This Too Shall Pass

Posted in Prose on January 8, 2018 by 1writegirl

I return to the US on the last day of November out of necessity. I rent out my condo in order to pay my bills so that I can travel, albeit on a shoestring. Until now this has worked out well, and I’ve had good, responsible tenants. But in early November my current tenants, a married couple in their forties, abruptly stopped paying rent and answering my emails and texts.

They both had good jobs, or so they had told me. Of course I should have done a background check and gotten a credit report for them, but at the time I had had good luck in selecting tenants based on that gut instinct you get when you first meet someone, coupled with the fact that she was grieving for her father who had recently died, and I could relate to her suffering. I was drawn to her in the way that two people recognize each other when they are both carrying what is to everyone else an invisible burden.

I worried something terrible had happened to one or both of them. After I asked a neighbor to check on them I received a series of rambling emails from the husband, telling me, among other things: his wife had moved out; he was a meth addict, though he claimed to no longer be using; that in spite of telling me where she worked when I interviewed them, she hadn’t worked in years; that she was addicted to prescription pain pills. After some back and forth over the next three weeks, it became obvious he/they were no longer going to pay rent.

Thus I approach my condo in early December with a fair degree of trepidation. I had texted, phoned and emailed him to say I’d be arriving and when, but got no reply. I don’t know who will be in my condo or what condition I will find it in. Horror stories fill my head, tales recounted to me by others with one or more bad rental experiences, entailing destruction of property, holes in walls, theft and the like. My worst nightmare is that they will have broken into my son’s room, dead-bolted before I left last spring, and touch something, anything, in a search for whatever; that it won’t be the way I left it.

I encounter him in the yard – littered with bikes, tools, and junk – when I walk up. When I ask why he didn’t return my emails and texts, he replies that he has no computer or phone, she confiscated them both, something to do with retaliating for thinking he had taken her wedding ring. “She’s inside,” he says, “Go talk to her.” Then he abruptly gets in his truck and drives away.

Inside, my tenant, myself, and a woman introduced to me as the sister sit upstairs on the couch. A kitten skitters around underfoot. Did I mention the lease they signed said “No pets”? She tells me her marriage is in disarray, she doesn’t know if her husband is coming or going, and she is terribly stressed out. I tell her I understand and I sympathize with her situation; I’m sorry things are so hard. I tell her if I were wealthy she could stay there until she is back on her feet, but I’m not. On the contrary, I’m broke; things are hard for me too. She says she’s sorry for the inconvenience. I give her/them 15 days written notice to leave, complying with the terms of the lease, and stand up. “Do you have some place to go?” I ask and she tells me yes, she can stay with family. Before I leave I go downstairs to the garage thinking I’ll sort through my clothes and find something warm to wear, but the garage is like the yard, full of their stuff from floor to rafters, and I can’t even get to my belongings. I go into Jackson’s room, where I find enough articles of clothing to make do and trade them for the tired old clothes I’ve been wearing for the past eight months. I leave my helmet, my motorcycle jacket, and my big backpack and put my stuff instead into a smaller backpack, expecting to be back in two weeks. I breathe deeply, smelling Jackson still after all this time, and realize that I am here because I need to be; to resolve this rental situation, but also to be close, once again, to what matters to me. I resolve that any future “tenants” in my condo will be “lodgers”, distinctly different in the eyes of the law, so that I can come and go to my own home freely. This is my home, full of my things and my memories, not just some rental property that I bought as an investment.

Over the next two weeks I go wherever I have people to take me in: my attorney, my father, my brother, my grief mentor. Along the way I receive an email from my tenants stating that they won’t be able to leave in two weeks, and giving me January 5th as their move-out date. They apologize again for the inconvenience. I confirm this date, only to receive another email in early January saying they have yet again changed their plans, that she is waiting for some money to come in, and they will leave when they “are ready.” By now they are almost two months behind with the rent. For the third time they apologize for “the inconvenience.”

Mike drives me up from LA to begin the eviction process, something I was hoping to avoid. We stay in a motel for a couple of days, and I begin the legal paperwork. To distract me from my worries he drives me up the coast on the second day to San Simeon, where we walk out onto the trails along the cliff and watch the sea lions and elephant seals swimming in the surf and sunning themselves on the sand. On the third day he drops me off in my condo complex at the home of a neighbor, an 85 year old man named Jim who has been staying with his son in Santa Maria for a few weeks and generously offered me the couch in his condo while he’s away. I walk Mike out to his car, say goodbye, and watch him drive away.

Over the next couple of days I keep an eye out for activity coming from my condo, a moving truck, anything to indicate they are taking the eviction order to heart. Nothing. On Sunday I walk to my friend Jenn’s house. She has recently moved here with her sweetheart after years of living in a tiny house out in the countryside. They have three dogs now and she was pregnant, so over the summer they opted to trade the ideal location for a bigger place. Their baby was born in early December, and when I enter the house and walk into the nursery where she is changing his diaper, I choke up. This is the first time I’ve seen her since April, and the first time I’ve seen a newborn since Jackson died. When I hold him in my arms, memories wash mercilessly over me, taking me back to that time in my life when I had that same hope that Jenn does now, that light, that energy and that bewildered sense of a miracle happening right under your nose every time you touch those grasping fingers, look into that open gaze, or draw that tiny body to your breast to feel the pull of your life flowing into his.

Since the day Jackson died I have been treating each day as if it were my last, fully expecting it to be. In the beginning I believed I would just die, that it would happen on its own, a natural and direct consequence of his death. After the first year or so, I started wondering if it would happen more indirectly, in the form of a disease brought on by my unwell emotional state, or even suicide when the inevitable day arrived that I would know, finally, I couldn’t live without him any longer. Even now, after three and a half years, I wake up each morning surprised at just that – that I have woken up, that I am still here.

On my way back to Jim’s condo I look over at my own, and think about how wrong it is that I am paying, with money I have to borrow, for squatters to be in my home. I think of how they keep referring to this as a mere inconvenience for me, when in actuality it is way beyond that. By refusing to pay rent and refusing to leave, they are rendering me literally homeless, with no place to live and no money to pay for temporary lodging. I feel betrayed, indignant, cheated, and manipulated.

Then I think about the goodness of Mike driving me up here and, knowing I can’t afford it, paying for our motel in spite of my feeble protests that he shouldn’t; Neighbor-Jim trusting me enough to let me stay in his condo while he’s away; and my father offering to help me with the legal costs that this eviction will incur. Of my friends Pippa (“What’s wrong with people?”) and Mark (“Of all the bloody cheek!”) and Johnny England (“The more I know of people, the more I prefer the company of snakes.”), emailing from across the ocean to check on me and let me know they are pissed off on my behalf. I think of Jenn, of that new life she is nurturing, and I am so happy for her in anticipation of the joy I know awaits her just as I am terrified to know that what happened to me could happen to her. I think of the marine mammals I saw the other day, and of how lucky I am, we all are, to live in a world where we can observe creatures like these in their natural habitats, just doing what they do. Lastly I think of the wisdom in my father’s words, “This too shall pass,” and remind myself that if I can survive the death of my child, this eviction business is peanuts. It can’t touch me by comparison, and in the big picture it is but a blip on the screen of my life.



Sheep, Shit, Love

Posted in Prose on November 21, 2017 by 1writegirl

I spend the next eight days on a sheep farm in Galicia in a Workaway volunteer situation. The idea is you spend 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week helping with chores around the place and in return you get room and board. My host, Steve, is a 68 year old English man. He has lived here for 15 years after retiring from a career as a helicopter pilot, then living aboard a sailboat with a girlfriend for three years in the Mediterranean. He bears a slight physical resemblance to John Cleese. He has approximately 60 sheep, including 6-8 new lambs. His companions in the yard and house include four cats, an old dog called Widget, and about 15 chickens.

The big old stone farmhouse is a mess. Not just old and falling apart, but dirty and  messy, with stuff strewn all over, clothes, books, trash, food. The floor is half torn-up linoleum, half wood boards, and every surface, high and low, is coated in grease, dust and animal hair. The kitchen in particular has so many layers of grime and filth on every surface that I can’t begin to guess when it was last cleaned. Possibly never. I wonder if he’s one of those people who thinks, “Why bother? It’s just going to get dirty again anyway.” There are two stories, the upper contains bedrooms, a small sitting room and a kitchen, while the downstairs is one large room with a wood stove, a television and a huge old fashioned sofa and chair, outside of which is the beginning of a new-old room undergoing renovation into what will be the new kitchen and dining room. The bathroom is upstairs, but outside on the porch.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so fucking cold at night, but it’s November now, there’s no central heating, and Steve leaves the front door wide open all the time, even at night, so the cats can “come and go.” In the evening – after the chores are done, the sheep put away for the night and the chickens have flown up into the branches of the huge walnut tree in the front yard to spend the night – he lights the wood stove downstairs, prepares something for dinner, and turns on the television. There he sits for the rest of the night, chain smoking Chesterfield cigarettes, drinking wine, and watching quiz shows and crime dramas. Funny he doesn’t smoke all day, then chain smokes at night. If I want to be warm, I can either join him downstairs or fill up the hot water bottle he gives me and retire to my bedroom where there is a warm down comforter on my bed. The first night I do the latter. The second night I do the former, and on the third day Steve offers me a space heater for my bedroom, which I gratefully accept. After that, I spend a couple of hours with him downstairs each evening, where we watch tv in companionable silence and chat amicably but sparsely, both of us being on the reticent side and there being no compelling thread between us, which is how it usually is with me and other humans. By ten or so I say good night and retreat to my room, where I turn on my heater and read in bed. Twice he tells me “don’t leave it on all night”.

Steve whistles when we put the sheep out in the morning and when we collect them in the evening. On my first day I recognize the tune “The bear went over the mountain,” and another one, though I can’t identify it, sounds vaguely Christmas-y. Each morning I shovel sheep shit on the floor of the building he calls the shed, but is actually a barn. I think my back will break, mostly because the shovel he gave me is so short that I have to work from a bent over position to separate the layers of hard dried shit from the metal floor. I use my legs as much as possible. I ask him afterwards if he has considered putting some hay down to absorb some of the moisture and perhaps keep it from sticking to the floor. He says that would require a lot of hay, which would be hard to come by, and besides “it warms you up, which is no bad thing.” Then I ask him if he has a longer shovel, but he doesn’t.

On the second day, after shoveling, I rake leaves in the front yard, then Steve comes to get me to steer his broken down car while he tows it with the smallest tractor I’ve ever seen to the mechanic. Something wrong with the transmission. Then I rake more leaves and wash dishes. Tonight he is taking us to dinner in a nearby town, and he’s paying. I decide I’m going to order anything I want from the menu, including a cocktail. It has taken me less than two days to realize that unless you are staying in a very posh house and fed gourmet meals, the Workaway volunteer gets the short end of the stick in these situations, assuming the host would have to pay someone at least €10 an hour to do what you’re doing.

We have dinner in a nearby town with three friends of Steve, a British couple (well, the man is English and his wife is from everywhere) in their early seventies I think, and a Spanish guy, probably in his 40’s. He is trying to improve his English, Steve says. He is very animated throughout dinner, especially when he learns I’m from California. He seems enamoured of California, though he’s never been there. He has been to the US once, and visited two places only: New York, and Baltimore. I asked “Why Baltimore?,” and he said because he was making a documentary about Edgar Allen Poe. He is the second Spaniard I’ve met who has made a documentary about a famous American (the other American being Spielberg).

Steve complains about previous volunteers boiling a whole kettle of water for just one cup of tea (“what a waste of electricity,” he says) or not knowing how to wash dishes properly. He likes to wait till there’s a bunch of dirty dishes before washing them, and says many volunteers use too much soap and hot water. I wonder if he is, in an indirect way, chastising me. The problem with washing dishes here is the sink is just big enough for the dishpan he uses to wash them, but there’s no room to rinse them and no place to set them to dry. So basically you just have to wash a few, rinse them in the same dishpan, then towel-dry them, one at a time, putting them away before washing some more. It’s really impractical, but he’s lived this way for 15 years, on his own and with others. I’d like to clean the bathroom but I’m afraid he’d say I’m using too much water. I mean really, how much electricity can it possibly take to heat a kettle of water? I am washing my underwear in the shower at night and drying it in front of my little space heater. Steam rises from it when it gets close to the fire.

Last night I got an email from Marian with the words from a speech given by a woman whose son had died. I find I prefer to say someone died, which is the plain truth, instead of the more often used euphemistic expression, someone “lost” someone. I did not misplace him, like a set of keys. He did not wander off, nor get left behind. He is not coming back. I read it during a quick break from farm chores, not realizing what it was, and thinking I could go right back to work. Instead, it brought me to my knees. If Steve noticed I’d been crying when I returned, he didn’t say anything.

Today, after shoveling, Steve takes me on a walk up in the hills. After we get back to the farm I go and sit in the fenced pasture where the mama and baby sheep graze, trying to pet the little ones. But they’re all afraid of me, all except for Orphan Annie, who Steve lets me bottle feed 3 times a day, and two older lambs called Zeba and Wonka who were also bottle fed until just recently. These three let me pet them, and Annie even sits on my lap foru awhile. She has a birth defect in the form of perpetually weak muscles in her neck, preventing her from lifting her head up all the way, which is likely the reason she couldn’t suckle properly, and her mother rejected her.


The next morning Steve is whistling that Judy Garland song from The Wizard of Oz, then the Oscar Meyer bologna song, and the Xmas song again. Later in the barn while shoveling he whistles two or three more Christmas caroles. Finally I ask him, “Are you looking forward to Christmas?” to which he replies, “No, I’m not a Christmas sort of person.” This evening it is the theme from Popeye.

I sit in the pasture with the mothers and lambs again the next day and Annie falls asleep at my feet. I don’t pick her up and put her on my lap like yesterday because she has poo all down her back leg and I don’t want to get it all over me. Finally I can’t stand it anymore and scoop her up on to my lap. Clothes, like hands, are washable after all. At one point all the sheep stand straight up and look in the same direction so I follow their gaze and see a cat, not one of Steve’s. I guess because it is a stranger they are wary of it, even though it is just a cat.

After I feed Annie her second bottle this afternoon, I give some corn that I have in my pocket to the rest of the sheep. They all crowd around me trying to get to it and in the commotion with muzzles everywhere one of them eats through the headphones hanging down the front of my jacket. Now I have to listen to my audiobooks out loud till I can get another pair.

One day the sheep manure has so much urine mixed in with it that it is equivalent to diarrhea. This makes it a lot heavier thus harder to pick up. When we are closing up the shed I tell Steve that was probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done. He looks at me blankly. “What was?” “Shoveling diarrhea for 2 hours” I say. He doesn’t reply. The next day he leaves me to do all the shoveling on my own. I think it is revenge for my comment the day before though thankfully the manure is a bit drier today, making the task slightly less odious. Steve whistles “You are my Sunshine.”

One day after I’ve been here about a week, Steve decides to let all the sheep go out together in the morning rather than separate the new mothers and babies. Zeba and Annie stop in front of the gate to their former pasture and wait. Even after all the other sheep shuffle on past, following Steve, they stand there and wait, just the two of them, looking at me expectantly and bleating. The look on Zeba’s face… “What’s up? I’m confused, this is where we’re supposed to go.” Who ever said sheep are stupid? I feel a pang of love for her and Annie, and Wonka too. I also am quite fond of Franko who comes up to me whenever he sees me to have his cheeks and neck scratched. At first I thought it was just because we were in the barn so it was a matter of proximity but this afternoon I spend an hour or so with the flock while they are out grazing, just to keep an eye out for foxes and dogs as Steve is a tad worried about the new lambs being so exposed, and Franko comes up behind me while I’m sitting on a rock. I feel a hot breath on my ear and startled, turn to see him just standing there, his face about an inch from mine. He just gazes lazily into my eyes and when I reach up a hand to scratch him, he doesn’t even flinch. Later I ask Steve if he was a bottle fed lamb, but he wasn’t.

The day before I leave, Steve releases all the sheep together again except for Annie, Zeba and Wonka. When I’m giving Annie her bottle Zeba and Wonka keep getting under my feet as they try to butt in, like they always do. Even though they are considerably bigger and presumably older than Annie, they go for the milk like they’re babies. I’m pushing them away when I get all turned around and suddenly I lose my balance and fall. I topple onto Zeba, and she just lays there, not moving and staring off into space. She has that glassy eyed look like an antelope whose windpipe has just been crushed by a cheetah. For a moment I think I’ve killed her. Later, thinking about it, I start to cry. I spend the afternoon in the fenced pasture with Annie, Zeba and Wonka. I know it’s ridiculous but I’ve bonded with these little creatures in the space of a mere week.

Tonight the main flock of sheep don’t come home. Several times until well after dark we go looking for them, to no avail. It would seem Steve’s anxiety was well founded. Annie, Zeba and Wonka spend the night in the pen alone. I check on them a few times, worried they’ll be lonely at best, and freaked out at worst. They are definitely unsettled.

The next morning there is still no sign of the flock. We take the trio down to the small paddock and leave them, but later I come back down on my own to tell them goodbye. I kiss the three of them again and again and hold Annie, who licks my cheek the way a dog would, for a long time. I cry.

Steve drives me to the train station in Valenca, Portugal. We exchange very few words, typically. He kisses me goodbye, the European double-cheeked airkiss, as empty of substance as Annie’s kisses were full of it. All day I think about the missing flock of sheep, and from my hostel that night, I email Steve and ask if they returned. He writes back to say they did, and none the worse for wear. That night, I think about Annie, Zeba, Wonka and Franko. I miss them already. I don’t miss shoveling.

Recommended reading: Deep South, by Paul Theroux.




Mental Meandering in Seville, on Seville

Posted in Prose on November 17, 2017 by 1writegirl

Plaza de Espagne:
A magnificent square. If in Seville, must see. Built into the walls are tiles representing each region of Spain, portraying scenes of battle, peasant life, the clergy and monarchy. Some tiles represent wars with Moors.

One tile at Avila shows a female soldier.

Alicante tile has elephants and dark skinned half naked women bearing water pitchers on their heads (slaves?) And animal heads on stakes (horse, ox).

Overhead are white (marble?) busts of famous men and two women identified as Isabel la Catolica, and Santa Teresa. Continue reading

On Light

Posted in Prose on November 4, 2017 by 1writegirl

I wrote in yesterday’s post that I’ll go through the rest of my life doing the same things most other people do, and even some things that they don’t, but I’ll do them differently; like walking, but with a limp. Then today, a bad day, a really bad day, I realized what an understatement that was; at least from today’s perspective. From today’s perspective, that limp is more akin to Quasimodo’s hump. I wish I could say I expect more good days than bad.

Before arriving in Spain, I spent two weeks in Bretagne, France with a dear friend of mine and her new husband. I haven’t written a post about that time because I feel that to do so, at least now, would be to violate her privacy and the trust she places in me every time she allows me to be privy to her secrets, some of which manifest in the form of life in real time. What I did encounter that surprised me and which I feel I can reveal was the story her husband told me, after we went out to dinner with his mother, about his parents. Because I found it so interesting and because it gives one pause and reason to see light at the end of one’s own tunnel, I will tell it to you here, in abbreviated form:

His mother, let’s call her Louise, raised by father and stepmother. Louise’s mother died in childbirth. At the insistence of her maternal grandparents she was handed over to the care of a nursemaid while her father went “abroad.” He returned when she was three years old with a new wife in tow. Louise was 12 years old when her stepmother revealed to her that she wasn’t Louise’s real mother. Louise went to father to ask if this was true, told yes, and furthermore, “it should have been you that died that day, not her.” This helped to explain why she had felt for her entire life like her father was angry with her.

Louise’s maternal grandparents owned an island near St. Malo off the coast of Bretagne. When her mother died, her father was allowed to continue living there but the island was put in trust for Louise. When Louise came of age, she went to England where she found work as secretary to the French Consul in London. She continued to let her father and stepmother live on the island, which they did till he died. Step mother stayed on a few years then moved away.

Louise married the son of the French Consul, call him Pierre, who, as luck would have it, was always cold and distant toward his wife and subsequent three children. Turns out Pierre’s mother tried to kill herself when he was a boy, and to make matters worse, on two occasions she tried to take Pierre with her. When she was older and he was grown she finally did commit suicide.

Someone had an affair. Was it the consul? The consul’s father? Pierre? I wish I had taken notes, or had a better memory.

The kids grew up, Pierre drank himself to death, and Louise lived on her private island alone until the isolation became more than she could bear, at which point she sold it for an undisclosed sum of money and bought a house in St. Malo, the same St. Malo from “All the Light We Cannot See.” A mesmerizing town. Louise, now around 70, a charming, if somewhat abrupt, woman. Or so it would seem. Who knows what’s really on the inside?

Sleepless in (approximately 31 km outside of) Seville

Posted in Prose on November 3, 2017 by 1writegirl

When you don’t have much money (I say “you” but of course, I mean “I”), traveling to foreign lands, especially alone, where the language, currency, culture etc is different, is a humbling experience. You stay at the cheapest hotels, hostels or local rooms you can find, where things like WiFi, toilet paper, soap, even a toilet seat, can’t be taken for granted. You don’t typically eat at restaurants (except in parts of Asia where it’s cheap and easy) but instead buy inexpensive, tinned items (sardines and crackers for instance) or fresh portioned food, like ready-made salad, yogurt, fruit and nuts, at grocery stores, that you can consume in your room or as you travel, and won’t weigh you down. When you get an invitation to eat with a local, you take it, which means you’ll be eating things you may have never seen, much less been served, as a meal. If you’re dependent on public transportation, you hang out at bus stations for hours sometimes because it’s a local holiday and the schedule is reduced, and a taxi to cover the 20 miles to your destination would be a splurge you can’t afford. (You have to pick your splurges wisely). You ride share (BlaBlaCar here in Europe, what a great invention) when possible if it’s less expensive or will take you places public transportation won’t, even though it means three adults sharing the backseat of a compact car (you’re one of them) and the guy next to you prattling on for six hours non-stop (thankfully in fast French so you can be forgiven for never so much as uh-huh-ing), which is preferable to being in a car full of strangers who speak your native tongue and like to play the getting-to-know-you game. (The British, much to my relief and appreciation, tend not to fall into that category, refraining from asking intrusive and personal questions when meeting a stranger (“So, what do you do?”, “Do you have children?”), and instead make conversation about the world at large, where getting-to-know-you means your take on world events; anything personal you may care to reveal without being prompted, and in your own good time. My friend Enza from Canada is like that too, and I think it is one of the most endearing qualities a person can possess.)

The upside to these humbling experiences is of course the authenticity of the encounters, the proximity to what makes your destination unique – what makes Spain Spain, for instance, or Thailand Thailand. Money is insulating, or at least it can be and we often use it in that way. It allows us to travel in the style to which we are accustomed to living, which may be vastly different to the country in which we find ourselves. It also forms a barrier between us and them. We, the tourist, consume; they, the locals, provide. The relationship, when money is changing hands, feels artificial and to some extent anyway removed from everyday (Spanish, Thai, etc) life. In my ideal world, I’d be traveling for the most part with a companion and we’d have our own transportation, probably a motorcycle, but otherwise I wouldn’t change much. Or so I think now, from the vantage point of someone without money. I’m sure I wouldn’t mind eating out more often, if only to indulge in some of the regional dishes that I can’t sample by way of the supermarket.

I’m headed south, where my first overnight stop is Bayonne. I passed through here with John in July, but it’s dark when I arrive so nothing looks familiar. At my little room in an apartment, the WiFi code is the longest I’ve ever encountered – 26 characters. My hostess is an older, very friendly woman, who points me in the direction of the only place within walking distance where I can still get something to eat on this late Sunday evening – a pizza place. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I allow myself a calculated splurge: the cheapest pasta dish on the menu and a glass of house wine, coming to just over €10. Back at the apartment I try to get online again but she has turned off the modem and gone to bed. Thankfully I booked my bus ticket to Bilbao before I went out.

The next day, Bayonne to Bilbao, then another bus overnight to Seville. I love the fact that being in the EU I don’t have to display my passport at border crossings, which hardly seem to exist anymore (Actually they’re still there, but they are dark and quiet, as if in hibernation. They can wake up at any time circumstances dictate.) I still have to keep track of my time in Schengen countries of course, but I get to decide where and when to move around within that framework.

I arrive in Seville late morning on a Tuesday, Halloween in fact. My grandmother, were she alive, would be 109 today. It’s warm, which I welcome after a chilly October in England and northern France. After one city bus and lots of time waiting I catch another bus out of Seville to a smaller town where my ride is waiting for me – Antonio, the boyfriend of the woman who has rented me an Airbnb cottage – and 10 minutes later I arrive at my lodging for the next week, in a collection of houses off the highway in the arid countryside between two towns. Being from California I’m used to Spanish style homes – ochre colored, single story squarish houses with red tile roofs – and the landscaping too feels familiar: citrus trees, bougainvillea, jasmine, palm trees. My “flat” is an attached but very private set of rooms on the end, with its own entrance and a large front porch. Inside are dark hardwood floors, comfortable furniture, and a large soft bed, on which I lay down almost immediately to rest my eyes, as my father would say. I wake up three hours later. Dusk is approaching as I wander outside. The abuela of my hostess greets me, and though she speaks no English and I precious little Spanish, she conveys that I am welcome with kind eyes and grappling, gnarled hands. Like grandmothers everywhere she speaks the language of love. Three dogs size me up and when I take a seat at the table inside I see a grey dollop of fuzz out of the corner of my eye, darting into the kitchen. This turns out to be a four week old kitten, found less than a week old wandering around an abandoned property nearby, presumably having just opened its eyes and gone in search of food. Nobody knows what happened to its mother. They took it in, christened it Misha, and it is the tiniest, spunkiest, cutest little creature I’ve ever held in the palm of my hand.

The next day Arantxa (the txa pronounced sha) takes me grocery shopping, and on a “tour” of the neighborhood. I meet a woman who runs a small store out of her house, like a corner 7-11, as well as the parents of Arantxa’s former boyfriend. As is sometimes the case, the relationship with the man ended but that with his parents continued. On the way back she tells me it is her dream to travel around the world also, alone with just a backpack, but next summer she’ll be getting married and she doesn’t know now if it will happen. I suggest she may be able to travel with Antonio, but she dismisses the idea by saying, “He is all the time working,” then adds wistfully, “I think it is best to be alone, like you are doing.” We talk about the pros and cons of traveling alone, and I too am wistful when considering the big picture, and what I hope to attain as a result of all this wandering. I agree with her in principle that one is easier than two to feed, shelter, transport, but I tell her also that unless you make friends easily (she does, she tells me; I don’t) you will find yourself alone much of the time – eating, sightseeing, or whatever it is you do when you travel – which can be immensely broadening at times as well as unspeakably lonely at others, much like life in general. As honestly as I can I disabuse her of the notion that as a woman, particularly with very restrictive finances, you can go wherever you want whenever you want, alone. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t push boundaries and challenge ourselves culturally or politically (or any other way), it is to say we should take calculated risks, and personal safety especially for women cannot be taken for granted anywhere, less so in some places than others. It is to say that even the most solitary among us are social beings if we are to be found within the “healthy” range of the mental health spectrum. It is to say that when my grief counselor diagnosed me with “Major Depression, Severe” a year and a half ago because the DSM does not categorize grief as a mental health condition, I had no idea at the time that this meant I’ll go through the rest of my life doing the same things most other people do, and even some things that they don’t, but I’ll do them differently; like walking, but with a limp. It is to say that so much depends on age, experience, expectation, perception, resources and personality.

That night I hardly sleep, due to one or more pesky mosquitoes that buzz in my ear every time I nod off. Three days later and I’ve yet to get back to Seville to explore. This is partly due to lethargy – easily attributable to several nights of insomnia, fruitless mosquito hunting, a late night glass of spirits under a full moon, sore muscles, a sleeping pill, and a lingering sense of disappointment after learning, first, that the plan Johnny England and I had to ride down through Greece and into Turkey in November is now off the table as he can’t get away like he hoped, and second, that Ingrid’s plans have changed as well, and she won’t be able to host me in India after all – and partly due to bad weather and a bout of my recurrent need to hunker down as it were, to be alone for a bit, quiet and contemplative, without any agenda. I wonder too if these mosquitoes are a different sort, if they carry a venom to which my body is not familiar, because not only do the bites endure and itch for days, but I feel run down, achy and listless too (more than usual).

Periodically one of the dogs, Lola, a pit bull mix by the looks of her who reminds me of my friend Jenn’s dog, comes to my door to greet me. I open the door and pet her while she licks my hand and wags her tail, her whole body wiggling. Today she sauntered off after one of these encounters only to reappear an hour or so later with a huge dead (or so I tell myself) rat in her mouth. Now see, this is what I’m talking about. How are you going to get that in a five star hotel?

A magnificent book, recommended to me by my dear friend Kathy: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

Farewell, My Lovely

Posted in Prose on October 22, 2017 by 1writegirl

The hostel in Plymouth is called Staykation. A 20 minute walk from the train station, it’s located in the Stonehouse district on Union Street. The young man who checks me in has what, at the moment, is referred to as “learning difficulties.” (Give it a week and that will be considered offensive or otherwise inappropriate, and a new term will take its place.) He ends every sentence by addressing me as Madam, and though he asks me for ID he’s unable to use the office printer to make a copy of it, so I go around behind the desk to try and help. Fortunately for us both it’s simply a matter of the machine needing to be turned on. Then he doesn’t know how to process my payment by credit card, so I try to help him with that one but all we manage to do is charge my credit card 43 pence. I suggest we wait till his supervisor returns a bit later to complete the transaction and he quickly concurs. He shows me to my room upstairs which has two bunk beds and 4 lockers. I scatter some clothes on one of the bottom bunks to mark it as taken but I needn’t have bothered as it happens – I’m the only female guest so the room is all mine. There is a small kitchen right outside, stocked with the necessities but also some perks, like tea, paper towels, hand soap, even a bit of coffee. I’m surprised to see a tv on the wall and a washing machine in the corner. The bathroom has soap, a hand towel, even a bath mat and shampoo. After I finish paying downstairs I walk down the road to Aldi’s supermarket to pick up some food for dinner. The cashier greets me with ‘hiya’ then immediately lapses into terms of endearment: “there you are, my lovely,” “just sign here please, my sweet.” When I return to the hostel I pass the clerk on the stairs, who has overcome his need to “madam” me (I’m no longer a stranger?) and greets me in almost identical fashion.

Once or twice a man from the neighboring room pops in and out of the bathroom but otherwise I have the upstairs area to myself. The next day when I check out I ask the owner if I can leave my backpack in the lounge since my ferry doesn’t leave till 10pm, and he graciously agrees. During the day I walk around Hoe Park, the Barbican area (which according to the hostel owner contains the few remaining buildings in Plymouth that weren’t destroyed in the Blitz of WW2) and Sutton Harbor.

By late afternoon I’m flagging and sit in a park a short distance from the hostel before returning to collect my belongings. I’m making notes in my iPad when I hear a voice, and look up to see a young man, a boy really. He tells me he needs to get to the hospital to see his mother, but he is short 80p of the bus fare. Would I give him 80p? I know I’ve got a bit of change, as well as a 10 pound note which I’m hoping to save. (Travel tip: when leaving a country you may visit again, or whose currency is widespread like the Euro, try to hang on to the equivalent of at least ten dollars for next time, for bus fare, a cup of coffee, whatever in the event an ATM isn’t readily available at the border and you can’t use a credit card.) I silently debate whether to set my iPad down to get out my wallet and fish around for coins. I seriously doubt his story, and wonder what he is really planning to do with the money. I mean, what can you buy with 80p? But I don’t have the heart to deny him such a small request, so I rest my iPad on the bench beside me and dig in my pocket for my wallet. He asks me where I’m from while I’m doing this. I tell him and he says the Americans he has met have all been great people. He hopes to visit some day. I say I’m glad to hear it, hand him a pound coin and tell him he is a good son. He smiles and thanks me, then to my surprise leans in and kisses my cheek. As he does so I think instantly about my phone in my pocket and wonder how adept at sleight of hand he’d have to be to lift it; my iPad next to me would be an easy swipe. If he took either of them, would I run after him? I picture myself, a 53 year old woman, in pursuit of a fit teenage boy, tackling him from behind and wrestling my electronic device from his hands. He retreats, smiles and walks away, and even as I pat my pocket, feeling my phone, even as I glance down to reassure myself my iPad is still there, I am ashamed of myself. Although we live in a world where my fears weren’t unrealistic, they are not justified. The vast majority of people are mostly good, and if we stop believing this, we stop doing the little things, never mind the big ones, that validate our connection to others, our commonality. It’s not just their humanity at stake when they need help thus reach out and risk rejection, it’s our own.

Back at the hostel I change into my motorcycle gear so I’ll have less to carry on my back. The owner asks me where I’m going and when I say Brittany, tells me he bought a cottage there; he’s going to live there when he retires, in a year and a half. “If I still can by then,” he growls. “We’ll see what this lot comes up with,” referring to Theresa May and the as yet unsettled terms of Brexit. As I walk out to the street he points to the building directly across from the hostel. It’s a magnificent old hotel and theatre, several stories high with turrets and statues and tiled scenes of the Spanish Armada across the front. It was damaged in a fire years ago and the owner, who subsequently went to prison on drug charges, is out now and wants to demolish it and build cheap (as in shoddy) housing. “He can’t though,” he says, “because it’s historical, see?”

As a pedestrian boarding the ferry, at least from Plymouth to Roscoff, I am subjected to the same sort of security measures as if I were in an airport. I have to remove my coat, my bags go through an X-ray machine, and I have to walk through a metal detector (if that’s what that is). Whereas all the times I was on the bike with John, wearing the same clothes, carrying the same baggage, we never once were put through any screening. We simply rolled right on to the ferry after showing our ticket and passports. It makes no sense, and serves to reinforce the notion that so-called security measures are bullshit – random, inconsistent and meant to convey the idea that they make us safer without doing anything of the kind. If they can instill us with fear that our lives are in constant danger and we need to be guarded and protected at all times, we will get used to these practices which invade our privacy and violate our civil liberties. Before long, we’ll forget they ever existed.

After we debark at 8 the next morning, I look around for someone to ask about the bus. The travel websites I visited all claimed you have to have a paper ticket in order to catch the bus to Morlaix, and the only place you can get one is at an official French train station, making it impossible for someone just off the boat from England. Luckily, when the bus shows up at 8:55, the driver accepts cash.

The man behind me, a young Frenchman, only has 4 euros on him, as well as a few pounds. He taps my arm as I start to move away. We had chatted briefly at the bus stop about the possibility of buying a ticket on the bus as neither of us had purchased one in advance. “Can you help me?” he asks. I give him €3, enough to cover what he’s short then go and find a seat. When he passes me he stops, and holds out a ten pound note. “Here,” he says. “You can use it on your next trip to England.” I could, yes, but it’s too much. I tell him so, and he pulls a handful of change from his pocket. “Take it,” he says, trying to empty his hand into mine. I tell him I’ll take two pounds as I pick through the coins. My stomach growls loudly as the bus pulls away. I sit back, close my eyes, and wonder how soon I’ll be able to get my hands on something from a patisserie.

Speaking of lovely, I recommend the book The Seas by Samantha Hunt. Her prose is concise, poetic, insightful, daring and fresh.


Posted in Prose on October 16, 2017 by 1writegirl

I leave John in Brighton to attend to business and catch a train for Devon, to spend a few days with Mark before John is ready to ride again. Mark is heading off to the US (Fresno California) for a visit with a friend in about 10 days. She is recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the disease that killed my mother. I remember how quickly she went after she was diagnosed, and I hope Mark’s friend is in one of the earlier, more treatable stages.

He’s shipping his bike over, planning to ride around the Pacific Northwest and the western states before heading south to Baja Mexico and from there Central America. “Care to join me in Belize this winter?” He asks. He knows I was bummed when I learned he wasn’t going to India as he had previously considered doing from November to April, because I’d hoped to be able to visit him there in late November or early December, after John and I have completed our ride. “Maybe,” I say, although I know nothing at this point about when I’ll be returning to the US and thus that part of the world.

He’s working on his house, getting it ready to rent out, and scrambling to find a tenant. Over the next week we ride around a bit on the 1980’s BMW he’ll ride on his trip, and I read, walk and write while he’s busy sawing, fitting, arranging and painting. He finds a tenant at about the same time as John calls to let me know he won’t be ready to leave again till early to mid October. Mark tells me I’m welcome to stay on and house sit for him when he goes, as the tenant isn’t moving in till the mid to latter part of October. I accept his offer gratefully, as accommodation is expensive in England, as is eating out.

One evening I come back from the village store to find a friend has dropped by, a woman called Ingrid. They are having a cup of tea and talking about places they’ve traveled. I sit with them for awhile then go into the kitchen to fix dinner, an asparagus in cream sauce pasta recipe I found online, but finding no asparagus at the market I’m substituting broccoli. I ask Ingrid if she’s staying and she says no at first, then after a while she changes her mind. She’s a tall blond woman, a few years older than me, and she exudes warmth and perceptiveness, as if she’s seen many strange and wondrous things and is hoping for more. She is so skinny that I wonder at first if she too has cancer or some other ravaging illness, perhaps anorexia. It turns out (after I’ve known her longer, the subject of weight arises, and I’ve confided in her that I was anorexic for a few years) she has always been naturally skinny without any interference or complications (“I do eat, really I do!”) She does in fact eat the entire portion of pasta she’s served, and generously proclaims it to be delicious. She once co-owned and managed an Italian restaurant so I appreciate the compliment.

She, too, has been to India, and more times than Mark. She’s been going for about eight years now for a few months each winter, and purchases clothes, handbags and blankets while there which she brings back to England and sells over the summer. She is eking by. She asks about my plans. When I tell her about riding with John she asks, “And then?” I say I don’t know. “Come to India,” she says. “Maybe,” I say, heartened by this, my second invitation in the space of a week to visit a warm and exotic place this winter in the company of someone who has knowledge of the area.

Before I know it Mark has gone and I’ve got the house to myself. It’s the first time I’ve been alone for weeks, and I need it. I call my grief mentor, who lives in Las Vegas, and tell her about some paperwork I received from my attorney’s office. It took me right back to the moment when what has happened became my reality and all those emotions that I’d experienced – shock, disbelief, rage, hatred, anguish, remorse, helplessness, sorrow, and feelings that don’t have names for them so far as I know, but are dark and ugly and wretched and bring to mind maggots and cobwebs and tight crevices and scalding water and flayed skin and what it might feel like to lay trapped under a burning tractor trailer – were upon me once again, as if we had never even briefly parted ways. She understands – her daughter, slightly younger than Jackson, was killed in a freak auto accident eight years ago – and knowing this calms me. She doesn’t say stupid shit like, “just breathe,” “don’t think about it,” or one of the worst offenders, the pseudo-philosophical “everything happens for a reason.” I want to strangle people who say that last one, then tell their relatives “everything happens for a reason.” Instead she asks me if she can do any of the paperwork for me, or if she can contact someone back in California who can act as my advocate to get it done.

A few days later Ingrid invites me over to her house for dinner. She tells me that in India, grief, especially for a child, is treated with much more respect and compassion than in Western cultures. You aren’t treated like a pariah with a contagious disease, nor are you expected to “get over it,” “buck up,” or by all means “keep it to yourself.” You don’t cry alone, she tells me, and you cry for as long and as much as you need to. A shrine to your dead child isn’t considered creepy, it’s considered natural. She takes my hand. “Come to India.”

I’ve decided to visit two friends in France while I’m waiting for John, so I book a ferry crossing, train ticket and accommodation at a hostel in Plymouth. As I leave Devon I regret that I didn’t get the opportunity to sample scrumpy, a home-brewed cider version of what we Americans lovingly refer to as rot-gut or moonshine. Maybe next time.

If you are looking for an eloquent and interesting read that blends history, travel writing and memoir, I suggest Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads, by Richard Grant, a Brit who emigrated to the U.S.