The UK in Pints, Part One: London, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin

I took a two-week trip in May and June last year, but I hadn’t published my daily travelogue until now. It’s a different one for me; there’s whimsy in here, yes, but also a lot of emotional heaviness because this trip fell just after some pretty major and very frightening health stuff with my mom, and that wasn’t even the only hard thing happening then. Because of that, what follows has the good tourism stuff, museums and concerts and cemeteries and my pint-a-day goal I have for some trips, but it’s also a story of what happens to natural wonder when everything else is so very hard. If you too are feeling griefy, this will, I think, either be right up your alley or something you might prefer not to read today. Take care of you, please.

Days 0-1: 25-26 May

On our departure day, I have zero pints, because I’ve come strongly into part of my heritage in the last three years: I have officially, medically become a high-strung middle-aged white woman. I realized during my 2021 trip to Paris and Barcelona that I’ve developed some serious plane fear, afraid of both ceasing to exist and a substantial body of writing never being published in the event of my death.

The second could be somewhat remedied with planning and credential sharing, but I haven’t yet, because I spent the six weeks before we left on this trip afraid of my mom dying, my cat dying, or both. It’s miraculous that I managed to squeak onto the plane with my passport and a tentative ability to be calm, or at least to fake it long enough to get through things.

After an experiment with flight Ativan in March 2023 that did not end to my satisfaction because I could still feel feelings, I have beta blockers and Ativan in my little orange backpack. This rules out plane booze but makes my fear sufficiently remote that I can be the comforter during a bumpy landing in London that fucks my partner up a bit.

Zero pints on day zero, but also zero panic attacks or threats of them, so we’ll call it victory.

Wheatpaste street art of a line drawing of a frog with long legs that weave around each other. The frog has green spots and holds a sign saying, "My legs... wtf"

We arrive in London on day one, and I manage to keep my shit together through deplaning from the very back of the plane, the slowest and strangest stops in human movement I’ve seen while getting off a plane and out of the jetway. An alarm interrupts luggage retrieval; after that, we have several minutes of no movement at all, during which I watch my partner shut down. He’d been fine and functional until that long lag, and after that, I put my hand on the rudder for the rest of our trip into the city. We make it through customs and to a sweaty trip on the tube, a walk down a chaotic and tourist-riddled street, and finding and checking into our hotel.

When we get into our hotel room, our sole planned posh accommodations for the trip, I take a shower, talk with all the lucidity you can expect for someone who’d slept one shaky hour in the last 24, and then collapse in bed for seven hours. I wake up at 11:30 pm to eat a sandwich and drink some water, and then I sleep for another seven hours. I love this bed, I love this too-fancy hotel. I wish we could stay here for days and days instead of in the mid-range hotels and good-enough Airbnbs that are in our future, but it just didn’t work out that way.

On Saturday, I am once again a person and so can start the trip in earnest.

Day two: not a pint but a champagne flute (27 May)

I like to get myself through difficult times with bribes. Once I realized that I never stopped responding to incentives of snacks or other treats, life got simpler. And so, when we booked our posh hotel with my partner’s substantial employee discount, we also booked afternoon tea in the lobby. I get the kind with sparkling wine and drink it while eating all the tiny sandwiches, perfect scones, and fussy little pastries I can. I ate well enough on the plane, but it feels like a warm welcome after a rough few days. Or weeks. Or months. It’s been a hard year, to be honest, and it accelerated mercilessly in the weeks before we left.

I enjoy the sparkling wine.

After, in the hour available before we head to London Euston station for a train north, we walk down Piccadilly and into Green Park. Dodging the people there, obnoxious Americans but also lots and lots of oblivious people from other countries, I no longer wish we were staying at the fancy hotel any longer than we are. When I only needed to be cocooned in a room, it was perfect. The moment I left, though, I realized we were in the wrong place. It made sense to reserve the extravagant hotel for the day we’d be spending the most time inside, but not after.

As we take the train north toward Glasgow, we learn we’re going to be delayed enough that we might miss our connection at Carlisle. This problem is solved by our connecting train from Carlisle to Glasgow being canceled entirely. We learn this partially from the garbled and too-quiet conductor announcements, partially from my endless app refreshing, and partially by following people from our train to a bus connection area, where we’re guided onto a fleet of buses and minibuses without any ticket checking at all. The likelihood for exploiting this vulnerability, as we say in my job, is low, but it’s weird anyway. Free trip to Glasgow!

We arrive the night of a big football match and have to navigate some of the drunkest people I have ever seen as we walk to our hotel. I’ve lost a lot of my ability to consciously feel terrified across the pandemic, so instead I realize how uncomfortable I am by how fast I’m walking. My partner mostly keeps up but has to ask me to slow down a couple of times. When he stops to light a cigarette, his first after six hours of transportation, I almost vibrate out of my body watching him conduct entirely normal lighter operations and finally get the cigarette lit, something that spans at most 20 seconds but feels like ages, the latest in the horror-inflicted temporary stretching of time I’ve experienced lately. We dodge blurry and loud men, the occasional barf splatter, and glittering sprays of broken glass on the sidewalk as we navigate. Unlike Oakland, these are bus shelter windows or signs and not from smashed-in car windows. We travel to see new things.

The hotel locked their front entrance due to the football match, which I learn is a very normal precautionary measure in Glasgow on nights like this. After determining that we are not hooligans but merely confused people with a reservation, a weary but friendly hotel employee lets us in. From our room, we order Indian takeout, thinking that it would be hard to go wrong with that in the home of tikka masala.

I’m wrong. My veg with butter sauce is sweet, creepy sweet, and I’m hungry enough that I burn my mouth on it because I don’t have the patience to wait, even though it’s objectively gross. At least I got one good meal today; I miss the tower of treats.

Day three: pint and bonus pints (28 May)

In the weeks leading up to this trip, friends and coworkers asked why exactly I was going to these specific places in nearly peak season, something I’ve avoided on almost all other international trips.

“Well, um,” I started, “I needed a vacation. And also, sometimes I buy tickets to things.”

Six months ago, I saw an Instagram post from a singer I like, saying he would be touring with a different band than usual. He’s good and puts on a good show, and I thought: why not. I’ll buy a ticket to their London show, and I’ll either find another reason to go there or sell it. I ended up in New York in March for similar reasons.

A couple of weeks later, I learned that another band I’d come to love across the pandemic, when I had nothing but time to stalk around my neighborhood inhaling new music at a rate I hadn’t since I was a teenager, would be touring. I made a rule during lockdown: if a band I loved was touring, and especially if they were in their 50s or older and not guaranteed to tour again, I would go. It’s how I saw Bauhaus and Blondie in the same week in 2022, and I saw Love and Rockets a few days before this trip for similar reasons. And so I learned VNV Nation would end their short UK tour in Glasgow, and I bought a ticket.

I also sent a text to my partner: hey, want to do something unlikely? He did. He usually does.

The day of the Glasgow show, we head to the site of my first actual pint on this trip: Ubiquitous Chip, well regarded, and said to be a fine place to try haggis if you don’t usually eat it. In ordinary life, I’m pretty strictly pescatarian, but I make exceptions when traveling. It feels stupid to go to Scotland and not try haggis, and so I do, a fancy venison version with a lovely sauce we both dip our fingers into once we move the plate to the edge of the table, sneaking just one more little drip of the sauce, licked surreptitiously from a fingertip, before the waiter collects them. I drink a pint of their exclusive beer, Liquid Chip, to go with the haggis and potatoes and other lovely things we summoned. I finish with elderflower custard and feel well taken care of.

It healed some things. The day started with a shitty disagreement with my partner, and because I am worn down to a sad nub, I immediately began sobbing. I tried to escape into the shower to get myself together in privacy, but the shower stopped draining as I washed my hair. I fished some hanks of stranger hair out of the drain, feeling my disgust at a manageable distance, but had to ask my partner to come in and help. He fished more stranger hair out of the drain, and he gagged, and then I gagged too because the situation became more immediate to me with his reaction. Then we both gagged, though at least he wasn’t wet, naked, and crying while gagging. The drain worked, and I finished the shower. I cried once more before we left for lunch. For luck, let’s say.

Or we could be more accurate and say it’s because I’m so emotionally overtaxed from the last several weeks that my continued functioning is a study in stubbornness and a willingness to get things done at my own long-term expense.

And after all that, I took my emotionally devastated act on a plane. Great!

After lunch, we have an aimless wander. We visit the Kibble Palace in the Glasgow Botanic Garden. Over Christmas 2020, my partner and I went to see lights in Kensington, a town between our homes in California. A chain-link fence outlined a demolished lot, left barren with delayed construction, and neighbors had laminated stories and poems to hang. One of them was about the narrator drinking scotch and reminiscing with his dog. The dog shares that he’d always felt betrayed by the name of the Kibble Palace, since it was neither made of nor full of kibble.

I find the Kibble Palace to be beautiful but full of hot air and so very many people taking wedding pictures. I don’t feel betrayed, but I do feel inclined to exit quickly.

Next, we take the subway south and then walk a long half hour through a desolate part of the city that, even once it gives way to shops and denser streets, has very little shade and feels underserved. It reminds us of West Oakland: not scary, just stark. We take this two-hour journey out of the way to pick up a book I ordered from a local queer bookstore. I do this when I travel: these little field trips meant to get me to new parts of the city, to learn things in places other than museums. I have a bad feeling, though, because so much has already gone wrong today and this week and in the last six weeks, that they’re not going to have my book, and I know I’m not going to be able to handle it the way I’d like if that’s true. I emailed them about it the day before, trying to get any kind of confidence that this is going to go well, but I didn’t get a response.

After ten minutes of good-natured research, the person who runs the shop confirms it’s not there but in a shipment that didn’t get picked up due to vacation schedules. “We can send it to an address here once we get it on Wednesday, though!” they cheerfully tell me. A totally reasonable response, and I manage to say, “Oh, we’ll be out of town by then, but I’ll email you with thoughts on what to do,” pretty certain already that I won’t be emailing about it, mostly saying it to end the conversation so I can take my whole deal outside and away from this situation.

I have no interest in being punitive about this, but I also can’t engage in disappointment or optional complications right now. My partner tries to “fix” it, offering up ideas for where to send it, a friend coming through town later, and I cannot take it, I cannot fucking take it, I just want to not think about this and other broken shit anymore, and my chest feels like a pile of glass shards, and I say the tersest, most final no I may have ever said, enough that he physically recoils, puts his hands up, says, “Whoa, okay,” and thank fuck he drops it.

But I’m too jagged and sharp to act normal, and we manage to get on a bus that actually accepts our payment. I’m too fucked up to even wear a mask like I usually would, and I pour all my energy into not having the big giant sob I want to have, most likely really need to have, and I can tell my partner feels how brittle I am and thank god he leaves me alone.

I get an hour in the hotel room by myself after this, and I don’t cry like I hoped, like I need. I do stretches, I write a little, I read. I text friends and stare into space. I try to will the hard feelings away, something that has never, ever worked, even though I’ve been trying it for almost 30 years at this point. Instead, I hope dancing and drinking will help, because that sometimes actually does work, at least for the span of an evening. And that is how I measure my well-being now: in spans of mere hours. I try to plan for the long term, but honestly, if I manage to keep it together for the next hour, I feel I’m doing pretty well. Chain enough of those hours together, and you end up with the occasional day that isn’t a complete trainwreck.

In the evening, we see my show, and we play the same game we always do when walking to events where people might look a certain way: we spot our people. Black hoodies and undercuts, people in their 40s and 50s with more piercings than average, band shirts and little signifiers of not-quite-ordinary people. We both have teal hair, and I have pink and purple in mine too, so I suspect we get read similarly, and that feels nice. The world feels full of barbs and traps for me lately, so any sense of belonging helps a little. Most things are bad, but I can be part of something I like every so often.

It’s a good show. The band plays a solid 2.5-hour set, longer than any band I’ve ever seen, and I suppose that’s what happens when you come to these almost-hometown shows. I drink three pints of Strongbow, a wild bargain at £5 each, and feel beautiful connection with everyone around me. Then someone drags her fucking boyfriend up next to her (and oh, so many problems start with someone’s fucking boyfriend getting dragged into the picture), and he acts like I’m not there and leans against my arm, and so I furiously dance with elbows for the next three songs like a chicken on speed until finally he gets the fuck away from me.

I watch the last half hour from the back, where people are spaced out more, and am happier.

After, we go to a chippy, and I drink an Irn Bru because of course I do. We eat fried fish and chips covered in brown sauce with little two-pronged wooden forks that my Scottish coworker informs me are ridiculous and avoidable when I send a picture. We conclude our meal with a deep-fried Mars Bar. The drunks are more endearing than scary tonight, subdued by it being Sunday and there being no exciting football matches. I watch the young women in their uncomfortable shoes, the parade of fake tan, the grudging and resigned feeling I get from the groups of both girls and boys, like they’re going into battle with each other instead of heading out for a night of dancing and perhaps fucking. It seems grueling. I hope it’s better than it seems. I never had the strength or interest to be part of that culture when I was the right age for it, and somehow I manage to have even less now. Did I ever have energy for anything? The year has been too full of bad news for me to be able to conjure the memory of it. Maybe I always dragged myself to and fro. Maybe it just stung less because I was younger but was actually always the same old slog. Maybe I just see it better now.

Day four: birra chiara (29 May)

I sleep in the next day, and it helps, though my dreams remain fucked up. At least the day doesn’t start with a disagreement. My partner asks how I am after I come to, and I say, “Above the ground and not crying, which I think we both will agree is an improvement over yesterday.”

He finds this less funny than I do.

We start the day at Tim Hortons, which has an outpost in Glasgow. I send my Canadian family pictures with Timbits and my flat white. From there, we talk to the Glasgow Tenement House, which shares wonderful themes with the Tenement Museum in Manhattan and the Icelandic museum I went to in 2014 that showed how people got by until the early 1900s, all the glorious minutiae of what it was like to live in another era. One letter confirms a holiday reservation and asks Miss Toward to bring her ration card and a jar of marmalade on her trip. We see glove stretchers and other items meant to extend the life of clothes, medicated toilet paper for when using pieces of newspaper was unwise, and jam jars with handwritten labels dated June 1961. We learn about what bed-closets are and when they were made illegal (1900) and why (preventing disease transmission in a small, shared space, or at least that was the idea, which… fair, it turns out).

We wander around after, through residential neighborhoods, back to downtown with its wide pedestrian area. We get coffee and visit the Glasgow outpost of Forbidden Planet, where I get local comics. We attempt to visit a cemetery near us, but it’s closed for a bank holiday neither of us were aware of. Instead, we wander to Glasgow Green, then along the river on both sides, and back up toward our hotel. We’re both still jetlagged and getting hungry at weird times, so we force ourselves to stop for dinner, lest everything close before our bodies catch up with the clock. It’s here that I have today’s pint: a Peroni in the big glass, company for my pasta and fish. Not the pub I’d intended when I proposed returning to this goal, once I’d created for our 2017 trip to London, but in an Italian restaurant with an Italian waiter, it feels as thematically appropriate as I could hope. It was also literally the only beer on draft.

Detail of a hotel room mural with a speech bubble containing the words "SUNS OOT TAPS AFF"

I’m grateful I feel less jagged today, but I’m still not okay. I’m not sure I’ll be okay again during this trip. I’m not sure I’ll ever be okay again, really.

When I described the days leading up to this trip to my therapist the day before we flew to London, she stopped me. “You’re describing a lot of other people’s feelings,” she said. “What about yours?”

I thought about that. “It’s like I got hit with a blunt, full-body force,” I say after a minute. “Like a car crash where you don’t have visible injuries, but in the days after, you find this or that fascia that’s been strained or torn, or purple traces of bruises that take time to come to the surface from the middle. Little hurts emerge, and then maybe later, big ones.”

It’s what I’ve thought of ever since, on a plane and a train, in a hotel bed and in a minibus, feeling how much I couldn’t handle being spoken to harshly by a Scottish soccer hooligan. I am still finding the damage.

A friend is going through an extremely stressful international move while I’m on this trip, and I tell her that I’ve felt myself emotionally maxed out, so much that I don’t react at all to things I normally would. “Yeah,” she says, “repeated trauma has that effect.”

I send her a series of emojis: sob, melt, scream. Some things are more accurate when wordless.

Day five: one pint to exhaustion (30 May)

I lean into stereotypes. Wearing my Bauhaus shirt, I go to not one but two cemeteries as part of today’s itinerary. One is small and low key, an open gate next to a church with no sign, graves from the late 1700s and early 1800s, lots of merchants. Wall-mounted stones indicate that the plot is the property of its inhabitant; good to know. The Glasgow Necropolis is from the more recent era of burials, a for-profit cemetery that took over the burial business from being exclusively the provenance of churches. The sun bears down at midday. I lean in harder than just my t-shirt, black pants, and boots, deploying my purple umbrella to keep from completely roasting as I read the epitaphs: all these Agneses, these elaborate inscriptions saying not only who died but also who mounted the memorial. Credit where credit is due.

Day six: pint on a boat (31 May)

I know I’m having a rough time when I resolve to write a service piece about whatever I’m dealing with. Today, I vow to write about how to book bus and ferry passage from Glasgow to Belfast, how to find your bus, how the bus/ferry exchange works, and how best to be ready for it. The ticket was light on details and heavy on implication: water is involved, so a ferry will come into play at some point, but it wasn’t clear if the bus drove onto the ferry or what. It turns out to be bus to ferry, which you board on foot, and then boarding a second bus on the other side. Makes sense, but a couple sentences explaining what to expect would have eased my troubled soul.

Something that made everything else make sense later: the ferry between Buchanan, near Glasgow, and Belfast is primarily a car ferry. Foot passengers were a distinct minority. This made it make sense that:

  • So few passengers were on at first, followed by a giant wave of them after everyone parked and came upstairs
  • So many families were on board
  • Teenagers were everywhere

The teenagers were mostly well behaved (except for you, group of shitty kids shouting at people on the smoking deck from the sun deck), but there were multiple roving groups of them, and it’s a lot of activity and noise. “Oh,” I thought, “this is a Family Experience.” Meanwhile, I was dressed all in black drinking a Strongbow at 1 pm. I was not there for a family experience. I was there because I associate ferries with nice views and quiet, an association that I held much more loosely after this voyage.

I write this from the hotel bed in Belfast: it all worked out. We made our connections, we found our hotel, and we hit all the marks. I had a pint on a boat, I got to sit and stare at the sea for a couple hours, and I learned about a completely different class of private ferry. Hygge rooms! Private suites! Cinemas and sit-down restaurant spaces! And a safe place for families to let their older kids roam around and feel a little independence.

Just a bit different than the simpler, quieter government ferries I’m used to, which was hard on another day with weird sleep and travel stress.

Today, I met the Big Fucking Fish of Belfast (usage: “Turn left at the Big Fucking Fish to get to the hotel”), and therefore I am already halfway toward navigating with confidence. Also, I recognized the hotel next to the Belfast bus station because Atlas Obscura has it listed as the most-bombed hotel in the world. Hello, most-bombed hotel.

Belfast is tougher than I am, but most cities, countries, and people seem like that to me right now.

Day seven: fancy pint (1 June)

I wish I felt fewer feelings.

It’s deeply weird to have a weep in the Ulster Museum’s Troubles room and then pass bars full of happy people, chatting people, social people, drinking people spilling joyfully onto the street, while longing for a quiet pint in a dark corner with my dark thoughts and having Thursday afternoon Belfast unable to provide. Wrong season, I suppose.

Instead I get tacos (Belfast tacos! Actually decent tacos!) and eat them in my hotel room while texting with a friend who was here two months ago and knows the feelings I’m talking about. I am far from the only person to have a weep in the Troubles room.

It’s strange to feel quietly effective museuming like that, where they slowly build a story, skillfully adding weight after weight, artifacts and context, until there are the feelings, reasonable and unquestionable, right in the forehead and the sinuses, waiting to come out. I managed to mostly cry through my nose until I asked my partner for a tissue, and he responded to me with the soft feelings voice, and then all bets were off. I used all the tissue. He reminded me that we didn’t have to stay, but it was so interesting, and I was glad to be there despite everything, and also I left right after we finished the exhibit to continue crying under a tree outside.

Feelings aren’t far from me right now, so it’s not so surprising, but I really had enjoyed not crying for the last four days. Time to reset the counter: this feelings site has gone 0 days without a crying incident.

No promises for tomorrow.

I end up getting today’s pint in relative privacy. We reserve a snug at the gorgeous Crown Pub. For ten pounds, we get an entire enclosed booth, with walls just above eye height—meaning that as people pass by and want to see if it’s free, we get to see them rise onto their toes to peer over and then disappear again. No, this one is taken. Find your own snug, please.

I have a Guinness, finally, and then a Magners, which I enjoy more. Being here reminds me of drinking in my early 20s, just after I moved to Seattle, when I learned that hard cider was a thing. It was around the same time that I learned to like beer. I reread my early-20s LiveJournal during the pandemic, surprised it was still online, and was taken aback at how much I talked about drinking. I was generally pretty responsible about it (particularly since I didn’t drink much in college and rarely got hangovers until my later 20s), but I mentioned it so frequently in the way of something new and possessed of so much joy. It was the center of a lot of my socializing: hey, let’s meet at the bar! We can have small-brewery beer, we can have artfully made cocktails at the former mortuary, we can drink cheap well drinks at the metal bar and feel briefly well-tended by this big bad world.

It happens less now, by frequency and volume alike. I call myself Two-Drink Maximum, a joke and a guideline. Alcohol lands differently for me on trips, same as coffee, and so I have a little more space to operate.

Still, I’m halfway through my second drink when the last-call bell sounds, its brassy tone a match for the electrified gas lamps, pressed-tin ceiling, carved-wood details, and the lacquered gryphons that overlook our snug. Today mostly felt like hurt and jangled nerves, but hiding in a booth deciphering scratched-in graffiti and interpreting the sounds from the bar around us helped.

After, we get cheap pizza, in line with drunks and drunk-adjacent sorts from Belfast and so many other places. Wherever we go, we’re rarely the only ones with American accents. We walk home, where we pass people panhandling, people who have just left bars, people who are figuring out the considerable balance of their night. As we pass one couple, the guy calls the woman an ungrateful cunt, and my partner and I both freeze, wondering how much of this was local vernacular with less sting than we felt and how much I should have turned around and said, “You know, the dick can’t be that good, can it? Do you really need this?” But the best-case scenario for that is both of them angry at the intrusion, and just as likely is the guy taking it out on her after in some way. We stay silent and afraid but watching and listening until the couple turns onto a different street while we continue straight, toward our hotel.

We eat our pizza while watching Naked Attraction, which hadn’t arrived on American Netflix yet, a best-of episode with some of the more interesting guests, including a woman who called herself the top 45-50 MILF in her region (and really, cheers to you, babe) and a 75-year-old nudist with a strong fuck-it attitude who wanted to explore his pansexuality. I’m surprised at how many different kinds of bodies there are, how many trans and nonbinary people, how often it’s not straight and cis. It’s still garbage, to be clear, and one contestant is rude about different kinds of labia in a way that goes tragically unchecked, but it’s less bad than I expected. Having it immediately followed with a recent TERF “documentary,” though, removes some of the surprise sweetness. “NO,” I bark, lunging to the remote control to turn the TV off before explaining to my partner what just happened. I’ve managed not to bump into much of the UK’s current spate of trans hate, and then there it is, casually aired after a relative affirming show, like all sweetness must be chased with the sour, bitter, and hateful. I supply my own sourness right now and do not need more from other sources, particularly the bigoted kind.

Day eight: honorary pint (2 June)

I want all of my breakfasts to be fabulous spreads brought to me on a tray, silver pots of coffee and tea, tiny flaky pastries, piles of scrambled eggs and sauteed mushrooms. It’s a leisurely morning with food and reading, finally using the excellent shower (with working drain and no hanks of stranger hair to be found), and tumbling out of the hotel at noon to check out and leave our bags with the front desk.

Today is an activity that more people have lobbied for than anything else in this trip: the “I swear it’s better than you think” Titanic Museum in Belfast. The “it’s not like the ones in Branson or Las Vegas” museum. Multiple friends with very different viewpoints told me as much, and then the bartender on the fancy ferry with zero incentive to lie said the same thing.

It’s what I think of as a pop museum, a for-profit thing that laces spectacle and education together, and more artfully than some, it’s true. They illuminate class differences and all the roles passengers had via individual stories, building a sense of foreboding so that even our tourist-heavy flocks go subdued and quiet, because we all know what’s coming. It does a nice job of showing how the ship company influenced Belfast and how Belfast influenced the company.

I feel the unfamiliar desire to do some genealogy research. I grew up, like so many white Americans, with declarations of our Irishness and Germanness, but more than ever, I wonder what relatives of mine might have hammered bolts in brutal conditions, or spun flax, or longed to move to the country I think about leaving at least a couple times a week in this era. In the Tenement House in Glasgow, I had the same thought I often do in museums of that era, that I am wealthy beyond my ancestors’ imagining, but I think it again here: I am the satisfaction of dreams they didn’t even dare to have. Could I quit work forever and financially survive? Absolutely not, but I could quit work for a few years if I knew I could return to a job like the one I have now. I have clothes for all seasons, and while I often darn my tights and replace the soles of my shoes, I do it by choice rather than for survival. My maternal grandmother was born in 1920 and quit school in junior high because she had one dress and other girls made fun of her for being poor. With the exception of certain necessities, I could forgo clothes shopping for a few years and be occasionally annoyed but likely not substantially inconvenienced.

After, we head to the train station, where I don’t have a pint, because I’m trying to figure out a system. Is the QR code in the email my ticket, or is it my ticket to get a ticket? (It is the former.) When do we line up? Is it that line? Are we going to the same place? Are seats assigned? Will they have luggage storage in the train, or will we have to do awkward things like suitcases in seats, where I’ll feel weird and wrong the whole time?

I used to love this part of travel, and now I appreciate it in a more tepid way, grateful that I can navigate unfamiliar systems and do just well enough to get what I need. I used to get deep satisfaction from it, though, old scarred gifted kid shit about successfully navigating something complicated being evidence that I deserved to live another day. Now, it’s more remote, and that’s better.

Life before this trip was already steeped in constant navigation, which diminishes the old enjoyment further. I’m wildly grateful that we chose English-speaking countries this time; as recently as a couple years ago, I liked figuring out how to navigate France and other countries despite my paltry language skills. I assume I will again someday, but for now, optional challenges just sound exhausting. The longer I’m on this trip, the more I assume I’ll be pulling out of Burning Man this year. [Ed note from the future: I most certainly did, and it was the right choice for a thousand reasons.] Maybe I’ll go again next year, but right now, hauling a ton of stuff into a brutal environment, where sleep is difficult to come by and privacy nonexistent, sounds punishing without enough redeeming qualities. I felt this a couple days into the trip, after a couple rounds of navigating unfamiliar public transportation and figuring out how I wanted to get my next meal. Small challenges like when will I get to wash my clothes again are the largest I can handle right now. That and “I know I should eat local stuff more, but Tim Hortons is right there, and I’m on the edge of being brain-broken hungry.”

Small challenges are okay too, I remind myself.

I did not allow for this possibility for a long time, but I remind myself that no one is warmed by throwing myself on the fire. 

To that end, I do an uncharacteristic rush through the Titanic Museum’s hall of survivors after my partner goes ahead of me and texts me that it’s pretty affecting. Teary, he said. I already feel overwhelmed by the sense of impending disasters that’s grown in the last hour, so I read some of the transcripts as I go through but don’t stop to listen. I don’t feel like crying more today. I understand enough for now. No one’s pain is justified or lessened by me upsetting myself.

When I meet him outside after, I say, “We’re the worst species.” It’s an overreaction to the last act of the museum, which goes from solemn witnessing of tragedy to “here’s a guy who was really into submarines.” He’s done interesting and important work, but the way they shift to trivia from his background gives the strong sense that his most important contribution to this work as as one of the financial backers of the museum. The exhibit got into the more interesting science of the depth of the wreckage and their work with the US Navy, but it’s weird to switch to the Bill Paxton part of the story, basically, after a room that talked about the Halifax System for numbering bodies and their associated effects, how burials at sea happened both when bodies were too decomposed to bring to land and because they ran out of coffins and had to switch to returning the bodies to the water. It almost evens out, but then you enter the media room, complete with Celine Dion belting it out once again, Kate Winslet dolls, a ship’s prow you can stand on to pretend to be Jack Dawson, and a deeply weird (yet undeniably accurate) dive into weird Hollywood glitz at the end of a somber exploration of classism, engineering hubris, and death.

We’re not the worst species, maybe, but we’re very, very weird sometimes. I wonder what it feels like for people who work there who knew their recent ancestors worked in the shipbuilding industry, maybe on the ship itself. Maybe, in their less-grueling jobs where they direct clueless tourists and don’t lose their hearing from hammering in small spaces, they too are the satisfaction of their ancestors’ greatest dreams.

When we arrive at our accommodations in Dublin, I feel the disappointment in my chest. It’s a sinking feeling but also itchy, because the tiny room stinks of smoke and mold. I lay on the bed (which takes up roughly 70 percent of the apartment’s footprint) and, to satisfy my sudden curiosity, begin looking up nearby hotels using my partner’s discount. I’d booked the Airbnb because Dublin hotels were, even in comparison to London, shockingly expensive, and this was the best compromise I could find when no discounted rooms were available for our dates.

We both spend a half hour convincing ourselves separately that this is fine, but at about the same time, a friend tells me it’s worth reaching out to Airbnb customer service, and my partner comes back in from a walk around the block to say that this place is going to wreck his allergies, make him snore terribly, and cause us both to have terrible sleep for the three nights we’re supposed to be there.

I get deep into Airbnb customer service and then realize it’s fully 8 pm, and I need to know where I’m sleeping tonight. I book the hotel that’s now available with my partner’s substantial work discount before I learn if we’ll get refunded for this tiny, stinky, dirty place.

The contrast is dizzying. We go from a smoky, dingy room with worn-out bed linens and a dirty hand towel in the bathroom to a hotel that named Grace Kelly’s favorite suite after her and features a story of JFK’s visit on their key card packets. The oak-and-leather luggage rack is nicer than any of my furniture at home. The bed feels like an embrace. There are cookies in the tea tray, monogrammed slippers on the floor by the bed, and bathrobes on wooden hangers. The elaborate wardrobe has multiple compartments for specialty items I will probably never own, some of which contain a minibar and his-and-hers umbrellas.

I promptly lose my mind, only in the good way this time.

A white woman in a black hoodie and black skirt printed with red hearts lies face down, arms over her head on a hotel room bed with nice white linens

By the time we get resettled, it’s too late to go out to dinner, so we manage to get a room service order in just before their offerings get cut in half for the reduced overnight menu. We receive a tureen of some of the best fish chowder I’ve ever had, exceptional butternut squash risotto, finely made fish and chips, creme brulee, and the day’s honorary pint: an Irish coffee, which has a thin piece of chocolate floating on the foam with the hotel name and logo in gold.

A table with a white tablecloth holes an Irish coffee with a chocolate disc on top, a silver spoon next to it. Other silverware and dishes are out of focus in the background.

I lose my mind again. It’s nice to be overwhelmed with good things. I’m not used to it in this era.

The cherry on top is having our Airbnb refund confirmed.

Once dinner is finished and we’ve moved the table out in the hallway to be cleaned up, we settle our next two nights in Dublin, booking a different discounted five-star hotel down the street.

An elaborate space in a hotel lobby with marble columns and gilded molding surrounding a polished wood-and-marble table with six white vases filled with blue-purple hydrangea and other flowers

I stay up too late, as it takes me a long time to cycle down after everything. The darkness in the room is possibly the most complete darkness I’ve experienced in a hotel. The curtain tracks overlap by about a foot, shutting out even the brightest morning light. I wish we could stay for another night, but one night to heal wrecked expectations is a joy beyond that which I could have hoped. It’s enough.

Conference Travel! Philadelphia and AWP 2022, March 19-26

Once again, I traveled in the tiny valley between large variant waves. This time: Philadelphia.

Day zero

My options for flights were red eyes, terrible connections (which I’m not doing in this era even if they’re not grueling, and maybe never again), and approximately two direct flights that didn’t leave at 11 pm. I got one of those and so leave SFO at about 1 pm, set to arrive in Philadelphia at nine. I still have to get up early to make it – not just Saturday early, but any-day early for me in this era. I depart from SFO’s new Terminal One, and I don’t say this often, but: it’s swank as fuck. It looks like a soft version of the well-lit, soft-edged Elysium rich people future, with huge pictures of Harvey Milk, art everywhere, and really interesting museum exhibits. I walk through a technicolor dream of flight attendant uniforms from the 60s and 70s and another little collection of scientific equipment of olde, which the part of me that enjoyed steampunk for 15 minutes before it was too much, too everywhere thrilled at. So much brass, all these rivets and tiny articulated pieces. The food is great too, and all local; they have The Little Chihuahua, Filipino food, even a Drake’s. It reminds me of Portland’s airport in the best way.

Brass scientific equipment behind glass

I get Filipino because there often aren’t veg-friendly options, and I like to seize the day. I write my daily fiction words at one of the many, many little desk spaces with both USB ports and power outlets. On the plane, I write in my journal and read a book and a half, which massively reassures me about my attention span, which I struggle with lately. It’s still there; it’s just really hard for it to work well with all of, you know, everything. But it’s waiting, and it tentatively emerges when it can, like when I have a five-hour flight and a backlog of books on my tablet. I read about horny, vengeful gods and tentative teachers in love. In this age, I give my brain whatever it will stay with.

We have a little turbulence out west, but it remains pretty smooth until about 45 minutes before landing. The pilot warns us that they’re going to circle the airport a little to try to find a less-choppy way through, so we knew… ish. I honestly couldn’t tell you how long the bad turbulence elapsed because my body lost all sense of time due to being submerged in terror. I’ve had a varying relationship with turbulence since I went to college and found myself on planes roughly twice a semester. I became really scared of it when I did some silly math and realized that flying more meant MORE CHANCES TO DIE, which… I mean, yes, technically that is true, but twice a very small figure remains a very small figure.

This math did not soothe my lizard brain.

Then I went on a flight in a four-person plane and had my hands on the controls while we went through turbulence, and I got a better sense of how small any plane is in the hands of nature, same as any size of boat in the ocean. Air is not by its nature still. And so I calmed down for several years.

After the last two, that calm has mostly left me, and now I spend turbulent times arguing with myself about my shitty, substandard estate planning efforts and how I haven’t put anything in place for a trusted loved one to find my unpublished writing should I die. And so that’s what I think about as we fell several feet (for several seconds? an hour? I don’t know?) more than once, causing me to hiss-yell fuck and elbow my neighbor as I slam my hands onto the armrests. This was not an outsized reaction on the flight; it really was awful. And I notice that two aqua-blue ceiling-mounted lights sometimes pop on by the toilet nearest me just before things get rocky again. I sit in my chair, seat belt cinched tight, one hand holding my tablet, the other holding the back of the seat in front of me, gazing at the ceiling, waiting to see if the blue light was about to tell me about more incoming terror. My brain cycles a litany of unhelpful things: they should have delayed us, I should have stayed home, nothing is worth this, I’m done with planes, etc.

I look up the details of taking Amtrak home later that night—90-110 hours, $600-$3,000—and resign myself to not being done with planes.

I take the train into the center city, annoyed at an unclear sign on the door I’d come out of that said BUY TICKETS INSIDE, except the kiosk inside was broken, and they actually meant buy tickets inside the train, and so I miss the first train because I didn’t want to jump on with no ticket and possibly get fined. Instead, I spend a not-unpleasant hour on a bench where the rain didn’t land, enjoying real air, thick and wet with spring showers, for the first time in almost 12 hours.

I emerge downtown to an actual Saturday night, drunk youths everywhere, which I didn’t anticipate, and so have to navigate happy people having fun while dragging my bag and feeling the bonelessness that sometimes comes after adrenaline recedes. After figuring out that the H&M and where I was staying shared a street number, I get in and collapse. Being a first day of a trip, my assignments were only to find where I was staying and feed myself. I summon Indian food, do after-midnight yoga to try to get my body to relax a little, and go to sleep after four, full of aloo gobi and still wondering a little about what I’m doing here.

I have an answer—I am here for AWP—but it still doesn’t feel like enough answer. But, like my winter trip, the goal is to remember wonder, discovery, and fun. I’ve asked myself, as nonjudgmentally as I could, if this is me starting to understand why some people like all-inclusive vacations and cruises, and maybe I’d be happier with the nerdier versions of those? But no, it’s not like that. I don’t want to stay on a resort with a rubber bracelet that entitles me to food, and I don’t want to be safely swaddled on a cruise ship doing the sampler platter of tropical countries, even if it was possible to avoid covid and norovirus. The goal is to learn to stop being a scared grump and recover the things I still like, deep down.

It is, alas, a lofty goal.

Day one

I, uh, sleep until 4:30. I wake up at one to pee, but I realize I have that wavery-edged feeling, slightly raw, that means it’s best if I slept more. And did I. I remind myself that this is acceptable for the first day of a trip like this in an era like this. The first goal is to actually relax, to be restorative when I can.

So I eat Indian leftovers and do LWH, which is where I began this post and got as far as this sentence.

After this, I mostly give into the fact that I was tired. I’ve talked some about first-day feelings over the years, and I’ve learned to meter my expectations, which has led to a drastic decrease in self loathing; always worthwhile. Lingering in my not-a-hotel around six pm, though, I realize: I am still so fucking tired. I’d finished Friday, after a full day of work and then not-uncomplicated packing, so tired I could barely form words, and then there were the twin stressors of Saturday’s solo travel and, you know, thinking for a little while that maybe I was going to die.

I order sushi, and fetching it from downstairs is the only time I leave my not-a-hotel-room today. It’s fine. Tomorrow will have stuff; today can be for regaining a little energy and enjoying a lot of nothing. As I’ve reminded myself a lot across the pandemic: when I have the energy to do things, I want to do them. In fact, it’s hard to stop me from doing them. However, browbeating myself into being a more vivid version of me when I’m exhausted rarely brings me toward anything I want.

I gleefully rewatch Umbrella Academy and put myself to bed.

Day two

A Philadelphia street with old brick houses, a narrow cobblestone lane, trees, and gaslamps

I have an appointment with a work friendly, and so I rise before noon. Just like that: the idea of walking around outside isn’t exhausting anymore. I meet my coworker (with whom I have worked for seven months but of course have never been in the same space with) for brunch a couple neighborhoods over from where I’m staying, which leads me on a lovely walk through the Gayborhood. We talk with an intensity I didn’t fully predict, wonderful stuff about the Prisoner’s Dilemma and cultural norms about communication and openness and how to change people’s minds. All that and bread pudding French toast too: fabulous. We part ways, and I walk east, wandering through historic parklet after historic parklet. This was once the potter’s field, and beneath us are all these unknown soldiers; this is where a typical rental house once sat, home to cobblers and a tavern and so many other things; this is where beekeeping was born and one of its seminal texts written. I walk until I get to the Irish Memorial and the Scottish… tribute to being awesome, I dunno. It’s a bunch of upright people, one with a sporran, which is an interesting contrast to the moving and rather devastating sculpture and explanatory plaques around the Irish one. They’re odd neighbors.

From there, I walk a little further to Penn’s Landing, which on a Monday is a fairly empty waterfront span that has the strong look of hosting summer musical events and other big crowds. My favorite part is on the walk back up via a bench-lined path that lists American firsts in Philadelphia: the first billfold, the first bank, the first mustard, library, performance of a play written in America, and gobs more—and, get this, some of them weren’t even done by Benjamin Franklin. I come to love this part of the city fast; I’m a plaque reader, but on the way back from the waterfront, I realize that if I stop and read every plaque, I will never get home.

This is a nice problem to have.

A blue historical sign for Lorzeno L Langstroth, 1810-1895, reading, "Born here, Langstroth revolutionized the beekeeping industy with his 1852 patented movable frame hive and his manual The Hive and the Honey-Bee. Both remain in use today. His innovations advanced beekeeping, pollination, and honey production worldwide.

I stop at home to sit for a minute and give my feet a rest, but I really do leave again, because today was my last really good chance to finally, finally go to the Mutter Museum. Of this I have no pictures because they aren’t allowed, so I’ll, uh, make you some images of words, because it’s not hard to do about that place. One version of the tour: I walk through and say hi to maladies so familiar they might as well be members of my family (rather than just belonging to members of my family): abnormal colons, ovarian cysts (I maintain mine was more impressive than one of the two I saw, but I’m not here to cyst swing at the long dead), bones showing what multiple myeloma’s effects look like. I skip the wall of wax figures of eye maladies but linger at the slices of brains that end in a single slice that kept most of two faces intact, empty eye holes above placid features. It isn’t a place for the queasy. I see a young guy in a black hoodie with a conjoined fetus skeleton design that wasn’t from the gift shop in front of a display of conjoined fetuses and skeletons have a little shudder and look quite creeped out. I was all in black and grey today, as I’ve tended more and more across the pandemic, and I fit in aesthetically among a lot of the people there. I won’t say we are all definitely gothy; I’m just saying a lot of us would fit easily into the aesthetic of certain clubs and dance nights with a musical and sartorial tendency. Only that.

I find I needed to deliberately swap museum buddies a few times. You know: museum buddies, the people you end up shuffling next to a lot as you make your way through a museum at a similar pace. One was an older white guy, maskless of course, in an exhibit all about the 1918 flu epidemic and Philadelphia. Others were little groups I didn’t trust not to say something tasteless in a place that I think deserves respect. I thought the museum did a good job addressing the eras of language about deformities and the varying ethics of how the types of things in the museum are collected, and I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to dipshits take potshots at dead people who’d had hard lives. Instead, I skipped around and was mostly ok. I had to double back to see the wall of skulls because it was so crowded when I first got in there, and once I had time, I was drawn in hard by the dead collector’s handwriting directly on the skulls with notes about their owners’ lives. The tightrope walker who died of a broken neck is the one that’ll stick in my head the most, and after that probably the several skulls of soldiers who died by suicide, who ended up overrepresented because of where the collector worked.

Dried or defleshed body parts, wet specimens in jars, translucent wax models of flesh and nerve, and skeletons from two people who died last century of a rare disease called FOP, who never met while alive. The gentleman died not long before his 40th birthday; the woman who donated her skeleton was touched by what he did and decided to donate her own skeleton, with the request that some of her jewelry collection be donated too. A small glass case next to their skeletons, all incorrect joins and painful looking spikes, contained a rhinestone tiara and earrings, among other things. It was so real and personal it hurt a little to look at.

I went through faster than I expected; I went through as fast as I should’ve. I spent a chunk at the gift shop, postcards of things I couldn’t take pictures of, earrings of arms, magnets. Not books, even though the curation felt made for me; I think I’ve read at least a quarter of what they have for sale in there. And I may go back later this week for hoodies. (In fact, I end up ordering them online while still in Philadelphia, in the interest of going easier on my book-stuffed luggage.)

I came home for LWH, and after that, I just… drift. I watch TV and write some more. I do yoga. I almost talk myself up to going out for food, but I step onto the sisal rug under the bed, and the skin of my feet twinges and says, “Oh, did you think you were putting us into shoes again? Fascinating.” So I eat the last of my leftovers and push the acquisition of new food off into tomorrow.

I make plans with another friend who lives here. I read events related to AWP and feel overwhelmed in a way I decide to regard as exciting.

Day three

Once again, I sleep later than I mean to, but I decide it means I need it. I get lunch at Pret-a-Manger (one of my very basic pleasures that I seek out when I end up in Pret territory) and get a story from the woman working there, who has matter-of-fact manager vibes. While we wait to see if their card reader will work, she tells me about the last day they were open before lockdown in March 2020. The card reader didn’t work then either, and, as she put it, “We were full of people, and they were all hungry.” So she gave people food for free.

I like her a lot.

Philadelphia's City Hall on a cloudy day

I take my food across the street to eat in front of City Hall, which looms in the nicest way. I realize I walked by a very clear view of it on my first night, but I was so fixated on getting to where I was sleeping that I completely missed it. It’s hard to miss, so it says something about how frazzled I was when I got into town.

There are picnic tables and other people who do things like eat lunch outside when it’s 55 degrees out. After that, I walk to Christ Church Burial Ground. I realized last night that I hadn’t scouted out a cemetery to visit, which would be a terrible omission now that I’m in the old part of the US again. Christ Church is where Ben Franklin and a bunch of other Revolutionary War luminaries are. I’m game. I figure it’ll be like the cemeteries in Boston, where I fell in love with roaming through cemeteries to begin with, but it’s, well, not. The Boston tombstones with their 400-year-old winged skulls and hourglasses tend to be carved from slate, and this cemetery tended toward marble. Marble, it turns out, kinda melts if it’s left outside for too long, and these have been outside for about 300 years in some cases. The pastor of the affiliated church noted in 1865 that some of the inscriptions were becoming hard to read, so he made a project of recording all of them, which is the only reason we know what most of them say. The cemetery has a number of plaques reproducing the recorded version, but almost none of the original stones are still legible. There are newer ones, tributes from societies and military brigade honors, but the originals are mostly blurry. Looking back across the graveyard, it reminded me of a grassy area filled with broken teeth. It was worth going, but it wasn’t what I usually expect when I take these detours.

From there, I go home to plot my way north to see a friend who lives outside of the city center. I return to Suburban Station, which isn’t the dark labyrinth it seemed like on Saturday night, when I was exhausted, dragging bags, and recently terrified. It’s… pretty easy to navigate, actually. I get my ticket, I follow signs, and I get right on the train. Oh. Right!

An open bottle of Yuengling beer with a cheesesteak sandwich sticking out of foiled paper.

I meet my friend at a station not far from where she lives, and I get to see how regular people live in a new-to-me place and pet her cats, two of my favorite things. She takes me to a cheesesteak place near her, and we both get the regular with American cheese and a beer. I get a Yuengling, because I am here. This sandwich represents more meat than I may have eaten in the entire last decade. I nibble it sometimes, usually during travel, but it’s usually a bite of someone else’s food that’s worth sharing and worth breaking my usual pescatarianism. In this case, I go for it. I’m in Philadelphia, for god’s sake. I’ll eat fish at home. And so I devour this giant-ass sandwich, and it’s pretty good. Meat and cheese: they still taste good together! And I feel content that I got a non-touristy sandwich. I enjoy it enough that I ask myself if I might reconsider how I usually eat, or if I might at least want to seek out another one before I go home. But you know what?

I really don’t. I have accomplished my goal. My friend confesses that this is not the very best of these, but for me it turns not to really matter. I tried the thing and am content.

A cement bridge with a rainbow drawn along its inner arch. Beneath it is a few of cars and houses.

After, we go to a really nice little neighborhood nearby called Manayunk and get cookies. The sky is going dim, and people are having beers on sidewalk tables, and emerging from yoga classes, and just existing. And it’s so nice to see. I picked a really central place to stay downtown, which makes perfect sense for conference life. But it’s a lot of… stores. It’s a Uniqlo and an H&M within a block of me, it’s outdoor mall stuff. Not the places people really burrow into to live. Along with seeing friends (which, after the last two years, can you imagine? Seeing people?), getting to see the more livable spots is one of the best things about going places where I know people. I might’ve stayed here a month and not ended up in Manayunk, but instead I did. Amazing luck.

Day four

Today I discovered that the reason I’ve been sleeping through my alarm is that, when my phone’s OS updated, new alarms defaulted to no sound rather than the last sound set. So. Right.

Thus today started later than I meant it to, but this was the last non-tragic day to figure this problem out, so it’s lucky, actually. I set out around two and head to the convention center to check in for AWP. It is, in the way of convention centers, a casually enormous space, all soaring ceilings and long escalators. It’s strange to picture it stormed by 7,000 of us tomorrow, but I’m told that’s what’ll happen. After I get my badge and my Green Lanyard of Vax Proof, I spot a Trader Joe’s across the street and do some long-delayed grocery shopping, and I come home and take care of one of today’s to-dos: eat an actual salad.

This doesn’t stop me from wandering by the LOVE sculpture and a bunch of less-famous sculptures of game pieces. I take a very important picture there.

A large game piece, blue and round with white writing saying O-69, sitting on granite tiles outside

From there, I embark on one of my favorite things to do while traveling: “my friend told me to do this thing.” In this case, my friend Matt, who is from here, told me to go to Crash Bang Boom. I was game immediately, then even more so because it reminded me of my wonderful New York excursion to Trash and Vaudeville. I have a quest to get a Clash shirt for my partner and a Bauhaus shirt for me; I manage both, plus a couple goth magazines. (Goth shit became one of my pandemic special interests, and I’ve had sads occasionally about missing good zine culture around it. So when I saw something black-and-white and pretty on the subject, it was immediately foretold that I would buy it.) It was another hard afternoon to make myself go outside (such is depression, it’s fine), so it’s a bonus that I get into a spirited and pleasantly weird conversation with the folks working there, who I suspected were the owners, which was confirmed by my friend later. It’s always a good day when I get to tell people about the common faults of AI-generated faces. (I mostly talked about the symmetry stuff—nonmatching ears and glasses.)

Storefronts, including a black-and-green one called Crash Bang Boom and another reading South Street Art Mart

I walk home via South Street, where I happen onto a METRIC FUCKTON OF EXTREMELY ORNATE MOSAICS and am thus very very very happy. I duck into side streets, alleys, and occasionally building courtyards to see more mosaics than I have ever seen in my life. It’s honestly stunning. I think if I lived among or behind such a thing, I might die happy. I like wandering around here anyway—I like old, and Philadelphia is well old enough to have layers upon layers of stories casually everywhere—but this was a bonus.

A tile wall with faces drawn on some of the tile pieces. Others are in shades of shite, cream, pink, and blue, and some are mirrored.

I head home to drop things off, write for a bit, and then set out for my first AWP-adjacent event, a reading not far from me. I drink a sour beer, listen to some poetry, compliment a woman on her fantastic royal blue suit, and realize I’m done for the night. This is why I stayed where I did: City Centers are not, as a rule, full of character, but they have the charming quality of being within a 15-minute walk of so many things, ideal for when you’re cold with unreliable social energy.

Day five

Or: day one of AWP.

I actually get up early and make it to the convention center by 9 am. I go to sessions about integrating monsters and myths into your fiction and nonfiction, about querying agents and starting that relationship, about epistolary works. I even talk to some people, the true goal of the day. And by about 3 pm, I am zapped. I stayed up a couple hours later than I meant to finishing reading a book, which is thematically appropriate but biologically inconvenient. I take advantage of my strategically located Airbnb and crash for a couple of hours.

I meet up with my local friend around 5:30, and we walk north to Love City Brewing for Strange Theater, an AWP-adjacent reading series behind held for the fourth time. The authors contend with interesting acoustics (clever speakers on lanyards that connect to headsets), but the brewery is big, and the event area isn’t closed off from the cacophony of the rest of the place. I tell one of the writers later that hers was the best short story I’ve ever heard yelled. “I bet it was the only one,” she said. “Yeah, but even if I’d heard five others, I think yours would’ve been the best.” I meant it too. The excerpts are good and well delivered.

We stay a bit to have another beer and catch up. It feels so goddamned good to just sit in a brewery. I love all of it: the endless musical chairs as people move from one table to the next, to nest at the bar and then to stand in the middle, just people being people. I love the bathroom graffiti. I love the bar’s cute stickers. It’s all just really good. After, it’s cool and misty outside, and I love that too.

A wooden door covered in stickers and scribbles, with "If you haven't lived in Philly for at least 7 years, don't talk to me about yr neighborhood" written in black on it

I wasn’t the ruthlessly networking writer type that I was never going to be, and that’s ok. I had some genuinely pleasant exchanges with strangers and a great time with my friend. In this era in particular, I can ask for nothing more.

I come home to discover the relatively few luggage storage options in the city center area that are available before nine, after three, and within ten minutes of Suburban Station. A mystery to investigate further tomorrow.

Day six

Conference, front to back. I sleep in a little and go to the 10:15 session rather than the 9 am one in the interest of being a little kind to myself. I spend six hours roaming around a convention center in quest of whatever interesting things I can learn. (And I like spaces like this, so the zigzagging back and forth is a pleasing activity on its own.) I get to do something I haven’t done in a long time: I meet an online friendly in real life, which is my usual threshold for and now we shall be proper friends. I’m her first new person in a long time too, and so we’re both delighted. Even better is when we’re walking through the book fair and we see a neighbor of hers, someone she’d only known online, and now they know each other in real life. Being in the same space: it’s right to give it up when it’s dangerous, but when it’s possible, it’s one of the best kinds of magic.

I come home to eat some badly needed food (as my schedule meant that lunch was one [1] apple) and to do a couple of the anniversary round-the-clock LWH sessions. I did four last year, culminating in them playing “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince, which I danced to in my living room while crying, so much did I miss getting to share enthusiasm in person. It’s an incredible feeling to not have to experience that loopy, explosive energy all by myself anymore.

I have one more day of AWP, and I’ve been watching my feelings about it as I go along. Yesterday, I came to a soft conclusion that I was enjoying this but that an event like this is probably not going to get me where I’m trying to go with where I am now with my writing. Today, having talked to more people and hung around with a friend, it feels more vital. I’m very curious of where I’ll end up around 4 pm tomorrow, when it’s time for me to catch my train to the airport. I’ve done repeat conferences, and I know that part of the process of starting at one is planting seeds for future relationships. I talked to some cool people today, including someone at a press I’d really like to submit something to. Those are the kind of people I might end up at a bar with if I come two or three more times, because that’s how it works. I’ve felt like kind of a rogue element here; I told someone today that I had started to make a game of finding genre fiction in the conference, which has a tendency toward a poetry/academic bent. I said it felt like a scavenger hunt. I don’t think AWP should be packed with speculative fiction; SFF has its own conferences. But finding where the wild and whimsical sneaks in was a lot of fun.

Before eight, I convince myself to drag my tired carcass off the cozy chair and take the subway north for a reading. It’s my first time on public transportation here, with the exception of the train I took from the airport and my one-way trip on the commuter rail. This isn’t deliberate avoidance; it’s that I stayed so centrally that I preferred walking most places. But tonight I knew I didn’t have it in me to take a 30-minute after-dusk walk through parts unknown, so I tried the subway. It was mostly fine, though I could’ve done with better signage and without the screaming that started shortly before my train pulled up. Mostly it sounded like harmless teenage girl aggression noises, but it was still unnerving. But no one else reacted, so I figured we were just hearing kids fucking around and not murder.

A ten-story building on a street corner, at night, a red neon sign on top reading "Divine Lorraine Hotel"

The reading is fantastic. Five writers from Sex and the Single Woman read parts of their essays, including one person I’d become a fan of at a panel earlier and another whose book of essays I read a couple of months ago and loved. What was most delicious was the feeling of a whole room experiencing the same thing at the same time. We gasp and laugh and swoon together, aghast and enamored in turn. Most of all, I love the feeling that we were all completely on the side of our readers, women writing about sex, relationships, and navigating the world. We all want only the very best things for them. I don’t drink at the event—again, too tired—but it’s the most intoxicating thing I could’ve experienced tonight.

I take a Lyft back, because that was my promise to my tired self when I decided to go to the event. At home, I engage in a sacred rite of AWP passage: I rearrange my entire packing situation to accommodate the seven books I bought at the Book Fair today. Then I eat the entire bag of spinach I bought on Wednesday, the better to balance out my sometimes-shoddy nutrition from the last few days. That’s how it works, right?


Day seven

The luggage conundrum has an easy solution: AWP has coat check and luggage storage. My bags join dozens of others behind the folding tables. I spend the morning in sessions, including the only one to use slides and a projector, which are used to a rather wonderful end to show poems whose impact is partially visual. I meet another new friend for lunch via the magic of two people who know how to put energy into Twitter. I cannot in good conscience recommend being a social media manager to anyone, but it’s one of those things that has ended up (like speaking at conferences) leading me to things I wouldn’t have found otherwise: people, events, conversations, opportunities. My favorite is what happens today, when two people follow loose ties and a mutual friend and end up having turkey wraps and sitting outside, being people. I don’t usually eat turkey, but when I’m traveling and someone says “it was amazing and I want it again,” you know, I want one of those too.

I take a break after that to go to a 7-Eleven to load up on Tastykakes, because of course I do.

I stay until almost four and then collect my stuff, a little annoyed at myself for leaving on Saturday instead of Sunday. I’m right to, though. I know I ease back into regular life better when I have a buffer day instead of having to fly home and then go back to work in less than 24 hours. Still, I’m a little grouchy as I walk back to Suburban Station, my shit in tow. There’s some kind of multi-entrance construction going on, and the first three doorways into the station are locked. I pair up with another confused woman as we figure out exactly how the fuck to get into the train station. There are no signs indicating what entrance might actually be open, and the closures sometimes aren’t evident until you get close to the door. I am grateful, as ever, that I leave a slightly ridiculous amount of extra time for stuff like this, because what the hell. She lives there and is similarly pissed. I make my train; it’s fine, it’s fine. And also: ugh.

I end up sharing a flight with what has to be the entire women’s equestrian team at UC Davis. I put this together slowly as I check my bag and then make my way through security: what is that strange plastic carrier that man is holding? Why are all these young women holding similar boxes? What is—oh, they’re cowboy hat carriers. They’re… cowboy hat-wearing people. They’re… horse girls? Yes, horse girls. They have, in the way of traveling sports teams, terrible OSINT, and all their gear is emblazoned with UC Davis logos and their names, which I try not to notice. Before the UC Davis detail, I figured they were going to, you know, Montana or something. Wide-open spaces. But no, we’re all going to the same place, and indeed I end up seated in the middle of all two dozen of them. They are young and all very very pretty, with a lot of waist-length hair and athleticism. This, I decide, means we’re definitely doomed, because it means we’re going to crash into the mountains with survivors, and the bright young things will decide to eat my stringy crone meat to stay alive. I’m still wound tight from my flight there, and this realization does not help. No one will ever read my books, because I still haven’t figured out emergency access to all my stuff, and also I will be a footnote at best when our plane crash makes the news: “UC Davis Women’s Equestrian Team Involved in Rocky Mountains Plane Crash,” with “we found some curiously worn sparkly boots among the wreckage, but no other victims of note have been identified.”

They’re really nice, though. I mostly listen to music with my serious-business noise canceling headphones as I write and read, but the snippets of conversation I catch are all about their recent tournament and a lot of good-natured in-jokes. They’re nice plane neighbors. They do spend a lot of time watching riding videos, though, and I wonder what aspects of form they’re figuring out. I have a lot of questions for them, actually, but I don’t have the social energy left to navigate a six-hour plane ride relationship, so I let it be.

I make it home exhausted, plane-grimy, and mostly content. Philadelphia is rad. Books are rad. Friends are rad. And conferences that require both masks and vaccinations are rad. The world remains fairly open if we’re careful with each other, and I’m grateful AWP gave me the slim justification I needed to fly across the country and see a new city I’ve always wanted to visit. People from there seemed surprised when I told them I was taking the trip. “But why?” I was asked more than once when I mentioned taking a vacation to Philadelphia.

“I know people from there and almost always like them,” I said. “And it’s old, enough to have weird parts. And I miss the east coast. And it’s my country. And this whole thing about booing Santa and destroying the good-will robot? I’m into it.” And I was. Reason enough.

If I must be sad, I will be sad in Paris

Content note: I talk about depression and past suicidal thoughts in this one. If those aren’t safe subjects for you, it’s a great time to close the tab or try something else.

Early in my trip to Paris and Barcelona, I took the Metro from Montmartre to the center of the city. I sat by myself, watching the texture of the tunnel racing by and feeling how deeply sad I was. Unlike other depressed trips, trips I’d taken hoping for distraction and even managing it sometimes, it felt like different environments only made it purer, this distilled sadness washing over me, cold and astringent.

I laughed at myself a little, at the absurdity of being on an amazing trip I’d looked forward to for months and feeling like refried shit. It’s useful to be able to do this without thinking the harder feelings aren’t legitimate and real, but I’ve learned to, and I did that day. Sitting on the train, looking around at all the lovely people and their beautiful winter coats, heading between one place I loved and another, I knew that the weather in my brain was utterly absurd and utterly true.

It was then that I found my frequent mantra of the trip: if I’m going to be sad, I’d rather be sad in Paris. I could be sad on my couch, but instead I’m sad somewhere I adore where all my senses get fed. I have a less-glamorous version of it for home: if I’m going to be sad, I can do it while wearing clothes I don’t hate, while enjoying takeout from my local Thai place, while my hair is clean, while reading something good, while the floors are swept, while feeling a little soothed and seen. It still sucks, but it can suck marginally less with some effort, when I can spare it.

The Louis Vuitton store in Paris with a large sunburst decoration spanning one entire side of the building

At the moment, I assume that everyone is massively emotionally wounded in some way, and I have since roughly June 2020. I think people were largely doing not great, thanks in the beforetimes too, but after almost two entire goddamned years of downs and ups and downs, things opening and closing, good guidance and terrible, dreams deferred and altered and abandoned and resuscitated and held close and shoved away, no one’s ok. The depth of the wounds varies wildly, of course. Mine right now have to do with my scant handful of emotional outlets (dancing, readings, seeing art, trying to make more friends) suddenly being unavailable again after I’d become accustomed to some small liberties, to say nothing of the unaddressed damage of the last pandemic length of time.

And these things do not disappear simply because you choose to travel.

Like my time in New York this summer, this trip slipped into a tiny gap of space and possibility that I chanced into through stupid luck. This one landed neatly between “everybody get boosters” and “oh fuck, a new variant.” We left on November 25th; if it had been three or four weeks later, I think I would’ve canceled all of it. Instead, it was merely complicated. Instead, it was a few days into the trip, out of North America for the first time since my fairly disastrous 2019 trip, that I read that a new variant was rising, that the US was already issuing racist travel restrictions, that things were happening and the larger meaning and the effect on us remained unclear.

Running home didn’t seem wise. Instead, there was only to dive ahead with precautions.

A closeup of a small part of a Monet waterlilies painting with streaks of purple, brown, and green

But yes, as the prophet Adam Sandler explains in the video linked above, being in Paris and Barcelona didn’t change who I was and how I felt. I went to Europe and remained the same sad me who’s been circling the drain since March 2020, when the pandemic started and my cat died and other personal things went absolutely off the rails, when I wraithed around my apartment asking my partner over and over if this was the end of the fucking world.

He told me, with confidence I still do not share, that it was not.

In the months that followed, I became accustomed to everything being painful most of the time. First I lost my interest in cooking; later, I lost a lot of my interest in eating, a deeply surreal state. It didn’t mean I needed to eat less, but I lacked the energy to put any real force or interest behind it. Strangely, traveling did not entirely resuscitate this. I delighted at these fish-covered flatbreads in Barcelona we had for several meals; I bit into a ball of goat cheese like a creamy apple on the Île Saint-Louis; I remembered my love of those one-euro waffles you can get on Metro platforms in Paris and crunched my way across the city. Gratins and soupe l’oignon and pintxos and infinite croissants. I experienced brief moments of joy that were heavily enabled by old memories, and I considered that a victory.

I’ve been reluctant to talk or write much about this, since lots of people don’t have the cash for this kind of trip (as inexpensively as I try to travel and as much as we lucked out with relatively cheap direct flights) and my luck at slipping out just before another wave in 2021 was extraordinary. But the thing is: if you’re depressed at home, you’ll be depressed there too. And that’s ok! It’s still worth trying things and reminding yourself, however briefly, that being alive can be pretty fucking good.

In 2007, I embarked on what I called the Depression World Tour. It’s the last time I was what I think of as chemically depressed, though I’ve been situationally depressed a couple times since, including now. Working with a psychiatrist and trying to trick my brain into wanting to be alive via a series of medications, I decided the best thing I could do was hit the road for six weeks, my laptop and remote job in tow. It was actually a national tour, not a world tour: I saw friends in St. Louis, Chicago, and New York before visiting my family in Florida and New Orleans.

Sometimes I even kind of forgot that I’d spent the previous several months having visions of laying down in the grass and staying still for long enough that the rain would dissolve me. Or that I had to remind myself to wear a seat belt in cars because a part of me welcomed the risk. Friends and new places jostled my brain away from routine enough that the background noise of this living shit’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it got crowded out.

It worked until the flight home. I had a window seat and stared across the wing at the setting sun, and the feelings settled onto me like a wet wool blanket: heavy and total and like a dark hug. Ah yes, I thought. Here I am.

I got home, found the right antidepressant, and stayed on it for a year. The thoughts vanished. Better living through chemistry.

The interior of a Barcelona restaurant, with a hanging sculpture of a voluptuous woman dancing through the air

In this era, the feelings seem to stem from having survived via learned helplessness. I’m not an essential worker, so often my best contributions to things not being more terrible were donating money, tipping heavily, and staying the fuck home. I did this for long enough that I’ve lost some of my old skill for pushing back on things that need to be pushed back on, even in this era of laying low. I got some of that temporary agoraphobia that I know lots of people have experienced. Outside is bad. Inside is good. Ergo: stay inside, where it’s all predictable and safe. No room to thrash, no room to dream. Just put another episode of the show du jour on.

My entire adult life has been predicated on wanting more, and suddenly it was actually dangerous to do so. It’s had effects on me that I’ll be unraveling for a long time.

And, of course, it makes travel difficult because travel is only about uncertainty and trusting that you’ll be ok. Pushing back against a language you don’t know to find an understood shared space, pushing back against the unfamiliar to go boldly forward and experience wonderful new things, pushing back against homesickness with the confidence to believe that worthwhile living is on the other side.

For the last two years, that hasn’t been true. We’ve all been wading through life that’s tepid at best, a horror at worst, assuring ourselves that continuing to be alive is worthwhile and all this living shit actually is worth it.

It took me two weeks, but I think I came to believe it again.

We spent five nights in Paris, six in Barcelona, and then another three in Paris before our flight out. At the end of the first Paris segment, I sat in the bed of the adorable Montmartre Airbnb, crying and feeling a weight on my chest because I was doing this wrong.

Quick aside: you can’t do this wrong. It’s not possible. You can have a bad vacation; I certainly have. Still, the only real risk is being a shitty guest somewhere you’re visiting. You can’t do vacation wrong.

But I sat there in the adorable bed nook beneath a robin’s-egg-blue duvet that matched the cabinets and curtains, and I knew that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. I had managed a thing or two per day – this museum, that meal, trying to see and do things without asking too much of myself – but it wasn’t enough. Paris is my favorite place in the world, and I was trudging. I knew I was trudging. Everything hurt, and I was just passing through, like a pale visitor in my own life.

When I get these big feelings that I want to turn on myself like a weapon, I try to make the feelings into specifics. What did I think I should be doing, since apparently I wasn’t doing it? I made myself list all the things I hadn’t done that suddenly weighed on me: a street art walk through Montmartre, another walking tour, Sainte-Chapelle, a proper fromagerie visit, more vin chaud, Pere LaChaise, one of those zoo lights things that are everywhere now, walking along the Seine, the thumb at La Défense. A lot for two days! But I promised myself I’d come back and do everything I wanted until it stopped being fun.

Tall stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with part of the altar in the foreground

Part of the problem was that I’d lacked the ability to plan properly before we left. All I’d managed to do were the obvious time-sensitive bookings: the Louvre, the Orangerie, the Sagrada Familia. All these top-billed things, but none of the stuff that I usually ended up thinking about after a trip, the small random joys I linger on as I ease back into my life. And without a plan and something to work toward, I felt like I was squandering this thing I’d longed for.

And I spent two joyful, madcap days in Paris when I got back. One day I walked more than 15 miles. I zoomed back and forth across the city in a way I’d never recommend to anyone else but which felt like freedom. I saw centuries-old stained glass and said hello to Oscar Wilde. Illuminated, articulated tardigrades. Wheat pastes decorating apartment building walls and bulletholes from the liberation of Paris. Finally, just in time for all the panic of getting home, I remembered how to feel open and safe – at least for an hour or two at a time.

I’ve tried to keep it with me as I return to my life, but it’s been hard. Going out dancing (vaccines and masks required, bless San Francisco) had become a regular catharsis, but less than a week after I got home, that began to feel unsafe too. Masks required but not entirely enforced inside; rising omicron rates; the ongoing threat of long covid; the fear of possibly giving it to one of the scant handful of people I see in person. I’ve shuttered myself inside again.

An ink-and-watercolor drawing of a figure with arms, legs, a large mouse head with red eyes, and a little horn-shaped musical instrument

It’s better than the terrible 2020 months of the pandemic era because I am mostly alone, because I know these steps, because I know how to get regular exercise without the safe option of a gym, because I know where the armor starts to buckle and how to address it when it comes up (and it will again). And because I have more recent memories of eating a galette along the Seine and watching people walk and bike by, of dancing on a goth boat in Paris (yes), of seeing 400-year-old costume sketches at the Louvre and being totally enchanted by this cartoonist of yore, of lighted creatures in the Jardin des Plantes, of good meals, of the winding streets in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, of laughing like a stupid child at caganers, of seeing the Mediterranean beneath our plane, of deciphering the constantly evolving graffiti in Gràcia, of long train rides and easy Metro connections, of other ways to be. Of life sparkling again, just for a little while, and of that sparkle happening because I made it happen.

They’re distant again, but they aren’t gone. I’m contained again, but I’m not dead, and I don’t want to be.


Large illuminated lanterns in the shape of jellyfish and other sea creatures

Travel, like other big experiences, gets enjoyed in stages. There’s planning, which I largely missed this trip. There’s the relatively brief period of actually experiencing it. And, after that, the memory, the longest stage, and the one worth optimizing for, if I have to choose one. I knew, sitting on that train and feeling my heavy, lonely heart, that when I thought of the trip later, I’d feel happy. “If you’re going to be depressed, kid, you’ve picked a great place for it,” I thought. I laughed, wrote in my journal some, and set off into the future, where those memories are sustaining me now that I’m an indoor cat again.

The trip was never going to be anything but a mindfuck, and it delivered. But it delivered on everything else too, so even though I cried, even though I wrestled with deep and difficult feelings, even though everything was twice as hard as I remember it being for the intrepid traveler I used to be, it was worth it.

The thing for me to remember: it is almost always incredibly worth it. And when that falters? It’s still pretty good.

Getting from France to the US in December 2021 Covid Times

I knew, from the time I planned this trip, that I was making a Choice. I hadn’t done a good and proper trip since February 2019, when I went to Amsterdam and a terrible cold fucked up my back. In the way of our species’ collective fantasizing from March 2020 on, I’d longed to have a do-over across lockdown. Fall didn’t offer a window amidst the walls of horribleness in the way we had in the early summer, when vaccines were offering such hope and the shitty roar of antivax horseshit had yet to really arise. But it felt safe enough for my own threat model and fears, so we moved ahead: to France and Spain we would go. (To Berlin we would not because of the rough covid rates and impending threat of lockdown.)

I researched and acknowledged the hurdles: I would have to get a French pass sanitaire by paying a pharmacy 36 euros to convert my paper CDC vaccination record – sure, that sounds great. I didn’t really want to go anywhere that wasn’t checking vaccinations at the door anyway, and I didn’t care to go anywhere that wasn’t at least as careful as the Bay Area. I would also have to get a covid test 72 hours before flying back and have an electronic or paper copy of the test to provide to the airline and, presumably, US border control or a similar entity. Very well! I researched testing options in Paris, sketched out a rough schedule in my head, and felt pretty ok about what was to come.

Then, on the Tuesday morning before a Friday morning flight, I got an email from Air France: the covid test now had to be done within 24 hours of departure, which meant late morning the day before. To be clear: this was an initial misinterpretation of the requirement, which actually states, as of this week, that the test has to be done on the calendar day before you leave. But that wasn’t Air France’s initial interpretation, so I got a little bonus freaking out due to that.

I’ve had to get covid tests twice during the pandemic, once after working at an election site and once after my trip to New York this summer. Both times, I had results within 24 hours, but that felt like a fluke: never promised, always incidental.

This new requirement, of course, changed things. Here’s how I got home.

Covid testing in Paris

Before the testing window shortened, I asked my host for the last leg of my trip what she knew about covid testing and timing in Paris. She told me that most pharmacies test (something that seemed very true; most of them had little tents by their front doors on the sidewalk just for that). With the 72-hour window, that would’ve been great; we were within a ten-minute walk of at least three pharmacies. Easy! What I couldn’t find was a solid, specific statement saying that those test results would be ready in 24 hours – or, ideally, in less than twelve. This led me to Biogroup, which I found through the official French site that directs people to covid testing sites. There are a lot; it seems like a ton of dentists have gotten in on this, which is pretty great.

Biogroup was the only one I found that offered:

  • Lots of locations
  • A promise of results in 12 hours
  • A clear description of how results would be provided via PDF, securely downloaded
  • The promise that walk-ins were available
  • A list of which services provided by each clinic
  • Promises of English speakers. I can speak good-enough terrible French for things like getting tickets or food. For navigating something that straddled medical and international travel spheres, I wanted someone who could talk to me in my own language.

This is how I ended up walking to 20 rue de Pont Neuf just before the 8:15 am sunrise the day before I was due to fly home. I ended up in a line of maybe 20 people, primarily English speakers, working with Google Translate to figure out the best way to say I needed a pre-travel covid test please. We were finished by 9:30 am. Was it extremely well organized? Not quite, which is fine – I have a sense of how French bureaucracy seems to work, and I knew they were trying pretty hard to make this weird thing work. They were kind to confused people and got me what I needed, and sometimes that’s all I can ask from a situation.

Here’s how it went:

  • They let us in one or two people at a time; usually couples were allowed in together. Other people showed up for appointments during all this, standing in a separate, shorter line. Good for them. I wished I’d worn another layer but generally do ok in the cold, so I wasn’t desperately unhappy.
  • Once we got in the door, they took our passports and had us complete a form to consent to the test and get our results. It looked like it was about eight generations off of the original copy. We just had to confirm the test we wanted, write and sign our names, and provide our email addresses.
  • We paid 44 euros each for the pleasure. Card was fine.
  • We were each taken into a private room and got the brain swab. Remember the big-ass q-tip people talked about nervously in the beginning of the pandemic? The one they pushed in so far that you figured they had to be brushing your brain stem? That’s what was still going on there. The site also offered saliva and blood tests at certain labs, but my French and anxiety were bad enough that I just went with the version of things I knew would work in the tight timeline and requirements I had.
  • Everyone who dealt with the confused tourist line spoke enough English that things worked pretty smoothly.
  • They confirmed they’d transcribed the email addresses correctly from the handwritten version on the form. Bless.
  • They gave us a slip of paper with a pre-generated password to retrieve the results later. This wasn’t necessary but was a great touch.

That was it. It sucked, but the people were kind. We had our results emails by 4 pm: blessedly négatif.

They sent two emails. One takes you to a portal where you enter some PII to generate an email containing a temporary password for said portal, where you can download the PDF you need. The other had a password-protected PDF attachment that could be opened with the password they provided. You’ll want the one from the portal because things like the Air France document void and the ToutAntiCovid mobile app will not have any idea of how to handle a password-protected PDF. (Still, cheers to Biogroup for trying.)

Uploading everything everywhere

I uploaded the PDF to the ToutAntiCovid app, which created a new record that contained its own QR code, the negative result, and a dynamic field that showed how old the test was. This was enough proof for everyone who asked for it at Charles de Gaulle – much easier than asking people to squint at the tiny version of an 8.5×11-inch test result file on my phone. I uploaded the PDF plus some other paperwork (vax records for both countries) to Air France, which promised that doing so would avoid hassle at the airport.

A couple things exacerbated all this: the first was the CDC reclassifying France’s covid risk, and the other was a general sense of elevated risk within Paris or possibly all of France. Those last few days, I saw military types with automatic weapons in a lot of different places, including the airport, La Defense, and by the Palace of Justice. That general !!! sense probably did not help with things like allowing airlines to accurately interpret extremely fresh, imperfectly worded international health directives. I would assume this was the case with all airlines flying from the US from other countries right now, particularly ones like France that were recently put on double secret probation by the CDC.

The night before we left, I received an email saying all those uploaded documents were approved… and then they were reviewed again in total before we were allowed to check bags. For this, we were rewarded with a sticker on the backs of our passports, a label with a handwritten set of initials on it, indicating we were ready to go. My boarding pass already had a READY TO FLY designation on it from the document upload approval, but I saw no indication that any of this actually expedited anything for us on the day of.


And other administrivia

I also received multiple Air France emails about A FORM that we had to print, fill out, and bring to the airport. I regret to inform you that it’s a stupid and duplicative form that my government clearly foisted on other international agencies without a lot of explanation. (Kind of like the change in the acceptable window for covid tests; the first Air France email said “within 24 hours of departure” and the other stated correctly that it needed to be done in the calendar day before your departure, so a 12:30 am test on Thursday would be valid for a flight at 11:30 pm Friday night. The CDC says that this is to try to give flexibility to travelers, but as an anxious person crossing time zones, I gently suggest to them that they are not helping in the way they claim to be.) The first version was a docx file; the replacement form was a swanky PDF. I got to go to a copy place in the Marais the night before we left to get this shit printed only to find that the airline had a giant stack of them available at the check-in desk at CDG. COOL.

It just says that you either have submitted a covid test or have a damned good reason not to have done so, plus a signature. It isn’t tied to a passport or booking number or anything else solid and traceable, and it did not appear to be recorded electronically in any way, judging by the messy pile of them being collected at the gate. COOL.

We were asked about it more than once at bag drop, and then a third-party security guard type came around the gate area, checked passports, and collected them from people who happened to be sitting around the gate 45 minutes before boarding, including me. He pointed at the sticker put on the back of my passport earlier and said, “If you talk to another one of my coworkers, they will see this and know you’re good to go.” “Cool,” I said.

I will note here that I have seldom encountered a situation where the addition of third-party security guard types makes the situation better.

My partner came back from getting food, and I said, “You should probably give your form to that guy. They seem to be trying to get this done.” This was a mistake. He did as I suggested and was told to stand somewhere else for boarding (we were not boarding), handed the form over anyway, and came back, figuring he’d done what he could.

Cut to 45 minutes later when we actually were boarding, and he was accused of not having a form. “I gave it to you earlier,” he said. The security guard said he did not. “He did,” I said. Finally, it became clear that filling out an additional copy of the brief and pointless form was the path of least resistance. He did so while I started my own battle. “You didn’t fill out the form,” the guy told me. “I did,” I said, and recited our entire conversation, finishing by pointing at the sticker. Apparently my performance was more convincing. We were finally allowed to board the plane.

And, finally, home

That was the last of the covid test result presentation dance. We have Global Entry, so our return interview consisted of getting little print-outs with grainy pictures of our tired selves, a recitation of things we bought and brought home (“a couple of bottles of champagne, a lot of gummy candy, and some inexpensive earrings”), and then walking out into SFO, back to being ordinary people. We plan to test ourselves again early next week just to be very sure we made it through this ok, but I’m not worried.

It’s nice to stop being worried. I haven’t really had that for the last five-odd days.

My suggestions for you

If I’d known this shit was going to go into such upheaval so soon before we left, we would have brought a couple of those proctored self-tests. Prior to this week, I didn’t know those existed and resulted in a legally helpful test result; it would have made a lot of things much easier, both generally and because I do not do well with vague directives for things as specific as paperwork for international travel. So if you’re going abroad in this era, I strongly suggest doing that.

I would also suggest not flying to the US from France or other level-four-omg countries right now. I didn’t really have the opportunity to consider this, as the levels didn’t change until the trip was well underway. If you have the choice, though, depart from an easier country. If we’d flown out of Spain, a lot of things would have been simpler.

However, I’m pretty grateful we flew into France. I haven’t seen a CDC card conversion scheme for other countries as of this writing (and preliminarily googling it again so soon after all my pre-trip research frankly makes my head hurt right now; there are countries that work easily with it, but the US is not among them). Starting our trip in France meant getting an EU covid vax certification QR code shortly after arriving from the airport using a fairly straightforward process that costs 36 euros. There, it’s generally referred to as the pass sanitaire, a phrase which I can blissfully usually pick out of rapidfire French directives. (Getting the pass sanitaire was step one; buying cheese was step two. Falling asleep for five hours followed shortly after.) This pass, which initially seemed France specific when I was first researching it, is what allowed us to fly into Spain, to go to certain events there, and to just generally have a proper vacation. I feel like there have to be ways around this in other countries, but I don’t know what they are. I have it on good authority, though, that most people at the door in Europe are not going to be interested in deciphering your weird paper CDC card.

The pass checking wasn’t always consistent but happened often enough that I felt more comfortable with moving around in the world. France: thanks for checking the pass even for patio dining. Spain: your whole QR code locator form process for new arrivals was a bit of a pain in the ass, but the efforts are clearly working, so thank you. We were rarely asked for an ID to compare to the name on the pass, but best to keep one on hand anyway, in the way of these things.

I hope you like forms, because this requires a lot of them.

At the moment, certain kinds of travel mean taking up government documentation and admin interpretation as a new and time-consuming hobby. I’m a process dork by nature so take to this stuff pretty well, and I still had several not-ok moments during all this.

I had a small panic event the night before we left because I found a now-inaccurate Air France page from a month or two prior that still stated that visitors to France needed a compelling reason and a covid test for entry. I called my partner into my kitchen and said, “I think I ruined our trip and I’m sorry.” I had not ruined the trip, as it turned out. But this is what lackadaisical documentation governance in a complicated time can do to a person!

I even had a dress rehearsal of sorts when I helped a friend with the lighter version of this stuff required for going to Hawaii from the continental US, and I still felt overwhelmed more than once in this heavier international version. I say again: I like figuring out difficult bureaucratic stuff, and this shit almost broke me a couple of times.

The regulations and requirements change often enough right now that there’s a lot of outdated stuff out there. Right now, if you read guidance that isn’t dated within the last week, question whether it still applies.

It’s a good idea to think very carefully about traveling internationally right now at all, of course. I only wanted to go to places that had a similar model of safety to the Bay Area; a lot of places remain fundamentally off limits to me, including large parts of my own country. I urge you to be very careful and weigh things similarly. And once you’ve figured out that perhaps there’s a place in the world you feel ethically ok with visiting, really consider what your trip might look like if you have to spend parts of two or more days being stressed about meeting requirements to get on your plane home. If this had been a week-long trip, I think I would’ve been pretty upset to have spent so much time on this stuff. Instead, it was a two-week trip, and the hard parts got diluted – but it still had an effect. I also brought a laptop; navigating this stuff without one would’ve been really, really hard. We didn’t stay at hotels, so business centers were not an option. Copy shops would have been possible, but pretty inconvenient.

In addition to taking a frankly perverse joy in unpicking complicated systems, I also have enough money to deal with large, expensive changes of plan and reason to believe I wouldn’t lose my job if I suddenly had to be away for an extra two weeks. It’s a bet I can afford to make. Be sure you can too before doing something like this in this era. For instance, this was the plan B I formulated in case our tests came back positive: I was going to quarantine somewhere less expensive in the Paris suburbs and enjoy what I had named the Plague Ship Writing Residency. This plan fell apart somewhere around “but French takeout delivery apps don’t seem to accept American credit cards,” but that was future plague rat me’s problem to figure out.

I’ll write soon about the fun parts of all of this, and I promise you there were many. But everything I just wrote was part of the cost of every excellent meal, every minute spent gawping at centuries-old stained glass, every ramble through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. In the meantime, while it’s still fresh and technically accurate, here’s the harder part. I hope it helps. Good travel is possible; just know that it’s still very different than it once was.

Coming Alive Again in 2012 and 2021

In June 2012, I was coming to the end of the worst two-year span of my life outside of junior high and high school. I was slowly recovering from being broke, close to paying off more than $6,000 in medical debt (thx, endometriosis), starting to see a therapist who’d change my life, and a few months from freeing myself from a deeply shitty social existence. But I wasn’t at any of these things yet and didn’t know how close I was. On top of all of that, a couple weeks earlier, there’d been a mass murder in a cafe I spent a lot of time in. I didn’t know the people who died well, but I admired a couple of them very much and had seen them perform many times. They meant something. So it was broad horror and specific horror, and it’s the only time I’m aware of that I played the role of “crying girl hugging friend outside crime scene” on local news b-roll.

In July 2021, I was coming to the end of one of the worst years I’ve been alive (probably number three or four on the list, all told). Unlike June 2012, I wasn’t broke and had a fair amount of agency derived both from finances and from that good therapeutic work. However, also unlike June 2012… well, you know how 2020 into 2021 went. It was very, very bad. I found some beautiful things in all of it, but mostly I spent a lot of time figuring out what part of myself was compartmentalized into stasis this week. I had long periods of time where it felt like half my abdominal cavity was just this static, dense mass, unmoving where all the feelings used to swirl. I’m not typically given to numbness, but that and escaping into my imagination were the two ways I found to survive.

Fresh with so many layers of grief, which piled heavily on top of stinging disbelief around how I’d allowed my life to get to the state it was in, I agreed to go to Honkfest West. My general feeling about music is that I like just about anything live, and I especially like a big band with brass instruments (one of the reasons I’ve loved ska since high school). It was inexpensive and within city limits. Everyone I knew felt basically destroyed; why not be destroyed and listen to some music?

In the possession of a little more morally allowable movement and of money and a break between jobs, I went to New York for two weeks. I tried to figure out some extracurriculars ahead of time. I’d been wanting to go dancing at home and managed it once before delta variant feelings made us all need to reconsider our definition of freedom. So I knew I wouldn’t want a large club (I’m mostly too old and sober for that anyway), but I wanted some culture. I wanted to go out and feel the physical force of sound in my body. I wanted something bigger and broader than the sound from my beautiful shitty headphones. I found that a brass band I’d listened to online played in Brooklyn every week. Sold.

I’d gone to Honkfest before. Bands in Gasworks Park, bands in associated clubs, bands upon bands. I took the buffet approach: I knew I’d like enough of it so didn’t need to do much research. I’d show up, probably like what I heard, and be content. Good enough.

I look up the show again a few days out and find that the regular Tuesday night entertainment is canceled, and instead, a selection of bands through Honk! NYC is playing. You know what? Sure, that’ll do too.

I go to a venue in Georgetown. I’m wearing, in a way that feels incomprehensible in later, warmer times, a sweater dress with a thick cowl collar. I get a Large Can of Rainier, the drink of both happy times and sad, broke-as-fuck ones. I enter the performance space and get no further than the door, because it’s crammed.

I find my way to the bar from the subway. I show the bartender a picture of my vax card. I show the guy at the door in the back of the bar a picture of my vax card. I stand and listen to the DJ and drink my pilsner, texting with people back west. A couple people come in with drums. Then a couple more. Soon the number of people with drums outnumbers the spectators still filling in at the back of this small room. The drums are not small drums. The program promised samba-influenced drums as the second act. Excellent.

The band playing when I walk in, large can in hand, is a samba-influenced drum troupe. I have felt like something left in the sun lately, like all the softness has gone hard and all the flexible things crystalline in a hideous, sharp way. Everything feels vulnerable and terrible. Anything can happen anywhere, and it’ll probably be bad. Everything tastes like salt, even the sweet things. I stand there for a little while, a largely inert thing, drinking generously from my beer. I finish it and go get another. And when I come back, I feel something that’s taken its leave of me for a while: an urge to move.

After a bit, the audience finally outnumbers the band, but the band commands the space. One song blends into another, enough that they have to prompt us to applaud sometimes, too busy are we being mesmerized, being absorbed. I see stiff-spined white boys who I suspect aren’t all about dancing at shows start to move at the hips. I did immediately. It felt so good to feel percussion in my body again, to feel it at all angles and across frequencies, not a flat recording of something. It’s large, and I feel part of it. It’s so good to feel a part of anything with other people again.

After a bit, I end up with my half-full beer shoved into the top of my dress, cold against my sweaty skin, and I just move. I’m there with some similarly traumatized friends, and we all begin to dance, first like badly tended marionettes, then like people who might feel something good again someday. We get a little bit of it that night, that feeling of oh yes, I still have a heart, I’m still connected to something around me. I’m still alive and might even be glad of it again someday.

I find myself teary at odd moments. The synchronized movements of the drummers. The solos of the band that follows, the culmination of an untold amount of practice. All this effort just to make something transient and lovely. I missed that the most. I have plenty of days of being kinda over humanity, but all along, all throughout our shared isolation, I so badly missed the things we do when we come together: theater and music and that particular feeling of people coming out for a similar purpose. Dancing and conferences and all these gatherings toward a single goal. We do such fine things together, and I missed them terribly.

Life doesn’t get fixed on that night in 2012, but it was the first time in a long time that I felt like there might be something bigger and better yet to come, that putting effort into unfucking my life might yield something wonderful. That some things ended, sometimes terribly, but I wasn’t done yet. I was still capable of being surprised, and the world was still capable of surprising me with wonderful things.

And in late July 2021, we are still in the shit. In the 24 hours before this night in Brooklyn, I saw a lot of the bars in San Francisco switch to the model I see fairly often in New York, the “must be this vaxxed to ride” rule, and it gives me hope: both for going out and for incentive for people avoiding vaccinations for anything other than very specific medical reasons to reconsider. I just want us to have this together again: the call of brass, the impact of drums, and a bunch of happy nerds dancing in rooms again. I can hang in there for this. I feel something blossom again within me: to do things, to know that doing things is worthwhile, to know that taking this trip was the right thing for me.

And in the meantime? All we can do is keep dancing.

How to vacation during a pandemic: week two


Day eight

The day of action. I get up, pack my hotel room sprawl, and leave my bags with the front desk. From there, I head across town to the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve been here once before, back in 2008 or so, but that day I came straight from a red-eye flight, needing to kill time before my friend was off work and could take me and my stuff back to her apartment. So I dragged ass for a couple of hours, and I remember little except for looking longingly at empty corners, thinking I could sleep there.

Today was better. If my phone and feelings are right, I walked more than three miles inside the museum; their app is good and helped me see just about everything, but it led me back and forth so many times, through the gift shops one way and then another. I stared up at a Titanosaur, gazed at so many skeletons, felt strangely moved by the blue whale (and the covid vax clinic still happening by it), and learned that there’s such a thing as an effusive volcano eruption. I stayed there for more than four hours before beginning the biggest trek: to the hotel for my stuff and then to Brooklyn for my second location for this trip. I took a car across the bridge because, despite my well-earned reputation, I do take it easier on myself sometimes than I could. Sometimes.

I picked up my keys from the neighboring deli and checked in. After flopping on the bed for 20 minutes, I set out for the comedy show I’d bought a ticket for a couple of weeks ago, a local place with Janeane Garofalo headlining. I get there too early and circle the block for a while, talking to Sean and taking in the sights. I immediately feel more at ease than I did in the Lower East Side. I fit in the continuum of people here. The houses are beautiful, and so are the residents.

The comedy show is mainly local folks, which was what I wanted. I am one of maybe 17 people in the audience, which meant a lot of crowd work. I sit separately, hidden in a shadowy corner to stage right, drinking palomas to meet my two-drink minimum. I avoid the crowd work and am pretty much the only person who does. Not present in the evening: Janeane Garofalo, who had a scheduling conflict. Hey, ok. I saw comics I wouldn’t have otherwise, I laughed, and I got out. It’ll do.

a stencil of Robin Williams and patterned tile on a wall

Day nine

The day of friends. I wake up to drop laundry off for fluff and fold, and then I get a veggie-cheese wrap from the bodega and take it to Fort Greene Park to read, think, and eat. I watch people play tennis and am amazed that people make the same sort of quasi-sex grunts that they do with weightlifting. I had no idea. After, I head to Greenpoint to meet a friend for lunch. We have Mexican food in the restaurant’s robin’s-egg-blue outdoor structure. It’s wildly good to see her. We used to work together and still have tales; I think that, every time we talk, we both learn something new and weird about our shared experiences.

After, I walk an ambling path toward the water, through neighborhoods and past so many cafes. It’s overcast, the clouds thick and low, and the wind whips around me. I love this; I feel so alive in this kind of weather in a way I never do in the eternal-72-degree tepidness of northern California. I find a bench under a building’s overhang and write in my journal as I stare out at the grey-tinged water, waiting to see if the rain will come. It doesn’t until I walk to the subway, and I pull out the umbrella I brought mostly for sun and use it to dodge mist instead.

That night, I head to Crown Heights to meet another friend. (I am very fortunate in people.) Our intended lobster roll shop is closed for renovations, so we end up at a seafood soul food shop run by a man who’s a pure ray of sunshine (and the grilled seafood platter’s pretty great too). We go back to her apartment to eat our riches, including perfect tins of peach cobbler, and we just… catch up. It’s always felt like a miracle, connection and finding people I like so well, but after the worst lockdowns, renewing that connection feels like its own compounded miracle. How did I ever get this lucky? I stay late, talking about everything and nothing, and take a late train home. It’s gone cool and gentle out, and the considerable sweaty murk I build up waiting almost 20 minutes for my train begins to recede. I’m tired but happy.

A stone on a wall with the caption "vulva or hoofprint engraved on limestone"

Day ten

The day of ordinary living. I sleep in (after the last two days, I badly needed it) and wake up by eating a leftover quesadilla in bed along with a pint of blueberries. I find I do this every couple of days, this making a meal out of the odds and ends I’ve collected along the way. Around two, I head to the subway and go north to meet friends to climb. I got into a short routine of climbing again back in May, keeping at it for more than a month, but scheduling stuff put a pause on it for the last six-odd weeks. I don’t have to remember how not to be afraid of heights and falling the way I did back in May, but I’m shaky. My borrowed shoes are too big and make me feel unsteady, so I have to swap them out after the first climb. The harness is an unfamiliar model with a single loop. They use a different belay device than I’m used to. The holds aren’t what I’m used to, the route setters have different mental models of things, it’s actually air conditioned: it’s just a lot of change for my brain to chew on. But my friends are good climbing companions, and I climb until the skin of my hands hurts. Perfect.

After, we meet friends of theirs for late lunch, and I have genuinely excellent vegetable pho and a jar full of bubble tea. It feels good to just sit and talk to new people and remember how to trust myself to relate to other humans as a fellow human, to remember what it is to actively find other people fascinating while also having useful stuff to contribute to the conversation. By the time we’re done, it’s past six, and I realize I might be done for the day. I leave the option open to take myself out to dinner, but I find I’m content to write in bed, catch up with friends online, think for a little while, and talk to no one. It’s been a wonderful day and a half of catching up with people I adore, but like my forearms, my socializing muscles are out of shape. Best to go easy as I learn to use them again and trust the strength will return.

a tree-lined piece of land meets the water, the cityscape behind it

Day eleven

The day of uncharted territory. I get up and have an excellent brunch, sitting outside and watching Brooklyn walk by as I write postcards. Fortunately, plenty of restaurants here define “brunch” the way I do: anytime until dinner. After I’m full of eggs Benedict with salmon, I head into the city and seek out the PATH train. I have story research to do, and that means… Hoboken.

Which is like any other second- or third-tier city I’ve ever been to: pretty, with nice restaurants and the kind of old buildings I like a lot. It reminds of me St. Louis or Tacoma or Albany, any of these places that would be known as a nice place to go if they weren’t overshadowed by another major city in the vicinity. I walk along the waterfront until the path runs out and then turn back, and then I roam through downtown. I verify some of the things I made up and figure out which ones need to be adjusted. I walk through the old train station, which also serves ferries. My dinner plans fall through, so instead I go back to Manhattan, where I swing by Stonewall to take pictures for a young friend. I get a cup of Big Gay Ice Cream and wander around while I eat it.

After that, I return to Brooklyn for the important writing I punted until the end of the day. It’s the last day of the Clarion West Write-a-thon, and I’m going to finish a first draft of a fantasy novel. I write a bit over 1,600 words, and then I’m done. I intend to celebrate by going out to dinner, but I realize that a pre-pandemic weakness of mine has only gotten worse: I cannot tell when restaurant kitchens close. It’s not when the restaurant closes. Is it 30 minutes before? An hour? Something else? I inquire at a couple of places that the internet told me would still be open, but they are not. Instead, I go to the bodega by where I’m staying, and miraculously their deli is still open. The guy in front of me turns to me when he finishes his own order. “Sister, you’d better order fast. They’re almost closed,” he tells me. I thank him and then do exactly that. I celebrate finishing a novel with a Nantucket Nectars orange-mango juice (an old favorite from college), a falafel wrap, and a pre-packaged chocolate-dipped waffle. Very well, then.

a mosaic on a sidewalk reads "I ain't no goddamned son of a bitch"

Day twelve

The day of the depths of Brooklyn. I wake up a little early and head out for my 12:45 reservation at the City Reliquary, a suggestion from a friend who lives here, whose mom loves weird little museums. This is an excellent one: all ephemera, the pointillist approach to museuming. A wall of Jackie Robinson, cases of World’s Fair souvenirs, handles from many eras of subways, pieces of rubble from demolished buildings of note. There’s just so much packed into one room, all staffed by a volunteer. I am utterly charmed.

glass domes cover rock samples; the one in the foreground has a card that reads "Flatiron Bldg."

After, I grab a very heavy slice with large blobs of ricotta on it. I’ll need it; it’s going to be an active day. I stop at Quimby’s (but not Desert Island; they won’t be open again until Wednesday, too late for me). Among other things, I buy a fanzine for The Cure that was published in 2020. Bless. I also buy a copy of We’ll Never Have Paris, which includes an essay from the owner of Quimby’s NYC that explains, among other things, how he came to open this one after the original Chicago location. As I had no idea there was a second one until I walked by it, this is pleasingly full circle.

I take the subway to Park Slope and, instead of transferring to another train for the last 15 blocks, I just walk and see what things look like. I stop at a bodega for a water and ask the cashier how he’s doing. “Not great,” he says. “People today.” I ask him if he thinks the problem is him or everyone. “Everyone,” he sighs. “A lady started yelling at me for not wearing a mask while I’m unvaccinated.”

I thank him and vacate the bodega quickly, just short of levitating backwards out the door.

After, appropriately enough, I go to Green-Wood Cemetery. It’s been on my New York to-do list forever, but when you have three days or five or seven in New York, it’s really easy to focus on Manhattan. Two weeks gave me the chance to finally get down here, and it’s wonderful. California cemeteries are intriguingly weird to visually parse because things don’t age the same way they do elsewhere; graves from 80 years ago look like they could’ve been put in place last year. Not so here; there are graves going back to the early 1800s, and all manner of extensive aging. They’re beautiful and sometimes strange.

I have a rough plan to walk across the cemetery to emerge and point myself toward Prospect Park, but the combination of following my bliss and Google Maps being like “I dunno” when I check my location means that, after two hours of walking, I see the same entrance I came in. Dang it. I reposition myself and try again; 30 minutes later, I’ve looped around yet again. The next time, I stick strictly to specific streets, following a deliberate route, and I finally get to the other entrance.

I walk through Park Slope and get to Prospect Park, where I begin another wander, past elaborate barbecue setups and volleyball games, flocks of joggers and cyclists. I end up at an outdoor concert, where I hear an opera singer and catch a Marina Franklin set. I move at one point to avoid being hit with a piece of wood as a consequence of a certain whimsical style of parenting. Ah, Park Slope. I may have moved out of Berkeley in 2019, but it’s a bit like Hotel California: you can check out, but you’ll never really leave.

molded copper gone green in the form of pine branches and roses

As I start walking out of the park to catch my 8 pm dinner reservation, I end up on a path and stop short as I understand what’s happening in front of me: they have lightning bugs in New York. I didn’t know that. The last time I saw them was probably 20 years ago at my grandparents’ house in southern Illinois. The population steadily diminished as I grew up. I try and fail and try and fail to take a long exposure that captures them, despite not having a tripod or a cable release, and so instead I end up staring into the woods, utterly entranced.

a dimly lit scene of the woods
Note the tiny yellow swirl in the middle bottom. Lo: a lightning bug in the best of a meh set of pictures.

But I do have to get going. I make it in time for dinner, and I have the celebratory meal I didn’t manage yesterday, as I made an actual reservation at an Italian restaurant. I eat a brick of polenta with creamy mushroom sauce, black spaghetti with kale and shrimp, and panna cotta with a cherry sauce. I’m stuffed but very happy.

I’ve walked ten miles, so I come back to my Airbnb and promptly flop onto my side for an hour, waiting to get the energy to shower. It comes eventually. It usually does.

Day thirteen

The day of low motivation. I peel myself out of bed just before two and go to a restaurant the friend who pointed me to Fort Greene recommended. I tried to go on day eleven but came by just as their kitchen had closed. Blessed art platters of cold hummus and chickpea salad on a hot day. After, I read in Fort Greene Park for a little while, watching people go by, listening to tennis players grunt again.

I have generally tried (but often failed) to keep from becoming a giant sweatball while on this trip, but today has a special need for it: I am going shopping. I’ve had a goal to go to Trash and Vaudeville this entire trip, but between energy, sweatball status, and not wanting to accumulate more stuff before my mid-trip location change, I waited. And mentally, today doesn’t feel like a great day for it. Shopping for clothes requires a certain force of will, which I’d say I have about half the time. It requires the mindset that something not working is the fault of the clothes, not the wearer. And today’s just been without that force. If I hadn’t bought a ticket for a 6 pm museum slot, I might not have left the house at all.

But it turns out it’s… great. They’re playing Peter Murphy when I walk in, which I appreciate. I talk to one employee about shared California backgrounds, about changing mask mandates, about how cute my hair is. (Telling me my hair is great is a wonderful way to get off on the right foot with me.) And then I try on things and they’re… really good. A couple things will be good for work, once that’s a thing again and I once again get the chance to be the resident Office Character, but the silver vinyl zip-up top and the black one with boning and a couple dozen hooks and eyes will probably be only and exclusively worn out dancing. (Probably.) I am reasonably sure I’ve never deliberately bought clothes specifically for clubbing before. It took me a while, but here I am. When I check out, I have a fun conversation with the other person working there – about hair dye being discontinued, about what you can and can’t depend on. I walk out with a bag of fancy new things and a smile.

I go hang out in Tompkins Square Park for a little while to kill some time, just listening to people and reading. When it’s time, I head north to Fotografiska NYC, a New York location of a photography museum in Stockholm that I loved. This one’s great too – they’re trying to straddle Serious Museum with “you can get a drink from the bar and take it with you” (which is what I was told when I walked in). I see Tom of Finland’s photographs, some with the sketches they inspired. I see wild, bright, surreal, and rather wonderful photos from Miles Aldridge, which I love, but alas, his books are expensive – the one I pick up is $420. (I put it down quickly and carefully.) Stunning photos from a famous Houston strip club by Adrienne Raquel, beautiful explorations of a relationship and gender roles from Pixy Liao, and an inquisitive look at the collision of international fashion from Hassan Hajjaj. I loved it, and it was worth leaving the house for.

I hang around Madison Square Park for a while after, on the phone, watching people eat Shake Shack. After, I walk to the Peter McManus Cafe, a suggestion from my friend who used to live near it. Not McSorley’s, he said – go for the real thing. Since I’m only eating outside, “real” is relative, so I order my cider and veggie burger at the bar and get them at the al fresco dining shack across the sidewalk. But I see it, and I like it, and I learn it was the bar in Highlander. The bartender has that serious air about him that I like in people who do his job; he genuinely just wants everything to work well. He’s very earnest when he asks me if everything was ok. And it was.

After, I walk back north, intending to finally get that shake… but Shake Shack closed early tonight for building work. Oh well. I go home instead, still carrying my bag of new clothes, via a trek that includes four wrong subway entrances before I find the single correct one and then get on a train that goes only one stop before going out of service. But I get back to Fort Greene eventually, and I get a cookies-and-cream ice cream bar at the bodega on the corner before I go back to my Airbnb.

Tomorrow is my last full day. It came fast and also took a beautiful forever to get here. I’ve already decided I’m coming back here for a couple weeks in the spring. I think I decided that on about day two, really, wordlessly and deep inside of me, once the initial OMG PEOPLE terror began to wane, and dormant parts of me started to come back to life.

trees wrapped in red cloth with white polka dots

Day fourteen

The day of public transit and infinite pumpkins. I put today’s outing so late in the trip because I wanted to build up to long journeys across public transit and also because it was the first day the infinite mirror room was available. Today, I went from Brooklyn to the Bronx to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden. It’s not the worst trek, but it’s a long ride on the 5 and then a bus, and if today is any indication, buses in the Bronx are a whole thing I’m not excited to do again.

The exhibits, however, are just right. All joy and sparkle and brightness and color and whimsy and untethered imagination. Setting them in the garden worked perfectly. The way they managed access and crowds worked perfectly. I don’t think I could’ve picked a better finale for this trip.

On the way back, I sit next to a gentleman in a beautiful war bonnet, all black and teal feathers. Sharing a bench on the train, I felt like we could’ve been another “this is the future liberals want” picture. I love New York.

That night, I go to one last brass night at Barbés, a last hurrah before I go home and quarantine until I get a clear covid test. On the way home, I order an omelet online from the one-block-further bodega, the one open 24 hours. When I walk in, I join two cops, a guy talking fast about how the cigarettes weren’t for him, and another guy just loitering in the way people sometimes do when it’s one am and you’re in a convenience store. “Hello, lady!!!” the cashier greets me. He has my omelet. I speed home. Late dinner or early breakfast? Or maybe just both.

Day fifteen

The day of endings. My flight isn’t until seven, so I have some time to go do things. My hosts are kind enough to let me leave my stuff at their apartment, so I fly untethered. First I go to the Museum of Chinese in America, which I didn’t make it to last week. It’s good and dense, and a friend gave me a couple things to look for that figure into her family history, which added a lovely dimension to things. I walk around reading for an hour and emerge to a protest, which I learn is scheduled twice weekly, that has to do with management and funding. More dimensions. From there, I wander around a little before taking the subway north to Madison Square Park, because I really want that shake. Alas, the line is predictably long, and it’s not to be. (This is not wildly upsetting; Oakland has a Shake Shack now too, and this is more reason to make myself go there.) Instead, I walk across the street to Eataly and get a pizza, which I eat back in the park as I write some last postcards.

I am aware (and have it confirmed later) that I could stay another hour there, but I also know how I feel on travel days; going to a museum and having lunch out without feeling out of my mind is enough achievement. So I get back on the subway, go collect my stuff, and take the LIRR to JFK. I considered taking a car, trying to be nice to myself again, but the price would have been over a hundred dollars – no thank you. Instead, I end up on the train, listening to three guys who have a look of construction or maybe electrician to them talk. Deep New York accents, jokes about cramming themselves into Priuses when they get rides between jobs. I’m travel jittery, but they’re a joy to listen to.

JFK is kind of my least-favorite airport, largely because of a really terrible international connection there in 2013, but it’s… fine. I get incredibly dodgy pad Thai for late lunch. I try to mentally prepare myself to go home but realize I kinda can’t, and that’s ok. Mostly, I just wait.

After the flight, I encounter a bunch of weird SFO problems in trying to just get to BART and then have the single worst BART ride of my life on the way home. It’s a hell of a thing to spend a couple of weeks feeling very independent and steady (though that’s mostly just money; I have money, therefore New York is of a manageable scale to me) and then to reenter the familiar and find myself terrified of one shitty dude. But I make it home, and I wonder what it’ll be to reacclimate. Remind myself that I don’t actually believe in signs. Remind myself that I’ll probably be just fine. I most always am.

But I wonder, once again, where home is now and what that means in this era. To be determined.

a yellow sign reading "END" in front of a waterfront, with the New York skyline beyond it

How to vacation during a pandemic: week one

There are extremely valid reasons to not do this kind of travel in this era. Here’s why I did.

  1. I booked it when things were a little calmer, before infections rose again and we had Delta Variant feelings. So it goes. I also paid extra for direct flights in the interest of less exposure (and potential exposing).
  2. I was particularly cautious about what I did in the two weeks before I left. None of this stuff – only necessary errands, carried out in exactly the same way I did in, say, October 2020 and other similarly dire pre-vax periods. I wanted so badly to go out dancing, but I couldn’t justify it when I knew I’d be crossing the country soon, when other people would be in proximity to me without the ability to consent to the risks I’ve opted into.
  3. I was going from the Bay Area to New York, which have similar vaccination rates. This was very important to me both for my own safety and for people I’d encounter.
  4. Even so, I was, if anything, even more zealous with masks while I was there. Sometimes, especially late evenings in the Lower East Side, I was the only person wearing one. I reasoned that the biggest benefit of a mask is specifically to protect people from my California cooties. I don’t mind looking paranoid if it keeps other people safer. I’ve been the dork in a room before and will be again.
  5. A lot of my activities and all of my meals were outside.
  6. I gravitated toward Official Tourist Activities where masks and vaccinations were required. These let me relax. Bless you, Tenement Museum.
  7. If I didn’t do something other than existing in north Oakland for another several months, I was absolutely going to lose my entire fucking shit.

I’m a security engineer and believe in harm reduction over goals of perfection we’ll never live up to. I took the trip.

a painting of a Dala horse on a building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Day one

I arrive at JFK in the early evening, just in time for a sudden rainfall to reduce the west coast smoke that preceded me here. I had hoped this trip might help me duck some of the fire and smoke back in Oakland, so seeing those hazy pictures ahead of my arrival was a disappointment. But when I arrive, the air is wet and fresh and heavy. Alive.

I’ve only slept for 4.5 hours, so my subway ride into the city is a little surreal, my rumpled self draped immobile and sweaty around my bags as my brain begins what will be a constant practice during this trip: seizing on all the small details of the people around me. I’ve always done this, and in fact love it, but after so many months of not being able to immerse myself in other people, my brain starves for this in a way that makes it not an entirely voluntary activity.

I promised myself I didn’t have to go out on my first night unless I really wanted to, and that was before I realized how little sleep I’d get on my travel day. I summon Chinese food to my hotel room, eat most of it, and pass out for nine hours.

feet in sandals below a blue-and-white-dress next to a social distancing floor sticker

Day two

Since I’m still getting used to this “no longer in my living room” thing, I kept my plans modest for my first full day. I do well when I tell myself things like, “Do this one thing, and then you don’t have to do anything else.” This applies for activities like preparing for job interviews, but it also applies to fun that I know could stress me out.

I order a bagel with lox from Russ and Daughters to pick up, which I eat in bed. An everything bagel with lots of poppy seeds is, I will say, an interesting choice of bed food, but here we are. I eat it while I start my work during London Writers’ Hour. After, I take a walk around the neighborhood, get a coffee, and go on a Tenement Museum tour. I chose Finding Home, which takes us into a recreation of two eras of a tenement apartment, one from when a Jewish family moved into it just after World War II, and the other from a later era when a Puerto Rican family moves in. Everything feels connected to my awakening brain, so an hour-plus of a super-informed guide augmented by tales from several older Jewish New Yorkers on the tour just makes the synapses sparkle. I feel so lucky.

I go back to the hotel to decompress a little and realize that my occasional travel problem of sorting out food in a timely way is extremely likely to be an issue on this trip. I make myself go out and get a veg burger, which I even eat outside, before going back to the hotel for my online appointment with my therapist. I stay in bed and think and write and read until I realize, again, the food thing is an issue, and I dress up a little and shove myself outside. What I didn’t anticipate was that Thursday in the Lower East Side is basically Friday. Almost all the outdoor tables at restaurants are full, and the sidewalks are crammed with the young and drunk.

This is a lot for me right now.

I wander around for more than 25 minutes, coming up empty-handed, vowing to make more reservations if I’m so hellbent on going out to eat in the future. Finally I spot a couple empty tables at an Italian restaurant with a stunning indoor bar, all twinkle lights along the ceiling, just a glittering golden oasis of possible inebriation that I cannot go into right now. I stuff myself with burrata and cheese-filled shells. I listen to the table next to me having a fairly ruthless and joyless political argument, a European lecturing an American and being what I think is correct but also pretty exhausting about it. I see people ten-odd years younger than me thrilling to their own hot vaxxed summers, coming within six inches of my sidewalk table.

I resolve that I do not need to go out for dinner tomorrow if I don’t want to.

Day three

I set an alarm and head for my time slot at MOMA. I have a Clif bar for technical breakfast and then, after saying hello to “Starry Night” and some other lovely things, I eat macaroni and cheese at their Terrace Cafe. It’s overcast and soft when I go outside, but the sky laser turns up to 11 approximately 30 seconds after I order. Like any common vampire, I cover myself in the large light scarf I usually have on me, and thus I survive to see the rest of the museum.

After, I walk north into Central Park, meaning to amble toward Bethesda Terrace in a roundabout way. I see dogs and read bench plaques. I see bike rickshaws, so many bike rickshaws, plus those tourist carriages and dozens of aggressive cyclists. And it’s wonderful. I dressed light, so I’m not dying from the humidity. I’m kind of wondering what my hair looks like, but I’m not uncomfortable. I get to my destination and sit on the cool stone ledge inside to write, listening to a guy playing the duxianqin, mixing the more traditional stuff you hear from one of those with things like the theme to The Godfather. I watch people selfie (the true theme of the day; MOMA was constant shit for the ‘gram, in a way I found more melancholy than annoying), I watch a guy making giant bubbles with one of those rope wands, I watch people living out their Real New York City Experiences, and I feel fairly content. I get up after a while and walk further through the park. A bit later, it begins to rain.

I haven’t felt soft summer rain in a long time. California doesn’t really have that: rain the same temperature as your skin, that feels like it grows things, like encouragement. My bag is full of moisture-averse things like my journal and the museum postcards I bought, so I can’t exactly luxuriate in it. I end up walking down Fifth Avenue, hopping from the shelter of one tree to another, until I end up under a Bergdorf Goodman awning and realize I’m close to the train back to my hotel. I wrap that sun-shielding scarf around my head, draping it over my bag, and make my way there, getting to the platform just as my train pulls up.

True to my word to myself, I get home and hang out for a while before getting crepes from the little shop across the street from my hotel. It stays open until two, and the crepes are exactly what I want. I do my daily writing. I do my first batch of sink laundry. And after I stayed outside for seven whole hours without having a pandemic agoraphobia-induced panic attack, I start to make more plans.

It feels safe to make more plans.

a mural of the Notorious B.I.G. on the Brooklyn Love building

Day four

I keep staying up later than I mean to. It’d be easy to blame this on time zones, but the reality is that I have a Kindle full of excellent library books and zero ability to cut myself off of anything joyful at this point, even if I know it’ll be waiting for me tomorrow. Last night, I stayed up past three finishing The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, which was described to me as a warm hug, and it delivered. This meant, however, that getting up with my 11:30 alarm was… pushing it. I finally lumbered out of my hotel room around 12:45 (after washing my hair, because I’m rediscovering how curly hair works in humidity) and walked to Tompkins Square Bagels to grab breakfast and lunch, which I took to Battery Park to meet friends. “Meet us by the Seaglass Carousel” were the magical instructions, and I found a shady bench and devoured my nova lox bagel like any common large sea mammal. I came here to try to see what it’s like to live, and sitting in a park with friends, watching Zelda the dog roll ecstatically in the grass and try to eat mango, then walking back to my hotel with one of said friends, weaving through neighborhood after neighborhood, stopping to buy fruit at a sidewalk table, seeing layers of city give way to each other… it’s good. It’s very good. This could be your life, my soul whispers to me. I know, I whisper back.

I collapse back at the hotel, diminished after hours of sweating, before resurrecting myself to go out to dinner. It’s month-long restaurant week here (ok!), and I found a place around the corner with a prix fixe menu that includes both shrimp risotto and panna cotta (I fucking love panna cotta; a useful thing to know about me, because now you know to keep your hands away from my mouth and dessert when it’s on the table). It takes a good 15 minutes for someone to take my order, which is five minutes less than my limit for waiting on that kind of thing. The Lower East Side, it turns out, makes me feel very on the outside. I’m pretty accustomed to feeling that way, having been a weird kid for many many years now, but I’m not accustomed to being among people again yet, so it’s a little difficult. I sit alone at a four-top with another excellent book, content enough, but feeling outside, as I’m surrounded by friend groups fueling up for a night out (with both food and, in the case of some table neighbors, rounds of tequila shots). I have no problem eating alone, but eating alone at a place that’s all about large groups is a slightly different situation. I order champagne, because yay me, but am informed they only have rosé champagne that night. Oh no, not that. I say that’s fine, but the waiter brings me regular champagne and then a bonus on-the-house glass of the rosé, with a wink of that particular kind that comes from a career waiter. It feels like extra oxygen in the room to be visible and judged worthy of a little kindness and delight. The panna cotta is excellent too.

He comps me another glass of champagne with my check. I tip well and happily. I am very happy to be seen as that woman who dines alone and warrants champagne.

mural of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Day five

I stayed up late last night, waiting for the champagne to work its way out of me, and then decided at 2:30 am that it was definitely time to do a first revision/editing pass on that printed-out short story I brought with me, and so I give myself the gift of sleeping as late as I damn well please. I emerge from my hotel just before three and walk back to my favorite East Village bagel shop. The ice melts in my coffee before I get to Tompkins Square Park to eat them, but fortunately, the coffee is mostly gone by then too. I am relieved that travel’s magical transmuting quality on coffee still works for me. At home, it’d give me an elevated heart rate and a sense of vague danger; elsewhere, it provides more of that awake/alive/ready feeling that seems normal for a lot of people.

I find a place on the lawn to eat, drink my lemonade, and write in my journal a little. A cover band plays mostly Beatles songs, and excellently, with one single deviation with an Eagles song, for which I can forgive them. I smell weed and watch dogs try to chase squirrels and see everyone in their shared yard in public. I realize I’m too warm to eat more, so I stop at half a nova lox bagel. It will be the last thing I eat for more than six hours, well into the evening.

I need to get to the Upper West Side, and I screw the directions up a little, somehow missing the stop on Houston I sought. Instead, I end up walking a long, warm mile and a half, mostly avoiding the sun for all the good it did me, arriving at the next station approximately seven hours later (meaning probably 30 minutes) and certainly down a pint of the humors I need to keep me alive. Seriously, I become a freaking lawn sprinkler as I wait on the platform. I know it’s gross when my shins are sweating. The train I needed pulled away as I stepped onto the platform, so I have the longest wait possible, 13 minutes to stand in the shared sauna, breathing deeply and reminding myself that suffering is as transient as joy. The AC of the train is a balm, is an absolution, is a reminder that maybe I’ll live to see another day.

I get to my destination at least 30 minutes later than I’d intended, just long enough to talk to my boyfriend and spot a minivan with the license plate 1-HOTMOM parked outside. I’m there for a performance of Twelfth Night at a community garden on 89th Street.

“I, uh, didn’t know you liked Shakespeare,” Sean says as I talk to him before going through the gate to find a seat. “You’ve never seemed especially interested when I’ve proposed it.”

“I’m not when there are more options,” I tell him. “But I like seeing theater when I come to New York, so I like it just fine when it’s one of the few outdoor performances happening.”

It’s a lot of fun to watch. My attention span remains spotty and unpredictable after all that time in my apartment, and I watch some and drift away in my mind some, going back and forth, but enjoying the performances. I like a whimsical interpretation of a Shakespearean comedy. They do a nice job, and I’m glad I stumbled onto it online. The president of the garden sits next to me sometimes, on the edge of a planter, and we both have hand fans in motion most of the time.

After, I go get dinner at the Mermaid Inn, where I drink almost two liters of ice water. I eat a giant pile of kale, because one of my weekly goals is to try to get more salad. (My last few days were more bagel-based than is ideal.) They bring me a little surprise chocolate pot to finish things up, and I feel blessed by waiters again.

After, I wander down Amsterdam and into some of the more residential blocks. I have to figure out where a character of mine lives, and I take pictures of front doors of likely looking places. It’s interesting roaming around an area I kind of know but who someone I’ve invented knows very well. May I recommend writing a novel set somewhere else and then going there? It’s a new kind of orientation, the imagination overlaying the half-familiar.

I walk down to 60th, frown at the people taking stupid selfies in front of the shitty former president’s shitty hotel (I mean, seriously, still?), and duck onto the subway. Some deeply odious bros are being exactly as you’d expect, and I put my headphones on for the first time since the plane here. Lots of things are easier with an application of Nine Inch Nails.

I arrive home and discover new blisters on my left foot in places I generally don’t get them. It’s good; it means I’ve been walking a ton, one of my primary goals for this trip. But it also means that tomorrow’s a great day to try to take it a little easier physically.

Day six

In fact, I take the day off.

I get up before 11 to do London Writers’ Hour while eating a bagel from yesterday. After I get my words done, I realize I’m still zonked, so I go back to sleep for a couple of hours, having those shallow, vivid dreams that pop up sometimes with out-of-band, uncertain sleep. Between my feet being kind of fucked and the fact that it’s somehow warmer out today than yesterday, I realize that the best, most honest approximation of living here today is… staying the hell inside. I eat longan for the first time, piercing their shells with my incisors before shelling them and spitting the dark seeds into my crepe bag from several nights ago. I write and catch up on neglected emails and responses on Slack and Twitter. I wash my hair after all the sweaty hours of yesterday and get to let it dry before I go outside. I do the next London Writers’ Hour and work on some editing.

If this were a week-long vacation, it would feel like such a massive squandering of time, but I’m realizing that this is the luxury of a longer trip: I can just veg sometimes and be a person who gets tired and needs a moment. If I’d gone outside today, I might’ve forced myself through a couple hours at the Met or some other museum that I probably would have liked well enough but which didn’t really sing to me today. Anyway, it’s Monday, and lots of cultural things are closed. Instead, I’m letting my body rest a little, limiting the push of sharp, sharp summer on soft, pale limbs that really aren’t into marching around in 90-degree heat and sweltering sun. I’m starting to understand what it would be like for me to live in New York in the summer: I’d do less some days, like you always do if you’re just home. It’d be easier if I could just go see a movie or luxuriate in restaurant AC, but I’m not doing either of those things right now, so my options for climate control are my hotel room, the subway, and museums. Instead, I stay inside, and it’s just right.

In the evening, I take two trains over to Fort Greene to meet online friends for German beer, and it’s nice to just sit and talk and exist with people who have at least a little context of who I am. I love this version of traveling: a couple of days to wander and feel only barely tethered to the world, then getting to see friends and be a person in the context of the rest of my life for a little while. We talk hacking things and security conferences and mutual friends. (It’s security; there are always mutual friends.) When I go home, I’m able to make the return trip without consulting my phone. Not the most complicated route, but it’s just such a joy to be able to figure things out again for fun reasons. A memory of letters and colors, understanding what the endpoints on the trains mean, and getting to be just another blase person on the subway platform.

I realized during dinner that I seem to have walked off the unhelpful portion of my “I am among people, oh shit!!!” anxiety, leaving only the useful stuff (masks inside, a general disinterest in unsafe indoor things and people). I book a ticket for a day at the American Museum of Natural History and am surprised at how excited I am. This kind of unadulterated looking forward to stuff has been largely out of reach for the last pandemic length of time. Always, some part of myself had to be left on the shelf in order to emotionally survive things. What a gift it is to look at even one thing without that weight sitting across my shoulders.

I learn during dinner that the place I’m staying in the Lower East Side sits neatly within what’s called Hell Square.

This explains some things.

Day seven

For my last full day staying in Manhattan, I go to… Staten Island.

I’ve meant to take the ferry for my last several visits to the city, but do you know, it’s really easy to just keep not doing that. Not until a friend mentioned the Alice Austen House did I have the double-barreled reason to actually go. I book a 1 pm tour, set an alarm, and spend the last hour of the morning making my way to the ferry. On the other side, I get a bus down Bay Street to the museum.

It overlooks the water, and it’s fitting to learn about Austen’s work there, because she documented so much local stuff: street life in Manhattan in the late 1800s, quarantine islands in the same era, and her robust social life, which seemed to be full of sardonic nerds. I like them immediately.

Lobster Newburg recipe typed on a card
Alice and Gertrude bribed the chef at Delmonico’s $75 for this recipe and never really recouped the money. You can enjoy it for free.

When I get back to the hotel, I give myself the gift of a couple hours in the AC before I go out, eating an egg salad sandwich from Pret-a-Manger in bed to tide me over before fancy dinner.

My new favorite kind of bar is the kind that wants to see my vax card. It doesn’t fix everything, as we know, but it’s harm reduction, which will do. The room at the back of the bar in Brooklyn is small, probably the size of my living room and bedroom put together. Mambembe is a ten-person ensemble (that night, anyway) that takes up between half and two-thirds of the space. I’d forgotten what it’s like to feel the strike of a drum in my bones, going resonant through my ribcage. Turns out it’s everything. New Heights Brass Band is all women, and their solos, I just… I get FEELINGS much more easily right now than I usually do, and I found myself on the edge of tears at a guitar solo during an arrangement of “Genie in a Bottle”, to say nothing of all the other actual brass solos.

I am not the same as I was, and in some ways, that’s pretty ok.

I dance and I dance and I dance, and I drink pulque that even the bartender didn’t realize was on their bottle list, and the bar staff is extremely kind, and everyone’s so glad to be there. Including me.

a lightbulb sticks out of a Supremes record

I take the subway back for my last night in my hotel, and I’m struck again at how simple it is: how frequent the trains are, how clear everything is, how stuff just works. I’ve been here enough to know that’s not always the case, but I am pretty sure it often is, and for someone who has gone through elaborate thinking to figure out how to get from Rockridge to Ashby via BART without wanting to tear things apart or wait a pointless 28 minutes for a transfer, that is everything.

Tomorrow brings trip part two: the Brooklyn-based days. I cannot wait.

This… MEANS Something (to me, anyway)

It turns out that if you spend the vast majority of an entire sixteen-month span of your life in the same three rooms, moving yourself very far from that context absolutely floods the brain.

And it turns out that, if you’re in the state of being where “I saw a person” still feels like a riveting story, putting yourself in a place with roughly eight million people means that every one-hour span feels like an entire thick-ass anthology of flash fiction.


The skinny young guy, mask below his nose, on the phone, sticker still on his snapback hat, who got up from sitting on the subway by lifting himself just enough to put his hand on the rail above him to pull himself to standing using only his arm strength.

Another young guy, this one sitting next to me on the train, clad in brilliantly teal scrubs, who told his friend on the phone about his series of upcoming night shifts. He collapsed slightly onto the rail next to him as he awaited his stop during our long trip on the J. I’d had 4.5 hours of sleep before approximately eleven hours of travel, so I felt a quiet kinship with him.

The lanky 14-year-old on my Tenement Museum tour who, when we were all told to stand somewhere so we could see the subtitles on the TV showing the video interview of the apartment’s former tenant, walked into the middle of the room of twelve other people on the tour, blocking the view of at least two-thirds of us. When I tapped him on the shoulder and made a hand gesture that meant, roughly, “Other people exist, young squire,” he scurried to the side in understanding. Thanks, my guy. You’ll get there.

The trio of older New Yorkers on the tour, city accents gloriously deep and rich, all of whom had stories to add about the Jewish and Puerto Rican families’ experiences we were discussing. One was using WhatsApp in Hebrew in breaks between the guide’s stories. Another was involved in developing the first ESL curriculum in local schools in the early 60s.

Every counter person or cashier I’ve dealt with, all of whom have exuded east coast kindness (in contrast to west coast nice). I think this is my favorite thing about the east coast and what I miss the most, though the west coast version usually gets me by, just without this particular spectrum of heartwarming feelings. Give me brusque and actually concerned when I’m in need any day.

The man in painters’ whites, sitting on a literal pile of metal ladders on the sidewalk, looking fully at ease as he chats on the phone in a gently reclined position, despite being on something barely more comfortable than a stack of loose Legos or perhaps an actual cactus.

The bench dedicated to Kamari the dog on the west side of Central Park, next to which crouched the single fluffiest, best-groomed, freshly blown-out Golden Retriever I will ever see in my life.

The woman who stopped to ask me, as I sat next to the lake in Central Park, if I was from there. “Alas, no.” I said. “Why?” She turned to look over her shoulder. “We want to know what that is.” She pointed to a tall building that stretched above the trees, its corners each graced with elaborate enough toppers that they could each be a monument. “Well,” I told her, “now I want to know what it is too.” I looked it up later and found out that it’s The Beresford, which has just as many notable residents (Diana Ross, Meyer Lansky, and Helen Gurley Brown???) as its fabulous exterior deserves.

The people I huddled next to under a Bergdorf Goodman awning as we waited to see if the soft summer rain would let up or turn into a proper downpour. One of them was a cop, and I tried to spy on the beat report he was writing, but I was too distracted with figuring out how to get my cloth bag full of my journal and postcards safely indoors to concentrate.

Remembering how you can end up in a cohort of sorts of other museum visitors, which can be delightful or deeply, deeply irritating. Particularly as none of us seem to remember how to maneuver through crowds anymore. If ever we did.

The gothest horse and carriage along Central Park, all purple-and-black ostrich feathers and studded black leather tack.

The middle-aged guy with long curly hair and a beard – Sammy Hagar type, let’s say – riding a city bike around the Seaglass Carousel at Battery Park. “Woooooow,” I hear him say as he circles it. On the next rotation: “It’s so pretty.” I don’t see him again, but I hope so hard that he got to ride it, because it was indeed so pretty, because we’re guaranteed nothing in this life, and exchanging a few bucks for such guaranteed joy is an excellent investment. Grown-ass people can ride carousels too. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t. (Answer: I hadn’t had breakfast yet and had a bagel with nova lox waiting for me in my bag.)

The buff man in a surgical mask who stands, arms crossed, in front of the bar entrance next to the restaurant I have dinner at. He deals with group after group of young women in tiny dresses, in airy dresses, in sparkling sandals, in brand-new eight-eyelet Docs, checking IDs, letting them through, and being a traffic controller in a night that’s sure to need a lot of it.

The member of the acting troupe who stepped in at the last minute after one of the troupe tested positive for covid, despite being vaccinated, who had to occasionally consult the copy of Twelfth Night he held, but often didn’t. Everyone coming together to put on a play in a garden in the Upper West Side. All of us sitting and beholding the product of collaboration. Also the people who occasionally were clearly just taking a shortcut through the garden, slowing their walk for a moment to figure out exactly what the hell was going on.

And the always-at-least-slightly-sweaty tourist in the black shirt and rust-colored backpack, eyes wide, taking all of it in while she can, because the return flight comes a little bit closer every day.

Post-Pandemic Vacation Planning, Actual Leisure, and Threat Modeling

What does it even mean to plan a vacation for pleasure after more than a year where we felt like being outside your home was the most dangerous thing?

I’ve planned two-week trips before. I’ve planned many trips to New York. I’ve planned solo trips, unstructured trips full of wandering, and trips meant to answer some kind of built-up longing.

My upcoming trip is all of these things, and yet this is new.

What is it to just be starting to leave the house again, to retrain my brain to not think that BART cars and other enclosed spaces are shared incubators of guaranteed death, only to immediately go to one of the most populated cities in the world?

Difficult, I’d say. And also as necessary as anything has been for the last year.


For this trip, I wanted to try existing in New York in an ordinary, “I live here, actually” kind of way. During my last longer stay there, I split an apartment in the Upper West Side for a week with my friend who lived in Astoria for many years, who was always a commuter train ride away even once she had to leave the city. I’ve never been there without that backup. I have other friends there, but the focus won’t be the same.

This time, I’m going to spend a week in the Lower East Side and then a week in Fort Greene, at the advice of another friend who used to live there. I think highly of Astoria, but my visits to New York were based there for more than a decade. A fact-finding mission needed to be based elsewhere.

For the second week, I’m pretty sure I’ll have relaxed enough to stay in a bedroom in someone’s apartment – or I certainly hope so, because that is what I’m doing. After a week bouncing around the city, I will have gotten used to some things. But upon arrival, after hours and hours in airports and a sky tube and all this proximity, I assume that I’ll be essentially broken. I did manage to find one of the only flights from SFO to JFK that didn’t leave at either 7 am or 11 pm, so I’m not destroying myself (AGAIN) with a red-eye flight or one that’s so early it might as well be. But after six hours in a plane following 15 months in my apartment and almost only in my apartment (with a handful of exceptions), I’ll be wrecked. And heading from that into a stranger’s apartment is too much. My first week will be in a modest li’l hotel, and that is fine.

I realized that the following things will be especially important on this early voyage back into the world:

  1. A door that closes and that no one will come through. A ton of Manhattan Airbnbs had a single bathroom accessed either through the guest’s room or host’s room, and while I understand what’s up with this, I also know that my tolerance for risk and weirdness will be bottomed out upon arrival and likely won’t replenish fast enough to make this something I can deal with.
  2. A reasonably predictable situation, which sleeping in someone’s living room, rules for where snacks may and may not be eaten, a living room full of forbidden exercise equipment but no furniture, or sleeping behind a curtain do not permit. Yes, these are all real examples of options I (briefly) considered.
  3. A place to stay where, if it does take me until 4 pm the day after I arrive to reemerge into the world – not unheard of for me on first days of trips – it won’t be observed, keep anyone from having a pee, or otherwise affect anyone except me.

I’ve always tried to minimize strife when planning trips, working to balance that with budget concerns so I can do more for less. Rarely, though, has the definition of strife included “I want to do everything I can to ensure I don’t end up hiding under a blanket, wishing I was back home.”


A central part of my job is threat modeling, which means considering a system (either built or just planned) and figuring out where risk lies and what those possible risks might be. With something like a website, some of the risk comes from anything that takes in text or other parameters. You can mess with the servers behind them by putting in input that does weird stuff to databases, or you can compromise other users by sending them links with parameters that make things misbehave. You can overwhelm an unprotected server with traffic, taking it offline. What systems does it connect to? What data does it present or allow users to update? These are all things to consider.

I like threat modeling, and it’s been an interesting era to have cultivated this skill. Now I threat model myself. What happens with my own vulnerable system once I go somewhere new, full of new inputs and uncertain motivations?

I can address some: I’m still being cautious, but my antibodies should have reached full strength more than a month ago, so my caution is mostly for the benefit of other people as we scramble to figure out exactly what the risk of transmission is with new variants as a vaccinated person among people with compromised immune systems or other risks. I’ve been figuring out how I want to work within those risks and trying to err on the side of being conservative. I decided to not go out for the two weeks leading up to this trip because the chance of dragging some California variant across the country to an unsuspecting city felt like an unforgivable risk.

And then there are the others.

The brain-breaking people fear, old social anxiety amped up by a lack of practice and so many months of stranger danger, all this aquarium living. How I know handling necessary things, like feeding myself in an unfamiliar place, gets more complicated when I’m freaked out. And then the ever-present curiosity of whether I’ll return to not trusting said vaccination, which has nothing to do with the vax itself and everything to do with this being the first time I’ve had a vaccination for a current and newly arisen concern rather than a piece of distant-to-me history, a new kind of trust fall.

As with websites and servers and networks, there are mitigations. I’m getting out among people a bit before taking the big plunge. I’ll bring snacks with me, and I’ll plan at least a couple of meals for my first full day there, so my decisions will be fewer as I adjust. And the last?

No system can be perfectly secured. Eventually, you just have to go live and plan to respond to any incidents that come up.

With travel in other years, I depended on my reliable love for leaping into the unknown. Things would be awkward sometimes, because I would need to learn things as I went, but in the end, they’d all be good stories. This was, I learned in 2020, the difference between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a thing to vanquish, to push against and congratulate yourself on your bravery.

Fear is different. I understand that better now. It reminds me of this amazing article about Airbnb trying to make headway into Japan, only to discover that different cultures weigh risk and uncertainty differently. I used to have an American risk tolerance, all acceptance of failure and encouragement to try again and again, but I find myself feeling more like many of the Japanese people in that article now. I assume that’ll diminish, but I can’t guess when.

I used to consider myself brave in what turned out to be a fairly flimsy definition of the word—harmless, generally, but not something that stood up well in the most recent era. And my ability to rely on that quality has taken a beating in the samey-same last year-plus of living, this cheap cartoon repeating background version of life, this phase where “I saw a person” becomes an anecdote worth relaying, this era where donating blood is fascinating enough that it fuels more than an hour of excited conversation.

What else is there to do, really, but fling myself into one of the biggest cities in the world? I can be mindful of what I know, understand that the problems I can’t predict can probably either be dealt with by throwing money at it or running away to regroup, and trust that my old instincts are somewhere in there.

And if not, and you happen to see a story about a pink-haired NYC tourist who absolutely lost her shit in a newsworthy way? Spare a little kindness before you keep scrolling.

Tentative Hibernation Emergence: a Selection of Recent Social Encounters

I am at my first indoor social event since March 2020. My date/quarantine buddy goes to the toilets. I stand next to the bleachers in this space in Westfield Center that’s done up like a pretend gym hosting a pretend prom, watching people dance and figuring out how I feel being by myself in a place that isn’t my apartment. I decide I’m content, alone among strangers.

A woman in a pink wig turns to me. “I have too many jello shots,” she tells me, raising her voice over Boy George. “Would you like one?” It’s not that I’ve spoken to zero strangers in the last year-plus, but it’s been rare, and I was never exceptionally good at this even when things were ok. I say yes to the jello shot. “It’s really stuck in there,” she tells me. “You need to loosen it up with your tongue or a finger.”

This is a lot of information for me. I run a finger around the edge of the jello shot, trying and failing to remember what that finger might have touched in the previous 30-odd minutes, and then tip the entire thing into my mouth. While I chew it, my brain starts to try to figure everything out. Is this the start of a conversation? Are we talking? What is the expectation? What do I actually want?

My body decides my exit, because I am now holding an object that needs to be disposed of. I’ve spent so long in my apartment, where there are no surprise objects of uncertainty, so obviously the best thing is to go throw it away right now. I cross the space to the recycling bins, deposit the plastic cup and its lid, and stop. Holy shit, the compulsion I had to deal with this stray object. It feels like an irresistible force, so much that it overrode the “what do I even do here” social anxiety. I come back to myself by the trash cans, empty-handed, wondering exactly how abrupt I was without meaning to be.


I walk down Telegraph in Temescal here in Oakland, heading to BART. I am not wearing a mask, which is safe but still feels so novel. A man walks toward me. He’s ten-odd years older than I am and has that casual feeling of belonging about him that always makes me think people were born here. He gives me a nod and a small smile. I nod back at him – I like the nod – and to my surprise, I break out into a really big smile. It surprises him too, and he grins back.

It’s been so long since all of my face was visible in public on the regular. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to give that small, easy, “Hey, hope your day’s good” kind of expression at people I don’t know. I’m visibly female in public, so smiling, particularly at men I don’t know, isn’t a simple order of operations. But this felt good, like a ray of sun emerging through clouds. I think we made each other’s day better, and I like that so much.


The same afternoon, I wait for BART at MacArthur. I left a little early to walk to the station that’s a bit further from me so I can get to the Richmond train without a transfer, and there’s a train delay, so I have almost 20 minutes to wait. I write in my journal and enjoy the breeze from the highway. Warm; silty; nice only because I like cities and density.

A man sits next to me, another one of us in a row, all of us at least four feet apart. He waves at me, and I reluctantly take off my headphones. “I like your toenail color,” he says. He’s right to: it’s really good, a glittery magenta I bought from an Instagram ad. “Thanks so much,” I reply. He’s managed to comment on something fairly intimate without making it weird. Not all men (hashtag) have this skill. I leave my headphones off one ear for a minute to see if this is going anywhere, hoping it doesn’t. He gets up for his train a couple minutes later, and it’s clear that will be that.

It’s very strange being visible in public again. Everything was a private matter for so long, in the way of wealthy Georgian ladies and the gowns worn only in the house. Now there are public clothes again, and I’m not sure how to manage that yet. This is a reminder: I do reflect light, I am composed of solid matter, I do leave the house, and I will have to budget energy to deal with interactions I can’t predict.

The train arrives and overshoots the platform by an entire car. We all look at each other, quizzical eyebrows over striped masks, Raiders masks, solid-colored masks, surgical masks, wondering what tf is going on, what’s with this conductor, is the train going to back up or nah? It’s a moment of togetherness after so much being apart, united by irritation and disapproval. It feels like home.


Another day, I’m taking BART toward downtown to meet a friend for patio dinner. I get into the first car and see that no one else is there. Private transportation. I take a couple dorky selfies to commemorate it. When we stop at the next station, the conductor comes out from behind his door to wake someone up. I wasn’t alone after all; a woman was slouched across one of the bench seats, and he’s come out to tell her this is her stop. She groggily collects her stuff and walks off the train.

We pause to do a transfer, long enough that she walks onto the other train, stays there for a minute, walks back out and across the platform to my train to get something she left, and then emerges onto the platform again only to watch the train on the other side pull out.

I’d forgotten these little moments of triumph and despair. The bus you didn’t catch, the train leaving in front of you, the joys and sorrows of parking, lines for restaurants. We used to see each other so much more.


I get my hair cut for the first time in seventeen months. I have curly hair and am not extremely particular, so this could’ve been a great era for punky, choppy bobs and the like, the best of home haircuts and nothing to lose, but I opted for the inverse of something a messageboard I once belonged to would say whenever anyone was going through a hard breakup: notice your hair. Your hair is growing, and you are healing. You don’t notice it daily, but one day your bangs will be in your eyes, or some layer will be where it’s not supposed to be. And that day, remind yourself: time is passing, and you’re healing.

I used my quarantine hair as a reminder that I was justified in feeling so awful. It brushed my shoulders at the start of things; it nearly reached the bottom of my shoulder blades by the end (or “end,” let’s be real here). Why does it feel like my brain’s on fire? Why do I feel like some desperate captive thing? Ah right, my hair is six inches longer than the last time I really felt good. Of course. I used the length to remember exactly what was going on; I used my gradually expanding undercut to reclaim a little bit of control.

It’s really good to see my stylist (Brittany at Pirate Salon, highly recommended). She’s smart and kind and funny, and she interprets my vague directions (“less? more curly? to roughly this length? I don’t know?”) into real things that grow out really well. We frantically catch up on almost a year and a half of living: where’d you go, how’d you do, how are your primary relationships, what are your resolutions now that we know a somewhat different way of being?

What is it to condense more than a year of lovely quarterly interactions into an hour? We did it, and it was good. It’s intense. And welcome. And feels like healing. We stand before each other when we’re done, both reading for hug-friendly cues. “I don’t mind if you don’t–” I start. “It’s fine if–” she says. And we hug, and it’s just fucking fabulous.


After, since I’m already in the Mission, I decide to treat myself to fancy lady food. There aren’t any free tables at Tartine Manufactory, so instead I get it to go and wander to a nearby park. I try for one gate at first; it’s locked, and as I double back to try the other side, I pass the man who had been yelling into his cell phone as I approached. He’s in his 60s and gives a vibe of having been here for a while, which I love. As we pass each other, he says, still irritated at the world, “Yeah, I wouldn’t go that way either.” He proceeds to go the way I came from.

As I settle in on my bench, figuring out how exactly one eats soup and bread with butter on a bench during a moderate breeze, he comes in with a couple similarly aged friends, and they shoot the shit in the gazebo behind me. My favorite is when one of them says that he’s having neighbor problems with someone upstairs. “The other meth heads I know are all mellow, but not this guy,” he says. Another older guy with a beer in a paper bag sits one bench down from me. I’m drinking root beer from a brown bottle and hope I don’t attract attention that could be inconvenient for him.

It all feels very exposed, me with my fancy bread, drinking cold corn soup from a plastic container, wrangling an elaborate banana tart topped with chocolate shavings, entranced by people around me yet hoping I don’t have any surprise conversations because I’m just not ready for that. I prefer not to be weird at strangers. A lot of them don’t deserve it.


I go to Death Guild. I had never gone before; it’s easy to mean to go to something for years but never make it because it happens on a Monday, because it’s in the city, because I’m tired, because because because. This quarantine has given me so many months to marinate in all these rationalizations that can take over your life if you let them. You can rationalize yourself straight to your fucking grave leaving all these things undone. I don’t believe in silver linings, but I am choosing to make use of the perspective that came from more than a year of one big because that eliminated all possibilities. I vowed to go to a goth night almost as soon as I could. I waited a couple of weeks just to see how the world would work once we did things again, but shortly after that? OUT.

Everyone is startlingly beautiful. I sort of remember how to talk to bartenders and not be a nuisance. I work to remember how to watch people without staring. There are incredibly involved ensembles, corsets and long coats and headpieces, often worn by people I immediately name queen/lord of the underworld or other honorary titles, but there are also people in denim jackets and fairly ordinary clothes. There are people who have clearly been pining for this in a way I understand across the last year and are emerging with LOOKS, and they are FANTASTIC. And also people trying something new and behaving themselves.

I dance until my left knee hurts. I dance on top of a go-go platform. I dance on stage. I dance upstairs and downstairs. I remember how bodies can work. I’m grateful for my lighter hair, this thing that actually moves again rather than being a thick, long fall tethering me to this timeline.

A couple times, while moving between rooms or sipping a beer and watching people (people!), I think that rare thought: I am happy in a thorough and uncomplicated way right now. This is what that feels like. That thing I don’t feel very often, where my brain is neither in the past nor the future, but only holding tight to the present, and the present is excellent. I spent many nights in quarantine dancing in my living room, including to the online version of Death Guild, my lights off and my galaxy projector going, dodging cats as I tried to inhabit my whole body and not just the part that participates in a Zoom call. It was good and important, and it got me by sometimes.

This is better – as good as I hoped it would be, in fact. How often do we get to long for something and then get precisely what we hoped for?

I dance until the last song is done and then emerge onto the street, grateful for the night air on my sweaty neck. We get a car home, pulling up in front of my apartment building after three. I think “this is what it’s like to be young,” but really, I wasn’t often young in quite this way. I think I’m going to be older in this way instead. Next time, I could stay out for two fewer hours, have two fewer drinks, and generally not borrow happiness and energy from tomorrow in order to have a good night. But for a first outing after all this confinement?


The next day, I sip water, find a couple mystery bruises, and have zero regrets.


I am at the optometrist, another medical or medical-adjacent thing where half my face is covered. The tech adds a piece of tape to the nosepiece of my mask so I don’t fog up the peripheral vision test machine. The optometrist looks at my retinal scans and finds my old friend: the little grey dot of histoplasmosis that exists in my right eye, a forever souvenir of growing up in the midwest. If it were in the lung (as happened to a friend of mine), it’d be Ohio Valley Disease. Instead, it lives next to my optic nerve, and it’s called presumed ocular histoplasmosis.

“We call it presumed now,” Dr. Kim says, “because we can’t really diagnose it conclusively.”

“Without an autopsy,” I say.


I kinda love talking to optometrists.

“There’s a local version called Valley Fever,” he says as he scrolls around the newest portraits of the inside of my eyes, looking for other shadows and spots. “It’s caused by coccidioides, though, but it can cause a similar thing in the eye. It’s normal if you train in California, but if you do a rotation in another part of the country and get a chance to recognize it, you look like a genius because people from other places don’t know about it.”

I think about my childhood training in hypervigilance and the finer points of reading other people’s passive aggression and the strange, unwanted skillset it gives me in my work as a software engineer, but that’s too much to explain through a mask to someone I’ve just met.

After, I walk around the glasses showroom, putting likely pairs into a box so they can be sterilized after I try them on. The woman who runs that part of the shop is my favorite kind of person for this work: sharply opinionated and precise. “No,” she says immediately after I try the first two pairs on. “Too old. Too serious.” We agree on the one truly acceptable pair. She has me take my mask off to actually see myself, which would have been unnerving if I hadn’t been trying this out a little elsewhere. “See?” she says. “Those are the ones.”

I stare at myself in the purple-and-red frames I’ll be adding to my collection, my suddenly exposed face in someone else’s space, and appreciate the small risk she took in order to do the work well.


I sift through CDC bulletins and news from the Bay Area and the world. I read about variants and possible future booster shots. I consider the risks to myself (fairly insignificant) and the risks I pose to others (controllable if I keep on with my current habits of mask-wearing and caution in enclosed spaces). I ask myself what I get from reentering the world and try to balance being a person again with functioning in a way I consider moral.

I begin to tentatively make plans.