Tag Archives: Too many Americans in Remote YEar

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.