“I Have Been A Long Time in a Strange Country”

This un-posted post was written (by me) in 2015, but in many ways still feels relevant. This week, Olive mentioned living in shoulds–it’s amazing(ly depressing) how little my own shoulds have changed over the past four years, though I have very much come to terms with the fact that Spain is my first and nº1 love.


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September is here, fall in full-swing.

This week, Pope Francis will make his first visit to The United States. He will spend the weekend in Philadelphia, birthplace of America and home of the most beautiful city hall in the entire world. Major roads and rail stations will be closed. Businesses will shut their doors early on Friday. Some employees will escape, others will stick around. SEPTA has sold its “Pope Passes” and The Local News stations have spent weeks Prepping Us For The Pontiff.

Me? Pope willing, I’ll board an airplane on Sunday and fly to Madrid. It may just be the most bitter-sweet September yet.

September, for the past three years, has been a game of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Spoiler alert: I go. I always go. This year I’ll go with a sense of urgency that hasn’t accompanied me much during the past three years, or at least not in a way that was so difficult to quiet. You should earn more, you should do more, you can’t live this way forever, it says.

I’ve become a friend to uncertainty. In Spain, in the fall, I miss the smell of Philadelphia, of dying things, of leaves and the dreams of a summer passed. By Christmas, the only thing that might possibly satisfy my homesickness would be an opportunity to curse at the psychotic driving skills of a soccer mom in a mall parking lot. Any mall would do. Wishing the Dunkin Donuts barista a Happy Holiday! might also suffice. Then there are the bagels. The bagels, I never stop missing.

By Spring, I come to terms with the fact that the things I actually miss the most cannot be touched, screamed at, or eaten. I miss the simple comfort of people understanding me. I mean the quiet, pure understanding that happens when you grab coffee with someone who knew you when you had a uni-brow. I mean the half-cultural, half-sentimental way you just seem to get along with strangers who experienced Snowpocalypse ’11 and know who The Mummers are. In Spain, there are no Mummers. My brows are almost always well-groomed.

I believed that things would “make more sense” when I came home this summer.  That’s what they usually do. I tend to fall in love with Pennsylvania all over again, while she’s green and people aren’t afraid to go outside. By August, I begin to imagine a life in which I live in an apartment with hardwood floors and have a job I love that pays well. I go shopping at the market on Market, where there is never any shortage of artisan cream-cheese. I buy shoes without worrying about the weight of them. It’s a dream like any other: romantic, unrealistic even in its simplicity, and probably misguided.

Because, despite all the doubt, there is Spain. What happens when I think about leaving Spain “for good?” The most heart-wrenching, ear-grating flamenco cantes begin to play. I stifle back tears and declare that I was insane to entertain the idea. The things I miss while I’m away turn into terrifying potential futures. Like, the check comes after dinner without my asking, and no one thinks its weird. The stores are open on Sundays and there are more brands of bread than I know what to do with, each of them more wildly unnecessary than the last. I remember all the times I’ve sung the praises of choice while I’m away and start to feel ill. The “work ethic” I so missed turns into the disturbing phrase “two weeks vacation, if I’m lucky.” People often say it proudly.

In “After Some Years,” W.S. Merwin writes:

I have been a long time in a strange country.
The natives have been kind, in their weird climate,
Receiving me among them as one of themselves.
Their virtues are different from ours, and in some ways
Superior. I have lost the sense
Of absurdity regarding many of their odd customs.
I get their wry lingo tangled up with my own.
Maybe you have to go far away
To learn where it is that names you. The fruits here
Are excellent; better than at home.
I can no longer taste them. I would be glad
To be standing in a drab city of my recollection
Where no one but newsboys would name this place
And they mispronouncing. I hope I may
Before too long. Before the speech here has become
Natural to me, even more so
Than the tongue I was born to, before these
Sights cease to be more foreign and are more familiar
Than any I can recall. And while I
Can still clearly remember that at home too the world
Is made of strangers. For I do not wish
To head back into an expectation
Of anything better than is there, and struggling
With some illusion, find my own place
Is as far away as ever. But it should be
Soon. Already I defend hotly
Certain of our indefensible faults,
Resent being reminded; already in my mind
Our language becomes freighted with a richness
No common tongue could offer, while the mountains
Are like nowhere on earth, and the wide rivers.

Replace mountains with mummers, and it might have been me who wrote the poem. Perhaps my time will come, sooner rather than later, to return to my land, but one thing has certainly become clear this summer: the world is made of strangers. In my daydreams, I had forgotten that. As foreign as Spanish words feel in my mouth, I cannot imagine them being anywhere else. One day, it might hurt to speak this language—but I cannot imagine a day without madre mias or spirited political diatribes—for as much as I hate them, they, too, have their place. I cannot imagine a life without the overflowing enthusiasm Spaniards seem to have for both the inane and the profound.

Rosa María was my host mother in Granada and, one night while she wondered at my insistence upon romantically pursuing a tall, dumb elf, I informed her that el amor es una mentiraLove is a lie. That’s the sort of joke that only a twenty year old will tell to a sixty-something widow. She corrected me. El amor es peligroso. Love is dangerous.

How right you were, Rosa.

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American Healthcare & A Few Useless Book Reviews

Happy Saturday, from me and my bed.

Last night I was riding up Ribera de Curtidores on a Mad Bici (not sponsored), feeling on top of the world. I was zooming past the Friday night drunks and just about ready to ride that bike to the top of my five flights of stairs, except that the bike weighs 200 kilos, and is not mine, so I left it at the station.

And then I checked my phone.

I had a new message from my mother, saying something along the lines of…

“Hello dear, I’m sorry to say that a bill for 900 dollars arrived to the house for you.”

To which I responded: “I REFUSE. I WILL NEVER COME BACK TO AMERICA AGAIN.”

900 dollars for a medical test that took all of 2 seconds and involved inserting a common q-tip into my vag.

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to inform y’all that I’ve been on a big reading kick recently. Here’s what I’ve been getting into for the past 21 days:

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
    by Mark Haddon
    Read on a Sunday afternoon, after a 5K. Heartwarming, eye-opening, easy-to-follow, and so on, and so forth.
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
    by Truman Capote
    This short, seminal classic had me hooked and is perfect for morning metro rides. The word seminal sounds like it has something to do with semen and, after flipping through the dictionary, I realize that it can and does. Seminal (adj.): pertaining to, containing, or consisting of semen. Awesome! That’s a great segue into my next book….
  • The Gene: An Intimate History
    by Siddharta Mukherjee
    Did you know that, for a time, the prevailing theory of genetics was called preformism? Scientists believed that semen contained tiny pre-formed humans that, once deposited into the uterus, would simply begin inflating into their mature form, a la Magic Grow Toys:
    mdi-grow-your-own-boyfriend.jpg
    I happen to love scientific history and this book has me considering going back to school. 10/10!

Keep reading, keep biking.

Love,

Seo

Easing Into The Asscrack of Dawn: A Lesson in Absurdity

As recourse to life crises and generalized discontent, I  like to pull journals at random. Nine times out of ten I find a younger version of myself who, much to my surprise, has something insightful to share. More often than not her lesson is this one: you have been better and you have also been worse.  Additionally: Nudity, in its many diverse forms, may save you.


Philadelphia
August 2013

In my temporary job as a nanny, I care for two boys aged 4 and 7. This means that come 9:00 am I have usually acted in upwards of fifteen death scenes. Given the work hours and my suburban exile, it also means that I have to wake up at 5 a.m. to prepare for and make the commute downtown. Most people would call this “hell on earth.” Sometimes when I am sipping cold coffee at noon and running on 3 hours of sleep, I use that phrase, too. Commutes, on the other hand, have always calmed me.

To get to my dual-screened corporate hell of a cubicle job in Green Tree last summer, I ran through summer mornings on a 1 hour, 2-bus commute. I would catch the bus in Oakland, walk a few blocks in dahntahn Pittsburgh, then hit the highway on the 38 and pop off at my office building:  a big brown concrete monster next to a K-Mart where I’d often eat lunch alone in a windowless Little Caesars. After spending eight hours with a phone glued to my head, I’d make the trek back, usually stopping to sit in Station Square or by the Allegheny River before going home.

AlleghenyRiverWalkway
Walkway to David Lawrence Convention Center. Pittsburgh, PA 2012

One evening, however, I didn’t stop. I got right back on the bus to Oakland. Somewhere along Fifth Avenue, we got stuck in traffic. Horns blared, passengers sighed, heat waves danced along the highway. I heard chuckles and craned my head to see what was going on at the front of the bus. There she was: a woman, teetering on the edge of sanity, feet planted firmly on the asphalt in front of the bus, in the midst of rush hour traffic. Then, to the surprise, horror, and confused delight of the daily grind office workers, she removed her dress and triumphantly spun it above her head—no panties, no bra, 200 pounds of pure, unadulterated absurdity. She proceeded to flip the bus driver off and make her way back to the sidewalk, dress covering her most intimate lady bits and giant breasts still swinging along.

Nothing has rivaled that sighting since, but I still enjoy my commutes.  When I arrive in Center City Philadelphia, it’s still too early for the Market East morning Saxophonist and all of us–temporary and permanent members of the Dawn Club–file up the first escalator and onto the street. I walk among the blue-scrubbed, the corporate climbers, and the construction workers. By the time I get to Lombard Street, I’m mostly alone. It’s a quiet hour and I get why you might want to do yoga in it, if yoga was something you did.

By the time I head back home at 5 o’clock, surrounded by drooping lids and skewed ties, I understand why there are so few revolutions and I think about tearing off my clothes.

America, Part 6, Day 2

New York City’s immensity is never more apparent than when navigating the thousand-lane road from JFK to Philadelphia, PA on a Saturday afternoon. Twenty-eight years of knowing the Northeast and I’m still shocked to find out that this airport is not, in fact, just across the road from Newark.

“Shit is entrenched,” says Scott.

Once passed the Holland tunnel and ten minutes of marveling at man’s ambition, the road is ours.

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It’s good to be back.

At Heathrow, the Brits were on their best behavior, gifting smiles and biscuits.

At JFK, the line-master instructed:

“If ya customs form ain’t finished, get outta the line. Ya wasting peoples time.”

Any other welcome would have been a lie.

PSA and a Mantra for Malcontents

Last week the dentist refused to take the teeth out of my head.

“I could paralyze your face. Permanently.”

“Oh. That’s not great.”

The longer you put off wisdom tooth removal, as  it turns out, the more complicated the procedure will be. I’ve got roots dancing with nerves at the back of my mouth so for now, it seems, I’ma have to stay wise. Take note, teenagers of the world.

Anyway, in six years of life in Spain, I have never experienced a June that did not make me want to peel my own skin off. At the same time, June tends to be a time for reflection; I usually do that naked, spooning with a bag of ice, while marveling at the many places from which sweat can spring. This one is different. I’ve still got a comforter on my bed and I don’t feel like I’m burning. I can’t say I’m angry about the weather, but I’m worried about the earth–and myself.

What am I doing? What’s next? Where do I go? How do I find a patron to support the art of my life?

Last year I became obsessed with the idea of “running through the pain.”

I read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and remembered nothing but this mantra: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

I began saying it to myself, sometimes while running but more often as I prepared dinner or walked home from a night out. The sweaty strangers of the disco scene often sent me on a downward spiral, though hindsight highlights the role of gin.

After a long, frenetic, gorgeous, and totally mental winter, this mantra just isn’t doing it for me anymore. Here’s what I think: suffering is not optional,  l0sers. The longer you refuse to acknowledge anguish, vulnerability, and sadness, the deeper their roots will grow. Next thing you know, you’ll find them bursting out of you in public health clinics, at cafés, and on unsuspecting waitresses.

What comes before gratitude is a lot of snot, tears, and unabashed drama.

As for mantras, I’ve been using this one:

I ain’t fuckin’ sorry.

Love,

Seo