Dreamers often find themselves disappointed but where the disappointment is born is a question that I, like many others, was understanding in the wrong perspective. We all indulge in thinking of what it would be like if our dreams were realized but that is fantasy not actual life dreams. So what are life dreams then? We hear over and over that if one wants something bad enough, one can have it and it is true. All the popular culture campaigns to push things like attitude and positive thinking only minimizes the power of real dreams and just like most of the garbage we are fed, makes us believe that thinking makes things happen. Just thinking is not the key, you have to believe it, you have to feel it. Dreams are within, the subconscious so to speak, in the spirit of Sigmund Freud’s shattering realization. What I professed as my dreams and desires were the very superficial level of what I thought I wanted or better yet, it was what I was thinking was expected of me to want. It was what I expected from myself at a conscious state of mind but beneath was more. Dream of love, art, adventure and inspiration.
The desires I had as a teen were no different than the people with whom I associated. Perhaps to fit in, perhaps to try to bridge the differences that I felt were responsible for my, largely, solitary existence. Most people I knew had simple dreams of money, power, success. Of course maybe there was more but seeing the progression of their lives, the difference between us grew larger and further apart. It is not that I felt special, I just felt different.
Surely these were common western dreams and I played along. I did what was generally expected of my age; school, outdoor sports and exploration of one sort or another. I loved to explore areas that were not really known to me and the objectively simpler times left a lot to be curious about. School came very easy for me, however, I never excelled, rather just did well. There was logic behind this kind of behavior and simply put that logic was to not stick out. Thus, my grades were good enough to stay in the honors program, that I was put in via a phone call from my mother, but nothing spectacular to be worshiped by the faculty. In fact, kids that were these so-called teachers’ pets tended to make me ill. I found their demeanor to be inauthentic and attention seeking. Truth was, I did not care that much, I just wanted things to continue on track to the destiny that awaited me. The years passed and college proved to be the place where I discovered my true interests, and thus my new mission.
Fate, it seems, had a plan of its own and my life, as I knew it anyway, ended few years later, the irony of which I could not and still cannot make peace with. The peak of my life’s blossom had engulfed me and for once in a long time I felt content and satisfied. I was very excited to be accepted into a four hundred year old university, in an ancient city surrounded by culture, beauty and sophisticated personality. Although I had been there before, this time I would actually live and attend school there. I would only have several months to really enjoy it, but I did not know this yet.
I hurt my knee badly dragging my ridiculously heavy suitcase on the first day of my journey. I had this injury before on the other leg during my previous travels, but it did not devastate me then and I would not let it slow me down now. Knowing how painful it had been to climb the small and steep stairs of old Europe, the only thing I wished for in my new home city was a ground floor hotel room, which was granted to me in a presentation of a room slightly larger than a walk-in closet, but containing my own, luxurious, personal bathroom. The night air, flowing in through a window cracked at the top, made the curtains dance and the sheets on the bed move as though alive. I undressed, took a shower and laid down in the cool bed with my book. The single serving cup and kettle were prepped and ready, the kettle, or water cooker, was slightly shaking as it boiled the water for the evening cup of tea.
I woke up in the morning, got dressed and left. The air was fresh and cool for the walk through the city to the wood and glass building in the middle of the University district where the meeting was scheduled for new students. The pain in my knee was not bothering me and I could follow the numerous excursion through the brick city with my group of foreigners and our two Dutch guides. We walked through the Red Light District, and I heard the moans and groans of the American female students, but since I had seen this before in a much cruder presentation, it was nothing new for me. I guess nothing really shocks or impresses me, but I enjoyed our time exploring the city. After several hours of meandering around the city, the group followed the path towards the largest park in the city, Vondelpark. Our Dutch guides left us to conversation with each other and in a short while returned with a shopping cart full of cheese and cheap wine to celebrate our arrival. We stayed till dark and sparking conversations with everyone at one point or another I left the park with a new friend, walked her to her tram and then walked to my nearby hotel. I finally felt alive, as though I was within life, not just an observer. How simple a day turned my self perception upside down.
The next morning began as the first one did with a walk to the meeting point for breakfast followed by an introduction and speech at a seventeenth century church standing in a commanding spot with the Singel canal and tram tracks weaving around one side of it. While listening to someone affiliated with the University speak about the city and the country. I kept trying to understand if this space was really a church as this whole situation seemed strange to me. Looking around at the archetypes of power and divine judgment that could have only been in a church I was sure that this had to be a church, but why were we here? My curiosity was soon satisfied, when it was explained that this in fact was a Lutheran church, but due to lack of attendance was taken over by the city and then by the University as an auditorium in the early part of the twentieth century. I found this bizarrely appropriate and, to my delight, discovered several other churches that were converted to social venues of one sort or another. The lessons in pronunciation and Dutch culture were only epitomized by the enlightening explanation of drinking praxis. The speech continued and, as customary, was followed by wine and cheese in a reception hall inside this ancient house of God.
Determined to change my personality from the quiet, introvert that I was, I approached a girl that I had met earlier, Anca, and soon left the reception with her to wander around the city together. Anca was a beautiful twenty-three year old exchange student from Bucharest, she spoke a variety of languages and was studying economics. With our glasses of wine, we fed each other cheese. I was drunk but not due to wine, due to her. I was infatuated as she saw her friend and stepped away to chat. I felt a little lost holding my glass of wine while she spoke to a friend in some language. She looked at me several times and finally grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me close, put her arm around my neck and we left with my arm around her waist.
We walked around the city talking about anything and everything. The city did not disappoint with its gifts of beauty and we soon found ourselves licking ice cream while sitting on a bench watching boats pass on the canal we faced. Seeing this place with someone else was different, we pointed things out to each other and enjoyed our stroll. For me this was a magical experience that stayed with me ever since. This was a dream for me. Maybe the movies or books or all of it had formed the possibility of this and now I was living it. We returned to the Dam when it was already dark. Saddened she stood in front of the tram tracks as if waiting for me to kiss her or at least do something. I was frozen. Her #2 tram came and she got on. We looked at each other through the window and the magic was over. I am not sure if it was anything as meaningful for her but I liked her a lot and perhaps my insecurity served to limit our interaction to the few days we knew each other and that one day in particular, perhaps it was never meant to be anything more, but to me that day remained special.
The following morning my stubbornness had taken me on foot to find the property management office in a very obscure part of town. Yet my only accomplishment was stopping by my favorite coffeeshop in an attempt to self-medicate and relax. Completely stoned and somewhat confused, I continued on my path to find this office. The pot did not help the pain and in some ways only served to make it worse, although I did get a thorough explanation of how to roll a joint from a Dutch guy sitting next to me. As I continued, I realized that my knowledge of the city was still quite poor and only served to get me lost and miss my appointment to receive my keys. Standing there, far from anything I recognized, with my guide book opened to the page with a map and my leg in excruciating pain I suddenly saw a bald man on the street approaching. In perfect English the man asked if I needed help and then gladly explained where I was and how to get back. I guess my somewhat panicked look aroused a sense of pity in the man, perhaps he was just nice.
Limping back along the busy street named after some sort of prince, I just wanted a cab, yet in this city a taxi can only be had at a taxi stand or by phone. Thinking in my traveler ways, I figured that a hotel would help me, and as soon as I saw one, I crawled up the stairs and into a little hotel. Sadly, the concierge or whoever the man behind the counter was pretending to be, refused to call a cab for me and simply instructed me to keep walking towards central station, which was not far from there. Although at this point I could see the station, being in severe pain made even one hundred meters seem like eternity. After the agonizing stretch, I did reach the taxi stand where I got into a South Asian’s black Mercedez which I directed to the hotel containing my living quarters that I was supposed to vacate.
The man asked about my leg and offered to drive me to the hospital, but being someone who refused to see doctors unless I had no other choice, I declined. To my extreme disappointment, my tiny room was already given to someone else and my only salvation for that night would be a room on the very top of the building. Access to this room was via very small Dutch stairs, movement through which was a nightmare of a sort I had never experienced before, but I got to the room, into a hot shower and cool bed where I cried and wished I had some Vicodin.
I had been in the city three days and I was already in pain and behind schedule. I managed to stay positive, although I was freaking out. I did collect my keys on the next day and got a cab to move into my high ceiling room on the Prinsengracht canal in the center of the city. My adventure was beginning and I was suddenly walking around the city with minimal notice of my pain and unmatched enthusiasm of my new found experience. The thought of Anca haunted me, but that moment was gone and neither of us existed in the same way anymore. It was possible, the loneliness I spent thinking that there was something wrong with me proved to be incorrect. I was now living what I thought was a fantasy. I had finally found what I was looking for. I had finally found myself.
Part 1 – Soviet Union
Cool Summer Evenings
I had been a child that was neither happy nor troubled growing up in the still seemingly innocent 1980s of Soviet Union. My life had its ups and downs, but overall it was what seemed to me as normal. I wished I had more friends, I wished I was taller, I wished I didn’t have poor vision, which during childhood was coupled with a lazy eye that required a pirate patch on one of my eyes for hours at a time. I envied the presence of fathers in others’ lives but I cannot say that it devastated me. Friends, I didn’t have many friends in the city, although I had a group of friends during the summers on our dacha. A dacha was a summer home somewhere outside the city, which only the people with some sort of connections were able to have. Few things seemed to be about money at that time. It was always who you knew and who knew you. I guess that is still the primary way of maneuvering through life anywhere in the world but money was not even an option as it is now. A Russian institution and status symbol, our dacha was really a simple house within a development of homes surrounded by forests, where people came to retreat from the hassles of city life.
Although the development was surrounded by a fence, entry on foot was possible through the smaller gate open during the day or through one of the forests adjacent to the property. The forests provided berries, mushrooms and exploration for the residents and kids of the community. The older kids always tried to scare us by showing us mines and weaponry they found in the forests. I suppose realistically it may have been war relics but having grown cynical early, I began to highly suspect it. The berries were always delicious though and were used in variety of cooking while at the dacha. Since residents often went into the forests, there was always a path, this was not only convenient, helping in avoidance of getting lost inside, but also safer as there were animals that would not have been seen otherwise. This was of course, a very mystical experience that I took for granted. The forests were, wild so to speak, nobody looked after it or messed with them. The mushrooms and berries that were collected, were collected by a few and by hand. It was collected for themselves and their families, not to package and sell as everything is now. We would spend hours in the forest only leaving when the sun had gone.
The house was built out of brick and wood, with the former serving as base and first floor and the later as accents, porch and second story. The inside had a wooden floor and walls in a vertical stripe created by the wooden planks. Simple, very simple. A metal spiral staircase was in the corner next to the entrance, allowing one person at a time to move between the floors. It is honestly difficult to gauge the size in retrospect, but the place was neither small nor excessively large, but I do not believe things like that really mattered, perhaps I was just naive in my innocent worldview.
By the time the sun had left and the night had come most residents proceeded on their nightly walks. Walks around the dirt ring road surrounding the development was often the route of evening strolls for the residents. Their children, hovering around in packs, would often be mounted on their bikes like cavalry marching towards their conquest of innocence and happiness. The cool air filled the lungs and upon return to the respective homes, residents would spend the rest of the evening with a cup of evening tea, a book, and a good movie or a game of chess by the fireplace. The crackling soothed the atmosphere and a cool bed awaited us.
Girls that I could only assume would have been my first romances, if I had a chance to grow up with them of course, lived near me and were always around in some way. My fancy was often focused on their mothers, but my first discoveries of the gender relationships indeed began at the dacha. Running naked in the rain would never again be an experience to be had, yet indeed it happened and that is just a memory now. Though of course the innocence of the situation blurred the reality, looking back now is somewhat sad yet somewhat satisfying. The experiences cannot be taken away, hence I sat down to write this story, the story of my experiences and realizations. Dacha was my favorite place all my early childhood, the true meaning of freedom and pure happiness, the joy of summer .
The days were spent outside on foot or bike and the nights were spent with open windows and often candle light. The vast majority of food was grown in the gardens surrounding the house, and along with potatoes, vegetables and herbs, roses of a variety of colors decorated the plots. This seemed so normal to me and I did not really understand what I had until I came to the United States. I suppose the outdoor bathroom was perhaps the epitome, indeed it was a bit crude and disgusting, but it did provide an element of natural living that is not likely to be reconstructed in the age of convenience. The bathroom was a wooden shack with a bench against the distant wall of the small square area. A hole was in the center of the bench and adorned by a soft rubber toilet seat. Although I never really saw it up close, there was a bucket underneath that hole that had to be cleared out from time to time. Somehow until I learned about that, I always thought there was a more logical solution.
Family friends and sometimes relatives came to visit us at the dacha. I usually enjoyed having guests, as I really enjoyed a lot of people around me. My grandfather’s friend Uncle Vassya was one of my favorite guests. Uncle Vassya was a Colonel in the KGB and a large man, yet having two daughters, he really saw a son in me. The nights often led to our wrestling matches in which we secured numbers written on papers to our shirts and proceeded to wrestle. Uncle Vassya was yet another male that I had identified with, something that would repeat throughout my childhood due to the void left by the accidental death of my father not long after my birth. Spending time with Uncle Vassya was amazing to me. Uncle Vassya came with his wife, a woman with long, dark hair, who I never really knew that well. I later learned that when my grandparents were leaving the union, Uncle Vassya was the same man who came to the airport in his military uniform to facilitate the bypass of inspectors checking immigrants leaving the empire. To me he was just a kind man with whom I wrestled but to others he was a man of power.
Television service outside the city was not extensive and if only six channels were received in Moscow, four or so were received at the dacha. However, everyone watched the same movie or tv shows in the evening, later to be discussed on walks. A variety of foreign soaps were often shown, with every one’s favorite show being of an Italian Police Detective, Inspector Catane. The show was frequently quoted and discussed, with children imitating the characters and playing different scenes. Sadly, thinking about this now only reinforces what Max Weber meant by Gemeinschaft, often translated as community. The German distinction highlighted the differences between Gemeinschaft and Gessellschaft, or community versus society. The latter of course was seen as colder and more alienated, thus perhaps I got to experience the difference in a very authentic purity. It was not that we did not know about remote controls or the existence of other entertainment mediums, we simply did not require it. The star filled sky and low light pollution created works of art at night that gave us all what we needed. Cool summer evenings, smell of wood burning in fireplaces. Sometimes, when meat on skewers were cooked over a fire, the smell of fresh meat saturated the air along with the smell of forests and serenity.
The Heart of the Evil Empire
Life in the city was dramatically different. I did not have many friends and the ones I did were limited to geographic proximity. Either while in school or a random interaction with a neighbor produced my entertainment and relationships. Russian city kids were often very rough and abrasive in personality, hence actually finding a person that was enjoyable to be around was something that was not always possible. I lacked the freedom of wide movement being a child and thus I longed for the summer to be free along with my group of friends. Still, exploration of the high-rise building and the surrounding area was fascinating and interesting.
The school was a building built many decades prior and I doubt it was built to be a school but that is what it had become. A large wooden staircase greeted one upon the entrance and a cloak room was to the right where coats, scarves and hats were left, unlocked mind you. Of course there was crime and theft but not at the school, not that I had noticed. There was no graffiti or any vandalism. There were no soda or snack machines, there were no drinking fountains. This was a place that was not meant to take care, it was meant to make an adult out of a child by means decided by figures of authority. The bathrooms on the floor of the third grade level were undoubtedly soaked in years of urine and carried a special smell requiring a trip to the older class men floor. Sometimes these trips resulted in some sort of unpleasant encounter with an elder, but the trip was generally planned to be quick and the proximity of bathrooms to stairs was a very nice thing. The property was large and ripe for investigation intertwined with creative endeavors in the construction of shelters out of twigs, sticks, umbrellas and other miscellaneous debris found outside. The trees in front of the school leading to the entrance, after the gates, were old and very tall, changing in foliage like clockwork. Seasons too would become something that I would have to let go living in my new environment.
The ride to school was on a busy bus along the Moscow River, followed by a short walk past the day care and pre-first I had attended and where I first fell in love with my teacher. We got to keep the same teacher from pre-first to third grade, furthermore the class stayed the same through that time. I left in the third grade and thus my memory is just of that, and her. I was fascinated with her since our first encounter, always insisting that she tuck me in at mandatory nap time in our drawers. We slept in a file cabinet of beds that pulled out in steps. Usually, getting the lowest bed, I always got the most attention from her. Although I would have rather spent all my time with her, when not asleep or in the middle of class, I played house with the female classmates, as I never cared for other boys.
The room was large with cubby holes against the wall leading to the exit, a kitchen was towards the back with a butch woman cooking substandard food that we all ate. The bedroom with the drawers was accessible from the classroom via double doors located in the center of the room and was only for our class. Immediately outside the classroom a hallway lined with windows on one side and lockers on the other were separated by a long bench parallel to the lockers. I clearly remember walking along that hallway with a patch over my left eye to fix my cross-eyed gaze. It was embarrassing, but in retrospect, I became dramatically more self conscious in America, as the kids were crueler.
I never truly understood why America hated us so much but at the same time I felt brainwashed too. When Ronald Reagan came to Moscow I remember being shocked that such a monster was allowed into the country. The lunch lady did not help the paranoia by stating clearly and without reservations that Reagan kills children. Sending shock through our small bodies, she scooped up borch out of her huge tub and filled each of our bowls. I asked my grandfather while watching the arrival on the news if Reagan really kills children. “No,” he said, “that is silly.” I remained very suspicious but did not learn more until I studied this lively man in college, within the Evil country. Wait that is how that man referred to my home but be that as it may.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, not only on the dacha, which was their place, but in the city as well. I saw my mother often, but she worked a lot and it would be some time before I began to live with her. I always liked being around older people, so hanging out with my mother’s friends was always pleasant for me. I enjoyed going to work with my mom and spending countless hours in the orchestra pit, watching the various plays being performed on stage. Although I did not give it as much credit then as I do now, it was quite amazing to be able to watch world class performances in such an unusual way. The actors would often wink or sign to me in some way and I would signal them in return. During intermission I would hang out in the cigarette smoke filled room and attempt to learn backgammon that a few musicians would surely be playing. Vodka was of course present as well and it is amazing to me that more musicians were not asleep when the show resumed, but then again, they were professionals.
The apartment where I lived with my mother was a studio facing River Moscow with the unfortunate sight of an industrial factory on the other bank. It had a large kitchen with brick pattered wallpaper and a couch which stood against the empty wall. The cabinets, sink, stove and fridge were all against the opposite wall and a window onto the river was on the far wall. The room appeared large, but in retrospect I don’t think it was, the large foyer and closet made the whole place seem bigger and eventually the living room was divided by a wall unit, and I got the corner for myself. I ventured to different floors and around the outside although something stopped me from going towards the river and I explored the other side. I never went far as the city scared me, this was not the dacha and I was just a little kid.
The summers were the climax of the year for me and besides the eventual stay at the dacha, towards the end of my Soviet life we traveled north. We took a train to Tallinn in the summers where my uncle would pick us up and drive us to Parnu on the sea. My family lived there in a wonderful town home about five minutes walk from the unspoiled beach. The sand was white and soft and the sea was shallow every time I went in, it would often take several minutes of walking to become completely submerged in the cool but not freezing water. I loved Parnu and would ride my bike all over the city. I never learned Estonian, more than a few words anyway, but Russian was not only spoken by everyone, it was mandatory as Estonia was still a republic in the union. The city was very quaint, clean, colorful and very pleasant. Many preferred the Black Sea yet even though I did go, the surrounding areas were far more interesting than the rocky beaches and warmer waters. The Baltic Sea became my love.
My first romantic infatuation with someone of an appropriate age was introduced to me as another guest temporarily staying, with her family, in the beloved town home. She was very pretty as was her mother. They both had dark eyes and dark long hair. The daughter, Lena, looked like her mother but was indeed very young and my attraction to her was based on beauty and her kindness. It is really impossible to gauge the direct reason for our mutual attraction during our innocent ages but it is still hard to pinpoint why some people just fit and one wants to be near them. The town home had a sauna in the basement. Fully converted and remodeled the sauna was ideally designed to fit the personality of a Scandinavian country. We ventured to the sauna on a daily basis and when I saw the pair of beautiful women I was hoping to have at least one of them in the sauna with me but instead I got three men during the evening of our first encounter. Indeed I thought that being so young no attention would really be paid and nudity would be a free gift but alas. I kept my underwear on and enjoyed the sauna while remaining disappointed. It is not that I wished to see nudity for the purposes of sexual satisfaction, I wanted to see something beautiful. Truth was I was not thinking in these ways. I later learned, to my disappointment, that the women went later and separately. I would not let her be away from me after that. We were together constantly. We kissed and played house, we explored together. We were inseparable but it was all so innocent, so honest. We were not broken by life and grown up relationships. At the end, the hard goodbye only linked us closer. We held each other and only separated by force through tears at the Tallinn train station. I would never see her again but learned that we were in fact distant relatives. It did not bother me one bit and I thought about her for years.
Part 2 – America
Those are girl’s shoes
The first major trauma of my life was the move to the United States. I found myself with my mother in a strange land where nobody spoke our language or understood our culture. Luckily in the early 90s when we arrived in U.S. the country was less aggressive and times were generally simpler. I was too young to really understand the absurdity of the situation and the donated clothes and toys seemed fine to me. I did not care about brands or price tags, I liked what I liked.
There was a system of volunteers within the temple who assisted new Jewish immigrants from our part of the world. Yet, few rushed to help us. We later learned that our comrades had worn the welcoming and mitzvah oriented volunteers’ nature thin. No good deed goes unpunished I guess. In any case, several people cautiously showed up. The local Jewish organization did provide some financial assistance and the few volunteers were quite helpful. Still, we were seen as animals that just emerged from our exotic land where bears roamed the streets and we had hardly an idea of what a car or television was. At least that is what many thought, but be that as it may we were now in this country and we had to adjust to the way things were. Many things were new, a lot of things were different and even more things were odd.
I was placed in a school with an e.s.o.l. program which was developed to help assist immigrants’ children to learn. Realistically, the program was not very well thought out and I sat in class dumbfounded, trying to figure out what this seemingly remedial education was designed to do. Truth was that the class was overwhelmingly full of Hispanics who had arrived not weeks or months earlier but years. I did not know this until, contrary to opinions of authority, I learned to speak English fluently and quickly. I will not claim to be some sort of a genius but rather just young. If only such potential remained when people age, but that was the secret. In six months time, I spoke better English than most people born here but regardless, the school was very far and the five minute walk to the bus stop was only the beginning of the long journey. The bus picked me up and the drive included the highway to get to the school. The concept of a school bus was new to me, but the experience did not impress me. The somewhat scummy atmosphere ripe for fights with other little morons produced a feeling of disgust. Why do kids always aim to fight? I got into a few fights in Russia but now, feeling vulnerable I just wanted to sit in peace. I was slowly turning inside as the only atmosphere that made sense and provided comfort. I waived to drivers that made eye contact and observed the scenery the bus passed. I remember looking down at my hand as I felt something, seeing a cockroach crawling on my arm made me more curious than disgusted. They are so big here I thought, I had seen a few before but maybe a quarter of the size. What kind of place is this? Of course I forgot that I was the one from the zoo and was promptly reminded by Jose sitting to my right.
The school was large and had a lot of classrooms in boxes standing on bricks. I though this was normal and only later learned that they were portable classrooms. Like portable toilets, these classrooms were brought and placed there to avoid the expansive and expensive construction that would come years later as a political campaign. Anyway. Upon entry, a special smell of mold and air conditioned air made an impression on me and the faces of immigrant children soon filled the room in their obligation to learn. Being unable to communicate, I used a lot of gestures that I had seen on television program discussing the American culture. Thumb pointing to the mouth signifying thirst was one most often used by me until I learned to say, “I’d like a drink of water.” Times were tough but the lack of understanding made it easier. I only see the damage from that in my older self, but I tried to make it through the difficulty as much as I could. Self-reliance became more and more importance and I delivered to myself. My internal life was very active and I found ways to not only entertain but also stimulate myself.
Being a fairly outgoing child in Russia, I found it hard to be unable to communicate and the teasing of the cruel student body did not make it easier. The lunchroom was by far the worst. The standard stories of the nightmare of lunchroom is only evident to me now, then it was just unexplained hell. Standing there with my tray of two buns and some sloppy joe mix I looked around for a place to sit and saw groups huddled together, coordinated by colors and clothing. I never experienced the humiliation of having my tray thrown on the floor or any other type of bullying at this time, but I did experience neglect. I was invisible, a ghost. I found a seat and quietly ate my lunch and would repeat that on a daily basis, with no friends, no one to talk to. Just quietly eating my unhealthy lunch in my own loneliness. I had arrived in the most powerful, most desired place and I was alone.
The subjects covered in class were all kind of a waste of time. I understood nothing but sat there and tried to absorb what I could. The math seemed remedial to me since by the same grade level in Russia I was far ahead. This fact was indeed overlooked since the division was done in a slightly different way, upside down. I could not solve it on the placement exam and thus was just placed in a grade based on my age, rather than skill. Perhaps, if someone explained this to me, things may have been different, but it does not matter now.
Recess was an activity that was undertaken daily and most of the class engaged in playing some kind of sports. I just sat on the steps of the portable classroom since I really had no friends and very little interest to run around in the heat and then sit in an air conditioned box. I guess many considered me weird, and even more simply did not see me. Being a ghost was actually more comforting than facing criticism. Little did I know, I was in for a different kind of criticism than I had in Russia. Russian society at the time was not as materialistic to begin with, in addition to that we wore uniforms in school and thus ridicule for wearing a particular item was not something students encountered. In United States things were drastically different. My mother and I had purchased new shoes for me at a local store for the large sum of $30 dollars. I wanted Velcro since at this point I was not that great with laces and I wanted something that was easy to put on and not think about. The shoes were gray and I liked them very much and was happy that our frugal existence could provide new and expensive shoes for me.
Shlomo, the Israeli guy I had in my class, was a olive skinned son of Israeli immigrants and sat behind me in class. We tried to make conversation in a language that was new to both of us and we quickly progressed to comparison of our belongings. He loved the key chain I had with a Russian fighter plane on it. To me it was cool but not that cool. I had gotten it from someone on our journey to this new land. Something that was just a token given to a child. Shlomo had a pencil box that was reminiscent of pencil boxes I had seen in Russia as imports from other parts of the world. To us items such as that or even the comic prints found in Bazooka gum were items of great value because they were not easily available. The pencil box opened from both sides, had a small compartment for erasers and even a sharpener built into it. There was an intensely colorful space scene on it, and I liked it. Perhaps it was an old wish to own such an item that raised no question in my mind when Shlomo offered an exchange. I was happy to have this useless item and would carry it to school for years to come. It is quite remarkable how meaning is constructed even in the eyes of a child. Something that was not accessible immediately gained adoration and desire.
When recess came that day or a few days later, I took my seat on the steps and watched the rest of the class run around like animals. Shlomo came over and sat down next to me, we talked a bit about something trivial when he looked down at my feet, then at me and said “you know, those are girl’s shoes man.” The thought never occurred to me and perhaps right then was when my severe insecurity and self consciousness barged in on me. I asked everyone and assumed I was crazy. To me they were just grey sneakers but person after person confirmed the female identity of the shoes. The concept was strange to me and yet I felt ridicule, indeed the attacks and laughter followed as word spread and I just wanted to throw these shoes away.
That’s not kosher
My time at the distant school lasted from our arrival in April to the end of the year in June and during the summer months I began attending a summer camp at an Orthodox Jewish school. The white building reminiscent of an old colonial home was the place where I became a Jew, for awhile. The staff consisted of bearded rabbis and dedicated young women in long skirts leading the prayers and watching over the small groups of kids. Our daily activities included prayers, outside play time in the fenced in yard and daily trips to swim at private pools of various Jewish homes and sometimes to a park where we enjoyed watersports and hot dogs.
I became passionate about Judaism at this time, not due to my intense faith but simply due to kindness of the people surrounding me and their attitude of not trying to coerce me into any kind of belief system. I found myself not only wearing a Kippa but also the tsitsis, which were kind of like an A shirt under you clothing with four strings hanging off the four corners of the shirt. I had become orthodox in my approach and prayed along with all the kids indoctrinated while even younger and with less options than I. But I digress and its idiotic to judge others, so I became Orthodox, I wanted to be around these people always. In fact, I inquired about attending the rest of school grades with them. I was so desperate for kindness I found myself sinking into their way of life.
My mother stopped me from going to school with them since it was unaccredited and would likely produce further problems for me as I was at the beginnings of my education, but I loved spending all the time with them during camp. On Fridays we all had prayers and made our own Challah bread. We rolled individual strands that we later braided, the cooking of the braided breads was done by a rabbi and the follow up prayer was the opening to a Friday, Shabat, feast. It was already dark outside and the women lit the candles after the Sh’ma prayer. The bread was passed around to the person that made it. It was the most delicious bread I have ever had and Friday nights were a great time because of the delicious bread and the togetherness of the whole camp.
The rest of the week was spent playing in the fenced in yard, praying and going to the houses of various mitzvah oriented Jews to use their pools. The days were hot and the relief of pool water was wonderful. Sometimes I wondered who these people were that allowed thirty little Jewish kids to invade their pools. We were typically not allowed to go inside the homes and rarely met these people. I could not swim but stayed in the shallow end and cooled off, some of the pools had small slides that made pool time more exciting. Chlorine hurt my eyes but it was worth it to relieve myself from the ridiculous heat.
The lunches were had together with all the Jewish kids. We had our sandwiches and snack packs but even that was not simple here. “What is that you are having?” A typically Jewish girl named Hanni would ask me. I am not sure if it was Chani but nothing would surprise me. “Peanut butter and jelly,” I answered. “Do you want some?” “No,” she said “you know that’s not kosher.” Hmm, what the hell does that mean I thought, who cares, it tastes good. Everything in this fine country seemed to be about conformity and yet it has always been the beacon of freedom to the rest of us animals.
I was transferred to a closer school for fourth grade. It was still an ESOL class but that did little good since Spanish was a language spoken by most of the students and the teacher. I was getting an education in cruelty from neglect by children that spoke a language I never encountered before. I learned very little, by my expectations, but had my time occupied and progressed in my language abilities by reading and having small conversations. Being that young learning came very easy and the waste of time in ESOL ended with the end of the year. By the next grade I was in a regular class with regular American kids. They too were far from what I considered ‘normal’, but at least I was not with kids whom had parents that refused to assimilate into their new country out of principle.
The regular class proved to be somewhat more interesting as the curriculum was more based on learning than babysitting. Indeed, we read books and learned a bit of history but it was so minute as to what it should have been. The education system was all wrong. Activities such as cleaning the school and making tie dye shirts were hardy what a young mind was thirsty for but I had other problems. Wearing glasses and being a foreigner defined me as an outcast from day one. Even though I spoke fluent English by this point I was very shy, embarrassed by the name that was suddenly unloaded on me. “But I have a name,” I told my crooked toothed, Puerto Rican esol teacher. “This is your new name,” was the answer given by this substandard teacher with no real right to be around children, but she spoke Spanish and to the bureaucracy that was enough. Armed with my new name, I felt destroyed. This was NOT my name but that is how everyone referred to me now. It was my official name and I could do nothing about it. Hence by default, I became an outsider. My donated clothes, my glasses, my stupid name had turned me into a character to tease and I, having my ego damaged, accepted it as the way it was supposed to be.
I identified with another window faced “loser” since we would actually speak to each other without real judgement. He was tall and awkward but what did it really matter. I wished he was smarter and more interesting but I am sure he wished I was different too. We were always partners in group activities and even in larger groups we would be together. In yet another pointless project, Michael , which was his name, myself and three girls named Jennifer, Jennifer and Jessica were conducting an experiment of placing a Tylenol pill in water to watch it break down. Obviously a fascinating project illuminating nothing really but taking up time and keeping us busy. We carried on a dull conversation which somehow morphed into a conversation of sex. The way these girls saw sex was just what you do when you are married. Neither could describe it or really understand what it was. I read a lot and knew things many others did not even think about so I, in bad diplomacy, asked them what they thought it was. A response of “Ewwww” was the reply at which point I got up and retrieved a Merriam-Webster dictionary from the shelf. I do not remember exactly what it said but quite obviously it was not pornography and spoke of reproduction within animal species. No matter, the wine elevated to a very high pitch and before I knew it, I was punished. “Punishment, for what,” I asked. “You upset the girls,” another substandard teacher told me. “What? Its the dictionary,” I said to her. “Why is it wrong to look something up in dictionary?” “You can look things up at home, you upset the girls.” I had to write fifty definitions on paper during the time of recess for the following week. How clever. What was the big deal? We were all there because of sex and we would all engage in it but this was the maturity level of the students and the merits of American public education.
A lot of guys like her
Middle school came at a time that I was already compartmentalized as one of the loners/losers since I found most people uninteresting and kept quiet and to myself. I liked a girl that everyone liked which in retrospect was exceptionally stupid but the desire to be like others was a feeling of great importance. She was always with her friend who, no doubt, felt inferior and very conscious of herself. The girl, named Diane called herself “D”, had a D on her backpack, wore baggy clothes, listened to rap and thought she was all that any guy would want. She was attractive but not stunning, her personality fit a name of “B” better but all the wannabe gangsters thought that that was cool. Her friend, Mia, was overshadowed and rendered invisible by the loud array of flies around D. D never spoke to me as I was far beneath her but Mia did. She was quite nice and lonely but I, having the label of a quiet invalid so deeply ingrained, refused her contact and told her I liked D.
“A lot of guys like her,” she said and sighed. Yes, many did but what did I have that would interest D, what did she have that would interest me, probably nothing but I played along anyway. Who I really liked was the newly married Reading teacher but that was even a further wish. Her attention was not as easily obtainable as my beloved Moscow teacher, not to downplay the difference in my behavior. It was not the same, there was a wall that was not really passable here thus I was so desperate just to be seen, heard, spoken to that I would act as my surroundings demanded and my surroundings dictated that D was my object of interest. It is not that my perception was wrong it is the fact that in the end none of that mattered and life had to be lived to the most benefit of the individual. D’s blossom soon faded and she disappeared but Mia was starting to blossom very brightly. As though a glow about her. Two years later she was easily thought of as the most beautiful girl in school. Every guy would salivate at the mention of her name. In fact, so many guys wanted her that nobody dared to approach her. There were rumors of a modeling contract and an aura of mythological beauty that spread through not only our school but the entire town. She was the most beautiful girl and nobody was even close.
First day of school a year later I chose a seat close to the exit as habit dictated. Some students stood by the door chatting, others in their chosen seats discussing the experiences they had that summer. More people piled in with their new shoes, backpacks and lunch boxes. I watched who came in scouring for familiar faces and there she was, Mia. Without any hesitation she walked by several drooling guys and came up to me, leaning over my desk to be closer to my face.. “Hey, what did you do this summer?” She asked and smiled. “Nothing really, why?” I answered even though I was in Italy that summer experiencing the birth of my search for inspiration. No, I was rude instead, forming the idea that this was not happening. How could it? I had accepted my label and hid in my own universe. She shrugged her shoulders, “just being friendly,” she said and took a seat few seats behind me. Chastising myself and imagining what that situation could have unfolded into drove me crazy. It is not like I imagined some sort of fairytale, simply just that more experiences could have come and yet I was so involved in my own world, having been rejected by the outside world. I did dream of her and there was nobody that influenced me more at that time . I wanted just to be with her, to hold her. Her smell alone drove me crazy and yet I accepted it as impossible. What amazes me is that she saw something that nobody else did and I did not allow her to show me. I do not know what happened to her but her dream of a blossom in the shadows of her friend materialized, it materialized beyond her expectations but it faded just as quickly. In the grand scheme of things this was fairly insignificant but illuminates the fact that however seemingly impossible an idea appears to be, its not.
As high school came I had already decided to change tactics to be the friend that the rest of the neanderthals could not manage. I had identified with the label bestowed on me and did not even try to harness a relationship, besides I was hardly the object of any interest, or so I thought. Perhaps foolishly, I realized that the girls wanted honesty and friendship with a guy and not just the obvious but then again that was our time to be reckless, to be absolutely free. It did work though, the most attractive girls were now my friends, but nothing more. To me, this was good but not great. I wanted the feeling of closeness and friendship gave me that but I wanted love as I imagined it. A lot of my male friend were very jealous that I had girls of such apparent caliber around me; they could not understand but really, everybody just wants to be heard, even the most attractive girls needed someone to just talk to. In many ways beauty limited honesty and changed the focus of gender interaction to the one thing on all males minds. Deep down I too was going through changes and I too wanted them but alas it was just unrealized fantasies that I understood to be out of my reach. In reality, many of the girls presented little past their appearance and would surely be disappointing but that is the essence of teenage years; learning disappointment and collecting life experience.
While my comrades spent all day obsessing over the female body in a very sexual way, to me it was aesthetically beautiful. In fact the girl whom I was infatuated with for several years, completely undressed in front of me to show me her new piercings. “We are friends, right?” She asked as she took off her clothes. She wanted me but I just looked, observing her nineteen year old body. It was art to me. She told me later that she was nervous and she was finally ready to take the next step, she liked me, maybe more than I could have imagined but it was just not there anymore. Upon reciting the events to my, socially awkward, friends, I was ridiculed and repeatedly accused of wasting a chance that would never come again. Being friends with girls had already provided much of what these people were after and really all it took was honesty. Of course that chance never did come again, but why was it a lost chance? Maybe it had to happen the way it happened. I finally got to see her the way I painted her in my mind. To me it was a beautiful experience, it was honest. I never really regretted it. Timing shaped the situation as it often does and this was the script unfolding.
Plato not Prozac
I was told that college was the place of self discovery and indeed it proved true. Everything got much easier. I remained quiet and introverted but to my delight, many women had matured to find that more interesting and appealing than the constant noise. I felt normal and alive. It was not as hard or complicated as it presented itself earlier. Even though I do acknowledge that much of the hardships were self imposed, the social label influenced my own behavior in no small part. I began to see the slow emergence of my real self in college and I was slowly criticizing myself less and less.
I drifted through a variety of majors on a quest for something, not only challenging, which proved to be difficult, but also interesting and seductive. Art was the only true source of escape, Caravaggio intoxicated me, Renoir made me smile. Like a drug, it was very easy to lose oneself and feel free. I studied drawing and painting and although I, and my instructors, realized that I had talent that could have been pushed further, I was too hungry for the work already created. I wanted to feed myself more. I traveled, I searched. I was free to be whatever the author in me demanded. I looked to history but was not captured, I looked to religion and mysticism and felt betrayed. The discovery of philosophy was really a merit of two professors who baited me with discussions of the essence of things as opposed how those, phenomenal, things shaped the world and their behavior. I had always thought in these ways but never fully realized that that was how the world reveals itself. Its not just knowing what happened, its knowing how things happen, what really are those things. There is so much beauty that slowly reveals itself and it was not surprising to learn that philosophy was deeply connected to art but from another perspective. It was not visual but psychological. I was hooked and I wanted more.
Study of existence was perhaps the most fascinating to me and even though more modern thinkers hit the nerve inside me, the ancients danced around reality fairly closely and thus the two systems that introduced me to philosophy, stuck with me since.
By accounts of many others I remained depressed. My own self analysis left me thinking that it was not depression, just frustration. I was living inside myself and saw reality based on principles of art and philosophical revelations. I refused to understand things as many others did, which was not to be stubborn or annoying, I just saw everything differently. Maybe it was flawed but it was the way I saw things. Consequently, the more one understands, the more one is frustrated and disappointed and thus my sadness was no longer from my inability to form meaningless relationships in the pursuit of a good time, it was more of what is a good time and why are all these people after it?
I found solace in the echoes of great thinkers. Often, just the thought of something else gave meaning to the already absurd existence. Why were we here was not answered by anyone, how could it be, but many had thoughts and I absorbed them like a sponge. Philosophy and art intertwined and served as the base of my fabulous internal structure. I did not need Prozac, I just needed affection and order.
Part 3 – The World
I thought that after Russia, U.S. was the world, however being in Florida I quickly realized that this was not the world nor even U.S. really. This was a resort, vacation spot, that was slowed down and not nearly in tune with the rest of the planet. I began to crave more, specifically Italy. I learned about the Roman Empire and was fascinated to see this mystical land. I felt a connection to Italy like no other place and as soon as we gained some funds to afford the luxury of travel, we applied for our Travel Passports and left on the Italian Airline to the land of art, elegance and the largest empire of the ancient world.
I had never expected and never seen a more beautiful collection of flight attendants and a more beautiful language. The signs were in Italian and the Italian sitting at the window seat was as strange as all the humor stereotypes perpetuate. This man, saying scuzi every few minutes for one reason or another was so bored, he read everything available including the soda can he was given. Even though we were foreigners in our own home, this man seemed a foreigner to us. How odd this was I really only understand now.
Rome was gorgeous, just being in a city that has been alive for so long was mesmerizing. The people beautiful, the food delicious, it was like another planet. The metro was covered in graffiti at the time, but it did not change the magic of the place. Restaurants could seriously be picked at random without being disappointing and our low demands allowed us to take in the city by foot, sight and smells. The art was in the cobblestone streets, the vendors selling the most delicious fruit in alleys. Just walking around in many ways proved more beneficial than museums of unquestionable masterpieces. Breathing in the air filled with aroma of fruits, spring and food was just so liberating. I touched the ruins that are found all over the city, I touched the Colosseum. This was art that I longed for, this was a life I wished I was living. Just being one with time, one with art. The Vatican was a goal to visit and it was the only planned tour we wanted to take. We got on a bus outside the hotel and it took us through the city towards the sinister gates of the Vatican. We passed the city walls and entered the museum where I saw the treasures collected over thousands of years. Jesus did stare at me from The Last Supper table and the fresco’s on the wall did appear to be sculptures. How could this be done by human hands?
Seeing the majesty of the Sistine Chapel’s The Last Judgment really moved me and the rest of the Vatican museum was hardly a comparison. I stood under the ocular light in St. Peter’s basilica, and although these kind of architectural tricks would become obvious to me, at the time I truly believed that this was the light of God. The supposed bones of Peter were under the Basilica, along with the remains of past pontiffs who often laid within a crafted box of their own appearance. Truly a dark atmosphere of death that only enticed the experience and transported the visitor to a realm beyond. How did these people become ‘special’?
Such majesty and such a foreign atmosphere felt right to me, and even though we often took the longer path due to our own ignorance, it was always very rewarding to be in Italy. We stopped several times on our long walks to enjoy a piece of fruit from stands often lining the cobblestone walkways. By night we sat in our hotel room and watched Italian tv. Its strange but after awhile I began to understand what the conversations were about. I remember my amazement at the suntan lotion commercial that came on with a topless woman putting lotion all over herself. Civilization, I thought. Why have the breasts become so demonized in America. In any case, the city noises of conversations outside, occasional broken bottles and Police sirens gave me peace and I had found what I had left in Moscow, City Life.
The fascinating instrument that was next to the toilet took some getting used to. It was a bidet and being from a savage country where bidet was not very well known I tried to figure it out. I was not sure how to sit on a bidet and more importantly I did not know what I should do with the knobs but I tried, and tried. I was so embarrassed that I eventually stopped. I was from the United States and yet I felt like NOW I came from a zoo.
On the exit in the mornings we always saw the hotel staff cleaning the rooms of our fellow patrons and they greeted us happily, not because they had to but because they were just happier and more welcoming than their counterparts in the sunshine state. “Bon Giorno,” coming from every direction and “Bon Giorno,” spoken in a broken tone was the response that I always delivered with a smile. Not because I felt that I had to, but because I really felt like smiling. I walked around Rome breathing in the history revealing itself behind every corner. Ruins of a time long gone, stones left as they appeared hundreds of years earlier, sculptures turned green by the acidic rain created by modern man, were all signs and treasures of this place.
I saw a man washing in one of the numerous fountains, I saw beggars, I saw soldiers of the Vatican in their costumes, the clergy in their robes and hats. Strange and unexpected but full of life , full of art. The narrative within myself was born and ‘real’ life was not something that bothered me anymore.
We traveled to many other places after yet I remembered the Sistine chapel always. I found my soundtrack in London, where House was played everywhere and I was beginning my journey into trance. I submerged myself in the club atmosphere which presented a feeling of freedom and disconnect. It was so alive there and I could feel its vibrations. Trance especially just took me away from the place I did not want to occupy. I wandered from museum to museum, gallery to gallery, my headphones in my years keeping me marginally sedated. There was something in the paintings, something that felt real, alive. Of course some paintings were much more seductive than others. Some artists in general felt much more intense but the captured elements of life were forever encapsulated on canvas. Strokes of the brush was something that mesmerized me and I, violating rules, always tried to touch the paintings, the brush strokes. It was alive. Someone gave it life. No matter how many paintings I saw. The Last Judgement was by far the one that influence me the most. The demons towards the bottom of the masterpiece haunted me and no painting ever captured the same feeling in me.
I had developed an, intellectual, interest in religion and tried to find beauty in that aspect of humanity. University allowed for the path to enlightenment regarding this crucial aspect. I learned about Islam in a way that is difficult to imagine with the media portrayal in United States. I learned about Hinduism and other Asian, often Godless, religions. I wanted to understand why most of humanity chose to follow these. What was so beautiful, so promising? The Vatican was indeed beautiful but somehow seemed wrong to me. Israel called soon, among the interest founded in our supposed identity, we did have a lot of relatives there that wanted to see us. Among the faces I never met, there was the family from Parnu and I felt very comfortable with them. So, we decided to go and see this so-called Holy Land. We saw Israel from northern border to the southern, bypassing the West Bank for security fears. Remarkable,
Jerusalem both scared and seduced me. Oceans of tears, rivers of blood covered these streets. Charlatans and Saints walked these streets. God and Devil were both here and one can feel both regardless of their beliefs. This was the city of death. I touched the limestone of ancient walls, I touched the tomb from which Jesus ascended. I followed the path taken by Jesus of Nazareth as he struggled with the cross on his back. The path was not terribly long but what awaited me would make it clear that the distance made little difference and just around the corner would indeed take another meaning.
Romans were here too and I was glad I saw that first. The Romans were noted as being scared of Jerusalem and I cannot blame them. It is difficult to imagine it at that time as it was surely much darker and more sinister with the smell of death ripe in the air. I later learned that Romans often referred to Jerusalem as the city of death and yet I did not know this when I felt the overwhelming feeling. Strange rabbis, children, women all approaching obvious Westerners with their hands out. A very powerful experience that highlights that with all the beauty there is so much sadness and perhaps here is where I felt the devil.
I wanted to see Cairo and being close, we decided to go. We got into a van that took us to the border. A man with an AK47 checked the Visa gotten earlier in Tel Aviv and angrily waved us through. “Thank you,” I said grabbing my passport and walking into Egypt. There was a casino, and a bus waiting for our group, the guide waving us on. “Welcome to Egypt,” this long haired Israeli announced as he introduced Sayid, our driver and Abdul, our Egyptian guide. I closed the curtain on this fancy bus and closed my eyes to try to sleep. It was very early in the morning and the ride through the Sinai peninsula would take several more hours but I did not know this yet, I wanted to sleep. Of course, that did not happen and I soon was looking out into nothingness beyond the window.
The palm trees lining the roads in Israel were replaced by desert and more desert. The stories this desert contained fascinated me as I stared at a lone tree looking back. “Who are you?” I whispered. “How do you survive?” As Sayid drove our bus through the tunnel under the Suez canal, the guide screamed, “Welcome to Africa.” On the other end, an armed guard joined our bus, his name was Ahmad and the AK he was holding was for OUR protection. So far the country was living up to its image. Whether the image came first I do not know. The scenery was mostly desert with war relics that could not be removed due to mines nobody had maps for and so the instruments of torture and death sat there for forty years at that point. We kept driving and driving, stopping at what I would call a rest area. It was in the middle of the desert but had snacks, drinks and toilet. I used the toilet, purchased a drink and took a seat at one of the outdoor table when I noticed a British mother and son who were on our bus. The kid was in his early teens but appeared attached to his mother, who appeared to be in her fifties. I watched them and wondered how similar their story is to ours. After all my mother and I were on this trip alone as well but I was already exploring independence, this teen was not. The mother looked at me but said nothing.
We arrived in Cairo in the evening and checked into the luxurious hotel that was part of the tour. The pyramids could be seen through the window and it was just unbelievable. I soon proceeded to explore the rest of this hotel as was my ritual. The guide had warned everyone that even though water was filtered it was not advisable for westerners to drink thus I asked for juice with no ice at the bar downstairs and walked over to watch a game of pool. Couple of Arabs playing thought that they could take my money by pressuring me to bet in broken English. Scared but unmoved I just walked away and ventured outside. Perhaps the news media or movies had conditioned me to be scared of robbed men, I was so frightened by the scene of all the men in white or blue robes, that I went back inside. I brushed my teeth with the bottled water standing on the counter and fell asleep.
We all had breakfast in the morning and filling my glass from the juice machine the guide, on his way out stopped me, “don’t drink that, it has ice in it,” and pointed to the floating ice. “Thanks.” I said and got a bottle of water instead. We arrived at the Cairo museum early and waited in front of the doors for it to open. Once inside I was so overwhelmed and fascinated that I tried to see as much as I could. The little models of the residences date thousands of years but looked exactly like single family homes at home, complete with a swimming pool and gardens. The models of chariots with gears was just incredible. These people somehow managed to exist at levels deemed impossible by our worldview of the ancients as primitive. Of course, there is fascination with Egypt but seeing such wonders only made me realize that modern man is really the primitive one but is fooled and blinded to believe that progress has been made in human evolution.
We had to travel to the pyramids and to facilitate this I was pulled out of the museum. It was hot inside but through the sweat, it was just an opportunity not to be missed and an experience to be valued. I saw Tutankhamen and said hello before leaving the museum, got into our bus and Sayid took us to the pyramids. In a desert setting the pyramids stood not far from a road covered in tour buses and cabs, in front of which was the greenest vegetation as though in direct contrast to the desert plot of Giza. The air was dry and the sun hot but somehow the overwhelming sight of the great pyramid held focus. The pyramids were unsurprisingly amazing, our Egyptian guide presented various theories of the construction but even an untrained eye could tell that this was beyond human ingenuity available now with all our gadgets, how could they do it then? Each stone was the size of a small building and everything was just perfect. The tunnel inside was made by looters and lined with modern lights. The deeper I got, hitting my head on the low ceiling, made while digging a hole in, the cooler it got. I finally reached a room where I stood straight and could not believe the smoothness of the limestone inside. This was a burial chamber, yet the sarcophagus was stolen decades ago, as were the treasures buried with the Pharaoh. The ceiling was quite high and the stones darker. I felt the stones with my hand and it was cool. If it was in the dark I could maybe make sense of it but there was modern electrical lights on the ground and endless flow of tourists coming through, yet it remained cool.. Incredible and all in the name of death and travel to the afterlife. What a mystery. Who built this?
The brightness of the sun upon exit was intense and the newly discovered heat burned my head. The group was led to the Sphinx by the Egyptian shepherd who spoke briefly and then released the flock to examine the cat on our own. “What big paws you have,” I whispered to the kitty adorned with the face of a man. The head seemed too small for its body but that was a secondary problem. Its poor nose was busted as a result of Napoleoon’s army firing at it. Why, I wondered, why? But humanity tends to destroy things of beauty and wonder. There is so much beauty if its just allowed in but the forces of darkness are with us too. I stroked the cat’s paw and said goodbye as we were leaving for the oldest market in the Middle East. “Don’t forget me.” I whispered to the cat as I walked away.
By the time we got to the ancient market I was vomiting. In the bus, I swallowed, outside I did not manage to hold it in and covered the parking area in a greenish sludge that came out of me. At this point the Egyptian half of our tour guide team helped me to the toilet on the second floor of a restaurant. An interesting room covered in pillows, fabric on walls and ceilings and hookahs in every corner. The toilet itself was a different story. Egyptian traditional toilets had a crude form of bidet in them, at least that was how it was described. A thin pipe stuck out of the toilet bowl to facilitate washing yet everything including the little pipe itself was rusted. I felt sick and the sight of that made it worse. Vomiting did not stop. They brought water which did not help, my chest was in severe pain already yet I could not stop vomiting. Bile came and yet the urge did not stop. I wanted to see the market but could not go far from the toilet. Both of the guides kept asking how I was doing until the Egyptian finally disappeared and returned with three pills that I had never seen before. I took one, waited and was cured minutes later. “What was it?” I asked, I do not remember what he said but he alluded to the fact that it was most likely heat exhaustion. I was not sure but it made me feel better so who really cared. On the bus ride back I ate bread and drank water, another member of the group did not leave the bathroom as he drank the water and was now experiencing the punishment. The guide shook his head as we all heard another flush and I, sat there with my chest and head hurting bad but with at least the ability to hold down bread and water. Several agonizing hours later we were back in civilization looking at the Red Sea from the hotel balcony.
The train pulled up to the platform and the doors slid open. Crowds poured out and scattered in different directions. “Mind the gap,” the recorded voice said as I stepped into the metro. I was spending a few days in London, just going from gallery to gallery, absorbing as much art as I could, spending a lot of time at the museums the British Empire filled. Treasures from around the world, the ancient world. Wandering around the British Museum I, carefully reaching around the DO NOT TOUCH sign of the Rosetta Stone sitting in the middle of the room, touched it. I always had this urge to feel things, to experience something that many before me had experienced. To sense their traces, to share their experience, to feel alive.
I had to leave that night from an airport further away than the two major ones so I consulted the Indian man in charge of the night shift. “Just go to the coach part of Victoria station, a bus leaves from there,” he said. I thanked him and returned to my room to maybe sleep at least some. I had my tea and slept till four, when I got up, collected my things, checked out and left the hotel. I had to take a bus since metro did not open that early in the morning and so I walked and waited at Victoria station for my bus to board. Several other tourists found their way in the darkness of the night and with a frightened look asked me, “is this where we get on bus to go to Standsted?” “Yes,” I answered with a nod and smile. They were relieved and put their rucksacks down and took a seat.
The bus boarded soon after and an hour later we were at this small, clean, and very pleasant airport. Perhaps it was the time but there were practically no crowds and I was sipping coffee with my boarding pass in pocket ten minutes later. Flight 3243 to Paris began to board about twenty minutes past seven, according to my watch and flying time would be an hour, according to the boarding pass. I sat down in the plastic seat and pushed the button to recline. No luck, it doesn’t work. Well, I thought, for the price of this ticket I guess its wrong to complain. I closed my eyes in my erect position and tried to dose off.
“Welcome to Paris,” the intercom announced. “Currently nineteen degrees and raining.” Paris, there is no place like it. I had one goal in mind, I wanted a strawberry tart and a little cup of coffee. I proceeded to the exit, where I got into a cab and directed it to the hotel we had agreed on to leave my stuff and meet Lani, my travel buddy, at the train station. Lani was a girl I had known for years and tried to date once. Nothing came of it but we were still friendly. She was in EU on a study abroad program and we agreed to meet and travel a bit together. We walked around Paris, we spent the evenings in a variety of Parisian chill spots so to speak and we tried to lose ourselves in art. Walking past the Eiffel Tower towards the stairs up to the platform, the tower began to sparkle. This happens in the evenings and a group of African musicians began to sing and play their bongos. We reached the top and saw the tower in its full glory to the soundtrack of these guys. Constant beat almost put me in a trance and I wondered how life could be so bad, not like this. We asked a Chinese man to take a picture of us with the sparkling tower in the background. He happily agreed and positioned the camera while his wife and son stood next to him. I hugged and kissed Lani on the cheek. This was true beauty.
We walked all over Paris. It was summer and the weather was wonderful. Somewhere by Chatelet station we stopped at an outdoor vendor to get some shormas or shwarmas the spelling changed. We looked at the menu hanging below the counter on a large board and looked up at the chef. “A shorma?” The olive skinned man in an apron asked. “Yes,” I said and nodded as he cut the meat and prepared our orders. He handed the pita wrapped food in a paper cone to Lani and then to me. We both said “Merci,” and continued walking towards the river to enjoy our street food on one of the bridges over the water when at a distance I saw an elderly woman with a young guy that was strangely familiar. I looked them over trying to construct the traces in my head, and then I finally remembered. Years ago, in Cairo it was them. Mother and son. The son had obviously gotten older and taller while she looked the same. How could this be a coincidence? We sat on a bench in the middle of the bridge and unwrapped our cones, I kept looking at a distance to conclude that I was not hallucinating, it was them. I looked at my food. Lani had already taken several bites and seemed to be very satisfied so I bit into mine. We ate and watched the birds and people maneuvering about, restless, we soon left to go to a museum on the other bank and spent several hours lost in impressionism. I felt ill but nothing like Cairo. Was I pushing my luck?
At sundown the next day we went to the steps of Montmartre where a glorious view of Paris was completely breathtaking. During sunset the city had a golden glow that I only read about in books. Magic. We sat on the steps and waited. It was already ten but sun was just setting. The beauty is difficult to describe. While so many people had so many different life stories here, their city was beautiful. We came back to Eiffel Tower again, only even later. The grassy field in front of the tower was packed with tourists and locals. Indians selling water, wine and flowers to complete any evening experience. We bought wine from the salesmen and sat there absorbing. There was no place like this. We covered the major museums, spending three hours at the Louvre. I had spent hours there before and still had not seen everything. Mona Lisa gave me her smile again and I smiled back hoping to see her again. We packed our stuff, got into a cab outside our hotel and were off to a station from which a bus was to take us to a nearby city for our discount flight to Madrid.
That room is so me
We spent a few days in Madrid, seeing museums, gardens and palaces. The greatest discovery there was Sangria wine, the best wine I have ever had anywhere. In fact it was so good, we were drunk every night. Saddened that my search for love was not manifesting I thought and we agreed that at least one of the nights we would go clubbing. After all, Spain was known for this. I had grown very much into the house and trance music scene since my trip to London and had to include it in the story I was constructing. Unfortunately for us everything in Spain is late at night. Restaurants open at 8 and the party at the nightclub comes to life by 1 or 2. We came there earlier and had nothing to do but drink.
The club was an old royal apartment with several rooms. In one a dance class was on its way that we joined briefly while the room with lights and DJ was playing music that was not what I wanted. That would come later. One screwdriver, two. I was running out of money and the Sangria was making me very tired. The music got better as time moved on yet we both were getting more and more tired. We sat down in another room next to the DJ booth. He started spinning House , I closed my eyes. I turned to Lani, “You know that’s really me in there, that room is so me.” She nodded and smiled. “Do you want to dance?” She asked. “I do, lets go.” I offered her my hand and led her to the center of the room where we danced. I held her close and wanted to kiss her but I didn’t. I don’t know what she thought but I guess that we were both just using each other. The room was getting more and more crowded and the music better and better but people tended to make me ill and we both were getting very tired. “Do you want to go?” Lani said as I held her close to me. “I do,” I whispered back into her ear. We turned around, made our way down the beautiful hallway and stepped out into the cool evening in the Spanish capital.
The next morning, after a delicious breakfast at an outdoor cafe, the unrelenting search for aesthetics took us to Prado, a world renown museum where I fell in love with Rembrandt. Although I neglected him in his home country, the man in the golden helmet mesmerized me to the point that I could not look at anything else and even now do not remember what else was there. How could something so beautiful be made by a human being. How could any of it. There is so much beauty in the world but it has to be looked for, it usually does not find you. Lani did not experience art in the same way I did. To be honest I never knew how she understood the world but I guess we never know how others experience phenomena. The days were hot and the ongoing noise of the constant construction wore our excitement thin. We saw what we planned and it was time to move on. Wiping the sweat of her forehead, Lani said how Barcelona was much cooler. It was on the sea after all and a breeze could be expected but really I trusted her, she had been there before and so we booked a bus ticket since the train was too expensive.
ce bella Barcelona
Eight hours, a good book and some snacks later, we arrived in Barcelona. We took a metro to get close to our hotel and stumbled out into a square with a McDonald’s facing us. “Oh,” I said as we began our walk down the narrow street. Lani organized it all and led the way. We walked down the narrow streets lined with old buildings, by old I mean not of this century, to reach a large gate with an intercom box on the right side of it. People’s names made as though a residential building made me wonder but Lani found a small sticker next to one of the buttons. She pushed, we waited, “Pension S[something], a man’s voice responded and Lani explained in good Spanish who we were and that we had reservations.
Lani wanted to nap so we agreed that I would come back to get her and go to dinner. I put on my flip flops and walked down the 88 steps of this gorgeous apartment building. I walked out and saw a woman aggressively scrubbing graffiti on the wall. A huge dark mark of “420” was not coming off. The poor, aged, woman sighed and kept scrubbing. She paused and asked another woman washing the sidewalk, “Que significo?” Both did not know but I did. Americans, I thought. I walked, turning when the path turned, I walked by another McDonald’s, a KFC, bunch of local shops and a very busy street. I crossed the one lane road, then the big pedestrian street and then a one lane road going the other way. I kept walking, wandering into the bowels of the city. I was lost now. I had no idea how I found myself past the crowds and the sounds to a world of whores pulling on my clothes and drug dealers offering their supplies. I walked by a woman squatting with her pants around her ankles. She was urinating in the middle of the street. Well, I thought. Few hundred meters further a man was fighting with a trash bin. I was not scared, just uncomfortable. My shoes were starting to hurt my feet after hours of walking and I did not really know what to do but walk. I finally reached the metro station we had exited and retraced our steps back to the Gothic Quarter and to the gate of the building where I rang the intercom and in broken Spanish got the man upstairs to let me in.
Lani was sitting on the bed reading her book when I walked in and laid down next to her. “Where were you,” she asked as I kicked off my shoes. “I got lost, forgot name of hostel but I found it, eventually,” I told her with my face in the pillow. Without turning away from her book, obviously pissed off, she mumbled “Do you want to go eat now?” “Sure, but give me a few minutes to rest.” “Ok,” she said without turning from her book. I got up and put on my sneakers after spending some time recharging and stretched my hand out to her as an invitation to go. She got up, put on her shoes and grabbed my hand. We walked past the statue of Christopher Columbus towards the beach and decided to explore one of the restaurants on a man made island built for the 92’ Olympics. The food was ok, the wine excellent and the view spectacular. “Gorgeous,” I said while sipping my Sangria. “Yea,” she almost sighed while smiling. We sat there and stared at the sea, letting the cool breeze blow on our faces.
The following morning while Lani was in the shower, I stood on the balcony watching the rain over the Gothic streets. As aesthetics and art dictate the balcony next to me soon had a very cute girl whom I immediately sparked a conversation with. Her name was Bec and she was from Melbourne. Why was it so much easier to talk to women in Europe I do not know but it was. I was not a loser or the introvert, I was myself and people treated me as normal without the constant judgment and ridicule. We were very much into each other, she laid her head on the railing to look at me and touched me whenever she could. She and her friend/travel parner, went clubbing the night before and she was glad to have slept in later. She loved rain and found it magical. Rain always is and the way we were experiencing it was a rare treat that few pay attention to. It turned out her grandparents were from Russia and she always had a desire to go there. Her friend called her and she apologized and said goodbye shacking my hand.
Of course, I did not say all I wanted to. I did not ask where they were heading that night and if I could join. I rehearsed future conversation over and over yet I never saw her again. I chastised myself for being the usual fool, it was different here and I should have acted differently but I did not. Lani came in soon after, “hey,” she said as she closed the door behind her. “I found where to get tickets to Figures and the museum online,” she said as she took off her towel, wiped between her breasts and reached in her suitcase for clean underwear. “I am not sure I want to go,” I told her as she pulled the light blue laced panties on. “Really? What are you going to do?” She asked looking at me. “Just see more of the city. Walk around.” She nodded and said, “ok” Preparing her fan over the sink that was in the room, she looked at herself and suddenly spoke, “are we meeting for dinner?” I smiled, “of course, I will meet you here at seven.” I picked up my messenger bag, pulled it across my chest and walked towards her. I kissed her on the cheek and wished her a pleasant trip to Figures.
I needed to walk. To think. I walked to the large square surrounded by shops and looked at few things in several stores that sadly were not available at home. Walking through the sea of people I was stunned by the sight that revealed itself to me in front of Lacoste Store. An old woman sitting on the pavement Indian style with warts all over her face and a big crooked nose. She was dressed in black rocking with her hand out. Mumbling something I could not make out, but the sight as frightening as it was, made me think. She appeared to be invisible to everyone else yet I could not look away. She was yet another echo of something dark, something not of this world and yet people just walked around her. The noise of the city muffled her mumbling but I do not think anyone would care either way. She was a ghost. I left some change and kept walking. I went on top of Mount Juic, the highest point in the city overlooking the port and providing the most intense views of the city itself. I saw the Olympic structures and wondered around the very green and quiet area. There is a castle up there with cannons and a moat. At first I thought that I could just walk there but a local explained that to get to it a cable car had to be taken. I looked for other ways to reach the top but without a car, it would take hours so I finally decided to take the cable car. There was a line of people with the cars only taking four people each and so I waited. VarietyMy turn in the line came and I got in, an Italian family got in with me and spoke to each other while the car was pulled. “Ce bella Barcelona,” the woman said as we could now see a breath taking view of the city out of our cable car being pulled higher and higher. The castle was out of a story book, a bridge over the moat allowed for entry into this structure. Canons, on the roof faced the largest port in Europe and I can only imagine how they served as protection in times past. I looked inside the canon and wondered what it had seen in the hundreds of years of its existence. The roof, surrounded by a wall, had open spaces every few meters that allowed for canons and soldiers to conduct their process in the defense of the fort.
Upon the completion of my undergraduate studies I felt that I had to continue. There was so much to learn, to see. The world is art. I applied to different schools in Europe, very inclined to go to Spain. Programs did not fit and my Spanish was not strong enough to handle graduate level philosophy. Thus my choices narrowed themselves down to England. Knowing how expensive London was I felt like this was again an unreachable dream. Then, like magic, the idea appeared that University of Amsterdam had a Master’s Program in English. Wow, I had been there before and to be quite honest I was not in love with the place. Perhaps, I did not allow it to engulf me, perhaps I was too blinded by the overwhelming nature of drugs and sex. It was much seedier the first few times I found myself in this almost dollhouse of a city. I applied to not just that program but Mysticism and Esoteric ism as that always interested me. I waited anxiously, I was sure that Mysticism was probably a long shot but those who do not try do not get anything. I received a reply quite quickly as I was told I would and it was a rejection from entrance into the Mysticism program. I was denied based on my limited background in theology which was quite a legitimate problem. The philosophy response was delayed. I had no idea how the department functioned at this time and so that only made me nervous. To occupy my mind I decided to venture somewhere completely different, completely foreign.
I arrived in Tokyo twenty-two hours later. It was evening there and with no sleep I was very tired. I made myself a cup of green tea and passed out in my unusually large room in the most fabulous hotel, courtesy of being a guest of the Russian Government. Really its who you know and I was the guest of Russian Federation because it was the key to a substantial discount in this otherwise very expensive hotel. I slept better than I had in a very long time. I made sure to set the AC to the coldest temperature and the electronic notification to “DO NOT DISTURB” in Japanese of course. Its better to travel far as I woke up at a time that I could still get breakfast with the pack of coupons I got. Walking through this magnificent palace, I got into an elevator and went up to 40th floor where I had my first breakfast. I never had any breakfast that was as good. Unlimited buffet of whatever one wished for. There were eggs, fruit, biscuits. A very nice Japanese man ran up to my table by the window overlooking the city and asked if I wanted tea or coffee, as he was holding a pitcher of each in his hands. I said coffee and he flipped my perfectly arranged upside down cup and filled it three quarters of the way. “Arrigato,” I said thankfully, he bowed and replied something I did not understand. Everything is so perfectly arranged here.
I strolled outside during the best weather of the year. Everyone bowed to me so I bowed back. This was much more comfortable for me than handshakes. Besides there was something much more artful in a bow. I walked to the entrance of a metro station and took the escalator down, the station was very busy as most Tokyo stations are, the machine for tickets was in Japanese and the maps were in Japanese. I figured out how to buy a day pass with unlimited rides and bought that. The platform had strange yellow circles which where guides for people to line up single file. The train came within seconds of the displayed arrival time and oddly enough stopped with the sliding doors lined up exactly with the yellow dots and consequently in opened in front of the single file line that quickly and efficiently piled inside. Inside the train the phrase to remember and repeat is sumimasen which simply translated to excuse me. This was a culture based on respect and propriety. In fact many sat or stood in the train quietly with their eyes closed. There was no loud talking on phone or any distractions we are used to in our western life style. A child looked at me and his mother said something to him which produced a bow and a smile, I bowed back. Then the mother bowed. Many have said that the Japanese were cold but they were not, you just have to play by their rules.
I covered much of the city still searching for art and love. Several time Japanese women of incredible beauty came up to me just to talk. They all had to have English in schools and thus found white guys interesting. Not to mention that my Korean friend told me that Asian women love white guys but when I tried to date her, it did not work. Maybe she was in America too long. In either case I once again felt alive, visible, interesting. The culture fit very well even though there were strange aspects and what I knew of it was not nearly enough. I liked it. Clear, efficient, order within chaos. Crosswalks in very busy districts of the city would collect hundreds of people yet when the light and sound came on, in perfect order the people
Part 4 – Amsterdam
The driver of the black Mercedes-Benz S350 taxi said very little as he drove along the tram tracks of Nieuwezijds-Voorburgwal. He seemed to talk to himself in Dutch, but a bluetooth headset piece in his ear soon illuminated the situation. There was construction and the one way street in front of the hotel required the driver to make a few maneuvers to get close to the entrance. He backed up, then forward, then back again, turned and said “that is as close as we get,” and exited the car. He walked around, pulled the suitcase out of the trunk and said that he was owed twelve euros.
I dug into my pocket and pulled out a handful of bills among which I found a ten note and dug back into my pocket for some coins left over from the train ticket and was happy to hand the two euro coin and the note to the driver who got back into his Mercedes and left. I walked towards the entrance, rolling my suitcase behind me only to find stairs leading up to the actual door. Shit, I thought to myself as I prepared to lift the suitcase when a brown skinned man emerged from the hotel and grabbed the suitcase handle with a smile. “Hello, welcome. I’ll take this in for you.” “OK, Hello,” I followed him up the stairs and to the reception counter. The man left the suitcase by the counter and proceeded to talk to the people glued to the tv while sitting on a beige couch in an area adjacent to the bar.
There was nobody behind the counter and after picking through a variety of papers, I found the reservation print out and laid it down in preparation for an employee to return to their post to check me in. I turned to face the television and was instantly horrified by the mass flooding and the consequent panic and misery. People were dead, many were missing. The hurricane that was heading towards the area, struck while I was in the air over the Atlantic Ocean and now was dominating the news coverage all over the world. Everyone in the hotel was fixated on the screen, watching the disaster unfold, “how could this happen,” an elderly man exclaimed in horror.
The man who brought up the suitcase turned around and ran back to place himself behind the counter and reached for the paper laying in front of me as he continued to watch the panic. “Staying for one night,” the dark skinned man uttered as he typed on the keyboard behind the counter. I turned and nodded. “No problem, you are all set, let me show you to your room.” He came back around, grabbed the suitcase and proceeded down a hallway nearby. I followed with occasional glances back at the TV coverage.
The man opened the room and rolled the suitcase in and placed it against the wall. “I think you can figure it all out,” he said as he opened the only additional door in the room. “The bathroom is here,” he pointed out and motioned me to get comfortable. “If there is anything you need, dial 0, or come by the counter,” he said and left the room.
I put on the kettle, as I often do upon arrivals, and got naked. It was morning but I was tired so I crawled into bed and fell asleep. I woke up few hours later, put the kettle on again and took a shower. I poured myself some tea and glanced out the window. I had not been back to this city in a few years and I was now eager to see what did not change, and what did. I finished my cup of tea and ventured out of my room. The TV was still on and apparently the situation got much worse. People were sitting on their rooftops while others rowed by in boats. I did not want to dedicate myself to watching something I could do nothing to repair so I just passed by on the way out.
Part 5 – Darkness
On the way to Bimhuis, a massive center where we attended the jazz night in one of the bars within the building, I noticed an increased difficulty. The forty minute to an hour walk began to become harder, almost causing a feeling of dizziness and liquid legs. Surprised that I could stand at all, I did make it, however was nearly completely incapacitated to stand or move around when inside. I began noticing increased difficulty moving through the city as well, and despite my nature to ignore and move on, I could no longer.
Holding on to the walls of buildings lining the walkway, I became a man of the city in a completely different way, relying on the structures to support my failing body. Immediately my path relocated closer to the edges, allowing the possibility to grab something to lean against to support the quickly decreasing ability to balance myself.
I arrived back in U.S. on a previously unscheduled holiday return to see a neurologist to assess this sudden difficulty of normal functioning. I drove to the offices marked by a tower and parked my car. The receptioning who could not have been older than me gave me a clip board with numerous sheets of questions to fill out. Reluctantly, I filled it all out and was anxious to see the doctor, hoping to get some pills to improve my health. I was escorted to the little room, where I climbed onto the examination table and sat there reading the posters on the walls. The Indian man wearing a white lab coat walked into the office where I was sitting on paper stretched across the table and sat down lazily on one of the more comfortable chairs provided for the entourage of patients. Almost yawning and looking bored, he asked me what the problem was, in those terms. I declared my list of symptoms and he proceeded to perform an exam that would become very familiar to me. Hammer to the elbows and knees, standing with eyes closed, walking down the hallway and touching my nose with my index finger. Somewhat confused as to why such a level of exams was being performed I though that perhaps its all just routine. I did not really know what was wrong with me, but I guesstimated that it may be a pinched or compressed nerve somewhere in my knee, following the injury I had. The fact that I had the same injury on both legs made even more sense to me. In fact, the simple truth that I continued walking around in pain solidified in my mind that the compensation could have re-inured the older wound. I later learned that the exam consisted of CNS or central nervous system responses but this was dark water for me at this point and as most neurologist, he did not comment while doing the exam. I later learned that most neurologists do not comment, which drives a person crazy. Then again, we are not really people, we are one condition or another just sitting there. Anyway.
I asked him what he thought and he told me, without hesitation, that it is MS. A little surprised and really without complete belief I asked him what I should do. He pointed to the receptionist with piercings in multiple places on her face who looked at both of us and listened for instructions. “Give him some MRI locations,” he told her, then looked at me and said, “you need to do MRI of brain and spine, if you have to choose one, do spine.” “I need to leave to go back to Europe soon,” I told him. “You should see someone there, do not neglect this,” he remarked and walked away.
The cork board on the wall was covered with MRI business cards, which the pierced woman surveyed. She picked a few out and made copies of her picks. She handed the papers to me as she put the second copies into my file. “Good luck,” she said as she closed my file. “Thank you,” I replied while ruminating the life sentence I was just given. I walked out and to my car, still dumbfounded at the events of the past fifteen minutes. I was in for a world full of shit and I quietly understood. I called my mother to deliver the news and continued to swim in my own thoughts and reflections.
The return to Amsterdam came a week late, thanks to another neurologist my mother and I went to see. This guy, whose office was more of a psychiatrist, stirred a panic based on what he saw on the MRIs. Sadly, although his arrogant approach proved to be unfounded, his ideas for the treatment needed were correct. Regardless, traumatized, shocked and scared I left to go back anyway, knowing that nothing would ever be the same.
The entire flight back to Amsterdam, I kept checking my knee reflexes and the vibratory sensation in my feet. How could this have happened? How could a God take away my father and grant me this fate at the highest point in my life. My world was ending and I was conscious to see it end. What could I have done wrong in my short life to deserve this. I read everything and I knew what I could be in store for, and at that, to have such dramatic symptoms so early on was a very bad sign. I knew that all my friends, and everyone I knew in Amsterdam would continue their lives and have adventures and experiences that would now become unreachable for me. I also knew however, that I should get the degree at least.
Life in Amsterdam was hard, the trips to the store and back were difficult. I went to class once a week and I adapted a tram route that shortened the walking distance significantly. I continued to force myself to do simple things like going to a cafe or a coffeeshop, although things like wandering around the city became restricted for me and tormented my emotions.
I wished I could do something to ease this suffering but the only drugs I was offered were drugs that supposedly slowed progression. It never satisfied me and I never used the injections for that reason. My situation was bad enough that I needed help not a preventative measures. In either case, I was on my own in a sublime city that was closing to me quickly. I had a partner and a lover yet even that was torture, although without her I am sure it would have been worse.
She came to me, one day, and asked me to go with her to a movie about twenty minute walk away. I did not want to, but I agreed for her. The two of us walked down the curved road to meet her friend, that I knew as well. She did not like bikes, and I could not handle one, thus we were the only people without bikes but at least we were together. We walked and I took breaks and we kept walking. The light drizzle got my leather jacket wet and I was anxious to get to the theater faster, but I could only move so fast. The rain got harder and my head was wet when we finally reached the indy movie theater. The movie was in French and the subtitles were in Dutch, hence I understood nothing. My throat became more and more sore as we sat there and I was worried about the return home.
The movie ended and we walked outside, my suggestion for a tram was denied, since he had a bike and she did not want to separate the group. So we began our walk back, it was drizzling again and he walked alongside us, rolling his bike. The walk became harder and harder and the breaks on the now wet steps of staircases became more and more frequent. I was losing the battle against the uninvited guest. I got kind of dizzy and my balance deteriorated even further. I held on to the penis shaped dividers every chance I could and yet if that or the breaks helped it was for very short periods. I placed my hand on the next divider and slipped of it, hitting my face on the brick covered ground. I could barely move and could not get up. The both of them rushed over to help me and pulled me up, sitting me down on nearby steps.
“What’s wrong?” She asked, placing her hand on my forehead. “You’re cold,” she said. “Yes, I don’t know what happened,” I responded. My lip was bleeding bad and the night helped to mask the severity. We were not far from our building and he took his bike to the bike parking in the basement and came back to help move me. With my arm over each of them, I made it back to my bed and thanked them for helping me. I laid in my bed for half hour or so and proceeded to check the damage in the bathroom.
My lip was split and fat. This was unbelievable, but my walking slowly returned to its previous state. I did not know what happened and I still, really, do not.
Queen’s Day, the biggest national holiday, proved to be the most difficult. With all traffic shutdown the entire city center had to be covered on foot and to me there could be nothing worse. So in the spirit of an experence that I could not let pass, I walked with everyone, using every bit of energy I could and stopping for breaks often to sit down on one staircase or another lining the streets of this ancient city. It took an hour to get to Museumplein, an area that a tram would reach in about ten minutes. It was, as it always is, a central entertainment spot. Crowded beyond belief, we all just stood and watched the stage with variety of entertainment. Tiesto was supposed to play in the evening but I could barely stand as it was.
Pulling out a joint out of my pocket I lit up, perhaps to make myself a bit more relaxed in the already stressful situation. I passed to my Israeli friend, Gal, on my right and offered to everyone else. Gal and I smocked the rest and soon moved out of the crowd to the outskirts of the collection of bodies. Rest of my usual group of friends joined later and although sorry to miss Tiesto, one of my favorite DJs, I agreed that we should head back to a more relaxed location. So we headed back. Close to our building I could hardly walk, stopping for breaks often and holding on to the shoulders of my lover. “You are pressing hard,” she said and I could not answer anything but “sorry.”
We got ridiculously high, and it was amazing, the three of us were relaxed and I felt like a human being for the first time all day. I could do what others did, at least here, in relaxed setting where no function other than laughter was demanded of me. It ended up an amazing night, yet the torture of the day haunted me. How could I spoil such a day, but in the end I did get to see it.
Of course in such a sea of people I kept an eye out for others who have received the gifts of disability from God and of course although very few, I did see people in wheelchairs. I would continue to look for others the remainder of my time in this gorgeous place.
Sitting at a cafe few days later, I saw a man riding a tricycle and wondered why. I then saw him get off and struggle to get to the door of what I can only assume was his apartment building. The man could not place his heel on the ground, not only because his legs were shacking but because he could only touch the ground with his toes. It all seemed very similar and I felt the man’s agony and suffering in a way that few did. Perhaps the man had meaning in his life, perhaps he would even call himself happy, but I knew the truth, life is hard enough and he had to live with the same trespasser I had, or maybe worse.
I continued to smoke and write my thesis, I don’t know how I forced myself to finish in this kind of a state, but reading it now, it was good work. The Dutch professor took advantage of me and I got screwed on my second reader, whom I had the ability to choose and yet one was chosen for me. I did not care, I just wanted to graduate. Of course the choice was of a man that I disliked greatly to begin with and was not excited to see as my second reader. Regardless, in my thoughts of certain failure I just wanted it to be over.
My choice was a woman whose class I was in the first semester and who loved my writing style and my views. Sadly, I did not get the promised letter of recommendation or her as my second reader. I had asked her earlier and she agreed, but being unlucky in my adviser being the head of the whole department, my choice was neglected and his made permanent. In retrospect, I could have fought it, but I was in no condition to really take him on.