All I Never Wanted

A swing hanging from a branch in front of a verdant wooded valley

Normally, the money I spent to stay an hour from my apartment for my spring vacation would’ve been more than enough to take me across the world. It’s bizarre that staying so close by required so much more: money, energy, STUFF. 

My god, the stuff.

I used to have these easy habits, these little portable compartments of necessities. My work backpack contained lip balm, nail clippers, Excedrin, period gear, hair ties, bobby pins, no fewer than five pens for several different purposes, index cards, mints, my journal, at least one book, a small umbrella, a folding fan, a small power strip, cuticle cream, a small fiction notebook, my planner, and safety pins. These things rarely left the backpack. If they did, they returned to it when I was done.

On my staycation, I forgot the Excedrin, because for 13 months, I had headaches exclusively in my apartment. Fortunately, there were six loose ones at the bottom of the front pocket, a relic of when the backpack moved around, enough to occasionally agitate the pill bottle top off. It worked out, but the effort of forgetting, the realization that I’d have to drive a headachy 25 minutes to the nearest everything store, was enough to stop me in my tracks for a solid minute, motionless and reeling at what I’d done.

To go to Europe for 2.5 weeks in 2014, I brought a backpack and my beloved, ridiculous rolling carry-on that’s printed with graffiti. Excellent for identifying on a conveyor belt; harder to describe to a stern German airline agent after managing not to pick it up before I left the secured gate area.

To go to an Airbnb in Portola Valley for a week, I brought two pillows, two fleece blankets, a new Lego set, a crossword puzzle set supporting an abortion fund, the same rolling bag full of clothes, a tote with some additional clothes, hiking and exercise gear, my sun hat, ten books, a tote and a half of art supplies, cloth napkins, a medium hoodie and a heavyweight one, my planner, my new journal and another one just in case, my light headphones and my noise-canceling ones, and three totes of groceries. This last was in case I didn’t care to leave the Airbnb for most of the time I was there, despite being near the California coast and having the rare luxury of a car.

And I forgot the Excedrin.

I used to know how to leave the house. I had my kit down. That’s what we anxious people do sometimes: we nail the kit so we don’t have to think about it anymore, and we get rather upset when the kit is compromised. When I learned the maker of my favorite, perfect pink hair dye was suspending production in late 2019, I was rather upset largely because it meant I had to figure something out, AGAIN, after I’d had it sorted. I like for things to just work, once I figure out the best way. The last ten years of my career has been built upon this exact tendency.

The pandemic has left me rather upset.

Naturally, in the midst of all the things being thrown in the air, I decided to leave home for a while. Not to go too far – I have extremely minimal patience for Bay Area traffic and furthermore do not like driving in the best of times. I like a plane and a train. I like a subway. A ferry or a bus? Also just fine. I don’t mind things taking longer if I don’t have to worry about anything beyond being at the right place on time. I am the only person you know about who got Pre-Check and still showed up at the airport at the exact same time I would have before I had it. I didn’t get it to save time; I got it to reduce unpleasant possibilities and the anxiety I get when power is applied inconsistently. I bought into a corrupt system because I wanted to spare my body a little more unnecessary panic.

In the absence of all of these once-reliable options, I rented a car and took a trip. I told myself I didn’t have to do anything, with the quiet goal of waiting to see how long it would take to get bored enough for driving somewhere to be worth it.

How’d that go, then?

fog over a wooded valley

Day one

I arrive at the Airbnb around six, following approximately six hours of potent medium-grade anxiety. It’s a lot, after a year-plus of primarily being on my couch, to have to go pick up a car, drive the car home, pack up enough stuff to exist comfortably for eight days, put it in a car, take the car to get groceries, get the groceries, and then drive an uncertain route somewhere new. I swear to god I used to roll more easily with change, but I’m so out of practice. I reminded myself today that first days of trips are almost always like this for me: jittery and arch, and remaining so until I’m at the first point where I don’t have to think anymore. Once upon a time, that usually meant my butt in an airplane seat. Now it means all the way at the place

I miss my interstate exit because of airport signs and a box truck cutting me off hard at just the right time, but I make it before dark, the only important thing. The refrain for this trip has been you do not have to do anything. I brought frozen meals and endless entertainment. You do not have to do anything. This sounds almost like incomprehensible syllables after 13 months of utter and absolute panic on multiple fronts in my life.

The top-of-mind anxiety burns off once I get there, but the evening proves to be an excellent time to think through everything that’s felt shitty lately that my brain thinks might actually be partially my fault, despite it clearly not being so. This trip is right after my birthday. This trip is right after receiving a birthday card from my mom that took the opportunity of a visit to Hallmark to inform me that I’m terribly closed-minded about her politics. I spend some time on this first night thinking of the unmitigated gall to use a birthday card this way and to act like our politics are the same trivia to trot out every two to four years before returning them to the silent shelf of Midwestern self-repression that all unpleasant things belong on. 

My politics and morals are inextricably interwoven and have everything to do with making the world better so that everyone can exist without, say, being murdered and having it made to look like your fault because of who you are or what you look like. Or, to look at the news this week, having your lifesaving healthcare literally fucking outlawed.

We are not the same.

While I start and give up on a book, start another book and stay with it, write in my journal, and do my daily hour of fiction writing, there’s a quiet refrain in my head. These things are not comparable, twinned with if you only explained things right, it wouldn’t be like this.

I’ve explained it just fine. It’s not like this because of my substandard efforts in language. If you’ve read the preceding paragraphs, you’ve probably figured out already that nothing in my life is due to a lack of effort with words.

I sleep solidly for ten hours because of sleeping pills, waking up briefly at ten am to put earplugs in due to exuberant birds in the trees outside the bedroom window.

looking up the trunk of an old, gnarled tree

Day two

You do not have to do anything.

I lumber out of bed after noon and eat pastries a dear friend left outside of my door the morning of my birthday. It’s the theme of meals today: pastries, one of the bagels I summoned from New York, the cupcakes I summoned from closer by. I lightly destroy myself with sugar today. I finish the book I started yesterday, one that burns so slowly that it’s only by four-fifths of the way through that one main character says to the other that, if he wanted, he could address him by his Christian name. (And saying even that feels like a spoiler.)

I write on the porch, diving further into a short story. Historically, I only really wrote short stories for college, because getting feedback in workshop classes was more useful with a complete story than with an excerpt that would lose people’s attention for being incomplete. But I’ve spent the last eleven months living in a world of my invention, which has spawned three first drafts of novels (one of which has lived in a purgatory of partial second revision, stymied by the general on-fireness of the world, since December) and a bunch of smaller ideas, some of which want to be written out rather than only referenced as backstory in longer pieces. 

So now I write short stories. Like, on purpose, for their own sake. 

It’s been a transformative year in exactly one good way, which is the one that’s led me to write maybe half a million words of fiction at this point. I tell people close to me lately that I like one thing in my life, writing, and it’s only mildly hyperbole. It’s been the only thing that’s reminded me that I’m not lazy, I’ve never been lazy, but this year has been absolute murder on most aspirations that require something above subsistence-level energy. It’s in my nature to do things and to go above and beyond, but it’s felt impossible this year except for this one beautiful, essential, revelatory thing.

I make the coffee my host left for me, and it’s delicious but sends my nerves jangling. When I talk to my aunt and uncle later, I say, “I had real coffee today after only having occasional decaf for the last year, so if I either talk fast or sound like I’m trying not to talk fast, that’s what’s up.” They’re having their 50th anniversary in a month. I know they’ll celebrate properly later, but they love traveling and regularly take cruises and tours around the world, so I know that in an ordinary year this would be a big celebration in some form. I’m grateful they’re happily hunkering down together, but it’s the same quiet sadness as everything. I’ve had two quarantine birthdays. It’s nice to be alive, but if you’re behaving ethically, everything feels washed out at best.

I stay up too late doing the onanistic thing of rereading things I’ve written. I edit a little, but mostly it’s the self-soothing I’ve done this year. I’m up past three with it, and it feels so pleasant, but in kind of a fake-sugar way. It’s not what I need, but it’ll do for now. Still, in a pursuit usually riddled with self-loathing, feeling soothed by my own work seems like a little miracle in itself. I’ll take it.

Day three

I wake up much too early to take a class about bringing a story from rough first draft to something suitable to show beta readers. I look puffy and mildly out of it in my little Zoom rectangle, but that’s ok. I still take good notes and listen carefully, and that is everything.

The instructor is someone who writes novels based on other people’s intellectual property, and her carefully laid-out structure for going from an initial idea to something worth getting outside feedback on is a really useful counterpoint to how I’ve written for much of the year. It’s gotten more regimented lately in a really useful way – thanks, London Writers’ Hour – but for months and months, I spent the last three-odd hours of any given day “writing,” an activity that did contain a fair amount of actual writing but also contained Twitter, RSS, texting, videos, and then writing again in a cycle until I had to go to bed in time to get up for work the next day. 

I had a pretty good wordcount output that way, but the focus of LWH – a timer, DND on, all other windows minimized or closed – has been a revelation. In a way that I’ve never been able to, I can bang out 1,000 or 2,000 (or more) words of fiction in a concentrated hour. It’s like discovering an additional arm on my back, one I could’ve badly used for so many years. But work, circumstances, and needs have coalesced, and now I can do it. The only thing I enjoy.

So yeah, a process where someone says, “Plow forward, do not look back until draft two, and keep adding until you get to something useful but imperfect and unfinished to show trusted readers” has an appeal. It would’ve been terrifying and impossible once upon a time. Now it feels like something I’ve evolved into wanting.

I fall asleep for three-and-a-half hours after, though. When I wake up, I make late breakfast. I write and read on the porch again until the mosquitos get to be too much. I’d had ideas of walking to the trail I’m told is nearby, but instead I just read again, finishing the last of a five-book romance series that I’ve been reading off and on for the last few weeks.

I didn’t used to read romance, in part because I had a very 1980s view of it: kinda weird, kinda rapey, and broadly not of interest to me. During quarantine, though, I learned that there’s a whole sector of more recent romance books that are… fun. Fun and funny, actually feminist, embracing all the good, weird ways that people are. Some are more rom-com, some are more contemplative, and all of them combine humor and horniness into the one genre that has faithfully kept my attention during quarantine. I read other things, but it’s rare that anything really keeps me that focused. More recently, Neon Girls did it. Earlier in quarantine, I had a long, strange phase of avidly reading most of the primary resource kind of books written about Joy Division and New Order (except those by the drummer; even I only need to go so far with these things). These small obsessions that feel like life until I run out of pages, and then I wait for the next one.

In the romances, it’s pleasing to read about things working. It’s pleasing to read about people fitting together without losing themselves. The boning is good, don’t get me wrong, but I think the thing that eases my weary heart the most is reading about adults talking, compromising, and working things out. I want to believe that can actually happen. I have less evidence these days, so I read fiction instead.

I round out the night by watching The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, which has been an open tab on my computer for many, many weeks. I complete a Lego bouquet set as I watch, a very thoughtful birthday present. The instructions contain annotations that note the petals of the roses are usually car trunks and hoods, that the snapdragons include half-sphere pieces usually used for Star Wars droids. I get the sense of a clever internal project at Lego HQ, and it’s enormously pleasing.

You do not have to do anything.

Yes. And also I’m waiting to see when I’ll get antsy. Usually this is a predictable reaction in me, one that faithfully gets me past first-day anxiety to leave the hotel room and see the world again, even if it takes a few hours. However, in those times, I haven’t spent the past 13 months almost unceasingly in my apartment, hiding for my own safety. Have I lost the part of me that wants to know more? I’ve had my share of smug enjoyment of those “introverts: now’s our time to shine!” memes, but in ordinary times I’ve still needed to leave the house occasionally. Is that still there?

I’m not obligated to leave at all on this trip, or not until I run out of food around Thursday – a tactical choice. Thing is, I want to want to leave. I want to still need to see things, to have curiosity outweigh fear and inertia. But when fear and inertia have been the only flavors on tap for so long, when they’ve been the only sensible approach to existing, can curiosity come back? I’ve come to enjoy finite things: meal kits and Lego sets, exploring stories in a world contained in my head. I wonder if exploring will ever feel rewarding and natural again.

I assume they will, but I’ve assumed lots of things across quarantine. The feelings will come back. This will feel like it used to again someday. I will enjoy old hobbies again. Fewer things will be terrifying again eventually. Life may never be “normal” again, but it will be good.

I carefully maintain the hope I have like some people maintain bonsai. Small, preserved on a little pedestal, and with a preference that it doesn’t outgrow its container.

Day four

I wake up right as London Writers’ Hour is about to start after a morning of fitful sleep and weird esophageal pain. Because I’m leaning into my crone years, I take an antacid at night so the fires don’t escape their rightful home. Apparently last night, it wasn’t enough. So I had weird family dreams and a line of pain up through my guts.

One of the stranger parts of the last year (you know, beyond the abundant strangeness we’re all swimming in) has been writing family relationships. I’m not close with much of my family. I have a fondness for parts of how I grew up, but I tend to think of myself as having escaped from a toxic stew of rigidly enforced guess culture and that white bullshit where the person who points out the bad behavior is considered just as bad as the person who transgressed.

Early on in this fiction project, I thought, “Maybe all of my characters will be estranged from their families. Or their whole families are DEAD.” I thought of a friend’s description of Disney movies as a cavalcade of matricide and decided to try to be better. So instead, I write sibling relationships, and I try to forge unfamiliar parental relationships from my imagination. I’ve found it oddly healing: this is a world where people actually can treat each other better. And I write those. People step on each other, and rifts arise sharp and sure, but the characters I love make a real effort to make room for the people they care about. They consider it worth the trouble.

It’s warm to write. It’s cold to live without. So: fiction.

I spend the evening communing with the universe, first willingly and then increasingly less so. It’s a useful exercise, but I’m grateful when the passage of time goes back to its normal rate. The funniest thing is when, deep in the midst of this, I look at my phone and see that I got a phishing text. I’m seeing connections between molecules, and some dipshit is trying to get me to click on a nonsense link to try to extract money or credentials or who the fuck knows from me. The juxtaposition is so good that I laugh until I cry again.

Once I come back to earth, I talk to some people I love, and then I watch about six episodes of UNHhhh to ground myself back in the world.

sign for a trailhead

Day five

One thing from last night’s communion is that I realized I needed to get the fuck out of the Airbnb. It takes a while: I sleep until 12:45, do London Writers’ Hour, eat actual breakfast, deal with some logistics at home, and manage to get out of the house sometime after four. I walk to the trailhead that’s about 15 minutes away from where I’m staying. Two does are grazing in the yard when I leave, unperturbed by my presence, and it feels like an immediate welcome back to the outside world. 

I wander blearily through trees and Spanish moss, past ponds, and up and down hills. I encounter a few people. They’re less interested in my cheery hellos than city hikers are. I have a broad sense of where I’m going, and Google Maps does show the trails, but it doesn’t always have the finest sense of where I am. In the span of a minute, it might tell me I’m 15 minutes from home or two hours and 38 minutes. After last night, this feels meaningful somehow.

The nature preserve has a number of trails that overlap each other and blend, and because of this I manage to take a different route out than I did in. I honestly have no idea what I did, and the whole thing feels a little mystical when I emerge back at the original trailhead. I walk past a swing on the way into the woods (and paused to swing back and forth for a bit) but don’t pass it on the return. When I’m coming back, I go by an enormous tree, a mystical-looking thing with a dozen thick branches going in every direction. When I walk around it, I find that someone’s left a piece of quartz as long as my hand at its roots, tied with a gold ribbon, a moon charm, and some lavender. If it weren’t for the two vicious blisters I spawn halfway back, the whole thing might feel very mysterious Mists of Avalon. Instead, I just feel like a benignly silly city mouse taking a walkabout.

a deer looking at the camera on a grassy hillside

After I return, panting from walking up the steep-ass hill that leads to where I’m staying, I hear a crunch outside and find one of the deer from earlier having a munch on the hillside beyond my deck. We study each other, and I promise her I’m not going to come any closer. She grazes and occasionally tries to address an itch on her shoulder, first by bending her head back to nibble it, then by having at it with a rear hoof. It’s so like a cat or dog, but I never knew. I’ve mostly seen deer illuminated in a field, eyes bright from traffic for a moment before they go “NOPE” and run away. It’s nice to not to be taken as an immediate threat.

A rarity: I wish I had a hot tub here. There’s only a shower, and I keep doing things where I need some heat to regulate my temperature after. Instead, I turn on the heater and eat gnocchi while sitting about a foot from the grate.

The night is for writing this, for reading, for movies. For rest, because I think I’m finally going to do it tomorrow: I’m going to drive somewhere and do something that isn’t just hanging around in my rental.

the shore of Half Moon Bay, sand meeting water with some standing driftwood

Day six

I’ve figured out some tactical errors.

I’ve almost never rented a car for a trip because I hate driving. And, possibly more than that, I hate parking. I never get so salty so fast as I do when I realize I’m spending any of the finite balance of my time on earth looking for a place to put a large object I don’t even like – not having, and certainly not depending on.

However, vacation to those denser places that allow a car-free trip – transit to plane to train to transit –  is still not a safe proposition. So I conceived of something else, and now I’m reminded of why I don’t take trips like this. I don’t like them.

Which is why I’ve left the rental once in the last five days.

I’m making myself go to Half Moon Bay today, in a state that reminds me of how I am at home: a meme of a grumpy eagle, making myself leave the house because I ought to.

The best things I’ve managed this week are writing-related, and I could’ve done those at home. Have done, do regularly.

Transcribing a handwritten story that I did way back in January 2018, that I’d forgotten I wrote out, was pretty cool, though. Like a gift from my past self. I forgot I’d been doing the handwritten fiction thing that long ago. I thought I started it later in 2019, when I more regularly got a seat on my bus into San Francisco in the mornings after my commute changed and ended further north in downtown.

I go to Half Moon Bay State Beach and walk along the cliffs, edged with an amazing array of plants in an astonishing depth and breadth of colors. I walk along the beach, watching people with their dogs or kids or both in the distance, barefoot because yesterday’s blisters make any shoe more serious than a sandal impossible. I walk to the north end of the beach then back south to Venice Beach before doubling back to get the car. I pick up Chinese takeout in downtown Half Moon Beach after, wandering past cute shops as I wait for my black mushrooms to be done. The food I brought to the Airbnb had some plant matter but was a little heavier on the gnocchi end of the food spectrum than is ideal for several days in a row.

It is indeed good to go outside. I call my boyfriend and tell him: I’m ready to actually go places sometimes. He’s gently offered before. He has a car, and while he doesn’t like driving anymore than I do, it’s more ordinary to him, and his psychological barrier around these things is relatively low. We talk about coastlines and woods, creameries and small towns, all the things that aren’t so hard to get to if one gets over their resistance to Bay Area traffic.

It won’t always be like this. But for now, flights aren’t a thing, so we have long, not entirely pleasant drives instead. It’s ok.

I finish the night watching a documentary about art theft at a museum in the city I went to college in, the one I never made it to, something I’ve always regretted. I’ve vowed for years to go back there for vacation sometime, but the vow sticks harder now. Once things are more open, I’m going to do everything.*

*Slowly, gradually, and carefully, because I know if I try to do too much at once, I will have my first full-fledged panic attack, rather than merely playing around in the foothills like I have until now.

brightly colored coastal plants above Half Moon Bay Beach's shore

Day seven

I got bored in a way I haven’t gotten to feel in a year, so I invited my boyfriend over. I talked to my therapist before he arrived; he got here shortly after, and now he’s talking to his therapist while I write outside on the porch, sliding door securely sealed. The circle of life.

It feels so good to have the luxury of opting into company. For a year, most of an entire year, I couldn’t, and it was utterly toxic to my heart and brain. Like shitting in the reservoir. 

We go to the Alpine Inn for dinner at early bird o’clock, which means it’s slightly less wildly busy than it will be when we leave, when the parking lot is stuffed like a mall on Christmas Eve, with Teslas and those boxy, bonkers-expensive Mercedes SUVs being strongly represented. The beer garden is big enough, and their online order system well-designed enough, that we’re able to eat in public without feeling like we’re being pointlessly risky. A plaque out front informs us that in 1976, a message sent from a computer set up behind the restaurant went from radio network to SRI to motherfucking ARPANET to Boston, marking the beginning of the internet age. Sometimes, sometimes, this Silicon Valley stuff can be ok. Stuff like this is my favorite part: excited nerds with the freedom and information to do interesting things with such massive effects. It reminds me of learning about RFCs and working groups in the wider Bay Area that had such an impact on the internet as we know it. It’s a wonderful reminder that our actions can matter so much more than we’d ever guess at the time.

At night, he makes a fire in the woodstove I wouldn’t have touched if he hadn’t come over, and we watch Sneakers in bed while I point out the things I think are solid representations of stuff like encryption and where they might’ve fudged a little. There are reasons this movie is well regarded by the hacker community.

I’ve missed the cats the whole time, but sitting on a bed watching a movie with Sean, I have the first phantom impulses: the very specific physical inclination to dip down to the floor and pick a cat up, the flicker of a hand that wants to pet one of my buddies, because one has been within arm’s reach for most of the last year. It’s weird being without them, but it didn’t become a thwarted reflex firing until the other half of my confinement joined me in a new place. 

Day eight

Aspirations: I had them. I scheduled a guided hike south of Half Moon Bay, and it sounded exquisite: walking through the woods with someone interesting and knowledgeable, seeing wildlife, all these things I love and have missed. But I wake up feeling fuzzy-brained, and the blisters on my heels from a few days ago haven’t healed like I wanted. I cancel the hike. I’ll come back again sometime when I haven’t royally fucked my feet so recently.

Instead, I read in bed for almost three hours, finishing Get a Life, Chloe Brown before taking a mid-afternoon siesta. I get up, eat leftovers, and go write on the porch one more time before hopping onto Friday happy hour with friends.

It’s a small day, but a truly vacation-like day, and so it’s good. I spotted a fawn in the yard next to where I’m staying, my fourth deer sighting but my first chance to see one so young. 

Cleaning up the space to leave tomorrow morning, I feel a strange muted sadness. It contains ordinary end-of-trip feelings, but there’s more. Things are complicated at work. Many large decisions await me at home. And even though this isn’t the trip I would’ve chosen in ordinary times, there’s still the melancholy of having to go back to my regular little world. I try to think through what I’ll do differently: go more places, be less precious about driving for more than 20 minutes, get outside more, go walk around other neighborhoods, take more ferries, take more short walks during the workday, continue to try to find specialness in things where I can.

Like a lot of people, this piece about the state of languishing resonated hard with me. My brain feels mushy from not processing more information than it does. I have to search for words more. I had a preoccupation earlier in the pandemic about feelings of aging and decay, something I’ve mostly dealt with and digested, but which still lingers a little. Is this all there is. Is this how more of my one and only life will go. How many days and months and years will be half-lived because of the state of things.

If I hadn’t been writing up a storm for the last eleven months, I don’t know how I’d be ok right now. No one is obligated to pour themselves into some quiet achievement – becoming super fit, learning a language, putting everything you have into some disproportionately large creative work – but it’s helped me. I’m not sure how the rest of you are ok.

I hope you’re ok.

four young goats, one sitting in an empty food bowl, eyes closed and looking blissed out

Day nine

I get up early. I go to goat yoga.

Goat yoga is amazing. A teacher leads us through positions, while a helper brings baby goats to people, guides a full-grown goat named Tinkerbell to stand on people in tabletop position, and generally ensures everyone gets as much goat access as they care for.

three tiny black and white goats on hay next to a fence

I MEAN.

Afterward, I sit in the car and think about what to do. I could go back into Half Moon Bay, get lunch, return to the beach, say hello to the ocean. Or I could go home.

In the end, I realize I wasn’t super psyched to be in a between stage for a few more hours, my trunk full of my shit, my writing untouched for the day. I mostly wanted to be home, to pet the cats and write some fiction, to be in one place again and start the work of reacclimating to my life. 

I drive home. I pass two recent and very bad car accidents on the way and do some thinking about how the thin line between a good day and a devastating one is so often just happenstance. I make it home. I eat lunch, pet cats, write a couple thousand words, and think about the week to come.

It isn’t going to be an easy one. However, after the thinking I’ve done this week, I feel more certain that I can handle it than I would’ve a week or two ago. There is change coming, most of which is probably not going to be anything I’ll consider good. But I’ll abide. I have resources and skills, and I have a newly sharpened sense of what I’m willing to put up with. The next few months may be tumultuous ones, but it’ll be ok. I studiously avoided putting together anything like a professional plan while I was on vacation, with the curious effect that I’m actually excited to do it this week. I’m excited to plot out the shape of the future.

I guess, in the end, that’s one measure of a successful vacation: concentrated avoidance of one’s life so that one doesn’t want to keep avoiding it. Welcome home.

Cinnamon Rolls, Travel, and the Future

Ten years ago, I had surgery for what turned out to be endometriosis. It happened in what I have considered for many years to be the worst year of my life (and yes, I’ve thought a lot about that ranking this year, thank you for asking).

In the spring of 2010, I quit my job of several years. I had plenty of savings and intended to meticulously plan out my next job search, but instead of embarking on a careful professional journey, I had a drunken cartwheel of a year that included a devastating breakup, finding a new apartment while unemployed, some incredibly bad interpersonal choices, and – finally – finding a large, hard lump across my lower belly a week before my health insurance kicked back in. I had to ask questions like: “If I see a doctor before the first of next month, will what is eventually found become a preexisting condition?” This is why I want to choke the life out of people who want to take health insurance back to those dark ages (which is not to say that it’s great now, of course). That fear was pointless, an absolutely useless application of time and thought when I should’ve been concentrating on my health. To have to worry about that rather than questions like “Am I filled with literal cancer?” is so stupid I still can’t think through it without feeling static bursts of rage through my brain.

I got it sorted. Afterward, things went sufficiently back to normal with my health that I have to remind myself sometimes that I do actually have a chronic health condition.

The aftermath of surgery for it was a vivid introduction to that. I was at a low weight for me before it all started anyway, because heartbreak makes it hard for me to eat (and then a big old ovarian cyst pushing my organs hither and thither did not help). And I diminished a little more post-surgery, as my body consumed itself a bit as I healed; I refer to how I looked then as uncommonly cheekbony. I was hungry all the time, on so many levels. And suddenly, I thought endlessly about cinnamon rolls.

To qualify this, I’m not really prone to food cravings. I got to grow up with a mostly healthy relationship with food and eating, so there aren’t too many dragons in there. When the cinnamon roll preoccupation arrived, I looked at it and thought, “Yeah, there’s a lot of weird shit in my brain right now. Get in line.” It did and patiently waited for several days, never diminishing in intensity. I realized it wasn’t going anywhere and apparently meant something. I made my way to a North Seattle diner, ordered the most frosting-covered cinnamon roll I have ever (briefly) seen, and disappeared it into my face in less than sixty seconds. I have no memory of eating it except for a big, amorphous cloud of OMG THE FUCKING SATISFACTION.

The craving vanished.

Between reaching the ten-year anniversary of getting four little scars on my belly and having a lot of time to think this year, that period of my life has lingered in my mind lately. I’ll add the obligatory disclaimer here: my quarantimes have been on the easier side. My well-paid job can be done entirely remotely with fairly few professional side effects. I don’t have roommates, my neighbors have been very careful, and my building doesn’t have halls with dozens of apartment doors facing it, so it’s fairly easy to be safe where I live. And I’m inclined toward solo pursuits anyway, so I’ve been able to self-amuse pretty easily. This year has sucked shit, but my personal portion of it has sucked less. Rather than an unending exercise in horror, I’ve spent some time better understanding the parts of my life that make living feel more fully worthwhile, because I’ve gotten to see what’s left when they go away.

Yarn-bombed sculpture of rings in front of the north Amsterdam waterfront

Which is why I’m writing about this here, on what is ostensibly a travel blog. Early in this period of history, back in March and April, I had the idea to write more here, pulling pictures out of my archives and telling stories to go along with them. Little snapshots for the few friends that read this, little reminders to myself that I used to regularly go more than half a mile from my legal address. Every time I’ve intended to do this, however, something has happened that made it seem either superfluous (in the way of spring into summer, with protests about police brutality and systemic racism in my country) or not the best use of my limited energy (during times of political fear; I channeled that energy into postcards and letters to voters, plus a lot of rage-donating).

Now I’m here, and it’s quieter than it has been. And, in the way I always do in the last week of the year, I’m thinking about the future.

I dislike Christmas enormously. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to strongly dislike all the holidays that come with shoulds. You should have fun, you should be surrounded by family you should get along with, you should have a life that meets certain expectations. I don’t like New Year’s Eve either. However, the week in between, that liminal time? I like that a lot. I think of the year behind, I think of the year ahead, and as the veils part and graze each other, I think of how I want to spend my time in the next year of my life.

This has been a fine year for evolving expectations and being malleable (and for possibly nothing else). In past years, I’ve written a list of five-odd countries I’d like to go to. Sights I’d like to see. Lots of things involving planes, trains, and other things that are bad ideas for now. My current draft of this goal for 2021 is I want another stamp in my passport. It can be anything, basically. I don’t care. I just want to start here and stop somewhere else and have new streets to look at. I live in a quaint-ass neighborhood, but do you know what? We are sick to death of each other’s dumb, familiar faces. Every well-kept house, every clever yard, every political sign that I completely agree with: fuck it all, man. It turns out that one of those pillars of my life that makes everything work is a highly varied diet of visual stimulation and different locations. I considered getting an Airbnb by Ocean Beach in San Francisco for this week before it became first an obviously bad idea and then actually illegal. An Airbnb to stay less than 20 miles away because I just want to gaze upon some different bullshit.

In the spring, I found it enchanting here: I took walks, I became familiar with everyone’s flower beds, I could perceive the passing of time by the rise and fall of the different colors of irises. In December, I just stomp around listening to industrial metal and practicing a very weird and particular form of mindfulness. “You still like that cool pink house, deep down in there. You do.” “You don’t actually hate little free libraries. You think they’re interesting when people don’t fill them with useless how-to-use-this-1995-software books that should be recycled.” The last half of the year has been a frequent mental recitation that I haven’t come to hate the things I used to love. Instead, it’s that I used to be able to count on variety. Without it, I lose my taste for what used to be reliable joys. I burnt myself out on twice-baked potatoes in the first two weeks of December in a similar way.

I’ve been thinking of what I actually want, when I’m in a position to ask for and get more again. I miss the water. I miss different accents and languages. I miss having to be nimble and figure out things like how to get a table in a restaurant or how to order food when I’m not sure of the steps or words. And when I think of this, I’m torn between wanting to revisit all the old beloved places I miss so desperately and going on a wild tear around the world to all the new places I used to think were a constant option until, for a terrible time, they weren’t.

I want to go back to New Orleans, New York, Paris, Montreal, Seattle, Vancouver, San Fran-fucking-cisco, Portland, Amsterdam, Japan, Mexico City, Iceland, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Copenhagen. All of it. Just to revisit everywhere I’ve gone since 2013, a frantic reminder that we still exist on this one same earth, or will once it’s smaller again.

Townhouses of central Amsterdam with streaks of blue-and-pinky dusky sky behind them

And I also want to finally go to Peru, Greece, Vienna, Spain, Vietnam, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand… all of it. I want basically all of it. I read an essay called something like “You Don’t Want to Be an Expat, You Want a Vacation”, which I’m not turning up right now, but… yeah. This has been a time of flinging myself against the confines of my newly 600-square-foot life, and it includes thoughts like MAYBE YOU WANT TO LIVE IN NEW YORK and MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE APPLIED FOR CANADIAN RESIDENCY IN 2016 LIKE EVERYONE ELSE and I WONDER WHAT THE INCOME REQUIREMENTS AND PET IMPORT RULES ARE FOR $country. And other thoughts that come with being afraid, tired, and possessed of more privilege and panic than sense. “No big decisions in 2020,” I’ve told myself repeatedly (and assured my therapist). 2020 is for observations; 2021 can maybe be the application of what I’ve learned.

For now, the working hypothesis is I need a vacation. I’ll take a couple of those before I work on Project Abrupt Uprooting.

In the meantime, I’m dying for things like looking at graffiti and street art in other countries, or fucking up an order in a hilarious way at a restaurant. Petting cats in public places. Going on long, ambling walks to see how lost I can get before finding my way back. Feeling my brain getting more nimble as I try to interpret languages I don’t speak. Reading unfamiliar public transportation maps, doing currency conversions in my head, figuring out the nuance of how people dress and move and what those nuances mean about the lives they lead. I love and miss all of it. I love my own company, but like everything else I’ve had in relentless abundance this year, I could use a little distraction from my own reliable inner monologue.

I’ve been tempted a few times, once refundable flights became the norm, to place a bet of sorts by buying a ticket for a time that I think might be safer. Surely borders will be open by August, surely vaccination rates and public behavior will make movement safer by September, surely…

Brick walls and arches, light shining through behind them, at the Cloisters in New York

It depresses me to write it. I realized that the cost of having my bet proved wrong was higher than any perceived savings from buying a ticket when everything was still fucked. No, I’ll wait. And I’ll wait a while, according to the NYT Covid Vaccine Calculator. As it should be. Since that wonderful day when we all sat glassy-eyed in front of our trusty screens, looking at pictures of people getting vaccinated, I’ve joked that I should and will be the last person vaccinated in Alameda County. The calculator puts me six from the end of the representative line of 300. I’m not essential and can hide up here in my apartment for a very long time. I’ll wait.

And in the meantime, I’ll plot and plot and plot. I’ll try not to break my fast on an onion, when that day comes. Though really, the idea of flying anywhere might feel so magical that there might be no onions at all: only beautiful cinnamon rolls of opportunity, all of them too exquisite to turn down.

I miss wonder.

Several human-sized brightly colored alebrije sculptures made with paper, gathered on a white balcony at the Museo Artes Populares

I miss Mexico too, which was what I originally meant to write about, when I thought about returning to writing on this site. Looking over my pictures from my Mexico City visit in November 2016, though, the thing I realized that I missed above all was possibility and that sense of looking.

On that trip, I took pictures of my teapot at breakfast, a bike in the background against the brick entryway of the cafe’s courtyard. Of spicy corn puffs being sold in tall, upright, cylindrical bags on tables on the sidewalk. Ads pasted on walls. Vendors selling tiny wrestling rings at a lucha match. Food and drinks, shiny garlands over streets, dozens of alebrijes in museums, everything sold in mercados, everything everything everything. I was immersed in somewhere new, and my brain was alive, gorging itself on color and art and all of it at once, or things slightly familiar but suddenly in front of me in three dimensions and colors so vivid that I couldn’t completely comprehend them immediately. So vivid they seemed to vibrate in front of me. Things that shook my rods and cones, and things that rearranged my brain.

A vendor in a crowd at a lucha show sells a tiny lucha wrestling ring

My boyfriend and I, quarantine buddies here in my apartment, talk sometimes about where we want to go, you know, after. The real answer is everywhere. The answer is also Mexico. Philadelphia. Montreal. Paris, again, always. Los Angeles. Vietnam. Peru. Iceland, as he’s never been. Anywhere but here.

In the perpetual habit of the employed and guilt-laden, I think fairly often that it could be worse. It can always be worse! We usually aren’t literally on fire, so yes, it could be worse. But I am not currently afraid for my job, and I have a good home situation in the form of a one-bedroom I share only with someone I love and with one cat, perpetually annoyed with us. I think a lot of people are facing some realizations about their lives right now, things that felt tolerable when they could be outside 40 or 50 hours a week but absolutely are not fine when they’re immersed in it almost every hour they’re alive. Mostly, I’ve had the realization that I’ve had a nice meeting of good planning and good luck.

It’s all true. It can be worse.

And also, worse than I usually am, I am buried in FOMO. My last trip was in the second week of March to go to my niece’s first birthday party, which meant going to Canada. I was less than confident about getting home according to our initial plans, bought with credit card points in a completely different era. Concerned but not quite fearful, I had brought cash and some tentative knowledge of alternative ways of getting across the border, imagining grounded planes and disrupted movement. I brought resources to fund a frantic game of Ticket to Ride meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as I would try to get us back across the country in a time of unknown panic and danger. Alternatively, we could have stayed in my stepsister and brother-in-law’s spare room for a few extra days, taking over cooking and diaper duty while waiting out uncertainty, so as to be decent guests. These were the two forks in fate I foresaw.

Instead, we boarded our plane, cleaned our seats and trays with alcohol, and adopted the handwashing rituals that are now part of what it means to be human and even vaguely careful and conscientious. On that flight, watching Rocketman in the dark and occasionally peering around the emptiest plane I’m likely to ever see, I had the strong feeling that this would be our last flight and trip for a while. I had already flown less in 2019, in part because I was trying to wean myself off casual air travel for environmental reasons, to approach old habits in a newly mindful way. So it had been a while already since my last significant international trip.

I didn’t fully understand what a while meant, though, on that quiet Air Canada flight. A couple of months? That’s a long time, right?

And so I think about the things I could have done, if I’d ruthlessly overstuffed my life before all this with things I couldn’t energetically fit in. I changed jobs in December; I could’ve gone to Europe for a couple of weeks between gigs, instead of taking just a week to do a little personal admin. I could’ve taken a long weekend somewhere in January. I could’ve just flown places last year, like anywhere, I could’ve FLOWN FUCKING ANYWHERE AND I DIDN’T JUST DO IT CONSTANTLY, WHAT WAS I FUCKING THINKING, FUCK FUCK FUCK–

And other thoughts while spending 23.5 hours a day in an apartment. I am lucky: my apartment is literally my favorite place in the world. What I’m discovering is that, like with my favorite people and experiences, I can only really enjoy my apartment when I get a break from it sometimes, when it isn’t mandatory. We don’t want cake for every meal for days on end, you know? It needs a carrot contrast to be a treat.

Shiny garlands stretch across a view of the sky and trees from below

I split my time, outside of my blessing of a job, giving myself space to do nothing productive or useful – and getting ready for things, when I have the ability to do so joyfully. I’ve returned to learning French, because my god I am going to Paris for at least two weeks once we can travel safely again, and I am going to be able to understand at least 20 percent of what people say to me! I exercise a lot, because my god I will not have my next trip spoiled by back fuckery! I read and I plot and I cook and I put aside some of the money I usually spend on going out. (Not all of it, of course. I keep some flowing to the people who make food or provide wonderful entertainment or other important parts of being human. I put some money toward preservation, so that we have something to look forward to when we emerge, so people with jobs that were put on hold don’t all get pulled under by this.)

I watercolor and make clay animals and sometimes try to write, the things that always light me up but so often get set aside with work and showing up for people I care about and going to other places and then being at them. It’s what I have. This is what I have. It turns out that being a self-regulating and misunderstood kid is great practice for having to amuse yourself while also keeping from circling the drain too hard. I don’t believe in silver linings; I believe we’re a really adaptable species with a skill for making the most of what we’re handed. I’m adapting. I generally feel salty, and I treat myself like I’m approximately 20 percent rage by volume as a baseline these days, but I’m adapting nonetheless.

Frida Kahlo's glitter collection, on a wood counter in her house, in front of a paint set

I keep having this vision of how it’s going to be when people can go outside again. It looks a lot like this, only more exuberant. For me, I wonder if it’ll look like a quick DM to my manager saying, at the same time as all my other coworkers, that I’ll be back in three weeks, that my passport and I are on a train to SFO, and I’m going to just run to an airline desk and see where they can take me that roughly matches the three outfits I frantically stuffed in a tote bag.

Do you know what I really want? It’s not adventure or thrills or amazing new cultural immersion (though I will take that too). I want to fucking people-watch. I dream of doing it in my own neighborhood, of having a coffee at a sidewalk table and getting to see people without being scared, without them being scared of me. I dream of other people being microcosms of possibility instead of the vector that might lead to my death, or being the cause of someone else’s sickness or horrible death. I dream of it so much that I realized a few days ago that I miss talking to strangers.

I mostly do not like talking to strangers. Or, to be more precise, I don’t like it when strangers talk to me unbidden.

Usually. But, in the way of humans, something is forbidden to me, and now I want it more than almost anything. I want to see people enjoying the spring flowers as much as I am. Instead, the blooming irises and wisteria in my neighborhood are my new soap opera, viewed mostly solo; I go out not quite often enough and check in, seeing them rise and blossom and wither, and I have sunny thoughts about infinite possibility and gloomier ones about the circle of life and death.

I’ve spent a lot of time there lately. The first couple of weeks of the quarantine were also the two weeks I spent saying farewell to one of my cats, my first cat, my buddy who’d been with me since 2009, my friend who I loved beyond description or measure. I spent those two weeks periodically exclaiming, “It feels like the end of the fucking world!” and Sean would assure me that it wasn’t, not in total, while I laughed darkly in the way I do when I’m immersed in grief.

But seeing restaurants and all these other places we go to be alive together close while watching my buddy wane before me, the entire outside world and almost my entire heart closing up shop at once, it felt like being buried in armageddon, like everything actually was on fire, like these were things that would never be redeemed or healed. Like my new state was hurt, and there wasn’t anything that could temper it, let alone end it. There was only through, to walk forward and forward and keep enduring.

I’m still alive. And the only useful thing I can do now is stay inside 23.5 hours a day, possibly a little more. The same place we all are, mostly, if we don’t have one of those essential but often curiously badly paid jobs that requires that we go outside and keep the world moving.

I don’t have any resolutions or even any conclusions, not yet. Maybe the only ending now is the way all emails and previously light encounters end now:

I hope you’re safe.

I hope the people you love are safe.

And I hope to see you again someday.

In the meantime, I’ll be here, making polymer clay nudibranches and dreaming, trying to stave off the despair long enough for the world to enter another kind of spring, all of us blossoming safely together again.

Marigold-covered looping shapes in front of a purple-lit wall

The spirit is willing but the flesh is just absolutely destroyed: an infirm week in Amsterdam

A photo of blue-and-white stenciled graffiti with a pigeon, a woman on a bike, the Girl with Pearl Earring, and other scenes from Amsterdam

Here is the optimistic way to explain it:

Oh, you know, it’s actually really interesting and educational to have to do normal everyday things in a new country, even if they’re not exactly fun. Like going to get coffee or going to the grocery store, you know? So going to the pharmacy and being sick are another way to explore the culture.

All of that is true. And it’s thanks to getting an ugly cold in Amsterdam that I’m now conversant in medical stereotypes about the Netherlands versus, say, Belgium. The latter is apparently the place to be for a cold; not only does Belgium have the good-shit OTC cold drugs (whereas Dutch OTC culture tells you to ride it out because that’s what healing is), but also apparently, if you bring your cold-plagued self to a Dutch doctor, it’s fairly likely that a medical professional will actually laugh in your disease-riddled face. Belgium, one presumes, would instead greet you with a sympathetic embrace. This is counter to my own more pedestrian experiences in Belgium, but one doesn’t get the spirit of an entire country when you visit it for four days.

I couldn’t get on a train to Belgium for cold medicine. I couldn’t do much of anything. I took it easy the week before Amsterdam because I thought I felt something incubating in my face; I kept waking up with a mild sore throat that felt like something more than just being thirsty. The incubation period ended a couple of days into the trip, conjured forth by interrupted sleep, period fatigue, and shitty luck. It’s bad enough to saunter through a museum with a pocket full of damp, used tissues, knowing you’re that person whose snotting and coughing is echoing all the way to The Night Watch at the end of the gallery. Worse still is when it compounds into something more complicated, like a back that seizes up with every cough and sneeze.

Which mine did. It does that sometimes. Being a mortal meatbag has all sorts of fun surprises as you move through your life.

So I was a snot monster, and also my back hurt so much that walking – walking, my most favorite way to explore new places and just generally exist – was a grinding, exhausting, and sometimes excruciating act. I’d hobble home from a destination I got to only via sheer stubbornness and fall gratefully into bed, where I’d wedge a frozen bag of Albert Heijn peas under my lower back, pushed against my furious left QL. It radiated down over my hips to my quads, and the whole angry works felt like it was laced with little slivers of glass slid into muscles so tight I thought of timpanis tuning, of ratcheting straps into place for securing loads on trailers, of two kids playing tug-o-war with fruit leather. (Yes, I do try to make sense of pain with metaphor, welcome.)

I’m glad I went to Amsterdam. I like Amsterdam a lot. I’d like to go back again.

This was not a good trip to Amsterdam.

A photo of a man walking down a canal street in Amsterdam, toward a truck with an extended ladder for lifting furniture into open windows

I had good food and nice beer. I saw beautiful houses and admired the canals. Amsterdam is an easy place to feel grateful to be alive – all uniqueness and culture collision and well-documented history. The many many layers that happen when people don’t pull down old things and instead adapt them, add plaques to document what happened there, and put the gleefully modern and beautifully old right on top of each other. And I was there in February, which meant we were safely away from the casual horrors of Black Peter season.

And I also spent so much time being so angry at my body, and feeling so wounded, because I was badly in need of a real vacation full of ease and discovery, where you come home refreshed and well rested, full of art and beauty, reawakened and ready to tackle your life with renewed excitement.

Instead, I literally limped home, and it took a week to begin to feel anything like myself again, part of which involved paying a skilled massage professional to put most of her weight onto my tense, angry muscles with her knees until said muscles finally began to remember how to release from a permanent state of rigidness.

If I had it to do again, I would get a massage in Amsterdam as soon as I started losing mobility in my core muscles. I’d go to the Rijksmuseum sooner (instead of going my second-to-last day there, determined to use the ticket I’d already bought on a more optimistic day). I’d stop feeling sorry for myself and seek out something local and medicinal that would help with pain and tension, at least at night. (I didn’t, and all I can say is that the idea of smoking and having a coughing fit was so terrible that I wouldn’t consider it. Yes, I know edibles exist. No, I was not in a space to carefully consider lots of options for anything.) And maybe then I might have made it to the Catboat, and rode a bike in North Amsterdam, and eaten even more herring sandwiches than I did, and walked the canals more.

Maybe.

Instead, I managed this:

A photo of a cat curled up and sleeping on a pile of souvenir tote bags, in front of a rack of postcards with photos and drawings of cats on them

I went to Katten Kabinet early on, when the cold was just beginning to emerge but wasn’t yet a full-scale body-altering event. It is a wonderful, distinctive place worth visiting, most especially if you aren’t allergic to cats or sensitive to a mild but persistent smell of cat pee.

A photo of leaning Amsterdam canal houses on either side of a narrow cobblestone street with cyclists, in front of a pink-and-blue sunset-streaked sky

Because we stayed right in the middle of the Nine Little Streets area, I still got to see lots of beautiful canal houses and twinkly lights and clever shop windows. Unavoidably, I had to limp through those blocks to get to anything, and I became grateful in a new way that we worked hard to stay centrally.

A photo of a white person's hand holding a plastic bottle of karnemelk (buttermilk)

We discovered that Dutch folks drink buttermilk like other countries drink, well, not-buttermilk. We discovered this when the tea tasted funny after adding what we assumed was regular milk. Karnemelk is not what you are looking for, not for tea or anything other than scone-making, if you are almost any nationality that is not Dutch. We read up on why the buttermilk was featured so prominently at the grocery store and learned that it’s a popular pairing with a cheese sandwich for a dairylicious snack. I took a careful sip of it to try to understand, and I failed.

I was reminded that it’s a cycling paradise but that it makes it a little hazardous for pedestrians. I can’t imagine getting stoned outside in Amsterdam. I assume I’d end up tourist roadkill, and two additional cyclists would appear to kick whatever squishy debris was left. I was pleased to learn that mopeds and other motorized two-wheel vehicles were legislated out of bike lanes about six weeks after we were there. Better late than never.

I saw some wonderful art at FOAM, the Rijksmuseum, and (of course) the Van Gogh Museum. I saw old canal house wealth at the Van Loon Museum. I wish I could’ve gorged on two more museums, four, ten. But what I got to see was exquisite.

I got to walk through the Albert Cuyp Market, which was full of food and crafts and some of the more random stuff you see in certain markets (tube socks, cheap polyester clothes, a bunch of shampoo). On the way there, we stopped at a vintage store and had possibly the best experience either of us have ever had at such a place. My date is built in a way that’s pretty friendly for European sizing, but I expect iffy luck at vintage stores even in the US. But they had a ton of stuff that fit me, and I got a glorious Abba-looking dress, sold to me by an adorable woman who I hope gets as much pleasure out of all of her life as she seemed to be getting out of that particular day.

I felt shivers through my entire body at plaques indicating which Jewish people lived where and when they were deported and killed. I’ve seen the brass cobblestones indicating as much in Berlin but hadn’t seen them in Amsterdam last time I was there. It resonates even more terribly right now. I hadn’t known that was possible; it is.

A photo looking up at painted wood carvings of cherubs and gilded garlands, below a ceiling made of light-brown wooden rafters

I stood in Corrie Ten Boom’s house and stepped into a recreation of the hiding place.

I ate rijstaffel and so many herring sandwiches. I went to a food hall and ate tiny exquisite cakes. I laid for many hours on my beloved bag of frozen peas, contemplating the diminishing returns many of us get in quality of life as we age.

You know. Light things.

In certain ways, alas, this was one of the hardest trips I’ve ever taken. I needed a break, and instead I hurt and hurt and hurt, and ugly alchemy turned some of my absolute favorite parts of being human into a slog, where my biggest, most important muscles stopped working in any predictable way.

A photo of a modern statue of a man helping a boy with work at a desk, surrounded by bags of parsley in a bustling farmers market

And also Amsterdam is always a good idea. A supportive partner who will go out and buy every cold remedy the pharmacy has can help. Sitting and using Google Translate on the packaging for no fewer than six different possible remedies can make even the darkest moment ludicrous enough to be funny. And narrow streets lined with beautiful and wonky old buildings can make even tentative, painful walks rewarding. One can’t help but emerge a little stronger after the particular conscious act of resilience that is taking a couple hours to sob and feel sorry for yourself — and then to resolve to get up, ask for help, and make the best of what you have.

I made it home. I think of the trip ruefully, but I don’t count it as a waste. I made the trip, and I braved some hard things, and I can still picture another life where I walk to work along a canal everyday, and I’m an even grumpier cyclist than I already am, with steely muscles from bumping along cobblestones like it isn’t any old thing.

So, even in pain, I got what I wanted: I saw beautiful things, I ate wonderful things, and I made it even easier to picture yet another version of what my life could be.

That’ll do.

A photo of a table and chairs inside an apartment with a broad skylight and orange curtains framing sliding doors that lead to a patio
The Photoshop grid guide that pops up while cropping photos is an excellent reminder of the lack of right angles in Amsterdam, including in the wonderful apartment we stayed in, pictured here.

The Infinite Gone Finite: on Going Home Again

Mural of two interlinked hands on the wall at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station

I walked around the hole that grew into this station for more than six years.

I remember, walking up Olive in 2009, seeing the sign in front of where the Jack in the Box used to be, saying the closed-off blocks would reopen in 2016. “2016?” I said. “No one will be alive then.”

I am alive, it turns out, but my old life is gone.

I lived within four blocks of that enormous hole for years, first one side and then the other. Then, in late 2015, I left, ending my 11-year residency in Capitol Hill, in Seattle, in the first home I chose.

Mural of fingers walking on the wall at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station

I’ve been back since, just once, though too quickly. I moved in October 2015 and returned in December to partake of my favorite holiday tradition, to maintain some kind of through line. But it was too soon, too weird. I was still heartbroken, still unraveled. I got tired easily, like I was much older than I was. Without enough distance, I still knew things intimately but couldn’t stop feeling the newly created separation. The city felt like mine but clearly wasn’t. It was like meeting up for a drink too soon after a breakup, the severance and the familiarity mingling in a queasy way. I love you, but we haven’t reset yet.

I went home to Oakland, feeling chastened somehow. It had been so good to see my people – oh, how lucky I am in people – but I’d fucked up in some way and hadn’t done right by myself when I still needed such careful handling. I’d been in my new apartment for about two weeks at that point and mostly needed to stay inside, making food, watching Netflix, and convincing my adrenal glands that things were calm now and were going to stay that way.

An open window with sunlight shining through it

This time was better. The time was right. The last threads of magical thinking after all that grief had long since been tucked back in. I stopped looking at my new life in disbelief some time ago. It was time for a social visit.

I spent two nights in a friend’s spare room in the north of the city and then two nights on a friend’s couch just a couple blocks from where I lived from 2004 to 2010. Throughout, I ended up in different spots of Capitol Hill – at Laughing Buddha for a second nose piercing, finally patronizing a business I’d walked by a million times. Tracing paths across Cal Anderson, by the sport courts, the empty wading pool, the new murals by the reservoir, and finally laying atop Teletubby Hill in the dark, watching the blank sky at 2 am. Savoring a white velvet at Vivace. And all the while, feeling my mastery of the place disappear – I no longer know which lights are long and which are short, and a request for restaurant suggestions brought me up short, even though there hasn’t been that much turnover. Mastery used to mean a lot to me, when I was younger and more anxious. If I learned things perfectly, I could stop thinking about them. This weekend, I just waited longer at lights, being more careful, accepting that my hard-won knowledge had slipped away some.

Stained glass over the entrance at the Volunteer Park Conservatory

It’s a weird feeling to play tourist in my own life. Eleven years of my life, friends and jobs and love and a rotating, evolving series of mainstays and assumptions. Now it’s something I can step back into, this diorama that used to contain a variety of my past selves. Once, it was infinite – I had no end date, so I felt I had all the time in the world to wander down the streets, make routines, or ignore things – I didn’t need to go to the Frye right now, I can go in a week or a month or sometime next year. Pike Place wasn’t going anywhere. It was all right there, whenever I needed it, so there was no need to rush.

Twisted into the shape of a vacation, it becomes an itinerary, with a list of things to do and a list of things that will wait for next time. An afternoon piercing excursion with a stop at Dick’s for milkshakes before ending up at Elliott Bay Book Company for late lunch and book shopping. An evening along the edge of Ballard for dinner. Meeting a friend at the Stumbling Monk, to see him but also to make sure I visit it. A long walk in the finite expanse of four hours, surveying Broadway, stopping at Volunteer Park, checking out how 15th has changed, and trying teas at Remedy. A stop at my old dance class. The different flavors of my old life, assembled as a kind of thali, and when it was done, it was done.

Two hours here, four hours there, trying to do justice to a life I sought and made and ultimately left when it didn’t fit anymore. Visiting people I love, but also myself and all the paths I walked.

I noticed more changes during that first too-soon visit than I did this time – the new restaurants, boxy new buildings replacing beautiful old houses, construction started and ended. This time, maybe because the Bay Area inures you to weird things, it was less dramatic. The house at 12th and John finally went; well, that’s no surprise. Ah, they finished the big boxy thing that replaced what were once twin B&Bs. They painted my favorite pink house beige.* Maybe I’m just being worn down by the aggressive change of the Bay Area, sure, or maybe it’s just distance. My sense of space and change lives in Oakland now, the way it did in my first couple of years in Seattle. Without the attachment that can only grow over a decade, restaurant turnover and other natural shifts just seem like interesting change. I’ve been gone for almost a year and a half now; things wither, and it can’t and shouldn’t be helped.

I purposely took 2016 off from my old home, especially after the weird, mingled feelings of that first visit. Like a breakup, sometimes you just need to quarantine these things, to let the old feelings die back so the new version of knowing each other can fill the vacated space. And then you get to know each other in a new context, to appreciate each other all over again. As I took off from SeaTac, I looked down at the lower Sound, all threaded with islands that looked like the richest lumps of green moss, the air misty and thick. I feel more alive in the Seattle air; it’s the weather I’m built for. Pressing my face to the window, I thought, “The place is so damned livable.”

But to be fair, I’ve also thought that about Amsterdam** and Stockholm and Copenhagen, among other places. It’s a certain broad metric that encompasses weather, people, the beauty of the place, and a certain ease that’s hard to describe. They’re places I want to return to but don’t necessarily need to live in. They’re settings for pleasing alternate realities. They’re places I’m sad to leave – but which I leave in favor of home every time.

I see how I lived in Seattle for as long as I did – it’s a very easy place to be. But I’m glad to be just where I am, where I write this, here in Oakland. And grateful that my old home and so many absolutely fantastic people are just a two-hour flight away. I think a lot of people don’t even get one great life to inhabit; I get two.

 

A strange thing about this post: every picture in here was affected by the space I was in – never able to back away enough to see everything I wanted to. I don’t think that’s happened on this blog before.

*Ok, not gonna lie, that one got to me.

**Did I not write about Amsterdam before? What the hell? It’s so great!

California Adventures: Tilden and the Campanile and Other Things in My Backyard

I don’t have some big trip planned for this year, or not just yet. I am a planner, and I make lots of lists to get my darting thoughts in order as a matter of course, so I gave some thought to this around the beginning of this month. If I write something down, it’s more likely I’ll make it happen. So I take list-making at the turn of the year very seriously, and it felt telling that I couldn’t think of a particular international destination I wanted to work towards. This is not to say I won’t be over the moon if I end up in Thailand or Amsterdam or Italy or Mexico (again, again, please), but it’s not the priority right now.

A big part of this is because I live here now.

Two green hills and the San Francisco Bay, leading to the horizon on a sunny day

Ok, I don’t actually live in Tilden Regional Park. But I do live a mere six miles from it, and I’d never been up it until yesterday. I was somewhat aware of it, but I had no specific plan to go to it, except in the vague way that I kinda want to go everywhere ever, if you ask me and I answer honestly.

This picture is the best I managed. The reality of it was much better, one of those moments that I find really reassuring, to remember that cameras can’t get everything, at least not as I wield them at this point in my life. What’s obscured there by the haze was an unfolding of the horizon before us, distinct layers delineated by barges and rolling hills and cities before cities and other large shapes that brought to mind the word leviathan. Apparently, with the haze, the view was not at its greatest advantage, but I was very happy with it. I am collecting hills and views as I live here: the peek of the Bay Bridge as I crest the hill before I get to my apartment; the collection of San Francisco all piled on itself from the highest point of Mountain View Cemetery; the broad spread of the cities along the bay from Indian Rock Park; and now Tilden. I fruitlessly took a few different pictures, shifting and bracketing, but I’m just going to have to go back another day. Drat.

The same little trek contained this: a very popular blue whale, perpetually lounging outside of the Lawrence Hall of Science, which is very close to Tilden (and, to my newbie eyes, all part of the same winding hill full of Stuff). Next to it was a giant spiral of DNA that is so much more enticing to climb than I would have expected. I was wearing a pencil skirt and tights and still clambered up both. To do otherwise would have been wrong.

Looking out from the rail at the edge of the whale-containing plaza, I saw a grand tower that looked like it might be part of a church. “What’s that?” I asked. So the next order of business became finding out. Down we drove, winding and winding, the tree-covered hills giving way to research labs and other big, very square buildings.

Coming down this way, the full collegiateness of UC Berkeley comes up hard and fast. I’ve been to Berkeley. I have had beers and Indian food, I have bought a used book, I have seen some amateur storytelling. I’ve been to the Bowl more than once. I’ve had some Berkeley in my life. But I’d never seen the university, and that was a mistake. My companion had never been up the Campanile, it turned out. I didn’t know what a Campanile was, it turned out. (Hint: it’s that big grand tower I’d spied from on high.)

And it holds cantillons, of course. Its real name is Sather Tower; Campanile is a nickname because it resembles the one in Venice. This one has 61 bells, and a little speech in the ascending elevator will inform you of the layers of gifts that furnished this full complement. (Bells can be a very big deal, it turns out.) A little electrical outlet in the elevator control box lets the elevator operator continue playing phone chess while he escorts tourists and other randoms up and down the tower.

Carillons require a player. We did not get to witness this, but based on the quick BONG from one of the regular, automatic, thrice-daily rings, I don’t think I want to witness it from up there. It did, at least, lead to one of those nice moments where a bunch of strangers go from startled as hell to laughing in relief in that particular communal way.

It’s $3 to ascend. It’s really worth it. It’s kinda extra great if you go in tandem with someone, and your pair contains one new arrival and one knowledgable person who just hasn’t had this particular experience yet.

You do not have to conclude your day at the Sacred Wheel, a cheese shop in Temescal that might be literal magic, but I do strongly suggest that you do. Any day will do, cantillon-containing or not. Ask for the perfect goat cheese to put on a chocolate chip cookie, then get a couple pickled eggs (choose from four flavors) before you go out the door. Even if you do not encounter the cheese wizard of Temescal, you will be doing just fine.

I did.

Some Unordered Initial Thoughts after Mexico City

Orange and blue die-cut banners covering the ceiling

I am home; I am glad to be home. I was sad to leave. I was ready to leave. I am already excited to go back, excitement that will likely turn into full-bore plotting over the next month.

It feels like magic to be able to drink from the tap again.

I found the people I talked to in Mexico City to be very patient with my extremely spotty Spanish, to the point that even after I said, “Hablo español un poquito,” they’d still speak quickly to me and seem a little confused when I looked at them with a face that must have reflected mild panic and utter incomprehension. Still, I think butchered Spanish is easier to understand than butchered French, so people were less likely to cut in with their own perhaps limited English, to stop my assault on their language. This felt like an act of generosity.

I want to de-spot my spotty Spanish. I am excited to do this.

Mexican popular art makes my heart smile.

Real, straight-from-the-source lucha libre: also amazing. So much of it is why I like Hoodslam.

Mexico makes me wish I liked snacks more, particularly chips. I love when people sell things on the streets. Being chip-apathetic and pescetarian meant that the opportunities to take advantage of this were limited.

If you derive most or all of your protein from sources other than beef, pork, or chicken, plan your snack strategy carefully.

I also missed big piles of veg. On BART home from SFO, I used a seldom-accessed food delivery app to order a big pile of shrimp and broccoli to come to my door. I thought I’d have leftovers. I did not.

In my own ongoing quest to figure myself out and best handle my own needs, I’ve made a study over the last few years of what it looks like when little kids get overwhelmed and start being unable to articulate things anymore – you know, that moment where their faces crumple, and sentences give way to long wails? That moment. I saw it a fair amount whenever I was around little kids in Mexico City (so many of whom were on those child leashes!). There is so much color and sound there that it’s not hard for adults to get overwhelmed. It’s a sensually intense place on all levels. I wonder if kid meltdowns happen a little more often there than here. I’ve been out of childhood for some time and am an adult with what seems like unusually good self-control, and I still had to go lay down a few times after particularly intense hours spent there.

Over the past few years, one of my ongoing metrics of places I visit is how often I see people with children and dogs. It’s a kind of measure of how attainable regular life is – do people have to leave the city to procreate? Are they limited to small pets? The more kids and dogs I see, the more it seems like fuller lives are possible within that particular place. I saw dogs and kids everywhere in Mexico City, and it made me smile.

Also, a majority of the dogs were wearing clothes. It got to the point that dogs not wearing clothes looked weirdly naked to me. Also, if you are in the market for dog clothes, the mercados have got you covered, my friend.

Mexican Spanish has like 400 different words for meat. They could fill their own thesaurus. I would then buy that thesaurus to make ordering food a little easier for me.

I fucking love mariachi.

The mercados may make you feel like one of those melting-down children, but the food, colors, and experience are very worth it. Just try to go on a weekday, not a weekend, and maybe go home for a nap afterwards.

Pulque is brilliant, and agave is a gift unto humanity.

Mexico City is one of those places where people are maybe starting to consider beginning their night out at around the time that I’m ready to wrap it up. I do not go to bed early, as a rule.

Sweet tamales are a thing, and also legit.

There is no street food to speak of in Polanco, but the food tour there is still totally worth it. (Related: if you’re into food tours, book yours at least two or three weeks ahead of time.)

I wonder what region of the country I’ll try next. So long as there is lucha, I think I’m game.

One Foot, and Then Another

Long exposure of a tree and purple-brown sky

When I woke up for the second time yesterday, I had a hard time getting going.

I’m glad to be in New York; I’m glad to be visiting my friend. But even though I’ve been here several times, even though this is the opposite of traveling alone, I felt the difficulty of self-initiating. After more than an hour of obsessing over subway routes and possible late lunch locations, I finally ejected myself from the apartment at about 5 pm. (This is what happens when you have to recover after a red-eye flight.) I walked to the first lunch option, but everything was $18. Dizzied, I looked down the street, which is now full of clever little cafes and outdoor tables and all sorts of stuff, a sharp difference from ten or even five years ago. Where. Where would I go. I was very hungry and at the end of my ability to make decisions. Where to go.

I walked another half block, saw the words “red eye” under the coffee menu and the words “vegetable panini” under sandwiches, and figured that was good enough.

But even then, sitting in that most ordinary of situations (if 5 pm lunch is ordinary to you), I felt the familiar frisson of anxiety that always falls on me, at least for a little while, when I land in a situation where I don’t feel on top of everything. This is an old thing, a way I lived until my mid-20s, where I expected mastery of myself in most situations and would hate myself for a while if I didn’t have it. The heightened stakes of travel and expectations resurrect what I’ve pushed out of my brain in most other situations. I sat there, a gentle summer breeze saying hello, happy people walking by, feeling blurry with new-place overload, breathing deeply, waiting to acclimate. I think this is as much a travel tradition for me as the Hallucinatory First Day.

I texted my mom; I texted my friend; I read nerd fiction. I ate my sandwich and then sat, deliberately taking up space for a bit, watching people walk by, and reminding myself that openness and time were, in this situation, a gift.

And then I headed to Manhattan.

The three-hour chunk of time ahead of me was daunting, but I reminded myself that I was in one of the greatest cities in the world. If I ended up killing 90 minutes reading in a cafe and watching people, that in itself was worth the trip. Instead, I wandered into Central Park, looked at people, wandered through terrain, and then stumbled on a world-class orchestra playing just an hour from when I arrived.

It was during said show that I took the picture at the top. First by myself, and later with my friend, I listened and I watched, and – most importantly – I inhabited, and I reminded myself that, even in these dark-as-fuck days, the world is still generally on the benevolent side (if only just, sometimes). I played with my camera’s settings, and I listened, and I began to relax into what the next week may bring.

If yesterday was any indication, it’s going to be pretty great.

Bike Locks in Copenhagen and Thoughts on Feeling Safe

A lone bike, unmoored, in Copenhagen

I noticed it on my first day.* You can’t help but notice the bikes in Copenhagen – among other reasons, if you don’t, you’ll likely be run down by one. They are legion and ubiquitous (and the separated-by-a-curb bike lanes look fan-fucking-tastic). Behold:

copenhagen-majestic-bike-herd

This is actually not the best example, but I neglected to get a picture of the bike horde by Nørreport because I was too busy trying to figure out where the hell my next train was whenever I was by there. But you get the idea: bikes bikes bikes.

Here’s what’s not ubiquitous: redundant D locks attaching said bikes to a fence or parking meter or bike rack or any fairly stationary object that would be hard to cut through.

I have an Oakland state of mind right now. The advice for being a cyclist there goes as follows. Choose one:

  1. Find the bike of your dreams and then either store it with BikeLink or take it indoors with you wherever you go, or:
  2. Buy a $200 beater that’ll get you where you need to go and assume that shit will get stolen at some point.

There’s an in-between step, which is two D-locks used in the way described by an official BART sign I see at MacArthur station most mornings: one securing the front wheel to the frame, the other connecting frame and back wheel to one of the previously mentioned stationary objects. Even this is not considered necessarily adequate; it’s just what we have to work with.

So to walk around Copenhagen and see this actually kind of blew my mind.

copenhagen-bikes-by-fence

The fence is RIGHT THERE.

If this happened in Oakland, someone would be along in about ten seconds with a truck and a quick route to a closed warehouse. It feels like walking through a video game and spotting loot. You have gained one bikeTwo bikes. Like 400 bikes in the space of a couple of blocks.

Now, it’s not that they’re completely unsecured. What I mistook at first for a rear brake is actually a clever little lock. Can you spot it?

copenhagen-locked-bike-slotsholmen-distant

This bike was on the island of Slotsholmen.

copenhagen-bike-slotsholmen-closer

Is it locked to the rack? Of course not. It’s just there to correct the bike’s posture.

copenhagen-bike-slotsholmen-lock-detail

Instead, there’s this. Arrow added because it was, at least to me, subtle before I picked up on what was actually happening.

There are a couple things going on here, as best as I can tell.

First, it’s not Oakland. Or San Francisco or New York, come to that. I had an interesting conversation with a Swedish friend while I was in Stockholm about social pressure in Scandinavia (which led to speculating what elements of that fed into the creation of Midwestern Nice). If you lift a bike on the street and someone sees you carrying it instead of pushing or riding it, you’re going to look mighty suspicious. That’s not to say bike theft doesn’t happen – apparently it’s fairly common, but more people seem inclined to have a series of shitty bikes, so your heart and bank account don’t break when your latest beater goes missing. You have a bike for a while, then it disappears, and you’re stranded. You get mad. But maybe you’re drunk and need to go home another time, so you liberate an unlocked bike from someone else, ’til we find our place on the path unwinding.

copenhagen-bikes-by-marble-church

Fair, fair. However, there’s also another element, which I think has to do with living without fear. This came up when I talked to the front desk person at my hotel when I checked out my last morning in Copenhagen. She mentioned that Americans in particular seemed to freeze up when instructed to just leave their bags, unsecured, behind and by the front desk if they wanted to pick them up later. I confessed that I’d had that exact reaction, even though, deep down, I knew it would be fine. “They ask me if it’s safe, and I tell them, well, sometimes I do go to the bathroom or the back room,” she said. She shrugged. “Nothing’s disappeared yet.” And indeed, there was my stuff when I returned from my canal boat ride.** There was my wallet, returned to me by kind people.***

Risk and trust. It’s a game and a balance that seems to have gotten really difficult for Americans in the last several years. I don’t claim to know exactly why, though I suspect a culture of fear and anger, with media that feeds it, has played a key role. Bad things might happen. They probably will sometimes. But most of these things are survivable. It’s hard to remember that, though, when news networks have 24 hours to fill with the most sensationalistic stuff possible. If all you’re hearing about is terrorism and little white girls going missing, the world’s going to start looking like it has sharper teeth than perhaps it actually does.

When I leave the U.S. these days, it’s a metric I pay attention to. The time I climbed an Icelandic glacier, ice axe in hand, with no waiver signed. When I feel paranoid when I suspect everyone else is calm. When I feel protective of my own little domain of stuff and dignity as I cross through unfamiliar spaces. The streets I choose to walk down, those I avoid, what inspires my discomfort. And, sometimes more interestingly, the streets I do choose to walk down. The process of listening to valid fear and hearing anxiety that will keep me from doing interesting, nourishing, important things.

There’s still no way in seven hells I’d lock up my future bike in Oakland with only that tiny black cuff. But it’s an interesting exercise, reading one’s fears and assumptions within a new context, asking yourself who has the right of it and who’s living in a delusion.

I guess I mostly choose to treat my life as the beater bike. I keep it safe and do what I need to for things to be ok, but in the end, it’s something meant to get me from one point to another. If I don’t get to see and do the good shit while I’m going about my life, what’s the use at all?

*Well, my first full day. My actual first day, I arrived in Copenhagen from Stockholm midafternoon, a carefully thought out move designed to give me an extra chunk of day there. Maybe I could go to the Designmuseum? Take a walk in the daylight? See an extra neighborhood, yeah? I laid down to rest after walking from central station to my hotel with 30-plus pounds of shit on my shoulders and woke up ten hours later at about 2 am. So much for that. At least I got to see snow?

**No pictures from that either. It was raining pretty hard, which made for some pretty smears of color as we motored around, but shit pictures.

***I have since discussed this with friends, though, and we agreed that the great wallet walkabout would have ended very differently in other cities, among them London, anywhere in France or Italy, San Francisco, Oakland, and probably Seattle. You win some, you lose some, and ideally you’ll strategize based on how these situations are likely to go based on where you are.

On the Caper I’ve Come to Call “Wallet Walkabout”

A Vete-Katten box and a fancy soda on a bench on Stockholm Harbor

This is a story about fear, problem solving, and redemption, and it begins with a picture of a cake box and a fancy soda on a bench.

On my last day in Stockholm on phase one of my trip, I set out with no real destination. I’d spent the previous day touring the city hall and Vasamuseet with two friends who seem to visit Scandinavia with similar timing and aim to me. I decided to balance out this companionable day by spending the next day with no real plan, just wandering and seeing where my moment-to-moment likes and inclinations would take me.

I ended up having a mildly revelatory breakfast sandwich with kaviar paste and sliced egg, paired with my very necessary morning coffee. I wandered through Vasastan, past Vasapark, and then took a walk to the central station to stake out where tomorrow’s train to Copenhagen might leave from. From there, I walked to the more western part of the harbor, that edge where Norrmalm and Östermalm meet, where the hotels get fancier and I felt suddenly and not unpleasantly underdressed. I turned my phone data on for a moment and checked out where I was, wondering if something unplanned and worthwhile was nearby. Indeed there was – Historiska Museet was about a quarter-mile away.

I spent a nice couple of hours there and then haunted their lobby for a half hour, using their wifi to text with my best friend in one of those little social oases that made my solo trip so entirely joyful. By then, it was about three, and I knew I needed to get going if I was going to do anything else in the daytime hours. I wandered deeper into Östermalm and noticed some hot air balloon-shaped signs along the edge of a building. I headed inside and found one of the wonderful food halls that apparently are a thing in Scandinavia in particular and Europe in general. It was there that I saw a Vete-Katten kiosk and remembered that a friend with solid recommendations suggested making a point of going there.

Vete-Katten pastry box with ribbon

I got a chocolate torte instead of a princess torte (a rookie error to be sure). Many of the stalls are full of beautiful seafood and somewhat less-beautiful meats, all raw and waiting for someone talented to turn them into wonderful things. I just bought a fancy-looking French mandarin soda, picturing a decadent little snack on some likely bench on Stockholm Harbor.

Cake and soda acquired, I headed out the door, walking past department stores and late-afternoon throngs of people to get my sugar fix.

Vete-Katten box, no ribbon

A few things to know:

  • By this time, I had taken to wearing my camera under my coat, just to keep it out of the way. This means that getting it out and putting it back involved a fair amount of fidgeting.
  • I was getting a slightly The Misfit-style feeling of forboding from laughing gently at signs warning me of pickpocketing, considering what I had learned and heard about Swedish crime rates.
  • It was cold on that bench. My hands hurt after a few minutes. But there was no seating in the food hall not committed to the various cafes, so it was what I had.

But I was charmed by what I’d managed to collect, and I’m always charmed by the involved packaging of certain European pastries, so I stuck it out.

Vete-Katten chocolate cake

Barely pictured: the tiny piece of shiny tape the woman at the counter applied to ensure the cake wouldn’t shift during transport. Not pictured: a fork, because I didn’t have one. I ate it, cold-fingered and chocolate-dusted, with my hands.

And then, cake dispatched and clever soda gone, I set off for Moderna Museet, hoping to squeeze one last well-regarded destination into my last full day in Stockholm.

I walked along the harbor the way I’d come, tracing along sidewalks that blended with the adjacent driveways under a layer of packed-down snow. I walked briskly, because I walk briskly and because I just wanted to get out of the cold, back into a museum where I could shed my lumpy coat and walk around unimpeded for a couple hours.

About 15 minutes from the bench, I performed a ritual gesture that I performed about ten times more than usual after this day: I patted all my coat pockets and took inventory.

Right upper: flat key, sunglasses, ticket stub. Right lower: phone. Left lower: empty for hand. Left middle: guidebook. Left upper: unzipped, with about 19 kronor in coins, not even enough for a subway ticket.

What the fuck.

I performed it again in defiance of any kind of logic, panic now rising. Left upper: walletless.

Shit. Fuck. That it was unzipped left it ambiguous as to whether I’d been pickpocketed or if the wallet had fallen out during all of my camera futzing. This defused any possible fury at myself or some random and left me only with panic and practical concerns.

I patted the pocket again like some hopeful, feckless amateur magician, but it stubbornly remained empty. I interrogated my jeans pockets but found them similarly empty – I usually carry my wallet in my back pocket, but I don’t when I travel. Because of pickpockets and, on this trip, because I was afraid the base layer under my jeans would keep me from feeling if anything fell out of one of my pants pockets.

I had one reassuring thought: that morning, two days later than sense would dictate, I had taken my spare Amex, the one with cash withdrawal privileges and a PIN, from my wallet and left it in my bag at the apartment, as had been the plan all along. Their site promised it would work at the ATMs I’d seen all over. Well, I’d soon find out.

First, I retraced my steps. I jogged as best I could on the snow and came back to my bench: nothing. I retraced my steps to the food hall, all the way to the sympathetic guy at the treat counter where I’d bought my soda, where I’d last seen and touched my wallet. He was sad for me but couldn’t help.

Well.

I touched the inadequate coins in my pocket, felt the newly forming heel blisters that had sprung up while racing back and forth, and steeled myself for the walk home. It wasn’t far – maybe a mile and a half – but an unplanned walk and one my feet were not very pleased with.

Back at the apartment, I sat down and made a list of what I needed to cancel. My BECU debit card. The SPG Amex. The Chase card holding my next three hotel reservations. Oh god, the phone calls. And I’ll need to replace my driver’s license. That too would be a mess – I still had my Washington DL, but I was in California, and I had no idea of how to start fixing that one. Airfare would surely be involved. Shit.*

I got on Google Voice (blessed art thou amongst traveler-friendly technologies) and canceled the first two cards. But the Chase, the hotel reservations… Sigh. It could wait a minute.

I decided to go try my luck at the ATM, the success or failure of which would determine a lot about the coming days. There was one about two blocks from my flat; I shuffled over and got in line with people who looked to be just getting off work. I approached and chose English. I asked for about $200 in SEK. And… it worked. It worked, and I felt myself unclench just a little.

I stopped at the nearby convenience grocery on the way back to the flat. I bought this as consolation food.

Sad person food from a Swedish grocery

You have to get by somehow.

As I was taking this picture, my phone buzzed in my hand, the vibration suggesting it was a Facebook message.

Could it be

Did someone

Oh man

“Sorry this is very random but is there any chance you’re in Stockholm today? We found a wallet and you look like the girl in the driver’s license photo.”

“Oh my god,” I wrote back. “Yes.”

A British couple had come upon my bench in the 20-odd minutes between my departure and return, and beneath it, they found my wallet. Could I meet them at the central station in 30 minutes so they could give it back?

Oh my god. Yes.

I put my sad snacks aside, reassembled my outdoor gear, and half-sprinted out of my building. After a little frantic texting (well, frantic on my part), I found them and they handed me my wonderful, ridiculous, beloved Couch wallet. I offered beer money as thanks (the better to reward their goodness without requiring them to pass an unplanned hour with an overexcited, loquacious American on the downward slope of a two-hour adrenaline spike), but they said no. Sweetly and kindly and in a way that let all of the softness pruned away by the last couple of hours begin to return.

We parted ways with as little awkward spurting of repeated thanks as I could manage, and there I was, wallet restored, all cash retained, and me with an evening ahead of me.

I’d left my data on in all the hullabaloo, and my phone buzzed once more – my local friend. Did I happen to want to come to her place for dinner? She was making soup.

“Yes please,” I wrote back. “I’m going to be a little scattered when I get to your place, but bear with me, please. I have a story for you.”

 

*Dearest California and Washington,

I have since changed my driver’s license over and am in complete legal compliance in every possible way.

xo
breanne