Tag Archives: Slovenia

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.