Vote for me

We accept the enormous risk of automobiles even though it’s statistically certain to kill you, kill someone else, maim you, maim someone else, make you want to kill yourself, make you want to kill someone else, and/or contribute to climate change. It sucks. But we accept the risk every day and we drive. Because It’s Free Pie Wednesday at O’Charley’s!

Why can’t we have the same attitude about terrorism and bacon? Yes, we can molest every single person at the airport while they’re on my way to my grandfather’s funeral God rest his soul, and we could stop enjoying breakfast and brunch — but is that the world we envision for ourselves? Is that the world we want to inflict upon our progeny? Cant we stand in awe of the miracle of human flight without imagining ourselves involved tragically in some pervert’s apocalyptic fantasy? Can’t we accept the nourishing perfection of pig flesh without confabulating some unlikely scenario in which a coroner attributes our demise to Oscar Meyer himself?

We tell them – you know, the Children, For whom we Do everything because we hate everyone over the age of 9 including ourselves – we tell them to reach for the stars and we don’t publicly taunt them with the exact mechanisms by which they would die if they happened to be in space without a space suit. You didn’t see any health and safety warnings on the Apollo 11 broadcast, did you? No you did not, because the heroes at NASA left their pillow forts every morning and planted the American Flag on the moon.

Which was crass if you ask me.

The Copycat

He knew long before he pulled the trigger that he’d be starring today on your News Feed, that he’d be a Wikipedia page, that he’d have the singsong voices of Morning Edition drilling his name into infamy during your commute and all the housewives wringing their bejeweled hands. He knew he’d get an emergency press conference shoehorned into the President’s agenda, that he would prompt national conversations about whatever it is he’d scrawled into the margins of his Algebra notes, that he would take the starring role and his victims would be nameless extras in his production.

He did a damn good job, didn’t he? When he stared cold into the gallery of camera lenses as he was escorted by police into the next act of his suddenly meaningful existence? When his name, over the course of a single day, was branded into dialogues on things we’re conveniently already mad as hell about, but had forgotten to tisk-tisk until today? Do you think he’d intended to put a bullet through his own skull but decided at the last minute that he’d rather include the part where his trial and execution were also dissected, filmed, and lauded by critics everywhere?

There’s a sequel. There always is. There’s a little boy with knobby knees and plaquey teeth and a sticky keyboard who is feeling inspired tonight, imagining his own name catapulted onto the illuminated marquee of your consciousness.

Don’t utter his name. Every time you say his name, you’re creating the next one. Every time you watch the grainy footage of his boyhood and of his rise to fame, you are applauding his showmanship. Every time you use him as the anti-hero in your self-righteous soliloquies, you’re giving credence to the motives of the next.

Let them scream in silence. Let their little Mein Kampfs rot in the dampness of their mothers’ basements. Leave all the carpets white.

This is the Balkans, baby. 

Hello from Budva, Montenegro, the Russian-owned Riviera. It feels good to be back in picturesque little seaside towns after spending two weeks in some of the more, ahem, frayed parts of the Balkans. This particular neighborhood of nations is defined by stark contrasts. The gorgeous, striking landscapes are periodically blighted by gray communist-era brutalism or inexplicably unfinished buildings. The mountains around Sarajevo – home to the 1984 Winter Olympics, and less than a decade later, the Republika Srpska forces who besieged the city for 1,425 days. The lovely, generous people never fail to prove the resilience of the human heart in the aftermath of one of the worst wars of our time. Contrasts.

The other defining feature of the Balkans is – well, it’s like something you have to whack with a wrench a few times before it turns on. I’ve gotten used to things being a little bit fucked up all the time. The road from Sarajevo to Podgorica – the capitol cities of two tiny neighboring countries – is a one-lane road that is only paved some of the time. The train? Oh, there is no direct train. I could conceivably get there by train; it takes 47 hours and two changes. So I take the bus.

The bus driver smokes. Constantly. I can’t open the window because the window doesn’t open. Sometimes when we go around a bend, a welcome breeze makes its way back to me. The bus screeches to a halt on the side of the road and picks up an old toothless man, who also smokes. The ancient marshrutka is full, so he stands in the aisle. One cow and a few meager fruit stands later, we again come to a halt. We’ve probably only traveled about 3 kilometers – the bus is going at a leisurely pace to avoid head-on collisions. Remember, this is a one lane road. We are stopped because there is an excavator blocking the way. It’s moving a pile of dirt and Coca-Cola bottles off the road. The toothless man gets off the bus and smokes. The bus driver stays on the bus and smokes. I laugh.

I get to Podgorica and set out to find my hostel. But I walk up to the address I’d saved on Google Maps and it is a little hovel with an old truck in the front yard. In this European capitol city. No hostel. No problem! I am in a European capitol city. I will find a cafe, hop on to the wifi network, and figure this out. I walk around a bit and see plenty of shoe stores and lots of communist-era brutalism and unfinished buildings. Lots of betting parlors. Several shops that cater to the distinct male Balkan uniform of Adidas pants, a graphic polo shirt, and a man-purse. A couple of meager fruit stands. Not a cafe in sight. I keep wandering. I don’t have any Euros (did you know that the Euro is the default currency of Montenegro because there is no official state currency?) so I look for a bank. Nope, no banks either. Huh. I can’t buy myself a coffee at the cafe I eventually find, so I just ask the waitress, who is wearing the female Balkan uniform of what can only be described as stage makeup, if I can use the wifi.

I find another hostel very close by, miraculously, in the 36 second window between the moment I connect to the wifi and the moment it stops working. The hostel is in “Blok 7.” Easy enough! I get to the place where Google alleges there to be a hostel, but I once again see no evidence of a hostel. Lesson learned: Google Maps is not to be trusted. I see a conspicuously non-local guy wearing crocs and a fishing hat who I assume to be another traveler. It’s a guy from St. Petersburg who is here to make a transfer in the bank, which closed at 3pm. He has no idea about the hostel, he lives in a neighboring town. He gives me 5€ and advises me to “get out of this fucking shithole as fast as you can, this place is terrible, why would you want to stay?” I can’t fathom the idea of spending any more time on a godforsaken bus. I give him back the money. He asks a local guy in Serbian if he knows where this hostel is, and the man points me in the right direction. Thank god.

But this is one of those enormous apartment buildings built by Tito’s men. There are 5 entrances and 8 stories. I walk into the betting parlor downstairs and ask the kind lady if she knows where the entrance to the hostel is. “No,” she says. “People always come in and ask me but I don’t know.” Okay. But it’s in this building. I sit on the steps outside and try to connect to one of the open networks to check the hostel website. None of them work. As luck would have it, a man walks up and asks me through an impressive bite of hamburger if I’m looking for the hostel. This is the owner of the hostel. The entrance is about 15 meters away. He points at the sign – a piece of sun-bleached paper in a plastic sleeve posted far above eye-level on the corner of the building. How could I miss it?


I’d seen the picture before while thumbing through the delicate, crumbling photo albums that lined the shelves in the breakfast room. The sepia lives of my grandparents were arranged behind brittle cellophane on yellowing pages, their eyes shadowed slits in the sunlight, their glasses full, their hair present and perfect.

Ewart, Trieste, 1948. It was scrawled on the back in fountain pen by his flickering hand. He is pictured in a sergeant’s uniform, leaning against a wall, one hand in his pocket and the other at his side in the same loose fist that he’d carried next to him his whole life – a small detail of his being that I had always noticed but never thought about. It was part of the minutiae that I associated with my grandparents – the lingering smell of noxious chemicals in the garage or the whispering tick of the small clock on the mantelpiece or the lichen on the stones of the terrace.

He was twenty years old in the picture and still, somehow, my grandfather. His fist at his side, his smile poised between witticisms.

We’d been sitting on the pier for hours, drinking out of small plastic cups and playing instruments while a large group of Afghan refugees watched intently and said little. Federica and Nathan looked at the picture on my phone and immediately identified the place as Piazza Goldoni. Nicola, a squat young woodworker, who had taken an unfortunate and canine liking to me in the hour since we’d met, offered to take me there on his motorbike. In spite of the looming certainty that I’d spend some time deflecting wayward affection, roaring through empty streets on a motorcycle in pursuit of family honor seemed like the Italian thing to do.

I tore the helmet off and ran to the staircase that overlooked Piazza Goldoni. It was as though I was sleepwalking, like I’d been guided there by some undercurrent, and when I reached the wall on which he’d leaned 68 years earlier I was somewhere else entirely. I was running towards him at Gatwick Airport. I was unsticking my legs from the gray leather seat of his Saab on the way to Cornwall. I was being renamed Felicity Jane or being accused through his grin of being a tornado – inside jokes that he waited all year to revisit. I was watching him drink beer or tea and never anything else. I was laughing while my grandmother continued the tradition of admonishing him for shooting squirrels from the bathroom window. There were hundreds of them but they weren’t complete memories. They came one after the other, in quick succession, in no particular order. It was an upwelling and then a deluge.

When he stood there in 1948, he had ahead of him an entire lifetime of decisions that, in the benign and magical nature of fate, had brought me there. It was as if I’d arrived on a Möbius strip – a straight line that connects the past and the present, twisting undetected along the way.


Above Granada

Freshly picked olives stain your fingertips magenta, and I was so like a child picking one and crushing it and smelling but not tasting it. I was warned that it would be bitter, but I’d been told that about the oranges on the trees that line the streets of Seville and I ate one anyway and I enjoyed it.

That was in Granada, on an arid mountainside above cave-homes occupied by Gypsies and hippies and their untamed dogs. My hangover had faded to a dull murmur and we were zig-zagging up the mountain past an old olive orchard in a valley. It dawned on me that I’d only ever fished olives out of jars and nibbled them off of toothpicks after martinis and more recently, eaten them out of little dishes alongside wine, feeling rude about spitting out half-masticated pits.

I wanted an excuse to stop and breathe and turn around and look at the rocky valley we’d climbed up from and when I turned around to see where we’d come from, I saw the olives. I stepped off the path carefully, because it descended steeply down a gravelly embankment. I pulled the olive branch towards me and plucked it off and my first impulse was to squeeze it between my thumb and forefinger. It bled such a beautiful hue and I imagined Andalucian women centuries ago staining their lips and linens with it.

We got to the top of the mountain, where there was a radio tower, a sofa without cushions, a scattering of broken tiles, and the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains sawing into the clouds in the distance. We kept walking along a road and when we found a military base, we realized we had gone the wrong way; we were supposed to end up at the ruins of a church but we were being barked at by bloodthirsty German Shepherds and we saw boots pacing under the gate to the compound. The guards told how to get back to the trail but we took a shortcut and scaled down a rocky hillside.

Halfway down we found a tree that had a white linen cloth attached with barbed wire to a branch. The cloth was a single piece of fabric but it had white thread cross-stitched through the middle and a picture of a woman stapled to it. It was stapled violently; heavy-duty staples criss-crossed at the top two corners. She was pictured on a white background in the style of a passport photo, but there was something deeply solemn and haunting in her expressionless face. There were no flowers or crosses or remembrances or connotations of death and love. It was clinical in it’s simplicity and deeply unsettling.

We got down the mountain and wandered again through tiny cobbled streets between tiny whitewashed buildings.

Seething pity

Depending on how you look at it, human life is either the culmination of a miraculous cascade of coincidences going back billions of years or a routine biological process that couldn’t coax the eyes of God from the Daily Mail. But every so often, a person elbows his or her way into your life uninvited and leaves you with the impression that they were shot from their mother’s hospital gown as if from a cannon towards a pit filled with old Gatorade bottles and dismembered toilets. They manage to embody every single loathsome trait a human can possess, ranging from irritating to dire, without actually being evil.

I’d managed to drive around Atlanta for 40+ hours a week for more than a year before I got into an accident. I had dozens of near-misses but always avoided impact due to impressive reflexes and spatial reasoning skills that allowed me to maneuver my trusty two-ton projectile with the finesse of a seamstress. But I couldn’t beat the odds. I was sitting in traffic on the way to work one afternoon, driving down an avenue known for car break-ins and muggings, and saw from the corner of my eye a young man peering through the windows of a car parked on a side street. I craned my neck to get a better look, still rolling merrily along at a modest speed of between 8 and 12 miles per hour. And I bumped the car ahead of me.

The first thing that alerted me to the stupidity of the person I’d just hit was that she didn’t immediately pull off to the side so that others could pass. She just sat there, blocking traffic, while I began judging her based on her ostentatious license plate frame and absurdly dark tint (you develop these kind of prejudices when you drive for a living). I got out of the car to tell her to move out of the lane of traffic, and she obliged. She got out of the car and said, through her gold teeth, “Should I call the cops or will you?”

Having seen that there was absolutely no visible damage whatsoever on my car, and a few small paint stratches and a miniscule crack on her back bumper, I told her that it wasn’t necessary, that we could exchange insurance information and phone numbers and deal with it through our insurance companies. “No, mm-mm,” she said. “Imma call the cops.” I repeated that that was unnecessary as there was no dispute that I was at fault. “Why you don’t want me to call the cops?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “They’re obviously going to write me a ticket that I can’t afford. I’m more than willing to pay for the damage via insurance, but I really cannot afford a ticket on top of that. And we’re going to be waiting for at least half an hour for the cop to get here since it’s rush hour and we both have places to be.”

She put the phone up to her ear, which was drooping with the weight of her enormous hoop earrings, and called 9-1-1. On her third fumbling attempt to read the street sign to give to the dispatcher, my inner dialogue began spewing obscenities as I realized that she was completely illiterate. I read the sign for her, slowly enunciating each of the three syllables in the least condescending way that I could manage.

While we waited for the cop, I was approached by a couple of people asking why she was calling the cops.  One of them was kind enough to offer his legal advice.”I’d a-been gone twenty minutes ago if I was you girl! What a bitch!”

“I wish I could, but I don’t need a hit and run on my record. What a bitch indeed,” I said.

The cop was jolly, asked all the usual questions (nimbly and auctioneer-like), and handed me my ticket with the court date that was three days after I was due to fly away forever. When it was all dealt with, I again apologized to the woman, completely and sincerely, offering no excuses and again admitting humbly that it was all my fault. “Mmmmhmm. Sorry you gonna be late.” Another daisy chain of obscenities coiled up in my throat.

A week later, I got a call from the insurance agent who was sorting out the claim. She took my statement, and when she told me that the other party was claiming an injury, I completely boiled over. She was having back pain, apparently, a condition which I suggested was a result of her carrying around an ass that could only be described as planetary. The insurance agent assured me that I had nothing to worry about, that they see this kind of thing all the time, and that based on the pictures I sent of the almost entirely undamaged vehicles, nothing would become of it.

Fifty thousand dollars. That is how much she and her personal injury lawyer are demanding. Two thousand dollars to cover the chiropractor, the other $48,000 for “pain and suffering” following a “violent collision.” I will here reiterate that I was going no more than 12 miles per hour at the moment of impact, as evidenced by the (almost) complete lack of damage to either vehicle.  The personal injury lawyer, Sheryl L Burke, is featured on in a small essay detailing a client’s experience with her questionably legal ambulance-chasing legal practice.

It’s easy to caricaturize the plaintiff as a beast of a woman with a moral compass ever skewed towards her own selfishly litigous whims. It’s easy to lambast her as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with America – an illiterate porcine bully. A professional victim with a tendency toward conspicuous consumption. A complete liar who uses bottom-of-the-barrel lawyers to swindle people out of their hard-earned money. It’s easy because it’s a totally fair description – at any turn, the woman could have chosen the path of least resistance – forgiveness, compromise, empathy. But she chose instead to victimize me and inconvenience everyone involved involved in this pathetically minor case – the cop, the court system, the insurance company – for the sake of what she perceives as “free money.”

When I was little, my brother ate a cookie that had been given to me. Seething with anger, I appealed to my mother to make him give me back the cookie. “We can’t get it back Emily. It’s already in his tummy.” My face contorted further into a tantrum.

Cut open his tummy and give it back!”

My mother explained through her laughter that we could not perform major surgery on my sibling to remedy this adorable injustice.

I can’t in good conscience hold this woman responsible for being a terrible person. I have to assume that the she didn’t have the kind of parents who taught her the value of choosing her battles. I have to assume that she grew up in an environment of aggression. I have to assume that her mother didn’t instill in her a love for humility. Or books. Or vegetables.

Hostel snobbery

I’m staying at a chain hostel (my mistake) infested by the worst possible population of tourists. A cross-section:

1. Middle aged American woman with a voice like raked gravel from centuries of smoking spends five minutes trying in vain to plug in the microwave to make tea (that’s not how you make tea!) but can’t figure out the alien plug. I finally cave in and help her after watching her struggle for a while because I’m a terrible human. This is the last straw for her. “Why would they unplug the microwave? I’m honestly really disappointed in this city, I can’t wait to go home [Reno?]. I have a disability and none of the subways have elevators. This place isn’t what I thought it would be.” In her defense, I have often wondered how those with disabilities and strollers manage to navigate this alleged socialist paradise.

2. Australian girl commiserates with the aforementioned woman’s Paris Syndrome. She has practically been in tears to her brother over Skype for the past 45 minutes because her iPhone got stolen by a pickpocket on the Metro. I feel bad for her, she seems really sweet, but you know – rule number one of traveling is don’t get pickpocketed.

3. There was just a parade of three dozen 17-year-old American girls struggling to wrestle their enormous suitcases down the stairs and into lockers. I would bet money that every one of them brought along a blow dryer and six pairs of shoes (all of which have been savaged by puddles and cobblestones and subsequently whined about to their team mom chaperone).

4. Northface-clad boatshoe bros walk into what is called the “chill out room.” “Let’s check out the chill out room. Seems pretty chill man.” Yes, but is it as chill as the chill room at Kappa Sig, man? Is it as chill as your parents’ lake house, brah? Is it as chill as Panama City Spring Break ’08, dude? No, because you got a DUI on a bicycle. Your Dad made you mow the lawn all summer as punishment. Not chill, dude. That was not chill. EUROTRIP BRAH!

5. Some West African guy just walked into this room and assaulted all everyone with cologne. Drakkar Noir Bucket Challenge? The room is no longer chill. Man.

6. Hungover Australian girl has “heaps” of money but can’t access any of it and is going to London today. Good luck with that…

Yes, I am being hypercritical. I haven’t slept in 24 hours, fourteen of which have been spent on a bus, and I just want to take a shower and go to bed but I can’t check in for another two hours. The weather is crappy (i.e. not Barcelona) and this hostel, located in a sterile suburb of Paris, is a purgatorial joke between a Days Inn and a Youth Center. I will definitely not be tempted to join the festivities in the basement “nightclub” tonight. I’m going to go smash my head through the speaker that is vomiting out James Blunt right now.


The Australian girl has holed herself up in her bunk with the curtain closed all day because she is scared to go out after getting her phone stolen. She’s young and it’s her first time traveling alone and now she has Paris Syndrome, a super chill Australian version, mind you, but it has rendered her incapacitated. I tried to be encouraging and invited her to go for a walk around the city but exactly 8 seconds later she shut the curtain. I think that constitutes a “no.”

I wasn’t able to nap today so I came downstairs to scout things out. Did you ever go to one of those multi-million dollar megachurches with entire wings devoted to making Christianity hip for Generation Y? With basketball courts and sparkly couches and huge auditoriums where budding bassists (who would be smoking pot in the gazebo within the year) would play edgy renditions of bible camp songs? Me too, once.

That’s what it’s like, except there’s no Pastor [insert monosyllabic first name here] to calm everybody down when they reach a certain prepubescent decibel level. I wandered around with my iPad and found a group of nerds working on a project in the corner. You can always count on a small group of studious French kids to completely ignore you. I feel good about my lunch table this year.

Under normal circumstances I would have a drink right now, because at hostels made for people who are off the daddy dole, shitty beer is almost always available for a euro or two behind the desk. But here they’ve professionally printed real menus (in impact font, lending to air of manufactured PG edginess) and I am not going to sacrifice 8 euros for a weak mojito made by a guy from Missouri. No, there is no refrigerator so I can’t go and get my own booze and bring it back here, and if I did I would probably have a camp counselor type tell me I’m not allowed to skirt around the price gouging. Furthermore, my blood filtration system suffered considerably in Barcelona and I feel good about having dried out the past couple of days, as does my wallet.

I’m going to go to bed in an hour or two and wake up bright and early tomorrow and go to Bruges with Marie as fast as humanly possible. If I have to wake up and yell at some Uggbooted exchange students about keeping the noise level down, I will go get a counselor and they’ll go to the isolation bunk for the rest of Session 7.