Archive for the 'Female Travel' Category



A Surf Board, A Cigarette and An Invitation to South Africa: Another Strange Exchange With Italian Men

Someone else's surf board, packed up...

Only 2 hours left to kill at the Fiumicino airport, where I’ve been sitting since 10am, waiting for my flight to Cairo—expensive Wifi day pass and four shots of espresso, getting my panini fix on.

They say you can’t tell anything about a place by its airport, but I say fuck that—two weeks in Albania, and the Rome airport feels exciting! diverse! worldly! Overweight American tourists! The Moldovan soccer team! A family of African royalty! I realize I haven’t seen any black people in two weeks, and only 1.5 Asians. I’ve barely seen any real denim or leather for that matter, and all the luxurious curly manes and hip lil mohawks make me giggle.

So I walk around making my mental list of goodbyes to the Western world: goodbye hipsters, goodbye tailored suits, goodbye potable tap water, goodbye cute boy across the cafe I keep making eyes at but am too chicken-shit realistic chicken-shit to talk to.

Heave my way through check-in, 18 kilos lighter and I step outside for a bit of fresh air cigarette. Dude’s standing there, big ole bag and a surfboard. Taking a picture with his iPhone. Smile and make the universal hand gesture for—“You want me to take a picture of you?”

He smiles back. “No, no, I just take a picture for my friend.” Smiles again. “Where you are from?”

California, which he approves of, because of the good waves, big waves. Yes, but cold, I say. Cold in Italy too. Where am I going? Cairo for a few days. And then? South Africa?

“No, close.” I smile, laugh. “Well, not close at all. Cambodia.”

“Cambodia?”

“Near Thailand.”

Blank look and a quick geography lesson, and the light flashes in his eyes. “Ah, Cambogia!” Scrutinizing squint: “But you are alone?” I nod. “No family, no boyfriend—“there, he said it—“Why?”

I shrug, laugh: “Who’s gonna come to Cambodia with me?”

“Me!”

And I laugh harder. “Oh yeah?”

“Yes, but first, South Africa.” He goes there twice a year, can’t stand the cold of an Italian winter—he’ll go for a month, come back for Christmas, head down there again. He’ll surf and live on the beach and I’m sure, I can tell by the lines in his face, not wear sunscreen.

“You like, you can come,” he suggests. I laugh again. I think he likes it.

Where have I been in Italy? Did I like it? Why didn’t I go to the Amalfi Coast—that’s where he’s from, he could have shown me around.

“I didn’t know you,” I smile, reminding him of the obvious.

He nods at the gray day, misting and cool. He hates the cold. I nod at the surfboard, “I can tell.”

Sleep-deprivation hunger blur gives a kick and I need one more espresso—just one more espresso—before the flight. That and he’s right—it’s cold, and what at first felt good now just feels… cold.

So I nod, say some kind of noncommittal goodbye, go to turn away. “Wait!” he calls out.

He opens his wallet, pulls out a card. “I am Lucio,” points to the name on the card, “That’s me. Next time you come to Italy, we go to Amalfi Coast, I show you my town, you meet my family.”

I smile, nod, put the card in my back pocket. “All right Lucio. I’ll be seeing you.”

Cause we all can dream, right?

Advertisements

Three Odd Interactions With The Men of Gjirokastra

1. Stone/dirt path scramble, muddy Converse and I’m chasing rubble: mad crumbled buildings in this town, falling like trash down the mountainside, and the urban explorer/trespasser in me can’t get enough.

Guy sitting on his stoop—track suit and cheap sunglasses, smoking what smells like weed. Give him a nod, which I can’t tell if he returns.

He watches me as I tromp past, up the hill and he whistles—makes a time-out signal with his hands, which I take to mean, “Don’t go traipsing on my fucking property, girl.” But he does it with a smile, so I smile back, and when I walk past again he says, “You speak Deutsch, American?”

“American.”

He nods. “Nice castle,” and juts his chin towards the stone mass in the distance.

“Very nice,” I reply.

He gestures whatever he’s smoking towards me. I shake my head no. “Have a good day.”

“Goodbye.”

2. Cobbled road in the old town, forty-five degree angle and I’m taking it slow. Pass an old dude I saw down in the new town—has one of the most intense shoe-polish toupees I’ve ever seen, hanging over his forehead like a black awning. I recognize him and he recognizes me—our eyes meet and I smile, nod.

He smiles and asks me something in Albanian.

I shake my head.

He sighs. “Deutsch, Italiana…”

“Ah, ah,” I answer, understanding. “American.”

“Detroit?”

“San Francisco.”

He nods and throws a barrage of Albanian at me. I shake my head again.

He points to his ring finger, then me.

I laugh, wave my hands no.

A woman appears at the window of the meat market we’re standing in front of, her face obscured by the glare on the glass. Our eyes meet and I smile.

3. “Can I sit down?”

I’m scrounging the last sunlight of the day, before it slips behind that mountain and casts everything in a funny pink glow. I look up from my book and nod.

His name is George, he served me my espresso in the sinking light—he asks me where I’m from and if I have friends in Gjirokastra.

“No. But I’ve only been here one day.”

He asks me if I have a mother and father back in the States, brothers and sisters—he asks me if I have a job, and I say no, and he asks why, and I say I quit. I tell him I’m a writer. I don’t think he understands.

“Why you are alone?”

I give him the usual answer: that my friends either don’t have time or don’t have money, so I travel alone. I give this answer regardless of language barriers, because the real answer is harder to explain. Most of time, I don’t think I know the real answer.

We try to chat, but it’s awkward and fails, and then the light is gone. So I smile and nod at my empty espresso cup and ask how much. He shakes his head. “Nothing. Now,” big broken smile, “you have a friend in Gjirokastra,” and points his thumb to his chest.

Rome, Like a Cannon Shot (Bella, You Must Be New At This)

I come into Rome like something shot out of a cannon—hair blown and thirsty, sweating in the thick denim and long layers I had to wear cause they wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

It started with the fact that my flight was 2 hours delayed. Which really started with the fact that I’d gotten about 7 hours of sleep in the 2 days prior; that I’d stood on a rush-hour E train all the way to the airport, all 60 fucking pounds of luggage draped around me so that my right fingers went numb holding on to the metal railing; with the fact that I actually nodded out a little bit at the terminal, all the eager/antsy middle-aged tourists in their neck pillows and compress socks buzzing around in anticipation of when the plane would actually arrive.

Couldn’t really sleep on the red-eye, which is rare for me—it was more freezing-cold than usual and since I’ve decided to bring half my closet with me, I didn’t have room for an extra blanket, which you really only need on flights and trains and buses anyway. But when you need it, fuck, you need it.

So I land with, what now?, 12 hours of sleep in a 3 day period? Doesn’t really matter anymore. Part of the trick of not ever really getting jetlag is that flying makes me so wonky, I’m out of it anyway, so I can rally and stay up for hours, or I can crash immediately. Or I can blaze bleary-eyed through a gleaming-stone ancient city and make all those novice traveler mistakes I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Get waved through immigration with barely a glance at my passport. This happens to me sometimes, when entering the EU, which is supposed to be all tripped out on the xenophobia tip, but I guess that only applies if you’re not white American. There isn’t even a long line—homeboy just glances at my picture (which doesn’t even look like me anymore, people tell me), his fingers barely grazing it, before pushing it back through the window, flicking his wrist and dismissing me. So, okay, that means I can stay forever, right?

But I’ve done this trek from Fiumicino to Termini enough times that I could kinda switch into automatic mode: the escalator down and the escalator up; the kiosk you don’t buy the train ticket at; the kiosk you do; the counter you get espresso at (not cause you need it, just to kill the time and get your heart racing more than it already is); the place where you validate your ticket; the number of machines you have to try before you find one that actually validates the ticket (usually 3); waiting waaaaay down the platform so that you’re away from the herd and can actually get a seat; how when you get to Termini you have to walk for like a mile down this loooong platform, how the station looks like a mirage in a desert down there, how when you finally reach it it isn’t an oasis at all but swarmed with rolling luggage and hustlers and pay phones that don’t work. Welcome to Rome, motherfucker.

I’m looking for the Laziali Tram—my fourth time in Rome and I’ve finally decided to fuck hostels near Termini, not even worth it. I did some research and found an affordable B&B outside of center, near Pigneto, which is where I want to stay anyway. So I walk down to the streetcars, which all look vintage and chic and rattly, like an old train model—I see the 5 and 14, which I suddenly remember are the trams that take you to Pigneto—where the hell that knowledge lay tucked in the bleary recesses of my brain, I don’t know.

But neither of them say “Laziali,” so shit, gotta keep looking. So I ask the dude sitting on the bench next to me, so I ask the tram driver, so I decide fuck it and try to go find a payphone to call dude at the B&B and ask him for better directions than the ones I scribbled for myself while waiting at the airport terminal. Phone steals 3 Euros and yells a series of tones in my ear—no luck. A cab maybe? They all look dicey.

Which is when I note to myself that I feel lighter, less encumbered. Which is when I notice that one of my bags is not with me—the one with my new laptop and my thyroid medication and fuck you, my makeup and cheap jewelry—important shit.

Ugh—that sudden razor of fear that cuts through your gut, laser of panic and you feel it radiate, shock you into focus. Dash back to the payphones—not there. Remember, as I lumber across the street as fast as I can, that I haven’t bought travel insurance yet—why?

But miracles of fucking miracles, my stuffed messenger bag is still sitting on the tram stop bench. The dude I asked for directions smiles sadly and shakes his head, as if to say: “Bella, you must be new at this.”

I gush a million thank yous, he tells me how lucky I am, especially in Rome, and I say, “Hell, in anywhere,” and I feel like a tired dog that’s gotten kicked in the ribs, like an old TV, shocked out of my static—I feel alive again.

“I watch your bag for you,” a squat man with an Indian/British accents tells me. “I ask everyone, ‘Is this your bag?'” Shakes his head. I gush a few more thank yous in his direction.

He asks me where I’m going, and he shakes his head again and points over to a bus parked across the street. “I’m going there too, come with me,” and shit, it’s not like I’m not gonna go with him—he coulda swiped all my stuff and he didn’t, so he can’t be half bad.

He walks with his chest kind of puffed out, has a sweater draped around his shoulders, sleeves tied sloppily or jauntily, I can’t decide—maybe both. He like to play the big shot, I can tell, I’m the man that knows this place, and it strikes me as a kind of pauper’s authority—but he’s obviously got a good heart beneath it.

He seems pleased that I know how to validate my ticket when I get on the bus (cause actually, I’m not new at this, I’m just a wreck). He asks me what country I’m from, tells me about his brother in Boston, how he wants to go to Boston—the usual immigrant conversation. He asks me if it’s my first time in Rome and I sigh and shake my head, “No, but you’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

I leave myself at his mercy, cause why not? My brain is bleary as fuck and I haven’t eaten and I’ve barely slept and he seems to take a kind of pleasure in leading me, in asking every Indian street peddler when we get off the bus where Via Capua is (even though I kinda know where it is), and I wait until the sign is right in front of us to point and say, “Look!”

And he walks me to the door of the B&B, which is locked because I’m about 3 hours later than I thought I’d be, and dude offers to wait with me, but I tell him “No, it’s cool.” And I thank him again and shake his hand and he wants to write me if he ever goes to the US, and I tell him I’m not going back for a long time. And he nods and gives me a different look—maybe he’s decided that I’m not new at this, I don’t know—and then he waves and walks back down the street, that puffed up chest leading the way.

Cities Like Boys: Vela and the New York Edition

So I’m a little late on this, but am stoked to tell y’all about a brand new venture I’m a part of: Vela.

The brainchild of ever-the-bad-ass Sarah Menkedick, Vela is a website that features the travel-related writing of six women. The site is a venue for women to write like women, and to define whatever that means ourselves—not to have to write in opposition to or in the style of the male-dominated publishing industry, just to do our own thing. “Written by Women”—check out Sarah’s spot-on manifesto for further thoughts.

I was beyond honored to be asked to be a part of the project. I’ve followed Sarah’s work for awhile, and she was the editor for my Glimpse project, so I was down to ride along with whatever she was scheming up. But the other ladies involved are just as awesome. Makes me wish we could have a meet-up or something, an anti-Sex-In-The-City lady date (no cosmos).

So the plan is that we publish one piece a week. This week was my turn. In “Cities Like Boys” I further the theme I touched upon in a blog post I wrote a few months back—how more and more, I relate to cities like people. In this piece, I focused on four cities that I feel like I’ve had relationships with. I made them boys, cause it was more fun that way.

So, furthering the theme (you can really get on a roll with this exercise), here’s a little epilogue—the New York edition:

JR eyes

You know, they say two things about New York—that he’s dangerous and that he’s rude. I’ve never found either to be true.

He’s a bit brusk, for sure—not all nicey-nice, and busy, always moving, defenses and filters and solid glass gleaming, to keep all the crazy out. But New York’s always been friendly with me, always eyed me kinda curiously—“You’re a different breed than we got out here”—the 21-year-old working student who hadn’t taken a vacation in four years; the vegan traveling with her brother, bleeding money; the girlfriend sleeping on the floor in Brooklyn, an apartment that shook like an earthquake when the subway rolled by; the 26-year-old couchsurfing with her best friend, a couple tattooed freaks. Toss in 2 day-long lay-overs, and New York’s seen me grow up in a way other cities hasn’t—the evolution of a traveler.

This time I came without maps or a guidebook or an itinerary, just left myself to the mercy of New York, and what that says about me now, I’m not sure.

But we’ve always been cool. And he’s got a sort of charm, you know, in all that toughness—the accent and the slang and the shit-talking and the posture—almost a kind of character he plays: the New York Guy.

And I’ve always been kinda enamored with it—a type of working-class macho we just don’t do on the West Coast. But it wasn’t until this time, this trip—curled up in the dim, light-shaft, perpetual-dusk of New York’s heart, an air mattress and the cling of old weed smoke—that I feel like I finally understood it.

It’s like a kind of persona he assumes—not an act, per se, but a version of himself he likes to present. And he turns it, not off and on (because it’s never all the way gone), but up and down, like a light dimmer, and I watched New York do that—on the street, in the subway, when some drunk bridge-and-tunnel guy was being a dick at 4am in the East Village—almost a type of defense: the New York Guy.

And it’s charming as shit. And I can’t help but laugh, and the Duane Reade clerks say, “Keep her smiling,” and New York says, “Yo, that’s that Cali smile”—and if New York were any other city, he’d say it with a wink. But he doesn’t.

Hey, it's a crappy iPhone 3 photo, don't judge

But then there’s this other side, that in all the previous trips I guess I’d only glimpsed. We took the train out to Roosevelt Island one night, broke into an abandoned small pox hospital, tromped through the dirt and gravel of a sleeping construction site towards the water, Manhattan like a glittering snow globe—a layer of glass and you can never quite touch it. It was still, and neither me or New York said a word for a moment. And then New York said, “Yo, this is like the Mercedes of trespassing,” and you both laughed. Then we rode the cable car back—up, up, beneath the belly of the bridge, steel wires quivering, and I thought how glad I was New York doesn’t get earthquakes.

And on the last night I curled up beside New York—started talking about my move and my project and without really meaning to, told New York about that gnarly shit that came up in Phnom Penh, that I’ve been too busy to think about the last few months but that I’ve felt sitting, waiting, watching, on the periphery of me.

And New York got real quiet, and it was only like a half hour later that New York said, “Yeah, I’ve got my own shit. And I think about it all the time.” I didn’t ask what that was—just listened and watched that other side, the one beneath the persona, unfold and open up—it all quivering under the veneer of “New York” like cable wires. I felt a monumental tenderness welling up in me, but it was a sad tenderness, because New York is something I could never quite touch, not then or now—not in 1 night or 5 days or 5 trips or nothing.

Because New York will ravage you. You’ll run with New York and pretend like you’re 22. You’ll eat dollar pizza and falafel and bagels, and you’ll drink 100 cups of battery-acid deli coffee. You’ll stay up till 4am, and when you wake you won’t be able to tell what time it is in the perpetual dusk. You’ll smoke on 7th-story fire escapes, and sneak up to Soho rooftops, and you’ll crunch through sidewalks of drunken miniskirts and food trucks, and you’ll be exhausted when you’re done—because you’re not 22, and you can feel the first chill of age rushing through you, an October breeze, and you’ll know that, won’t be able to forget that, even in all the fun and charm and “Yo, word?” of it—you’ll keep thinking of that song you listened to all goddamn summer: “You wanna get young but you’re just getting older.” And even New York can’t make you forget that. Or maybe he makes you think of it more.

But you can pretend for 5 days. And on the last day, the morning you leave, you’ll put on yesterday’s clothes and walk for coffee. You and New York will stand amid the trees, in front of a university neither one of you could afford, and you’ll give New York the biggest fucking hug you can; you’ll say thank you and you’ll mean it, fuck you’ll mean it.

And then you’ll flash that Cali smile, say something noncommittal, and you’ll walk away without looking. Because when you leave New York, it’s always best not to look.

Going Native: The Anti-Irony of Khmer Glamour Photos

I sat once in a cafe in Tangier, Morocco. Some famous man-filled cafe where Western writers used to pen masterpieces, or cruise for ass, or trip out on then-exotic drugs, or most likely some combination of the three. It was popular with tourists—in the way that that Hemingway bar in Havana is popular—and with well-heeled locals. I was the only female, Western or otherwise, in the joint.

I watched as a man strode in—large, burly, brusque. He may or may not have had a white beard—I remember something about white hair, though his head was most definitely adorned with some scarf. He had that expat look of permanent sunburn and wizened self-satisfaction; he wore a long, flowing robe of ethnic print and carried a thick wooden staff. Two younger men, one with a notebook, another with a video camera and a microphone, followed as he walked purposefully over to what I assumed to be his regular table.

He leaned back in a posture of pontification, began what I imagined to be a long soliloquy, in French, on Moroccan culture and the changes therein over the last decades, as observed by his keen eye. The guy with the notebook nodded and scribbled. I watched the camera man look around at all the Moroccans in the cafe, wearing t-shirts and jeans, then back over at the burly old dude before his camera, his attire some approximation of those sepia-hued photographs old explorers and anthropologists took, that are now sold as postcards.

Our eyes met briefly. I smiled; the camera man looked embarrassed. I chuckled, imagined we were having the same thought:

My God—he’s gone native.

There are few things funnier to me than people taking themselves too seriously. Travelers/expats who over-identify with their adoptive countries provide endless amusement while on the road. So when I saw the pointed fingers and fake-gold-gleam of Khmer glamour photos, I knew it had to do it—my own chance to Go Native, as it were.

To clarify, this isn’t some chintzy gimmick produced for tourists; this is a Cambodian—nay, Southeast Asian—phenomenon. People dress up, get a pound of foundation and fake eyelashes slapped on, squeeze into gaudy garb and let themselves be molded into ridiculous poses, to be later Photoshopped several skin tones lighter and superimposed in front of illustrious sights like Angkor Wat, or the parlor of a well-to-do person’s house (a fireplace and Persian carpet are key). People do it for their wedding, for their coming-of-age, as family photos—it’s not uncommon to see a large framed print hanging in someone’s home.

It is, in short, the Khmer version of cheesy K-Mart photos. It’s is legit, authentic inauthenticity.

I hadn’t noticed the photography studios sprinkled around town until someone pointed them out. The sun-bleached signs of smiling couples, the window displays of sequined gowns—they’d faded into the visual static of Phnom Penh storefronts. Until I decided to get my own.

Khmer glamour photos are something of a rite of passage for Phnom Penh expats, especially the females. So I rounded up a posse, walked into the first decent-looking studio we passed on Monivong, and made an appointment to be turned into an Apsara princess.

At two o’clock on a sweltering Sunday, five of us clamored up the back stairs of a photography studio to the dressing room. It looked like the backstage of an Asian cabaret, make-up and sequins and traditional costumes stacked to the rafters.

There was only one girl doing hair and make-up; at about thirty minutes each, we ended up being there for a loooong time. My friends chose the $10, more modestly ridiculous options; I opted for the $15 Apsara extraordinaire, which included more fanciful skirt folds, extra fake-gold bangles, even a wig. Behold the transformation:

I'd never worn fake eyelashes before.

Looking sufficiently like a drag queen.

Through the mirror

Fancy folds

I went to Cambodia and all I got was this mullet

Lock and load.

A couple days later, I went back to the studio to pick up my prints—three prints were included in the $15 price. I thought of the dude I’d seen, years ago, in the cafe in Tangier. The difference, I decided, was humor. And self-awareness: I was doing it as a joke, a statement on the ridiculousness of myself in the Khmer cultural context and how I, at 5’10” and a riddling of tattoos, will never, ever blend in with or a be a part of that culture. The photos were tangible evidence of the chasm between worlds.

I smiled and laughed out loud and thanked the ladies again.

I went to meet a few other friends for dinner at the Chinese Noodle Restaurant. I took out my prints and they laughed—it was ridiculous, right?

I noticed the waitress peering over our shoulders. I felt suddenly self-conscious—would she be offended? Would the joke translate?

To my relief, the waitress smiled, a chipped tooth and deep lines. Then she reached over and took one of the photos in her hand, examined it more closely. “Very beautiful,” and she looked up at me with a kind of sincerity that made me blush.

This was not the reaction I’d expected. I felt somehow more embarrassed.

The waitress proceeded to pass my prints along to the other tables in the restaurant, all the women smiling and nodding and murmuring their approval. The women’s eyes glanced over at me and it was a kind of warmth I felt, maternal and accepting and utterly devoid of the snarky irony with which I’d walked into the photography studio with.

They didn’t think it was funny, and they weren’t offended. They thought it was beautiful.

I hung my head. “I’m an asshole,” I announced. Then, looking up and grinning, “But at least I’m a beautiful asshole.”

Boys, Boys, Boys: A Solo Female Traveler’s Experience With the Men of Southern Italy, Montenegro and Albania

You know the picture...

“Southern Italy, eh?” He gave me the raised eyebrow of caution. “Watch out for the men.”

This was Alex, his voice lifting above the roar of hair dryers and hip music at the salon, two days before I left on my trip.

A lady friend of his, he continued, had recently spent several weeks in the Mediterranean land of machismo. “Apparently, they all use the same line: ‘I have a girlfriend. But tonight, for you, no girlfriend.’ She said it got really old.”

I laughed. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind yet. Dealing with the men of a country as a solo female traveler is usually one of the first things people ask me about when they hear I travel alone—right after the “is it safe” question. But the truth is, I’ve been doing this sola thing for awhile now, and whether or not the men somewhere will hound me to death doesn’t really factor into my travel considerations. Plus, I’ve done the majority of my traveling in Latin America, where sidewalks can at times feel like catwalks of degradation. As long as the men aren’t physically attacking me, I pretty much feel like I can handle it.

But Alex’s comment did give me pause. When it comes to safety (and drinking tap water), I throw caution to the wind in Europe. It’s the civilized, more highly evolved land of social safety nets and low crime. Hell, the vast majority of Europe is safer than my hometown. My hairdresser’s comment reminded me that, oh yeah, right, I’d be venturing off sola in a scant 48 hours and that maybe I’d ought to mentally prepare.

You stand out as a female solo traveler, and in a way, get to experience a culture more deeply, if no other reason than the fact that its men are talking to you more. My last trip took me to Southern Italy, Montenegro and the capital of Albania (and Croatia, but I only stayed for a day, so I’m not counting it). The men in each these countries treated me totally differently—and, I think, reveal a little something about the culture.

Italy

Oh, Italian men. They have quite the reputation. American women swoon for their accents, their sense of style, their motorinos and chest hair. And they’re known for hitting on pretty much anything that moves, serenading you with sweet odes of professed passion.

I don’t get it. And Italian men, apparently, don’t get me.

During my venture Rome-and-southwards, I was largely ignored by Italian men. Which suited me just fine. Again, having traveled heftily through Latin America and once through Morocco, I’m stoked on anything that isn’t street harassment. I’ll take being ignored over obscene insults any day.

But it did cause me wonder… Who the hell are all these American women who are getting hit on Italian men all the time? I’m a cute enough girl, but do you want to know why I wasn’t getting any attention from the dudes? Because they’re surrounded by Italian women—who are impossibly gorgeous and stylish, with their cascade of curly hair and their moody black eyeliner. I wouldn’t hit on me either.

Traveling through Southern Italy was like an adventure in mutual disinterest—as though every guy I passed on the street exchanged a brief little dialog with me: “Thanks but no thanks.” Italy is a pretty culturally conservative place, and I’m a pretty not culturally conservation person, in appearance or attitude. So it makes sense to me that the Italian men and I didn’t vibe. In person, that is.

While I was in Naples my Couchsurfing inbox got flooded with messages from shirtless dudes in sunglasses asking me if I needed a place to stay. (“Um, no.”) But this was the extent of the Italian sleaze I experienced—an indirect, easily ignored, half-assed attempt.

Maybe that was the secret to the purported flirtations of Italian men: that it’s largely impersonal, having less to do with you and whether or not there’s any real potential for something to happen, and more to do with, I dunno, not having anything else better to do? Hitting on someone just for the sake of hitting on someone?…

Montenegro

If ever a girl was thinking of a place to take advantage of men, Montenegro would be the place to do it. I had more offers for rides, tour guides, free drinks, places to stay, etc than anywhere else I’ve been.

But the curious thing was a) all the attention was from middle-aged men, no guys my own age, and b) they somehow managed to stay just on the right side of appropriate and respectful. I never felt violated or threatened by any of the Montenegrin men; it all just came across as really, really nice.

I was of course only getting the attention because I’m a pretty young(ish) American girl traveling alone. Montenegro is really trying to woo Western tourists, and I think I was something of an anomaly; there weren’t many Americans, weren’t many backpackers, weren’t many women alone. I think I was on the one hand intriguing for this reason; I think Montenegrins in general also really want tourists to feel welcome, want to take care of them. I must have sparked all the paternal instincts of the middle-aged men there. But somehow not in a demeaning way. Most curious.

Albania

At a certain point one night, it got ridiculous. I had to put on my sweater and get the hell off the dance floor.

It was like moths to a lightbulb. I have never received more male attention from males I actually wanted attention from than in Tirana. It was dangerous.

Albanians my age, it seems, really want to be Western. They’ve lived most of their lives in post-Communist Albania, but still relatively isolated from the rest of Europe. They’re ready, it seems, to be a part of the rest of the world.

For most kids, this striving seems to take the form of mainstream culture, the Top-40 kind. Stylistically, Tirana is filled with tons of extremely beautiful nouveau riche girls, who could, at first glance, blend in on Parisian sidewalks. You look a little closer and you realize that they don’t quite have it right yet; they wear a little too much make-up, their clothes not quite expensive enough.

But the point is, they’re trying really really hard. They have the posture, the poise, the carefully cultivated look of class in the arch of their fingers as they lean back and drag their cigarettes. They also don’t seem like a whole lot of fun—a little snobby, to be honest.

So I stood out, and not just for being foreign. There weren’t any other girls in Tirana like me, in sneakers and a band shirt, with short hair and tattoos. I’m a dime-a-dozen in the Bay Area, but in Tirana, I was the only act in town. And every single rock n roll dude, it seemed, was eying me. Or talking to me. Or offering me drinks or asking me out or wanting to dance with me.

Big-fish-in-a-little-pond syndrome. I’d never experienced it. After the initial rush of validation, though, it felt funny. It didn’t seem real and, in a way, it wasn’t.

It was like Genti’s indie rock band. An Albanian turned Brighton boy, Genti was just another dude in a band in England. But in Albania, he was becoming a big deal, selling a ton of albums and appearing on Albanian TV. It would have been easy, he told me, to really make it there. “But, I dunno,” he yelled over the barroom clatter, “do I really want to be the guy who was ‘really big in Albania’?”

I paused, and asked myself the same question. I was pretty damn sure that if all these rocker dudes were suddenly delivered into the Bay Area, they wouldn’t be tripping off me so much. I wanted to tell them, to put my hand gently on their shoulders and let them know, “Honey, there’s a big world out there, and it’s filled with a fuckton of cuter girls with more tattoos than me.”

But they’d have had to take my word for it. Cause it’s so damn hard for an Albanian to get a tourist visa, or to afford to travel anywhere where rock n roll girls live, places steeped in privilege.

So I did all I could do, which was to shake my head and laugh.

A Woman in the Sun

I sat in the sun, butt naked and heat dazed, my starving skin soaking up all the UV it’d been hungry for since my trip to LA. The sulfur smell of the hot springs had stopped burning my nose, and I was in that drool state of relaxation where everything floats in and out of your consciousness like a dream. The bits of conversation from down the deck came to me in whiffs, like BBQ or the burning of some far-off fire.

“You know, Mark called me on Friday. And he started up again. And I said, you know, like we’d practiced, ‘I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.'”

The words roused me a little. Not so much really the words, but the careful way in which they were recited—deliberate, practiced, the memorization of an actor who knows the scene but hasn’t quite figured out their character’s motivation.

The patter of bare feet and a sleek ripple of water. “Oh, Myra, I didn’t tell you,” the voiced repeated. “I got to use that tool we talked about, when I told Mark: ‘I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.’ It felt so good!”

Wilbur Hot Springs is a retreat place, and that’s what I’d come for. That’s what we’d all come for, driven the two-line highway through pastoral postcards, past cheese-commercial cows, down a bumping dirt road where the dust plumed and twisted behind us like everything we’d meant to leave behind.

Wilbur is the kind of place that makes you lapse into cheesy cliches (partly because your brain is too full of steam to think straight). A Victorian mansion “nestled” into the “rolling” California hills, it’s an uber-NorCal experience, an “oasis.” Everything is solar-powered. The natural hot springs are directed into four flumes clustered around a clothing-optional deck. There’s a communal kitchen where guests cook their own meals, and instruments for evening jam sessions. Everyone talks in low, soothing voices, and the place smells like well-oiled wood. Sustainability and spiritualism; regrouping, reconnecting, getting off the grid and soaking in 114 degree water—you know, the kind of hippie shit a punk rock kid like me used to scoff at. Until I went up on a gift certificate a couple years ago with a similarly suspicious friend.

We’ve been jonesing to get back ever since.

Retreat is what these chatting women on the deck had also come for, and like retreat, they were something, a certain kind of woman, a younger incarnation of me would have scoffed at: middle-aged, middle-class, white, all-American. Bad hair and worry lines. I’ve grown less judgmental in my old age, and in my hot-spring-infused sedation, observed them detachedly, from an almost anthropological distance.

They’d come on day passes. They weren’t entirely comfortable, held their robes and towels around them self-consciously, seemed self-conscious about being self-conscious—they averted eyes, glanced this way and that before letting go and slipping naked into the steaming water.

I’d pieced together their conversations, about ex-husbands and astrology, how to figure your aura energy by the kinds of animals you attracted (“You got lizards and butterflies; I got bit by a tick!”). This day trip to Wilbur appeared to be the culmination of a healing workshop. The leader of the group was some kind of psychic—not a predictive one, she assured, but one that dealt more in energies, a kind of cosmic therapist. They weren’t super New-Agey about it, talked in a kind of down-to-earth tone that made them seem less like people on board some kind of bullshit train, and more like people genuinely seeking, genuinely lost and hurt and looking for something, some kind of solidity.

“I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.” The statement rang in my ears, plucking me out of my sun-drenched stupor. The speaker’s voice held in it all the excitement of a pupil who’d just felt a switch flip—who’d practiced the arithmetic but wasn’t sure the equation would work for them, with their own dull and trembling pencil. But it wasn’t a young voice and a glance at the body from which it issued revealed a gravity, breasts heavy and hips wide, a child-bearing body.

My God, I thought, to have lived that long and only now have learned to say that.

The woman’s comment, the thrill with which she yielded it, struck me as tragic, in a particularly female kind of way—that a woman could go that long in her life without having learned to say no before.

Boundaries. Standing up for yourself. Not taking shit. They’re vital things for us girls to learn. You flat out won’t make it in this world without them, I’ve come to believe, and I don’t just mean with manipulative ex-husbands. You’ve got to learn where the world stops and you begin, what is and is not okay with you, and how to be firm and true to that. Cause you’re not going to make it—ride the buses or walk the streets or, shit, travel the world—you’re not going to survive the barrage of shit hurled at you without learning the word “no.”

And there, on that sun deck, a wave of gratitude swept over me, like the spring breeze on my pink and steaming body, for my mother. My tough-as-nails, take-no-shit mother.

My mother, my model: pretty and blond and trained in karate. She worked in factories, held her own in the male-dominated world of politics, worked in West Oakland during the worst of the crack years, dared a scab to follow through with their threat to punch her on the picket line (they punked out). It stems from that: my childhood love of Tina Turner and my vow that if, when I was older, I ever went on a date with a guy who tried to make me do something I didn’t want to, I’d “kick him in the nuts with my high heels”; my busted-Converse affection for Riot Grrls, Le Tigre, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. And it stretches before that: my grandmothers, no-nonsense Midwest girls who endured Depression poverty and marched in Civil Rights protests.

I come from a long line of tough ladies. I can’t ever forget I stand upon the ground they forged for me. It’s a generational adventure, this learning of how to be a woman in the world, and what my mother and grandmothers fought for is in me, my blood. So much so that it still surprises me, blinking-eyed shocks me, when other women ask me how I have the “bravery” to travel alone. It simply never occurred to me to not have the bravery.

In that sun-drenched moment, any residual judgment melted away, just like the knots in my lower back unclenched in the hot, healing water. It may have seemed tragically late to learn how to make boundaries, she may have had to take a healing workshop with a psychic, but this woman had learned. And she sat now, naked and free, gently turning pink in the sunlight of it.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

Join 3,718 other followers

Tweet this Sh%t

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Buy This Sh#t

Categories

Advertisements