Category Archives: Beacon Reader

If You See Something, Say Something

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

Overview: I’ve really been enjoying my time with the friends I’ve made here in Serbia. Below is a quirky exchange I had with one of them, illustrating how a symbol can mean two very different things to different people.

When I first came to Belgrade, I stayed on my friend Nikola’s* couch for a week. He was a wonderful host and we had fun talking about cyber politics late into the night and watching hacker documentaries together. With him as my guide, I quickly developed a fondness for Belgrade such that I decided to stay a few more weeks, so I found a cute little apartment to rent.

The night before I was to move over there, we were discussing the logistics of how to get my suitcase over there because we were going to a panel discussion in the afternoon but the landlady wouldn’t get there until 7pm.

“Why don’t I take it in a cab in the morning and just leave it outside, then go to the panel and meet her back there at 7,” I suggested.

“What? You don’t want to leave it outside all day,” Nikola cautioned.

“It’ll be fine, the place is inside a gate, and my suitcase locks anyway.”

“That’s not going to deter anybody.”

“It’s not like someone’s just going to take a whole suitcase if they don’t know what’s in it.”

“Well yeah… they probably will.”

“What! Why would anyone go to all that effort stealing a 20 kilo bag?”

“Because there might be money in it.”

I laughed at the absurdity of the situation that would lead to that happening.

“What? People are sometimes putting money in suitcases,” he said.

“Who do you know who’s found a suitcase full of money here??”

“Well, it’s not common but you never know. Why, what would Americans think was in a suitcase if they saw one sitting there?”

“Probably like a bomb or something.”

Now he was laughing at the absurdity.

“Yeah really, no one would touch it,” I said. “If anything they’d report it to the police.” I recited the routine MTA subway announcement by heart.

“No, we don’t put bombs in suitcases here.”

I’ve been rolling this exchange around in my mind for days, laughing to myself. It’s funny how a symbol like an unattended suitcase can have two completely different mental connotations in different countries, each equally unlikely.

He wound up sending my luggage over in a cab, which I told him would never happen in New York because then for sure you’d never see it again.

Overthinking in Belgrade

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

Overview: Living in Berlin, Istanbul, and Belgrade over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot: about the world, about how it’s broken, about who can begin to fix it and how I might fit into that process. When I start to get this philosophical, I know it’s probably a good time to reflect on that time I drank tequila with Quentin Tarantino.

I am in a strange place. I don’t mean physically, although Belgrade, with its statues of former Yugoslavian leaders centered amidst crumbling grey blocks of apartments, would be a great place to shoot an adaptation of a dystopian sci fi novel.

Mentally, I am in a place I’ve been only a few times before: a place of new beginnings. Sometimes I need to tear everything down and start over, and right now I feel like a baby phoenix waddling around in its ash nest, ready to fly away the moment the right wind current sweeps by.

A few years ago, I met Quentin Tarantino. I had just snuck out of some terrible SXSW tech fair and escaped to the hotel bar when I saw him sitting there by himself. I sat down next to him and, after an internal pep talk, I managed to strike up a conversation with him that I’ll never forget. After discussing his casting selection on Death Proof (one of my favorite movies), I asked him how he decided when it was time to make another movie. He told me that when something grabbed him such that he thought it would be worth spending the next two years of his life on, he knew. We did shots of Avion Reposado at two in the afternoon and he bid me adieu.

Dorothy got Glenda the good witch; I got the cinema king of carnal violence. And I may as well have just clicked my lucky cowboy boots together because I knew it all along: time is truly the most valuable currency. The best work of the artists of the world is not motivated primarily by money, but by the ever-present ticking clock of our own mortality.

I entered the media business when I was nine years old delivering newspapers for 10 cents a piece. Seventeen years later, I founded my own publication. It didn’t work out how I hoped it would, but I learned from the experience. I’ve moved past the disappointments and stopped thinking in hindsight; I’m ready for the next two-year (or more) commitment, and I am getting close to figuring it out what it will be.

When I was little, my mom used to play the “hot or cold” game with me. She’d think of an object in the room and guide me to it with temperature words while I wandered, aimlessly at first, and with more purpose as I got warmer. I’ve since internalized the process. I don’t yet know what it is that I’m looking for, but living in Berlin, Istanbul and Belgrade over the past few months, I’m sure I’m getting hot, and I know that I have to keep hunting.

I’ve been finding breadcrumbs my whole life in the form of special people. They are the seeds of possibility for a better world, hidden among the greedy weeds and complacent trees. They are rare, but they are everywhere, and I’m getting better at recognizing them when I see them: the quiet rebels, the ones who have always done what they were “supposed to do,” all the while knowing the game was rigged, the aimless, the lost, the ones who are waiting for something to happen, to be activated; The underappreciated people with underutilized or misused talents; The dissidents. Finding them and realizing that there are so many others out there who can see the problems clearly but are still able to enjoy the present… they give me hope enough to work toward making something new and unconventional again.

The more I travel to various places and learn about the various problems plaguing different areas of the world, the more massive the oppressive forces seem. There’s something very wrong in the world. And yeah, maybe it’s always been that way and life isn’t fair et cetera. But with rampant governmental corruption perpetuating the problematic distribution of global wealth, I predict that soon we will all be forced to change the way we live. I’m afraid for the future, and I don’t understand how others are not. I don’t want to deal directly with people who bury their heads in the sand and make things worse anymore. I want to work with the people who can also acknowledge that things are fucked up, to try to change them if we can, and laugh about them if we can’t.

I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but it will involve increasing international connectivity for the sake of global literacy about the various realities unfolding simultaneously across the world every day, and how they all relate to each other. It will involve harnessing latent creativity, and defibrillating those hyper-intelligent minds slipping through the cracks because the present markets favor the mediocre and benign. Whatever it is that I decide to do, I’ll keep traveling, keep hunting, turning over every rock to find the people who can illuminate the big picture. And if I can’t do those things, then I’ll go live in the jungle with a flock of parrots until the end of the world.

Recalculating my Trajectory

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

Overview: It’s been three glorious weeks since I said sayonara to Remote Year, and I regret nothing. Some of you have been asking: What happened? Why did I leave? Where am I going next? Ok, here’s the short version.

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Starting over is never easy, but it does get easier. I know this because I’ve had to do it a lot. I moved five times before my brain could even form accessible memories. Then I moved when I was three, ten, 16 (my senior year of high school), 17 (for college), 21 (to NYC) and so many times over the past three years that the line between moving and traveling has ceased to exist. The early decisions weren’t mine to make, but in being forced to abandon everything familiar and start anew so many times, I gained awareness of a trait that many people don’t realize the extent to which it exists in us all: adaptability.

Now when I start over, I’m not subject to the same trauma/drama I was starting sixth grade as the new girl. I don’t wonder if I’ll be able to find a cozy dwelling with strong WiFi, or if ever make friends again; I know these things are inevitabilities.

Having an awareness of one’s adaptability also makes it much easier to decide when to stay and when to go. When you know that things will work out in the next chapter, because they did before—even when you were nestled in a pit of despair and thought you’d never laugh again—you’re more inclined to say “enough” and move on when an environment is toxic. You’re less likely to be bound by the fear of the unknown that keeps so many people from removing themselves from oppressive situations, especially when others are benefiting from keeping them there and will do things to make the alternative seem much scarier than it is.

A lot of people have asked me why I left Remote Year, and while there’s a much longer story that details the utter shit show that myself and several others experienced over the course of our time in the program, it essentially comes down to the fact that I left because I am well-equipped at A) recognizing a toxic environment when I am in one, and B) removing myself from it swiftly. I’ve also gotten pretty good at baiting arrogant people into removing me from the hellish microcosms they create, thereby eliminating the legal/financial/social burdens that can sometimes accompany an act of quitting on one’s own accord.

Basically friends, you forked over your hard-earned money to support my year-long journey, and once my journalist nose told me something was foul in the top tiers of Remote Year, I wasn’t going to spend another dime of it on the frat boy frauds who are running it. It took them six weeks to notice I’d stopped paying them and do something about it, so by my count that reimbursed the $3k “non-refundable” deposit I put down when all I got was a stupid t-shirt. So yes, I was officially kicked out, but I didn’t really give them a choice.

To answer the other question I’ve been getting repeatedly, no I’m not coming home just because Remote Year didn’t work out. I’d hoped initially that Remote Year would be a logical facilitator of two of the things I love most: writing and traveling. It turned out it was the antithesis of both those things, but I know know to do them on my own. I’ve done it before and I will do it again. I’m not sure how, at this point, or where exactly I’ll go. But I am sure that I will come back to the US from the other side eventually.

I won’t sugarcoat it: having to recalibrate my steering at this point has taken a lot of energy out of me, and my funds are running short. I’m taking a flight to Turkey tomorrow and I only have a place booked for the next three days, but I’ll figure it out. That’s the fun part—”the journey is the destination,” remember? Being forced to leave Remote Year was the best possible outcome for my life, and the past three weeks I’ve spent in Berlin have catalyzed more emotional and intellectual growth than any amount of time with Remote Year.

Now, I’m working on an article to ensure that anyone else who’s tempted by the too-good-to-be-true description on the website and all the fluff PR the founders periodically pump out knows exactly what they’re signing up for. I’m also working on editing a great book written by a pretty kickass woman, doing genetic research for a pretty noble biotech company (who have both been super patient while I got my shit together after this nightmare episode), and I’ll continue chronicling my journey for you all.

There are miles of stories to be told between where I left off and where I am now. I’ve been to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, to the most epic Slovenian wedding in history, and now here I sit in Berlin: bags packed, ready to explore Istanbul for the first time. Then onward into the rest of the world, doing it my way, the right way: respectfully, responsibly, thoughtfully, and with the intent to leave the places and people I encounter better than I found them.

Killing my Joie de Vivre (Part III)

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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 planning my escape from Remote Year. As of last Monday, I’ve been officially kicked out of the program. It was hard work but I feel very accomplished. You may start to understand why after reading Part III, the final segment of a three-part series on the recent attacks on my joie de vivre.

 

I decided this would be a three-part series because I wrote the first draft all at once and it was really long. But every time I looked at the doc to refine and publish the last section, I had to turn away. Now I’m far enough removed from the situation that I can reflect and share—and I need to before I do anything else. (So thanks, to all of you to whom I owe emails and essays and articles and edits, for understanding.)

I last left you in Ljubljaja, Slovenia, while on my way to the coworking space, I’d received the news that two of my friends, Rob Gross and Marci Barclay, had been killed.

I pulled my sunglasses down over my eyes, as if it would prevent the transmission of my emotional disturbance to the cheery people sitting around me at the café, tossed some euros on the table and left. I rode a community bike to the coworking space feeling completely numb, like my consciousness was somewhere far away and my body was on autopilot, pulling up just in time to watch Heather* snag the last available bike parking stall. She was oblivious that I was behind her, but in my mind all I could think was “she would.” I released my grip on the bike and it toppled to the sidewalk as I stood there, optionless. I didn’t know what the fee was if someone picked it up and sold it for parts, and in the moment I didn’t care. All I could think about was calling my best friend.

Finally I wheeled it over to the coworking space, set it on the wall downstairs, and approached the first person I saw. Lying on a couch near the door was a Remote Year “employee” who no one had ever seen do anything resembling work.

“Are you leaving soon?” I asked urgently, thinking he may have been perched by the door waiting to go do something

“No,” he said dismissively, as if I’d asked if he wanted lemon in his water.

“There weren’t any bike spots left so I left it downstairs. Can you move it for me? I need to make a phone call right now.”

He looked taken aback that I, essentially his client, had asked him to do something. I told him my friends were dead. I think he thought I was joking or something so I took my sunglasses off, and when he saw how puffy my eyes were he scrambled to his feet and sputtered some condolences. I thanked him and went into the phone room, threw all my stuff in a beanbag tucked into the corner, and called Savannah.

She was the first friend I made in Chesaning, the little farm town in middle-of-nowhere Michigan where my mother grew up. I was picking up sticks in the yard so they wouldn’t get caught in my grandpa’s lawnmower, and her basketball rolled across the street. I tossed it back and she asked me if I wanted to go Roller Blading, and then we were best friends forever. Ten years later, we moved to NYC together. I met Marci two summers ago when the two came to pick me up from the airport. Marci had become Savannah’s best friend in Chesaning ever since she moved back from NYC. As soon as I met her, I understood why. They were both too big for that town, but at least they had each other there.

I moved to Chesaning from Gainesville, Florida when I was 16, my senior year of high school. It was a shitty situation and I was an angry teenager. A lot of people were assholes to me, the new girl. Rob Gross never was. Savannah and I would ride around the corn fields with him and Nick Lee listening to Deftones and escaping our small town lives. I treasured the moments of freedom in that time of endless angst. When I came back to visit, now a big city girl, Rob was just as kind and open-minded as he’d always been.

The last memory I’ll ever have of us all together was when we all went canoeing down the Shiawasee river. It was the perfect Michigan summer day. We put a case of beer and a fifth of Fireball in the canoes and set sail, super classy Michigan style. At that time I’d just spent a year going around the world, and no synthetic tourist attraction could ever replace the bootstrapped charm of our antics that day. We got drunk and laughed our asses off and everyone fell out of the canoes at some point. When we got back to land, we rolled in the grass and looked at the clouds waiting to get picked up. Rob passed out in a chair and some friends tried to see how many things they could stack on him without waking him up.

Me, Rob, Marci, Chris, and Savannah, setting sail on the sparkling Shiawasee River.
On the open water, not a care in the world—especially not about my muddy feet.
Me and Marci, and amber waves of grain.
Me and Rob.
In the ranger. Not driving it, don’t worry.
Me and Savannah.
Sleeping Rob <3

I don’t know what level of professionality my future holds, but if I can’t enjoy some country cabrewing from time to time, I’ll know it’s time to reevaluate. Marci and Rob supported what I’m trying to do in the world, and they brought me back down to earth and reminded me to appreciate the simple things in life.

After two missed calls, Savannah woke up and answered. I forgot it was only 8am in Michigan. Groggily, she greeted me and said she knew the random Skype number calling her repeatedly would be me. She sounded catatonic, like she was all cried out from the previous night. She was somewhere far away from the reality that her best friend in town had died in a car accident—again. When we first met as kids, she was recovering from the loss of her best friend at the time, Erica Burtch. All the years I’ve known her, she’s kept a framed picture of Erica in her room.

The thought of Savannah having to live with having lost yet another close friend, on top of them being gone… it was too much.

She told me she ran into Marci at the bank the afternoon of that fateful day and Marci had invited her to go cruising around. Savannah said she felt something was off, and told her “not today.”

By 4:30 pm, Marci and Rob were dead. They’d swerved over into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with an SUV. They were killed instantly. The girl Savannah used to babysit when we were kids, also named Savannah, was also in the car and was in critical condition in the hospital, having been helped out of the shattered rear window by a nurse who just happened to have witnessed the accident before the car ignited. The driver of the SUV, also named Savannah, and her eight-year-old girl were injured as well.

I sobbed; I didn’t care if anyone heard me. I sobbed for Marci and Rob, and for the narrowly-evaded future that my Savannah had nearly succumbed to.

She told me there were pictures up on Mlive, but she hadn’t brought herself to look at them yet. I wish I hadn’t. The accident had been photographed from 20 different angles. Marci’s Grand Prix looked completely compacted from the tip of the bumper to the back of the front seats. My brain was flooded with the images of what must have happened to the bodies of my friends, once carefree and bursting with life, crunched out of existence between strips of metal.

In this age of click bait, the old simile takes on a new meaning: “Like a car crash, you can’t look away.” I stared at those damn pictures for days, wallowing in the horror. I won’t link it here, you can search them yourself if you want to know what’s now burned into my mind forever. But if you do, think about what value there is, if any, in having this content hosted by a local news site. You can never un-see things.

I told Savannah she had to get out of that town.

There’s a culture there of drinking and driving like nowhere else I’ve ever seen in the world. “Road drinking,” they call it, the prime social activity for the cool kids. There are no cabs there, no public transportation, no startup entrepreneurs to build an app even attempting to fix the problem. It’s especially fun for those under 21 who can’t drink in bars—they spend all night out driving around with a case in the trunk and pulling over in cornfields to pee. I did it too when I was in high school. Everyone acted like it was as normal and safe as going to the movies. With all cornfields there, the irrigation necessitates that all the roads are all lined with ditches, the equivalent of driving on a rail-less bridge. With all those factors combined, it’s no wonder so many people die in car accidents in that region. The law enforcement doesn’t help—they just throw kids in jail and give them DUIs, even though they’re just living according to what they know. The culture has to change, but with all the poverty of the auto industry collapse, cultural programs are the last place resources will be appropriated in mid-Michigan. The change has to come from within, but when you’re just driving home from the bar on the back roads like you have every other weekend of your life, what’s one more weekend—especially when coping with tragedy.

Once off the phone, I went to the balcony to chain-smoke. Ira*, that magnificent creature (memory refresher: one of the Slovenian owners of the coworking space), enveloped me in a giant hug. She looked at me with big eyes and, thinking about it now, it was the first time in a while I’d experienced something that I didn’t know was missing from my normal everyday interactions with the small talk and fake plastic smiles of the Remote Year organizers and most participants: Empathy. I realized there wasn’t anyone in the program I actually wanted to talk with about what had happened, and only two people I was willing to talk with. But Ira saw me. She saw what was going on in my head and she refused to let me sit there and suffer.

“Anything I could say right now would be stupid,” she concluded. “Do you want a beer?” I laughed through my tears and accepted her act of generosity.

Jenny*, my New Yorker friend I’d spent the most time with up until then, kindly sat with me until I felt bad for her having to be around me, and said I was ok and let her get back to her work. Brad* was being a vampire back at the prison dorms, hiding from the daylight as usual. Aman* escaped with me to smoke for a bit, but I didn’t want to bum him or anyone else out. I didn’t know who to need.

I was supposed to teach a writing course in the coworking space that evening and I couldn’t think straight. I felt like everyone was pretending to not watch me, but I was secretly their show for the day, their small-town gossip. A few tried to console me and offered an ear if I wanted to talk, but being in that environment just made it so much worse. I left to get water and ran into Ira again.

“Hey” she said, pulling me aside, “you know you don’t have to do this class tonight. I can send an email out and nobody will think anything, they’ll understand.”

“I don’t know I haven’t decided yet, maybe I can…”

“Come on, don’t do the American thing. You don’t have to power through your pain. Just talk a walk in the forest, go behind the train tracks and follow the path up to the church. Give yourself a break.” She told me she lost someone too, and that she knew what it felt like. That was empathy. I hugged her, grateful that there was actually one person here, halfway around the world from everyone else, who could make me feel better without making me feel worse.

I did wind up doing the American thing though. I figured if the point of the class was to teach people to write, I could at least give a short preface and sit them down with an assignment if I needed to duck out. As it happened, my love of writing, and of sharing writing with other people, managed to distract me from the events of the day, and I made it through the class with only a few space-outs.

Afterward, I went to the jazz lounge next door and a few of my pupils came and bought me whiskey. The cool Australian chick I’d been wanting to get to know since the first week told me I was a legend for carrying on as planned, that she wouldn’t have been able to. She stayed with me while I got wasted and we listened to a Slovenian bluegrass band and watched little kids dance their hearts out. She didn’t pry or pretend to know me, she just was with me, and that helped.

When we got back to the prison dorm, it was thunder-storming, and I couldn’t wait to collapse into Brad. But when I went up to his dorm, I heard voices and realized he was with someone, his “drunken mistake.” I walked over and interrupted their conversation. I asked if he’d checked his messages, and he hadn’t. She made well-intended but painful small talk with me while he brought himself up to speed. I thought surely he would drop everything to comfort me in my state, but he just got quiet. He let me leave them as they were to go cry into the rain alone, and he left for France the next day.

I wrote this to myself in text edit the next day and found it again a few weeks later:

I am closing the tabs. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do to change what’s happened. Looking at the accident pictures won’t help. Looking at their facebook pages won’t make me closer to the friends I wish I could comfort in person right now. All I can do is continue living my own fragile life for as long as I have it.

I’ll always remember the clouds that day and the way they touched my life.

After all that, I decided I had to get out of town for a little while. I went to Piran with Jenny, and then to the Netherlands and Paris by myself. Once removed from Remote Year, I realized what a weird little microcosm of forced fun and pseudo-friendship it was. It only got weirder when I got back.

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.