Monthly Archives: July 2015

Killing my Joie de Vivre (Part II)

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This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

Overview: The past few weeks have been spent in deep contemplation. Things are unraveling abroad, and not just in my head. This is Part II of a three-part series on the recent attacks on my joie de vivre.

I’m back in Ljubljana, Slovenia, sitting in bed in a drab hostel that is a considerable upgrade from The Prison Camp. Due to weather reports predicting an impending, record-setting heat wave, the Remote Year organizers agreed to book rooms in the local hostel for two days, as there were no fans and certainly no A/C in our dorms. Yes that’s right: We were upgraded momentarily. To a hostel. I am writing this now just in case I can’t find the will after I go back this evening.

This is a continuation from Part I, picking up from where I left off with the Remote Year caravan checking into our new homes for the month—a high school boarding school dorm south of the city center.

Living conditions aside, I found Ljubljana to be quite enchanting. It radiates a Balkan chill vibe reminiscent of Barcelona and Berlin, but hotter. When I arrived at our new co-working space for the month on Monday afternoon, I was warmly greeted by an American expat.

“Do you want a tour?” she asked me.

“Sure, if you don’t have anything better to do,” I said, sympathizing about what it must be like to have Remote Year descend, 70 deep, upon her otherwise calm work sanctuary. Amy* smiled and guided me around, pointing out various rooms of use until we got to the very back corner.

“And if you smoke…?” she said gesturing at the door behind her.

“Thank god, yes.” I stepped out onto the concrete porch overlooking the forest hills and an unfinished development project, rebar poking through the cement like hairs under a microscope. A garden occupied one half of the balcony, and there were ashtrays and chairs everywhere. It was perfect.

I lit a cigarette and chatted with Amy from Rhode Island, thankful to have found someone I could converse normally with. Within minutes I was introduced to Gavril*, the dreadlocked guy from the Maker Lab whose piercing blue eyes curiously scanned mine on the way in. Him and his friends were laughing about something on reddit and introduced me to /r/slavsquatting, a subredit dedicated to pictures of Slavic people, squatting. Finally, I met one of the owners of this gem of a co-working space, Ira*, a staglike woman with whom I felt an instant connection. We all got drinks at the jazz bar next door that night, and I listened to their crazy stories about the past weekend’s festival.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone out here anymore.

Mornings in the Prison Camp were rough. I would be awoken a dozen or so times by obliviously loud hallway conversations and slamming doors that resonated through the third floor’s paper-thin walls. I’d wait for everyone to disperse, then slowly attempt my morning routine of bathing, internetting, and practicing the flute—sans coffee, until the caffeine withdrawal would pull me out to the nearest café and onward to the co-working space. Our bathrooms, one for every “pod” of six Remotes, featured two showers with saloon style doors, an architectural decision for which I can’t fathom the utility. The first time I walked in barefoot, I stepped in a puddle of water from a flooded bidet.

The co-working space wound up being my saving grace that first week in Ljubljana. During the days, I’d slip out for smoke breaks with Aman and my new Slovenian friends; in the evenings, Gavril would show me around town; at night back at the Prison Camp, Brad (my vampire friend) and I would lament our conditions and talk about books.

On the 4th of July, there was an annual party co-hosted by one of the owners of the co-working space: the 4th of Juljubljana, where the locals gathered deep in the woods to happily mock the tradition of American excess. Brad and I rode over together with some of the Brazilians from the group, reassuring our driver that he was going the right way as we rode farther and farther from the city center. It was a cool party, even by my New York City standards. Most of the Remotes stuck together in clumps, half on MDMA they’d smuggled back from Berlin, cooing loving sentiments at each other in the grass.

Brad, Aman and I floated around together, passing the DJ booth where the words, UNITY, FREEDOM, VALUES, and TOGETHERNESS, splashed across an American flag. At one point, we wandered toward the bar in a stealth effort to escape one of Brad’s regrettable one-night stands who was hovering near us, when we ran into Heather, the disco queen of the bus and one of the more prominent voices that would wake me up in the mornings. She was slurrily bragging about her $1.50 boxed wine and trying to force it on one of the Brazilians, who looked nervous about this transaction. Make no mistake, we are a two-hour dive from Italy. There is no need for boxed wine anywhere, let alone in Slovenia. When she switched her attention to Brad, I poured the Brazilian some white from the bottle I’d brought, and we started talking about accents.

“Sometimes my accent changes when I’m around foreigners,” I told him. “Some people from Remote Year thought I wasn’t American when they first met me.”

“Yeah, well,” Heather interjected, gesturing at me with her box, “that’s because you’re like, your own thing.” She giggled and waved a hand over my essence. “You’re like an alien or something.”


“You lack any sense of structure, character, and the Aristotelian unities.” -Wednesday Addams

Soon, word spread around the party that there had been a brawl; apparently one of the Remotes had gotten his ass kicked by a Slovenian while trying to buy drugs, bringing the Remote Year injury count up to five in four weeks. Not wanting any part of that or the transpiring gossip, Brad and I stealthily exited the thumping techno area to wander alone in some of the most beautiful nature we’d ever encountered. We compulsively ran into a glistening field where the moon was setting. I spread out a blanket and we smoked a spliff, talking about dreams and watching the sky change from navy to azure above the looming treeline. Eventually we cabbed it back to the Prison Camp and lingered outside for a while, not wanting to replace our visions of natural beauty with the glib scenery inside.

As stupid as it was, Heather’s comment resonated in my mind the next few days, poking at the remnants of depression from my high school days. I smoked a spliff with Aman and told him I felt alienated.

“Why do you feel that way?” he asked.

“Well, for starters, one of them literally called me an alien.” We burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I worked hard the next few days to convince myself it wasn’t so bad. After all, I’d been more and more successful at avoiding crazed group activities and was bonding with my handful of secret weirdo friends and the Slovenians. Things were getting confusingly intense between Brad and me though. As nights passed and we grew closer, there were late night movies in his bed and back massages. One night he took me out for sushi and told me I was one of the only aspects of this trip keeping him sane. Each hug goodnight got a little bit longer than the last as we escaped momentarily from the strangeness of our circumstances into something that felt safe.

On my way to the co-working space the day I’d agreed to teach a writing class to 35 Remotes and Slovenians, I stopped for coffee and opened the facebook on my phone. I froze, mid-bite of my toast, when I saw the first thing on my newsfeed from one of my friends from my hometown in Chesaning, Michigan.

Lost for words and sick to my stomach. Just lost two amazing people. R.I.P Robert Gross III & Marci Barclay, you will truly be missed.

My appetite evaporated instantly and my whole body felt numb. I clicked through to their pages and saw the outpouring of memorial sentiments. It wasn’t a prank. My mind flashed to the last time I saw Marci and Rob the summer after my first trip around the world: dancing to Iggy Azalea on the dining room table in Marci’s apartment, floating down the river in canoes with a bottle of Fireball and a case of beer, laughing for hours, drunkenly flopping down in the grass after our friends’ wedding where Rob planted a kiss on my unsuspecting lips and we laughed about it because it made no sense but was still fun.

Now they were gone forever, their young lives extinguished in a split second. I would never see my friends again, I felt farther from home than ever. And, I had three hours to get it together or bail on teaching this class.

Killing my Joie de Vivre (Part I)

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This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

Overview: The past few weeks have been spent in deep contemplation. Things are unraveling abroad, and not just in my head. This is Part I of a three-part series on the recent attacks on my joie de vivre.

I’m currently in Paris, in one of my peaceful pockets abroad with one of my dear friends from NYC. I needed to escape Remote Year. It’s been 21 days since I last posted, because it’s been a weird 21 days. I figured it would be better for you all to wait until I processed everything that’s happened rather than haphazardly delivering snippets of disorganized thought or photos that may only serve to glorify an experience that isn’t worthy of glorification. Now that I’ve mentally sorted things, I’ll fill you in on the past few weeks in a series of three entries.

I’ll preface this by saying that there are many lovely aspects of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met along the way so far. But that is not the story that is forcing itself out through my fingertips despite my best efforts to write something cheerful. I am channeling Wednesday Adams at summer camp.

The double-decker Remote Year charter bus left Prague on June 27th at approximately 9:40 am. This was approximately 40 minutes after our scheduled departure time, due to one missing “Remote”. A rumor swept through the lower level that one of the more green travelers had discovered the joys of European men after the “Farewell, Prague” BYOB boat party the previous night and had been AWOL the whole morning. I can’t verify that was the case, but I doubted any other excuse she could have offered would have been more valid in the eyes of the organizers.

“You should have left her,” I told one of them after the source of our delay ran triumphantly through the outstretched London Bridge hands of a dozen or so cheering ‘Remotes’.

“She messaged us and said she was coming, what’s the harm in waiting?” he replied cheerfully.

“It sets a bad precedent,” I simply stated, and put my headphones back on. His face dropped and his eyes awkwardly searched for someone beyond me to converse with.

I would have understood if they left me to find my own ride to Slovenia. And in retrospect, perhaps I should have done just that.

Before noon, the whole top tier of the bus was drunk. In the parking lot of a rest stop in Austria, Heather*, one of the initial Remotes who had been profiled on the Remote Year blog as an exemplary citizen, began blasting music from a portable speaker and dancing like a zombie. Mascara streaked the blotchy face of this remote lifestyle hero, who was normally a degree of put-together reserved for homecoming dances. She gleefully announced that she’d pissed herself before returning to the bus.

I stayed on the lower level with the other adults in Remote Year, headphones on, head down, writing in my notebook to process the past week’s happenings as I like to do in transit. I don’t have the compulsion some do to fill silence with consumption and meaningless chatter; growing up an only child, I learned at a young age to transform boredom into my creative fuel.

At the next rest stop, Remote Year descended, 70 deep, into the little store to claim the slim pickins of its salad bar and annoy the attendants by trying to pay in Czech crowns. I found a big, flat rock to sit on outside and looked at the Alps while the Remotes screamed their American dominance of this rest stop like a football pre-game ritual.

When we finally pulled up to our residence in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I was hungry and weak, only having snacked on fruit and seeds for the past 12 hours.

The group destined for the “big” dorm filed out of the bus and claimed their oversized luggage, custom bicycles, and musical instruments. I smoked a cigarette, peering up at our new home for the month with its big, Soviet-style windows embedded in concrete, wondering which one would be mine.

“It looks like…” the Kiwi selfie stick salesman said, trailing off.

“A prison,” the only other Brooklynite (and only openly-gay, black Remote) finished for him.

The Remote Year organizers had accidentally leaked details of our Slovenian residence a few weeks prior, which had circulated back to me in the following snippets of information: We’d be staying in two college dorms a few minutes apart from each other, but they’d have kitchens (unlike our hotels in Prague) and breakfast service. Fine. At least the University was near the co-working space. We soon learned, however, that the living arrangements our organizers had deemed an appropriate value for our $2000/month rent were actually high school boarding school dorms, which were rented as hostels during the summer months when school was out of session. The kitchen, with its two sad burners and mini fridge packed with rotting leftovers, was not to be used by us. We could have had breakfast service, I was told by the desk clerk, but neither of the two organizers who had been in Slovenia “taking care of logistics” for a week prior to our arrival had thought to request it in advance. We were a 15-minute walk from the nearest convenience, a 19-minute walk from the other dorm, and a 35-minute walk from the co-working space. But we each had our own rooms, as promised, building block furniture and all.

The co-founder yelled an announcement out to the group: at 10:30 he would meet us in the lobby and escort us to… a bar, for a birthday party.

Nothing against the birthday boy, but at this point, attending a relative stranger’s 50th birthday was about the last thing in the world I wanted to do. All the promises of pizza or Indian food upon arriving were shattered when we learned those places closed early on Saturday nights. No logistics were planned; there was no map, no list of options for places to meet our basic human needs. The only thing waiting for us in Ljubljana that night was another frat party.

In the lobby, I was accosted by small talk from an annoyingly perky Remote.

How was I?

“I came here to work, not participate in a roaming frat party,” I vented. “I don’t need to pay someone to tell me who my friends should be.”

She stared at me in shock. “You can quit if you don’t like it,” she said, as if she was delivering some revelation.

“I am well aware.”

I fumed silently the entire walk to the city center, afraid that if I opened my mouth, resentment would pour out and drown the others.

Upon arriving to a spot where food seemed to still be happening, I ran into Brad* —one of the handful of people in the group I would have referred to as “my friend” at that point. He was trying to make a discrete exit, but when he saw me he smiled and altered course. I didn’t mind.

Once, one of the bros in the group asked me what Brad’s deal was because he was never to be seen at social events. “Is he like a vampire or something?” he asked. “I hope so,” I said sincerely.

Perhaps sensing my fragility, Brad guided me to a burger joint where I pleaded with the server to remain open for one last burger. It wound up being 15 more burgers, as the others took notice of our maneuver and commandeered the ordering.

Sustained for the night, Brad and I slipped away from the crowd to walk back to the place which I will only refer to henceforth as “The Prison Camp.” Despite the sorely disappointing introduction to our new home for the next month, I was relieved that, in all the invitations the organizers had extended for Remote Year (which, as far as I’ve gathered, were based on no deeper selection criteria than who they thought they’d want to party with), they made the mistake of inviting a few secret weirdos—the ones who share my disdain for high school antics and a deep apprehension about the next 10 months of our Remote Year.

Adapting to Superimposed Tribal Affiliations Abroad

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 
Overview: What happens when 70 people, all with varying degrees of travel experience—and life experience—drop their lives to move half-way around the world where a community structure is superimposed on them all? The best reality show couldn’t capture the chaos of our first month on Remote Year.

 

It’s been a month, and I miss Brooklyn—or rather, the people in Brooklyn. I miss the ones who have proven their loyalty over the years, and the wild newcomers who cautiously enter my local haunts with wide, mischievous eyes. I didn’t join Remote Year to make friends; I wanted to travel without worrying about logistics, write freely, be enveloped by other cultures, and most of all, I wanted to continue to strengthen the parts of myself that are weak so that I can be a better friend to those I care about. Previously, I’d found that traveling forced me to confront the parts I tend to like to bury; the strangers I met along the way provided a risk-free way to experiment with unleashing those demons honestly. I thought that as long as I was traveling, I’d be growing and bettering myself. I was wrong.

This past month, traveling and living with the 70 strangers who also signed up for Remote Year has been undeniably transformative. But it blindsided me, prompting a regression that pulled me back, mentally, to the bowels of hell that were my high school years.

It’s not because of anything any one person said or did that I’ve felt at times overwhelmed by discontent, channeling my inner pissed off teenager. As far as I’ve been able to gather through introspection, it’s because of the sociological dynamics that occur when you take a group of human beings—any group, of any size—and confine them to the same place, declaring them a tribe. In Prague, the organizers attempted to impose unnatural bonding rituals on us reminiscent of what I can only imagine is some cross between a summer camp ritual and Welcome Week at a fraternity. I never attended either, and it wasn’t really on my bucket list.

One of the main things I learned from my previous travels was how to be alone without being lonely. Such a joy was this newfound ability and all it did for my productivity and overall mental health, that I think in the past year while working from home in NYC, I unknowingly began to cross the line between lone wolf and hermit. I constricted my social circle, squeezing out the leaches, the fools, anyone who would drain the well without ever replenishing it. And I cut out the few rare birds who had the ability to send me spiraling down a well of despair because I cared too much and they couldn’t hold me. I learned how to hold myself.

The first month in Prague, being so far away from home and thrust into a tribal affiliation with 70 strangers from very different worlds… it was far more disorienting of a transition than I’d anticipated. I’d kind of expected them to be like me, whatever that means. What I should have guessed though, was that they would be more like the organizers. After all, if God created man in his own image, why wouldn’t they populate their nomadic utopia with people they felt represented or complemented theirs? One night I sat up at night panicking after coming to the realization that I was likely surrounded by people who were into Greek life, small talk and marketing, wondering if I’d somehow managed to escape into my own personal vision of hell.

I cringed as the competitions for the alpha male slot ensued. Nobody won. Every conversation in a group setting involved someone needing to one-up another. Peacock feathers were on full display as they verbally jousted, vying for… I don’t know what. Status? It’s only been a month and so far there have been five injuries. Cliques seemed to materialize left and right, as every event that required leaving the house, even to go a block, was painstakingly organized on Slack so as to not result in one being “without the group.”

I found myself desperately trying to escape the group, wandering alone and slipping out of organized activities early. It wasn’t that I was trying to escape any individual person, I just needed to get away from the sensory overload of the group. I can’t think when my head is filled with chatter, and I certainly can’t write. So I’d peel away, decline invitations, and feel like I did in high school when I’d skip out to smoke cigarettes in the parking lot and chill out with my best friend.

In doing this, I ultimately realized that there are more people like me here than unlike me. I think the universal primate-impulses that were causing the herding, the loudness, the stupid pissing matches that put people in the hospital—they alienated those of us who had moved past that phase in life and pushed us 180 degrees around the circle to meet on the other side and bond, one by one. Now that it’s clear that it’s not just 70 of us stranded together abroad, that it’s the 70 of us and the 70,000 other people surrounding us at any given point as we move around the world, the ones who pushed the hardest to impose a summer camp template on what we were doing will slowly wander over to explore other ways to live.

I didn’t come here to make friends, but the ones I’ve made so far, I wouldn’t trade.

Now here in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where there are no five-story clubs filled with piss-drunk gap year Brits or droves of trashy tourists, where there is an abundance of quaintness and nature and nonstop sunshine, and you can ride into these things on a bicycle at any moment, everyone is starting to chill out. And I’m coming out of my turtle shell, little by little.