Oct 012014


This is me walking out of the apartment I’ve lived in for the last 10 months. It is lovely, with four huge windows overlooking the French equivalent of Flatbush Avenue. It shows my keys (in the lock), the sofa (in the window) and a pan I must have used twice. It does not show my glee.

When I was thinking about what to title this post, I came up with the inevitable (“Moving On”) only to realize I’d used exactly the same words on another post months ago. I am apparently the lead singer of a one-woman band that only knows one song, and that song is about leaving town. I can’t help it. I love it.

September was a stressful month for me, requiring the preparation of not one but two complete dossier, which is French for “document torture”: one to renew my visa, the other to rent an apartment. For the latter, I sat in a pile of papers an inch thick, including five years of tax records and stacks of bank accounts. On one hand, it sucks. On the other, I’d rather hand my papers over to a discerning landlord than do what we do, which is to let a credit bureau determine if we are good and moral people [who haven't had their identity stolen or been the victim of negligence on the bureau's behalf]. There are many American things I prefer to their French equivalents, but credit bureaus: Pass.

Now, both those matters are settled—with asterisks, but settled. My visa renewal appointment and moving-day fell within 24 hours of each other—which seems like something I would have idiotically done on purpose (“I’ll just get all the bad stuff out of the way at once!”) but was actually just the luck of the draw.

I have loved living in this apartment. I have loved its sunlight, its hardwood floors, its unkillable plants, everything about it. I thought I cry when I left. But I wasn’t: I was ready to go. I think there might be something deeply wrong with me, because I am always ready to go. Not from people; never from people. I have teared up at the idea of separating at an airport after working on a story for a few days with someone. (True story.) I hate the ends of vacations. (One exception: My friend David and I spending two months together within three feet of each other in southern Africa, and just sort of walking in opposite directions the moment we made it through customs.) But places, apartments—maybe it’s just how we let go of these things, but every time I’m about to leave, I start seeing all the rough edges: all the dings, all the flaws, all the things you overlook when you’re in the middle of living it.

Maybe this is how I accept living in non-forever places. I have slept in airports. I have slept in some very dirty hostels. I have slept in the passenger seat of a 1990 Nissan Micra in a Siberian trucker’s stop. You can survive anywhere for a few days, most anywhere for longer than that. Maybe this is how travelers avoid the desire for a mansion on a hill—by putting themselves in a position where the spaces are interchangeable, and what matters is what links them: the adventures outside their door.

Aug 042014


I have never had ebola, though I did spend one Thanksgiving on the floor of a bathroom in the most expensive hotel in all of Laos. I threw up so many times that creating a little nest of exceptionally high-thread-count pillows under the sink was, if nothing else, more expedient than walking back and forth between the bed and the bathroom. Properly speaking, this was Thanksgiving eve: On Thanksgiving morning, my then-boyfriend and I took a bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the capital city. By the time we got there, I was, for the most part, better, and I remember watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while eating as much as I could of a slice of apple pie from Joma. I still remember telling my ex-boyfriend (as I had on many, many other occasions) that if it came down to it, my precious blue passport would save us. This was relative to his South African passport (and, less helpful to my argument, his Belgian one, too.) That is an incredibly powerful feeling: If the chips are down, Uncle Sam (also: Rocky, Rambo, Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now,” etc.) will back me up.

I understand the fear behind plague, in the general sense. I’m writing this from Paris, which was named by at least one expert as the city most likely to claim the first non-African case of ebola, thanks to the many transport links between here and West Africa—a relic of the country’s colonial past and a bit of Shakespearean-level pushback played out centuries after the event. Still: I’m going to bet I wasn’t the only American in tears (specifically: “of pride”) when I read that the two Americans infected with ebola would be brought home for treatment. I absolutely believe that Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol are American heroes. I want to be a citizen of a country that looks out for its own. (I’m leaving aside the question of how much a country should look out for everyone else—to the best of its ability, I’d say.)

I believe in the idea that we take care of each other: I believe in fire departments. I believe that if we get lost while hiking, someone will come rescue us. I believe that part of my health insurance premiums will go to people who have spent a lifetime doing things that are terrible for their bodies. And I believe that if I travel outside our borders, and get myself into what I will euphemistically term a “scrape,” my government will notice, and care, and act.

Clearly this was naive, but I was astounded to realize that this is a controversial position. “People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences,” opines Donald Trump. What’s interesting for me is that Brantley and Writebol are essentially unimpeachable, character-wise: medical professionals who’ve risked their own lives to save others. I can only imagine what he would have said had the two Americans in peril been scofflaws or scammers. Some variation of “Kill them now, throw away the bodies,” I suspect.

Reading through the shockingly long list of tweets from Trump’s supporters, I found that what surprised me wasn’t the level of ignorance about how ebola is transmitted, or the level of resulting paranoia, but the schadenfreude, the “That’s what you get for going to Africa.” It’s a curse cast against all travelers, a sense that once you leave the country, that’s it; you’re on your own. I cannot help but think that—as in the case of much schadenfreude—this sentiment is fueled as much by jealousy and covetousness as it is by fear and willful callowness. Many people want to travel, and to make the world “a better place,” like Brantley and Writebol were doing. (Say what you want about the religious directive of a mission—if they’re treating ebola patients, they’re making the world a better place). Most people don’t have the courage to do either. I think that the Brantley/Writebol situation writes this in large print: They were brave when you were not—and that realization is corrosive. It corrodes the heart, mind, and spirit, so that when you hear of their peril, you say: “I was right all along: That’s what you get.” And you tweet about how Donald Trump is right, because you want to believe, in your heart of hearts, that you were, in fact, right all along: that the world is a scary place, that good people are abandoned, that it’s every bit as horrible as you feared it would be. Because if the story has a happy ending, it means that you could have been brave, too, and seen the world, and been a hero, but you weren’t. How much easier is it to cast these defenseless Americans to their deaths on Twitter?

Aug 012014


There is a sandwich shop on the first floor of the building where I live, and I am obsessed with it. My own sandwiches tend to be horrible, and these are exemplary, and I eat them at least five times a week, sometimes also for dinner. The last time I made a sandwich, I used that weird Finnish bread, but it was old, and crumbly, and fell apart, and then I decided I had made not a sandwich but a sort of “hash,” with Finnish bread and avocado and salmon, and it was disgusting.

I could talk for a very, very long time about the man who makes the sandwiches because every day, I try, in my kindergartner’s French (and I know I am kindergarten level because of my enjoyment of a series of books called “La Cabane Magique” that are specifically marked as appropriate for “7 ans”; currently we are dealing with a monstre under les mers) to charm him. Either I am too old for this, or he is uncharmable, even when I got my shirt caught on the door going out of the building, like a fish on a hook, and he stood there for a minute while considering whether or not to help free me, until he did. He did not smile. He shook his head. I am writing this as someone who typically has such friendly relations with her neighborhood retailers that (a) I have a standing invitation to Pakistan and (b) I had to stop going to a particular magazine store because every time I went in the dude in charge wanted to hug.

This, however, is not about that man. Yesterday, when I was going to get my sandwich, there was a baby carriage just chilling outside the door. I was going to push it out of the way when I realized there was an actual living baby inside. My initial reaction was to take a picture of it for Twitter, like I’d just seen a dog behind the wheel of a car, because seeing a baby alone in a baby carriage on the sidewalk is not something I have ever seen in New York. I laughed loudly enough that the mother, waiting for her own sandwich inside the shop, came out, and gently pushed the baby out of my way, further along the sidewalk, so I could get in.

I find this behavior fascinating and strange. A couple weeks ago, my friend S. and I were having a drink outside, and a young mother sat beside us. She was with her two kids, and after a certain point, she shooed them away. They went off to play, in the street. Literally, in the street. A small street, yeah, but a street nonetheless. S., who has lived in France much longer than I have, took in the scene alongside me, and we talked about how much easier it seemed to be, having a kid in France, than it seemed to be at home, in 2014.

I grew up playing in the street, and in sewage drains. My chief occupation as a fifth-grader was privately digging up a particular rock with a series of sticks, believing that with time and fortitude, I could at least reach lava. The last time I went home, the story about the woman arrested for leaving her kid in a (not-hot) car while she ran an errand was circulating, and my sister and I both asked our parents what they thought. They were equivocal. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” my dad said. But as my sister correctly recalled, we grew up waiting for them in the backseat of the car, while they were in the grocery store or the pharmacy or the bank. We lived in a neighborhood of kids, with a pool up the hill and swings down the road. Growing up in the suburbs reminded me of Lyra’s Oxford in The Golden Compass: We were not rabid, but we may have been feral. The story about the mom being arrested made me depressed, and anxious, and angry, not least because of the evident gap between what I remembered of childhood and what it had become. The fact that these two things were separated by time but not geography was unsettling.

It is easier when massive cultural shifts are really just about the geography. I’m not sure I expect to age into a different culture in the same, physical place where I grew up, but I understand that in coming to a different country, I’m assuming an entirely different set of mores. For example, one in which it is not a felony to leave a baby in a carriage on the sidewalk.

In many ways, it is much easier being in a country other than your own. I mean, I miss my dentist, terribly. Friends and family, obviously. But so much of what happens here is either a strange, new delight—fireworks on July 14! five weeks of vacation! babies just hanging out on street corners, doing their own thing!—or not my problem. When the public square five minutes’ walk is tear-gassed during an demonstration: not my country, not my politics, not my problem, except for how the tear gas is between me and the Habitat store, and I desperately need to replace my subletter’s duvet cover.

As S. watched and I marveled over the physical fact of two young children playing in the street—the way I surely would have, if it were my mom and my sister and my childhood—we talked about the difference between being an expat and an immigrant. This is her distinction, her idea: She lives here, speaks the language, raised her children here, carries the passport; she’s an immigrant, she says. Immigrants are staying; expats look homeward, in all things. I wouldn’t even call myself an expat, though I’ve lived here for over a year now: I go home too often, for one thing, and for another, there’s something dashing about expats I just don’t have. Expats don’t eat pistachios off the floor, which is not something I do often, but is something I just did. I’m in transit.

I’m not sure in transit is a tenable situation. Really what it is is a quasi-mindful decision to not make a choice, to have the cake while eating it. I know people complain about that expression, but to me it is the underlying principle, and problem, with a life spent in transit: that these days spent cherry-picking the best of two hugely different, often contradictory cultures feel like they’re being spent on credit. But they’re not: They are paid out of an ever-dwindling account. On a bad day, I ask myself what my best friend’s mom asks every time I see her: When am I going to settle down? On a good day—and I think, paradoxically, because the answer to the previous question is “Not today,” there are more good days than bad—being in transit—when I’m not sure what tomorrow, or next week, or next month will bring—requires you to put a tremendous amount of stock into today, and to say: “Am I doing what I want to be doing today?” The answer so far is yes, or near enough. I remember not being in transit, and looking so forward to tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. I think “settling down” gets too much credit. A life in transit—a life of more or less continuous change—can in some weird, magical way, make us incredibly invested in the present. It is an easy life to screw up—I’ve done that already—because it can be about “no day” as easily as it is about “today”—which is to say, it’s the sort of lifestyle that makes forgetting to pay your student loans very, very easy. I hope I won’t do it too long; I hope I won’t do it after the weird, unexpected magic has dissipated. It hasn’t yet. When am I settling down? Not today. Maybe tomorrow. But not today.

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