I’ll Never Vote Absentee Again

An Italian friend of mine once remarked, “I can always spot the Americans.”

I was expecting to hear something about white sneakers, loud voices and fanny packs. Instead, she said, “They smile for no reason. Are super friendly and talk to everyone … they also have nice teeth.”

I remembered her words when I was living abroad … the many, many times I was surrounded by people but felt utterly disconnected. Partly a language barrier, with the onus on me to improve my Spanish. But also a cultural difference. In my experience, most Europeans don’t engage in idle chit chat with strangers the way Americans do.

It is one of the things I missed most about the United States when I was living in Spain — the chance for serendipitous connection.

I received that gift in spades this morning … waiting in line to cast my vote, one day before elections.

Nikki and I arrived in Welles Park a little before 9 a.m. The line had just begun to form. Or so it seemed. The sun was shining on an unseasonably warm November day. And we watched through a window as the voting stations filled before us, oblivious that it would be two hours before we would arrive in that place ourselves.

During those two hours we met the granddaughter of a Turkish immigrant and her beautiful six-month-old daughter, swaddled in pink and strapped to her mother in a Baby Bjorn. She joked about being Muslim. Her husband being Mexican. And that if things went the wrong way, it would be hard to know who would be deported first.

During those two hours I met a neighbor of mine. He seemed familiar to me but I wasn’t sure if I had been looking at him for so long that that was the reason. Turns out we live on the same street. And that he lived in Madrid for a semester abroad in 1988. We talked about architecture, food, travel and the fall out of Franco. How the north feels more French. And how physically safe we felt living there.

During those two hours I learned that our wait was comparatively short compared to the people who voted yesterday. That most voters had been patient and nice. And that Nikki’s shoes will always be a source of conversation – today’s choice, a pair of red, white and black Fleuvogs.

I watched the kindness of strangers as the baby in pink started to fuss and one man volunteered, “Go ahead of us. No one will mind.” And everyone agreed. Instead, she fell asleep pressed to her mother, waking just as it was “their” turn to vote. I took a photograph so mom could tell her about this one day.

When it was finally my turn, I was directed to a voting booth just next to my neighbor. I smiled and whispered to him, “Do it right.” He winked back.

And then I stood in silence. Heart beating wildly. Fingers trembling. Nodding and teary-eyed as I pressed the button casting my vote for the first female president of the United States. A vote I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the opportunity to make in my lifetime. I then completed the ballot and reviewed it once, twice, three times to make certain I had marked the correct box.

I received a paper bracelet with the words, “I Voted. Did You?” on the way out. I quickly peeled off the sticky label, wrapped it around my wrist and waited for Nikki. A few minutes later she emerged, along with the man who had told the baby’s mother to “Go ahead.”

The three of us put our wrists together, took a photograph, and exchanged names – which I promptly forgot. But it didn’t really matter. We had shared a moment together where we had hoped to make history – three smiling-for-no-reason, friendly, talk-to-everyone Americans with nice teeth.

I’ll never vote absentee again.

 

 

 

 

 

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Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 or What and Who I Will Remember in 16 Years

Sixteen years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.
All these years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.

Sixteen years ago, my ex and I took our first overseas trip together – to Spain for the Christmas holiday.

While moving to Madrid is an experience all mine, there are moments when my past and present collide. Strangely, mostly in regards to food.

Walking up Gran Via, I stumble upon the neon sign of Museo Chicote — Madrid’s oldest cocktail bar, a place Hemmingway used to frequent.

I had circled it in our Frommers’ guide and we sought it out upon arrival. Dimly lit and cool in a retro kind of way. They served potato chips with their drinks, scooping them from wooden drawers that looked like library card-catalog files.

Knowing in my bones that I am close to the anonymous third-floor walkup hotel where we stayed for $30 a night – the one with the ridiculously comfortable foam mattress — and having that feeling confirmed when I spy the Nebraska Cafeteria, the name as surprising to me now as it was then.

Shopping for food at El Corte Ingles– like Sears when it carried everything, even houses — but better, higher end.

We picked up smoked salmon, baguettes and wine on our final night in Spain and spread it out for a picnic on our bed at a boutique hotel recently purchased by Best Western. An over-sized room by European standards, with a deep, tiled bathtub and television which ran CNN – creature comforts at the end of 10 days of traveling, most of it while fighting the flu.

It was raining and cold…and truth told, we couldn’t bear to do battle with Spanish restaurants one more time.

Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 – sometimes the seemingly simple act of ordering a meal in a country where you do not speak the language is overwhelming.

For the better part of our trip we wandered the streets of Spain until way past hungry, and when we finally decided upon a restaurant, were often baffled. Do we just sit down? Do we wait to be seated? Do we order at the counter? Do we pay now? Do we pay later? Do we ask for the bill?

What do these words mean on the menu?

We pulled out our translator – a charming and antiquated apparatus by today’s standards – and were met with responses like “spoon of the world.” Useless.

Eventually we found our rhythm, often opting to sit at counters and order tapas – pointing to what we wanted rather than risking another menu fiasco.

I had forgotten about this until a little over three weeks ago, when I arrived in Spain and tripped over myself at restaurants – again uncertain whether to sit or be seated, and often disappointed with what I thought I had ordered. Seems Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 also applies to new expats.

I quickly found myself shopping at the CarreFour for yogurt and thinly sliced cured meats, and picking up figs, tomatoes, melon and salad greens at any one of several produce markets on my street. My classmates marveled at my healthy looking salads, fruit, brown rice and chickpeas.

What I didn’t mention was dinner often consisted of gelato, eaten on the street. That at the end of a 10-hour school day, navigating a restaurant – coupled with the cultural norm that it is highly unusual to eat alone here (“A waiter will bring a glass of wine to a woman eating alone because he pities her,” a friend of a friend told me.) – was often more than I could take on.

It is both humbling and frustrating to experience and to admit — as are many things about being an immigrant.

And I find myself incongruently grateful when sharing a meal with someone who has lived here longer than me — who knows how to wrangle us a bowl of gazpacho for lunch when it is not on the menu.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those awkward meals my ex and I shared 16 years ago. And how all these years later we remember the beautiful food – a simple tortilla Espanola eaten outside of the train station in Sitges, and a feast of fresh crustaceans in Barcelona on Christmas night – but not the disappointments.

And more than that, we remember the quest — the journey, the experiences, the people. The girls in Santa caps who served us tuna sandwiches. The waiter who rescued my ex when he got locked in the restaurant bathroom, who learned English on a kibbutz in Israel and who pointed this Wandering Jewess to the synagogue across the way after dinner.

The what’s and who’s I imagine I will remember in 16 years.

Artist Date 66: Risk It. Sell It. Consider It.

I recently entered a Weight Watchers-sponsored contest called, “You Only Live Once,” where I described a bucket-list dream, one that is possible only now that I am a healthy weight.

I had two.  One, to dance in Senegal with my instructor Idy Ciss.  The other, to dance Alvin Ailey Workshop classes in New York.

Before Class.  "I am here!"
Before Class. “I am here!”

I didn’t win.  But clearly the universe heard my desire as I am about to walk into a 90-minute Master Class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Artist Date 66.

I feel a little bit like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.  A self-identified outsider taking another step inside the sometimes seemingly-closed world of dance.

I notice the opportunity a few weeks ago while purchasing tickets for the Ailey shows.  The class lists as intermediate, and I hope my six years of West African instruction will qualify me.

Three days before the workshop I get a call from the Auditorium Theatre requesting payment.  I am in.

I am over the moon.

And now, standing at the studio doorway, I feel I should be more nervous than I am.  But as I told my dear friend the night before, “The worst that happens is they say, ‘You suck.  Please sit down.’ ”

I can live with that.

Inside I meet Kristen.  She recognizes me from the Ailey shows earlier in the week – seeing me pin a slip of paper to a board in the lobby reading, “How Does Alvin Ailey inspire you?”

“To Dance.  No matter how badly.”  I scrawl.

Today I will get my opportunity.

There are about a dozen of us here.  I am the oldest by at least 15 years.   Surprisingly, this lends me a sense of calm and confidence, which I do not question.

We are joined by company member, Antonio Douthit-Boyd.  He appears to be wearing slippers on his feet – quilted booties.  I wonder where he is coming from as it is snowing outside.

He moves quickly through the warm up.  Much more quickly than I am used to.  I breathe and do what I can.  So far so good.

He moves across the floor, making adjustments to each dancer’s movements and posture.  “Widen your legs.  Go lower now.  Keep your balance.  See.”  “Jut your hip first.  Muuuch more movement.  Excellent.”

He comes to me.  I do not avert my eyes, hoping he will not notice me, in case I am doing it wrong.  I smile at him.

“Beautiful flat back,” he says, touching the space between my wings.  I lower into the squat – legs wide, and come up on to my toes.  Antonio meets my outstretched arms with his own, our fingertips touching.   My legs are shaking.  I struggle to balance.  “Good,” he says.

Before class begins.
Before class. One of the “significantly more trained” dancers.

The other dancers have had significantly more training than I.  It is clear.  Ballet.  Jazz.  Modern.  They nod knowingly to the terms Antonio throws out.  And more importantly, they can execute them.  I am in over my head.  Kind of.  But I just keep moving.  Smiling.  Trying to mimic the other dancers.

I notice that I am not frustrated.  I am not angry.  I do not stop.

I do not ask Antonio to slow down and bring the class to my level.  I do not burst into tears.

I have done all of these things previously.

I am not jealous or envious.  I notice the beauty of the dancers.  Their bodies.  What they can do.

I am amazed by my response.

I am equally amazed that I occasionally “nail it.”

Moving across the floor – a quick, leg-cross-over-leg, jazz step.  Hips wagging.  I think of Harry Detry, another of my teachers at the Old Town School, calling out over the drums, “Shake your babaloo!”  “Sell it!”

I am “selling it.”  And I know it.  Antonio does too, clapping, “Yes! Yes!  That’s it.”

But the final movement has me stymied.  Leap, cross over, lift the other leg, turn, lift the other leg, jump.  Or something like that.

I am not even close.

No one cares.  No one is watching me.   They are watching themselves.  I am free.

And in that freedom, I see the pattern that will keep my body in constant motion.  Give me my momentum.  Right leg back, left leg back, right leg back, left leg back.

After class.  All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.
After class. All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

“Yes, better.”

It is.  But I still don’t have it.

A couple more times across the floor and I might.  But it doesn’t matter.  I risked being “the worst.”  And by all accounts, I was.  But I don’t feel like it.  Not even close.  Just less trained.

Pulling on my jeans, my body feels different.  My pelvis is open.  Open – I could drop a baby out of me with a single squat – open.  I like it.

It is the ballet, I am certain of it.  The one type of dance I never consider.

I do not have a ballet body, I tell myself.  I don’t even know what that is.  It is an excuse.

And I am out of excuses.

I consider it.

Cotton is the Proper Gift for a Was-A-Versary

Today is my wedding anniversary.

Twelve years ago today...
Twelve years ago today…

Except I’m no longer married.

What do you call an anniversary that is no longer?

Was-a-versary? Once-upon-a-time-a-versary?  Just plain shitty?

Are there traditional gifts for it like for a wedding anniversary?  Paper for the first year?

Yes, of course.  Divorce papers.

And cotton for the second?  According to the wedding website, The Nest, cotton represents durability and the ability to adapt.

Yes.  This is so.  Even on days when I feel really fragile.

I don’t remember this day last year.  The first.  Perhaps it was just too painful and my brain protected me, blocking it out.  Like it does, I am told, with the pain of childbirth – this “amnesia” being necessary for the perpetuation of the species.

The amnesia has cleared.  And this year I am more than present for the pain.

It hit me out of nowhere, or so it seemed – arriving Wednesday and continuing to linger like a low-grade cold that lasts all winter long.

I arrived home from my cousin’s wedding, the second in less than 30 days, and was riding my bike when I felt a rush of energy shoot through my body.  It centered in my heart and moved out to my extremities.  Coursing, over and again.  Sharp heat.

I pedaled as hard as I could – trying to force flush this poison from my system.  It didn’t budge.

My eyes welled up behind my oversized Old Navy sunglasses.  My nose flared and felt hot.  But I couldn’t quite squeak out a cry.

I needed more than a cry.  I needed a wail.

This is the feeling I used to drink over.

I should have seen it coming.  The weddings.  The short-lived sex with a boy 12 years my junior.  It was great fun, but as so often has been the case in my history, over practically before it began.  Over before I was done.

Tim, Master Cake Maker.
Tim — Friend, former roommate and wedding-cake baker.

He told me up front he was in no place for a relationship.  But “a little sex won’t kill me,” he said.  Funny, I told him it might kill me.  I knew that somehow my heart would hurt, but I couldn’t help myself.

And then I cut a cord that tethered my ex and I together.  I told him I could not be his best friend.

Our divorce was about as amicable as they get.  We lived together through it all.  Used a mediator.  Never went to court.  The whole thing was done in less than six months.

The night before I left Seattle we sat on his bed waxing nostalgic – remembering him calling me and asking me out for the first time, and me asking “Why?”

He said I was pretty and I had cool shoes.  And then he looked in my eyes and told me I was still pretty.  That I still had cool shoes.  The next morning, I was gone before he woke.

We were close for a while.  And then we weren’t.  I began to heal.  I leaned into the people about me.  Into my art, my writing, my dance.  He noticed the change in me.  In the dwindling frequency of our conversations and commented on it.

“I guess you need space,” he remarked.  I did.  But I was so afraid of losing him in my life that I asked for it in a wishy-washy sort of way.  Backpedaling often.

When he said it again, a week or so ago, I replied in the affirmative.  This time with a little more backbone, adding, “I cannot be your best friend.”  He immediately, expectedly, retreated.

On Wednesday, home from my travels, and the whirlwind that has been my life for the past few weeks, I felt the culmination of the days and of my experiences.  Grief.  Sadness.  It crashed over me like a wave, and all I could do was feel the incredible force of it.

It reminded me of body surfing in Punta Mita with my ex – the Pacific Ocean as warm as bath water.  I got caught by a rip tide and was thrust down into the sand beneath me, head first.  Terrifying.  I began to flail, unsure which way was up.  Until I remembered what I had been taught.

wedding toastDon’t fight.  Stay still.  That my body would naturally float to the surface.  And it did.

I never told my ex, or anyone else, about the experience.  Until now.

I’ve been back in the ocean many times since then.  The experience remains with me.  A shadow.  A teaching.  A reminder, like all of my experiences – especially the most recent ones –I am durable.  Adaptable.  Like cotton.