A few days ago a friend of mine from university posted this message on my Facebook page — “Read this and thought of you this morning. Smooches bubbala!”
Every year, The New York Times recommends 52 Places to Go, one place to dream about exploring each week. The list is an ambitious forecast of which beaches will remain unspoiled, which starchitect-designed museums will live up to their renderings and which culinary treasures are worth hopping a flight to eat.
This year, we want at least one ambitious traveler to turn our wish list into an itinerary.
We are seeking a journalist who, over the course of 2018, will go to every destination on our list and tell us the story of each place and the story of life on the road. The ideal candidate is a permanent student of life and astute documentarian of the world. This person should have a well-worn passport, the ability to parachute into a place and distill its essence and to render a compelling tale with words and images.”
As part of my application, I had to write (only) 500 words on the most interesting place I’ve been to. It was fun to go back on the Marrakesh Express … Fingers crossed!!
Marrakesh – I expect it to smell otherworldly like Tangiers, fragrant with spices mixed with sea water, but it doesn’t. Instead, I notice steam rising from the black-tar cement and yellow maze-like lines that direct us inside the airport where there is no air-conditioning, no Wi-Fi, not even a vending machine selling over-priced water.
Outside, under a white tent, wooden benches teem with drivers holding signs, like breakfast, it is included with the price of our riad.
We pile into the car and drive towards the old city. A woman wearing a cobalt blue kaftan and matching head scarf keeps pace with us as we circle the roundabout. The streets are lined with palm trees and resorts tucked behind colorful walls.
We stop abruptly at an uninspired entry point to the medina. Our driver hands us over to a small man with a wheelbarrow, who tosses our luggage into it. We follow him down cobblestone streets with no names to an unremarkable door, behind it is a courtyard with a small dipping pool and our host, waiting with mint tea. He takes us to our room — white-washed and pristine with wooden shutters that look out across the courtyard to its mirror image and upward to the sky. He marks our location on a map with an X and shows us how to reach Jemaa el-Fnaa – the main square.
We snake down dusty paths with no street signs, but that more or less match the design of the map, taking photos of the low archways we pass through and doors on each corner – my own version of breadcrumbs that will lead us home.
The streets are loud with a language I do not know. Tongue-y and shrill. Spices are piled in the shape of cones – mustard, orange and saffron-colored. Babouche, brightly colored slippers with pointed toes, line the walls. I have been advised not to look unless I am prepared to purchase, so I avert my eyes, the same way the women walking two-by-two avert mine.
The labyrinth-like streets drop us on to the main square where there are rows and rows of pop-up restaurants with metal picnic tables covered with plastic, checkered tablecloths. Each host carries a stack of laminated menus and tries to pull us in. “You are so skinny. You must be hungry. Come. Eat.”
There are tall stalls with men selling fresh dates, dried apricots, cashews and almonds. Sitting perched at the top, they grab their wares with long, metal claws and hand us samples, then fill cardboard cones with our purchases. We drink fresh-fruit smoothies served in real glasses at a make-shift bar.
Snake charmers sit on the warm cement playing flutes called pungis while serpents dance to their melody, as if agreed upon before the show. Monkeys on leashes pose for photographs. Amidst the pandemonium the Muslim call to prayer sounds from tinny speakers that crackle. It passes through me like a breeze and reminds me I am a long, long way from home.
I’ve been back in the United States for a little more than a year now.
In these 12-plus months I have made a conscious choice to put down roots, to “bloom where I’m planted” – signing an apartment lease and buying furniture, dating someone who lives on the same CTA and Metra line as me, securing work and allowing myself to become “a fixture” there.
And yet, at least once a week I am greeted with “You’re here?!” or “How long are you stateside?” or “Where do you live anyway?”
The words reflect a life I’d always dreamed of – the bon vivant flitting from gorgeous here to glamorous there – and at times make it difficult to be where my feet are, here in Chicago.
Especially when Facebook reminds me that last year “On This Day” I was staying in a castle in Girona at a writers retreat; that the year before I was riding a rented bike to the beach in Valencia and sharing paella with new friends; and the year before that, I was volunteering at a chocolate festival in Umbria.
Especially when the second of two new bed pillows I recently purchased now goes unused, and I am no longer certain who will sit at my side next week when I see Patti Smith at The Music Box Theatre – an early birthday gift to myself.
Life on the other side of the Atlantic always sounds sexy — in these moments sexier still. The questions about my being here now – in Chicago — feel like a kitten rubbing its insistent head against my naked leg.
That is, until Monday at 4 pm — the day after the Chicago Marathon when T. gingerly walks into my massage room.
She and I started working together about a month ago, when a chronically tight hamstring had her questioning her ability to complete the 26.2 mile run – her first.
It was one of those easy, graceful connections where few words were necessary and those we did exchange were about our connections to Africa — my weeks in Kigali, her years in Nairobi, yellow jerrycans and her fundraising efforts to provide clean water there.
“Well?” I ask, hopefully, my voice upticking at the end of the second “L.”
Her mouth curls into a smile and she pulls a medal out of her bag.
“I did it!” she says.“Can we take a selfie? I never take selfies …”
Neither statement surprises me. I nod and say, “of course.”
Meanwhile, T. hands me the medal as she pulls her phone out of her bag.
“I think you should wear it,” she says.
I feel silly. It is her medal, her marathon. But she insists she couldn’t have done it without me. I slip the red ribbon over my head and hold the medal between our faces.
“I appreciate you,” she says.
“And I, you.”
The moment is a gift, the present of being present, knowing that being where my feet are has allowed hers to carry her 26.2 miles. I feel my roots begin to twist up and gnarl under the earth, finding their place … on this side of the Atlantic.
Muchas gracias to those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a post-divorce narrative of how 52 Artist Dates healed my heart and pointed me in the direction of my dreams –- and my goal of manifesting blog into book deal. It is a joy to share three more of their stories and how they touched mine.
October 2015. Valencia.
I am enjoying my first solo holiday since moving to Madrid. A pre-birthday celebration.
I’ve rented a bike. Treated myself to a day at the beach — complete with lounge chair, umbrella, and a massage. And feasted on paella with the friend of a friend, and her family. (A real treat — as my air bnb host has informed me restaurants do not make fresh paella for one. Solo diners have to make do with a ration, cooked up earlier in the day — mostly for tourists who don’t know the difference. Remember … “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”)
It is my last evening here. I’m strolling the beautiful, winding streets when I hear … American! Not English, American.
My head spins around, as it does every time I hear my native “twang.” Except this time I am surprised by a familiar face.
It is Gail Mathis. We met just a few weeks earlier in Madrid. And now she is here, in Valencia.
And here, nearly a year later, supporting my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Thank you, Gail! For your generous donation and for maintaining the connection of chance meetings and serendipity.
I regret I won’t see Gail when we both return to Spain this fall. Our itineraries don’t quite overlap. Plus, I’ll be at writers retreat — with the intention of manifesting a book deal for “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
The Rocaberti Writers Retreat I will be attending this October in Girona, Spain is paid in full!!
Many thanks to Angie Hubbell for donating the EXACT amount needed to help me achieve this auspicious milestone.
Angie has been a co-creator in my life for as long as I have known her.
We finally met in 2007 (We’d shared a mutual friend and had heard about one another for close to 20 years.) when she hosted my then husband and I, visiting Chicago from California, in hopes of finding a home.
After two days of real estate”touring,” we agreed on a condo we wanted to call our own. Problem was, we weren’t sure if we could afford to.
I still don’t know what kind of voodoo mathematics Angie did … all I recall is her scratching down some numbers on a margarita napkin, and showing us we could.
That same weekend our mortgage broker went AWOL. Again, Angie swooped in with a solution — connecting us with a friend of hers who brokered the deal with speed, kindness and grace.
We lived in that house for four years. Rented it for a few more. And sold it last July — days before I moved to Spain. It was the last piece tying my ex and I to one another.
I left for Madrid less than a week later, truly unencumbered. Truly free to inhabit my life. And to discover “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
I feel a bit like a political fundraiser penning a “Thanks for your donation … but there’s still work to do” email.
Yesterday I gleefully posted that the Writers Retreat I will be attending in Girona is now paid in full. What I failed to mention is I am still about $1,500 from my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign goal — as was made apparent when a friend called this morning and exclaimed, “You met your goal!” Aww … “Well, a milestone piece of it,” I responded. (Detailed cost breakdown here.)
… but there’s still work to do.
Isn’t there always?
I am a firm believer that each person we meet changes our world in some way — large or small. I also believe that, if we’re lucky, a few people change the way we live in the world.
Christine Frazita is one of those people.
I showed up in her San Francisco office in the mid 1990s, not long after parting ways with my previous psychotherapist — the one who had briefly dated my then boyfriend. And neglected to tell me about it.
Christine’s couch provided both a literal and metaphoric soft place to land. And while she was, and is, kind beyond my personal understanding or ability … she also pushed me to work hard to change the way I saw the world and myself in it.
I remember telling Christine about that then-boyfriend. How he had lived in Paris for a couple of years. How I dreamed of doing something similar, but for a variety of reasons, didn’t believe I could.
Twenty years later, I not only believed I could. I did!
Muchas, muchas gracias, Christine! For your contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. And for your help in doing the heavy lifting that got me there.
Christine sent me this sculpture of the Hindu Goddess Durga as a wedding gift. She remembered my religious studies professor at university had mentioned a Goddess particularly appropriate for and inside of me — Durga, Goddess of Power and Strength.
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
I whisper the words to no one in particular. Smiling as I take a seat in front of Marc Chagall’s “America Windows.” Moments ago, the bench was occupied, but serendipitously it is free… as if waiting for me.
My friend Colleen invited me here – to the Art Institute of Chicago – to catch up over coffee and “peel off for our independent Artist Dates.” Number 2.2 (118) for me.
She knows me. The sacredness of my weekly solo sojourn.
We breeze through admissions and before entering the exhibit –“America After the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s”– (my choice), I kiss her on either cheek, holding fiercely to the traditions of my year in Spain. I wish her joy on her Artist Date and thank her for bringing me here.
Here. This place that used to feel like my home. But that I am acutely aware I am a visitor in.
I used to be a member.
I loved sitting in on mid-day member lectures … the youngest in attendance by several times around the sun. Taking advantage of early viewings, free coat check, and complimentary coffee and tea.
But most of all, I loved the freedom to just “pop in” at any time … never worrying about “getting my money’s worth.”
I would always end up here. In front of Chagall’s Windows.
Usually I’d stand up close, looking for new details I might have missed. But today I find myself sitting back. Taking it all in. The whole of it.
It is a metaphor for the day.
The AIC is busy and the exhibit feels congested. I’m somewhat surprised as it has been up for almost two months now. There are a lot of children. And a lot of loud Midwestern accents.
It does not feel like mine anymore.
I snap photographs.
“American Landscape” by Charles Sheeler. Grimy and distinctly Midwestern. Something I kind of romanticized while living abroad. Kind of.
The frame from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” which reads, “To the Memory of Miss Linnie Schloeman Whose Interest in Young and Growing Things Made Her A Beloved Teacher In Woodrow Wilson School.”
The rolling hills that make up the naked, female form in Alexandre Hogue’s “Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare.”
The cartoonish characters and cartoonishly thick pain in William H. Johnson’s “Street Life, Harlem.”
I wander out of the exhibit and take a photograph of the words on a door across the hall – “A Lot of Sorrow.”
Yes, there is. And I am.
Moving is hard … even when I choose it. The place that was mine has changed. I knew it would. It did before. There are new inhabitants. There always are.
And yet, if I look I can still find myself here.
In the words leaping from the panels introducing the exhibit. Eerily appropriate today.
“The title of America after the Fall refers in one sense to the (stock market) crash, but is also aptly describes the pervasive concern that the nation had fallen from grace.”
“Regardless of style, many painters hoped their art could help repair a democracy damaged by economic and political chaos. The diversity of approaches made the 1930s one of the most fertile decades of American painting.”
In Archibald Motley’s “Saturday Night,” which I saw for the first time a little more than a year ago. On another Artist Date, at the Chicago Cultural Center. The date before the date – the one with the man who would become my lover for the months leading up to my departure for Spain. I smile and my heart aches just a little.
On the bench in front of “America Windows,” where today I see nothing new at all. The sameness – both beautiful and comforting.
The following long-form piece was written for and performed at Nikki Nigl’s AboutWomen in Chicago on July 19, 2016.
I have been back in Chicago exactly 12 days.
I miss Madrid.
I miss the winding cobblestone walk to my metro stop at Opera. The flat buildings washed yellow, orange and pink with black wrought iron balconies on every window. Cartoonish by streetlight. I swear I could push them over and they’d tumble. Just like a movie set.
I miss the fountain at Cibeles. That “birthday cake of a building” as Dirk used to call it. The old Correos. Post Office. Now a museum I never made it to. A “Welcome Refugees” banner hanging from its top, a fountain in front. In the center of a roundabout that leads you to the Prado or Calle Gran Via, depending on your preference.
I used to walk here on Saturday nights alone when the sun had receded but the air was still hot and all of Madrid filled the streets, up from its collective summer siesta. The goddess Cybel and her lions riding on illuminated pink and blue water.
I miss my metro pass. Fifty euros for unlimited rides on the super clean, super-fast metro that would take me anywhere in Madrid. And if it didn’t the train or the light rail would.
I miss Turron gelato.
I miss private health insurance to the tune of 57 euros a month. Gynecological exam chairs that tilt down, working with as opposed to against, gravity. I miss not having to ask for a pelvic ultrasound instead of a pap as it is a matter of course.
I miss feeling safe walking home alone at night.
I miss taking the train to Seville or Valencia for the weekend. Or a quick flight to Portugal, North Africa or Nice. I miss swimming in the Mediterranean upon reaching the coast. The salty taste of my lips and the white streaks drying on my legs surprising me.
I miss tomates that taste like tomatoes, pimientos that taste like peppers and pepinos that taste like cucumbers. I miss their names. I miss Paco choosing them for me at the market and our impromptu intercambio. His corrections to my beginner Spanish. My approval of his modest English. His stories about his daughter and the victory I felt in understanding them. Mas o menos.
I miss cheap groceries.
I miss eating rye for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Eggs that sit on the shelf. Good, inexpensive coffee.
I miss Nick, the Greek waiter at Dionisos, flirting shamelessly with me.
I miss speaking Spanglish.
I miss all of this, and yet I chose to leave it. To return to Chicago. Where I pay for every El ride. Both financially and energetically. Nausteated by the slow, insistent rattling of the train. Knowing I would get there in half the time if I still owned a car. Knowing it’s best to ask someone to walk me to the train at night in some neighborhoods. My keys laced between my fingers as I leave the station and approach my own door.
Chicago. Where politicians are proudly corrupt. People hold signs on freeway off ramps … begging for money. And 2 bags of tasteless produce cost nearly $50.
Where zero degree FARENHEIT winters are a real possibility. As is a shooting death every weekend.
I chose this.
I chose home.
Lumbering Greystone buildings, summer rainstorms and leafy maple trees. Sunday dance classes at the Old Town School of Music. Lectures at the Art Institute. Lake Michigan.
I’ve moved several times in my life. Four states, seven cities, two countries … if you count where I was born and raised. Which is not the same as home.
I learned that the first time I moved to Chicago in 2007. I’d been living between San Francisco and Oakland for nearly 14 years when my husband and I packed up our two cats and all our worldly belonging and headed east, to the Midwest, a place I vowed I’d never live again, for his medical residency.
God has a sense of humor.
It was grey and sticky, drizzly and hot when we arrived. We opened the car doors and felt the steam rise up around us, looked at one another, and without saying a word asked “What have we done?” Followed by “We are Californians. (Albeit adopted ones). This is a temporary residence. A sojourn. We will hate Chicago together.”
For months I wore ear plugs on the El and held my hand over my heart as I walked up Michigan Avenue. Each felt being accosted, until my own vibrations rose to match those of the city.
Whenever people asked where I was from, I responded, “I was born in Detroit. I live in Chicago. Oakland is my spirit home.”
But eventually … I got worn down. I surrendered. To this city. It’s people. To my addiction. I made a life for myself here. I grew my business. Got sober. And converted to the faith of my childhood – righting a religious technicality.
I stopped beginning every sentence with “In California …”
I found my biological parents. I learned to dance. I took my husband to the place where I spent my childhood summers, 8 hours away in northwest Michigan.
I began having experiences rather than talking about them.
And somewhere along the way I fell in love with this sometimes dirty, noisy, violent city. I fell in love with its architecture. Its people. Perhaps, most of all, I fell in love with myself.
Four years later I moved to Seattle. The wife of a now doctor, I felt obligated to go.
I cried like a wounded animal. Like I cried when I left Bay Area. Mourning the loss of morning hikes in Redwood Park, Peets coffee, and KFOG radio. The Golden Gate Bridge. My old house in Haight-Ashbury. The place where I met my husband and was married.
Except this time, the loss felt strictly internal. Chicago, the place, has never spoken to me. Its topography. Its flatness and lack of nature feel uninspired. But there is something in its soil, in its DNA, that takes root in me.
It called me back after a year in Seattle. When my marriage ended and for the first time in a long time, I got to choose where I would live.
And it called me back after a year in Madrid, where I was teaching English. Fulfilling a childhood dream of living overseas. One I spoke about here, just before I left, a year ago. My only lament that my passport is far less sexy than it would be pre-European Union.
Since arriving, I’ve been greeted with warm “welcome backs” and tentative “welcome homes.” And the inevitable, “What brought you back?” It’s a fair question. One I’ve grappled with myself since making the decision not to renew my visa a couple of months ago.
There are lots of reasons.
Living in a country where you don’t speak the language – at least not fluently, is at best, frustrating. At worst, infantilizing. Without words, one’s personality changes. Mi casera, my landlady, once commented “You are quiet.” To which I replied, “Not in English.”
I needed, and asked for, a lot of help. Scheduling doctors’ appointments. Opening a bank account. Translating government documents. Buying a Spanish cell phone to replace mine which didn’t work.
I slept in a twin bed in an already furnished room in a grand, old Spanish apartment. I felt like a child. I moved the bed. Removed a chest of drawers. A few pictures. I hung up a batik of Ganesh, a string of elephants on a gold chain and a vision board I created around Thanksgiving time. I was still acutely aware that the place was not “mine.” It was not “home.”
The thought of living alone, setting up internet and utilities felt overwhelming. Even friends who were fluent in Spanish waited two months or longer for connectivity. Making due with coffee shops and on occasion, cold showers.
I focused on gratitude. For the opportunity to live with this 83-year-old former UN translator who lived through the Franco era and who was willing to speak with me in halting Spanish or easy English. For my inexpensive rent and the courtyard our apartment looked out on to.
For the community I created. With other teachers. Other expats. And others I met traveling.
For the ability to see Eastern Europe, North Africa and a good deal of Spain. For getting paid, albeit not as much as I had hoped, to talk.
My students adored me. And I, them. But I was acutely aware that they were my students and not my friends … much as I wanted to talk. And much as they were eager to listen.
I had a life. But it was a smaller life.
The English-speaking community in Madrid is transient, making it difficult to build and sustain long-term friendships. And I couldn’t imagine beginning a romantic relationship … in part due to my lack of language skills. But also because of cultural differences. And while my work as a massage therapist surprisingly followed me to Spain, offering me a few clients and a few extra euros a month, my opportunities for employment would always be limited.
I felt limited.
I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago when I was talking with my friend Pam … who had spent six hours in the Social Security office. Playful, friendly and highly communicative, she said to the workers on her way out, “We’re such good friends, I’m going to invite you all to my wedding.”
“That’s it,” I said, pointing to the air, which she – of course – couldn’t see.
I can’t make small talk. I don’t have the language to strike up a conversation on the metro, in the elevator or at the grocery store. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say and how to say it … and by the time I know how, the moment is gone.
And in that moment I realized what home was.
Yes, in its simplest form, home is where I reside. Where I know how to get where I’m going and the fastest way to get there.
Home is the place where restaurants know my face, possibly my name, and often my order. Where I speak the language. And where I sometimes hear my name called out in the street.
But mostly it is a place where I can get bigger. Where I feel expansive. Where I can grow. And to grow, I need to root. Home is a place where the soil is loamy. And conditions are favorable to temperament. A place like Chicago.
Last week my boss forwarded a text from the company where I’ve been teaching. They need to cut costs and will not be continuing with English classes. So I have to cut costs. Or find more work.
I mention this to S over lunch.
He doesn’t inquire about teaching. Instead, he asks why I am not submitting my work to writing contests with cash prizes…like he has done. Or artist residencies where I can be housed and fed (and occasionally paid a small stipend) while I write.
I don’t have an answer.
He continues, casually mentioning that he will be living in Italy for five weeks this fall. In a castle. Writing.
“How’d you swing that?” I ask.
“Artist residency.” he says, right on cue. “I applied. You can too, you know.”
Yes, this is the same S who, a little more than two months ago, casually mentioned I might consider applying to the Institute of Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School. (Which I did. And from which I am now eagerly awaiting an answer.)
Clearly he is a messenger, sent directly to me.
That night I poke around the Writers and Poets website, researching writing contests with cash prizes. I am too fixated on financial concerns (and already dreaming of New Haven) to give much thought to artist residencies.
Not until the next day. Artist Date 114.
My student A has invited me to Casa de Velazquez for “Puertas Abiertas” – literally “open doors” or , more accurately, “open studios.”
A has warned me that it is a bit difficult to find. And that Google Maps isn’t particularly helpful.
She is right.
My mood is low and the weather matches it. Windy. Grey. Cold.
But I’m determined.
I walk up and down the same street again and again, looking for Avenida Arco de la Victoria, only to learn I am already on it when I finally ask for directions.
I am reminded of a huge billboard on I-75 North, on the drive from Detroit to Saginaw, Michigan to see my nana. A picture of Jesus with a caption that reads, “Are you on the right road?”
I am now.
And eventually I make my way to the large, stone structure that is less than a 15-minute walk from the metro – although it has taken me close to 45.
I send A a message, letting her know I’ve arrived. She meets me outside of the library and takes me on a short tour – at which time I learn it is not her work I’ve come to see , but that of more than a dozen artists in residency.
The timing is not lost on me.
I tell A about my conversation with S. She smiles. “Yes, you could apply for an Artist Residency,” she says, gently adding “Just not here. Because you don’t speak French.”
Indeed, I hardly speak Spanish. And some days, I’m not sure I speak English anymore either.
We walk down the hill, past the empty swimming pool and a sculpture of a pig face, to the cottages where the artists live and work. A introduces me a photographer who speaks English, and who wears the same haircut as me.
We do that, “I like your hair.” “I like YOUR hair,” elbow-nudging thing. I ask where she is from.
Everywhere. Nowhere. Last stop – Paris.
I understand. When asked the same question I pause, stymied. I’m from Detroit. But I lived in San Francisco for 14 years. Chicago for seven. A year in Seattle…I never know quite how to answer.
We talk about this. About creating a life with the whole of one’s belongings fitting neatly into one or two bags. She feels liberated by it. I feel a bit untethered.
For her, this residency is as much her residence as any other.
I leave, thinking about the word residence. Later, I look it up in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, among them:
1b: the act or fact of living or regularly staying at or in some place for … the enjoyment of a benefit.
2a: the place where one actually lives as distinguished from one’s domicile or a place of temporary sojourn.
4b: a period of active and especially full-time study, research, or teaching at a college or university.
And then I understand the difference in our perspectives.
What I have is a room in a flat in the center of Madrid. What I crave is a residence. A residency.
I’ve begun this blog what feels like a hundred times. But each time, somewhere along the way, I’ve gotten stuck.
Stuck between here and there. Stuck between Chicago and Madrid. Stuck between continuing to tell my story and just living it — holding something and someone so tender, so intimate, so close to myself. Private.
And yet, it is all part of the story of how I arrived here.
January 2015. I make the decision to move to Madrid. To become certified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and to stay on for a year with a student visa.
“I will never meet anyone now,” I lament to my therapist, and my friend K, referring to my decision. “It would be nice to spend some time with someone though…but not until I buy my ticket, because I am the kind of girl that will stay for love.”
Turns out, I’m not…because I did meet someone, in March, at a memorial for a friend’s mother. But he didn’t reach out to me until a month later –the day after I bought my plane ticket to Madrid.
The synchronicity isn’t lost on either of us.
And so, while our three months together prove to be a great love affair for both of us, it is never in question that I will get on the plane on July 28. It is already written.
We stand at the airport — kissing, crying, holding on to one another, saying goodbye. Watching and waving until I am barely visible in the TSA line. He gives me a final wave, puts his hands into namaste, blows a kiss and leaves — tears streaming down my face. Tears streaming down my face as I write this now.
I settle into my seat on the plane and receive a series of texts and photos from him, sent from the parking lot. Among them, “That was hard to do.” “So hard.” “You will always have a place in my heart.” And, “I hope your trip is a good one and that Madrid is standing there at the other end with open arms.”
Turns out, it is.
It is R. — a friend of a friend who takes me to the ex-pat bookstore, gives me a tour of his neighborhood and meets me the following day when I have a communication breakdown (and emotional meltdown) with Orange Mobil.
It is M. — another friend of a friend who meets me for a walk and pinchos (snacks) on the plaza in her neighborhood.
It is N., M. and E — women from my online writing group who live here, two Americans and a Brit, who offer to meet with me, as well as J. — the best friend of one of my Weight Watchers members who calls me several times and invites me to meet for lunch next Sunday.
It is the countless others who touch my life, if only for a moment, helping me to feel at home. My host, M., and flatmate, S., who builds the fan I purchase at Corte Ingles.
J., another customer at the Correos — Spanish Post Office — who helps translate for me. And the four women workers there who see me three days in a row, and who help me finally secure a box for letters — handwritten notes with lovely stamps as was suggested by the man who said “Hasta luego” at the airport — because, yes, we are just that romantic.
“Hasta luego” — see you later, but not “adios,” — goodbye. Mere nuance, the difference recently explained to me. A subtlety that allowed me to leave in spite of love and to remain available to open arms waiting— in Chicago, in Madrid — everywhere.
I’m supposed to be getting rid of things in preparation for my departure to Madrid later this summer — like the Bianchi road bike I sold last Friday.
Instead, I’m in a furniture store — Artist Date 108.
I’ve passed by here hundreds of times. Today there is a sign in the window pointing to a new entrance. It feels like an invitation.
Inside it is crammed with a collection of furniture sourced from India, Indonesia and other faraway places. Red bookshelves. Green sideboards. A tall chest with tiny drawers — like a library card-catalog file — each painted a different color, each begging to be filled with a special treasure.
A real desk. A weathered armoire. A butcher block on wheels — the one I never got around to buying for my kitchen.
I think of a friend who recently commented that my apartment — while inviting and well-appointed — has a sense about it that implies I never planned on staying.
Perhaps he sees the empty spaces on the futon where pillows and a throw might go. The missing bedside table. The crappy knives.
He does not mention any of these things, but I see them — reminders that I never entirely put down roots.
Or perhaps he sees the table made of suitcases stacked on their sides. The snowshoes tacked to the entryway wall. The hung pieces of fabric I collected in Rwanda. A traveler’s accoutrements.
I think of all the places I’ve lived and what made each one mine.
The Indian cotton blanket and Picasso print I bought at Cost Plus World Market to dress up my dorm room.
The Morticia Addams-style wicker chair I found at a yard sale in the Castro and carried to my apartment in Haight-Ashbury. The yellow walls in the great room of that apartment, painted with my roommate Tim in the wee hours of the morning. The scratched parsons table and chipped black bookshelves gifted to me from the As IS room at Crate and Barrel.
The mezzuzah my friend Pam gave me when I left Chicago, and that I tacked to the doorway in Seattle as soon as I arrived.
Each like a fingerprint, identifying my space.
Much of what fills my current apartment was gifted to me. Two wooden chests of drawers that had been taking up space in my friend Patrick’s storage unit — delivered on my birthday. I sobbed putting away my socks for the first time — overwhelmed and grateful to finally have a place to store them. The dining-room table my friend Tom made from a door. The lamp that was Mimi’s.
Each object has a story. I mention this to my friend — the one who says my apartment has the feeling of being inhabited by one who isn’t planning to stay.
“Somehow I knew that,” he replies.
He reminisces about traveling through India, China and the former Soviet Union — decorating rooms he would keep for just a month or two with postcards, fabric and fragrant bars of soap purchased in the market.
“You will do the same,” he reminds me.
He is right.
The idea is a comfort as I prepare to move overseas with two large suitcases and two carry-ons; my plan being to find a room already outfitted with a bed and a chest of drawers –space within a place someone else calls home.
I trust I will find it. That I will find room within a room to call my own. And that that which is mine will come to me once more, dressing up the empty spaces. A train map. A rock. A card from a lover.
A tattered copy of Tropic of Capricorn. A packet of seeds.
Each with a story I will share with that friend…and that I will share with new friends. Each a fingerprint, marking my place in the world.
I smile and rub my hand over my mostly naked head. “It must be the hair.”
“No,” she insists. “I remember you. You were here last year. You are here a lot.”
Here is the Auditorium Theater to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Here is the pre-performance mini-workshop with company dancer Hope Boykin.
Here is Artist Date 105 — marking the beginning of a third year of solo sojourns, as suggested by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way.” I had not planned to take on this commitment for another year, and yet I am here…counting numbers, filling my creative coffers, following my feet. The Artist Date has become what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit.”
I was here opening night of the run, a little more than a week ago, with my friend Julie — my brain cueing each next movement of Revelations, my body responding, leaning into the gesture while my mind completes it. I was here last year and the year before that — each time learning bits of Revelations at the mini-workshop before the show.
I was here with Martha counting the ribs of the dancers from row I — the seats, a gift from my friend Amy. I was here with Rebecca, giddy when an usher moved us from balcony to orchestra, spoiling me for all future dance performances.
And I was here alone, on other Artist Dates.
So it shouldn’t surprise me that the woman checking my name off the list might remember seeing me. Or that Kristen from the Auditorium Theater Marketing Department does too.
She is standing in front of a board covered with sticky notes and pins, each naming a patron’s “favorite Alvin Ailey memory.”
I take a Sharpie marker and add mine — dancing with Kristen at a master class led by another Ailey dancer — Antonio Douthit-Boyd. It was there I learned the definition of “intermediate” is fluid at best, and that I can be the least trained, least experienced member of a class, but that I still have a right to be there.
But I am surprised when a woman approaches Kristen and me and blurts out, “You go to my synagogue.” It feels completely out of context. It is. And she is right, I do. Although not much lately.
I think about these moments driving home. How the once daunting, seemingly exclusive world of performance seems cozy and familiar. How Chicago feels like a big, small town. And how I feel a part of both.
Making my way up Lakeshore Dive, I am flanked by twinkling skyscrapers to my left and Lake Michigan to my right. For a moment I wonder if I really want to give this up and move to Madrid.
I know just because a place feels like “Cheers” (“Where everyone knows your name.”) is not reason enough to stay. I learned that when I left Detroit and built a life in San Francisco. Again when I left that life in San Francisco and made a place for myself in Chicago. And a third time when I left that place for myself in Chicago and, as my friend Joanne likes to say, “broke the Seattle chill.”
In less than six months I will reduce my belongings to a few boxes that I will ship to my mother — mostly paperwork, plus a few keepsakes I’m not yet ready to part with — and two suitcases which will accompany me to Spain for one year, possibly, hopefully longer.
I am looking forward to going. To filling my brain with another language and culture, and my body with jamon and cafe con leche. To expanding my circle and creating one more home for myself.
I am looking forward to seeing Alvin Ailey perform on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. To perhaps dancing with Hope or Antonio again. To hearing, “Te’ recuerdo!” (“I remember you!”) And being a little surprised by it.
I used to use the Birchwood Kitchen as my office away from my office.
It was at the center of where I often found myself when I was neither at home nor at work. For the cost of an iced tea (and sometimes not even that, as I was a “regular” and often received drinks and desserts “on the house”) I had a place where I could check my emails, do some writing, take meetings or just stop and sit in between where I was and where I was going.
Sometimes the Art Institute feels like that too. Like today — Artist Date 96.
I’m sitting in the member lounge drinking puerh ginger tea and checking Facebook on my phone. Behind me, a couple is telling the bartender their story. It appears they met online — he is from London — and they are meeting now for the first time. Perhaps not now exactly — but this day, this week, this visit. It sounds crazy and exciting. I wonder how it will all turn out. I wonder if the bartender wonders, or if she is even listening.
My ex-husband used to love to come here because it made him feel just a little bit like a big shot. Flashing his card and drinking free coffee. And hey, who doesn’t like to feel just a little bit like a big shot every once in a while.
I suppose in some small way, that is what membership is about. A reward for faithfulness and patronage. Be it a free beverage, a bag with a logo, discounts or a place to stop in between here and there. And when done well, evokes a sense of identity and belonging. “One of us.”
It whispers to my unrealized teenage dream of attending art school, which at the time, I thought was the only way to be an artist. (I was wrong.)
I am reminded of this as I make my way downstairs to the Edith Stein: Master Weaver exhibit.
The exhibit is small, and there is just one other person in the gallery viewing the work. (There are two Art Institute employees here also — one of them, in my opinion, talking too loudly.)
It doesn’t move me in quite the way I had hoped. I imagined my internal seven-year-old, the one who made potholders on a plastic loom with loopers, awakened, inspired to create. Instead, I am completely enchanted by this 90-something-year-old woman.
Trained in sculpture, she turned her attention to textiles when she was in her 60s. A video loops over and again, showing her working in the studio — clad in heavy sneakers, mixing dye in a pot on top of the stove and immersing wool yarn into it as if it was pasta.
I sit on the bench in the center of the room, watching the short film several times. It is both soothing and inspiring. I want to be like her. Still working, still passionate, respected, at the top of her game.
I want to be like her when I am in my 90s. I want to be like her now.