michigan seems like a dream to me now

Not the kind of view you grow up on in America

Two years ago today I boarded a plane with three suitcases and a one-way ticket to a city I’d never visited to share a home I’d never seen with a man I’d never lived with. (That sentence would have a lot more verve if it ended with “a man I’d never met,” wouldn’t it? Sorry to disappoint.)

There was a lot of well-intentioned hand-wringing over my up-and-leaving, and many quiet offers of assistance should it go sideways, should I arrive in Denmark and realize that I can’t stomach rye bread. (At least I assume that was my loved ones’ only concern.) I was abstractly grateful for the kindness, but I’d entered something of a fugue state when I decided to move to Copenhagen with my now-fiancé, and was strangely unconcerned by the whole thing. I’d decided to let it happen, so it was happening, and that was that.

I wasn’t leaving to make a post-2016 political statement; rather, an opportunity arose and I took it. I was excited, though, to leave the omnipresent CNN news ticker behind, and to view America through a different lens. In 2015, I spent two weeks in New Zealand for work, and one of my Kiwi colleagues described Americans as “precocious.” I didn’t get it then, but I think about it constantly now. It was a generous interpretation of a stereotype that’s as true now as it was in 1945 or 1963, the American popping up like a gopher to state opinion as fact, loudly, swinging their shirtsleeve-clad arm, boundlessly confident in their goodness and originality.

When a Londoner ends a conversation with “cheers” and I respond, instinctively, “Have a good one,” I feel like I might as well have a piece of hay sticking out the side of my mouth. It’s the consummate American phrase. The world is on fire, literally and figuratively, following centuries of colonialist intervention and industrialization and the profligate prescribing of antibiotics, but hey, the sun is shining, or at least it will be when the acid rain cloud clears, which surely it will if we yell loudly enough to drown out the thoughts and prayers that impede meaningful action, and in the meantime — you go out and enjoy yourself, because I’m going to too!

The funny thing is that I love America. I get that that’s kind of an anachronism, and I probably have to return my woke millennial card now, but if anything, living abroad has only reinforced my love for America. I miss it every day. Not just my friends or the ubiquity of air conditioning, but the pervasive gumption, willful obliviousness to futility, the collective delusion that tomorrow will be better than today (despite the ubiquity of air conditioning).

I could write a solemn thesis about how my travels are shaping my view of my homeland, but my worst nightmare is accidentally becoming a sanctimonious travel blogger, so instead let me leave you with a brief list of probably-awful American things that I miss in spite of knowing better.

In no particular order:

  1. TV commercials for personal injury lawyers: I grew up on “Enough said, call Ed.” (I haven’t lived in Las Vegas since 2011 and I can still recite his commercial!) Europe’s strict regulations governing marketing are meant to combat the indignity of America’s uniquely litigious culture… but IMO it’s pretty clear that the way Europeans engage with their regulators is just a different avenue for expressing the same instinctive yen for retribution. We sue; you complain!
  2. Costco and other large things: To be fair, big-box stores exist in Europe, but nothing feels more American than being able to buy a pallet of Mountain Dew for your very own home.
  3. Benzodiazepines: You can’t get a European GP to prescribe you Xanax for love or money. I’ve been portioning out the last of my Xanax from my American doctor like it’s gold. Once it’s gone, I won’t be able to fly on dinky 60-seat planes again until I return to America, where the pharmaceutical-industrial complex encourages a virtuous circle among patients, doctors, and Big Pharma (everyone either gets paid or gets tranquillized — it’s a win-win-win!).
  4. Target: There is no single store you can visit in Europe that will sell you a lint roller, contact lens solution, cough syrup, tinfoil, and hangers, let alone dollar tchotchkes and a sundress that you’ll feel compelled to buy yet never wear.
  5. Obsequious customer service: I disagree with everyone who makes fun of waitstaff who ask “Are you still working on that?” or compliments your menu choice, etc. I never feel better than after a conversation in which both parties are simpering. It’s like when you tell the woman next to you in the elevator how much you love her lipstick and she tells you how much she loves your boots and neither of you could care less if the other walked into traffic tomorrow, but until the fourteenth floor you’re besties. This is how you achieve collective delusion.

When I return to the States eventually I’ll write up a list of what I miss from Europe: living confidently with the knowledge that if I contract a terminal illness, I won’t have to open a GoFundMe to not die; very old buildings; not wondering if I’m going to get E. coli from grocery store chicken thighs; government investment in transit infrastructure. Regulation, mostly, I guess. And being an easyJet flight away from Neapolitan pizza. Anyway, the past two years have been a trip and a half and though I’m always half-desperate to return home, I look forward to seeing what the next two have in store.

P.S. Speaking of the UK, and of America: I really enjoyed Thursday’s episode of The Daily on Megxit. It was a cogent synthesis of several issues that have more interplay than they seem to on the surface. (I’m firmly on Team Sussex, probably because I have that American sensibility whereby instead of keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of bullshit you take matters into your own hands. And I love the mental image of Megan strolling down a Canadian sidewalk in her Ugg boots like a walking middle finger to the House of Windsor’s dress code. As a UK taxpayer, I feel entitled to this hot take!)

blue period

When I was little, growing up in Las Vegas, I liked to name the colors I saw outside. I had the jumbo box of Crayolas, and I reacted almost synesthetically when they named the colors right. Cerulean made me tingle. It was blue like I’d never seen before, blue like they don’t have in the desert or even in the ocean off Mission Beach, and the name was like the fairytale kingdoms that I used to write stories about in my piles of spiral notebooks. Asparagus made me nauseous and so did its eponym (and anyway, jungle green was the only green that mattered). Robin’s-egg blue was pretty but predictable; razzmatazz was cheap and trashy.

When my aunt used to visit from Santa Barbara we’d walk slow through the Red Rock and name every color we saw. It was how I tolerated the Mars-red desert, so beautiful and alien from my fluorescent everyday that I could hardly stand it. This is still how I respond to beauty: I feel it overtake me and then I want to make it mine. Looking isn’t enough. I want to bottle the second act of Giselle and eat the vista of fir trees that blanket the German Alps and stash the gold foil of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in my pocket for later.

I started taking ballet classes because I thought it would make me feel how I felt when I watched the Nevada Ballet dancers in their tutus on the stage at the university. (It did, and once every two years when I take class nowadays it still does, even when I catch sight of myself in the mirror and remember that like Jody Sawyer, I wasn’t born with turnout.) Dance gave me what I lost from music after a prodigiously talented sixth-grader swooped in and stole the first chair from me in the Becker Middle School orchestra. I was all set to be indignant, but then he started to practice Bach’s Cello Suites, and I forgot for a moment what anger even was. I don’t suppose there was much I could do to come back from the shame of being in the middle school orchestra but even so, I was unwilling to risk it by doing something so gauche as actually watching him, so instead I looked at my shoes and flicked my eyes leftward every so often to peek at him hunched over his cello, sawing and swaying like it was part of his body.

I wanted to play like that too and sometimes when I practiced, when no one was home, I would try to sway my body along with “La Cinquantaine.” But it didn’t work for me. The music didn’t live in my bones like it lived in his. I swallowed the desire and stared at my shoes and told my friends stories about “Weird Cello Boy” who moved his body in time with his bow like he was possessed. That was the same year I started ballet in earnest and in time, I began to feel the beauty I craved in my bones.

I see a lot of beautiful things these days. I live in Europe now, and one of my favorite things to do in a new city is to visit its museums. I grew up with a print of “Starry Night” on my bathroom wall, and I was nine when the Bellagio hotel opened in my hometown of Las Vegas and I saw Monets from Steve Wynn’s collection for the first time. Las Vegas is a grim place to learn about beauty, but the Bellagio was a game-changer. I had never seen simple rooms like the ones the Impressionists painted, wood floors and iron bedposts and windows that flung open onto vistas of endless corn.

I drank it in and then puberty hit and I forgot all about visual art, losing myself instead in the sweet release of dance. Then a decade later at Vassar, I steered clear of art history because it was the domain of the lank-haired girls with New York private school pedigrees and coke habits (also, I was afraid I’d fall asleep every day). Today I can’t get enough. Travel can be overwhelming and art compresses it into something I can understand.

I thought a lot about art and how I digest it when I was reading what turned out to be my favorite book from last year, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. The protagonist Selin is a college freshman and the book is mostly about her experiencing sublimity for the first time. Life becomes overwhelming, and art (and semiotics) compresses it into something she can understand.

I remember vividly how the raw emotion of young adulthood, the wringer of heartbreak, betrayal, watching the US bomb the shit out of the Middle East, etc., gave way to realizing other people felt those emotions too, and that art was what they did to make them manifest. I nearly lost my mind several times during AP English my senior year of high school. I tucked a printout of “Good Country People” into the back of a textbook to read during a lecture I found boring, and I was so overcome by the ending that I got up from my desk and walked down the hall to find my English teacher and flap my arms at her until she sent me back to class. This teacher also read us “The Hollow Men” out loud one day and I remember that she looked almost sly during the final lines, as if she knew already what she’d see when she looked up after the end (“not with a bang, but a whimper”). I guess she’d been teaching for long enough to expect twenty slack-jawed seventeen-year-olds looking at her like she’d just elucidated, I don’t know, string theory. It was 2006. We were bombing Iraq and life was very long besides. We were all too aware of the Shadow.

Years later, I learned the word “sublime.” I don’t know philosophy well and maybe I’m perverting the definition, but this is how I think of sublimity, as my urge to shake myself free of what “Good Country People” means about humanity or my fear that the silence following “The Hollow Men” would never end.

I had forgotten about the idea of the sublime until I read The Idiot. There’s a scene where Selin and her friend Svetlana, who are eighteen or nineteen, take up standing in front of paintings for thirty minutes at a stretch. It’s the kind of thing I used to do as a child — I recall distinctly sitting on the toilet for far longer than I needed to stare at that “Starry Night” print on the wall opposite — and the kind of thing I’ve forgotten to do now that I’m an adult, and busy, and living in a time when everything is ephemeral (the algorithmic timeline) but nothing disappears (the LiveJournal whose password I’ve forgotten). I think about my taste more than I act on it, and I’m ashamed by how I’ve gone to some fifteen European museums in the past year and yet all I want to do is beeline to the paintings that look most like Monet.

Last summer I went to a Picasso exhibit at the Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen, next to the sea at Humlebæk. It was mostly his ceramics, and they were charming and I sent photos to my friend who likes when human faces appear on inanimate objects, but I was more interested in the tiny photos of his blue paintings on the timeline of his life pasted to the wall in one of the side rooms. If I had gone to the Picasso Museum when I visited Paris last year instead of spending 45 minutes in line for a galette across the street at Cafe Breizh, I might already have known about his “Blue Period.” In my defense, it was a really good galette, and I had already been through the emotional wringer of walking through Shakespeare & Co. to the sound of some hipster playing The Killers (the default soundtrack for every Las Vegas whose youth was a) misbegotten and b) in the early 2000s) on one of the bookstore pianos and then leaving only to see Notre Dame rising above the Seine through a strand of Edison-bulb Christmas lights, and I think maybe if I’d seen the Blue Period at that juncture I might have had to Javert myself straight off the Pont-Neuf.

Paris, Notre-Dame from outside Shakespeare & Co.
Not pictured: Me, feeling every feeling I’ve ever felt

The Blue Period paintings remind me of when I traveled to New Zealand for business in 2015. I was in a blue period of my own, and for two weeks I went jogging every morning along the Oriental Bay listening to Halsey and Sia. The water was the cerulean blue I only ever saw in crayons as a child, and that Halsey song “Colors” kept looping on my Spotify (“everything is blue, his pills, his hands, his jeans”). It was synchronistic, and poignant, and I felt grateful to have seen cerulean in real life but in utter disarray nonetheless.

Later I was ashamed to have been so sent by the synchrony between a teenager’s pop song and the ocean, which is probably the most pedestrian natural thing you can find to be moved by. I was ashamed again, in Humlebæk, to be ignoring Picasso’s little-seen, avant-garde ceramics so I could wax emotional over something so literal as blue standing in for sadness. And I’m ashamed every time I try and fail to make eye contact with a Basquiat or one of those wacky Pop Surrealist paintings that give me nightmares.

But lately, I’ve felt inclined to treat myself more generously. I feel so anxious to take in all the culture that Europe has to offer while I live here that I trot through museums staring at paintings that make me ill instead of standing like I want to in front of Woman with a Parasol until I will myself into a field in Argenteuil. Reading about Selin and Svetlana reminded me that I can still access the sublime, and that to do so requires giving myself over to it. There’s no point in giving myself over to something that doesn’t move me and no use in trying to be moved by something for the sake of performing sophistication.

I have also wanted lately to put away my camera and to feel sublimity in my bones again, not through a lens, to listen to what my body tells me about beauty rather than to try to measure it in likes. I put on my ballet slippers for the first time in a few years the other week and eased my way through a barre, and I remembered how it felt to be giving beauty back to the world.

I guess we’re all feeling this these days, in our collective awakening to the destructive forces of technology. I don’t think taking photos to satisfy the hunger that beauty evokes in me is any better or worse than naming the colors I see in the desert. It’s all just one means after another of negotiating my place in the world, and I’d argue that even looking at the world through my cracked iPhone lens I’m still better off than this French art thief who tried to cat burgle his way into taming his hunger for the sublime. Though Lord help me the next time I’m in Paris if I’m feeling as delicate as I was the last time. Give me another dose of acoustic piano, Camembert crepes, Gothic cathedrals, and my favorite Crayola crayon color that also reminds me of being 25 and heartsick and I might just have to grab the “Sleepy Drinker” and run.

hej hej to all that

The Italian girls in my Danish class are beside themselves that I’ve left New York. “Jeg kommer fra New York,” I say, hacking up the “fra” like it’s 2003 and I’m in the front row of French I with Madame H________. Better to sound French than to sound American.

“Then why are you here?” asks the girl from Bologna, who twenty minutes into the first class accused me of being a ringer for having shown up already knowing the secret Danish vowels. I suspect we wouldn’t have been friends as children, and that we won’t be friends now, since I’m still the kind of Hermione Granger whose hand shoots up first to show off what I studied before class. (I cringe, because old habits die hard, but it’s not my fault that nobody else thought to look up “how to speak Danish” on YouTube before they showed up today.)

Why am I here? I laugh at this. My New York friends think it’s impossibly exotic that I’ve moved to Europe. I imagine for the Schengen Europeans in my class it’s as humdrum as moving from Los Angeles to New Orleans or Philadelphia to Seattle, enough to trigger some tax mistakes that will be expensive in a decade but not enough to trigger culture shock. Meanwhile, I still don’t know how to pronounce the name of the street I live on. Or schedule a dentist appointment. Or a haircut. Or find travel-size bottles of contact lens solution. Or pants hangers. Or tempeh. Or peanut butter that doesn’t get that weird slick of oil at the top. Or a top sheet. I guess it’s exotic, if your idea of “exotic” is “buying six bottles of travel-size contact lens solution every time you set foot in an American airport.”

During our coffee break, the Italian girls rhapsodize about the machinelike Danish healthcare apparatus. In Italy, they tell me, if you want to see the doctor, you show up at seven A.M. and wait with all the nonnas until the doctor deigns to see you. I shudder. I suppose beyond the miracle of appointment scheduling they find the city drab.

I studied Italian in college, and I imagine Danish must horrify the Italian girls. What I love about Italian is its languor – every consonant gets its due, even when there are two in a row, and syllables are tacked onto words for seemingly no reason other than to make them longer. It’s a full-bodied language with hand gestures to match, so musical that opera seems its natural extension.

Danish, on the other hand, sounds like a cat hacking up a hairball. “Reduction,” the practice of eliding words used in combination, means that several common phrases actually just sound like when you’re trying to talk to the dentist. (“Jeg er amerikaner” – I am American – comes out “Jaaahh amerikaaaaaaahhh.” It’s an apt description of being American in 2018, but undignified nonetheless.)

This doesn’t matter, of course, since every Dane speaks English and probably a few other languages on top of that. In fact, the second lesson in my Danish coursebook teaches languages, nationalities, and numbers through an exercise where you describe the number of languages the book’s characters speak. Marco and Barbara and Helle and King Jones (a real character, who is allegedly from England, and who now works at Novo Nordisk, which feels like subtle Danish commentary on monarchy in the modern era) all of course speak English, but they also speak fransk and spansk and japansk and some of then even speak tysk. I am grateful to have practiced my Danish vowels before I showed up for day one, even if it means that the Italian girls all hate me, because otherwise I might have to slink out in shame on behalf of my people.

In fact, I frequently feel shame on behalf of my people. Every night when I wake up sweating because there are no air conditioners in Northern Europe, I feel shame, and then I roll over and Google “why are there no air conditioners in europe” (answer: because we are one industrializing-nation-gets-access-to-air-conditioning away from The Day After Tomorrow, get a fan, you whiny American piece of shit). Every holiday when I go out to find a coffee shop that will let me pay an exorbitant amount of money for a spoonful of yogurt with two bites of granola and they’re all closed because Europeans like to give everyone a day off, not just people whose parents paid for them to get a useless degree that they parlayed into a 9-5 job only because they know someone who’s four degrees removed from the deep state, I feel shame. Every time I finish my spoonful of yogurt and two bites of granola and start looking around for the bacon, I feel shame. We are fat hedonists who speak no spansk or fransk or dansk, and we are destroying the world with our chlorofluorocarbons. I know that now.

When the Italian girls ask me why I left New York, I want to tell them about the Holland Tunnel, or how walking into my boyfriend’s apartment building meant elbowing through the crowd of tourists lined up for pizza on Bleecker Street. I want to tell them that it’s no longer listening to men complain in little bars near Grand Central, it’s listening to men complain in little cafes in Brooklyn, and it’s not their wives who are unable to cope but their roommates or bandmates or, God forbid, their DJ partners. I want to tell them about how the weekend before I left New York it was below zero and I walked down to the L train platform after midnight, when you might expect to wait twenty minutes for a train, but definitely not THIRTY-FIVE, which is a time I’ve never seen displayed on a transit platform before or since.

It was at that moment that I knew I’d stayed too long at the Fair, or more specifically, at the Alligator Lounge, since maybe if I’d left before midnight I’d have seen an L train again before I perished.

Copenhagen is an exquisite and fantastically functional city. What the Southern Europeans find dismal – the assiduous following of bike lane etiquette, the unforgiving metro doors that are uninterested in letting you hold them open so your slowpoke friends can dive onto the train after you – I find comforting. No, let me be honest; I find it thrilling. I have been telling everyone who will listen that I can get home from the airport in fifteen minutes on a train that runs every six minutes, 24 hours a day. I don’t know how I’ll live with the Holland Tunnel again knowing this exists. Every restaurant takes reservations. The buildings are candy-colored with cupolas the color of the Statue of Liberty on top. I have never elbowed my way into my own home or stepped in someone else’s gum (or, God help me, their vomit). The city sends me email, and you can drink a beer in the park. It’s what I hoped for when we moved: a calmer, more beautiful world, where I can try to enjoy my life instead of ducking my head and battling my way through it.

But.

I feel the loss of America. I miss air conditioning and giant portions, and I also feel like a traitor for leaving America in its time of crisis. We didn’t leave because of the election, though we started talking about leaving because of the election. I would rather have left knowing my country was in the hands of someone capable. (I prefer to leave writing about politics to people with more than an elementary knowledge of politics, but if you really want to hear my feelings, let’s grab a beer someday.) I feel torn between brushing my past as an American off my shoulders and defending my country for its faults. And to be sure, there are many, including but not limited to the election of white nationalists to public office, the Bloomin’ Onion, and Natty Light.

In my six months in Denmark I’ve observed several opportunities for Europeans to take a page out of America’s book. For example, pillows here are terrible. I feel grateful that in addition to most of the condiments from our kitchens, all of my shoes, and an ice cube tray that was probably supposed to stay in his apartment’s freezer, my boyfriend shipped over our American pillows. And don’t get me started on the flies. I’m sure it has something to do with the structure of all these charming double-glazed windows that keep our apartments hyggeligt in the winter, but it seems that the continent has yet to discover that disruptive technology known as the window screen. I woke up last week on a trip to Prague with bug bites on – wait for it – my face. Also, why doesn’t anyone sell travel-size contact lens solution? When I get sick of taking meetings with my California colleagues every night until ten P.M., I’m going to quit and open a store that sells pillows that aren’t terrible and contact lens solution and then I will be a millionaire.

Every week in Danish class, with my classmates who all speak English on top of their native languages and grew up traveling Europe the way I grew up traveling to Kennewick, Washington, I feel like a pasty, precious fish out of water. Why am I leaking sweat onto my plastic chair while everyone else looks like they could sit in this sweatbox of a classroom for another four hours and barely glisten? Why doesn’t anyone else have bug bites on their face? Why are all of our exercises about how everyone in Europe learned to speak German before I even knew how to tie my shoes? Marco speaks five languages. (Marco tale fem sprog.) Well, fuck you, Marco! I have screens on my windows!

I flew home to New York the other week for a wedding. Fifteen minutes out from Newark, just when I’d be stepping off the metro onto the cobbled streets (brosten) for a short walk to my apartment, our Uber inched its way toward the Holland Tunnel. On Canal Street, the honking trucks drowned out the radio and the air conditioner. I looked out at buildings that are grimy with the soot of all these trucks and the cars that we take when the wait for the subway is 35 minutes on a subzero evening in January.

Later, I took the F train into Manhattan to pick up a dress at Rent the Runway and hit CVS for some – you guessed it – travel-size contact lens solution. The platform was dank on a cool, humid summer afternoon, and the train car was too cold. The people around me were too loud, and I glared at them before I turned up the volume on my headphones. Outside, on an avenue that smelled like trash, I walked by the Home Depot and the Lowe’s and the Container Store where you can buy anything you need in any size you can imagine and they’ll bring it to your house for you, walk it up five flights of stairs, take it out of the box so you can put the cardboard in your back alley and wait for it to disappear.

We took an overnight flight back to Copenhagen, and on the way home from the airport the next day I could see buildings that are freshly painted every year and smelled – well, I don’t really know what, but it wasn’t trash. I thought briefly that there was no longer any point in keeping the storage unit I still keep in New York, but three days later I woke up with bug bites on my face. I think it may be some time yet before I stop calling Europe “the Continent.”

pics or it didn’t happen

This post is the first in a two-part series about the Internet. In Part 1, below, I write a pages-long excuse for wasting all of my time on the Internet. In Part 2, I’ll illuminate the inseverable connection between trying to buy a mattress and the declining art of writing. Keep yourselves busy in between posts by contemplating whether Twitter will, indeed, be the downfall of Western democracy.

I got Instagram in June. (Yes, this June. In 2017. I still don’t know what David S. Pumpkins is, and I can’t confidently identify dubstep, but I get millennial pink now. It’s a start.) What converted me, ultimately, was being in Stockholm on the longest day of the year. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the waterfront that I could think of nothing but how best to brag about seeing it.

I avoided Instagram because I have a fraught relationship with my own image. I can think of few photos taken of me over my lifetime that I can stand to look at, fewer if I don’t count the ones where I think I’m cute only because I’m so cringingly awkward, fewer still if I tell myself not to look fondly on the photos from when I was starving myself. I’m not sure if I want to get married in no small part because I so dread the photos. I dread looking at them and I dread what I will do to myself to create photos that I can tolerate looking at.

But I’m a child of the Internet, a geeky, lonely kid who didn’t understand that there were people like me in the world until I found them on the message boards of the early 2000’s. The Internet was the first place where I felt that I could be myself — and the place where I learned how to reinvent myself. (Did I once stage a dramatic departure from a message board I frequented then re-register under a new screen name just to see if I could make strangers believe that I was a different person than the one they already knew? I’m not saying I did, but I’m also not saying that I haven’t known from a young age just how distinctive my voice is.)

When social media took over the message board as my Internet drug of choice, I fell in love with what I saw as a new tool for self-expression. I was about to make a crack about how I mean self-expression, not corporate brand expression, but then I remembered how much I love that I can tweet at United when my flights are delayed, for example by sending them them a prose poem in the style of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” 140 characters at a time if they strand me at Heathrow for 29 hours. It was more productive than taking myself on a pub crawl around the four Star Alliance lounges in Terminal 2, which I know because I also did that. And having to acknowledge that fast-food restaurants are now sentient entities that communicate with one another feels like a small price to pay for being able to channel my constant, low-level rage at United to United.

I’m being facetious — as a former customer service professional I don’t make a habit of attacking them — but more to the point, I am who I am as much because of my Internet presence as my physical presence. I dated a man who, on principle, avoided social media, and while that was hardly the only way in which I wasn’t my authentic self in that relationship, it felt more significant than I would have anticipated. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, can you really know my id? (My id, apparently, wants to troll customer service professionals who represent airlines that fly planes from the Soviet era. We all have our vices.) My Twitter self is an abstraction of my physical self that gleefully flouts the rules of grammar, communicates complex sentiments with images instead of trying to unpack them with words, and blurts out shameful thoughts in a way I never would aloud. I see Twitter as a place where I can put this version of myself on display in a sort of ironic light that exists separately from the articulate, measured identity I strive to cultivate in real life.

Much of what I loved about the Internet as a child and young teenager was how I could exist in words but not being. I wasn’t an ugly child, but I was a gawky one, and I felt limited by the body that I lived in. It wasn’t that being on the Internet allowed me to pretend I looked different than I did — I think all of us spending time online in the early 2000s were well aware that none of us were secretly babes, you know? Even better, it was irrelevant. I was my brain and my wit and nothing beyond that mattered, except my sweet avatar.

In 2017 it feels tragically unhip to be enthusiastic about social media. I think I’m supposed to be casting aspersions on people who post frequent status updates on Facebook because #YOLO, and it’s bad to think about what your life looks like to people on the Internet rather than simply live it. It’s like being twelve again. I know that Internet cool isn’t properly cool but frankly, I don’t feel like I can be cool in any way except Internet cool. (And Facebook isn’t even Internet cool anymore. I’m fucked, basically.) Not having Instagram had always been a minor point of pride for me. Like, I was an Internet-obsessed loser, but at least I wasn’t part of this weird cult of disembodied hands holding ice cream cones.

But then I went to Stockholm.

Over the past couple of years I’ve become a frequent traveler. I look at my passport as a symbol of triumph over adversity, and I don’t just mean that I have listened to to four screaming babies in dulcet harmony for eight hours without throwing myself out of the overwing exit. For many years I was so afraid of flying that I couldn’t really do it without medicating myself. And within that period, there was a long time when the idea of putting myself in an unfamiliar environment — i.e., one where I couldn’t rely on my food and exercise routine — was unfathomable. Even after the worst of my eating disorder had passed, travel still felt like something that was beyond me. There’s more than a paragraph’s worth of material to uncover here, so obviously I’m going to save that for the next time I want to write something really clickbaity that gets me on the WordPress Discover page (“How I stopped worrying and learned to love the fact that if you’re in France, there is no breakfast but croissants”).

Travel has become one of my favorite ways to get out of my own head. I’m too disoriented by jet lag and language barriers and the staggering weight of history to worry that I’m not supposed to be eating simple sugars for breakfast. When I look up from the Marienplatz or down at the Tokyo subway map, I’m free from the burden of thinking. I need only react. (Especially because Google Maps is really good with Tokyo subway directions. Otherwise I’d probably still be wandering around Shinjuku, living off corn-soup-in-a-can from the alleyway vending machines.) And I get to look constantly outward, away from myself.

In Stockholm, I wanted to share what I saw when I looked outward. Stockholm is impossibly precious in a way that makes me want to peer around every corner to make sure that I’m not missing some charming little staircase tucked in an alley that in New York would just be another place to store the trash. It’s the kind of place that feels worth getting off your couch to explore. But I have long felt overwhelmed by leaving my house. Inside, in the confines of my routine, I know what I have to do to feel accomplished; outside, the world overwhelms. I lack the rules to navigate it and it refuses to conform to my expectations. Instagram gave me a framework: a means of knowing what I was setting out to do and, ultimately, to do it. “Look,” I could finally say, “I left the house, finally, and it’s scary, and there were screaming babies on the plane, but aren’t you proud of me? I left the house.”

The zeitgeist would have you believe that the keep-up-with-the-Joneses pressure of social media is net negative. Quitting Instagram is the new quitting gluten (probably healthy but mostly an opportunity to show your moral fiber). Looking outward can so easily deteriorate into comparing yourself to the rest of the world and invariably coming up short because you don’t have an eight-pack or a baby or interior decorating skills.

For me, looking outward is what I do to remind myself that the world is there to experience — and now Instagram is what I use to remind myself to experience the world. I recognize the paradox. I leave the house so I can find photos to prove that I left the house. And, critically, I am not in those photos. It’s not like in college, when every weekend meant a new slew of Facebook photos that I could only cringe at and criticize. I feel, like I did in 2002, that the body I live in is irrelevant. It’s only a tool and when I use it as intended, instead of letting it lie fallow or cultivating it beyond practical utility, I can climb a mountain or even visit Hogwarts.

And anyway, I like to people-watch. I like to read fiction and magazine profiles. (It occurred to me recently that if I never achieve notoriety such that someone is tasked with writing a magazine profile about me — or if by the time it happens, magazines no longer exist — I might need to pay a freelancer to write me one before I die. Just to have, you know? I just really want to know how they describe the way I eat my lunch salad and see how far backward they have to bend to depict my home generously.)

Social media is just another lens through which I can observe human behavior. I find it terrifically fun to look at how my friends and family live their lives. I scroll through Instagram and wonder idly whether I, too, would like one day to travel to Hawaii (sure) or have children (nah) and admire how other people manage to hang their curtains straight. I empathize with people I’d otherwise be quick to judge — I can’t stop thinking about @butlikemaybe who has made me realize that maybe liking brunch and being perceptive aren’t mutually exclusive — or whose plights I’d never consider. I have college classmates whose work opens my eyes to how the structures that have elevated me over the course of my life have served to oppress others. And all this on the same platforms that are disrupting Western democracy and forcing me to listen to long-lost high school friends pontificate about healthy eating like they weren’t the ones begging to hit the Del Taco drive-through at 4 A.M. after the club!!!

The Internet has always been the most powerful tool I have to cultivate the image that I want to present to the world, and now it’s the most effective way for me to understand a world beyond the one that I encounter in my daily life. As a child, it was where I discovered that there were people in the world who wanted to listen to me. In college, when a classmate created a Facebook group called “Dana Cass’s Facebook Statuses are the Highlight of My News Feed and My Day,” it occurred to me for the first time that words could be my profession. (S_____, if you’re reading this, I’m not sure I ever thanked you properly for that.) Today, the Internet inspires me to cultivate a memorable and, yes, enviable life, and to strive for an offline life that extends beyond the borders I was born knowing. When the call comes in now, I go, whether it’s a work assignment on the other side of the world or just an evening on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Going, I’ve learned, is better than staying. Going means finding a photo to share — and stories to tell.

bathrooms of the great midwest

I have a small bladder. Perhaps it’s more proper to say that I am a small woman and then let you infer the rest, but I’ve never pretended to be proper, so let’s just be frontal about it and move on. I have to pee often enough that I’m a bad person to bring on your road trip but not so often that I should be taking medicines advertised with commercials showing women doing yoga to “I Can See Clearly Now.”

Regrettably, I’m also prissy as hell and don’t do well in situations where I have to expose my bare skin to grime. (Really, even being in sock feet in public gives me the creeps. I walk through the airport security line on my heels. All those years of ballet training were good for something, right?) Until college, this meant that I wouldn’t use a public restroom if my life depended on it. I could handle the bathroom at Macy’s, maybe, but not the bathroom in the food court; as a child, I’m not sure I ever used the bathroom on an airplane.

As I turn ever faster into my mother with each passing year, though, my shrinking bladder has forced me to accept the indignity of the unclean restroom. On top of that, I live in New York, where clean bathrooms are as rare as the G train at 3 AM on a Saturday. (One plans one’s days here around where one is going to use the bathroom. Wing it and you’ll be sure to find yourself full to bursting on a black-hole block with nothing but apartments, bodegas, and discount wig stores. I mean, I can’t even flush my own toilet without jiggling the handle for several seconds to get it to stop running.) By necessity, I’m brave now. I can pee in airplane bathrooms, even if it means confronting whatever’s left over after the screaming toddler and its parent emerge after a pitched battle that started fifteen minutes earlier when they entered with a diaper and, probably, dreams. I can pee in bathrooms that I assume would be caked in heroin if it were still the eighties. I can even pee in gas station bathrooms, a category I once thought I’d reserve for “not until I’ve already peed in whatever glass container is available in the vehicle.” But the satisfaction of bravery doesn’t mean I wouldn’t trade it all for, if not plush towels and Malin + Goetz bath products, a working electric hand dryer. Also, maybe peeing in a gas station doesn’t count as bravery, but you don’t need to kill my vibe here.

I traveled to Japan recently. Bear with me, I promise this is relevant, though I realize I’m like one sunset photo away from becoming fodder for /r/blogsnark. This post is actually about bathrooms, not about how dragging my overstuffed suitcase up and down fourteen staircases in Shinjuku Station during rush hour made me a better person. (It didn’t. It just made me sweaty, and anyway as soon as we realized that the stereotype about Japanese commuters folding themselves into crowded train cars during rush hour is actually just how people who live in Tokyo get to work, we bailed and took a cab. I’m weak.)

A lot of things about Japan are astonishing. I mean, this is a country where you can buy corn soup in a can from a vending machine. It’s a country with neither trash cans nor littering. (I still can’t figure out where all the trash goes. Do people just carry their empty corn soup cans in their gigantic backpacks until they get home?) But the most astonishing thing to me was not the variety of things you can put in a can, nor the fact that people don’t just throw their trash into the subway tracks for the rats to scrap over, but…

…wait for it…

…the bathrooms.

People keep asking me what my favorite place in Japan was and I keep throwing out random shrines that I may or may not have actually seen so I seem cultured, but actually it was the women’s bathroom at Yodoyobashi Station on the Midosuji Line in Osaka, which had powder counters for women to reapply their makeup that were nicer than most of the dressing rooms I used over the course of twelve years dancing ballet. I mean, in New York, I’m told there are bathrooms in the subway if you ask, but I would rather squat in a corner because there’s no way I’m going to willingly lock myself in a room that probably contains rat corpses or heroin syringes (at a minimum, a lot of used gum). Instead, I spend fifty cents on a banana at Starbucks so I can drip-dry in a bathroom that I suspect may never have been stocked with toilet paper in the first place. At more than one shrine, I ran out of the bathroom and told my boyfriend that he had to go check it out. I was approximately, but maybe not quite, this excited about the shrines themselves.

I still can’t believe not only how clean everything was but how clean everything stayed in spite of how densely populated all of the cities I visited were (and how overrun by tourists!). I guess the broader moral lesson to extrapolate from this one is how Japan is so orderly, and we rowdy Americans with our propensity for throwing trash on train tracks and national monuments should take a lesson away from them, but I’m not really interested in the practice of writing paeans to the moral lessons I extrapolate from travel. I’m mostly traveling just to figure out where the best of anything in the world is. Australia has the best coffee, Finland has the best side-eye, London has the best United Club, Japan has the best bathrooms.

According to the travel blogs I browse through when I’m trying to figure out where to drink in the countries I visit, I’m doing it wrong. I’m supposed to be learning how to slow down and live mindfully and do headstands on the beach and get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood so I can serendipitously discover a coffee shop that also sells monocles and doubles as a portal to Narnia. Not use pocket wifi to find a coffee shop that’s well-rated on Foursquare, then use Google Maps to navigate to it. But I can’t handle the ambiguity that’s a prerequisite for serendipity, nor can I do headstands. I don’t find that planning inhibits the way I enjoy the world, either. In my travels, I guess I’ve tripped over a few life lessons (not least of which is that in an election year you should book a trip to a non-English-speaking country for the first Wednesday after November 1st in the event that your country should elect a candidate who owns a restaurant where they serve martinis with ice cubes).

But mostly I just come across what I, an American from a family without a strong non-American cultural identity, experience as curiosities. It’s curious to me that the nation of Japan can keep its bathrooms so clean, just as it’s curious to me that neither money nor love can buy you a giant cup of coffee that isn’t from Starbucks in London. It’s curious in a way that the New York City subway was curious to me a few years ago, as something unfamiliar that you’d take for granted if you grew up with it. I try hard to travel without classifying what I experience as good or bad or, God forbid, exotic. The world, I’m finding, is just a collection of things that you can or can’t ship from one side to the other. You can ship someone a box of New York bagels, but you can’t ship them the experience of ordering a bagel from someone who berates you for asking for it toasted.** And you could install a Japanese toilet for the use of the American public, theoretically, but I bet you we’d still shit on the ceiling.

* I have not yet actually read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Forgive me.

** Apparently Murray’s will now toast your bagels. At sixteen, learning that one does not ask for a toasted bagel was a formative experience. I regret that this valuable lesson won’t be passed on to future sullen teenagers who need a good smack in the face with their cream cheese, which is, of course, all teenagers.

thicker than water

An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes.”

I traveled recently to Finland, the country that my mother’s family left several generations ago. I’ve never been particularly in tune with my cultural heritage, mostly because I’m not just a mutt but a generic, whiter-than-white-bread mutt: “Half Finnish, a quarter Italian, the rest English, Irish, and Scottish,” I would say in elementary school when the topic came up, which it did strangely often given that I went to school in the whitest neighborhood in Las Vegas. (In third grade, we had a potluck where you were supposed to bring a food from your heritage to share with the class. The one Filipino kid brought adobo and the rest of us brought… mostly variations on coleslaw, if I remember rightly.)

Las Vegas—at least the part of Las Vegas where I grew up—isn’t much for rich cultural traditions. It’s more a place for reinvention, somewhere that you land by some accident of circumstance rather than of heritage. We all lived there with our parents but we went to visit our grandparents and cousins out of state during summers, to California and New Jersey and Illinois, in neighborhoods where every kid on the block had a Bar Mitzvah or went for meatballs at Grandma’s house on Sunday. I knew about Bar Mitzvahs from reading Judy Blume, I knew about Kwanzaa from reading The Baby-Sitters Club, but I thought maybe that the authors were taking artistic license because the closest thing I knew to any of that was going to Achievement Days at my Mormon friends’ houses, where we glued cotton balls and googly eyes to empty Cool-Whip containers and stuck cards that read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” on top of the whole mess. I had a couple of friends whose grandmothers were “Yiayia,” but it wasn’t until many years later that I connected that with being Greek.

In college I met kids from places that weren’t my white suburban neighborhood in Las Vegas. I was well-read enough by that point that it was hardly mindblowing to learn that there are Americans in the millennial generation who are connected to their cultural heritage. It was more disappointing to realize that having grown up as I did—in a satellite family that had split off from the whole, where the most I had to go off was the occasional story about how it smelled when Grandma Joyce made lutefisk or a bag of pizzelle that my Italian great-aunt sent over from California—I was missing something that other people considered fundamental to their narrative.

This doesn’t really bother me. For one thing, I recognize that in return I get to benefit from centuries of white privilege, which seems like a reasonable tradeoff. For another, growing up in Las Vegas is a formative experience that is unique enough to supplant the absence of a longer cultural tradition: my identity is rooted heavily in the bizarre combination of alien desert and gaudy neon and the idea that when you’re done with a building you can blow it up and all-you-can-eat buffets. I don’t need stories about how my family celebrates the winter holidays when I have stories about how I used to dance The Nutcracker in the same theatre where Penn and Teller used to perform. I glom onto others’ traditions: I show up at my best friend’s family’s gut-busting Italian Thanksgiving table, I follow along in the Haggadah at my sister’s in-laws’ Seder.

And so in the absence of cultural stereotypes to point to, I have always believed that my family and me are our own special brand of weird. Buttoned-up, introverted, antisocial, uncomfortable in crowds, happiest without sunlight, suspicious of strangers: that’s us, I thought, and nobody else.

Then I went to Finland.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic. We are not dyed-in-the-wool Finns, although I’m pretty sure I could have stayed in the sauna for way longer than my boyfriend wanted to. But I have never felt more at home than I did walking down a street where nobody tried to make eye contact with me or, God forbid, small talk. Nobody swore at me—at least not to my face, although I assume that any American blundering her way through a foreign country where the only phrase she knows is “kiss my bellybutton, you pancake-head” (thanks, Grandma Joyce, for that valuable childhood lesson) is getting a few words tossed after her on the street—but it’s a great relief to discover that I can blame my sailor mouth on my heritage, not the fact that I’m too vulgar to be allowed on playgrounds. And it’s socially acceptable there to drink coffee all day long, just like it is in Silicon Valley, only I still didn’t discover some long-dormant genetic trait that lets me drink coffee after noon without finding myself still awake in bed fourteen hours later. (I trust that after enough months with only a few hours of sunlight each day, I would adapt. I may explore this hypothesis one day.)

Before I traveled to Helsinki—which, for the record, is actually kind of boring, although I maintain that I don’t need much more than a beer bar with library shelves and old typewriters and coffee shops on every block, both of which Helsinki has—the only Finnish trope I knew was also my favorite. It’s called sisu: a sort of inborn stoicism that imbues Finns with the wherewithal to keep going in the face of things like months-long winters and Viking invasions.

I’ve taken sort of a WebMD approach to this inner strength: if the Internet tells me that according to the symptoms of my origins I have it, then I have it, even if the quarter-Italian-the-rest-English-Irish-and-Scottish half of me is urging me to give up and eat some pasta. I think it’s probably also supposed to imbue me with the strength I need to do things like actually kill the cockroach in my apartment myself instead of running away for six hours and pretending it was never there, or put on my big-girl pants and board the freaking turboprop, but I use it mostly to help me get through my versions of Viking invasions. I have sisu, I tell myself when I am feeling particularly vulnerable to the image of my weight-restored stomach in the mirror, I will eat this burrito and I will enjoy it. (I think perhaps my Finnish ancestors would roll in their graves to hear that I invoke sisu to get me through the hardship of eating a burrito, but in the absence of Vikings to combat, I have to make do with the dramas I can find.)

“You rejuvenate like Wolverine,” my coworker said to me once, maybe a week or two after my life fell apart at the seams, when I was sitting at my desk and gritting my teeth through some assignment that I probably could have turned down if I had mentioned that my boyfriend dumped me in Palo Alto (PALO ALTO!!!) and also I had been starving myself for several months. I declined. I declined at any point over the course of that year to mention to anyone at work that I was anything less than full speed ahead, ready to roll, not malnourished and miserable and the emotional equivalent of your iPhone when the battery icon turns red. Possibly, that was the Silicon Valley ethos whereby you don’t quit until you’re dead or you’re out of Pellegrino in the kitchenette; I like to argue that it was sisu. I am a Finn, or at least part of me is. I don’t need anybody to yank me back up the canyon. I can claw my way back from the brink.

Finland was serene. Nobody is walking down the streets of Helsinki gritting their teeth or growling at their demons under their breath. Everyone is going silently about their business, speaking when spoken to, drinking their coffee. I like to think it’s because we have to save the mental strength we’d otherwise expend on small talk so that we don’t have to cry uncle when we could otherwise call up our sisu. I found it very comforting to be in a place where everyone spoke at a volume that my ears could handle, where the loudest thing I heard all week was a guy playing Neil Young covers on a guitar in the doorway to a bar on Roobertinkatu. It was the first time that I’ve been to a place where I felt like people operated at the speed and volume that I wanted to, except for when we used to visit Grandma in assisted living. (This was better mostly because there was more beer, although arguably the food was as mushy.) I did not feel compelled to make jokes with the barista about renaming coffee “bean juice,” unlike the last time I went to Rebel Coffee on Eighth, which will probably be the last time I go to Rebel Coffee on Eighth, because it hurt my soul. Nobody dared play their music without headphones on the train, nobody elbowed their way in front of me to board the plane before I did, nobody stuck a clipboard in my face trying to get me to donate to Greenpeace on my way to yoga.

And best of all, everyone is always on time.

freshman disorientation

Nothing prepared me for the first time that I tried to walk from one building on Vassar’s campus to another alone. It was before smartphones or even the proper signage that the fire department recently forced the college to install. I was hell-bent on finding my own way, no way was I going to ask anyone for directions, never mind that I was so obviously a tourist that I might as well have been wearing a fanny pack. (I was, after all, wearing a lanyard. At the time, it felt sophisticated. I was eighteen! A college woman! I drank vodka! Out of Nalgenes, and it was raspberry-flavored, but still.)

I don’t remember how I managed to get from the lawn outside Josselyn House to Main Building. I assume it involved a map, although that’s one of several details from my first months in college that I’ve excised from my memory on the basis that I was way too cool to do something as lame as look at a map while wearing a lanyard. Similarly, I never threw up in public, and that series of photos that keeps cropping up in this week’s “On This Day” where I am wearing what looks like the entire Old Navy clearance rack in at least one size too small is obviously Photoshopped.

What I do remember is that that was when I realized that from that moment on, it was up to me—for the first time in my life—to figure out what to do next. Driving was like this too, to a degree; nobody puts 20,000 miles on a car in Las Vegas without finding themselves on the wrong Durango (am I right, Las Vegans?). But that was only ever temporary. I’d pull over and study my MapQuest printout, maybe cry a little bit, but I was always on my way home eventually.

And the next morning, even if I ignored my alarm, my mother would be there to drag me out of bed and to school, where I went to the classes that I had selected from a diverse menu that offered things like A.P. English, Honors English, and English where they’re going to assign To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth year in a row in the valiant hope that someone will read it and encourage the rest of the future valets of America not to vote for Trump. I would eat crackers with peanut butter for lunch and I would do my calculus homework. I would date the boy who sat next to me in biology class, and then we would break up and I would write poetry about his Converse sneakers, and then I would date his friend, and then I would date his other friend, and then I would have run through all of the straight men who weren’t being assigned To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth time in a row. It had all been laid out for me.

So there I was, eighteen years old, realizing that not only did I need to figure out which of the seventeen sidewalks in front of me led to the building where I could sign up to audition for a cappella (I got rejected) but I also needed to downselect from approximately one billion classes to five and figure out which of the oodles of straight boys who lived on my hallway was the right one to stick my skintight Old Navy tank top-clad chest at. My map, needless to say, did not provide me with the information that I needed to choose wisely. (Particularly for that red herring of a last question, whose obvious answer is “don’t shit where you eat,” or more properly, “don’t shit where you all use the same gender-neutral bathroom.”)

But it was thrilling. I was kept on a short leash as a kid. I went to college 3,000 miles away to sever that leash as completely as I could. I was free for the first time to chart my own path not just across the maze of sidewalks—seriously, did Vassar design the residential quad intentionally to fuck with freshmen’s heads or is that some kind of midcentury landscape architectural feature that I missed out because I never took Art History 105-106?—but to draw, from among thousands of possibilities, what my future looked like. I had done what I’d been told to do up until then, smart kid, take A.P. English and don’t go to parties and don’t, God forbid, try to pursue a career as something that doesn’t involve a steady paycheck.

I was free, now, at last, to take my map and my lanyard and find out who I was supposed to be. (Naturally, the first answers I found to that question were things like “a person who sleeps through 9 A.M. Italian” and “someone who gained the freshman fifteen because she ate grilled cheese for every meal.”)

The sensation was powerful. I’ve spent my adult life chasing it back down.

I moved every year for the first four years and then finally I stopped, and then I started traveling for work last year. Trying to order a coffee in Fitzrovia in London was the closest I’ve felt to being an eighteen-year-old with a lanyard around her neck and the world at her feet, so I kept going. A hundred thousand miles later, I suspect that that might be the last time I get to feel that way. After London and Wellington and Toulouse and Sydney and Melbourne I know now that there are a lot of things that are possible, like the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich or that you can be a person whose commute is riding a ferry past the Sydney Opera House every morning.

But I also know that possibilities are not unlimited. By the end of my fourth year at Vassar, I could have crossed that maze of sidewalks with my eyes closed, and I had lost any illusions that just leaving Las Vegas would turn me into someone worldly. The forehead in the Global Entry kiosk photo is the same forehead that left Newark five or ten or fifteen days prior. (As an aside, someone should let Customs and Border Patrol know that they should have considered the full of range of adult heights when they were ordering those kiosks. Maybe if they ever review my file and realize that it’s just a gallery of pictures of the top of my head, they’ll put in for replacements.) I have changed more walking six blocks down Second Avenue, the length of time it takes to get in an argument that puts the wheels in motion for disaster five months later, than I have flying 15,000 miles around the world.

It’s not the setting that transforms me, in short. What in retrospect turn out to be the precipices off which I’ve fallen into new states of being are less exciting than the ones I would imagine them to be. It wasn’t the guy I “met cute” at a bar in a snowstorm whose medicine cabinet now holds a shelf of my things; it was the one I’d known for a year prior. Going to college 3,000 miles away didn’t turn me into the person I suspected I might be; auditioning for the spring musical there did. The world has always been at my feet, regardless of where those feet are situated. (And I still can’t find my way without a map, although at least now I can at least pretend that I’m texting while walking instead of bumbling around like Clark Griswold.)

In June, I went to my five-year reunion. Crossing campus was disorienting—it wasn’t quite like riding a bike, not after five years that I’ve spent learning to navigate so many different cities. My mind only has so much room, and most of it is filled with things like the names of every member of the Kardashian family. I felt a little frisson of remembering what it was like to be younger, to have illusions of what the world was going to be like now that I got to decide whether or not I woke up for class and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I got lost more than once that weekend. I guess that a place that I once knew like the back of my hand can still surprise me.

up in the air

“You got Big Green?” my dad used to ask me every time I’d come home for a stretch—first those monthlong winter breaks in college, later a week’s vacation from the office. I’d nod yes, sheepishly, well aware that I didn’t need to bring a suitcase large enough to stash a body in for a weeklong vacation. (Especially given my utter lack of fashion sense. What was I packing, anyway?)

Big Green was a gift from my mother, handed down when I left for college: the largest in a set of pea-green suitcases with lovely quilted paneling that the designer surely chose without considering the indignity of baggage handling. I lugged Big Green back and forth from Las Vegas to Poughkeepsie for four years and when I started hopscotching around the world on business travel a few years later, it came along.

I flew many times before I left for college and was always quite indifferent to it. Flying was the way I got to Grandma’s house, or to Astro Camp, and sometimes I got stuck facing backwards in the lounge seats on Southwest but other than that it wasn’t much of an ordeal. I was going somewhere and I’d be back soon and in the meantime, I’d get to build a bottle rocket.

I packed Big Green for our first trip to Poughkeepsie with confidence. I was going to be the glamorous girl from the West Coast who took Vassar by storm. “Just don’t let me die in a plane crash before I lose my virginity,” I thought to myself as the plane rumbled over the Midwest, Big Green below me in cargo carrying my most precious earthly possessions (ballet slippers, my diary, and a bunch of low-cut tank tops I wouldn’t have dared wear out of the house until I left it).

I returned home several weeks later, unsure of who I was in the way that only an eighteen-year-old can be and wishing that I’d said, perhaps, “Don’t let me die in a plane crash before I get elected senator.” I made my grand entrance into college life with a resounding thump, sweating indelicately on strangers at parties and failing psychology quizzes and tripping all over myself in ballet class.

I trundled back home, Big Green in tow, feeling stupid, untalented, and sweaty. On the return flight, I stared out the window and cried noisily and probably a little more dramatically than was necessary.

Nobody noticed. I decided, then, that the airplane was the only place where I could be my true self. (It was hard, being eighteen.)

The act of travel was stressful. For one, the trek was one that I probably wouldn’t have signed up for if I’d realized what it entailed: a ride in an unmetered, cigar-smelling cab, an hour and a half on the Metro-North to Grand Central, a rattling bus from Grand Central to JFK, a flight to Philadelphia, and then at last to Las Vegas (never does the sound of slot machines sound as comforting as to the prodigal daughter returning home to McCarran Airport). There were always several flights of stairs to drag the suitcase up and down and a gate agent looking down their nose at my 51-pound suitcase (“Can you fit that hairdryer in your purse, miss?”).

More stressful, though, was the knowledge of what lay ahead. At home, there were unspoken questions about my grades, my career plans, my love life. At school, there were my grades, my career plans, my love life. But on the plane, there were pretzels and free soda, and for twelve solid hours I could exist in a space where nobody would look at me or think about me or, if I was lucky, talk to me.

In Las Vegas, I was one girl; at Vassar, I was another. In between, I was an unoccupied vessel. Unoccupied but for pretzels and free soda and “Three Days in Guadalajara” in the United in-flight magazine.

It was blissful to be alone. To be a student at Vassar today—probably, to be a student anywhere today—is to be constantly scrutinized. I felt powerless to throw off the identity that had been assigned to me when I arrived in Poughkeepsie. (The contents of my suitcase, it seemed, were not enough to keep me me.) On the plane, nobody knew who I kissed last weekend or what play I didn’t get cast in. They didn’t ask me what I was planning to do with that English degree or what classes I’d take next year.

I began to wonder whether I could engineer a situation for myself like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal,” only with meal vouchers and a 24-hour Hudson News nearby. I envisioned myself aging into oblivion in one of the Adirondack chairs in the Philadelphia airport, eating peach rings and reading Entertainment Weekly with my earbuds in.

Reentry, of course, was never quite so unpleasant as I’d worry. In Las Vegas, my father would greet me with outstretched arms and a groan at the sight of my overstuffed suitcase. In Poughkeepsie, I’d drag Big Green up four flights of stairs to my dorm room and wake the next morning, arms sore, reacquainting myself with the radiator’s alien rattle.

(I convinced myself repeatedly over ten years that Big Green was smaller than it actually was. Once, memorably, I brought Big Green home with me from Poughkeepsie via Washington, D.C. for my sister’s graduation from law school, down four flights of stairs out of my dorm and down to more to the train in Poughkeepsie and up one at Penn Station and then, lost in the rabbit warren of Penn Station, up and down again, then, finally, to Union Station, where bless the good people of Washington, D.C., there are escalators.)

Big Green grew up with me as I moved to New York City for the first time, when I booked my one-way flight for New Year’s Eve as both a symbolic gesture and an excuse to avoid my second-least favorite holiday, and then again four months later when I absconded to California.

Today, I fly many times a year for work. Business travel is delicious in a whole new way: I fly from New York to San Francisco or Los Angeles, toting my laptop and feeling chic for about five minutes until I realize that nobody on the plane is peeing as often as I am. (This is true on the ground, as well, but it’s more obvious when you’re all waiting for the same closet in the same metal tube.)

I spend most of my time in the air flailing around with my neck pillow and my Kindle and my laptop and my several bottles of water—hence the peeing—and the blankets and pillows that United hands out, pointedly avoiding thinking about their provenance. (Are they washed between uses? Are they disposable? What’s better, getting Ebola from an airplane blanket or being single-handedly responsible for climate change?)

We talk at work about “protecting” our time. “Do you think you’ll be able to protect your winter break?” my manager asks me, like I’m the Olympic flame and time off is the guy sitting next to it looking bored at three in the morning. My favorite way to protect my time is to fly, where even if the plane does have WiFi I can say it was broken and spend a blissful six hours reading something trashy on my Kindle instead. (If anyone who pays me is reading this, don’t worry. I’m just protecting my time.)

I no longer feel that I’m flying back and forth between selves. Instead, I feel that I’ve strewn bits of identity around the world and through time: here, on a kitchen countertop in San Francisco where I sat, giggling, while my boyfriend fed slices of pear into my open mouth; there, in a café on rue de Gambetta in Toulouse where I watched two policemen in bulletproof vests trade air kisses. In a puddle-jumper over the Palouse where the woman next to me put her hand on mine to stop it shaking; on a Dreamliner over the Pacific where I curled up on the open seat next to mine and woke up with my head practically in the lap of the teenager two seats away.

I bought a new suitcase recently. Big Green was falling apart and besides, a business traveler like myself needs suitcases as chic as her image. (Note for posterity that on my new suitcase’s second trip, the TSA agent manning the body scanner dove in the machine to tell me that if I’m under twelve, I’m not allowed in there.)

I put Big Green out on the curb next to the trash cans and was struck by way more nostalgia than anyone should feel for a suitcase, like I had packed up all my past selves and sent them out to pasture instead of just a suitcase with a giant hole in the side. It’s only appropriate, since I’m no longer the kid coming home from college with an enormous suitcase and an inferiority complex. I’m letting go of my baggage (you see what I did there?!) and traveling lighter. I don’t need to pack myself anymore, I guess—I’ll decide who I am when I get there.

american idiot

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“Um, I’m sorry, what?”

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“I’m–um–sorry, one more time?”

“D’ya want [incomprehensible noise]?”

“I… no. No, thanks.”

 

I am in London, in a cafe on Charlotte Street, where I learn in short order that drip coffee is an American thing, and there is something else that I could have on my avocado toast, but I don’t know what it is and I’m not going to say yes on the off-chance it’s Marmite. That seems like the kind of stunt they might pull in a country where coffee is served in cups that look like doll furniture. Nobody’s awake enough to know better.

It’s the first time I’ve left America in nearly a decade. I live in a world where this is rare: as an employee of a multinational corporation, and also a white person who went to liberal arts college, my unmarked passport is a curiosity. (“Is she on the Do Not Fly list?” “Is she afraid of Canadians?” “Was she banned from crossing the border after trying to bring an agricultural product through Customs?”) The State Department sent it to me in an envelope the December before last and I’m fidgety with excitement when it finally makes sense to fly to Europe for this project I’ve been working on for months.

The last time I flew to Europe, I was seventeen, on a school tour. We took photos of ourselves posing in a circle around a Beefeater at the Tower of London and walking the crosswalk at Abbey Road. This time, I’m 25 and I spend the flight pounding out the script for a marketing video on my laptop. I feel wildly sophisticated until I remember that I’m sitting in a middle seat in economy wearing leggings that I bought on sale at Nordstrom Rack.

I feel nervous walking through Customs. People in uniform terrify me. I am even impressed by the TSA employees at security in the U.S. who hold up the iPads and stare at you to see if you do, indeed, follow the arrow to the left. (As an aside, I’m a tax-and-spend liberal to the point of socialism and I think you should be paying for my tampons, but even I think this is a bizarre place for the government to be spending money. Why not buy the TSA agents more impressive uniforms?) I know all I have to say is I’m traveling for business, here’s when I’m returning, I work in software, but I open my mouth and suddenly I’m waving my arms around telling a Customs agent in my most sophisticated vocabulary (read: lots of syllables) about how I’m here to work on presentations and I’m staying in Soho and I used to have a passport but it expired and now I have this new shiny one and–and then he stamps it, compliments my handwriting, and tells me my presentation skills are very un-American.

I take this as a compliment and glide into the London night, where I am immediately alarmed at the sight of my driver climbing into the passenger seat. Unfortunately, this is a harbinger of things to come; in spite of the trust the Customs agent has placed in me, I am as American as flannel and Michelob Light.

I’ve spent most of my life living in tourist traps–from Las Vegas to D.C. and now in New York–and as a result I’ve developed a healthy distaste for tourists and their fanny packs and their standing on the left on the goddamn Metro escalator, I swear to Jesus I don’t care if you’re from Podunk, Nofreakingwhere and you’ve never seen an escalator before, I WILL SHOVE YOU BODILY DOWN IT IF YOU DON’T MOVE TO THE RIGHT. I take great pride in being mistaken for a local and have possibly given bad directions because I’m so excited that someone asked me for them that I didn’t have the heart to say “No, I’m not actually from here, I don’t know how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge.” Instead, I draw on my street cred and tell them to go left.

I have no such street cred in London. I am suddenly and painfully aware not only of how American, but how Californian I sound. I picture the girl at the cafe after I take my avocado toast out into the rain turning to the customers in the shop and mimicking my hyper-American chatter: “Do you have coffee? I mean, I know you have–like, just a–I’m sorry, can I just get that thing? That thing that that guy just got? I’m so sorry. Also, avocado toast? Um, I’m sorry, what?” I consider learning key phrases like “Can I please have avocado toast?” in sign language and communicating exclusively through gesture for the rest of the trip.

It’s the coffee that gets me more than anything. When I moved to New York, I made the mistake of ordering my coffee “regular” and was horrified to discover upon my first sip that the man at the bodega had given me what you would give a five-year-old to introduce them to coffee. (It was two ice cubes and a trip through the blender from being a Frappucino. I won’t touch cigarettes and I don’t like spicy food, but God help the barista who serves me coffee that looks like anything but tar.) I wonder if there is a magic word in London like in New York, where now I order my coffee every day from the cart on the corner: “Large coffee black in a bag” and the man hands it to me and says, “No sugar because you’re sweet enough without it!” and then I spill it down my front.

In London, there is no magic word. There are only Americanos.

I overcome the indignity of being served espresso water and continue down the street toward Soho Square. This street has changed names at least twice since I’ve started out from my apartment–my flat, which sounds so posh when you say it in a British accent and so dimwitted when I say it (same goes for “posh,” for the record). This is just one of the several challenges I encounter as an American walking down the street in London. Half the time I can’t find the street sign at all–why is it plastered up on the building? In America, we paint our street signs green and stick them in middle of the sidewalk so we can watch people who are texting-while-walking walk face-first into a street sign!

I also find it quite hard to locate the Walk/Don’t Walk sign, which is ridiculously small and should be enlarged for my tiny American brain which is so accustomed to large things, like Big Gulps and the Mall of America. This is of secondary importance to the fact that I am apparently so constitutionally incapable of overcoming my instinct to look to the left for oncoming cars that it’s a wonder I’m not plastered on someone’s undercarriage. This all bodes ill for my dreams of becoming an international jetsetter or even a functional human. Apparently, I have mastered street signs in one country and there shall be no more. If I value my health and safety, I should probably take my next trip to somewhere less exotic, like Vancouver or maybe Pittsburgh.

I want more than anything to go to Japan, though. I think this is mostly because I’ve been tearing through Haruki Murakami’s ouevre and I love the idea of getting to be a manic pixie dream girl without having to do a bunch of drugs. I have this fantasy where I show up and somehow my kind of grungy elementary art school teacher wardrobe is replaced with a bunch of dresses from the Japanese version of Ann Taylor and I deliver messages to a mild-mannered salaryman who needs to have sex with me to, you know, self-actualize. I don’t know how this is ever going to happen if I can’t even cross the street in a country where everything is in English.

This trip is a well-timed reminder that I’m just as much of a buffoon as the tourists who wait for the Walk sign to change before they cross the street in the Meatpacking District. I like to pretend I’m worldly and cosmopolitan because I’ve lived in cities all my life, but my passport–now with one stamp and a sticker on the back!–is proof that I’m as provincial as everyone in the line for Georgetown Cupcakes on M Street. (Maybe not as provincial as them. I know at least to go to Baked and Wired.)

I will try to remember this sensation–the flush in my cheeks as I pull coins out of my wallet one by one and hand them to the counter girl until I’ve given her enough to pay for what I’m hoping is oatmeal, because when I was a kid I always assumed “porridge” was something like an edible form of glue–the next time I’m frustrated by some brigade of West Virginians wearing matching neon T-shirts climbing the marble at the World War II Memorial and hanging all over the left side of the escalator on the Metro. I’ll remind myself that I’ve been a fish out of water, too, and I’ll take a deep breath.

And then I’ll tell them to STAND ON THE GODDAMN RIGHT, YOU MORONS, PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO GET TO WORK HERE!