Archive for the Prose Category

Ooh la la La France

Posted in Prose on July 19, 2017 by 1writegirl

“Johnny England” and I are in France after a night ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. We arrive at 5am, losing an hour, after about three hours of what can, at best, be called rest on the hard floor in an empty corner of one of many lounges.

We ride south under a cloudy sky spitting rain, stopping first in Rouen, where we park the bike and walk toward a cathedral that John wants me to see. I remind him of my vast exposure to cathedrals on the Camino and my lack of interest therein, but he assures me I’ll be impressed. Skeptical, I acquiesce. He’s right – this structure is magnificent in its size, complexity and detail – a composite of statues, engravings, stained glass, gargoyles, filigree and spires, so high it hurts my neck to look up and see the top of it. A picture would not do it justice; I can only say if you are in Rouen, check it out. Walking back to the bike, we pass a store with a poster in the window and we do a double take, then we both start to laugh and agree that she might have the right idea. IMG_0028

This part of France, north central, is mostly flat and farmland, with the predominant crop grown, from what I can see, being sunflowers – we pass field after field, giant golden faced soldiers all standing at attention in the same direction. IMG_0031 We drive through one charming village after another, the old stone houses adorned with shutters in some cases, Juliette balconies in others, and the small shop dedicated to one particular food group (patisserie, boulangerie, charcuterie, etc), is alive and well in the French countryside. In the bigger towns this is glaringly (and sadly to my mind) not the case – enormous warehouse-sized grocery stores meld with department stores, crowding out the local small guy, calling themselves “super” this, “mega,” “ultra,” or “hyper” that. The Walmarts and Costcos of France, they are so vast I am overwhelmed immediately by all the choices on display. John counts an entire grocery aisle 5 rows deep of rose wine, and there is twice that much space devoted to cheese. This is France so emphasis on wine and cheese is to be expected, however the entire store is this way, and I wonder…how many varieties of canned sardines, yogurt or bottled water does anyone really need? It’s a question I have asked myself in the U.S. for years. In the checkout line we spot a magazine for sale that reminds me of the English usage on store fronts and billboards I witnessed in Asia last fall, and how I used to smile at those clumsy yet endearing efforts – the editor in me wanted to correct the mistakes while the traveler in me wanted them never to change. IMG_0029

We stop for a cup of coffee for me, tea for John, but he is disappointed when they bring him something that he describes as smelling like cow’s pee. This is to be a recurrent problem for John – the French do not seem able to make a “proper cup of tea.”

Our destination, though we’re taking our time to get there, is the Pyrenees. We intend to ride from east to west, crossing back and forth between France and Spain. There are rarely border checks these days between EU countries, so it is easy to pass from one to the other without hassle or wait. We camp our first night, after riding close to four hundred miles, in the Auvergne region, just outside the town of Clermont-Ferrand. It’s late by the time we set up the tent and we’re hungry so ride back into town to find something to eat – amazingly the restaurants, while still open, are all done serving for the night. Isn’t France one of those countries, like Italy, where restaurants seat customers well into the night? It used to be when I lived in Montpellier 30-odd years ago. I can’t speak for the big towns and cities but in the small ones this is no longer the case. We encounter this situation again and again as we ride and only after about a week do we wise up and make a point of looking for restaurants (when we aren’t eating grocery store meals) before 7:30 or so. On this night the only place we can find still open is a pizza place, where we share a sandwich and a pizza topped with tuna fish and olives. Surprisingly tasty.

We camp each night for the next week but one, when we get into town later than expected and can’t find a campground (on which occasion we find a room sans bath over a restaurant for 32 euros). The tiny town of Sainte Enimie in the Gorge de Tarn is my favorite camping spot, at a small campground alongside the river. Our tent is crap, too small and thin; John bought it the day we left England and the only store he could find open was a general merchandise rather than outdoor store, so selection was very limited. In any event, it does the job, at least so far in the dry, warm weather we’re having, and the setting here is glorious. The moon is full and we ride the short distance into town for dinner shortly after dusk then walk around the cobblestone streets and across a high stone bridge where we can see the crumbling remains of ancient walls built into the sides of the mountain, lit up from below.

Soon it’s Bastille Day, French Independence Day. We see heightened security in places, road blocks and emergency vehicles lining the sides of the roads, and it could be on account of the Nice shooting last year on this day, or more likely because Donald Trump has chosen to visit France today. In other places the spirit of the day runs wild and free, and as we witness one celebration after another throughout the day, because today also happens to be my 53rd birthday I secretly pretend the fireworks and festivities are all for me. John, good guy that he is, won’t let me pay for anything today, though we’ve been splitting the expenses otherwise except for gas. (“I would be paying for it even if I were on my own,” he says.) We are now riding through more mountainous terrain, nearing the Pyrenees, as well as passing small villages that seem almost carved into the land and water, reminding me how much I love this country, and reminding me also how fortunate I am to be here, doing this. IMG_0027

We are driving south toward the Spanish border when we see smoke on the horizon from a forest fire – as we approach, the cloud billows wider and darker, until it resembles the picture of a mushroom cloud after a nuclear bomb explosion we used to see as children in history class. IMG_0030 I look back from the edge of Spain as night begins to fall to see a lovely sunset, made even more brilliant by the smoke.

 

 

Johnny England

Posted in Prose on July 6, 2017 by 1writegirl

I have always loved England. It feels familiar but is different enough to also feel like a learning experience every time I come here. The people, the food, the sounds are ever changing, while the customs, architecture and history are pervasively constant. Last summer I went to Scotland for the first time, specifically to Edinburgh (inspired by my love of the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith) where I rented a flat for a month and afterward traveled around the countryside when I met someone with a motorcycle. Those first few days with him, riding along the foggy windswept west coast of Scotland, past rocky outcroppings and green hills covered in heather and scotch broom, sturdy sheep and long-haired cattle, supplied my first living breath in over two years. Sharp little droplets of rain pummeled us in between short intervals of sunshine as we skimmed along empty curving roads and I felt like I’d never seen grass so green, smelled air so fresh. I felt free and light for long moments at a time, for the first time since Jackson died, and the possibility that I might continue to live flashed across my mind; that this wasn’t just a last hurrah before my inevitable impending demise, by my own hand or, more likely, as a direct, cumulative result of grief, what some people would call a broken heart.

A couple of weeks ago, after leaving my friends near Hereford, I took a train to Devon to meet up with Mark, one of the kind souls who responded to my travel post. We met at the 3-day HU event and got to know each other well enough that he invited me to ride around southwest England on one of his two older (80’s) BMWs, and I accepted. An intelligent, thoughtful guy, he’s good-natured and widely traveled, with plans to ride a bicycle around Nepal in October then head into India where he has been numerous times. A friend in Mumbai stores his Royal Enfield for him there in exchange for being able to ride it when he needs to. He told me he intends to be there by early November, and added “You’re welcome to join me if you like.”

We spent a couple of days in his quintessentially English village (it only takes a church and a pub to make a village, I’m told; this one has a church and two pubs), then rode through the beautifully wild and lonesome moors of Dartmoor National Park to Cornwall where we spent a few days with Tiffany, his friend and one of my roommates from the travel weekend. She lives in a small town called Porthcurno a few miles from Lands End, the southernmost point in the U.K. We hiked along the coastal path between the two towns our second day there, and on our third and final evening we saw a play at Porthcurno’s open air Minack Theatre, carved into the side of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean meets the Celtic Sea meets the English Channel. A lone seal swam and dived below us. The play itself was okay, the setting spectacular.

We returned to Devon for a couple of mostly rainy days, then I bid Mark farewell and caught a train to Eastbourne to meet John. Another respondent to my travel post, John has been a fairly regular email correspondent for over a month. His plan, he wrote, is to ride through various countries, starting in Europe, for the next four months, beginning with France and winding up in Turkey, a country he tells me he has grown to love after multiple trips there. He’d prefer to have a companion than to ride alone, so “You are welcome to join me for any or all of it,” he wrote. We agreed that I’d ride with him in July, after which I’ll be returning to England to house/dog sit for my friends while they go on holiday in August.

I arrive in Eastbourne late on Saturday night. My train was delayed so by the time John finds me and we drive back to his apartment it’s after midnight. Except for the emails and one brief phone call, I’m flying blind here. I think we’ll be compatible, I think we’ll travel well together, but at this point I’m only guessing, hoping really. And we’re talking about a month together, not just a few days like it was with Mark. I reserve the right to bail, I tell him in my last email before I catch the train. Of course, he says. No questions asked. You have that right too, I assure him. No problem. If we’re on the road, just drop me at the closest bus station, that’s all I ask.

He puts me in his bedroom in spite of my protests that he shouldn’t, and he sleeps on the floor of his living room. It’s a tiny apartment that he has just sold, and he has already cleared out most of his belongings before I arrive. The check should be in the bank on Thursday, he explains; that’s the day he turns in his keys, the day he’ll have the funds to purchase the bike he has had his eye on, the day we can start moving. Until then it’s a waiting game. He shows me around Eastbourne. He takes me on walks along the waterfront and into the surrounding hills and farmlands. He gradually clears his apartment of the remainder of its contents. We take turns making dinner. We get to know each other.

He talks a lot. Rambles I might say, except it doesn’t feel aimless, it feels pent up, like he has had no one to talk to in a long time and is trying to get everything out before he finds himself alone again. I understand the sentiment but I hold back, rusty when it comes to revelations, until he says something, an accidental trigger (how can he know, when I don’t know them all myself?) and I am in tears. He has a daughter who is the same age as Jackson, and when he talks about her he has the warmth of tone and wide wet eyes that speak my language. When I look up I see that he is crying too, slow silent tears to my messy puddle, and I am reminded yet again of how many of me there are out there, waiting to happen, praying for anything but. Please god, take this, take that, take me. Take anything but my child (husband, wife, mother, brother). He knows this kind of love, and he knows lost love too.

The ice is broken, and I begin to relax. Over the next four days he tells me about the circumstances that have brought him to this point in time, where he’s selling an apartment in a place he didn’t like to begin with and preparing to set off for several months, maybe longer, on a new motorcycle with an almost complete stranger: the failed relationships; playing drums professionally first in bands then in shows; the transition to this job and that job and finally no job when it all felt wrong; the child he had, and the child he almost had. He tells me things about growing up in the slums of Glasgow in the 60’s that wring me dry; the kinds of things that a generation ago nobody talked about, that evoked words like dirty laundry, and feelings like shame even in the hearts of their young, innocent victims. I am reminded that the power of secrets is lost when they are let loose in the public domain.

I tell him about my travels of the past year, about how I fell in love with my traveling companion against my better judgement – given my state of mind, given that he told me from the beginning he didn’t want a “relationship” – and how it all fell apart when, after close to eight months of traveling together around Europe and Asia, I realized he was probably never going to see me as anything more than just another lover in a long string of lovers. John and I have both been very clear and honest from our first email exchange to say that we don’t want anything but a companion on this ride, and I am committed this time to keeping my boundaries intact. “It isn’t that I regret my time spent with him,” I tell John. “Just that if I’d resisted the temptation to sleep with him, I’d have saved myself unnecessary heartache that I could ill afford.” He nods his head. “I know what you mean,” he says. “But you can’t blame yourself for wanting it, or for trying.” In the silence that follows I remember what someone said to me last summer while discussing men, women and relationships. She said, “We have a string that goes directly from our vagina to our heart.” It sounds crude perhaps, and overly simplistic, but in my case it seems to be true.

Tonight we are out in the country, a few miles beyond Brighton, on a piece of land where some musicians are getting together to practice one more time before John leaves the country tomorrow. I sit on an old rusted iron chair outside the mobile home inside which a keyboard, guitar, bass, drums and vocalist are all packed together amidst cords, microphones, amplifiers and miscellaneous musical paraphernalia. A gorgeous ginger and white cat called Zeus comes calling, wrapping himself around my legs. He belongs to Max, the owner of the mobile home and the keyboard player. This cat, I’m told, is from Cairo. A street cat, he was picked up by an animal rescue and taken to a shelter, where someone came along and chose him as their pet. They set sail from Egypt, taking the cat with them, for several months. Eventually they got to England where at some point and for reasons unknown they couldn’t keep him any longer. They relinquished him to yet again another shelter, which is where Max found and adopted him. “I figure that’s at least three or four of his nine lives, don’t you think?”

On the drive home John tells me an amusing story about a trip to the US during which he rented a hang glider (he is experienced in the sport and taught lessons for years) in Orlando and a couple of hours later realized he was not headed south as he’d intended. He found a field to land in, in front of a parking lot of a big grey building, which turned out to be a bowling alley. He walked up to three men sitting on the front steps, pulled out his map of Florida, and asked them if they could show him where he had landed. Quickly picking up on his accent they narrowed their eyes and asked, in a pronounced southern drawl, “You’re not from around here, are you?” “No, I’m from England,” he told them. “Well, actually I’m from Scotland, but I live in England,” at which they took one look at his hang glider and concluded that he’d glided all the way from England and crash-landed there in inland Florida. He tried to explain that he had rented the unit in Florida, that he’d flown by plane to Florida from London, but they only heard flown and England and were so stuck on the false notion that he eventually stopped trying to explain. In the end a cell phone rang and one of the men answered it to be given an earful from his mother, so loudly that he had to hold the phone away from his head so that everyone present could hear her shouting, berating him for not being in church. Eventually when she paused for breath he took his chance. “Mama!” he said. “Listen to me. We got a situation here. We got Johnny England here, just crashed his hang glider in a field.” Eventually the man was able to persuade his mother – still enraged that her grown son was at a bowling alley rather than in church on an afternoon in the middle of the week – to send someone with a truck to collect John and his hang glider and transport him the 40 miles back to Orlando.

I laugh, and I laugh, and I laugh.

June 18, 2017

Posted in Prose on June 18, 2017 by 1writegirl

 

It is hot and sunny today, not unexpected in most places in the Northern Hemisphere in June. In England, where I am this afternoon, and especially Wales, where I came from this morning, it is unusual. According to the hosts of the Horizons Unlimited meeting in Hay on Wye where I spent the weekend, it “pissed down cold rain” at last year’s 4-day event.

After I arrived on Thursday afternoon and checked in I glanced around the lobby. My eyes fell on a man sitting by himself on a bench. I recognized him at once from a photo he’d sent me in an email a few weeks ago; he was one of the people who had responded to my forum thread about riding pillion, and suggested a trip around England in June. He’d seemed so empathic when he first learned of Jackson’s death, opening up about his own sorrows and tribulations, but when he read my Mother’s Day poem a week or so later in which I allude to the ever tempting, never vanquished thoughts of suicide, he sent me an email begging me to “cheer up” and suggesting, among other things, I just think happy thoughts instead. I responded initially with my own suggestion that he educate himself about the phenomenon of grief, in particular as it pertains to parents of children; to single mothers of only children; to children who die a sudden, violent death. He replied with yet more naive and, albeit unintentional, offensive and thoughtless drivel, and in a fit of impatience I told him so. He stopped writing and so did I, realizing I couldn’t ride with him, that I would constantly feel compelled to hide my grief, and knowing what a strain this would be, how stressful I would find it. When I saw him sitting on the bench on Thursday I greeted him. I didn’t want to ignore him, or pretend I didn’t recognize him. I wanted him to see that my anger hadn’t lingered, and I bore him no hard feelings. For awhile anyway he’d been very kind to me and I had appreciated it. When I spoke his name he stood up, leaned in, and kissed me on one cheek then the other. I said it was nice to meet him. He replied, “You don’t look very depressed.” His tone was biting, sarcastic, as if he suspected I’d made the whole thing up. Or was he merely disappointed? I don’t know, but in that moment I knew I’d made the right decision in choosing not to ride with him.

Fortunately, 513 people showed up for the event and I soon found myself attending and taking copious notes in one presentation after another. I have long held the opinion that if you want to talk to interesting people, find people who travel. They are rarely without a story to share, and they provide continuous challenges to commonly held perceptions of non travelers about the places they (the travelers) have visited and they (the non travelers) have not. Of the many people I’ve spoken to who have been to Iran, for instance, not one has had anything bad to say about the people they encountered. On the contrary, there is a consensus that the Iranian people are some of the most friendly, hospitable, generous and gracious people anywhere in the world. Travelers – Westerners and non Muslims, on motorcycles, bicycles, on foot – repeat these words, heard again and again from complete strangers who stopped to give them advice or directions and after the briefest of exchanges, invited them back to their home for a meal or even one or several nights sleep: “Please, you are a guest in my country.” This reminder that the governing body of a political regime do not necessarily reflect all or even the majority of the people living within and under its umbrella is important and timely, it seems to me. And only by traveling will you see with your own eyes that this is the case. The experiences these individuals have had do not lessen the need to understand intellectually (as well as work to change) the inherent contradictions that exist within rigid and outdated ideologies like Islam to some of the values that we in the Western world hold dear, like civil liberties, freedom of speech, the press and religion, women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental protection to name a few, values that make life not only better, safer, and more just, but also rife with possibility for everyone, not just a select few. But they do illustrate how complicated and messy and unpredictable people are, and how critical it is that we continue to treat the people we meet, wherever we meet them, as individuals whenever possible, and not as stereotypes inextricably linked to identities which they may not internalize or even choose.

I listened to advice, anecdotes and instruction from numerous couples and individuals whose travel histories vastly exceed mine, and found myself especially drawn to the presentations about Africa, a destination I’ve longed to visit for most of my life. I also gravitated to the several women present who have traveled alone and extensively; two such women, Zoe and Tiffany, happened to be my roommates in the dorm I was assigned to. These women inspire me; they are independent, brave, and intrepid. They feel fear like we all do from time to time, but their attitude is that they will not let their fear prevent them from doing what matters to them. Every time they encounter an obstacle and have to find a way around it on their own, they become a little bit stronger; each time a situation gets the better of them, they become a little bit wiser. They are risk takers, not wild and indiscriminate and self-destructive risk takers, but calculated, life-is-short, quality trumps quantity risk takers. I admire them, and take hope from their open hearts and curious minds.

Today is June 18, 2017:

-The birthday of my almost step daughter from a life I can barely remember, almost 30 years ago, yet sweet detailed moments like snapshots of the time I spent with her and her sister will parade across my mind when I least expect them
-The day Mike, one of my dearest friends, leaves Los Angeles for his own adventure in Brazil for the next three months
– Father’s Day
-The third anniversary of my son’s death

Last year at this time I wrote an essay that was published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in their quarterly newsletter. The same day it was picked up and reprinted on Hemant Mehta’s blog, The Friendly Atheist. For those of you interested in reading it, here is the link. My article is on Page 3: https://ffrf.org/images/uploads/fttoday/2016/FT_September_2016.pdf

 

Soldiering On

Posted in Prose on June 11, 2017 by 1writegirl

When I realized I couldn’t afford to visit Portugal in May as originally intended, I looked online for information about places in Eastern Europe (since I was in Croatia), that would be havens of natural beauty without the blighted accompaniment of heavy tourism to drive prices up and quality of life down. This search led me first to the small and ancient city of Ohrid on the lake of the same name in Macedonia, then to Kotor Montenegro. While Ohrid lived up to my expectations, Kotor didn’t.

I ended up staying in Kotor for ten days, longer than any place so far this time in Europe. I had hopes of using this small town in this small country as a base for day trips to the beautiful national parks scattered across the land, but in the end it felt like too much work to find and organize the bus trips in either direction. Once it became clear I wasn’t going there on the back of a motorcycle I thought I’d find the motivation to make other arrangements, but in the end it was just the opposite.

Since coming to Europe in April I’ve been waiting to feel a sense of relief. With the sentencing hearing behind me, I thought I’d begin to look forward, that my steps would be lighter now that’s no longer hanging over me. But this hasn’t proven to be the case. I’ve cried more readily and more often in the three months since the hearing than I did in the nine months prior to it. I’ve felt more hopeless, more desperate, and less resilient. The man who killed my child has gone off to prison for three years; meanwhile, my child is still dead, and it would appear he’s going to stay that way. I can find no comfort in this pathetic construct we call justice, and why I thought it would feel any less like hell in receding than it did in anticipation I’m not sure. It was meant to be an ending I guess, but the only thing that has ended is the waiting.

I feel weaker too since the hearing, perhaps to do with the fact that I had a travel companion before – something I wasn’t looking for and didn’t think I wanted but came to appreciate and enjoy – and this time I’m alone. Alone now feels different, it feels less like a choice and more like punishment than it felt before he came along, and the contrast between the two is sharp and bitter. I miss him, and I miss the buffer that he was for me, the way his company and presence softened and eased my interactions with the rest of the world. I felt protected in his care, though I know that was an illusion; I felt like I was under an umbrella of time and love that would see me healed if I were patient enough to let it. Now I feel like healing is way too much to hope for, and I can accept that, but I’d like to think there’s a place between broken and fixed, between half and whole or new and used that’s tolerable if not necessarily comfortable. I like to think I might get there, though I have no real reason to believe I will.

I did little in Kotor in the way of exploration, but these are my impressions of the town based on walking in and around it:
-The lake itself is lovely, though the shore close to the town is littered with detritus. Plastic bottles, wrappers, food, aluminum cans float among light green slimy strands of algae.
-Huge white monstrosities, longer than the town itself and thus taking its place in the view from across the lake, arrive in the bay every morning about 10:00 and discharge thousands of people at once into the old town to take pictures (mostly of themselves), eat at the restaurants, and buy souvenirs.
-There is a stone trail, hundreds of years old, that begins on the edge of the walled city and climbs up the mountain behind it to the remains of an old fortress and churches. It takes about an hour to get to the top. Between 8am and 8 pm there is a charge of 3 euros to walk it. I went up at 7:30 am so paid nothing, and was rewarded with a spectacular (monstrosity-free) view of the lake. At night the fortress is lit up, and the sight is rather enchanting.
-Many men carry purses, almost universally alike (brown or black, slung across one shoulder).
-There are lots of scooters, but only a few motorcycles.
-Some of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten are to be had at the fresh produce market outside the old town walls, third stall from the end closest to the town entrance.

I flew up to England on Saturday. It’s windy here, rainy off and on, and much cooler than where I’ve just come from, and it feels good. I’m spending a few days with a friend and her family before going to the Horizons Unlimited meeting next weekend. She has two teenage boys and a dog, the sight and sound of whom remind me of my own and thus fill me with a delicate mixture of tenderness and remorse, and a husband of twenty years who reminds me of nobody and whose presence instills me with awe and wonder and envy at his devotion to his wife and children. The government here is in disarray, after an ambiguous election, much like my own country’s, and we talk about how fed up the people are getting with the status quo, the promises broken, the old pretending to be new, and the old guard soldiering on in the face of change they refuse to acknowledge though it will not be denied. We go for long walks in the fields no matter the weather. She makes gourmet vegetarian meals, I help where she lets me, we drink wine, we talk, I cry, she puts her arms around me, we laugh. I am glad to be here.

Interesting fact: last year worldwide more people were killed taking selfies than by sharks. Why does this not surprise me?

Culinary tip: to quickly and easily remove the skin of the garlic, lay the clove on its side and place the flat side of a butter knife on top. Press down hard until you hear and feel the sound of the clove splitting open, then remove the ‘meat’ of the garlic without effort or mess.

 

I would ride, ride, ride.

Posted in Prose on June 5, 2017 by 1writegirl

I recently posted a thread on a travel forum, giving a general idea of my whereabouts and requesting people contact me if they are riding a motorcycle in my vicinity and wouldn’t mind a pillion for a few hours, possibly even a couple of days. It’s been a few months since I’ve been on a bike and I really miss it.

I put a link to my blog at the bottom of the thread in an attempt to weed out any respondents who wouldn’t want as a pillion someone in the throes of grief. It can be a downer, let’s face it, to spend much time with someone who is perpetually sad, no matter how adept she thinks she is at disguising this fact. So it felt like the right thing to do to be above board and just put it out there. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t matter on a short ride where conversation is limited, but if hours turned into days, the subject would almost certainly arise in the course of ordinary back and forth; it’s a conversation that takes a lot out of me so I avoid it if I can.

Over the next couple of weeks I received about two dozen replies and personal messages, some of which were links to potentially useful websites (a motorcycle organization by and for women, for example) or “Hey, if you’re ever in my neck of the woods let me know and I’ll show you around” type messages from as far away as Brazil. The rest were people telling me their itinerary and either inviting me outright to join them at some point, or suggesting we meet up at the Horizons Unlimited event in England in June to chat and see if we’d be compatible travel companions.

I was in Sofia when I got a reply from a man I’ll call Dave, who said he was also in Eastern Europe and would be happy to give me a ride. I envisioned him stopping by and picking me up, riding out into the countryside for a few hours, then dropping me off as he went on his way. There would be little to no conversation.

When he wrote back it was to say his route had changed and he was heading west with a view to Morocco instead. If I had no plans after the Balkans I was welcome to join him. As an aside, he mentioned that he too had lost a child.

Since leaving the U.S. in April I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to find an online grief mentor, someone who has also experienced the death of a child and might be able to help me with the especially difficult days. Now it seemed I might have accidentally stumbled upon just that.

We emailed. By now I was in Ohrid Macedonia and he was back in the U.K., visiting his elderly parents he said, and giving his bike some much needed maintenance before leaving for Morocco. He thought he’d make a detour, ride down to Montenegro and pick me up. We could visit Durmitor National Park, one of the places I told him I especially wanted to see, and he could give me a ride at least part of the way up to the U.K. after. He was recently retired, he said, and wasn’t tied to any particular place or time frame. What did I think?

Yes! All I’d asked for was a few hours on the back of a stranger’s bike: the scenery, scents and sounds left and right, raw, direct, unfiltered by plastic or metal; the feel of the back and forth, the grip and release, the subtle dance that is riding a motorcycle and unlike anything else; a lack of agenda, the ability to close my eyes and, for a few brief minutes, just forget. He was offering to give me that, but something much more too – the chance for awhile to be in the company of someone who had survived what I am trying to survive. There would be no need for explanations or apologies, for awkward silence or pretense. There wouldn’t even be the need for words if we didn’t want them. Just to sit in the same room, to know that he knew – I desperately wanted that.

So it seemed sorted. He’d leave at the end of the week and would arrive June 1-2. I warned him that I cry often, and sometimes without notice. He didn’t mind, he said. So there would be tears, so what? There would be laughter too. I liked his optimism. I liked the kind of person he seemed to be: respectful, serious, thoughtful, quiet, and compassionate – so much so that he would deviate from his original travel plans in order to meet me and let me ride pillion with him for a few days.

A couple of days passed and I heard nothing. Then a brief note saying his email had been compromised, and to use this new one. He was leaving soon, he said. Another few days passed during which I made my way to Montenegro and he was conspicuously absent from my inbox, though I assumed he was on his way. Then a message much like the previous one, short and cryptic, stating that he was still dealing with email problems, and giving me a UK phone number I could call. My phone still had my Bulgarian SIM so I couldn’t call him, but suggested he text me if he couldn’t email, figuring I could probably get texts. Where are you? I asked. Do you still anticipate arriving on the first? I got a text in return saying only that he expected to arrive between the first and third.

Then silence again. I wondered about the compromised email scenario, how likely that was to be true. I worried that he might have been injured or taken ill on the road. I felt a strange mix of anxiety, concern and suspicion. So I did what everyone does these days when their only contact with another human being is via the internet: I googled him.

The only link I found that looked feasible was to a Facebook page, showing a man in an embrace with a pretty woman, cheek to cheek, her arms wrapped around his neck, both of them smiling; two small children; and a motorcycle. My access was limited so I was unable to read posts, but the photos had captions under them, one stating how happy they were, awaiting the birth of their son.

I had no way of knowing for sure if this Dave was the same Dave who’d been writing to me, though his profession, age and interests fit. Nor did I know how current the photos were. It hadn’t occurred to me during our correspondence to ask him if he was married – firstly I am not ‘looking for love’, and secondly it seemed improbable a married man would invite a woman, not his wife, relative or possibly long-standing platonic friend, to ride across Europe with him. In theory his marital status is none of my business. Nevertheless I wouldn’t have felt comfortable riding pillion for any considerable distance with a married man. Maybe he was divorced, I reasoned, or at the very least separated, and he didn’t mention it because it hadn’t seemed relevant.

The only other identity breadcrumb I could find was a thread he’d posted about five years ago on the same travel forum where I’d posted three weeks ago. It read: “Tall, good looking 44 year old would like to meet a female motorcyclist or pillion for a trip through europe and beyond.”

He got a lot of flack from responders, claiming match.com was a more appropriate forum for such a post. He defended his choice to post the thread where he did, saying he was looking for a particular kind of woman, specifically one who shared his love of motorcycles.

I put this together with the Facebook page to conclude a likely scenario in which he’d been seeking a partner, found her, and subsequently lost her. Maybe he was lonely, hurting, and began responding to personal ads and threads, looking for any connection with women who might be feeling the same, and wanting to take a chance on love with someone new. Did I, as someone who touched a nerve because of a shared sorrow, get added inadvertently to the mix, in spite of the fact that neither of us so much as hinted at the idea of romance? Did he tell me he was coming this way because at that moment there was no potential lover on the horizon and he thought I’d be his good deed of the year, then someone, somewhere, popped up, so he went off in that direction instead?

I’ll probably never know. It’s been more than a week since I got that text in spite of my various attempts to contact him. His arrival window has opened and closed, and I’m left to speculate, imagine, regret and doubt. What I do know is that he appeared, reeled me in, then simply vanished, all from the comfort and security of the cyber world, leaving me not only to wonder what reason he could possibly have had to do any of it, but to question the veracity of everything he said to me: if he used his real name, and if he was in Eastern Europe when he first replied to my thread like he said; if he really did have a daughter who died, if it really was 18 years ago, if he was then and is now so devastated by her death that he can rarely bring himself to talk about her. And if he ever had any intention in the first place of meeting me, of letting me ride with him, of letting me just sit… or if that too was part of a story that he liked to tell. Unless he suffered some sort of calamity on his way here, making it impossible to let me know he wasn’t coming, this is what I fault him for: not trolling the internet for a love connection, if that’s indeed what he was doing; not for changing his mind or his plans and backing out, if that’s what he did; but for his indifference to, and willingness to exploit, the feelings of someone who admitted to being vulnerable and fragile; for his callous disregard of what it might cost someone in an emotionally precarious state – to have that hope extended and then mysteriously, abruptly rescinded.

I could be angry with him, I could feel victimized and trodden upon, and indeed I did when June third came and went and with it, that last sliver of hope I’d been clinging to that he’d show up here. But I want to turn this into a gain rather than another loss. I don’t want to use it as ammunition in an arsenal of reasons not to trust people, or not to take risks. In spite of, maybe even because of what I’ve been through in the past 3 years, I want to believe that most people are good, and that people are mostly good, so I’m continually looking for evidence of this. I have no way of knowing what Dave’s reality is, how messed up or charmed his life may be, what might have motivated him to toy with me the way he did, or if in his mind, he was actually doing me a favor by letting me believe that I was talking to someone who knew exactly what I was going through, whether or not I really was, and whether or not he ever made good his expressed intention of coming to see me. I have the power to make it a favor, and remind myself how good it felt to believe I wasn’t alone.

It’s certainly not the first time, nor will it be the last I suspect, that my powers of judgement have misled me. But I still wish we’d met, the same way I wish he’d been the person I thought he was.

If wishes were horses……

Easy Ohrid

Posted in Prose on May 25, 2017 by 1writegirl

I arrived in Ohrid Macedonia in the middle of the night on the only bus to be had from Sofia. The schedule told me I’d get in around 5am. The owner of my Airbnb rental had said he was out of town but could send his friend with the key to fetch me at 7:00 if I could wait that long. What the heck, I thought, it will be daylight by then, I can just read my book while I wait. When you travel and use public transportation you get used to waiting on one end or the other, and two hours is nothing compared to what I typically wait when flying.

Whether the schedule was wrong or my bus driver was on a mission I can’t say. It didn’t feel like we were moving unusually fast, though come to think of it there were a hell of a lot of bumps that almost sent me flying from my attempt at a sideways prone position across the two seats at my disposal to the floor in front of me. In any case he rolled in to the bus station in Ohrid at not quite 2am by my watch. I quickly realized we were in an earlier time zone to boot, so it was actually 1am – six hours before my ride was due to show up and at least 3-4 hours before daybreak. I had no cell phone service since my Bulgarian SIM card didn’t cover Macedonia, even though I had loads of data left, so I could neither call, text nor email the host to beg him to send his friend earlier, if I could even reach him; I had no Macedonian denar with which to pay a taxi to take me to the apartment, and no key to enter it even if I did; and if I somehow managed to find and get to a hotel that was still taking guests at this hour, what would I do if I couldn’t get in touch with my host in time for him to stop his friend from showing up at the station at 7? Take another taxi back to the bus station at 6:30 or so? It appeared I was stuck there.

Once the few taxi drivers who had shown up to meet the wee-hours bus departed (they knew if I didn’t), I found a dark corner outside the bus station (locked up tight of course) and against a small cafe. I reasoned that I didn’t want to draw attention to my presence, not so much because I was worried about my personal safety, but because I had visions of the police harassing me for loitering or something equally harmless, and as a foreigner without the the ability to communicate with them, it just didn’t seem wise to me to advertise the fact that I was using a public place as a makeshift campsite. Do they allow ‘wild camping’ in Macedonia, and does the sidewalk within the city limits count? I had no idea. I plopped my pack into the corner, and positioned the two potted fir trees that decorated the sidewalk strategically in front and to the side of it. Then I squeezed in between the two pots and the wall and leaned back against my pack, with my helmet and food bag against the wall and out of sight.

This is how I remained for the next 3 1/2 hours, shifting occasionally on the cold hard ground, not daring to close my eyes as I listened to passing cars and dogs, hoping that the former wouldn’t catch me in their headlights and decide to investigate or report me to the authorities, nor the latter catch a whiff of my food (do street dogs consider dry pasta, walnuts, olive oil, ouzo and muesli food?) and try to relieve me of it. Not that I would have been able to sleep if I had felt comfortable closing my eyes. I wish I were one of those people who can sleep anywhere, or any time. Eventually the sky began to lighten and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the sun rise.

Ohrid turns out to be a lovely, very affordable (see example costs below) place to spend a week. In spite of this there are relatively few tourists here, at least this early in the season, and to my untrained ear anyway, the vast majority of them seem to speak the same, or a similar Slavic language, as the Macedonians. Yet here, as in Sofia, many of the younger people speak English quite well. I’ve also noticed the vendors at the stalls selling souvenirs don’t call out to passers-by to come and inspect (buy) their wares, and the taxi drivers, both land and water, are likewise not aggressive in seeking fares. It’s a very walkable town, it looks and feels safe throughout, and the pace is calmer and more sedate than anywhere else I’ve been this spring.

Like so many old cities and towns in Europe, Ohrid has an abundance of churches, monasteries and basilicas. I find no value in them as houses of worship, but they certainly have great historical significance and are often beautiful examples of centuries old architecture, and I’m amazed at how well-preserved they are; however they strongly resemble one another, at least from the outside, so it’s easy as you walk around the town to mistake one for the other if, like me, you do not read the Cyrillic alphabet.

A fortress, disintegrated in places and restored in others, as well as an “antique theatre” – the only Hellenistic theater in Macedonia – are also draws for many people. Beyond the telling of a story if you are trained to read it (I’m not), structures like this offer me a sense of personal insignificance and anonymity in the face of their great age, the same way visiting faraway places and spending time in wilderness areas does. Their presence reminds me that in the space of time and our vast universe I am but an infinitesimal speck, my life meaningless, and that brings me comfort for some reason when I think about my son’s death. We are all of us here for but a blink of an eye, and while some blinks are shorter than others, they are all just blinks, and the universe cares not one whit more or less for any of its creatures than it does for any other. In one way or another we are all – animal, vegetable, mineral – products of what has come before us as well as fodder for what comes after, our sense of individual purpose and importance a human artifact, existing solely within the context of our minds and nullified by the acts of birth and death. We contribute to or detract from the world, leaving it better or worse not by ourselves but collectively, one blink at a time.

Yesterday I walked around part of Lake Ohrid (estimated to be between 2-3 million years old), past a reedy, marshy area where the chirping sound coming from a network of large greenish-grey frogs was so loud many people walking by, alone or with companions and engaged in conversation slowed then gravitated to the edge of the walkway to silently observe the source of the noise. I’d call it music but it wasn’t exactly melodic, more like a bunch of off-key would be singers gotten together to form their own second rate choir. The number of different sounds in pitch, frequency and duration was fascinating, the singers scattered throughout the tall grasses in the muddy water, blending in so well you really had to look hard to catch their movement and see them. I wondered what they were saying to each other.

Farther down the lake the path changed from paved to gravel then dirt, the numbers of people dwindling correspondingly. Soon I was the only person coming or going in sight, clusters of colorful wildflowers on either side of me and birds singing in the trees overhead. I saw a raven and was reminded of something I learned recently watching Viasat Nature, a channel I’d never heard of since I so rarely watch television, but stumbled upon in this well-equipped Ohrid apartment I’ve rented; that ravens and crows are so intelligent they are considered the primates of the bird family and that there is a subspecies, the Caledonian Crow, members of which have been observed not just using objects in their environment as tools but actually inventing tools to accomplish a specific task, namely retrieving food from tight places. Soon it started to rain, as it has done each day but one since I got here. I kept walking. I don’t know when I got comfortable walking, even hiking, in the rain – somewhere between the Camino and Banff National Park I suppose – but I no longer see it as an impediment to continuing to move. This isn’t to say I look outside when it’s pouring down rain and think, right, let’s go for a walk! Just that if I’m already out there, I don’t duck for cover the way I once might have.

Last night I watched a program that featured the place of guide dogs and other animals in the lives of people with disabilities ranging from diabetes and blindness to PTSD. I recall my grief counselor telling me that I would qualify for an assistance animal and again, as I did when she told me this, I wonder if this is something I should seriously consider. But how do you travel internationally with a dog or other animal to consider? For years before motherhood my traveling companion was a three-legged orange tabby cat named Boo Radley, with whom I covered the width of the United States no less than 3 times; but that was domestic travel for which neither he nor I needed papers or shots. Taking an animal with you when crossing borders means facing stringent customs and immigration regulations and incumbent costs, including quarantine in some places. Even if that weren’t the case, when it takes all your energy to take care of yourself, where do you find the energy to care for a dependent? It hardly seems do-able. A few months ago I heard about a woman who is riding her horse around the world, a pursuit which I find immensely intriguing and appealing; we’ve emailed back and forth a few times but I’ve yet to get into the nitty gritty with her.

Example costs in Ohrid: accommodation in private 1 bedroom apartment in building with elevator, within 10 minutes walking distance of town center: $22/night. Dinner of falafel, pita, humus and vegetables: $3. Loaf of whole grain bread from bakery: 45 cents. Piece of cake from bakery: 75 cents. Bottle of local red wine: $2. Fresh fruits and vegetables at the open air market (“bazaar”): cheap, cheap, cheap.

Sofia, just let me be.

Posted in Prose on May 17, 2017 by 1writegirl

I’ve shifted gears since leaving Croatia. I was moving too fast, finding that it took more energy than I had to continually be in the planning stage of what next, where to stay, how to get there. Better to pick some place and stay put for awhile, a week or ten days, and pursue my intention from the start: just be. I am not a tourist, and I can barely be called a traveler. What I am doing, in body and mind, is wandering – what else can you do when you are simultaneously exhausted and restless – trying to find places where I can feel comfortable putting myself for a bit.

Sofia, the second oldest city in Europe, is good for this it turns out. It is pronounced not like the woman’s name, I learn, but with the accent on the first syllable. Either way I love the way it sounds, the way it feels rolling out of my mouth. I’m in a flat, a spacious, clean and well-stocked one bedroom about 45 minutes walk from the old town which is where the museums etc are all located. I haven’t been down there yet and probably won’t go. The past few days have been very heavy, the build up and come down to do with Mother’s Day, for a start. These days – holidays, birthdays, anniversaries of death – they suck. For now anyway, they are days just to be borne, to live through, fraught as they are with the dark kind of possibility. I’m thankful to be in this quiet, private little place, where my agenda is my own and there is no one to disappoint when I don’t get out of bed.

When I’ve ventured out it has been to the parks and outdoor markets in the area, and once to a grocery store. I pass old dun-colored communist era buildings that are so hostile looking in their stark uniformity that you could almost wonder if they were all prisons at one time. But they weren’t, they were and some still are office buildings, government offices, apartments and the like. Interspersed among them are newer buildings of color and imagination, and frequent, some rather large, patches of green space, burgeoning now with bright colors and scent.

There are always people out, walking on the streets, lingering outside shops and in doorways. The younger ones wear T-shirts with words like “Choose you today,” “Watch, Italian, Love,” and “I’m sexy and I know it.” I see a boy in a Batman shirt, another with Disneyland character clothes and accessories. Many people I pass have an interested, curious air about them when they look at me. It’s not smiling, but it gives me the impression they wouldn’t mind knowing more. This isn’t a place that’s been inundated with tourists, not yet anyway, and that feels like a good thing to me. Unlike Croatia where I continually felt the friendliness was, if not forced then born of a need to please as a means of making financial ends meet, the gestures of hospitality here feel more earnest. Several times I’ve stopped people to ask directions and only once was I rebuffed with a shake of the head, and I think that was only because she didn’t speak English. Otherwise the residents I’ve tapped for information have been very helpful and kind, two women actually walking with me to my expressed destination each time though they were clearly headed somewhere else when I stopped them.

As always since Jackson died I’m alone almost constantly, by choice to some extent and by necessity the rest. Every now and then it feels like too much, and I need to hear another human voice beyond “turn left and go three blocks”; I need to look at someone else’s face, perhaps clasp their hand in greeting, be reminded of my inclusion in the species. So when an acquaintance who heard I was in Sofia gave me the name and phone number of a friend who not only lives here but has a motorcycle (“She said she will be happy to meet you and ride with you!”), I took a deep breath and dialed her number. I introduced myself and said I was here for a week and would enjoy riding with her somewhere, anywhere really, she might be going if she didn’t mind the company. She surprised me by saying, “You must come to my house. Come for dinner. You will be my guest!” When? Tomorrow? The next day? Now, she said. It was after 7pm. Before I had time to think it over and possibly invent an excuse, she instructed me to go outside and hail a taxi, then call her and give the driver the phone. “I wait for you!” She declared, and hung up.

I knew the risk I was taking, but I didn’t see a civilized grown up way out of it at this point; it was me, after all, who had initiated the contact, though this wasn’t what I’d had in mind. What the hell, I thought, and did as she had said. Though it took half an hour to get there and four separate calls from the cab driver before he located her apartment, I arrived to meet a vivacious, attractive 40-something year old woman who hugged me as soon as I stepped out of the taxi, then ushered me first to see her Harley (“a limited edition, see?”), then upstairs to the apartment she shares with her husband (away on business) and 17 year old son. She poured us both a glass of white wine and took me outside to her patio, which is when I realized how far I had come in the taxi. She pointed in one direction – “There is Sofia,” – and in the other was green, up up and up, shrouded in a light evening layer of fog. We were on the side of the mountain called Vitosha. We made a bit of small talk, or rather she chatted away as I nodded and murmured and wondered, like I always do, if there were a way I could stretch the small talk out for the duration of the evening (how many dinner courses would there be?) or if I could leap somehow into big talk, deep and important but not personal, purely philosophical perhaps… when she turned to me abruptly and said, “Violeta told me. About your son.” There it was. Just like that it was done, and like it always does my heart seized up with the spoken acknowledgment of this reality. I crumpled and she pulled me into an embrace. When she stepped back she crossed herself three times, then asked, “How did he die?” I told her. She wanted details. Reluctantly I gave them. I cried harder. She squeezed my hand. A door banged from the inside and she left me to go greet her son. I wiped my face, alone on the terrace, and hoped that would be all. That the subject wouldn’t come up again, at least not the subject of his death. Let me talk about him, if I choose, but let it come from me. Let me decide.

When I wandered back inside her son came up to me and offered his hand. “Dimitri,” he said. “Julie,” I replied. We sat down at the large patio table in the sunroom and I asked him about school. He was soft spoken, and if not quite reticent, certainly less gregarious than his mother. Perfect, I thought. Soon there was a knock on the door and a tall thin pretty woman in her early forties breezed in, her young son trailing behind her. A former model and Miss Bulgaria, I soon learned.

Dinner was served (delicious, 2 courses) and we talked casually for a time about world politics, the history of their country, and travel. I apologized as I always feel I should for Trump and assured them he doesn’t represent all Americans by a long shot. I started to breathe easily, to enjoy the taste of the food, the distinctive flavors in the sauce, the heady feel of the wine swimming through my veins. Mostly I was enjoying being in the soft, gentle company of other women. When they heard where I was headed next and when, my hostess dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand and said “No! Don’t go. You can stay here, I have an extra room. You can stay as long as you like.” I laughed and protested. She insisted. Could I? I wondered. Could I just stay here? All eyes were on me as a silence settled over the table. In that moment I was tempted. Stay. Be fed. Be looked after, shown around, taken for rides on a limited edition Harley. I thought about my Airbnb reservations in Macedonia and Montenegro, trying in vain to recall the cancellation policy of each one. And then, as if she had been biding her time all along; as if I were wearing a sign taped to my forehead that read, Atheist, vulnerable, give it your best shot!; my hostess started to talk about god. God in terms of bringing me here, god in terms of helping me, god in terms of my son’s current whereabouts and my salvation. Inwardly I groaned. Oh no, not this again. I had thought it might be different this time. I so wanted it to be different.

I stood it for as long as I could. I stood it while we sat there eating the remains of our meal and I stood it while she dragged me into the apartment to see the shrine of Jesus and Madonna she’d made at the entrance to her bedroom. I stood it while she informed me she was lighting a candle (“Look, right now I light this candle!”) for the soul of my son. I thought about her hospitality, how good the food was, and how nice it was to eat a meal with others. I didn’t want to repay that kindness with conflict, with argument, and I tried, I really tried, to just keep my mouth shut.

Finally, weary from the effort of pretense, I couldn’t take it anymore. If this is the price of human company, I thought, I won’t pay it. It isn’t worth it. I said I wasn’t religious, I didn’t believe in any of that. “I understand why you do, but it’s not for me,” I said. I thought I was being diplomatic and respectful, if assertive. But my words to the two women (Dimitri, perhaps the most mature person in the room, wordlessly busied himself clearing plates while the little boy had long since retreated to the living room and television) were nothing less than a challenge. For what seemed like hours they pummeled me with exhortations and what I can only believe was to them, reasonable explanation for their faith in god (“You can say ‘the universe’ if you prefer to” offered the beauty queen, as if it were simply a matter of semantics that I hadn’t considered.) They suggested that I was merely angry with god because of my son’s death and would find faith “again”; that I wasn’t in the right place emotionally to be able to accept his benevolence; and that science was proving, with increasing evidence, that there was definitely another plane to which people ascended after death. It was inconceivable to either of them that my belief system never did and never would overlap with theirs.

When the little boy approached his mother to fix him a late night snack, I used the opportunity to take my leave. Much later than I realized…didn’t sleep last night…yawn, yawn, could you please call me a taxi? It arrived, mercifully, within five minutes and I hastily bid them goodbye. My hostess, walking me to the street, insisted that I come back in a couple of days and spend the night, with the idea that we’d go riding the next day for a few hours. “I’ll show you beautiful countryside,” she said. I nodded, and opened the taxi door. I turned toward her and as I leaned in to hug her goodbye I felt an unexpected rush of gratitude, and I kissed her cheek. “Thank you,” I said. I wanted to believe that maybe I could come back and it would be this that would prevail – the camaraderie, the warmth – and that the subject of religion was exhausted between us, leaving room for everything else. But she grabbed me tight and whispered in my ear, “You must believe in god!” I knew then it would never be over for her, she’d never stop. Even if I suddenly saw the light, all the more reason to talk about it. I’d be her miracle; the woman she had brought over from the dark side, singlehandedly. “I’ll call you,” she said, releasing me. I settled into the backseat of the cab, knowing I’d never see her again, knowing I’d feign illness when she called, make retching sounds into the phone if necessary, or claim my plans had changed and I was leaving town sooner than anticipated. She waved as we pulled out into the darkness, and I waved back, sighing, a mixture of relief, sorrow and resignation filling the stale night air of the car.

I want to believe that we’re living in an increasingly secular world, but evidence all around me points to the contrary. Movements like ISIS are gaining momentum around the world, attracting young men and women who feel disenchanted, disenfranchised, and in dire need of an, apparently, violent, self-righteous and divisive cause; there are very few countries in the world, if any, where a political candidate can admit to being an atheist without being disqualified in the minds of voters in spite of any separation of church and state that might supposedly exist; pseudo intellectuals attempt to use the legitimate science of physics out of context to support their mystical and superstitious mumbo-jumbo; and a bereaved mother or father can’t disclose the death of their child without other people pouncing on it as an opportunity to proselytize.

I wondered how long it would be before I feel brave enough to try again. Better luck next time, I tell myself.