Category Archives: Remote Year

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.

New Skin for a New Life

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

Overview: The human skin cell has a life cycle of approximately two to three weeks. Ten days into my year-long adventure, I’ve fully shed my old skin and am growing a new layer for the new version of myself to wear.

I’d forgotten what it was like to get dirty—not New York City grime-sticking-to-your-face-that-you-have-to-scrape-off-with-your-fingernails-in-the-shower, dirty. But filthy from a day of intense adventuring while discovering new things that inspire, horrify and delight you, then asking yourself why and pulling these threads out to examine them like a monkey fishing with a stick in a termite mound. Travel grime is different from monotonous life grime. It is the debris that coats your skin throughout the night and day so that when you run your hand over your shoulder, the dead lucky cells that got to experience this moment in time for their fleeting two week existence ball up and tumble away to make room for the new person you’re becoming.

Sitting atop the wall of the Vyšehrad, the old castle in my backyard in Prague.Olympus EP5

Shedding my first layer of travel skin, away go the Moscow mules that liberated themselves through my pores while I danced to the frantic beats of Czech industrial techno in the smokey basement of a District 7 club until 4am; the smoke and pheromones of the two Italian men who serenaded me throughout the cab ride back to their apartment in the New Town and reminded me what I missed most about Europe until the sun rose, cooled by wind from the racing cab back home to my quiet neighborhood, pressed into my clean white hotel sheets while I slept for an hour and half before getting the call to run to the train station; the intense summer sun threatening to burn all the way through a country town once ravaged by plague, and the deathly cold air of the castles and churches housing calcified skulls silently screaming “mememto mori” at you through their hollow eye sockets. Away goes the borrowed sunscreen I put on that morning, and finally, the top coat of pollen from the thousands of new plants flying through windows greeting me whether I liked it or not on the wrong train back to Prague.

On a bridge in Kunta Hora, a preview of what’s inside “the bone church” (photo essay TK)Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Last night when I came home to my little attic room, it felt like home rather than a dream for the first time in the 10 days I’ve been abroad. The paranoia prompted by last Saturday’s morning terror walk has morphed to the cool vigilance of a body on alarm ‘standby’ mode, being alert but not afraid. The Czech people I’ve met have both snubbed and enchanted me, the later far more than the former, but the former far less so than the average New Yorker (even myself) would do to a stranger stopping them in the night to ask for directions in a foreign language.

On June 11th, I took my morning coffee up from the breakfast hall to read Kafka in the garden, when Dragona, the desk clerk of my hotel—the nice one, not the mean guy who scolds us for taking breakfast dishes back to our rooms—came outside.

“I know it’s your birthday so I wanted to give you this.” She thrust the box into my hands. I looked at it for a minute, confused.

“It’s not my birthday,” I laughed, handing it back to her, but she made no motion to accept it.

“Maybe I mixed up your room number again.”

“Well here, give this to whoever’s birthday it is.”

“No keep it, I’ll get them another one.” She smiled mischievously at me retreated back to the desk. I opened my book again and imagined K. fussing at the inquisition in his living room for a few minutes, then Dragona reemerged.

“I figured it out. In your country you write month first then day, but here we do opposite.” It was true: today, June 11, was the inverse of my November 6 birthday. Once again I tried to give back the mistaken chocolates and again she refused.

“No, keep. It’s your birthday here today.”

Sometimes when you’re so far away, the smallest of gestures mean the world. So to celebrate, I gave myself the gift of beginning the process of shedding my old life and throwing myself at the mercy of the travel gods once again. While initially I was concerned, I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter that there are more Americans in my close proximity than I would usually prefer while traveling—it won’t stop me from doing what I can’t help but doing and exploring all the strange and unfamiliar aspects of new places, sometimes to the discomfort of others who would very much prefer to remain in their turtle shell of familiarity among the novel. I’ve fallen back into my mode of being the one who endures the journey, calm and collected, when everyone else is distraught by the question marks and feel compelled to ask a million questions no one knows the answer to instead of being useful and trying to figure it out themselves. The ones who haven’t will let go of their old skin too, eventually.

Red pill or blue pill? At the Kunta Hora train station.Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Fully acclimated, I’m starting to think I’m much better at being European than I am at being American, or maybe I’m just better at being me here. I’ve been smiling secret smiles at the little quirks that others may take as a point of frustration: that there’s no wall mount for the shower head in our hotel; the lack of prohibition of every kind of smoking in all establishments; the slow (by comparison to NYC, but everything is) service in restaurants; the refusal of some Czech people to speak English and the resulting confusion that unfolds and ropes in nearby bilingual strangers; the heat of a windowless train car; the uneven cobblestone; the subway doors that don’t open automatically—EVEN, even, the hotel WiFi going out periodically so that I am forced to read a book instead. They’re all just more puzzles to solve that lubricate the chronically underused parts of my brain.

I got this.

After all, as Richard Grant recently wrote in an op-ed on Aeon Magazine:

Travel enables us to see our own culture more clearly, by contrasting it against others. And here we must make a distinction between travel, which takes the traveller out of his or her comfort zone, and tourism, which strives to maximize comfort and familiarity in a foreign setting. A good travel experience is not relaxing, but stimulating and taxing. The senses are on full alert. The mind struggles to keep up with the bombardment of unfamiliar data, the linguistic difficulties, the puzzles and queries and possible threats.

Ten days in, I’m physically changing back into my traveling self. My calves are expanding and my boobs are shrinking. I’ve shed five pounds of my New York City hibernation fat. I’m remembering that I am a hunter just as much as I am a gatherer, and that I can find anything I’m looking for in this world, even if I don’t quite know what it is yet. I’m sleeping normally again, which for me involves exploring in the afternoon, working in the evening, taking a nap and hunting for new delights until the light of dawn. I don’t feel guilty for it here.

The delights are everywhere: Czech coffee is served on a silver platter with a shot of water; the guy riding his bicycle while smoking a Sherlock Holmes pipe; knock-off snacks named “Love” instead of “Dove” and “Capri Sonne” instead of “Capri Sun”; the little poodle that stopped to pee in the post-rain grass while balancing completely on its front paws, and its owners amused face when she saw the contempt for this act of canine bourgeois behavior that I didn’t bother to conceal on mine; finding my local grocery store and discovering produce so fresh there’s dirt in the lettuce and $2.50 rosé; the mystery of why every third man here is named ‘Jan’—and how it’s apparently “the same name” as ‘Honza’, and learning from a Slovak couple over a midnight spliff that these Jans are known for wearing socks with their sandals.

I didn’t think I would ever miss the weird way the top of my feet itch after a day of walking until I’m ready to collapse. But I did. I missed it all. This is how I’m meant to live—filling my mind with new observations and getting fucking dirty all the time while doing it. Once home, I drew a lukewarm bubble bath and submerged myself in it, wiggling out of my old skin along with all the well-earned grime so I can steep my new self it all over again.

Czeching in from Prague

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

Overview: On how my preconceived notions of Prague (which were formed mostly by Euro bros and the movie Hostel) and the Remote Year program matched up to the reality when I arrived. Apparently I can’t go two days without having an altercation with a creepy weirdo. 

PRAGUE, Czech Republic —  I didn’t know much about Prague before I decided to accept the offer to join Remote Year. Last time I was in Europe, a few people recommended it to me as a destination—mainly Euro bros making small talk during one-off bar conversations. They’d nostalgically reference a wild weekend with a glassy eyed look halfway between a smile and a cringe.

I was skeptical, as I always am, of the organizers’ decision to bypass Western Europe and begin the journey from the Czech Republic, especially when they refused to disclose where we’d be staying until after we put down the $3k deposit for the program. Brushing aside thoughts of the opening scene of Hostel (2005) where the optimistic tourists step off the train platform into a post-communist wasteland, I was happy to escape my own increasingly embarrassing police state to be anywhere in Europe.

The day I arrived, my imagination’s portrait of Prague (frat boys vomiting onto the side of a Gothic church as Gargoyles looked on helplessly) was painted over by cheerful pastel buildings, quaint European coffee shops, and tired old grannies shuffling around. My room, located in the attic of a hotel on the edge of the Vyšehrad castle and burial ground, was the perfect vision of European literary solitude.

Kafka and Einstein were rumored to have stayed here.

I took a bubble bath, wondering if Einstein’s rump had once touched the same tub as mine, and went to bed. In the morning I picked through the standard European breakfast assortment of sandwich meats, cheeses, and hard-boiled eggs, passing over a tray of pickles and other vinegar-soaked things. A cheerful Remote Year organizer popped in to greet me and hand over a packet of information about public transport, a SIM card, and the keys to a co-working space.

So, everything was fine. I was here, I was comfortable, this whole thing wasn’t a ploy by the Russian mafia to sell videos of my torture to European businessmen. I walked over to the co-working space where more hungover Remote Year staffers came in and greeted me with a full-on summer camp vibe that drove me to immediately bond with the next New Yorker I met.

Exhausted, I went back to my attic sanctuary to nap, but was greeted by the insanity dreams of REM rebound. I knew them well from my college insomnia days of Ambien experimentation. When you don’t sleep soundly for a while, as one tends not to do while in a metal box careening thousands of miles through the sky, your brain makes up for the lack of REM sleep by cramming all the dreams you’d been deprived of for days into a burst of grotesque chaos from the moment your eyes close. I woke up in a cold sweat with searing menstrual cramps and wandered downstairs in a haze where some of the other people in my program were waiting for me to go to dinner.

I wanted be jovial during the meal, but the guy sitting across from me was anxiously tapping his foot. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t focus on anything else, and kept inverting words in my sentences.

“Hey can you stop… -“

“-Doing what I’m doing?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of driving me insane.”

“That’s funny because not doing it makes me feel the way that you feel when I do it.”

I glared at him over my giant Czech beer, recalling an article I’d once read about a “neuropsychiatric disorder” called misophonia where people are acutely distressed by the repetitive sounds or motions of others. How ironic that society should deem being bothered by someone else’s annoying locomotor tick was a “disorder” and not the tick itself. After a while some other Remote Year participants sat down to join us and the table began to shake once more. I must have looked strained because the leg shaker asked me what was wrong. I told him he was doing it again, he denied it, and the girl next to me chimed in.

“Oh, it’s probably my husband. He just has so much energy that he can’t get rid of,” she bragged. A searing cramp stabbed my insides. Two leg shakers at a picnic table were more than I could handle, so I called the waiter, paid discretely, and excused myself.

I was still jet lagged and in REM rebound, and a nightmare jarred me awake at 3:30am that night. The sun was already starting to rise, so I figured I may as well watch it and test out my new camera. I boarded a tram toward the Charles Bridge and hopped off to walk along the river to the entrance. It was here that I realized my misstep, as my original vision of Prague unfolded like a prophecy before my eyes.

First a sputter, then a steady stream of drunk frat boys swirled around me spouting the occasional “ciao, bella” and things I was glad I could not understand. It was, after all, 4:30am on a Friday night, rather than 4:30 on a Saturday morning. Who did I expect to be out at that time? Birdwatchers?

Sigh. This is why I don’t wake up early.

But, I thought, I was going to make it worth it, because I was finally back in Europe, damnit. I forged on to the entrance of the Charles Bridge, which was just past the source: Karlovy Lázně, a 15th century spa converted into the largest club in Central Europe.

Once past the infected well of unsuccessful Romeos, the bridge was relatively peaceful, though hardly worth what I had to trudge through to get there. A guy slid up to walk in pace with me said what I presume he thought was a smooth pickup line in Czech. “Sorry, I don’t speak Czech,” I said. He confidently pasted some English words together with all the skill of a small child with a glue stick, but was interrupted by a victorious grunt from a man up ahead, who apparently was his friend. I smiled and nodded, then pretended to be drawn to something on the other side of the bridge and slipped away.

Finally, I found a staircase and slipped under the bridge to a spot I’d read on a photography blog was the least crowded place to watch the sun rise over the Charles Bridge. There was no one around but some birds. Finally, peace.
I took out my camera and tested various settings. How long did it take the damn sun to rise? I tried to remember that this was what I came here to do, peacefully watch the sunrise, and impatiently smoked some cigarettes.

Here are the fruits of my labor:

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

I was going to head back but figured I’d give Karlovy Lázně a little more time to empty out, so I went in search of the famous Lenin Wall. The light was doing all kinds of beautiful things bouncing off buildings, so I captured a few more views that caught my attention. After all, I though, I may never see the morning light again after my jet lag subsides.

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

I stopped and noticed the moon, and all of a sudden I felt strange, like a nocturnal tarsier under a flashlight beam. Everything around me looked strange. Time for bed.

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Determined to knock off all the touristy things I wanted to do so I could live like a normal European for the remainder of my time there, I forged on to the Lenin Wall. I didn’t even hear the guy following me until he was right behind me.

Once I became aware of him, I slowed my pace to let him pass, but he slowed his step as well. I looked at him, and he immediately asked me if I speak English, in English though he was clearly Czech. It was a loaded question, and actually it wasn’t a question at all. It really meant: “I know you’re not from here so I’m going to force you to talk with me because I have the power in this situation.” I looked around on the street and there was nobody else out. Fuck. Could I not make it two days without getting myself into one of these situations? I shook my head no and crossed the street. He crossed the street in front of me. I stopped. He stopped. I looked at him and glared. He looked at me and smiled.

I didn’t know what else to do so I brushed past him. It was a really long street so I could either keep going or go back the way I came. I didn’t like it that my back was to him, and that I didn’t have my pepper spray, or my knife, or my kitty keychain, or anything else I could use as a weapon. Actually, my camera was pretty heavy. Could definitely crack a skull with it if need be. “Baby,” he called after me. “Hey baby, I want to kiss your pussy.”

Faster faster faster but don’t run because it’s a straightaway and he could probably outrun me. I ducked into a side street in the direction that I thought was the Lenin wall, but I didn’t really know where I was going and I didn’t want to check my map. He followed me still, yelling vulgar threats. I felt more vulnerable than usual with a thousands dollars worth of camera equipment on my side realizing I didn’t even have the ability to call the police because the SIM they gave me didn’t have phone credit. Nothing drives home the realities of gender disparity like not being able to simply walk down a street alone, being at peace with oneself and the world without it being shattered by some drunk creep in need of a power trip. Finally when I was far enough ahead, I turned around to see if he was still following me. His pants were down. I gave him the finger and ran away.

The Lenin wall was stupid. Amateur, I thought, compared to any old wall in Brooklyn.

Yeah, Fuck Putin. How creative.

I was paranoid that the guy was going to come back, but there were other people milling about now. I hope he tripped over his pants.

I crossed the Charles Bridge back, fuming to myself. Yeah, that’ll teach me to go for a walk by myself in the morning. Who did I think I was, trying to be autonomous in the world. Where was my male keeper, little lamb in a faraway land? I passed some carefree teens sitting on the bridge, and I envied the moment they were having, which looked so much more fun than mine.

Olympus EP5

I passed the world’s supposedly oldest astronomical clock on the way back to the train. Even that looked lame to me at the moment. But whatever. Great, I saw all the things.

Olympus EP5

Later that day, there was a Remote Year BBQ at a riverside bar. I was two hours late. I didn’t need to play stupid icebreaker games with 75 people. I needed to be alone in my room for two more hours. I felt slightly traumatized, but fine. Ultimately, I was glad to be a little shaken up. Better a harmless misstep early to get my head on straight than carrying on carelessly and making a big mistake later. No more being a tourist like this was my first rodeo. I needed to acclimate, figure out how to just be again. I was still moving in hyperdrive from NYC. It’s time to relax, learn how to feel vibes again, to sense my environment, not just perceive it.

The next day, I pulled an all-nighter working on a consulting project. After it was done, I got daydrunk at noon with my one Remote Year friend and had a blast. I walked home through a botanical garden. I found parrots, and a live invertebrate exhibition run by some cool nerds. I wandered into an antique store and had a funny conversation with a local guy with a mohawk. He gave me a 33% discount on the knife I bought without me even attempting to haggle. I felt better, at home, the way I want to feel when I travel.

The sad thing is, I feel like I did something wrong, but if there’s a lesson here, I’m struggling to see it. Don’t be a woman? Don’t forget your pepper spray the first time you walk in an unfamiliar though heavily touristy area? Sleep in? Yeah, sounds about right. Nap time for me.