Miss’shitty

I was speeding down I-10 East in a 2014 Ford Fusion as black as the night around me and blasting Duran Duran. I felt at peace, in my element; a big fish in a small pond. The woman working at Enterprise tried to make small talk with me and I ended up inadvertently elevating it to medium talk; she asked if I was traveling for work and I told her no. She was taken aback by my obvious youth in contrast to the itinerary I have lined up for myself, and we parted ways with me feeling a boost of sorts in the wake of returning back to where days are slow and torturously hot. Welcome back, Sarah. People are still shocked by your rock ‘n roll lifestyle.

I arrived in Hattiesburg around 1am, stopping first at Wal-Mart on the off chance that there were avocados inside that we worth a salt. Some guys in ribbed tank tops and snapbacks with nothing better to do were loitering in the parking lot and all turned to look at me as I walked past them with the strut of a woman who, in a Lacoste dress and carrying Kate Spade handbag full of receipts in other languages, just wanted some guacamole and wasn’t having any of their dim-witted misogyny. As I passed them, I could feel their eyes on me and inside I was hissing, willing them to say something to me (because a woman who carries herself well is an unfortunate rarity in this college town replete with females who mainline Nike tempo shorts, oversized sorority t-shirts and those wretched rubber sandals with Velcro straps from the 90s that are making an unfortunate comeback among the youths of today). And yet, they said nothing, for which I was intrinsically grateful. It wasn’t lost on me, though, that I was notably appreciative at not being objectified in a public parking lot; at automatically believing that this was a successful endeavor out into the world solely because unlike most times that I go out in public while also giving half a consideration as to the way I present myself and am subsequently turned from a person into something purely aesthetic, THIS TIME, it wasn’t the case. I walked into Walmart scowling.

Avocado. Peanut butter. Cilantro. Hummus. Tortilla chips. I took those things in first, unlocking the door to my dad’s place (and I guess mine, too) and feeling a sweet and cool reprieve from the insidious mugginess that clutched me outside. I took a moment to survey the apartment, to feel its forged familiarity, to breathe in the not-quite-lived-in smell of its still-new walls. And then, with a deep breath, I ventured back outside, and wrangled my combined 70lbs of luggage out of the trunk and up the flight of unfeeling metal stairs still wearing my Lacoste tunic dress and j.crew bow flats. It was only after the hurdle of this endeavor which, in the light of day and the restful regeneration of a good night’s sleep might have made more sense to someone else, that I could relax. The apartment seemed different after this chore was complete; less of a hotel room and more of a home. After everything, all the feelings and events and panic and smiles, I was back at the beginning of the cycle of introversion and grateful for my own place, all to myself while my dad was on a business trip in Florida. I made guacamole at 3AM and watched old episodes of How I Met Your Mother, awash in everything that is wrong with the average American lifestyle and literally not caring at all.

The next day, I rolled into Stuckey’s around 11:15 to fill up the rental before returning it just down the street and grabbing a cab back to my apartment. I hadn’t showered yet and my jeans still smelled like Germany, but that didn’t stop some guy in dirty boots and a reflective vest over a dirty white t-shirt from glaring at me lecherously. Welcome back to Miss’shitty. The cab driver met me at Enterprise and when he asked me what I did for a living, making small talk to try to sugarcoat the fact that he was taking the long way home, I told him I was a writer. His demeanor changed from a lackluster day on the job to acutely interested, eyes alight with intrigue. He asked me to take a look at a homemade booklet he pulled from the pocket behind his seat and asked if I could write and publish his story. Leafing through, I could ascertain that he had some difficulty in his immigration from Ghana and overcome his obstacles to achieve that fleeting, beautiful American Dream. I took his business card and told him I would see what I can do. He offered me a Butterfinger bar. I declined.

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We Meet Again, County Road 13.

A little while later, I made the interstate journey to see my family in the fairytale of Fairhope. It had been two months since I saw my sweet nephew last, but by the looks of his growth spurt during that time, it felt more like a year.

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There was wine, there was bruschetta, there were talks after baby went to bed. You know, the sort of situation that I live to have. Everyone else can have their nightclubs and bars; I’ll take a meal at home with loved ones and a bottle of wine (laughs therein included) any day of the week.

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I stayed at my grandmother’s house until a little after 22:00, when I finally departed, the burden of a two-hour drive back to Hattiesburg weighing heavy on my consciousness. The prospect of an early-morning jaunt down to Biloxi to tie up a few loose ends with Uncle Sam didn’t sound too appealing either, but it had to be done. And so it was that for the second consecutive night, I drifted to dreamland at an hour more suitable for the West Coast from which I’d just returned, although this time, my sleep was more of a siesta as three hours later, I was up again and getting a black coffee at Stuckey’s, racing the sun down to the Mississippi coast.

The drive to Keesler AFB took a little over an hour, and when I emerged from my car, I felt sick and grimy, as if I needed to wash my hands. Being on a military installation again made me feel like I was taking a step backwards in life; I could feel the rigors of yesterday dragging me back into their squalid depths. And yet, as I approached the building where I was expected to report, the airmen on base were making their way to work with faces twisted in occupational malaise and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction…a certain victory in that I don’t have to do any of this anymore. I may have been there and it may have been required, but it was going to be the last thing. The very last time the government could take hold of me.

the freewheelin' Sarah Pierce

the freewheelin’ Sarah Pierce

I waited in a lobby for an hour and went to a meeting that lasted about 20 minutes. Then, there was the drive back. Then, there was sleep. Then, there was guacamole. Then, there was the unmatched stress and excitement of needing to tie up all my loose ends: organize my newly-arrived household goods shipment, get rid of my car, and pack my bags. I was on the cusp of leaving for the better part of a year.

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Life as I know it has been boxed up and stored here.

After all the boxes were taken to the storage unit, after the clothes were washed and rolled and stowed in my suitcase, after I bequeathed the keys to good hands, I was at the Hilton Garden Inn across the street from Gulfport International Airport having a glass of pinot grigio and wondering, exactly, how all the things in my life could have happened in such a perfect succession to lead me to this point of prosperity. I have my low points of vicious emotional tumult, of nearly crippling existentialism, but really and truly…it’s such a gift to not only to live, but to feel alive. So many are people are walking corpses.

I tucked myself into bed too late and had another nap of a night’s sleep, but with the foresight that in the morning, I would surely spring up with the adrenaline of wanderlust.

bye, bye miss american pie.

bye, bye miss american pie.

Getaway to the Bay

And suddenly, I was standing in the subtle breeze of the San Franciscan morning, snug in the arms of California once again. The air around me seemed filtered, of a higher quality somehow; and though I had been flying for five hours on three hours’ sleep after the most arduous day I’ve had in a while, everything around me was brighter than it should have been. My eyes were a lighter shade of blue. Everyone was beautiful. The wind was cooling me, refreshing my insides, diffusing the squalor of airport terminals and recycled air to which my body had become accustomed. It was like LA, but better.

My sister Emily appeared through the scattered scramble of people waiting to be picked up at the curb and my eyes adjusted to her presence; I had been scanning the cluster of oncoming cars to find the milk-chocolate Jetta that belongs to her husband Mason, whom I had never previously met but felt like I’d known for years because of both the magic of social media and the fact that Emily just knows how to pick quality people. And yet, she had gotten out of the car to get me, she was hugging me, she was taking my small black-and-cream Chinese Samsonite knockoff. All these gestures–insignificant to some–fused together as one act, one sentiment. After the loneliness and isolation I found in Europe, after going weeks speaking only to waiters and shopkeepers, after flying clear across the world, someone was here to pick me up, here to hug me, helping me with my bag like it was the most normal thing in the world. And really, it is. But to me, at that specific moment, it felt like I’d won the lottery.

It had only been about three weeks since I saw Emily, who moved out to the Bay Area after Mason had received orders to Travis AFB, but it felt like three years. I was so shaken from the hurricane–with its violent storms and calm, serene eye–of the two weeks prior that I fully felt like a different person. The woman that sent her off not even a month before with a bucket of Pomegranate San Pellegrino cans and sunflower seeds (her timeless favorite food) for the long drive from Alabama to California wasn’t the same woman she was fetching from the airport. And yet, no one could really grasp that but me and as we walked toward the car (known henceforth as Loretta the Jetta), I felt the weight of everything, yet again, because it was truly over. I was in San Francisco. I was on the other side of the world. Not only had I gotten through one of the strangest and most soul-revealing times of my life, but it never ceases to amaze me (regardless of how many Skymiles I accrue or in which Delta Medallion tier I find myself) that one time in my life, I was just a daydreamer out in the countryside of Alabama, thinking maybe one day, if all the stars align just right and in a stroke of dumb luck, I would like to travel the world. But then, I would think, reality setting in, that I can’t possibly do that. Traveling is for rich people, for privileged people, for people who have more of a footing in this world. For people who aren’t me. And yet…there I was. Standing on the curb of SFO, fresh off the plane from ATL after having an unexpected tidal wave of an adventure in Europe, including but not limited to: spending the night in a German airport, feeling my way through Portugal on my feet, jumping off cliffs in Croatia. I felt myself, silently, secretly solidifying into the adult I always hoped–eyes dreamy and sky-turned–I would one day build myself to be.

Mason hopped out of the Loretta the Jetta and gave me a hug, exclaiming, “I FINALLY GET TO MEET MY SISTER!” I played it off casually (I hope), hugging him back and saying how awesome it was to be in San Fran, but inside, I was exploding with happiness. This is what I needed: family. Familiarity. People who give a shit about me.

We made our way through the traffic of midafternoon across congested highways and I made the acquaintance of Tyler, posted up in the backseat. I’d seen him in the various snapchats I’d received from Emily and Mason during their cross-country drive; he was Mason’s friend that they brought out to California for an adventure. The five of us jammed to Mason’s spotify account that could have doubled as a gay bar playlist and headed to The Mission, where we decided to eat at a place called Gracias Madre based solely on its name. Getting there and looking over the menu, we discovered (to my delight) that it was all vegan cuisine! Colorful dishes replete with flavor were consumed and after the meal, I was the only one at the table who wanted dessert (because I am fat), and Mason ordered two vegan cheesecake slices so that I didn’t have to eat dessert alone. That’s quality brothering, right there.

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I think it’s time to note that my sister and Mason are gay. Both of them. They are legally married, and that’s their business. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got more family that loves me because of my sister’s atypical home life, and I’m totally fine with that. I love Mason and I love Breanna, her girlfriend. Emily has given me both a brother and a sister, and they are both amazing. So if this bothers you as a reader in any way, just go ahead and click this tab closed on your browser, because I love my unconventional family, and there’s no room here for judgmental or hateful comments.

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love knows no gender.

love knows no gender.

 

I arranged for Breanna to fly in from her home in Staten Island the next day because I love her, and I love Emily, and I don’t want the distance between them to take its toll. The five of us were all squeezed into Emily and Mason’s two-bedroom apartment in Vacaville, two to a bedroom and me on the balcony. In true military fashion, their household goods shipment was delayed, so we were eating on floors and sleeping on air mattresses, utilizing my suitcases as makeshift tables for journaling and laptop use. It was reminiscent of the quintessential “first apartment” painted with high hopes and optimism–the feeling of starting anew and on your own seeping through the walls–despite us all having long surpassed that actual first apartment in our lives. It just had that feeling, that wonderful air of independence and the start of something really, really good.

Saturday, 23 August was Tyler’s twenty-first birthday and around 11pm on 22 August, the guys and I found ourselves on the bright birch of the hardwood floor in the living room feasting on a spread of guacamole with tortilla chips and peanut butter (straight spoon-in-the-jar style) washed down with a most delicious red blend whose label initially drew me in and whose vivacity sealed the deal: Headsnapper. Just before midnight, Mason and I fashioned a mini birthday cake out of a frozen Reese’s peanut butter cup topped with a dollop of peanut butter and two little shavings of salted caramel coconut strips. Taking note of it all now, it seems lackluster, ho-hum perhaps to the casual observer, but under the wine-soaked watercolors of how it actually played out, we had a lot of fun. We laughed. We toasted. We took shots at midnight. We celebrated Tyler and adulthood as a whole: the fact that we came from different places and all lived different lives and yet, we were there–in a near-empty apartment in Vacaville, CA that made us look more like clandestine squatters than people waiting on Uncle Sam to deliver the furniture–chasing vodka with spoonfuls of peanut butter on a windy summer night. We are all on different paths in life, but in the moment, we were intersecting in each others’ lives, forming memories out of variables that, in the sober light of day, may seem random and aimless in their importance but to us, then, as our giggles rang out against the empty rooms of the apartment, they meant the world.

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In the morning, we all came to life at different times, emerging from our holes in the apartment like robots booting up; slowly at first, feeble in our fatigue then in a snap of good company, we all became animated and ready to tackle the day. The five of us piled into Loretta the Jetta and took to the city, playing tourists for the day so that Breanna and I could see the Golden Gate Bridge and get our obligatory photos. The roads whipped and winded up to the viewing point; inundated with people just trying to get that perfect shot where the wind and the light and the shadows all align, but Mason managed to drive us far enough out that when we parked on the side of the cliffs overlooking the Bay and the Bridge and all the majesty in between, it felt like we were the only people in the world. Like everyone was simply gone, and San Francisco was ours, bequeathed to us from the Golden Goddess of California herself.

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The wind whipped through our hair and we finally, after a while, retreated back to Loretta, scenery-saturated and craving city-center chicanery. We headed back to The Mission where I had it on good authority that there was a rooftop bar with “Tyler’s 21st Birthday” written all over it. And I was not wrong.

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Although, of course, nothing worth having in life isn’t without a hefty side-dish of patience…so rather than pile up in the standing-room-only zoo of the bar, we waited about 45 minutes for a table where we could sit down and eat a meal overlooking the lights and the spirit of the San Franciscan Saturday like the classy bunch that we are. Emily and Breanna spent the waiting period gallivanting down Mission Street, popping into the sketchy family-owned stores and the guys and I headed next door to a dark-and-stormy, enigmatic-looking bar called Laszlo. I bought a round of drinks that were orange in color and a deep, vibrant red in potency. You know, to get the night started.

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Time passed and so did we; the rest of the dwindling twilight seemed to transpire in fast-forward motion. We did everything faster as another pitcher of sangria was ordered, we spoke in falsetto, cartoonish tones as tapas were scarfed down with a tenacity that suggested that we, perhaps, hadn’t eaten in weeks. And after all the plates were cleaned and the cups were emptied, after the sky faded from teal to turquoise to twilight before our eyes and then inevitably evolved to a rich violet that finally died and deteriorated into black licorice above our heads, after we paid and tipped, we slinked off to the most typical place we, as a unit, possibly could.

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The Castro District was alive with color and clamor, with laughter and lipliner, with knavery and neon. We, as a pack, crossed the street and a plaid-shirted, short-shorts-wearing guy with hair coiffed to perfection looked at me and exclaimed, “GORL!” A few moments later, some guy wading through his public drunkenness gave me a hug outside of some top-rated bar on Yelp and said, “Oh honey, don’t go there.” I asked him where I should go and he recommended Beaux, a bar down the street that, unlike seemingly all the bars in The Castro, accepted credit cards. Mason and I–birds of a feather–were sold. I asked the guy his name and he replied, breathily, “Kevin. And I’ll be down at Beaux in 20. I’ll see you there,” and as quickly and randomly as he materialized in our midst on the sidewalk, Kevin was off down the street in the opposite direction. (Spoiler alert: we never saw Kevin again.)

Beaux was everything you see in movies when it comes to gay bars: loud, flashy, and one thousand percent fabulous. We paid the five dollar cover charge to a guy wearing chaps and got our hands stamped, then headed into the laughing, swinging, mischievous belly of the beast that was Beaux. Through the crowd glimmering with glow sticks, there was a near-naked man dancing for dollars on an illuminated cube, fierce dance mixes of already upbeat songs we stretched our time, and the next thing I remember was Emily handing me my credit card and sternly yelling in my ear (whether she was frustrated in her sobriety at having to take home a gaggle of drunken slobs or just trying to get through to me over the roar of the party, I am still unsure) that she closed my tab and it was time to go.

The car ride home was strange and haunting, and most definitely not my finest hour. Every drop of alcohol I had consumed swirled together and began to conspire against my body as it simultaneously ate away at my mind, chewing bit after bit of my rationale in real time. I regained some mental clarity in the shower when, as I came to recognize the massage of the hot water against my back and appreciate its consistency, Emily bolted into the bathroom and, with the tone of a tired mother whose three boisterous children won’t go to bed, barked, “The air mattress is waiting for you and I got clothes from your suitcase. Get out and get dressed, then go to sleep. Now! I want results!”

Intimidated and feeling like I was back in boot camp, I did what I was told. The next thing that my brain processed as truth was the way the light–once my friend that signified the unfailing optimism of the California sun–came crawling in through the window like a swarm of locusts to smother me with the pain of the dreaded Morning After. My head felt in equal parts like a bowling ball, hard and oversized and heavier than it should, and a peeled grape, vulnerable and easily squished in the harshness of the outside world. My body felt brined-soaked and sun-dried, brittle and creaky in its paltry movements.

And apparently, as my body succumbed to the scathing depths of hungover hell, there had been an earthquake. That was what I gleaned, anyway, from the explosion of text messages that sat idly on my phone, waiting to be read with bleary eyes and a confused disposition. I made coffee, putting my phone on the floor next to my air mattress and waving a flippant hand at it, as if that would somehow auto-respond to everyone. Just as the first few sips of the deep and bitter caffeine passed through me like electricity pulsing through cables deadened by the elements, Mason appeared. “Did you know there was an earthquake?”

“I found out…but I didn’t feel it. Did you?”

“No. But I was just as messed up as you last night.”

“Dear God,” I said, swigging the coffee in shame.

Tyler shuffled out before long and the three of us made the executive decision that a deluxe Sunday brunch was in order. We left Emily and Breanna to themselves in the apartment and made our way to an adorable little diner off the highway in Vacaville that illustrated the splendor of Americana in a way that Norman Rockwell himself couldn’t have painted better. The building was old and its sign, facing the oncoming blur of cars on the highway like a stately old butler ready to welcome you inside, was a pallid version of what it once was after years under the unfailing California sun.

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On the inside, waitresses ranging from the tail ends of childbearing years all the way to blue-haired old ladies with voices raspy from decades of nicotine laid our silverware and took orders on the classic indigo and teal notepads that are mainly just utilized in today’s modern world by Chinese restaurants who didn’t get the memo that we’ve moved past that tired old notepad. The décor hinted at more of a Southeastern eatery awash in down-home charm than a San Franciscan brunch spot as the walls were lined with kitschy pictures of chickens and steaming coffee cups, cementing this place as the kind of establishment that Waffle House aspires to be. The coffee is black and the food is greasy. It was perfect.

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hangover helper.

They didn’t have any vegan meal options on the menu, but I was able to assemble a hangover helper brunch of champions from their selection of sides: unbuttered toast, avocado slices, their signature potatoes (which were, come to find out, fries in the shape of medallions, which totally changed the game on fried potatoes forever for me) and, eyeing the menu with a lust to feel human again at whatever cost, a full plate of sweet potato fries. Make no mistake, I ate it all, but it was a struggle. Afterward, I wanted more than anything to just lay down and die.

So of course, we went to the outlets instead. The sun had never been brighter or hotter. My clothes had never felt so restricting as they awkwardly clawed onto my body. My feet felt like rubber and my eyebrows hurt. Yes, my eyebrows. And yet, somehow, I made it through the day to the sweet and subtle breeze of evening, when we all ate on the balcony as a family, sipping wine and San Pellegrino and taking in the fact that we were adults who were brought together and we were free in our wild whims and ways to do whatever we wanted. It was a dinner among family and it was a dinner among friends. It was something that my soul, crushed lately by the cruelty of others, needed.

I had dragged the air mattress outside the night before, sleeping under the stars and slumbering soundly when the wind picked up like an industrial-grade oscillating fan, Mother Nature mimicking the manmade. Early the next morning, Mason and I were up with the sun and running through the wild winds. He did two miles, I did seven. A shower, a wardrobe change, a banana and a water chug later, we were pointing Loretta toward the slatted and sliced greenery as far as the eye can see of Wine Country. I perused google for a place to sample wines on the way and wound up with a facility that landed itself on many a Napa Must-See list: Castello di Amorosa. It was a winery housed inside a Tuscan-inspired castle that, from every stone right down to the rustic, aged door hinges, was built from materials imported from Europe.

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The castle itself was built in California only a stone’s throw into the past, but the Old World charm it exuded was genuine, soaked in Italian authenticity. We took a sixty minute tour of the ins and outs of the castle, the drafty cellars that housed barrels upon barrels of local wines, and then finally, later on, we were led to a tasting bar where we were given a menu and the chance to try any six wines we wanted. The basic tour and tasting included a five-sample setup, and only for their basic wines. But it’s me, so at the time of ticket purchase, I opted for the Reserve Tour, because Mason and I are too uppity for our own good sometimes. For ten extra dollars, we got an extra sample and the chance to select from all the wines the Castello had to offer. As presumed, we selected exclusively from the Reserve Wines list and chose the most expensive wine on the menu (clocking in at $90 per bottle and close to a grand per case and tasting more like the way a honeysuckle smells than fermented grapes), because Mason and I are too uppity for our own good.

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After a few more grape juice flights, we headed back for the hills of Vacaville where, after a few minutes in the solitude of the apartment, we made our way to San Fran just as the world around us was fading into a summertime dream of lemon and ginger, the early evening taking hold and casting blond shadows across our faces as we drove. It was a Monday evening and the atmosphere was branching out into rusty oranges juxtaposed next to the sapphires of the sky post-sunset. Mason drove me to the marina at Treasure Island, one of the best vantage points of San Francisco and the next-door neighbor to a Coast Guard base. As I got out of Loretta, drawn to the sweet lapping of the waves of the bay on the rocks in front of me, I couldn’t help but play “what if” in my head. What if I had gotten this unit instead? What if I had been assigned a completely different billet, what if instead of all the things that happened in the frigidity of Boston–in the air so cold that your ears feel like they’ve been axed clean off the side of your head and in the gulf of disconnect between the people whose attitudes override any sort of compassion–I drifted out here instead? I could see myself smiling, I could see myself taking pride in my job; I could see the little card that said, “This is the start of something GREAT!” that my dad hid in the pocket of my dress uniform when he pressed it the day after I graduated from boot camp actually coming together as truth (instead of what it actually was: just a jading reminder in the kitchen drawer of unfailing optimism being struck down by the blunt force trauma of reality). I stood there, at the edge of the bay, watching the sunlight glint off the rich blue of the water and imagined this elaborate other life; the life I could have lived. With a twinge of bittersweet melancholy, the thought occurred to me that I might still be married. It might have worked if we weren’t subjected to freeze and then thaw ourselves out in attempt to save it…only to be frozen over again in the social tundra that is New England.

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What if, really? I realized, definitively, that I would have been so much more of a person. So much better of a person. I wouldn’t be what I’ve become after Boston. I wouldn’t be so x, I would be so much more y. But, I conceded as I slowly and methodically took a panoramic shot of my surroundings, the city and the sun and the bridge and the bay, that isn’t what happened. I got Boston and I got all the horrible things that living there at that time entailed. I can’t change it. It’s a part of me now, all of it, and I just have to find a way to make it all fit into some box that I can toss in the closet of my mind. And who’s to say, really, that I wouldn’t have faced some of the same things at another unit? Or that here, my mind would simply drop to the point where I would cease to feel that there’s just more out there; more to learn, more to be explained, more to split me open and fill me with new perspective? No one can say, I ended the conversation with myself as Mason and I walked back to Loretta to hit the city.

The stage lights on the world went down as we walked through the Financial District, familiarizing ourselves on foot with the dazzle of the city in which we were both quickly finding ourselves enamored. There was a bar on Yelp that boasted panoramic rooftop views (by now, everyone should be up to speed on my penchant for rooftop bars as I love both drinking and looking down on people) along the waterfront promenade, but we weren’t even able to get a foot in the door to check in for the reservation I’d hastily booked via Opentable on the way over, so we cut our losses and called it a night, especially once we saw that the “panoramic rooftop” was no higher than two stories. We walked and talked along the promenade, both stopping to snap the perfect shot of when the lights along the Bay Bridge danced just right or the angle of the illuminated structure became even more photogenic than it was fifty feet into the past.

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Bay Bridge On Blurpose.

Finally, after a stroll and a solidifying feeling in my soul that Mason truly was part of my family, we headed back to the homestead of Vacaville where we joined Emily and Breanna in a first-look family screening of Beyoncé’s performance at the VMAs the day before (that we neglected to watch because we don’t live our lives around a plastic light box on a shelf). I retreated afterward to my balcony bed, beckoning me through the whispers of the wind, and fell into a sleep fueled by mental exhaustion and the burden of truth that in 24 hours’ time, I would be back in the sweltering, sticky South.

When I landed in New Orleans, I got off the plane last. I didn’t want it to end. It didn’t seem over yet. I had flown straight from Europe to California, stopping only for the planes to catch their breath. I hadn’t been home, or the place where all my things are currently stored, rather. The last time I saw the place that I categorize (loosely, of course) as my “residence,” I was starry-eyed and assuming, setting out for some cookie-cutter Eurotrip and getting instead a lesson on the human race and its potential for cruelty on which you can’t put a price. There was a sliver of innocence to me, a naïveté that I didn’t know I had in the wake of believing I was some big, bad wolf in the world. And now, in New Orleans, I was dilly-dallying with my carry-on bag. I was taking longer than necessary in the bathroom, fixing my hair for no one in particular as it was after 22:00 on a muggy Tuesday and I was headed to an empty apartment in another state. I finally made my way out of the terminal behind the pilots and through the secure area to the open-to-all lobby that was, at this time of night, deserted save for an older couple who came to pick up some girl who was immediately enveloped in a hug by the man. I kept walking, more fascinated by the fact that a ghost of myself from less than a month prior was standing across the lobby, beaming with subtle elation at the fact that I was, finally, after all these years, going to the storied and slightly taboo Frankfurt. That girl across the lobby naught but three weeks in the past was so sure of herself, too happy to realize that she would soon have it drilled into her head the hard way that Sartre’s words are more than a little Easter egg of random knowledge to casually slip into conversation to seem more intelligent: they are real, they are true, and they can crush you to pieces if you’re not careful.

After paying my respects to who I was the last time my feet walked these floors, I grabbed my bags from the whirring carousel and walked out into the black claws of the humid, New Orleans night.

Welcome Back: Part II

(Continued from Part I.)

I don’t really know where the time went. I was willing time to speed up, to take me to 06:00 when I could just drop off my case full of wine and relax in the luxury of the SkyClub, cursing myself yet again for having the kind of brain that thinks that spending €85 in fees and a priceless amount of personal comfort in order to transport inexpensive wine that was shrouded in authenticity is a satisfactory idea. Although, I thought, going back and forth to myself in the exhaustion that felt palpable on my body at this point like a second skin, people will appreciate this wine. It will be all right. These bottles are going to people who are worth it.

I spent the night watching the clock in what felt like a suspended chamber of time in an infinite measure of space, and spent the early hours of morning watching the dead airport that had been my frigid home for the past few hours illuminate with activity; transform from an abandoned expanse of nighttime vacancy to a bustling mini-city of refreshed, bright-eyed travelers ready for their next adventures against the backdrop of the serenade of the morning sun, singing loudly now across the sky in vibratos of passion and color. And I, with my fingers brittled by dehydration and eyes drooping in fatigue behind my glasses, I just sat there, watching for 06:00 to roll around.

And then, just as promised by whatever force time actually is, it did. I picked up my body, stiffened by stillness in the row of chairs where I tried to forge comfort and lumbered downstairs to the information desk, now staffed by two women: a friendly-looking blonde who appeared to have had her coffee that morning and an older woman with Bettie Page bangs whose skin was pale and wrinkled, making her face look like a crumbled up piece of paper. I made my way toward the blonde, fully aware that I was judging a book by its cover but being too wrapped up in impatient exhaustion to really care. Someone that I didn’t see in my peripheral vision (shrouded by glasses and mental lethargy) swooped in front of me and arrived at the friendly-looking woman before me, forcing me to stop where I stood and sigh, then walk to the other side of the desk to the failed memo that missed the trashcan and sat balled up instead at the information counter of FRA.

“Hallo, guten tag, Englisch ist okay?” I croaked, not having uttered a word since speaking to my new friend on the bus from HHN.

“Yes,” the woman responded, thin-lipped and brusque.

“Okay, thank you,” I said, regaining a bit of my tone with the utilization of my vocal chords. “I have a bag at the left luggage counter that I dropped off a few days ago. My flight isn’t until 13:00—“

She interrupted me with a surly, “The left luggage counter is over there,” with a sharp finger in the direction that I walked less than a week prior and dropped off my bag.

“Yes ma’am, I know,” I replied, realizing a little too late that the nuanced charm of Southern-bred vocabulary had absolutely no meaning here in the frigid air and attitude of Germany, “I am asking whether I can go through security now and re-enter this area when it’s time to drop my bag for my flight,” I continued, somehow masking the strain placed on my psyche by spending the previous night and day cooped up in airports, feeling the grease and grime of extended air travel build up in my pores and the forest of follicles on my scalp. I was pleasant. I was acting.

“Yes, you can, of course,” she said as if I had asked her if 2 + 2 = 4. I could feel myself being labeled in her mind, branded with the iron stamp of German judgment: Stupid American.

“Okay, thank you,” I said quickly, and with a start, I headed to the luggage counter to drop by newly acquired black-and-cream wine carrier.

Within a few minutes, I was walking through the golden hallways of the terminal, pulling up my Delta app to find the location of the SkyClub and feeling the sort of accomplishment that you never expect to feel; the selfish sense of pride that creeps up when you do something that’s only difficult because it’s something that you don’t want to do. I wanted to crash in some plush bed and have a relaxing run through the forests of Frankfurt one last time, after which I would wash off the sweat and the night and the energy of yesterday in a warm shower. And yet, I didn’t. I sat in an airport all night. Sure, it was of my own volition, but I really wanted to see if I could, or if my uppity nature would seep through, grasp the situation, and drag the rugged adventurer in me to some hotel in the middle of the night.

I found the SkyClub, but it was owned by Korean Air. No big deal, I thought, making my way inside and pulling up my membership card from my iPhone’s passbook, this is a partner airline. I handed my phone to the representative at the desk and grabbed my passport from my handbag, only to have her shake her head and give my phone back.

“Only First and Business Class passengers on partner airlines can come in,” she said to my face that had involuntarily twisted itself into a swirl of confusion, disbelief, and a somber sort of sadness.

I didn’t argue. I might have tried to weasel my way in had I not been blanched by the bleakness of the night I spent waiting–holding on—just to be turned away when I thought that the waiting was over. But then again, I employed the meek demeanor that always hides behind me gumption on reserve for when I leave the US: the disposition that I can’t argue with people, that I am a guest in someone else’s country, that this is not The Land of the Free and I need to sit down, shut up, and be respectful of what I’m told. And so, with deep disappointment and frustration vibrating through my body, I turned around, walked out the door and back into the hallway of the terminal, whose walls at that point looked more like cheap foil or lamé than the gilded grandiosity of a few minutes prior.

Hours later, around 08:30, I had consumed a few espressos in a café overlooking the departures hall where I spent the night, and I looked down to see not a large room, but just a constant shuffle of people and suitcases, flowing and pulsating along the floor as the sun streamed in, now totally comfortable with its position on the world’s stage, casting glares and shadows and everything in between. I let out a sigh, cupping my hands to my forehead in exhaustion and felt a disgusting sheen of oil. I needed a shower. I banked on being able to bathe in the lounge. I closed my eyes in a blink extended by how beaten-down my body felt, wishing I could just lay down in a bathtub and wash the grit of going home and all it entails off me. Then, my phone illuminated.

Delta emailed me, alerting me to proceed to the nearest ticket counter. I took a look at my itineraries within the app, and like a magic trick from the joker that is reality, I was awash in muted merriment at the fact that I was placed on a standby list for a flight directly to Atlanta–my final destination—that left in two hours. I immediately grabbed my backpack and handbag and headed out of the café, making my way toward the first Ausgang sign I could see, lumbering past the baggage claim and packs of people just standing in the way of people trying to walk with an energy that I didn’t realize I could muster.

I picked up my bags. I paid the euros, handing the man behind the counter my card in an exhaustion that stemmed not only from the physical sensations I was feeling, but the constant stream of unexpected expenses I incurred throughout this journey. It’s just money, I told myself as he swiped the card, I’d rather use it for something like this than be buried with stacks of cash. I rolled the bags beside me through the crowd, my distribution of effort uneven as my left arm lugged the suitcase that came up to my waist and was close to the weight of two toddlers and the little clandestine carrier, cream and black, rolling to my right, almost weightlessly in the midst of its neighboring luggage. I arrived at the row of counters that Delta had occupied only to be skipped in line by a couple in their early thirties who were skinny, only moderately attractive, and both wore white sweaters that matched without matching and looked as though they were ordered from a catalogue. My face was a diluted snarl, but I didn’t say anything. I just let out a deep and silent sigh (sighing had, at that point, seemed to become my main method of breathing), remembering that this is not my country and that I don’t have the rights to rip into someone (tactfully, of course) because they were rude to me.

It turned out that the couple was American. They spoke to each other in shy and subdued tones, confused and intimidated by the hustle of a busy foreign airport that won’t stop and cater to them. I shook my head in a slight regret at not venting my frustration at them, at being the bigger person and letting these two people at least ten years my senior treat me like a doormat. But then, of course, I remembered that they’re the ones shuffling around like sheep, lost in the world like children who got separated from their parents in the mall, and I’m the one who can comfortably travel internationally without relying on another person to keep me company or hold my hand.

I finally made it to an agent at the counter after about fifteen minutes of waiting behind people asking question after question in German, causing my anxiety levels to spike as the clock ticked forward toward the departure time of the flight on which I didn’t even know if I was confirmed. The agent bore an almost identical resemblance to my mother, which filled me with a sort of eerie nostalgia and, blended with my heightened nerve activity in the wake of waiting for people who apparently have never heard of Google, a slight sense of jagged apprehension rocketing down my spine. She looked nearly exactly like the woman, save for one glaring detail: instead of my mom’s green eyes, faded like moss (the eyes that blended with the shamrock glint in my father’s eyes to create the intense lime of my sister’s eyes; a little club of verde from which the dice of genetics decided to exclude me), this woman had eyes of icy turquoise, screaming for attention just a few shades lighter than mine. As she spoke, I was finding myself seeing less of my mother in her face and more of myself; realizing that this woman was literally what I would look like in 25 years. I was okay with it.

There was a problem printing my boarding pass, but I was confirmed on the earlier flight to Atlanta, bypassing a layover at JFK and filling me with a satisfied relief as I made my way back through passport control. I was given a seat request card in lieu of a new boarding pass, but my baggage claim tags matched the flight number of the earlier, direct flight. It’s all coming together, I thought, making my way to the “All Other Passports” line, my passport closed around fingers marking the identification page as well as the page where the stamp was to go, the page where I had previously passed through security that morning in naive hopes of relaxation.

“How long have you been here?” the passport control policeman asked skeptically with a curt disposition.

Rolling through the catalogue of words and memories and coherence in my mind, I sputtered, “In this airport? Since midnight. I came from Hahn at 22:00 last night. I flew there from Portugal.”

He continued to study my stamps, trying to make sense of the zigzag of clearance that I had been granted to and from Frankfurt over the past few days. My apprehension stacked on itself as I stood there at the counter feeling like I had been beaten like a rug on a balcony and he sat in his chair slightly above me, eyes cast downward in the tense silence between us, the realization creeping in that I didn’t have a stamp from Hahn or Portugal. I could picture myself being escorted to the nearby office bathed in the garishness of high-wattage fluorescent bulbs and marked POLEZEI, my own personal Room 101.

He scoffed and tossed my passport across the counter with a flippant hand that was indicative of my clearance. I didn’t ask questions or say anything, for that matter; I grabbed my passport and made my way back through the terminal to my gate, breezing through inter-terminal security and checking in with an agent airside. I explained the situation as passengers pooled in behind me, children retaliating crabbily, adults just wanting to get this show on the road, teenagers in sweatshirts and spandex with headphones and attitude.

“Well, there is a problem getting you a boarding pass,” the airside ticket agent, a woman who looked like the quintessential German mother in a childhood fable (short and plump with blonde hair and rosy cheeks) said, clicking away at her keyboard. “I want to put you in Economy Comfort due to your medallion status, but it’s saying that as of right now, you don’t have a seat even in coach on the this flight.”

I stood there, silently steaming but publicly polite, smiling and lighthearted in the face of the most extreme exhaustion I had ever known, just trying to get out of Frankfurt. I said nothing, just waited as her eyes narrowed on her screen, darting around as her fingers whirred in clickety-clack oblivion. Finally, I was told to just wait there in the gate area. I would be called up to the ticket counter again. I would be taken care of.

And so off I shuffled, feeling deflated overall but infused with the tiniest glimmer of hope. My bags were being sent on this flight. I was (sort of) confirmed. I would be in Atlanta earlier than expected and I could snarl at people and let out my frustrations in plain sight and eat peanut butter because I would be in The United States of America again. I took a seat in an empty corner which quickly began to populate with passengers. A mother with a toddler and a baby rolled a stroller past me, accidentally snagging my backpack’s strap. I hate strollers. I have always hated strollers. They are needlessly bulky, awkward to maneuver, and a consistent cause of frustration in my life as a single, efficient-minded person on the go. Whenever I see a stroller in a public place–some worn-out mother bumping and knocking into things, lumbering behind this gargantuan tower of plastic that looks more like a grocery cart than a carrier for something that, not too long beforehand, fit inside her body–I turn on my heel and seek an alternate route. And yet, at that moment in my life, I wasn’t the same embittered wench as per usual. She apologized in English, saturated in sincerity, and dragged her toddler forward by one hand, pushing her stroller with the other. I smiled, I told her it was all right. Her baby began to cry as they made their way to a couple of seats next to me, and her toddler incessantly asked if he could walk on the roof of the airport. Rather than carrying out my usual protocol of gritting my teeth behind a tightly-sealed pair of lips when someone else’s child is near me and further reinforcing my decision to wait until 35 to spawn (if at all), I had somehow become one with the frustration. I looked over and smiled at the kid, who—entrenched in confusion as to why, exactly, he couldn’t walk on the roof of Frankfurt am Main International Airport—saw my smile and raised me a moment of silence. It was, in essence, a strange miracle of sorts.

In this silence, my mind (coming up on its 27th hour of continued wakefulness) began to drift to the little family as people, not harbingers of irritation. How amazing it must be to be three or four years old in another country, on another continent, and have stories of “That time in 2014 when we were in Frankfurt,” told to you by your mother ten and fifteen years down the line at dinners or events. My childhood lacked that spark of adventure, that mystique of exploration. While the kid in me wished that I could have traveled often and early, the adult inside my mind couldn’t help but wonder about the mother; why? Why were they across the Atlantic by themselves? Was this just some leisure trip? Why would she lug two small children around a foreign airport if not absolutely necessary? Her hair was pulled back haphazardly into a bun and her clothes hung on her body in sloppy ways indicative of stress, of urgency, of being a mother instead of a woman. I began to feel a sort of connection to her, like she might need help as the intercom blared in unfeeling Deutsche ringing in our ears and the sun hung proudly in the sky casting shadows throughout the glassed-in terminal. And then, after a solid twelve or so minutes of studying, of watching her gesticulations and her interaction with her toddler, I desisted in making her my subject of my inevitable people-watching when she pulled a breast out of her scoop neck shirt and began to feed her baby, turning away and closing my eyes, trying to drift off to a light sleep with my bags in my lap, arms securely braced around them.

The plane began to board. I was never assigned a seat. I felt deflated and stretched out at the same time; a strange feeling of such fervent disappointment that I was too tired to even process the emotion. I walked out of the terminal area and to a noodle bar that I saw around breakfast time, enticing in its after-hours darkness. Now, it was illuminated, waiting for me. I sat at the wall corner of a long banquet table and was greeted by a smiling waitress in German with a Japanese accent. At first, I thought it was a dream, crowding through the reality by my broken brain. And yet, there she stood, grinning, waiting for me to order. “I’ll have a large bottle of Apollinaris,” I slurred in English, forgetting to throw out the disclaimer that I don’t speak German and really, hardly caring. “Please,” I added as she walked away, only vaguely aware of my rudeness.

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“Thank you,” I said with a forced enthusiasm as she returned with a 1.5L bottle of gorgeous, bubbly hydration and an empty cup with a lime wedge in the bottom. She began to pour it in front of me, for me, and it was, at that point, the highlight of my day. I ordered vegetable gyozas and some sort of noodle dish with tofu instead of chicken that tasted like I was in a trendy restaurant where I would go on a Thursday night in some city when I wanted to feel alive. It was a far cry from the pre-packaged, food-grade plastic that’s become the monster of standard in airports, and it breathed new life into me as I got out my laptop to check on all my connecting flights to my final destination: San Francisco. I was still a world away, greasy, and missing sleep more than I missed peanut butter but at least I could see how the dots all connected; I could see the routes take form in front of my eyes and I knew that as time flew, so would I. And eventually—I would be picked up at the airport by someone who loved me; a stark contrast from the shuffle of taxis and metros and busses that I had been utilizing for the past few weeks.

Later, in a little pocket of the airport known as the Leisure Zone, I reclined in a padded chair and resigned myself to the hour or so left of waiting until my flight began to board. My eyes were up to the ceiling and my mind—characterized by its constant whipping and thrashing—was beginning to fall silent. This comforted me and horrified me all at once, as Asian businessmen talked on cell phones beside me, as kids played on iPads across from me, as twenty somethings flanked out across empty chairs asleep and oblivious to the energy of the terminal, I was feeling my brain dull into something unrecognizable: my normally unquiet mind was finally shutting down as my body remained awake. It was a surreal feeling, almost like the worst hangover of your life blended with losing a significant amount of IQ points. I felt terrified that this was it, that I would never regain my brainpower. It was, in hindsight, the final plea from my brain to get some sleep, but in the moment, I thought that everything I had ever learned was melting away into grey goop inside my skull.

I checked the time of my boarding in the Delta app for the fourteenth time that hour to discover that something was different about the image I saw pixelated on my screen. I sat there, bloated from my meal and covered in grime from the day before, just blinking profusely. What I saw on the screen simply HAD to be some swirl of sweet dreaming, and I would jolt up from the chair in the Leisure Zone at any second with a genuine concern about where on the globe I was located. And yet, as many times as I blinked, as many times as I willed myself to wake up, I was not roused from my dream. This was reality. On my boarding pass, my seat was no longer in the bowels of the plane. I was reseated squarely in 8D, in the nestling comfort of the plush Business Elite cabin. My head hit the back of the chair in a satisfaction that was so intense that I felt like crying. It felt like the greatest miracle I had ever known at that point, and I spent twenty minutes dreaming of the flatbed seating and actual pillow and duvet that awaited me on board.

The agent that scanned my boarding pass was the same agent as before, the agent who said she would take care of me. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you on the direct flight earlier,” she said, checking my passport with a knowing smile and a glint of discreet giddiness in her eye, “but you see, it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it did,” I said, taking back my items and looking at her, taking in her face and programming it into my mind as my literal favorite person in the world at that point, “I can’t thank you enough,” I said in a hushed tone, trying to continue our volley of discretion while also hinting to her that I know what she did, and I hope she wins the lottery for it.

I boarded and was immediately offered champagne by a flight attendant who, while perky, didn’t seem to hate her job. I was gracious, overflowing with appreciation as only a disgusting woman socked by over a full day of air travel can be. We took off, and I listened to “Recycled Air” by the Postal Service as Germany became brown and green squares of farms and fields, fulfilling a prophecy I made up when I was a lonely, lovestruck teenager daydreaming about departing this country back to my own for the first time. It seemed right, even all these years and variables later. I’m older than I thought I would be, visiting Germany for the first time, hearing “Recycled Air” piped through my ears and feeling the numbness of saying goodbye again. And yet, the hours prior to boarding this plane weren’t dampened with heart-wrenching goodbyes, as I always pictured. And I wasn’t in some cramped economy seat. And I hadn’t listen to the Postal Service in years. I paid my respects to the girl I used to be, listening to the song in its full duration, and allowed her to take over for a minute and feel the things that she always thought would be felt when this event took place in her life.

As the song played and my emotions drifted backward, and I looked out the window to see a lake so blue that it looked manmade in the shape of a heart. I didn’t know how to feel about it.

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New York was a blur of baggage and crowds and yelling and a migraine. I slept through the flight, which only seemed to drain my internal battery further, as I needed calibration. I waited in security line after security line, my entire life at that point being a cattle-herded animal through a zoo when all I wanted to do was graze the grasses of a farm. The US Border Patrol agent studied my passport up and down, he glared at my face, his own face betraying any emotion. I was too tired and bloated and grimy to care. Finally, with a jolt, he stamped my passport, handed it to me, and said in a rich baritone that still rings through my ears and made me feel ethereal like Natalie Portman in Closer, “Welcome back.”

I was flying to my next connection from Terminal C, but I already knew that the SkyClub there was under renovation, so I popped into the Terminal B SkyClub to regain a little bit of my dignity. “You realize this is not your terminal,” said the Delta agent as he scanned my membership card and checked my ID.

“Yes, but I need a shower, and this club location is nicer,” I sighed.

“Okay, as long as you’re aware,” he strained, judging me. “Your flight boards in an hour.”

I popped around the corner to the hallway of showers to find two people waiting in line with no one at the desk. We all waited in silence for eight minutes until a fourth person moseyed in behind me. Two more minutes and still no attendant. We were suspended in our confusion of the situation and what to do, and I decided that it was not my place to worry about such things. I was too busy standing in my own filth to have the brain capacity to do anything. Finally, a man sauntered to the desk from the back and let us into shower rooms, shuffling on his own schedule and answering questions in a thick Southern accent that were posed to him by a Chinese man, their rapport built on confusion and clashing of cultures. I grew more and more antsy as the man kept asking questions; questions that could be easily answered with common sense or perhaps just looking behind the door rather than pestering the man that held the key.

Finally, I was underneath a steady stream of hot water, and I never felt more grateful for a shower in my life. I don’t know how long I stood there, just letting the water breathe into me, revitalizing me, but it was the most in-tune I have felt with the universe in years, possibly ever. There was more zen in that shower as I lathered away the dirt and the grease and the agitation of the day before than any time I’ve ever made a human pretzel of myself on some rubber mat on the floor.

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I was upgraded to first class again on my next flight and I immediately relaxed with a gin and tonic, declining the in-flight dinner as my only options were a pastrami and cheese baguette or two enormous fried chicken patties. I sipped my drink and felt, for the first time, a sense of comfort in being back in the United States. I knew I had been transformed, and I knew that I would never be the same after the events that unfolded in Europe. But sitting there, sipping gin and tonic in clean clothes jetting over the country that raised me, the country I served, and the country that will now serve me for the rest of my life…there was something so apropos about the picture.

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The words of the Border Patrol agent rang in my head, bouncing off the walls of my brain.

Welcome Back.

Welcome Back: Part I

I thought twice as I left my Herschel pack in the opening foyer of the Airbnb out of which I was checking myself, paranoid that something would happen to the precious cargo inside. And yet, at the same time, I wasn’t about to waste time sitting on the steps of the foyer copying all my writing to my flash drive, either. I was torn between two degrees of laziness: the immediate, in-your-face sort of sloth that could result in all my hard-earned words—my version of bleeding, in a sense—could, in theory, vanish because they’re trapped in a shiny silver box that’s worth a pretty penny and the laziness with a little more longevity: the fact that I just didn’t want to lug my backpack and laptop around Porto with me.

And so, in the end, I left it in the locked foyer, pressed innocuously against the stone wall, peeking into the wheel of the bicycle left there by someone else (the host perhaps). I mentally examined all the possibilities and took the risk. It seemed more important to me to walk around on my last morning in Porto without the monkey of all my things on my back than to know, definitively, that my writing was safe. What can I say? I’m dumb at times.

And besides, my host emailed me to tell me it was okay that I leave bags in the foyer until I make my way to the airport. In my tawny-soaked dementia of sorts, I took a screenshot of the message for proof, should any harm be inflicted on my storage system of what makes me happier and more whole than anything else in the world. And then I headed, bare-shouldered, into the Portuguese morning.

I made my way to Café Majestic. There was a man on the street during the walk there was was shouting what sounded like, “Enough is enough!” in English, but I knew better than to wipe everything down with my own native language. He was holding up a sign and just kept yelling the same thing over and over in a tone that sounded like a protest, like a calling-out of bad behavior; causing me to wonder whether my jeans were too tight or perhaps my bra strap was playing peek-a-boo out of the inner corners of my Zara tank. I turned a corner swiftly, distancing myself from the man with a stark accusations in a foreign language to see a woman entrenched in her seventies outside with a radio playing “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. She was swaying with her eyes closed, clearly drowning in the memory of 1981. I headed onward to the café, the brilliant feat of architecture and history rolled into an aesthetically pleasing outlet for caffeine, pushing my way past tourists keeping their distance and too involved in their cameras to realize that there were other living, breathing people wanting to live their own lives instead of cater to the all-important needs of an amateur photographer wanting to enhance their instagram feed. I found that, despite the clot of DSLR-wiedling tourists on the outside stoop, there were many tables available inside, waiting to be occupied. I slipped inside and situated myself at a table along the wall in the middle of the restaurant’s plane, securing the most perfect vantage point available and ordering my standard espresso doppio from a server whose eye I was able to catch.

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I sat there, sipping espresso in the most American of ways, watching the people—how they hold their cups, whether they take bite-sized pieces of croissants apart in their hands or shove the whole thing in their mouths and bite from there, the way mother’s faces contort in frustration when the strollers they insist on pushing through the narrow walkways snag on some person just trying to enjoy breakfast, little things like that–and flinching at the random shrieks from babies, waiting until I felt like it was time to leave. Only I could know when. And then, all the seconds were spent and it felt only right, so I paid my bill and was on my merry way, both underwhelmed by the café and somehow infatuated all at once.

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I had to buy a suitcase, I knew that much. It seemed like a cruel joke set in motion by the universe that I flew Ryanair to the port wine capital of the world. Ryanair, “the low-budget airline” of hard-hitting stabs to the wallet, what with their €40 baggage check fee for anything over 10kgs. And yet, it was a price I had to pay, because sometimes in life, you just need some real-deal port wine, okay?

I dropped my big teal badboy of a suitcase at FRA in preparation to come to Portugal and skate out with only a €7/day fee vice the aforementioned €40 (that, I believe, racks up even higher with more weight accumulated. I didn’t look into it because I wasn’t having it). And so, after purchasing authentic port from Cálem as well as grabbing some random reds and rosés from the little produce market beneath the apartment, I was finding myself in need of a bag to check. I was paying oodles of money in fees to bring home cheap, delicious wine. I know, I know. But it makes for a good story and an inside look at the whirring mechanism that is my constant Catch-22 of a mind.

Along the walk to the Majestic, I did some half-hearted window shopping and managed to spot some places with little hand luggage rollerbags on display for sale. I popped into the first one I saw on the way back to discover that it was a Samsonite retailer, and a carry-on regulation sized bag was going to cost me upwards of €80. No thanks. I kept walking back through the cobblestone streets, past local men in their sixties standing outside smoking their cigars, past the man yelling at the top of his lungs in Portuguese but sounded like the English phrase, “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,” past shopkeepers trying to peddle their goods and beggars pleading in gummy Portuguese. Finally, I found the China Zen shop: a hole-in-the-wall souvenir stop specializing in subpar bootleg goods.

Rolled in, grabbed a bag from the top-shelf display (black and cream, because apparently that’s my subconscious go-to color scheme) and looked around for the shop owner, who eventually made his way to the register. The Portuguese, I’ve noticed, operate on a time schedule that is unlike any other nationality I’ve ever seen: slower than the French and slower than the Italians. Everyone does everything not only like time isn’t a factor, but that it just plain doesn’t exist. I paid up, €35 for this little cream bag with black trim, my only (listless) solace resting in the fact that now I have a carry-on to match my handbag and wallet.

Half an hour later, I was en route to the airport. I was early, four or so hours before my flight, but I would rather be early and bored than late and miss the flight, having to hemorrhage even more money than I had already had to fork over in the wake of all my international mishaps. I took the metro at the stop near the apartment to the main station, where I transferred lines to what I believed was the purple line to the airport. All the stops were the same on the map as we moved along, but I kept a weather eye out just in case I did get on the wrong line. The train lurched forward at an almost painful pace and I began to feel that familiar feeling of homeward-bound misery that infiltrates my body every time I leave Europe: a bloated, sweating sensation throughout my extremities and a sullen, silent sadness that takes over my mind. I felt, standing in the metro and holding onto the yellow plastic railing like I might lose consciousness. Dehydration, too much bread, and the underlying anguish that my time in a place where I feel like I actually belong is coming to an end made me feel like my backpack weighed fifty pounds, and like breathing in the stale air of inside the metro car was something not innate, but a chore that I had to learn to complete.

Finally, the train rolled to a stop at a station that wasn’t on the way to the airport. Sighing, I lugged myself and my bags out, onto the platform, and tapped my Andante Card against the reader (as one is required to do for each and every ride, regardless of whether they have to change lines). “COMPRAR TITULOS” read the little black segments on the outdated digital green screen of the meter. My face felt like it was already so round, so bloated with port wine and baguettes and sangria that to make any sort of facial expression would only aid to me looking like even more of a mess than I already felt, so I simply blinked, stone-faced, and let out a breath of air that I’d held in for the duration of the test of whether my Andante Card still had credits on it. I fed the meter five euros—I might as well get rid of them, whatever, I thought—and re-tapped the card, satisfying the meter and slogging over to a bench to take some of the weight off my shoulders. I halfheartedly looked over at the arrivals screen as I tried to sit in a way that didn’t make me look so much like Jabba the Hutt (to no avail) and noticed that the line to Aeropuerto was eleven minutes away. The heat was crawling in through the dense air of the Portuguese morning as it fades lazily into afternoon and I felt, at that point, resigned to misery. I had to return not only to Germany, but then to the United States. And I was fat.

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of waiting for the axe to drop, I arrived at the airport. I got out, wandered through the metro station connected to the terminal, and found a WC. My bloodstream was basically turned to port wine during my time in Porto, so I decided to slam water like it’s job (although seeing as how I am currently saving jobs for those who need them and funemployed, I guess that slamming water WAS my job) in a measly attempt to restore order to my body and wake me up inside, as well as prepare for the journey across the globe it was due to make. The effect was more painfully annoying rather than fruitful and life-preserving; my absolute need to run to the restroom every few minutes not taken account during the development and execution of this plan. I was haunted for many hours by the lack of foresight in this area, and my stomach only seemed to swell further.

I arrived at the airport four hours before my flight. It was one of those European airports with the revolving ticket agent counters; the kind where you and every single other person flying that day are confined to the open, often-times minimalist expanse of the departures hall with usually one or two food options and hard, airport-style rows of chairs just waiting, just glaring at a screen for your flight information, cattle-herded all together with towers of luggage, the ricochets of thousands of voices throughout the terrible acoustics, and the utter hell of other people. I took a seat near a screen so that I, too, could glue my eyes to it, to let them glaze over with a reluctant patience, to burn out everything around me except that one digital display of when I could go drop my bag with an agent and go through security to the shopping and eating wonderland that was the terminal. And yet, ticket counters were just starting to open up for flights two hours in advance. I had some time to kill.

Someone Please Save Me From This Glass and Chrome Hell.

Someone Please Save Me From This Glass and Chrome Hell.

I wrote, getting myself lost in the words and making myself wonder subconsciously which world was reality: the stirring kaleidoscope of people milling about all around me in tones of quintessential chrome and stereotypical silver of the airport, or the places and faces and dreams and dialogues I’d invented and woven into words in my computer screen. Hunger began to knock on the door of my mind, tapping lightly at first, and was ignored. Then, it became more of a scratch on a screen door: a threat of sorts as its fingernails scraped the rigid surface of my brain, letting me know that it could make its way in if it wanted to. Eventually, Hunger tore through my concentration like a caged dog itching for hours to get out, and I reluctantly sighed, shut my laptop, and corralled my luggage (handbag, backpack, and new knock-off Chinese Samsonite roller bag) together, heading toward the stations of people all huddled together under backlit neon blurred by my lack of glasses (my argument with myself on my personal objection to wear them, the symbolism that my body is, inevitably, in need of extra help from an outside variable, that I’m not as young and spry as I once was).

All the food was a parade of the same European airport fare: a coffee and pastry spot with all sorts of espresso and milk-based drinks, accented with croissants and tarts that will never make a European fat, a bar with Super Bock bubbling topaz in its marketing posters, enticing customers with this liquid gemstone rather than its actual urine-reminiscent appearance, a Relay shop with Kinder bars and potato chips next to the rack of Portuguese magazines. They all had the same wrapped food items in the cold cases: the ham and cheese baguettes, the three-meat wraps, the salads topped with a generous serving of mozzarella shredded to pieces too small and too abundant to extract. There were, however, sad-looking pineapple circles pinned down to a plate by a thin layer of saran wrap, and just as I reached for the color-drained fruit that looked more like a sun-faded pool noodle than something edible, I decided to use the WC first. I can’t eat when I have to pee.

Around the other side of the departures waiting hell (hell, hall…same thing, really) was a hidden WC, not bustling with a million suitcases and strollers haphazardly rolling every which way. I spotted, as well, a hidden alcove in a white wall, which was a rarity in itself as the hall was constructed nearly entirely of glass. The white wall was indicative to me of some sort of structure within the hall, another WC maybe? It was square and could certainly house two rooms of stalls and sinks. And after walking the perimeter of the walls to the alcove, I found a no-frills restaurant with a public school cafeteria setup…with wine off to the side for sale. I rolled up to the counter and looked at the offerings: chicken, beef, fish. And then, my eyes scanning the silver vats of food behind the glare of the glass that separated it from the general public, my stomach growled with a hungry happiness: plain white rice and steamed broccoli.

I immediately grabbed a tray off to the side, as well as two kinds of bread because I couldn’t decide which I wanted. The fruit at this place wasn’t devoid of nutrients and life, so I threw some pineapple on my tray, too. “Hello, may I please just have rice and vegetables?” I said, articulating clearly and concisely, using my mother’s on-air voice, the one I grew to pick up after spending my childhood playing quietly on the floors of radio stations. I didn’t want to point at the food. Everyone points at the food. The woman serving me was more than some robot responding to the petty pointing of foreign travelers.

She didn’t understand. She asked, “Which?”

Hesitantly, I pointed anyway to the side items that I wanted to combine to make a meal. “What meat?” she asked.

“No meat. Just that, please.”

Still skeptical, she asked something of her manager over her shoulder, then made her way over to the register. €11.20 later, I was at a table nearby and charging my laptop. I’d misplaced one of my USB-to-outlet connecters somewhere in my trek across Europe, and the other one simply stopped working, so my Macbook Pro had been my charging station for my iPhone and Mophie case (in the wake of me being absolutely too cheap to go get a new connecter for too many Euros, and allowing me to save one of my US-to-Europe adapters for my computer, charging three things at once). From the cart of seasonings and salts nearby, I grabbed black pepper, salt, and a plastic cup. I poured a little bit of olive oil in the cup, peppering it lightly. Then, I doused my plain, steamed plate of airport vegan food in seasoning. It looked like a sad meal (and comparatively, it was), but in the moment, it was delicious.

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I lingered for a while, looking up ever so often at the screen mounted above my table for my ticket counter information. I bought internet (I have become the person that purchases internet and I hate myself for it, but I’ve found, unfortunately, that it’s worth it in this world of wailing children and having a father that is waiting–worriedly–for one of my wide-eyed wanderings to bring about my own demise). Finally, I saw my flight information glowing, pixellated on the screen. There was some sort of disconnect in my brain at that point; some fatigue-frayed wire in my mind left me confused, wondering where the time went, why I hadn’t noticed it before. I went to the ticket counter, the only passenger on my flight, and the agent was, thankfully still there. I handed over my phone, employing the same boarding pass protocol as I did on the way to Portugal from Hahn, and she frowned.

“You don’t have the paper pass?” she asked, and I knew I would be hit with fees. She had a computer right in front of her and I would be charged, right then and there.

“No, I didn’t have access to a printer,” I said, truthfully, my voice fortified by the realization that I did this once before without a problem, and that I am obviously on the flight (having paid for two seats, even!), and for them to charge me for essentially just being on-the-go is Ryanair just being a jerk. She sighed, her nails rapidly clicking on the keyboard in a way that satisfied me, a way that spoke to my girlhood idolatry of women with long nails and jobs where they type all day and look pretty; a mental snapshot of the glass ceiling in full, disheartening effect. She printed me a paper boarding pass and told me I was good to go.

“I need to check this bag,” I quipped, showing her my black-and-cream knockoff.

“That can fit in the overhead compartment. It’s free,” she said quickly, wanting me to go away.

“I wish,” I said with a genuine bit of dejection, “but I’ve got liquids.”

I weighed the bag, and was told to take it with me to the airport’s customer service counter around the corner, pay for it there, then bring her the receipt. In a busy international airport, “around the corner” often means at least a five-minute walk. Factor in the village of people aimlessly walking to iron out some of the creases of their boredom, their sense peripheral vision and spatial awareness totally powered down, and you’ve got yourself a few extra minutes to get to where you need to go. Once I made my way down the endless stretch of homeward travel-tinted malaise, I approached another counter with a line of three people in front of me. Portugal was a study in patience, that’s for sure. And for someone with an mindset of ambition that is almost always mistaken for abrasion, the waiting was killing me. My soul was dwindling, losing color with every passing sixty seconds that someone wasted by living slowly.

Finally, €50 and a steady stream of happiness flowing out of my wallet later, I was en route through security. My gate was closing in five minutes. Where did the time go? My head felt like a bowling ball, still, despite the fact that I had been downing water almost non-stop. I ate vegetables. I had been sitting down, not carrying anything. Why did I still feel so weak? Why didn’t I notice the clock before, only making the connection to proceed to the ticket counter when all the other passengers were proceeding to the gate?

What I previously loathed about Ryanair as I was huddled in the minimalist terminal of HHN with two hundred other people was what saved me in the open-air, comfortable OPO: my gate was technically already “closed,” but as I made my way through the medieval crusade of security, I could see a snake of people in the distance and, finally reaching for my tortoiseshell Warby Parkers, they were all lined up for Ryanair flight FR4172 to HHN. I joined the back of the line, and sighed, relieved: despite the ridiculous fee, my bag was checked. I had an actual boarding pass. I was getting on this plane and going for a ride. All was well.

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A couple of hours later, we were all walking along the airstrip in Germany, freezing. It was an unexpectedly brisk 11° C, a far cry from the sunny summer sweetness of Porto. Welcome back to Germany: land of cold. I bought a ticket for the next bus to FRA for €14 and waited 45 minutes in this joke of an airport, writing but keeping an eye out for lights and the commanding wall of charter bus outside the glass double-doors.

Within time, the bus arrived. I didn’t miss it. All was well. I got on, opened my laptop again, and became enraptured by my own world that I created within the computer. I was listening to music; soft music to fit the mood of traveling hours through the blackness of the German night on a bus to Frankfurt, the city that I couldn’t decide whether I liked or hated. I was glaring into the glow of my screen, unable to really see anything else around me, when I felt a presence to my left. I took a headphone out and looked up, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. A man stood there, asking something in German. “Mein Deutsche ist nicht gut,” I replied, the perfection in my execution of the phrase (a perfection acquired by saying it constantly) betraying the actual meaning.

He replied, accented, in English, “Is it okay if I sit here?” In the darkness, I could see the outlines of his face, the stubble of facial hair that grew in what looked to be holiday rebellion against the razors of real life, I could see in his eyes a youthful sparkle rather than the dull of haze of a weary business traveler.

“Of course,” I said, moving my bag from the seat next to me.

“I hope it doesn’t bother you,” he said as he got settled in his seat to me, caught in a web of words and trying to wrangle my way out in the most perfectly eloquent way possible, “but I need to call a friend. Will that disturb you?”

“Not at all,” I replied, noting the considerate nature in him asking me, as Americans talk on their phones anywhere, anytime, regardless of who is around. “Does my screen bother you?” I asked in the spirit of reciprocity and common courtesy.

He ended up not calling his friend and I ended up not writing. As the bus shuttled us across German countrysides obscured by he blackness of the bitter night, we chatted idly about travel, about life goals, about differences between cultures, about linguistics, about Southeastern Italian architecture and about Maya Angelou. He let me know that we were making a stop in Mainz when the driver slurred the announcement over the intercom in a strained tone indicative of being thoroughly fed up with driving back and forth all day, every day. It was the kind of conversation I live to have, the sort of interaction I had been craving the entire time I was by myself: someone with an intelligence that matches mine but in a different way, someone who can add a different splash of color to the rainbow I have watched documentaries, paid attention in school, and read dictionaries to build in my mind. I usually have no trouble striking up conversations with strangers abroad, but Split and Porto were different. Couples were hooked together and draped all along the stonewalled cities and friends traveled in clots in the streets. No one was there alone. But there, on the bus from HHN to FRA between the hours of 22:00 and 0:00, I was there and he was there; two people who just wanted to feel a connection with another human being after a long day of traveling.

I got off the bus at FRA and headed inside of the departures hall, the same hall that had been infested with travelers flowing through the terminal like water from a leaky roofs few days prior in my waiting period for the bus to take me to HHN. Except now, the same hall had an eerie stillness as all the ticket counters that lined the perimeter were left unmanned, as weary travelers propped their feet on their suitcases and slouched their heads back in a makeshift air of comfort in the quintessential rows of black airport chairs, no doubt cursing the armrests that separated the seats and prevented a full recline. Cleaning crews that looked more like ghosts shuffled through, emptying trash cans that had only a few items inside and sweeping invisible dust into dustpans. I already made the executive decision earlier in the night not to book a hotel room, what with Delta having a 24-hour SkyClub within Terminal 2 of FRA, and also having already spent far more money than I had planned to spend when I first stepped foot into the bright German morning two weeks prior en route with Patrick to his house in what seemed like another lifetime. I failed to recall, however, that I was returning with a suitcase full of liquids, and that the left luggage counter where I dropped off my large suitcase on the way out was closed until 06:00. I found a small space behind a standalone ticket counter next to a Smarte Carte drop off area with a power outlet and sat down on the floor; deciding just to wait the six hours until I could take this little black-and-cream bag full of Portuguese wine to join its teal traveling companion full of almost all the clothes I own. It wasn’t worth it to me to rent a room at an airport hotel…although the place I stayed the night I came back from Croatia with its modern décor, free apples in the lobby and running trails did cross my mind at that point, but was soon banished away by the reminder from the rational side of my brain that the reason I purchased a SkyClub membership was a situation like this: me stuck on some awful layover somewhere in the world and needing a shower and a place to relax in peace. Six hours didn’t seem like such a hurdle.

Five-Star Accommodations.

Five-Star Accommodations.

Frankfurt’s airport has free WiFi for 24 hours that can span across multiple devices, so I took advantage of the situation and read the internet, as I am wont to do. After feeling thoroughly bored with the latest articles on all the webpages I used to scan for entertainment in my days of waiting in a uniform and boots for a life spent adventurously sleeping in airports and gallivanting to new countries at the drop of a hat, I bought and watched a movie from iTunes that I’d read about on some site, somewhere, sometime: Afternoon Delight. It wasn’t on Netflix or Hulu when I found out about it, but I never really forgot it, as it spoke to my penchant for highlighting the lackluster in life and dressing it up into something entertaining (as I watched the movie and realized that it matched up with my style of writing I remembered walking through Mainz with Patrick, stopping to lie down in the grass along the Rhine and finding the heart in the cement, talking about that very subject, causing a sort of rippling repercussion of pain; a stinging reminder that I had lost one of my best friends). The biting beginnings of continuous cold air were permeating the airport’s glass walls, making me grateful for the thin sweater I threw into my bag two weeks before in muggy Mississippi, just on the off-chance that the weather would freak out or the very real possibility that I will be cold somewhere.

After the movie concluded, the sun was just starting to make its demure debut across the horizon of Frankfurt, and I watched it come forward into view, splashing Frankfurt with an indigo that swirled into the sort of sapphire that rich men spend tens of thousands of dollars procuring for their women. And then, in a wardrobe change that seemed to pass a little too quickly, the sun offered up a robust orange, bathing the city and the airport with the inevitable yet nevertheless comforting sentiment that we all lived to see another day. I sat in a row of chairs on the top floor of the departures hall where the rail shuttle between the two terminals picked up and dropped off, alone save for the ever-so-often stream of passengers either catching the train or departing it. I sat sideways, with one leg extended underneath the restricting armrest and the other pulled up to my chest, my laptop balanced on my flat leg and displaying the glow of a webpage that I was too bleary-eyed and sunrise-smitten to read.

Continue Reading…Part II.

TL;DR TRAVEL: PORTO, PORTUGAL

Processed with VSCOcam with c3 preset Here’s the thing: I had never really heard of this city until about a little over a month ago, as I searched Ryanair’s flight schedules for someplace new and exciting. Oftentime passed up in the minds of Americans for the capital city (and primary Portuguese bell-ringer) Lisbon, this is actually one of the most utterly magnificent places I’ve ever had the pleasure of touring. The little city on the Douro is renowned for its production of port wine, hills steeper than a double espresso, and blue and white azulelejo tiles flocking the buildings all over town.

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FAST FACTS

Currency: Euro.
Language: Portuguese, although Spanish and English are understood by mostly everyone. I also heard some French thrown in, if that’s your forté.
Tap water: I read one report online about someone getting sick, but I brushed my teeth with it every day and was good to go.
Open Container Laws: According to the internet and personal observation, if you’re not a sloppy jerk stumbling around like a dang fool, you’re fine. I didn’t exactly see people walking down the street slurping down wine, but I did see quiet circles of friends sitting as quintessentially as can be passing around bottles and enjoying the day.

Processed with VSCOcam with c2 preset Car? Only if you want to fall down the side of a hill or sideswipe something. Walking is difficult enough in Porto, and a lot of streets are one-way due to cars not being able to climb the hills. Also, there’s a very simple metro system (printed handily on maps that are distributed for free at the arrivals hall of the airport) for destinations too far to traverse on foot.

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WiFi: In many areas around the city center on the North Bank of the Douro, WiFi is free and open to the public! Many cafés do not have a connection, preferring for guests to enjoy their surroundings and company rather than stare into their phones, but many places do offer WiFi as well. It’s a safe bet that your hotel, hostel, or vacation rental will be equipped with a connection. Also, the double-decker sightseeing busses all around town have free, open connections, so when they park, you can grab a quick connection if you’re in the vicinity.

USEFUL PHRASES

Hello–Olá
Goodbye–Até a vista (ah-tay ah vee-sta)
Please–Por Favor
Thank you–Obrigado (oh-bree-ga-doh, and extra points if you roll the R)
Yes–Sim
No–Não (now)
Beer–Cerveja (ser-vey-ha)
Wine–Vinho (vee-no)

ARRIVING

The most common method of coming to Porto is by plane, landing at Francisco de Sá Carneiro International Airport (OPO). Skyteam flights don’t operate in or out of OPO (lending to my ignorance of this gem of a destination), but Star Alliance airlines such as TAP Portugal and Lufthansa do. Primarily, though, it appeared that Porto was locked down by Ryanair and Easyjet, two smaller European airlines catering to those looking to travel on a budget.

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In the hills of the city center and Old Town Porto as well as on both sides of the Douro River (Rio Douro in Portuguese), I noticed countless places to stay ranging in levels of fanfare: from budget-friendly hostels for the freewheelin’ traveler to opulent hotels dripping with elegance for those who are in full TREATYOSELF mode. I rented an Airbnb (as I am partial to doing) for a price that, at the time of booking, I thought seemed low for the size and beauty of the place in the pictures, and figured it was too good to be true. Getting to the apartment and discovering that I was, delightfully, standing in the exact place depicted in my iPhone app, I came to the bubbly realization that accommodations in Porto are ridiculously inexpensive.

GALLIVANTING

Okay. Porto, Portugal is the port wine capital of the world. I mean, “port” is in the name TWICE. Most people go to Italy or France for fine wine, and that’s a shame, because an authentic Portuguese tawny wine that I bought for €6 is literally the best wine I have ever had. I am by no means exaggerating. But don’t worry! If you’re a teetotaler or a young buck, Porto isn’t out of the cards for you. There’s plenty to see, do, and enjoy in this amazing city.

FOR THOSE (AGED 18+) WHO AREN’T SOBER
Wine, wine, wine. This is a given, yes, but I can’t say it enough. In the States, a bottle that doesn’t taste like complete garbage will run you at least $8. In Porto, I picked up a bottle of local rosé from the well- and diversely-stocked shelf of a produce market (a produce market!) for €1.67. That’s two United States dollars and twenty-three cents. Let that sink in for a minute. The cherry on top of this was that it was good, too. Pick up a bottle, go down to the Ribeira or the park (more on that in a moment), and let your brain melt into a carefree shade of satisfied jubilance in the sunshine. You earned it.

Processed with VSCOcam with c2 preset -Tour a wine cave. These tours are all along the south bank of the Douro, facing opposite the hilly, historical Old Town. This strip is called the Riberia de Gaia, and can be accessed either by metro or by foot across the Ponte Luís, the steel bridge towering stoically over the Douro. There are five bridges, but this is the most popular as it connects the Old Town to the Ribeira de Gaia for pedestrians. Wineries dot the sidelines of the Douro, and you can pretty much take your pick of which one you want to try (or do all of them!), as they’re all priced around five to seven euros per person and are offered in several different languages. The tours last about twenty minutes and are finished off with a tasting of the wines from that specific winery, with an option to purchase more wine at the very end. I personally toured Cálem and for €5, got four glasses of wine, some excellent conversation with those on the tour and tasting alongside me, and bought four bottles of authentic, local wine produced by Cálem for a mere €30.

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-As mentioned previously, there are double-decker sightseeing busses that roll around town. You can catch them at any stop and also get off wherever you’d like. A sign pointed a daily tour to be €13.
-Boat tour of the Douro. This 50-minute boat ride is the best way to truly experience the majesty of the Rio Douro and all five of its bridges. Tickets can be purchased at several kiosks around the riverfront, as well as little red “Tourist Offices” within the city center. A timetable of all the sailings is posted as well, but I can already tell you that you’re going to want to take the 19:30 sailing. Just trust me. (Note: if you have a few days on your hands, there are boat tours that span several days and float down to the wineries outside of town, sort of like a mini-cruise. I can’t personally vouch for this, but it looks incredible.)

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-Go to the Palácio de Cristal. The Palace itself is long gone and replaced by a huge dome structure that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of Porto’s elegantly detailed architecture, but it’s worth it to see this bizarre building firsthand. The gardens surrounding the site span into a lush park with panoramic views of the Douro as well as Porto in its red-roofed majesty. (Remember that park of which I spoke? Yeah, this is the one.)

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EATS

For Omnivores
The local specialty of Porto (in addition to port wine) is a deeply non-vegan dish called Francesinha, which is a square puff pastry filled with two kind of sausages, cheese, baked, then served on a bed of french fries swimming in a vat of melted cheese. I couldn’t look at the picture of it without feeling the ten pound bloat. You can grab one of these at just about any small café crammed into the corners of the city, and usually for less than €3.

For Vegetarians
Along the Ribeira, many restaurants are meat- and fish-only, offering only scant “salads” consisting of naught but lettuce, tomato, and an onion ring if you’re lucky. But don’t despair! A great deal of places also offer many vegetarian-friendly dishes like pastas, sandwiches, and even some pizzas. Pastelerias line the streets, the windows full of stacks on stacks of pastries and croissants to enjoy along with an espresso or a cappuccino.

For Vegans
Sorry, vegans. We got the short end of the stick here. Usually the only offerings for us that can be widely found in Porto are bread baskets with oil, and maybe some olives if the stars all align just the right way as you stand on one foot balancing your wine bottle on your head. The only things I could find to accommodate the vegan diet every single place I went was coffee and liquor. But we vegans are used to that, and in my honest opinion, that’s not a bad combo…

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We’re talking about me, here, though. I will always scavenge for food. I found a lot of places that would cater to a vegan diet for the price of a smile and the batting of eyelashes above eyes of blue. If it worked for abrasive, acerbic me, it had better work for you, too.

INSIDER TIP: I had a lot of trouble finding a grocery store or market on my first couple of days in Porto. Thankfully, there was a small fruit market a block away from the apartment I rented, but I couldn’t find a place to buy the fresh baguettes for which Europe is known. It was really maddening to me and confusing at first, because I began to genuinely wonder what the locals ate. I spoke to a guy who worked for the “Take And Go” shops around town (little holes in buildings lined with vending machines where you literally just buy snacks, drinks, or coffee and go) and he said that on the weekends, most shops are closed. Sure enough, as the days progressed, more and more mini markets emerged from the woodwork of the bars that closed them off beforehand.

Restaurant Recommendations
Chic Dream–this café was right beneath my apartment and where I had dinner the first night. It was only bread, oil, olives and wine, but an amazing introduction to Porto nonetheless. The staff is incredibly friendly, and the WiFi is free. It’s a restaurant in Portugal that’s trying to be in Italy, causing a merging of food flavors that gives its menu an incredible and original fusion spin.

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Bar Ponte Pensil–this al fresco cafe (with some indoor seating, but why would you want it?) is situated right on the Ponte Luís, the main bridge crossing the Douro. The view is spectacular, and so is the sangria. The staff is friendly and accommodating; there’s a few vegetarian options that can easily be made vegan by request. Also, they’re open ’til 2am! And…did I mention that there’s live music every night? The balcony is perfect for watching the boats float by in the breezy sunshine or losing yourself in the lights of the Douro after dark.

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Café do Cais Handmade Burgers–a vegan recommending a burger place? Yep. This restaurant is right on the Ribeira’s boardwalk, so it can get a little packed, but it’s worth it. All the burgers appealed to the person I used to be, the person that ate meat like it was the most normal thing in the world for 22 years. And also, they have a vegetarian option! It’s a grilled eggplant, mushroom, and onion blend that has a spiced mayo on the bun but can be requested plain. Their burgers come with fries that are served in a bucket. A bucket, folks. And um, the sangria? It’s that sultry kind of drink that you feel like is just a fruit punch kind of fraud until, out of no where, you’re awash in bleary-minded happiness and you realize that that sangria had a trick or two up its sleeve.

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VT–This tapas place is situated along the south bank of the Rio Douro, and this is the place to eat as the sun sets. Vegan and vegetarian tapas are available, as well as a full array of regular-sized dishes for the omnivores and carnivores. And, dare I say it again…sangria. The prices, service, and food is excellent.

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The Felafel Place on Avenida dos Aliados–Look guys, I should know the name of this place, but I don’t. And for the life of me, I can’t seem to locate it online either. But those types of places are the best places, I’ve come to realize; the hole-in-the-wall authentic food that doesn’t need some fancy branding or internet exposure because it’s just so delicious, the business thrives without marketing. That’s this place. The menu is full of sandwiches that can be eaten on thick baguettes or made into pressed wraps, and several other meat and cheese dishes. I, however, am always going for the felafel option if that’s an applicable box on a menu. I got a wrap loaded up with tomato, onion, and an Easter-grass amount of lettuce, asking the server to please hold the mayo and he, though speaking only a little more English than I speak Portuguese, understood and obliged! He even translated the menu for me when he saw me aiming my Word Lens app over the words. Beer (Super Bock) is cheaper than water, and it’s pretty good for the Portuguese version of Bud Light. How to find it: spot the swanky-as-all-get-out BBVA building on Aliados to the right of the statue of a guy on a horse in the main plaza. Next, look to the street across and you’ll see a McDonald’s. This restaurant has a red storefront and is sandwiched on the corner between BBVA and McDonald’s.

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Majestic Café–Okay, y’all. This is where vegans have to sigh and simply go with the flow. And trust me, it’s a good flow with which to go because I’m 100% serious that every little aspect (except the touristy vibe) about this café was incredibly mind-blowing. This little restaurant is absolutely stunning, from floor to ceiling. Everywhere you look, you’re greeted by some extra little surprise in the walls, on the moulding, within the sheer lining on the columns holding the ceiling up. In a land of Dasani, the Majestic Café ranks in as a San Pellegrino. There’s a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, as well as an Afternoon Tea offering at 17:00 and a full bar available all day, every day. Majestic, indeed. (Get there early to beat the crowd of tourists with cameras hanging around their necks, doors open at 09:30.)

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Moustache Coffee House–This is on the other end of the spectrum from the Majestic Café, but just as awesome. Tucked away behind a tourist information station, the Moustache is adorable and makes a mean demitasse of espresso. The décor is very modern–all stark grey and new-age navy–and the vibe is very relaxed, as the owner, Carla, mans the register and espresso station; talking to her customers and laughing with them, generally just enjoying the people she gets to meet. In a world where most of the interactions between customers and people at work are humdrum and halfhearted, speaking with Carla actually made me feel happy in a way that’s really hard to pin down in real life. I felt like we were old friends instead of café owner and patron. Go there for the coffee, go there for the croissants, go there for the conversations with Carla.

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Mostly the conversations with Carla.

 I WISH I’D KNOWN

As soon as I came up from the metro, I immediately saw little flag buntings strung through alleys, across balconies. These playful little accents were a constant décor item throughout Porto, waving in the wind all over different terraces and side streets. They gave off a cheeky charm, as if Porto in the summertime were a place of genuine, childlike jubilance: a place to escape the fast-paced confines of adulthood and to kick back and relax in the sunshine.

IMG_4864 Finally, I asked a local about the flags, my curiosity getting the better of me. Apparently, they were decorations left over from the São João Festival that takes place every 23 June in a few different parts of Portugal, but is most vibrant in Porto. “The city decorates and then celebrates all night. They go crazy,” she said. When I asked why they were celebrating, she squinted her eyes and smiled skeptically, then replied, “Who needs a reason?!” This lively street festival is, fortunately for those with an affinity for authentic culture, not very widely known outside of Porto, and isn’t inundated with tourists. If you’re looking to experience a realer side of Porto and party like a local, plan your trip in late June.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Porto is literally the cheapest place I’ve ever visited in Europe. And while I haven’t been everywhere, Europe isn’t exactly know for being easy on the wallet. Four euros here, eighteen euros there, it adds up like wildfire. Water is notoriously more expensive than alcohol, and don’t even think about the cushy US comfort of it coming for free with your meal. AND YET, Porto is different. Porto’s economy is, unfortunately, suffering harder than other economic systems across the EU, which translates to cheaper prices for you and me. Too bad, so sad. Case in point: I purchased a four-pack of 1.5L waters for €3. THREE EUROS. I immediately thereafter bought three bananas and a bottle of local wine from the shop next door for a total of €1.86. For less than five euros, I bought enough water to last me my entire trip to Porto, snacks for the snap hunger that seems to befall me at every inopportune twist and turn, and a mental relaxer to coax me into writing something in the park, making for an absolutely splendid afternoon that you just can’t get in the finger-wagging United States. Less. Than. Five. Euros.

And it doesn’t stop there. I regularly ate in cafés, ordering an espresso doppio and sometimes a basket of bread for a mere three or four euros. Tipping isn’t expected, so if you only have a few coins on you, you’re good to to. Even the opulent Majestic Café had prices lower than any other European city would even think to charge their customers.

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Forget Paris, Porto is for lovers. The sunsets are an orange creamsicle of pure romance, fading into a robust pink and eventually a conceding periwinkle across the Rio Douro. The weather is perfect year-round in a way that I can’t quite understand except to say that possibly, Porto is just a little pocket of heaven with magic in the air. When you go, expect to fall in love; with the person you brought, with all the decisions in your life that led you there, with the sheer essence of this enchanting little red-roofed town itself.

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TL;DR TRAVEL: SPLIT, CROATIA

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This destination along the Dalmatian Coast is popular mainly with European tourists looking to make a sunny getaway. Despite its location along the Adriatic Sea, there’s a rich history here in Split, as evidenced by the city’s architecture and vast array of museums.

FAST FACTS

Currency: Croatian kuna. 100 kunas is equal to about 13EUR or 18USD.
Language: Hrvatski, or Croatian. However, English is widely recognized and spoken by locals.
Tap Water: Go ahead and drink up, it’s safe!
Open Container Laws: Like many countries in the EU, it’s totally cool to drink in public as long as you’re not a drunken mess and don’t bother anyone.

IMG_2268 Drinking Age: 18 to purchase, old enough to have to shave to drink.
Car? Nah. The roads are ancient and narrow and Split is a mostly pedestrian city. Take a bus from the airport to your crib and explore on foot. You’ll notice the little details that make this such a charming corner of the world and burn off all the calories you’re piling into your face at the same time.

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WiFi: Most every place has it, and it’s almost always locked. The good news is that most cafés and restaurants have the password printed right on the menu, and display the menus out front for passers-by.

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USEFUL PHRASES

Hello– Bok
Goodbye– Do Videnja (doe vid-jen-ya)
Please–Molim (moh-leem)
Thank You–Hvala (like “holla!” with a v)
Yes–Da
No–Ne
Beer–Pivo (pee-vo)
Wine—Vino

ARRIVING

Getting to Split is easiest by air, with passengers flying into Kaštela Split International Airport (SPU). It’s a small airport with only 8 terminals, so getting through is seamless and as hassle-free as you can get while traveling through airports abroad.

There are also regional bus lines that connect from other cities in Croatia, so it might be cheaper to fly into Zagreb or Dubrovnik and bus it from there. It all depends on your specific itinerary.

If arriving by air, take the Croatia Airlines airport shuttle bus located on the right-hand side of the parking lot just after exiting the arrivals hall. It’s 33 Croatian kunas (about 4EUR/6USD) and the ride to the city center is smooth, organized, and air-conditioned. A taxi to the city center of Split will run you about 350 kunas.

The bus station is crawling with people and very hot, but worth it.

The bus station is crawling with people and very hot, but worth it.

STAYING

All throughout the city center and Old Town, you’ll see signs for apartments, hotels, and hostels. Apartment rentals have been squirreled away into pockets of the renowned Diocletian’s Palace, the city’s most-recognized landmark built as a retirement home for King Diocletian centuries ago. In addition to these accommodations, several locals have posted their homes and spare rooms on Airbnb, as well as Couchsurfing.

GALLIVANTING

Tripadvisor, Like Croatia, and pretty much every travel website with information on Split will tell you the same things: the majesty of Diocletian’s Palace, have fun in the sun on Bačvice Beach, look out at the splendor of Split on Marjan Hill. Yes. You should do these things. But additionally, you should do other things. Things like…

FOR THOSE WHO LIKE ORGANIZATION
-There are countless tourism offices located off the main promenade toward Marjan Hill. In these offices, you can rent bikes, boats, and cars. Also, these places organize day trips to the outlying islands of Hvar, Vis, and Bisevo (among others) with full-day itineraries mapped out so that you don’t miss any of the sights these islands have to offer. They get pricey and have to be booked at least 24 hours in advance (two of the reasons I didn’t take these tours), but they are run by locals who know what they’re doing, so you’re in safe hands.
-Take in a history lesson. Beneath the gift shop of Diocletian’s Palace is a tour of the basement catacombs. It’s 40 kunas for adults and 20 kunas for children and students.

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-In the Old Town of Split are several museums outlining the history and culture of Croatia. Go learn something you can casually drop in conversation at parties.

FOR THOSE WHO JUST WANT TO CHILL
-Stroll along the promenade, enjoy a tall can of Ožujsko (the national pivo) or some wine and a snack. Beverages can be purchased from almost all of the trafikas lining the streets.

Processed with VSCOcam with se3 preset -Head a little further westward than Plaza Ješinec to Plaza Kaštelet, a beach with sand and small pebbles where you can relax under the Croatian sun. There are changing stalls as well as shaded coffee bars for your comfort and convenience so that you can spend all day on the beach. Showers are available for a fee. The coffee bars don’t offer food, so bring a sandwich or two along with you to enjoy by the sea.

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-Enjoy a drink at Vidilica. This postcard-perfect viewpoint of Split is, as described ever-so-accurately in a travel guide that my Airbnb host left for me: The place where anti-depressant commercials should be filmed. To say the view is spectacular is a vast understatement and, quite frankly, selling the place short. They’ve got rows of loungers set up facing the city so no one is without a stunning vista.

Processed with VSCOcam with c3 preset -Have a meal along the marina. There are two restaurants (F-Marine, F-Maduro) west of the city center on the way to the beaches that serve food and drinks and have free wifi. Take a load off and watch the rich people float by on their yachts.

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FOR THE YOUNG AND SPRY ADVENTUROUS TYPES
-Climb the bell tower of Diocletian’s Palace. Entry fee is a mere 15 kunas, and the view from the top is unmatched. It’s the best view you can get of Split, and something that can’t be missed if you’re in town. I stress here that you need to be in good physical condition; there is a sign posted as you make your way up that clearly states in several languages that you are climbing at your own risk. It’s easy to see why, as the stairs are incredibly narrow and steep, at one point, only one stair separates your head from the feet of the person in front of you.

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-Hike the trails of Marjan Hill. Getting to the viewpoint (called Vidilica) of the hill in itself is a bit of a workout with its steady stream of stairs, but just past Vidilica is another incline leading further up the hill. You’ll find trails up there perfect for the athlete looking to stay in shape while in Split or the rugged outdoorsy types.

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-Jump off cliffs into the Adriatic Sea. On the bottom of Marjan Hill and west of the city center, you’ll find the Plaza Ješinec: a coastline cupped by cliffs. Put your bag down (no one will touch it, as there’s this unsaid unanimous decision that everyone made to enjoy the water together and not be a thieving jerk; you’ll see plenty of unmanned bags strewn around), strip down to your suit and go leap off a cliff into the ocean! If no one else is doing it, be the first. Take a swim in the Adriatic or just do cannonball after cannonball. Just make sure not to cross the line of bouys situated a little ways out in the surf, because it’s illegal and you might die in the waves (and nobody wants that).

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EATS

For Omnivores
Split’s fare centers around seafood, so many of the local restaurants offer fresh fish that I’m told is amazing. Most menus are divided into categories for easier scoring: meat and chicken dishes, seafood dishes, pizza, pasta and risotto, vegetarian dishes, salads, and of course, dessert. Gelato stops are at every twist and turn with flavors piled high like mountains in the freezer cases. Go crazy.

For Vegetarians
You’re in luck, as almost every menu that I read had either a full vegetarian section or a few pizza and pasta/risotto dishes. You don’t have to subsist off salad in this city by the sea, I promise. Go get some gelato and give yourself a high-five. For more vegetarian tips, keep on reading while I outline eats for vegans.

For Vegans
Okay, so while you have to resist the ultimate gelato temptation that haunts you every couple hundred meters, the good news is that most restaurants offer one or two vegan pasta dishes. During my time in Split, I ate Pasta Neopolitana (pasta with a simple spiced tomato sauce) and also a pasta dish made with olive oil, cherry tomatoes, and garlic. Another food option that I noticed for vegans was a grilled corn station just off the Riva Splitska by the National Theater. Additionally, there are several markets tucked in the old stone buildings that have produce, and a few small bakeries stashed in the Old Town that sell fresh bread for a meager 5 kunas. Of course, if you have a kitchen at your disposal, you can also pick up some pasta, sauce, and veggies from the market and whip up something delicious.

Restaurant Recommendations
Pizzeria Portas–incredible vegan pasta and (from the looks of it), beautiful pizzas of all varieties. There’s a romantic terrace within Diocletian’s Palace where your meal can be enjoyed as well as in-restaurant seating. Expect to spend about 50 kunas per person for food, an extra 20 kunas or so if you prefer a beverage. I brought my water bottle in with me and the waitstaff didn’t have a problem with it. Wifi is free, and the staff is top-notch.

Paradox Wine and Cheese Bar–this is Tripadvisor’s top-rated eatery in Split, and for good reason. Located off the beaten path of the promenade behind the National Theater, the menu features olives and sun-dried tomatoes that come in portions generous enough to satisfy even the hungriest vegan. Additionally, all cheeses are served with fresh bread and seasonal jams, so if you’re with a nonvegan, share in the wealth of the jam! If you’re alone, request some. The staff is incredibly accommodating and trained to assist its customers without a language barrier. Also, your wine is served to you with a complete rundown of its origins. You’ll want to order several glasses just for the history lesson! Set a high budget for this place; it’s pricey but worth it. I skated out with a bill of only 150 kunas for two glasses of wine, olives, sundried tomatoes, and seasonal jam, but I’m one person. Couples and groups could run up a tab, but like I said, worth it. Wifi is free, but the signal is very weak out on the patio (where I recommend that you sit), so put the phone down, drink some wine, and enjoy the people around you.  Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

Teraca Bamba–this little coffee bar is situated on a street called Solurat above the ground level. As with every coffee bar I saw in Split, the offerings are mostly alcoholic beverages, coffees, teas, and nonalcoholic juices and sodas. What separates Teraca Bamba from the rest of Split’s copious coffee bar scene is the view it offers its customers: there is no indoor seating, only a shaded outdoor terrace with a dazzling view of the Riva Splitska. I saw a few sandwiches on the menu if you’re feeling peckish, but none were vegan (note the the vegans, liquor will do you just fine). Wifi is free and though it is a popular spot, the terrace was never crowded, even at peak points in the day. To get to Solurat, take the first set of stone stairs leading up to Marjan Hill and make a right. You’ll see the terrace on your right-hand side a few meters later.

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COFFEE

You absolutely will not see a Starbucks anywhere near the vicinity of Split. Coffee is an art to be savored and enjoyed here in this coastal town, not some cheap commodity. Coffee is available at most restaurants and cafés, and enjoyed at all times of the day. I only had espresso (and it was delicious), but if you do dairy, don’t skimp on the lattes. These Croatians know what they’re doing when it comes to a perfect cup, and they don’t make it look too terrible, either.

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THE BOTTOM LINE

Despite the strange conversion of euros/dollars to kunas, you can skip through Split on a budget. Most meals are around 50 kunas per person, and you can re-use the gargantuan water bottles purchased in the markets, refilling them with water from the tap. The beach is free. The alcohol is cheap. The labyrinth of Diocletian’s Palace and the Old Town provide hours of entertainment within themselves; you can get lost in the architecture and Old World charm that drips off the buildings of this little town on the coast. Whether you come for the beach, the history, the experience, or a mixture of all three, just know this: after the sunscreen is washed off and the sand is rinsed out of your hair, you’ll still have a little bit of Dalmatia tucked with you for years to come…but probably forever.

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No Filter: Reflections on the Weirdest Two Weeks of My Life

Someone wise once said, “Always keep a journal. That way, you’ll have something interesting to read on the train.”

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His name is carved into my brain. It’s not simply a schoolgirl’s nostalgia. It’s years of my mind involuntarily repeating that name, folding it into little tiny creases on the papers of my memory until there’s no other way to think it, say it, remember it other than the way a favorite old pair of jeans fits or how the sentences written in the best book you’ve ever read realign in your brain and you can only go, “Oh yes, this again.”

I immortalized him. Eight years ago, we were children yet also on the cusp of adulthood. I knew, though, that we were closer to being kids than adults. I felt like a fraud, I felt like I was playing a grown-up’s game and foraying into feelings that I didn’t need to have just yet, feelings that I didn’t have to feel if I just walked backwards out of the room in which I had so relentlessly tried to enter, nearly breaking down the door.

before.

before.

Reading it now, it’s more like the paragraphs of some book that I l found squirreled away in my iCloud notes than something that came from my own brain, my own heart, a mere two weeks ago. I’m on the plane back to Frankfurt, another inadvertent layover caused by booking trips within trips between airlines. And tomorrow, I’ll stand on American soil again for the first time since feeling like I was writing the dénouement of a story eight years in the making.

I forget that people are their own inventions, not the fantastical figures conjured up by my own boisterous brainwaves. Hiding behind high expectations and a drive to succeed was the perfectly valid possibility that it could all crash in front of me; that he not only wasn’t the person I’d invented mentally, but that maybe–horrifyingly–he had grown into a person in the near-decade since we breathed in the same air that I would not enjoy. Social media, video chatting, and text messages can only take you so far into a person’s essence. To be around them, to tolerate their little idiosyncrasies and explore the minutiae of what makes them, exponentially, their own person is a different story, and it’s a story I paved over in my mind with the asphalt of my own imagined version of him. But secretly, in hushed moments of mental seclusion, I wondered, “What if we hate who we’ve each become?”

Because fifteen days is a long time. This could be heaven or this could be hell. I was willing to risk it, though. But was he?

And reading the words now, the words I wrote two weeks ago in a swirl of anticipation and disbelief that it was all actually happening, I’m astounded. In all my nail-biting and nervousness, I never pictured things to occur the way they did. I didn’t expect the reality of what fate actually had planned in my wildest dreams. In the moment, it felt like a nightmare, but looking back, it feels like I’m living a scripted life unbeknownst to me, a Truman Show, if you will. It all seems so bizarre, so over-the-top-terrible. And after the hurricane of horror passed, the eerie remnants of what was left of my time abroad felt ethereal and cleansing in a way that, in stark contrast, seemed too good to be true.

I am not the same person that I was the last time I stepped foot on American soil. This trip changed me, hardened me through and through in the way a squishy-centered baguette with a rigid exterior transforms into a food-grade baseball bat when not eaten in time. And also, simultaneously, I was softened like a thick block of chocolate–bulky and impenetrable–melts into a creamy paste when left out in the sun. I was the bread in Germany, left to stiffen as much on the inside as I always attempt to outwardly propel in the wake of abandonment. And in Croatia and Portugal, I was the chocolate: basking in the sunshine, feeling again the whisper of wonder that life has the potential to sing into your ears if you listen up.

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I didn’t expect to be transformed so personally. All visits to new places have, of course, the possibility to flip you around and make you a different person entirely. Heck, every day of your life, whether you’re out exploring territories uncharted to the you of yesterday or sitting mundanely in your pajamas all day eating cereal in front of a screen (and every type of day in between) have the ability to turn your life upside down. But this sort of personal exploration, this calibre of soul-searching was thoroughly unexpected. I just thought I was going to Europe to see an old friend; have some laughs, some good times, some memories shrouded with a prosaic hue stemming from the fact that it was orchestrated so heavily on my part–insured down to every last detail that everything was to be absolutely perfect. And we all know that anytime a proposed perfection is brought into the equation, things are sure to go downhill. That’s where, I expected (though apparently not enough to redirect my thoughts to a more reality-centered state of mind) things to be lightly lackluster: all fun and smiles with just a hint of longing for something more.

And instead, I got a true whirlwind, world-tour of feeling. I was, at different points throughout this time in Europe, drowning in an anguish deeper than I’ve ever felt: a sadness that sprung itself from the affairs that actually transpired and attached itself to torments of events past, snowballing into a heartache of, essentially, every horrible event that’s ever befallen me, shooting me by mental firing squad all at once. Sometimes in moments dotting the landscape of the past two weeks, I was so soul-crushingly lonely that I felt like pretending to have a good time–writing my own story not as a true account but more like the novel of how I wanted to feel–was the only way to hold on and make it through. And there were times, of course, when I didn’t have to pretend; that I felt, naturally, an elation more vivid and pulsing than my own mind could think, beforehand, to produce. There was nothing mundane about this adventure. It was all tidal waves and tornadoes, not at all the sequence of breezy banality that I expected to encounter.

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All I can do is shake my head and smile incredulously. All I expected was something glossy, something sepia-toned, something enhanced to make it more spectacular than it actually was. This adventure, however, needed no filter.

after.

after.

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

-Agatha Christie

Asking for Help

I don’t like asking for things. I like paving my own way, I like laying my own bricks, I like the satisfaction of knowing that I have, absolutely, made something from nothing all by my own hands. I’m a self-made woman, and I want to continue living that way, because it makes me value my hard work in life.

However…

That being said, sometimes, you need to reach out. Sometimes, you can do something sufficient by yourself, but in order to make it great, to make it exceptional, to make it truly and utterly amazing, you need to ask for help. Right now, I’m requesting that helping hand. In a little less than two months, on 12 October 2014, I’ll be running the Budapest Marathon, and I’m not undertaking this athletic event for some medal to hang on my wall or a t-shirt to wear to the gym. I’m using my ability as an athlete, for the first time in my life, to help someone else.

I’m looking to raise a minimum of $500 to donate to Tri For Charity in order further the distribution of water filtrations to those in need. And here, now, I’m asking for your help. Asking for money is an iffy topic, and it’s an incredibly humbling experience for someone so fiercely self-sufficient. Let that speak for itself.

A statistic that stopped me in my tracks: $20 can give a person clean water for life. Twenty dollars. That’s less than the price of cab fare in some cities. That’s the amount some people spend at bars on a Friday night (if they’re lucky). That’s a trip to the movies with a large popcorn and a soda. And it’s the amount that could potentially save someone’s life. Together, we can make an impact. We can make a difference in a world that’s so often coated more with despair than happiness. I’ll do all the work. If you can find it in your heart to donate, any little bit is appreciated more than I can convey with mere words.

Click here if you’d like to help me.

thank you, absolutely, from the bottom of my heart.

thank you, absolutely, from the bottom of my heart.

DISCLAIMERS

-Although I am working with the Tri For Charity team as a copywriter, my race campaign is all my own. I am an unbiased athlete in this endeavor, wanting to raise money because the global water crisis and its impact is an issue that is very important to me.

-My airfare and lodging in Budapest has been booked for months, so absolutely NONE of the funds raised are being directed to my own personal expenses. All donations are done through Tri For Charity’s website, and I never have access. Your dollars are going toward clean and sanitary water, not my travel budget.

Porto, You Get Me

I’m writing you to catch you up on places I’ve been.

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Finally, after waiting four hours in the arrivals hall of Frankfurt International Airport for a bus to take me to Frankfurt Hahn Airport (a bare-bones, Wings-style airport utilized solely, it seemed, for the purpose of Ryanair flights), I was on my way to Porto. I checked in for my Ryanair flight while I was in Split with no access to a printer, so I saved the boarding pass to a PDF on my desktop and decided to figure it out later.

Well, “later” came as I was approaching the airport on a bus that left a passenger at a rest stop and had to go back, causing us to be severely behind schedule. I saw the sign for the airport and a corresponding 5K, and immediately got my laptop from my overstuffed Herschel backpack that barely even zipped. This being my first Ryanair flight, I was hit with the sinking reality that checked baggage costs a pretty penny. I am, by nature, a minimalist…but a fashionable minimalist. I don’t mind taking a small carry-on, but when I get to my destination and none of my clothes look right on my body, that’s when I have a problem. I like options. And so, my backpack was loaded up with everything I thought I would need, clothes rolled tightly like little sushi rolls of fashionable desperation, and dropped my huge suitcase with all its many potential outfits at the storage counter of FRA.

But then, on the bus approaching HHN, it was a struggle to wrangle out my laptop. I knew I would need it anyway, since I would have to literally run through the airport to make the flight after our bus driver hastily left a passenger, (or a passenger took too long, I’m not sure which). Grabbing little clothing wraps and stuffing them in my handbag, I was able to wriggle out all fifteen inches of Macbook Pro that had been jammed in the laptop compartment and booted it up. I took a screenshot of the PDF boarding pass and transferred it to my iPhone, attempting single-handedly to bring Ryanair out of the stone ages of paper boarding passes. The fee for an airport check-in is a ridiculous €70 and though I checked in online, I was anxious that this “budget” airline was going to charge me for not having a printed pass. And yet, I decided just to wing it. Finally departing the bus and making my way into HHN, I was totally turned around when it came to navigation. People were sprinting to the bag drop to hand over too many hard-earned euros and I was left looking around, wondering why in such a minuscule airport, security wasn’t in immediate view.

Finally, I came up to a woman at a desk and handed her my phone and passport. My demeanor was that of someone who does this all the time, I faked a confidence that caused her to shrug and hand my things back to me. Two men came up and they all spoke German, the men blocking my way through to the screening area. I stood there for a few minutes in the most tense awkwardness that I had felt since a week prior (yet other than that, probably never). Trying not to interrupt but also trying not to miss my flight, I asked, “Am I all set?” The woman said, “Yeah, you’re good to go.” And through security I went.

I spotted my gate in the distance (I always wear my glasses when I fly. It began as a fun disguise, a sheath of international mystery, but now it’s more out of necessity than anything. I keep denying to myself that my eyesight is failing, that anything twenty feet away is reduced to a blurry swirl of watercolors) and from it formed a queue that looked more like a giant snake of tired, pissed-off travelers: families who want to be able to travel on the cheap. I was relieved that, though the gate was closing in five minutes (as blared over the PA system and ricocheted about the terrible acoustics of the airport), that boarding was still going on, that I wouldn’t miss it.

A Ryanair ticket agent was attaching little yellow tags to bags and I waited, patiently, quietly, suppressing my frustration, for whatever it is that he had to do to my bag. I had a purse on my left shoulder, Herschel pack strapped to my back, and my laptop pushed into my chest with interlocking arms. After waiting an exaggerated amount of time (due to the never-ending questions of those in line before me, asked in German and Portuguese, mainlining the frustration), the ticket agent approached me. “You’re good to go, your bags are small,” he said to me, after asking which language I spoke, as my passport was hidden from view. Sighing, I slinked to the back of the line, wishing I had simply charged forward like an American instead of waiting for direction like some meek little girl without a nationality with which to identify. The ticket agent came back by through the line to do passport checks and I, once again, employed my fake it ’til you make it sense of confidence, handing over my passport and iPhone with the screenshot of my boarding pass enlarged for the best possible view. He studied the picture, then the passport, frowning. At that point, I was already internally sighing the sigh of someone who would have to remove herself from an already maddening line to pay €70 just because she was in Split when she checked in online (and you can’t exactly post up at a Kinko’s in Croatia). Finally, he said, “You’ll need to go up there, then turn…oh, just follow me.”

And he led me through the line, skipping the dads with cameras around their necks, the moms with exasperated demeanors, all the children screaming and shrieking about the fact that their parents are kind enough to take them on a vacation, kids who were hot-faced and mucus-stained from crying about something or other, not realizing that life does, indeed, get worse. Up to the front of the line we went, and he directed me to a shorter, more streamlined queue, “This is the priority boarding line.”

It all came back to me. The day I booked the flight, I paid the extra €10 for an exit row seat and priority boarding for Patrick and me, in a moment of pure treatyoself. And really, for ten extra euros (per person; and trust me, no one feels more idiotic about my undying generosity and faith in others to return the revolving favor—whatever it may be—than me), it seemed like a bargain. The lines began to move and we were beginning to pool not into the gangway or the airstrip, but a separate passenger hall where the screams of impatient kids bounced off the ceiling and into my ears at a volume that I didn’t realize hitherto could be achieved by people so small.

My turn to have my boarding pass scanned was coming up, and I realized in horror that—looking down at the picture on my screen—I was required to have an ID check at bag drop. ALL NON-EU PASSENGERS MUST GO TO THE BAG DROP/VISA CHECK DESK BEFORE GOING THROUGH SECURITY TO HAVE THEIR DOCUMENT CHECKED AND BOARDING PASS STAMPED OR TRAVEL WILL BE REFUSED, my boarding pass screamed. I did a cursory scan of all the paper boarding passes in hands around me, reading the large letters of their citizenship on the pages and seeing that all non-EU citizens had a green sticker posted to the pass and an illegible scrawl, no doubt scribbled by some security agent who has done this far too long. I had a digital array of pixels on a phone. There could be no stamp, no scribble. And yet, I was let through security and led to my boarding lane by a ticketing agent. I felt like the harshness of travel being refused was only a bluff, but I myself was bluffing. My confidence was made of papier-mâche, rigid by itself but easily destroyed when force is applied.

With a gulp and an inflation of my disposition, I handed my phone to the ticketing agent when it was my turn to be scanned in. I did this, again, like it was the most normal thing in the world (because for every other airline, it is). And instead of banishing me away, instead of refusing to let me through due to my enterprising MO of “winging it,” she smiled and asked for my passport. I pushed the little blue book forward through the air, propelled, it seemed, by my own satisfaction with myself. She typed in some numbers and manually crossed off my seat number on a chart, then told me to enjoy my flight, handing my phone and passport back.

In hindsight, this is probably done all the time. I’m not some hotshot revolutionary transforming the draconian standards of Ryanair. And yet, in the moment, I felt like I had cheated the system and won.

After waiting in the boarding area for about twenty minutes, packed more and more with every passing minute by full families and their rolling carry-ons (this description is my official statement on why “priority booking” with Ryainair isn’t worth it), I was on the plane. Patrick wasn’t there, so I knew I could fly with the added comfort of an empty seat next to me. It was, after the hassle of getting there, almost worth it to have bought that seat too (the keyword here is almost). And then, once Germany became a rain-soaked and stressful memory and we were propelled forth into the clouds, a blonde girl in harem pants wielding a hiking bag plopped down next to me. I wasn’t sure how or why, but she was in that seat now. No enjoying the barely-person-sized gap between me and the other girl. Patrick wasn’t there, so his seat was up for grabs. That was just the way it was.

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I read a book that I found in my suitcase (I never fully unpack) prior to dropping it off in Frankfurt that I stopped reading because I didn’t find it compelling enough. And yet, on Ryanair flight FR4171, it was fascinating. I loved the book in itself, but more importantly, I loved that in less than six months, my mindset was transformed in such a way–evolved through so many changes—that I was able to pick up a book that, beforehand, I found more useful for lulling me to sleep and be not only satisfied by its stringing of words but entertained.

We got to Porto and I made my way through the airport, breathing in the spirit of Portugal without even walking outside. There was no passport check, as we flew in between nations within the EU. I filed down to the metro and bought the pass that my airbnb host in Porto instructed me to buy, then exited to the platform, feeling less like the girl from Alabama and more like the woman with the pages of passport stamps and stories to match. And when I walked outside, I was greeted by a sky that had, in the ten or so minutes between deplaning and the present, had transformed from a run-of-the-mill faded blue-jean hue of impending sunset to a robust blush of pink, embarrassed or flattered or caught doing something mischievous. The sky itself seemed to be rosy-cheeked in the wake of most sunsets, with their oranges and periwinkles and perhaps a flash of violet. But not Porto. The departure of the sun over this haven of culture and wine was rosé, coral, bubble-gum pink in upward stripes of subtle orange. Lucky me, I thought, snapping a few pictures. This is a rare shade of nightfall.

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I got on the metro and stayed there, waiting for my stop, for a good 45 minutes, observing the people and the faces and the expressions. The way they talk. The locals that just wanted to get home after a long day. It was around 21:00 and everyone just wanted to go home, me included. My home, of course, being my airbnb in the city center, because as expressed before, I’m happily homeless in the literal sense of looking at things. I don’t wake up in the same place and check the mail that requires stationary living to be delivered. I don’t park my car in the same place every day and bust into the house to make myself a drink or a meal in the same kitchen as the week prior. I have an address, but I’m not there. I’m exploring my way through temporary homes across the world. I’m living my life unconventionally—wrongly, even, in the eyes of some—right now. But there, rocketing at high speed beneath the city of Porto, Portugal, I just wanted to be in my new home.

I got off the metro where I was instructed and was immediately bombarded with beauty of the São Bento rail station. Apparently, this sort of thing was what I was working with for the next four days. The architecture, the lights, the sheer majesty of it all. This was standard. It’s amazing to grow up in a young buck of a country and be able to venture out, to see a place that’s stood the test of time and the evolution of society. A lot of times I feel disadvantaged by the American way of life: the dependence on cars for travel vice the exercise and discipline required to travel on foot, the constant overfeeding, the subpar education systems. And yet, that’s one area for which I’m grateful to hail from the towering Red White and Blue: everywhere I go, I’m amazed and humbled by the history of it all.

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I followed my digital map to the apartment where I was already given the code to enter the building on the keypad and the keys were waiting for me in the door. And yet, hiking through the hills of Porto in the black and gold of Friday night, I kept walking right over the big red pin on my screen denoting the location of the flat. I was making circles around a garden and a plaza of some sort, unable to find my way on my own. My map was no help at this point. After about an hour of walking in circles, my own trepidation building as a short man in his fifties shouted about something in a tone so shrill that I, at first, mistook to be that of a child, I stopped at an ice cream stall, nearly in tears of frustration, to ask for directions.

“You are already here,” the woman working said, quizzically, studying the map on my phone. “You’re already at the place.”

“I know,” I responded, somehow getting my bearings together. “That’s why I’m confused. My map keeps directing me over there,” I replied, pointing to a plaza in the distance with a church and an open space for milling about. “But there’s no apartment there. I’m looking for number 47,” I said, desperately.

A man approached and looked at the map, directing me to walk with him through the darkness of the park on the edge of which the ice cream stall was located. This was another time my instincts took over. A man in a foreign country who knew I was lost was directing me into a scarcely lit park in the middle of the night. Just typing that makes me feel foolish, like I was practically asking for harm to be inflicted on me. And yet, in the moment, I knew that he was helping me. He was taking time out of his Friday night to help a stranger lost in a new place. It’s the sort of thing you can only comprehend if you’re there, if you’re literally breathing in that atmosphere. We walked through this expansive garden and he pointed to a strip of three-story apartment buildings decked out in different colors with a bustling nightlife scene on the ground floor, complete with people my age drinking and laughing and making themselves happy. “Check over there for 47. If it’s not there, then it’s probably down there,” he said, pointing to another well-lit area across the street.

I thanked him, trying to ooze as much graciousness as possible. I was thankful not only for him taking the time to walk me to where I needed to go, but there was also an unsaid gratitude, a silent sense of appreciation for the dignity he had in not taking advantage of my vulnerability, as a lot of men would. I am aware that at the same time, a lot of men wouldn’t, but to those men I say that we live, unfortunately, in a world where women are seen as objects and have to be on high alert at all times, assuming the worst in all people in order to prevent senseless attacks. We live in a world where if a woman wears a ponytail, she’s setting herself up with her very own assault handle and if she dresses how she wants to dress, she’s asking for trouble. So for you guys that have the good sense not to sexually or physically assault a woman, good for you. Keep on keepin’ on. There are, however, men whose intentions are less than sincere and it’s a difficult concept to grasp when you don’t grow up with that knowledge fermenting in the back of your head, haunting you.

I walked toward the well-lit string of apartments bustling with youthful Friday night jubilance. I followed along the numbers above doorways, feeling a pang of relief that the first building began in the 50s. Walking along, eyes glued to the doorways, I finally came across a door unlike the rest of the time-worn, vintage passageways: white, stark, modern. There was an illuminated keypad on the right-hand side and a large 47 posted unmistakably above. I input the four-digit code and the door whirred, the locks mechanically recognizing the numbers woven together and the door itself jerked a bit, indicative of locks and bolts being undone in the wake of the correct code.

I pushed the door open and headed into a pitch-black corridor, searching for a light switch. Just as I shut the windowless white block of a door behind me, still feeling around in the darkness for a way to turn on the lights, the foyer illuminated itself. Lights imbedded in the floor clicked on and I found myself in a cave. The grey stone walls juxtaposed next to the modern floor and ceiling halogen lights appealed to me, made me appreciate the mixture of man and nature. I climbed the birch stairs in front of me and came upon two doors, both identical, but one on the right with a key in the lock. I turned the key several rotations, more rotations than I thought necessary, and it, too clicked open. I was home.

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And what a lovely home it was.

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Porto—from what I saw in my gallivanting through the city, unsure of where to go—is old, stony, entrenched in architecture that speaks to the details of a bygone era. And yet, this apartment was totally remodeled with the most modern appliances and furniture, while still retaining the charm of its original structure. The walls were mostly a stark stone, while the furniture and decor made the place well-appointed, cultural, comfortable in a way that made me want to put my few clothes in the closet and stay forever. It was bigger than I needed, booked originally for two, but that only solved the issue of who was to take the master bedroom, stonewalled and skylit. I felt like I was, truly, home. I checked my booking in my disbelief that this was the place where I was actually staying, and smiled with satisfaction at having skating into this place for only $81 per night. And then, my smile only widened when I remembered that I had a credit from airbnb on my account, making this amazing home only $88 for all four days. I put my things down and ventured out for some wine.

Downstairs, there was a restaurant that was still serving, despite the looming morning. I sat down around midnight, and ordered a bottle of Porto Vinho, the port wine for which Porto is known. It was ten euros, which at the time, I thought to be an incredible bargain. A solitary glass was six euros, so with the proximity of my apartment to the place, the fact that operating a motor vehicle is ancient history to me now, and utilizing the yolo protocol, the entire bottle seemed like the way to go. I couldn’t finish it before I paid up, so I asked if it was legal for me to take the bottle with me. The waiter spoke broken english and didn’t understand, and as I put in my question to my translation app, a voice from a nearby table said, “Yes, you can.” It was a blonde child about twelve, backed up by his obese and bearded father, awash in wine-saturated jubilance. I corked my bottle and headed home, tripping over a ridge in the cement and breaking my fall on a guy sitting nearby, apologizing profusely and realizing that he assumed that I was, wine bottle in tow, drunk off my ass.

I finished off the bottle well into the wee hours of the morning at my own leisure in my apartment overlooking the park shrouded in darkness where I walked with a strange man in what felt like a different life. I sent snapchats to my family and wrote. I felt happy, for the first time in a week and a half, to be alive. Split was a magnificent reprieve from the rejection I faced in Frankfurt, but I went days without speaking to a soul, save for a quick “hvala” to shopkeepers and a few text and social media messages. But pleasantries and internet interaction do not soul-cleansing conversation make, and by the time I left Split (a place where, I quickly found out, no one ventures alone), I was ready for human conversation again. Porto was welcoming me with open arms.

The next morning, I woke up around 10:45, accepting my new MO of sleeping in past the productivity margins of morning for it bred a new penchant of wakefulness into the potential fruitfulness of late-night thought processing. I draped myself in oiselle from head to ankle, when Brooks took over, and set out to see the city in which I’d dropped myself; look at the golden-lit streets of previous Porto in a sun-soaked different way. I dropped a pin at the location of my apartment on my maps app and set out toward the river. I didn’t know where exactly I was going, but that was my aim. I wanted to get down to the Douro, to reawaken a part of me that, after living in Boston, I can only put to sleep but never kill. Running along rivers seems to speak to me in a way that can’t be imitated. Put me in a forest, put me on a track, it’s all nice and good until there’s a river to be run. After finding myself along the Charles for the formative years of my adult life, I’ll be rollin’ on the river whenever I get the chance. Also, the best way to explore any city is on foot. You see more that way, not having to adhere to traffic laws and safety standards. You’re free to jerk your head around, take in everything. You only have to watch the road when you’re crossing it.

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And so, seven miles of sightseeing and river running later, I found myself hiking the hills of Old Town Porto back to my apartment on the north side of the Douro. When I say “hike the hills,” I don’t mean it figuratively. I’m not filling in some hyperbolic expression in order to create an alluring alliteration (as I do whenever given the chance). The northern side of the river has hills so steep that most of the streets are one-way, as cars literally can’t climb the hills without falling backward. When you walk up one of these hills, your knees are bent at right angles. The streets are no joke, even for an ultra runner.

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And discovering this fact was the last that I worried about gaining weight due to my scheduled copious port wine consumption.

After my run, I knew I needed water. There didn’t seem to be a market in the vicinity, and yelp insisted that my location couldn’t be determined. I walked around the park in what, for the next few days, was my front yard, and finally saw an array of cases of 1.5L water bottles in a storefront view. Venturing inside, I looked in the cold case of the store to utterly horrify myself: it was a butcher shop. In order to preserve my status as a non-soapbox vegan, I won’t go into detail about the image of that which I used to consider totally normal food, but I will say that it was a record scratch on my morning. And yet, it was the only place to buy water. For those who aren’t familiar, the stores in Europe have cases of water out for the taking: you bust through the plastic and just take a bottle. In the States, we tend to buy the whole case, or ask timidly where we can grab just what we need, not wanting to break apart a perfectly good case. I picked up the entire four-pack case of waters and made my way to pay, eliciting a reaction of surprise from the customers and the staff. I didn’t do this in order to follow the American protocol but more to be efficient: I knew I would need this much water. Why not buy it all now?

I handed over the cash that I had stowed in the pocket of my running shorts, a fifty euro note. The man behind the counter had to ask his manager to change it out for him due to its size, which I found odd, but not totally inconceivable. And then, I looked at the receipt he handed me. For four 1.5L water bottles—normally worth a few euros by themselves—the total was a mere three euros. In my disbelief at how incredibly CHEAP that was for a continent that regularly charges more for water than wine, the man behind the counter said something to me and chuckled. I asked him, “Say again?” and he said, “All set! Goodbye!” I chuckled with him, throwing up a finger shaken side-to-side in a tsk-tsk manner. I was given my change and a customer hanging over the counter said something to me in Portuguese, to which I responded, “In English?” and he threw up a flippant hand and smiled.

I went next to a small produce market next door and bought a bunch of bananas and, as the elderly woman behind the counter rang me up, asking, “Anything else?” I grabbed a bottle of local rosé from the shelf behind me. My total for these two items was €1.86, and that was the moment that I resigned my heart to Porto. A wise woman once said, “Cheap Europe is the best Europe,” and she was totally correct.

Getting back to the apartment, I showered and threw on a dress, deciding to let my hair dry in the natural air of the wind. I set out again, tracing my steps from the run, but this time in my signature jcrew pink pointed-toe flats. You know the ones, the shoes that I swear I’m going to give a break but always fold and wear anyway because they’re just so incredibly versatile.

At this point, I resigned myself to Porto and the day belonged to getting to know the city on the river. I walked, and I walked, and I walked. All I was doing, it seemed, was snapping pictures. I made my way down the promenade of street vendors and tourists walking at a snail’s pace to a bar overlooking the Douro just at the edge of the Ponte Luiz. I grabbed a chair by the railing and ordered a sangria, because why not?

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After drinking, I decided to drink more, because, again, why not? I made my way across the stoic, all-seeing bridge, the initial burst of alcohol buzzing through me and making me feel ethereal and comfortably weightless. I stopped at Cálem, a winery I saw on some tourism website, and headed in.

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The lights were dim and there was a laid-back vibe in the air despite the lobby being inundated with tourists trying to navigate through the free maps handed out at the airport. I proceeded up to the ticket counter with €21.50 in hand, as denoted by the sign. And yet, as the cashier spoke to me, he stated that the price was only five euros. The sign I saw was in Portuguese and clearly indicative of some deluxe tour, so I didn’t argue. I dug around my classic escape the ordinary change purse for the three coins that equaled €5 and then had to make a decision: take the German-speaking tour that began shortly, or wait for the English tour in an hour. Realizing that I actually hate tours and was really only there for the tasting, I responded, “German’s fine.” And five minutes later, I was ushered into the wine cave and being lectured in German, nodding my head at all the correct times, pretending to understand. The tour was small: just me and two other couples. The tour guide led us around barrels both big and small and pointed to some signs that explained (in Portuguese) the different types of port wine produced in the winery. I don’t know if picture-taking was allowed, so I was stealth.

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And then, it was tasting time. We were led to a hall of long banquet tables all equipped with two wine glasses per setting: one red and one white.

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We sat at the end of the last table and the tour guide explained the wines. After more acting, more pretending, she bid us adieu and we all toasted to each other, yelling, “PROST!” I kept to myself, drinking wine with strangers, trying not to down it in my typical American exuberance. A large group of Spanish-speakers from the next tour sat down next to us and the hall became rowdy and loud, the Spanish-speakers swallowing their wine more like tequila flights than the sweet nectar of the winery that was meant to be savored. Most of the Spanish-speakers had finished both red and white glasses before the Germans finished their whites. Our tour guide reappeared with more wine, a red wine that wasn’t as robust as a typical red but wasn’t the pink of a rosé, either. She swirled it around the glass and then distributed it to all of us, and I was pleasantly surprised by the delivery. The Spanish speakers only got the red and white and were sent out the door. A little while later, after a few more minutes of silent façade-keeping, the tour guide reappeared with yet another glass for each of us. I studied the faces of the German-speakers on the tour with me and their expressions were that of subdued delight, but nothing out of the ordinary; nothing to suggest that this was special treatment. Finally, left to our four glasses of fresh, local wine for naught but five euros, the man from one of the couples asked me a question.

It was a blur of alien dialect at that point, what with the sangria beforehand and the copious wine in front of me. “I have a confession,” I said in English, to the shock of those around me, “I don’t speak German. I was learning, but I stopped. I took this tour to try and understand a little better, and also because I didn’t want to waste time waiting for the English tour.” I was, at that point, thoroughly ashamed. I’d been found out.

The couples just laughed. “Good for you,” said the wife of the older couple. “Are you American or Canadian?”

The temptation at that moment was crippling, but in the end, I told the truth. We all talked in English, laughing about things that would probably never cause us to bat an eyelash on a sober mind, yet we were livened up by the steady stream of wine. “I wasn’t expecting these last two glasses,” said the wife of the younger couple.

“Really? I was wondering whether these were included…the Spanish tour didn’t get them,” I replied, feeling the human connection I had missed so much in my alienation in Split.

“No, we were just as surprised as you,” the older-couple husband said. “She just kept bringing more!”

The younger husband piped up, “We didn’t want to argue,” he said, and we all laughed and toasted again. They were interested in me, all of them, which I didn’t quite understand. They were supportive of my decision to travel between my periods of real life (as supportive as strangers can really be), and they told me—all four of them—that I don’t strike them as the typical American. This is something I’ve heard often lately, and something that never ceases to make my soul puff up with genuine happiness. Don’t get me wrong: America is a beautiful country replete with opportunity, but the mindset and the lifestyle are things with which I inherently disagree. I’ve always felt like I was born in the wrong place.

I finally said my goodbyes and thanked my new friends for accommodating my English-only conversation skills. I bought four bottles of vintage, local port for €30 and sauntered back to my apartment, feeling something that I’ve felt before but not often; after meeting an old friend from instagram, after a heart-to-heart with someone I’ve known for years but never truly known, after finding people that think the way I do: like maybe I’m not so alone in the world.

I took in a slight siesta, cooked like a Francesinha under the Portuguese sun. And then, around 20:00, I ventured out again, walking haphazardly toward the river to find some food and a spectacular view. I was not disappointed.

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I thought, exiting the airport in the blush bask of the night prior, that that sunset was just one of the lucky strikes to which I’ve become accustomed on my side of the Atlantic; just me being at the right place at the right time to catch something fantastic. I was mistaken.

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Portuguese sunsets, I came to understand as I walked along the Douro on a Saturday saturated with a postcard-caliber perfection, are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Better than Sardinian sunsets, better than SoCal sunsets. Porto showed me a side of the sun’s final bow that I’ve never seen before; a separate beauty that I didn’t think was consistent anywhere on this world.

It occurred to me then, as I sat along the south bank of the Douro and watched as the sun went to bed, tucking itself in in the most vibrant of ways, that Porto is for lovers. Porto is where you come when you want to fall in love with someone under the colorful expanse of the sky as it shifts from day to night. Porto is where you come to rekindle a flame that’s been blown out by time, by monotony, under the sky alive with luminosity and next to the river reflecting the rays in iridescent perfection. Porto is, utterly, intrinsically, absolutely the most romantic place I’ve ever known.

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I was by myself as the sun took its final bow on the river and the city, but I didn’t feel alone. The soul-crushing loneliness I felt in Split didn’t quite permeate, though it probably should have. Although, in Split, I embraced the feeling of isolation; for you can never feel truly renewed if you’re not stripped down to the rarest of your own personal form. Wildfires are often left to burn in order to clear out the dead forestry that lingers, in order to start anew. I was no different. Usually, sunsets by myself refresh the lyrics of John Mayer’s “In Your Atmosphere,” a sullen song that represents my mainline mood. And the sunset says ‘We see this all the time.’ And yet, seeing the sun set along the Douro, alone, at twenty-three without a clear plan for the future, it was a different song entirely: it was all “XO.” (Sidebar: if you’re not a JM fan, go listen to those two songs. This paragraph will make more sense. And yes, I realize XO is a Beyoncé song, but the way John works it makes it a different listening experience entirely.)

we don't have forever, baby, daylight's wasting.

we don’t have forever, baby, daylight’s wasting.

I had dinner at a random place along the river called VT, a tapas bar at which I looked at the menu before making a decision whether to settle there, but the waitstaff took advantage of my curiosity and ushered me to a table. There were, to my insane luck, vegan tapas. A pitcher of sangria and a few veggie plates later, I found myself walking back to my apartment, full and happy, to take a nap before hitting a bar about which I read on AFAR with panoramic views of Porto and a pool. I slept through my 01:00 alarm…which was probably for the best. I’ve never been a party girl.

Tourist to Traveler

I made my way up to main house attached to my modest yet perfectly comfortable apartment, where my host lived with her family. The door was open in preparation for my arrival and there was a child in underwear shrieking with joy about something; whatever brand-new beautiful thing his mind dreamed up, not yet crushed by the callousness of reality. A friendly woman approached the door when I came into view and smiled warmly, then was accompanied by my elderly host. I handed over the keys and then a man came to the door as well, a man with a face nearly identical to my host’s. He introduced himself as Boris, the man with whom I had been communicating for the past few days. We had a friendly exchange during which he translated for his mother, the host, about how polite and well-mannered I am, and he asked me about my further travel plans. “Portugal is beautiful,” he said with a drag of a hand-rolled cigarette. “The good thing about Europe is the division, you don’t get it in the States.” An exaggerated exhale. “Here in Europe, we all want to be the best. We want to be better than our neighbors. It makes for a beautiful travel experience.”

After a gracious goodbye, I grabbed my bags and set off down the broken cobblestone streets to the bus station, about a mile away. I could have taken a cab, but I needed the exercise. Cliff-jumping didn’t burn nearly as many calories as all the wine, bread and pasta consumed in the previous four days equaled. The sun was beating down on me in the eight o’clock light; a side of the sun I hadn’t seen in Croatia, a type of heat and humidity through which I had always slept. I was, though an ultrarunner, finding myself losing my breath.

Finally, I made my way to the bus station where people were all clotted every which way and suitcases served as roadblocks to foot traffic. It felt almost like the end of the world, or the end of the world as I always imagine: everyone trying their hardest to remain calm but at the same time frantically dash out of town. Everyone was sweating. Skinny girls wore “I LOVE SPLIT” tank tops sold by the vendors at kiosks all over town. Women wore sun hats and fanned themselves with their bus tickets. Men had scruffy, tan faces indicative of a holiday in the sun; far from the oppressive blades of the required razors of their work worlds. And I had on jeans, a long-sleeved popover, and glasses, hair in a topknot. I always dress for where I’m going, not from where I’ve been. And yet, feeling the heat infiltrate my clothes and begin to soak them through, I wondered if perhaps, today, I should have amended my adherence to my own personal protocol. I bought a ticket to the local airport for 33 kunas and waited, silently, among all the other passengers, just trying to evacuate.

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I finally got on the bus, air-conditioned and cushy, and sat next to an Australian. I asked him if I could sit down in the next seat, and he responded, “Yeh, of course,” with a strong accent, yet I knew he was Australian as soon as I saw him. Either Australian, or an American going to great lengths not to be recognized; he had the quintessential Aussie appearance. Shoulder-length blonde hair matted in mussed-up curls, a thick beard to match. A sun-faded red snapback and a dirty white tank top. Cargo shorts. It was everything that the movies depicted of an Australian twenty something. We didn’t speak on the way to the airport. He was too enraptured with the Croatian countryside for conversation, and I took a nap, feeling like I had been tossed in a saltwater brine and laid out to dry (which–I suppose–I was, for all intents and purposes).

I was headed back to Frankfurt for the night before departing for Porto in the morning. The snag here was that my flight to Porto is a Ryanair flight, and they’re too cheap to operate out of the whale that is Frankfurt International Airport (FRA). Instead, they use a smaller airport (HHN) that, despite having “Frankfurt” in the name, is closer to Belgium than Frankfurt. My original plan was to just stay in FRA overnight, utilizing the luxury of a 24-hour Delta Sky Club, and take a bus to HHN in the morning. And yet, my fatigue and general weariness was winning the battle against my brain. The Sky Club was in the opposite terminal, and I wouldn’t be able to get there without going through security. I conceded to hotels.com and looked at the silver lining: at least I could get a reward night and some extra reward points on my credit card. I booked this random airport hotel with a €7 unlimited shuttle, which, in the jam-packed departures terminal of Split’s airport, took me about thirty minutes on the spotty wifi.

Soon enough, I was Copenhagen. I’ve had an unrequited love affair with Denmark for the past few years, ever since I read that it’s the happiest country on earth. I’ve wanted to move there, to start anew, to cultivate this happiness that seems to flow through the airwaves and innately affect the Danish people, for a while now. Just being in the airport made me feel lighter, more ethereal. I had a nearly four-hour layover, and I didn’t mind at all. I came to a sort of mental clarity while I waited for my flight to Frankfurt. I did the thing I swore vehemently that I would never do: I contacted all the people that I had deleted from my life in hasty attempts to improve my mood at the time. I can hold a grudge until I die and I’m stubborn to a fault. But I realized in the airport in Copenhagen that holding all that negative energy doesn’t translate to me cutting people out of my life like cancer; it becomes a cancer in itself. And so, I made amends. And while some of the people didn’t want to hear it, the fact that I did my part to improve the social climate made me feel better. The ball of humility was no longer in my court.

And then I locked eyes with Daniel Radcliffe.

I saw him and he saw me. My brain registered, “Oh, Daniel Radcliffe, okay,” as he walked by with two men. And then, I made an immediate U-turn in my steps, following the trio in a manner that I hoped was subtle but was, more than likely, humiliatingly obvious. He pointed outside and they exited through a door to the sunny smoking patio. I went to the door and decided to ask him if I could bum a cigarette. Then I remembered that I don’t smoke. I thought that it might be worth it, just for a picture, just for the story. Then I realized that that was 100% crazy. I backed away from the door, bought a pack of Malboro Reds (my sister’s brand) labeled with a government-ordained “SMOKING KILLS” label, and a hot pink lighter, heading out to the patio.

The wind was whipping around me, a perfect excuse to stick my face in a corner and pretend to light the cigarette. I lit it, refusing to inhale, then turned around to this posse of people to whom I couldn’t relate, an outsider wondering if her behavior was utterly distinguishable as that of an imposter. I walked up the stairs to the second level, wondering what to say, how to mingle. And yet…there was no Daniel Radcliffe. No two men. There was a separate stair on the other side of the upper level that led directly down to the airstrip. Sighing, I realized that I was not going to be able to talk to Daniel Radcliffe. Oh well, he looked into my eyes. I stamped out the cigarette and put it in the disposal bin, tucking the cigarettes and lighter in a zipper-compartment of my purse.

Hours later, I was checked into my hotel in Frankfurt and headed back to the airport. I didn’t want to sit in the room. I wanted to go out, I wanted to walk in the lights and the night. I bought a subway ticket and waited for a train underground, studying the daunting map of Frankfurt’s metro system. I took the metro before, but I was led around by Patrick. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but I referenced the catalogue of my memory to a street in the city center where we went a week prior and got off there. The scene was drastically different from the society-soaked street I was shown seven days beforehand. It was about 22:30, and the sidewalks were scant, inhabited, it seemed, only by those under the age of thirty in search of a good time. I made my way up to the panoramic viewing platform to get a view of Frankfurt by night. It was chilly outside, and my stomach was growling. After a quick survey of this city and all its illumination, I headed back down to Hauptwache in search of food.

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blind me baby with your neon lights

 

The street was damp and in its wetness, it gleamed under the golden lights of the street lamps. It was picturesque in a cinematic sort of way: a woman walking alone in a different country, on a different continent than where she was born, just trying to breathe it all in. That’s really what I was doing. Even if I hadn’t found anything to do, even if every business establishment had shut its doors for the evening, all I really wanted to do was walk and feel the city streets beneath my velveteen French bulldog flats. Walking gets me back to what’s important in life, walking is primal, it’s the best way to get to know the unfamiliar; be it a new city or a new person. Go take a walk and learn something new.

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I found a Thai restaurant on a side street and despite the kitchen closing in fifteen minutes, the owner graciously welcomed me. He turned away a potential four-top, but I was ushered inside. I ordered some sort of vegetable/tofu/noodle dish and sipped lychee wine, talking and laughing with the owner as the clock ticked along to midnight. There are no pictures, because this was the kind of meal and company that transcends petty images captured with an iPhone, only cheapened by the pause for documentation. As I made my tipsy departure into the black Frankfurt night–a far cry from the last time I ventured into the night alone in Germany–the rain began to fall. The owner of the Thai place popped out and gave me a newspaper to hold over my head until I could get to the dry, underground train station a block or so away. In that moment, Frankfurt was transformed in my mind from a place of unceremonious discord to a place where a near-stranger cared enough to run out into the rain to give me a makeshift umbrella for a 100 meter walk. The kindness of man will always prevail, if you let it.

Within the dry and welcoming arms of the Kornstablerwache subway stop, I studied the map of the local railway; how it branched out in different colors and directions like Frankfurt itself had veins. I didn’t know the different between S-Bahn and U-Bahn, and I didn’t know what the colors of the subway lines meant. Everything was, of course, in German. But the thing with subways is that, regardless of country or language, they’re all the same. They follow the map, and you just have to crack their own individual codes. Find where you are, find where you want to go, and follow the lines. I looked at the digital arrivals screen and located the end destination on the map, noting the code next to the German town name and realizing, all at once like a bump on the head, that the code denoted the color of the subway line on the map. Using this information, I was able to unlock the mystery of which train I needed to take and waited eleven minutes, getting on and sitting down, careful to subdue my satisfaction with my late-night critical thinking skills. It may not mean anything to some, but I spent my formative years in rural Alabama. The first time I rode a subway was in 2011 when, in a swirl of trepidation, I had my eyes glued to my routing app as I rocketed underneath Boston on a day that was simply too icy to complete my usual MO of just walking wherever I needed to go. Now I’ve navigated my way through Prague and Frankfurt, two countries where the landscape and language escape me, and to me, that means the world. Literally. It means being able to see a city in a different way; the way locals see it.

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“You can’t understand a city without using its public transportation system.” -Erol Ozan

 

And then, sitting in my seat and looking as entrenched in existential malaise as all the Germans with whom I was sharing the train, a couple got on and sat in the two seats opposite of me in the four-person pod. They were blond and gorgeous, each of them. They looked so typically German and yet, as they looked around them, their expressions were shrouded in confusion. Maybe they were tourists in their own country. The husband spoke English in a thick Southern accent and I felt a blast of nostalgia for my hometown. Not that I wanted to return, per se, but a reminder that it exists. That I used to be there, under the Alabamian sun, and now I’m here, on a German train in the middle of the night at twenty-three years old.

They were lost. I kept my distance, wanting to help but fearing that I would come up unsuccessful, just as confused as they were. Finally, the wife asked me if I spoke English. I smiled a knowing smile and said, “Yeah, I’m American too. Where are you trying to go? I might not be of much help, but I can try.”

They were going to the airport as well, so I told them to stick with me. I explained the color key on the map, and their graciousness was on par with how I felt when the restaurant owner gave me his newspaper. And me, feeling like I could help someone else find their way around a place that’s just as foreign to me; I felt, in that moment, like I had really and truly graduated from tourist to traveler.

We talked the entire ride about traveling; the wife used to live in Frankfurt when she was very young, and the husband was enjoying his first trip across the pond. As we got more deep into out conversation (as the airport was a good few stops into the black and rainy distance), they asked where I’ve been. I started listing countries and their eyes widened. “You’re really a traveler, aren’t you?” the husband said. I chuckled, laughed it off, but the truth is that it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard it. In Montréal, sitting on the terrace of a bar in the company of two strangers with whom I struck up a conversation (one Canadian, one Lebanese), I was told that I was really “well-traveled for an American.” The truth is that while I have traveled, I have seen different pieces and parts of the world we all share, I don’t consider myself well-traveled by any means. I still feel like there’s so much more to explore, so much more to uncover; that I’ve only scratched the surface. But, unfortunately, for most Americans, I would be considered well-traveled. And yet, in my mind’s eye, I’m still the dreaming kid from Alabama, poring over maps and planning vacations that I knew, as a teenager, I’d never have the chance to take.

IMG_2768.JPG We said our goodbyes and I slinked back to my hotel, awash in the energy of the night and feeling a new relationship to Germany and life as a whole. My, how things can change. Also, Daniel Radcliffe looked into my eyes.