horrible everywhere.  Cold is cold is cold is cold – and I think I already love Berlin.

The city is a confused combination of bastardized modernist high rises and lower, older buildings.  The newer apartments are comparable in design to any American low-income housing complex, with incompatible-sized windows and countless floors.  Most of the older things look newer than they are on account of the slathering of cheap colored stucco encasing everything.  I imagine there used to be more brick and stone, an attention to detail that most everything here seems devoid of from the outside.  It looks like after the war someone just took to this place with a trough and a bunch of spackle, plugging up the bullet holes before winter came.

From nearly every angle, the TV tower – with its concrete stem like a kebab through a silver golf ball – looms, big and ugly but surprisingly perfect.  Jonas tells me that before the wall came down, the government didn’t have the money to clean the whole thing, so they just cleaned the side facing west.

“You want to meet my friends for hummus?”

I have never been one to pass up hummus, and after ten days of whatever France thinks passes for quality whipped chickpeas, I’m dying for something without fromage blanc mixed with beans.

It’s close to 2 but his friends are slow to get up after going out the night before until 6 in the morning.  They’re not at the hummus place yet – although I think it’s really a chicken place given its name, City Chicken.  There are two of them, right next to each other: City Chicken on the corner, and then City Chicken just next door.  I’m still confused as to what the difference is between the two, or if City Chicken on the corner just needed more room so instead of moving to one, bigger building, they just scooped up the real estate next door.

Jonas and I walk into a café down the street and I try to order an iced coffee, which someone gave me a lecture on before I came to Berlin.  If you order an iced coffee, they told me, any café in Germany will hand you back a coffee with a scoop of ice cream in it.  If you want coffee over ice, you have to use this magic word: …

Of course I forget what this magic word is, and when Jonas tries to explain to her that I want ice cubes in my hot coffee she just shrugs her shoulders and makes a face, like I’ve just asked for curry at an Italian restaurant.

“They can’t do it,” he says.

“You mean they don’t have ice?  Not even for soda?”

This might be like one of those French “Is not possible” situations where the proprietor of an establishment thinks they know better than you and are withholding the integral pieces you require to accomplish your perfectly possible mission.  Everyone in Paris wants to be the hyper-negating version of your own mother.  Maybe it’s the same in Germany; it’s my first day, so who knows.  I imagine she’s got a treasure trove of ice just beneath the counter waiting to cool off glasses of water, brighten cups of lukewarm Coke Light.

“No.”

“No ice?”

“No ice.”

This is the first of many failed iced coffee missions, each one simultaneously promising and disappointing on various accounts, never fully satisfying the requirements of a demanding American who knows just what she wants and just what she likes and grew up with the cookie-cutter efficiency and myriad personalization options available to them at – wait for it – Starbucks.

For all the haters out there, sometimes Starbucks just gets the job done, especially in Europe, where the commercial progress of the coffee bean stopped evolving sometime in the 1800s.  I think of my relationship with Starbucks in remote places like being stuck on a twelve-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and all you’ve got is an US Weekly Magazine.  At a certain point, you’ve got no other option but to read about Blake Lively’s cellulite just to kill some time.

I order a double espresso and don’t even entertain the idea of asking for soymilk.  We sit outside on a wooden picnic table and I wait for the temperature of my unseasonably hot coffee to drop so my body temperature doesn’t spike violently on this already warm enough, fairly humid day.

Jonas shotguns his.  “If it’s not burning hot,” he says, “what’s the point?”  I suppose this is a sentiment shared with the entire European Union.

I’m fighting an uphill battle.

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Berlin: Day 1.1

The cab driver picks me up outside of the apartment I’ve been holed up in for the last ten days, sleeping in the four-foot-tall nook I’ve affectionately dubbed “the rat hole.”  Get me the hell out of here, I think.  For one of the first times ever, I’m ready to leave Paris, the adorable Marais having suffocated me with its cobblestone sidewalks and its very French Frenchiness.

He asks me what terminal my flight departs from and for the first time I actually know because I’ve printed out my itinerary for each and every leg of this journey, thawing out from the paralyzing incompetence of my Maldives faux pas back in March.

Everything is stapled together, organized.  I’ve got my flights around Germany – Paris to Berlin, Hamburg to Paris, my flight back to the US a week from today, a receipt for my accommodations in Hamburg on the 11th for two nights.

“2D,” I say, reading from today’s sheet of white paper.  “Air France.”  Charles de Gaulle to Berlin Tegel departing at 10 in the morning, arriving at noon.  Jonas is picking me up from the airport.  I don’t have to think about anything beyond this, which is an incredibly foreign feeling.

I haven’t planned a thing.

I didn’t buy a book or a map.

I know nothing about Berlin.

I have a few emails from American friends filled with suggestions for restaurants, museum must-sees, areas they liked when they visited – none of which I researched further, and it won’t matter anyway, because when I show Jonas the list, he tells me it sucks.

For as little as I know, however, it seems fitting that the man I end up sitting next to on the flight is a grizzly bearded, Prince/ Shakespeare hybrid – a modern pirate with an embroidered jacket from The Globe Theatre’s costume department and a pair of khakis from the GAP.  He could have easily been street-cast for that Forrest Gump protest scene on the National Mall, where an in-uniform Forrest runs towards a pot-smoking, longhaired Jenny.  Right on, man!  Peace and love!  Hippy shit, yeah!

He flips through the pages of an appropriately hippy shit book with a chipped, orange-lacquered fingernail.  When the male flight attendant comes over the loudspeakers and makes breathy, indecipherable announcements in French, Neo-Shakespeare chuckles and mutters responses in a one-way dialogue with no one, satisfied with his cleverness.

He bothers me immensely.

“LAAAAYdies and gentlemen!”

The French flight attendant has now switched over to butchered English, which is infinitely better than any French I have ever attempted.  The only French words I know are clothing related: Could you unbutton the gilet, please? or The hair needs to be in a nice, tight chignon or something about making a shirt bloussant, which I don’t even know is how you spell the word “bloussant” or if it’s a noun or a verb.

In English the flight attendant sounds like he is making the opening announcements for a boxing match, over-exaggerated and comical.  And for a second I think he’s actually trying to be funny, until he uses the same pronunciation for “LAAAAYDIES” the next three times.

And in this corner!

Thirty minutes later, he’s holding up two bags of carbohydrate options in front of me.  “Uhhh, do you, uhhh, want ze biscuits or ze, uhhhh, crackers?” he asks, and I say crackers but point to the biscuits because my brain isn’t working after a month of not being required to think about anything beyond changing in and out of pants and wearing skirts and shirts off of the racks for Resort 2013, spinning around in shoes that aren’t my size like a bored rotisserie chicken.

He hands me a brown packet of two cookies.

Damn you, brain.

While Neo-Shakespeare nibbles on little white sticks covered in chemical pesto, I am stuck with my sickeningly sweet Les Gallettes des San Michele.  He lifts them to his lips, his silver rings and the white embroidery on his navy coat catching white light from the Plexiglas portal to his right, the countryside of Germany edging out the countryside of France, until – with a tidy, well-executed thud – we land in Berlin.

Guten Tag!

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Whose Bed Is This Anyway

“Get in bed with Agnes,” Oliver tells me.  He has appeared out of nowhere, sometime between when I fall asleep at 5 a.m. and when I wake up some 4 hours later.  “Here,” he says, “Take off your shoes.”  He’s the alcoholic mother I never had.

Oliver ushers me towards some stranger’s very white bed, where Agnes is currently buried somewhere deep.

“Rush en bark tuff tuft.”

The noise comes from the sheets.

“What?” Oliver asks, leaning towards her.

“Brack tree fee miss grit.”

“Bunch of rubbish,” he says, and then covers me with a cotton duvet before disappearing out the door and into the hallway where all the noise and cigarette smoke is being imported in from the living room.

I wake up to white walls and the same muttering ginger.  I have no idea what time it is or what time the party finished.  It’s finally warm in the apartment and I begin to sweat a bit under my multiple winter layers, which should come as no surprise being as I am dressed for the dead of winter and not bedtime.  Oh God, how I want to change my clothes, how badly do I want a glass of water and a prescription strength Tylenol, how horribly I just want to barf.

Someone turns the shower on.

I walk out of the bedroom and assess the damage: empty bottles, heaps of shoes, two boys sleeping on the tiny sofa, neither or whom are Oliver, my now-negligent caretaker.  I head back into the bedroom where I fold my body into the crevice of the loveseat again.

The shower shuts off and I watch as a girl wrapped in a white towel passes sideways down the hallway.  Laura James.  Laura Jean.  What’s her fucking name? 

Oh!  Now I remember where I am.

It’s Laura J-Name’s bed I stole and whose apartment I’ve been abandoned in.  She looks different with her wet hair and her face scrubbed of makeup, her cheeks no longer glimmering like the surface of the moon as they did last night.

I hide out in her bedroom pretending to sleep until I hear boys talking on the other side of the wall.  “You guys,” she says.  “I have to leave.  I have to go somewhere.”  This is my cue to figure out what the hell I’m doing.  I round the corner and apologize for making her sleep on her own couch between two grown men.  “Aw, it’s alright,” she says, putting on a pair of shoes culled from the heaping pile near the front door.

My phone doesn’t work in Europe so I borrow one of the boy’s, the brother of the ginger still sleeping in Laura J-Name’s bed.  The other boy with the glasses is trying to wake her up.

“Agnes!  Agnes, get up!  Agnes, we have to go!”

Oliver is nowhere to be found and my time is running out.  I’m supposed to meet Joanna today and she lives closer to here than to Oliver’s Wood Cabin.  Oddly enough, the fact that I got stranded on this side of town is working in my favor, at least for now.  Although it means I won’t get to take a shower, change my clothes, or brush my teeth until 4:45 this afternoon, ten minute before I get right back on the tube and head to the airport for the my (month-old) flight to the Maldives.

Joanna tells me to meet her outside some train station promptly in thirty minutes.  “Ish.”  I am brilliantly insecure without full access to cell phones, telephones, WiFi, GPS.  I export half of the information that would ordinarily need to be stored in my brain to some Google web query.  I don’t remember – and hardly need to remember – the telephone numbers of people I have met after 1999.  I am like an empty vessel for an endless onslaught of useless information, absorbing everything like an already too-wet sponge.  Later, when Joanna is running just five minutes behind (part in parcel with the “ish” addendum), I stand stranded at the tube station, thinking about worst case scenarios – the one of highest concern being that I will not being able to find Oliver or the house I’ve left all of my stuff at.  Where the hell is Oliver?

“Agnes!”

“What?”

“Agnes, we’re leaving.”

My sleeping buddy appears out of nowhere.  “What?  What?  Why didn’t you wake me up twenty minutes ago?”

“We tried.”

“No, you didn’t!” she yells accusatorially, as though all of last night and all of this morning has merely been part of a giant ruse to keep her passed out in bed all day.  Agnes is still rubbing sleep out of her eyes while Laura is standing next to an open door.

“You guys, I have to go,” Laura pleads.

“I can’t find my phone.  Where is my phone?”  Ginger Agnes is tracking the apartment like a dog on the hunt.  “Who took my phone?”

“It’s on silent.  Everyone shut up!”

Everyone stands at attention, Laura looking eager and preoccupied.

Silence.

Buzz.

Buzz.

Buzz.

Silence.

Buzz.

“Shhhhh!  You guys.  SHUT UP.”

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30 Hours in London

 

Oliver is waiting for me at the end of the platform, slouched in an uncomfortable-looking metal chair, fiddling with his telephone.  He is pale and floppy-mopped as ever, a proper vampiric Hugh Grant, minus all of the prostitutes and fame and whatnot.

“I told you to get at the front of the train!” he says, reprimanding me like a brother would his sister.  “Don’t start with me,” I warn, and we wait together patiently for the next train, which arrives within two minutes.

This is a Piccadilly Line to Cockfosters

A few stops and one bus ride later, we’ve arrived at his home, a contemporary modern abode amongst more traditional British housing, stodgy and stifled by comparison.  “The Wood Cabin,” he has referred to it as in the past, leading me to mistakenly envision tartan quilts and loyal, fox-murdering hounds, not the Dwell Magazine worthy den of white walls and perfectly filtered light that it actually is.

“How much time do you need before we head out?” he asks, to which I gamely reply, “I’m ready to just go now.”  I’ve only got 30-something hours in London before I head back to the airport for Leg 2 of my journey to the Maldives.  Ordinarily, I’d prefer to crawl into some hole and succumb to my jetlag.  Despite my enthusiasm, I realize it’s 10 in the morning and I’ve just spent the last twelve hours soaking up recycled air and the dander of strangers.  I need a shower, a nap, a change of clothes.

My enthusiasm to carpe diem is stymied by Oliver’s mother-like push towards the tub.  “Take your time,” he says.  “No rush.”  I scrub myself in scalding water while staring down at the flight-induced swelling that is still ravaging my ankles.  Lazily, I opt to not wash my hair, a decision I will regret some 40 hours later, after every opportunity for genuine cleanliness has successfully evaded me.

It’s brisk in London today and I am happy to have packed warm enough clothing.  I layer on a typically New York outfit: my favorite pair of gray jeans (complete with increasingly ripped hole in crotch), a polyester blouse disturbingly similar to ones my mother would have worn to work in the early 90s, a leather jacket that still reeks of old cigarette smoke circa Paris six days ago, and my wonderfully expensive wool coat (oh, the joys of designer trade) that recently replaced the synthetic G-Star knee- length number I’ve been embarrassing my friends with for the last two years.

Oliver and I walk along the green pastures in front of his house and up a hill.  I remark on the English gardens my mother would swoon over, on how “cute” all the homes are, how “fucking British” Britain is.  Oliver holds me by the elbow at street crossings to keep me from walking into oncoming traffic, buses and the like.

We sit down to breakfast in a place that may or may not have offered crayons in the center of the table to draw with.  Our chairs are petite and elevated just enough off of the floor to make me feel like Alice in Wonderland after she’s just nibbled off of a biscuit stamped with “EAT ME.”  My body’s got that “You’re here, but your brain’s somewhere else” feeling I have become vaguely accustomed to.  I look around the room for one of those woven floor rugs they used to give to us in kindergarten for naptime.  Every cell in my body is commanding sleep.

I order an English breakfast, which, in my estimation, is a masochistic and needless nationalist tradition of runny baked beans, sausages that look more like burned fingers than pig meat, and fried eggs – the chef’s obvious goal being to correct the unnatural ratio of white to crispy brown.  I am confused as to why an entire culture would wish to present this mish mash of shit as their Breakfast of Choice.  Over the course of my four morning mealtime opportunities here, I will have been relegated to order this fare (the alternative, of course, being blood sausage and other fine delicacies) four different times.  Thankfully, this morning is one of the better ones.  I vaguely recall some roasted potatoes.

We leave.  I walk over to Barclays to pick up some “bank notes” that don’t fit into my American wallet, the edges of which are left exposed to the horror that is the inside of my purse.  By the end of the day, most of my cash will look like some child’s afterschool project, mashed into a papier-mâché-like state by rogue chapsticks, a dead cell phone, coins from various countries, and confetti parade of gum wrappers.

“Naptime,” Oliver commands, my ultimate tour guide and jetlag fairy godmother.  For some reason, I assumed he would continue to go about his day without me, but he gamely participates in sleeping for two or three hours, which, as it turns out, will fortify the both of us for the next ten hours in London.

Around 8 or so, we end up in a pub in an area I can’t remember the name of.  The walls are purple.  Yes, I’m pretty sure the walls are purple.  Oliver orders me a glass of wine, of which I have the option of getting a petite serving or one more suitable to an alcoholic’s taste.  I opt for the former, though, on my next round, liberated from acquiescing to my irritatingly omnipresent need to be in control, I opt for the latter.  Friends arrive, everyone drinks, we play ping-pong in the back of the room.  I establish that I am, indeed, a horrible ping-pong player.

A few hours later, we take a cab to Dalston.  It’s 11 p.m. and I haven’t eaten dinner.  Oliver takes me into a bodega and I scan a host of things I do not eat until I arrive at a bean salad with what is maybe feta cheese – an amazing find considering this is pretty much like Britain’s answer to a gas station convenience store.  We stand outside a bar while I stab at chickpeas with a broken fork, most of which do not make it into my mouth.

Kids pack into the pub.  Everyone drinks.  The hours wane.  A steady stream of cutesy 50s music plays nonstop.  More people jam into the club.  People drink more.  People drink until they are drunk and then they drink some more.  That night I spent in London three years ago watching British youth inhale drugs and swig booze until they’d obliterated all sense of reason – that collective, compulsory wish to destroy themselves – comes back to me.  Oh, yes, I think, now I remember how people party in London.

I yell across the table at friends of Oliver’s and then at blithely friendly drunks who have just appeared out of nowhere.  The room has become this bobbing mass of people shouting and dancing and I sit at my table feeling vaguely tired and a little bit drunk.  Thankfully, at 3 a.m. the lights come on.  Oh, good, I think.  Now we can go home.

Or, you know, not.

Oliver and I walk to a place called Kebab House or Kebab Hut or something like that to get a falafel.  We obnoxiously shout out orders to a man in a white smock, a rotating cylinder of compressed lamb meat just behind him.  Florescent lights coat everything in an unappetizing bluishness.

“Is that mayonnaise?” Oliver interrogates, largely on my behalf, as the man steadies a yellow bottle above a mostly-finished pita.  The man nods as his fingers ready for a squeeze.  “No!  No!  No!” Oliver hollers, as though the poor little man has nearly picked up the telephone to incite WWIII.  “NO MAYONNAISE!”

By the time we return to the front of the bar, Oliver’s friend – the one whose dad went to the same high school at the same time as my own dad – is standing with his hand to his nose, smearing a stream of blood into his beard with his fingertips.  “Why did you punch me in the face?” he’s asking the boy standing across from him, who can’t seem to find a reasonable answer.  Then again, I suppose there is little rationality in violence.  Punching a person does not necessarily include proper planning and carefully laid plans.

The blood begins to dry on his hands, filling in the tiny lines between the joints.  The little ginger girl who has been stumbling about and dancing and laughing and seemingly having the most wonderful time out of all of us lunges towards him with a plaid scarf, wiping blood away with its pilled surface, staining the fibers crimson.

“If you don’t want someone to punch you in the face, don’t ask for someone to punch you in the face,” the boy says, his eyes wide but not articulating anything but a needless and artificial surge of energy.  I’m pretty sure he’s been doing blow.  I’m also pretty sure Oliver’s friend did file a personal request to get knocked first in the chin, and then next in the nose.

“I didn’t ask you to punch me in the face,” he says.  This is the most verbose bar fight I’ve ever seen, devoid of the testosterone-fueled duel one might find at, say, a dive bar in Detroit.

For a moment, the respective friends get riled up on behalf of the puncher and the punchee, frustrated that parties actually involved are not taking it further themselves.  The girls step in, overly confident in their role as impenetrable shields.  They hold their hands up saying no, no, no and provide the boys with excuses for giving up.  Eventually, the groups peel away, still keeping their eyes on each other from an ever-increasing distance measurable in meters.

The useless debate to wage an all-out war continues for about thirty minutes until someone has the good sense to just head over to the liquor store to provide adequate libations for the wholly necessary afterparty about to commence around the corner at Oliver’s friend’s flat.  I guess I’m not going home any time soon.

It’s about 4 a.m. by the time we reach the flat.  I last long enough to hold a useless three-minute conversation while staring blankly at a chick magazine filled with celebrities I do not recognize or care about.  Oliver points me in the direction of a bedroom.  “Just go sleep in there,” he says.  I can’t bring myself to really get comfortable in a stranger’s bedroom just six feet away from twenty more strangers still chattering and drinking and playing music, so instead I fall asleep, fully clothed, on a loveseat pressed against the wall, my bag digging into something that looks like a remote control for a robot.

It’s freezing fucking cold and I cover my knees with a decorative pillow in the hopes it might provide me with enough warmth to cease my teeth chattering.  I’ve nodded off to sleep when Oliver comes in and takes of my shoes.  “Get in Laura’s bed,” he says, and I look over to the white mass that has since been occupied by the little ginger girl, her face hidden by a wall of strawberry hair, the comforter taking the lumpy topography of something very human and small.

I crawl under the covers, wearing my wool coat and my leather jacket, my shirt that looks like my mom, everything but my shoes.  I resist the urge to latch onto the girl I only shared four words with in the bar in an effort to warm myself.  Her drunken heat radiates underneath the covers.  I fall asleep to more laughter, more freezing cold air, someone playing a track by the Pixies.

HEY!

BEEN TRYIN’ TO MEET YOU!

MMMMMM

HEY!

MUST BE

A DEVIL

BETWEEN US

A WHORE’S IN MY HEAD

WHORES

DOOR

WHORE IN MY BED

BUT HEY!

WHERE

HAVE YOU

BEEN?

Until my body gives up, wholly confused as to what time zone I am forcing it into, straining to remember where I even came from just twenty hours ago.  Until my brain wakes up some three hours later, wholly confused as to where the hell I am, whose bed I am sleeping in, and where the fuck Oliver has disappeared to.

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Field Trip!

Check out my piece on The Flip today.  Click through on the image below.

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With my trustworthy Xanax and a healthy serving of wine from a clear, plastic screw-top bottle, I fall asleep after dinner and wake up to breakfast – a shitty white roll that looks suspiciously similar to the shitty croissant they serve on the flight to Paris.  My itinerary calls the Spartan slop placed before me “continental,” which at one point not too long ago – before American Airlines filed for bankruptcy – actually resembled a continental breakfast complete with an under-ripe banana, dried cranberries roasted in vegetable oil (to what effect, I am still unsure), and super-sweet strawberry yogurt that most often exploded upon opening.  While the meal never quite served to thrill me, I could at least award it points for its attempt at approximating reality.  The meal placed before me this morning, however, more closely resembles Bullshit…

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The Social Vampire Diaries: Dominican Edition, Part I

The man next to me is on the bad side of sixty, the whites of his eyes yellowed like butter and his nose ruddy with broken capillaries, both of which are the result of a lifetime of excessive drinking.  He’s working on his third 9 a.m. Bloody Mary while he tells me about the laundromats he runs in the Dominican Republic and what to do when I go through their notoriously loose customs.  He leans in towards me when he speaks, offering me uninvited life advice like a creepy uncle.  I want him to go away.

I am saved by the flight attendant who hands Drunk Uncle a hot cup of coffee to sober him up upon our descent.

“Aren’t you a sweetheart,” he says, smiling through his tobacco-stained teeth.

Aren’t you a drunk.

I hope he doesn’t have children.

We are greeted at the gate by an employee of the airport who asks for the $10 per person “visitor’s fee” that Drunk Uncle warned me about.  “Crooks,” he slurred in between peppered swigs of spiked V8 and booze.  The man then takes our respective IDs and disappears into some office where our passports are stamped by someone who apparently doesn’t care to ask us questions about the purpose of our visit or personally assess the possibility we are drug mules or prostitutes.  Drunk Uncle also told me that the Dominican Republic was essentially just the halfway point for illegal activity, providing a place for coke-laden propeller planes to fill up their tanks en route to Miami and fraudulent South Americans to launder their cash.

The air outside is hot and sticky and decidedly warmer than New York City.  A man in a starched white uniform waves at us, a cell phone pressed against his ear.  This is Jack’s friend’s driver and manservant.  He walks us to a mini-van parked outside and we fly out of Santo Domingo.

From what blurs past my window, the outskirts of the city are grossly impoverished.  Houses are shacks made of cinderblock and corrugated metal.  Business signs are largely the hand-painted block letters of a failed graphic design student.  We pass a grocery store with a sign indicating you are not to bring your guns or your babies inside.  The poverty and the heat here feel like the kindling for terrible things under the right conditions.  The normal rules of the developing world seem prudish by the island’s standards.

Families of four ride on motorcycles with no helmets.  Mothers, fathers, infants, usually some tiny baby wrapped in a dishtowel.  Our driver lazily swerves in between puttering mopeds and barreling semi-trucks.  He brakes late and hard at red lights.  Eva is sitting next to me, grabbing the sides of her seat and muttering “oh my god”s with her characteristic breathlessness.  Jack’s sitting up front, having volunteered for the front seat in an accidental act of altruistic martyrdom.

“Did you just…did you just see that car???”

We have narrowly avoided what is likely our seventh car crash in the span of the last thirty minutes.  This driver – this happy, smiling man with big ears and a charmingly loose grip on the English language – is likely the worst driver in the Dominican Republic.

Jack is holding onto the space between the roof and the door, talking to either us or the driver, though it’s obvious that the driver sort of sees everything and sort of doesn’t care about any of it.  People walk through tidal waves of moving traffic.  Cars creep onto roads at the perfect time for cataclysmic carnage.  Motorcycles ride towards us in the opposite direction.  Half of the time there aren’t even painted lines on the road so as to aid in the flow of traffic by indicating who goes where, which would likely fuck with their incredibly inefficient system called Everyone Goes Everywhere Whenever They Want.

There is a lawlessness here that usually accompanies a haphazard respect for human life.  It’s different than the Auto Bahn chaos of Europe or the crazed fury of Mexico.  This is the kind of place where if you were to die, no one would care.

After an hour and a half of white-knuckles and held-in breath, we arrive at the gates of the “resort”, which is really an extremely large, extremely isolated community far away from the poverty of the Dominican city centers.  We drive through winding, empty streets with natural grass embankments and lush tropical flora, eventually arriving at an ambiguously Mediterranean house with a large glass door and a few security guards in powder blue polo shirts.

The driver takes my bag, wheeling it over the stone and grass walkway and into an over-air conditioned and massive living room filled with kitsch raw silk pillows and glass vases filled with fake flowers.  It’s like the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and some Orange County nouveau riche mansion had a one-night stand and this place was the resulting bastard child.

We walk through the house and into the backyard, where trees hang over a narrow blue swimming pool and Spanish tiles.  “Your room,” the manservant says, pointing to a guestroom with a giant king-sized bed swimming in white mosquito netting, flanked by bedside tables littered with inspiration self-help books with a vaguely Christian bent.  The towels in the bathroom are all monogrammed, as if to remind the guest where they are staying while they dry their hands after using the toilet.

To be continued…

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