“Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy”
To recap: in a series of summers as I hovered around the age of 30, I found gainful employment, emotional healing, and the constancy of my own two feet.
And then came the summer of perspective.
July of 1999 saw me savaging my credit cards, beating them and their poncey minimum payment threats into submission. My desire to travel KO’ed my fear of revolving debt, and I eagerly planned another trip, this one to hook up with my sister at the end of her second Peace Corps stint (her first tour of duty had taken place a decade earlier in Belize–hey, now there’s a trip I haven’t blogged about!–while her second one, which she was at the tail end of, had consisted of two years in the former Soviet republic of Moldova). She would wrap up her life there, in the land of crumbling concrete and mafia corruption, and then we would cross some borders together before she flew back Stateside and I added on a leg to Iceland, where I would rendezvous with a sassy galpal, The Chef.
While the previous summer had presented me with a romantic break-up that sent me wildly careening around my little world–randomly, hurtfully–for a few months, my equilibrium had gradually been restored through nothing more glamorous than getting up and slogging through each day. Gradually, the bouts of tears and the nights with no sleep became less frequent, then ceased altogether. Dry-eyed, I slept. Thus, when my grandmother died that winter, in the upheaval that followed, I had a few level days of noting, “Hey, I’m handling this. I think I might be fine after all.”
This coming back to myself happened just in time, too. Had it not, I wouldn’t have been ready for–cue the fanfare–meeting Groom. But I was fine, and he was more than that, and quickly, easily, suddenly, I knew He Was It. All of the uncertainties that had plagued previous relationships were weeping dejectedly out on the curb while I tooled around in my new Convertible d’Amour, the wind whipping up my Driving Scarf of Besottedness in cinematic fashion.
Life was lush with goodness. What better time to launch myself into some new places, perhaps for the last time on my own or with Just The Ladies? I was high-spirited, jaunty, zippedy-doo-dahhed beyond belief. All those little Disney birds that fly around and dress Cinderella for the ball? They’d set up permanent residence on my shoulders. (Which, if you think about it, made for a lot of bird crap on my Irish knits. But I was oblivous–too busy spinning in circles on my own little mountain top of bliss.)
And then I got off the airplane in Chisinau, Moldova. By the way, if ever you find yourself feeling too giddy and full of life? I’m going to recommend a visit to Moldova as the perfect antidote. As I waded through customs, having hefted my bag and self off the rickety airplane, goosestepped across a broken-up tarmac, and plowed into the barely-lit terminal, my efforts at talk and joviality with the impassive Moldovan guards were scowled down–it was almost as if they didn’t realize that I was in love! And my hair was big and strong! And I’d tried a new kind of limited-edition ice cream before my trip called The Puck (a seasonal tribute to Minnesota’s hockey culture)!!! And there were about a kabillion reasons to do the hoochie goochie!!!!
My first few minutes in Moldova went something like this:
Me: wisecrack. Them: stone–faced yet somehow condescending. Me: Maybe they don’t speak English and can’t understand my attempts at a light-hearted tone; yes, I’m sure that’s it: they don’t speak English! Them: “We’ll need to see your passport now, Miss.”
Hmmm. I suppose that if you haven’t been paid in a year or more (but what would you buy with your money, even if you had it in hand?), and you have electricity and water for only a few hours of each day, and all natural sense of hope and joy has been systematically crushed out of your people for 70 years, well, maybe, possibly, the fact that I was excited about wearing new cargo shorts with five pockets (!!!) wouldn’t strike you as cause for celebration.
But they were really cute shorts.
Once I settled into stoicism and gave myself over to the lengthy process of bureaucratic maneuvering that was getting through customs, I celebrated seeing me dear ole sis. Having mastered Romanian (one of the primary languages spoken in Moldova) as easily as she mastered Spanish as an adult, she would be the one to introduce me to post-Soviet life, a place of unremitting greyness and desperation.
A somber place it was, ten years after the Berlin Wall fell, marking the end of that socialistic dream. As I spent a few days with her in her apartment, I was struck by the absolute disintegrated-ness-avity-itude of the place, from the capital of Chisinau to the smaller Russian town of Edinets that was Kirsten’s home (handy for her to have that Romanian language training in a Russian town. Thanks, Peace Corps for the foresightedness). Every aspect of the infrastructure was in disrepair, and the truth is that the human spirit is very much linked to its surroundings.
Here, Kirsten stands in front of one of the town’s better buildings.
Honestly, the darkness, the coldness, the destitution–all could act as Dementors on one’s soul. The place reeked of bleak.
…we went to the market, to visit my sister’s Bubbies, the nice grandma ladies who would sell her a bunch of carrots and an egg several times a week. Their smiles, combined with the colors and scents of the place, counteracted the gloom. Who needs a full set of straight, bleached teeth with grins like that?
After a few days, after being feted by her friends, students, and fellow teachers (sidenote: the only way Kirsten, a teetotaller, had circumvented the cultural pressure to drink and drink lots had been to tuck herself under the protection of religion and claim to all who pressured her that she was a Baptist–thanks to Baptist missionaries, they are widely known in Moldova as dry and conservative types. So back off, Sergei! Put down the shotglass and leave her to her God! Just don’t tell God or the Baptists that she’s a big honking liar, okay? And that her sister, who does drink, is somehow not a Baptist, okay?) we managed to squeeze all of my sister’s belongings into her suitcases and put a period on the sentence of her two years there. We eventually boarded a bus full of somber, downtrodden Moldovans on their way to Romania. During the first few hours of the ride, the air in the bus was dead, quiet, repressed.
Nervously, we all made it through the checkpoint at the Romanian border. And exactly one minute later, as the bus pulled into the relative freedom and possibility of Romania–of all places–the atmosphere lightened dramatically. You’d think the Beatles were playing on the Ed Sullivan show, the way those women pulled off their headscarves, the way spontaneous chatter and laughter broke out, the way everyone came alive. Romania, you see, was the place to go on vacation…the place to dream of living or escaping to. And, friends, if moving to Romania is one’s brightest hope, then I’ll not begrudge an addiction to some mind-numbing vodka.
We spent a few days in Romania, touring a host of mosaic-adorned temples (the nuns who oversaw them were no more impressed with my perky little cargo shorts than the airport guards in Chisinau had been; they took one look at my sister and me, with our whorish, heathen legs exposed, and tied us up in ankle-length aprons for the duration of our visit). When not touring, I was sniffing out Internet cafes in which I could reach out and cybertouch my To-Be Groom.
After Romania came Hungary, refreshing in its sense of progress, of “Westernness,” as it took steps towards becoming a democracy–Holy Trump, but there were even billboards! Even more importantly, I had a moment in Budapest, down in the subway at a little food stand, a moment when I bit into the softest, warmest, butteriest, meltiest chocolate croissant ever created. Proust’s waxing about madeleines dipped in tisane is a ghost of a sensory memory compared to me and my brief but intense fling with that croissant.
Next on the itinerary was Poland, where we would visit a good friend (She and I had traveled together in Ireland the previous summer, and she’d been a Fulbright scholar at my college before that; when I took her and her family to Yellowstone Park during her time in the U.S., an RV had crashed into the back of our Camry while her husband drove. Damn gawking RV-ers. Like the geyser wouldn’t spew again in an hour. In short, my Polish pals and I–we were solid. Gdansk was mine). Part of our agenda in Poland, outside of tripping through Gdansk, was to visit the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek (outside of the town of Lublin).
And for that part of our journey, there are no words.
Breath was hard to come by in the concentration camps. In comparison, Moldova seemed a veritable paradise. To have offered the 6 million Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals who died the option of being settled amidst the crumbling, grey, dour streets of Edinets or Chisinau…there would have been no greater gift. There would have been no greater gift than a multitude of days with unreliable electrical and water service, than to enter a department store with virtually nothing displayed on the shelves, than to remain unpaid for a year or more. There could have been no greater gift.
As is the case with travels, the moments of greatest poignancy pass, and the itinerary compels. In Gdansk, at the apartment of my friend Kasia, we had the realization that Jocelyn’s Sun-Kissed Skin is exactly the same shade as a bowl of borscht.
In fact, later that year, I cut up a hard-boiled egg, balanced it on my nose, and went trick-or-treating as Bowl of Borscht for Halloween. Nobody got it. Cretins.
After we experienced Krakow and Warsaw, the day to part ways arrived. Kirsten flew back to a land of too many lights, too much food, and too much money. I headed to a country of moonscapes, geysers, mountains, and the second-most expensive McDonald’s in the world: Iceland.
What a pleasure it was, to travel with a laid-back, lively friend…
…to camp for days by Lake Myvatn, sucking up the ’round-the-clock midsummer daylight
…to ultimately shrug at the vast beauty of it all.
The end result of these peregrinations–from the infirmity of Moldova to the purity of Iceland–was a feeling of history and interconnectedness and for the vitality of each and every life, a feeling aptly articulated in one of my all-time favorite passages of prose, penned by the American author Norman Maclean:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”
Upon my return to Minnesota, as I snuggled in my mounds of bedding, noshing on a stack of pancakes with my beau, the words that surfaced from our river were ones that would buoy me into the next phase of life:
“So, will you marry me?”