After a night out some women wake up with strangers. Not me. I wake up in strangeness. I spend the morning in a hung-over version of CSI, piecing together the clues and conducting disaster forensics.
This morning I woke up to realize I had slept in my earrings. Only, these were new earrings, and definitely not the ones I had worn out the night before. As I brushed my teeth and couldn’t stop staring at the mysterious blue crochet flowers hanging from my ears.
In the kitchen there was evidence of a pasta experiment: half of a zucchini and a clove of garlic on the kitchen counter, noodles crusted to the pot on the stove, and the smell of sausage grease still lingered. The fire alarm was sitting next to the refrigerator, batteries removed, which brought back the vague memory flames…
I checked my email. I had an email from my dear friend, Netflix. He wrote, “How was the Picture Quality of “Reno 911!: Season 1: Fireworks”? I looked in the living room, there was a pasta bowl on the coffee table. I replied back: “Blurry.”
I checked my phone, and saw three outgoing calls a suitor, none of which were intentional. Pocket calls. It doesn’t matter how much I can keep myself in check, my ass has a mind of its own.
And then I saw my text messages, all eight from a new contact named Peter. From what I recall, Peter was happy, drunk, loved my dress, and, like many men before him, wants to be my gay best friend. (Unfortunately for Peter, that slot is filled.) The messages went like this:
9:09 AM Hey
9:10 AM LOL I’m so hungover
9:12 AM ?
9:12 AM ?
9:12 AM Lol
9:12 AM ?
11:36 AM Lol I’m up now
11:37 AM Hit me up
Hit him up? About what? The only thing I know about this man is that he shares my appreciation for synthetic fibers. And apparently, he’s obsessed with question marks. I had no idea that I’d given my number to a text addict. I felt so dirty.
I opened my purse and found two business cards. I remembered these. The first was from Robert, a whisky-drinking Texan who wore a suit and boots, and was already starting to slur as he told me about his work for the government.
“We do everything– construction, security, intelligence, basically anything that can be contracted,” he said.
“I see. You know, when you talk fast like that, you kinda sound like George W.”
“I used to work for him! Spent a year in the White House, and a year in the Pentagon.”
“Interesting. I think we may be diametrically opposed.”
“Probably not. We both probably eat food. Where should we go? Let’s eat!”
Now, I’m not used to this kind of charm-aggression, and I’m not sure how to shake it. He wasn’t wearing a ring, so I don’t know what made me say: “You’re married, right?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve just lost my appetite,” I said, and joined my friend at the bar.
Business Card Number Two was from Felipe, the Chilean wine distributor with beautiful eyes. Now you should know that for such an extrovert, I’m incredibly shy. I never approach guys in bars, which is highly problematic. But with Chile Pants, I just walked right up and introduced myself.
It was an easy conversation. We talked about travel, and books, and San Francisco (where he’s headed for his next three month stint). We must have talked for about thirty minutes, until his female co-worker joined us, at which point he opened his jacket pocket and pulled out two pairs of earrings. “These are from Chile,” he said, handing one pair to his friend and the others to me. They matched my dress, so I put them on. And I didn’t think for one single second that it was weird that he was giving out earrings he kept in his jacket pocket. What can I say? Love is blinding.
I looked over at my friend at the bar who was staring into her third vodka Redbull like she expected her ice cubes to do magic tricks. “I-LOVE-THIS-ONE!” I mouthed and pointed to Felipe, who had returned to his friends.
She waved me over.
“Sorry babe, but he leaves tomorrow,” she said finishing her drink.
“I was just talking to his friends. He is leaving tomorrow to go home to Chile, because HE’S GETTING MARRIED IN TWO WEEKS.”
Just then Felipe joined us at the bar. I tried not to act flustered, but I immediately became self-conscious of the big blue earrings draping from my ears. I felt so foolish, but I couldn’t take them off, not now. That would be admitting defeat. So I played it cool, nodded along to the conversation, and sipped my Amstel Light.
This morning when I saw the earrings in the mirror I was reminded of The Fish That Got Away: the Chilean sea bass on a plane on his way back to his fiance. He is off to get married, and all I had was my something blue.
So I did what any tabloid-loving American would do. I turned on the royal wedding and drowned my sorrows (and my hangover) in a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Limited Edition Royal Wedding Donuts. A wedding that comes with its own donuts? Now that’s the kind of romance I can get behind.
- No Related Disasters...yet
It’s Tuesday, so this morning I woke up early to meet with Bea for our weekly language exchange at Caribou coffee.
Today we started in English and spent the first hour talking about the weather, and how universally horrible it is here in Chicago right now, compared to glorious Gandia, where she is from. (At this point Gandia sounds so wonderful that I’m convinced that if it ever does rain, it rains sangria.)
Then, when it was time to switch to Spanish, I decided I’d tackle something that’s been bugging me for a while: ser vs. estar. For Spanish students it’s always difficult to distinguish between these two forms of the verb “to be”. Ser is used to describe an essential characteristic–something that is not going to change, like “the apple is green.” Estar is used if it’s conditional–”the apple is green because it’s not ripe.”
That’s all well and good when apples are on the line, but there are certain scenarios that I take issue with. Which is why I chose today to tackle them head-on with Bea.
“Algún día, quiero ser casada,” I said. One day I want to be married.
“No, it’s not ‘ser’, it’s ‘estar’,” she corrected me.
“Well, I think this is where me and Spanish agree to disagree,” I said.
“I’m sorry?” said Bea, confused.
“I don’t want to use estar,” I said. “If I wanted to use estar I would have been married already. I’m waiting for the right person that I can ser with.”
“But in Spanish we use…”
“I know, I know, the conditional. But if I use the conditional, isn’t that like– setting myself up for a divorce? I’m not looking for a temporary situation here. I’m looking for the real thing. Call me a romantic, Bea, I chose ser.”
“Estás loca,” said Bea, rolling her eyes. You’re crazy.
“Well, then at least it’s a temporary condition,” I replied.
Before my trip to Latin America it had been years since I’d worn a watch. My
grandfather gave me one for Christmas six years ago, and when it broke beyond repair I never replaced it. It’s not that I became “anti-watch,” it’s just that I didn’t really need one. In my last job I could tell you what second of what minute of what hour it was any day of the week. I’d often be leading one meeting, virtually participating in another via IM, all while refreshing my email to see what I was missing. I was excruciatingly aware of time, or moreover, the lack of it.
So it was ironic that in preparation for my trip to Mexico the first thing I bought was a watch. Without my iPhone and Outlook, how else would I anchor a day? Without an alarm, how would I wake up? What if I missed a bus?
I settled on an Ironman watch. Nothing fancy, but it was waterproof, good for the outdoors, and equipped with multiple alarms. It looked so good in the box, but once I got it out, I realized it needed to be set. I felt a familiar pang: instructions.
It may as well have been a subway map, an apple pie recipe , or a welcome screen to TurboTax — my anxiety about reading instructions always feels the same. And this watch had three pages worth, in small print. So I did what I’ve done many times before. I went to my sister’s house, delivered the goods, and let her do her magic.
I think my sister used to doubt my total lack of ability to read a set of instructions. She probably thought I was just lazy, and happier to let her take care of it. That is, until the time she came home to our apartment and found me near tears, screwdriver in hand, mumbling about a Home Depot shelving conspiracy. I had spent three hours trying to assemble a small two-shelf unit, and had somehow managed to do the entire thing both inside out and backwards. So now, when I show up at her doorstep toting mechanical merchandise, she looks at me with the concerned gaze of a mother who finds her child in a closet eating Play Doh, and gently takes it from my hand.
When she finished setting the watch she said, “You realize you’re going to be traveling through lots of different time zones, right?”
“Duh,” I replied, having completely forgotten that fact.
“You’re going to need to keep these,” she said, handing me back the instructions. But before she did, she attached a yellow sticky note across which she wrote in bold, capital letters: “FIND A NICE MAN TO HELP YOU.”
Find a nice man to help me?! Over my dead body.
So I showed her. For the first several weeks I just left my watch on Chicago time. I told people it was because I wanted to feel close to home, but the real reason was that the one time I tried to fix it, I accidentally set an alarm for 3 am. Not exactly good houseguest etiquette, especially in a small apartment with thin walls. After that I opted to leave the thing alone, and just did the math myself.
When I got to Argentina this got more complicated; now it was three hour time change. I missed a bus due to my Ironman time warp, and I realized it was time to teach myself how to master the dot matrix display. So I sat down with a glass of Malbec, asked the instructions to be nice to me, and surprisingly enough, within a single glass of wine, I figured it out.
But despite my feat over the sticky note, winning was not sweet satisfaction. Previously, I only had a general sense of time, and each time I paused to take a guess at it, I was reminded that it was on my side. I had ten weeks to travel with no particular destination. If a bus was late, I wouldn’t sweat it: my time was the chronological version of Monopoly money.
But the moment I adjusted my watch, I inadvertently adjusted my expectations. And there’s nothing worse than American expectations about time when you’re in Argentina. (I once had a waiter get visibly irritated when, after waiting for 40 minutes, I asked for a menu.)
As soon as I began expecting things to be on time they became dramatically less fun. So I stopped using my watch altogether– I only took it out at night to set my alarm, and let it sleep on my nightstand.
Now that I’m back in Chicago I’m still trying to take things slowly. If only time were money. Then I’d be rich! But each day that goes by brings me closer to a familiar routine: places to go, things to do, people to see. And as much as I’m enjoying “retirement,” I’m continually reminded that it’s time to find a job. Thing is, I’m not sure what that is yet. What I do know is that I’m not ready to start losing my hair from stress again.
I think the answer is that I’ll need to clock-in for myself– start my own business. Maybe I’ll just start selling gum on public transportation. That seemed to be a huge enterprise in Mexico. Or maybe I could export pens to Latin America, where there is a definitive shortage. When I launch my pen empire children won’t need to sell them on the street, banks will have them for patrons to use, and there will be such abundance that even hotels will even leave one for you in your room. The world will be a better, inkier place, and I will make millions!
If that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll get lucky and find a patron who wants to fund my disasters. I’ll just sit here and wait patiently, wearing my yellow sticky note: “LOOKING FOR A NICE MAN TO HELP ME OUT.”
I believe I owe you some updates. Since I left you in Mendoza, I spent 10 days trekking by myself in Patagonia, four days horseback riding in Las Pampas, and a week in Buenos Aires taking intensive tango lessons (if by “intensive” you mean “frustrating”). I promise to write about these adventures. In the meantime, you should know that I’m now back in tropical Chicago and easing back into my “old life.” Thing is, I came back to find that my “old life” just doesn’t fit. Or maybe, like a pair of heels that look so good you overlook the discomfort, it never did. Either way, I’ve decided not to cram back into that version of myself. Instead of moving a million miles a minute, I’m not in a rush to rush. I’m here in Chicago for a few months, maybe longer. Point is, I’m taking things slow.
But even with the luxury of time, re-entry is a difficult thing. When I returned to my apartment I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I put down my bags, and looked around–I don’t know what I expected to be different, but I was surprised that everything was exactly the same. I poured a glass of water, and for the first time realized that I have three different sets of juice glasses. Three! I never even drink juice. I was quickly overwhelmed by all my stuff and didn’t want to be around it. I headed to Caribou Coffee around the corner, figuring this would be the perfect jet-lag remedy. Once inside I carefully considered my coffee choices knowing full well that after 10 weeks off of American blends this was effectively going to send me into cardiac arrest, or at the least a series of wind sprints. I ordered a small, and only drank half.
On my way out I noticed a poster on the community billboard. It read:
“Hi, I’m Bea, I am from Spain and looking for someone to practice my English with. Email me if you are interested in practicing your Spanish.” I immediately sent Bea a note, and she instantly replied. And so began Tuesdays with Bea, and my gradual transition.
Having a cultural and language translator is invaluable. I’ve spent a lot of time tripping over words and phrases in Spanish. When I was trekking in El Chalten I met a girl from Colorado who was perfectly fluent. I asked her how she got so good at Spanish and she replied, “It’s easy! Just sleep with your dictionary!” I think of her often, out there climbing trails with her Tall Dark And Handsome Argentinean dictionary, while I sit at Caribou Coffee, sipping burned beans, and talking about the state of American health care with Bea. But still, I know it’s a Tuesday well spent.
Learning another language is an exercise in humility: you have to get really comfortable looking like an idiot, or in my case, a slut. If only I had arranged such a language exchange before my trip to Argentina, I would have spared myself a lot of embarrassment. Instead, I horrified everyone I encountered when I told them I needed to “coger un taxi;” a phrase common in Spain, but that carries a much different significance in Argentina. Turns out, rather than “catching taxis” I was proudly telling my Argentinean counterparts I was fucking them.
I just wish I had met Bea when I was 20, before I studied abroad in Spain. She could have helped me avoid the disaster that almost got me sent home on my first night in Seville. In honor of my arrival my host mother, Meli, arranged for an extended family dinner. Neighbors brought extra card tables so that all the aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents could fit around a single table. Dinner guests traveled from near and far to eat lentil soup and ham croquettes, and to stare at the American exchange student.
I don’t know whether it was the August heat, or the intense pressure to speak, but I started to sweat. Lacking the words for “I think I’m going to pass out,” I blurted the only phrase I knew: “Estoy caliente.”
Uncle Javi dropped his spoon. Meli looked at me like I had just put a knife to her cat, and cousin Marta started laughing so hard she almost choked. I knew I had done something really, really bad. And that’s when I remembered that caliente doesn’t mean “hot”–it means “horny.” In a quick attempt to undo it I told them I was embarrassed: “Perdón, estoy embarazada,” I said, turning bright red. Only that wasn’t what I meant, either. I had just announced to a table of horrified Spaniards:
“I’m so sorry, I’m pregnant.”
So when Bea speaks I listen with great intensity, knowing that under her careful tutelage the next time I jump borders I’ll be ready. I won’t talk about fucking taxis, or announce I’m horny to elderly people with heart conditions. Those days are over. With enough Tuesdays under my belt I’ll know how to approach a man, look him in the eyes, and say in perfect Spanish: “You look like an excellent dictionary.”
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