The logical thing it seemed to do was to give up on America. For years we squandered our time looking for jobs of substance, not realizing that there aren’t any. There was Europe, there will always be Europe. As of this writing, Europe remains.
The other logical thing left to do was sell what we could of our stuff and with the rest, give it away. It came down to that: if someone bought our dinner table, they’d get a bicycle and a telephone with it. What would bohemia do without stolen milk crates? Maybe it would take three days, but it only took two, to liquidate. We were so out-of-there. Rented a car, drove it to Illinois, said goodbye to mom, took a flight from Chicago (the cheapest one we could find overseas) packed up some books (books of all things), and sent them ahead of us to a place where our dreams couldn’t go wrong, to a place eternally what it is and can be. A place called France.
There’s a sinking feeling that comes thirty thousand or so feet in the air at the break of interstellar dawn as you are flying over, for the first time in any life, the Atlantic, or any ocean, then Europe, or any continent and the lights down below match no pattern of lights assembled before and the back-lit grids of cities have formed like minerals do: by a consciousness that you have never known.
It’s a phenomenon much akin to gravity reversal. After freeing oneself from the material goods whose true function is to weigh you down and anchor you somewhere, the answering machine, the car battery charger, the ironing board, flatware. Not all of a sudden, because it has been building for years and years and years this just might happen in that trans-Atlantic flight on which your strategy of drinking all the free drinks available, to aid in sleeping, has miserably failed. The flight on which the back five rows of fliers have, for at least half of the eight airborne hours you’ve been static, chain-smoked a shortcut to oblivion.
A flight on which the air was so clear that every time you peered out your space capsule window and saw another somewhat distant bubble of light zooming out in the out there, you were sure it was a plane on a crash course with your own and were mesmerized by its trajectory changed at the last second to allow you to monitor the next close call. (As a matter for the record, you refrained from wearing a certain pair of your shoes because you had a dream in which you saw that exact pair being fished out of an ocean.)
Flying above what you know or must believe is Western Europe. Flying as dawn burns off like an early morning fog. Seeing out of the scratched up, blurry, abused space capsule of the window that does indeed have cigarette burns in its corner that what is below could be Greek or oriental, or does it matter because all that can be focused upon is the pure weirdness of a pyramidal peak rising through a shorn cotton lining of cloud and the movie over the intercom says something you could never understand except à droit, Mont Blanc.
Blankness prevails. The mind is blank. For the first time ever it hits you: you’ve left home, you’ve left everything you’ve ever known; your provincial American mentality is goodbye. There’s now an ocean between you and everything you’ve ever been, everyone you’ve ever known, a literal friggin’ ocean, and the distance inverts and the weight of the continent and all that big pretty blue puddle-ness oppresses and nails you in the chest. The view of the alien mountain range with clouds it tears up and spits out and valleys appearing on the wrong side of where you imagined them to be and you can’t breathe because this is your destiny to be far and to be dislocated, to be excited and a little afraid to be alive. This is how it feels to return to your home away from home.
So what if you didn’t tip the lady waiting outside of the public toilet in Paris because (one) you have never experienced this situation before and (two) she wasn’t there when you went in, and you were wondering about that saucer of coins sitting on the tiny table and (three) you have absolutely no idea how much it costs to pee in this country.
Of course you felt guilty when she dirty-looked you because the soap in there that smells so good was worth at least fifty centimes. Other times when you go to use the men’s room in public places, little do you know that the cleaning people, and let it be stated, almost always cleaning ladies, will come into the sacred realm of masculinity while you’re in mid-extension, caring little for your right of privacy. They are completely immune to any possible run-in with your partial nudity, utterly freeing you from any shame of your bodily function as they very nonchalantly invade your personal space and by doing so make you feel as though you are the one infringing or trespassing in their workplace. A very effective method for making sure the “customer” treats the restroom as if it were his or her own.
You go places, you learn things.
But did you realize, before selling all that you own, before deciding not to visit a foreign country but to move to one, that even though you’d pick it up in a couple of weeks or so the language they speak (the same one you studied for two whole years), would be totally unintelligible and that your ability to say a few phrases with a pretty darn good accent could only result in a tirade of French from the person you attempt to solicit a few, slowly spoken directions from?
Could you have known when they speak their exquisite language that sounds so mellifluous that you simply want to listen to the music of it and who cares what it means because music and meaning do not make good dance partners. That the voices coming from the always turned on television or the radio or from groups of people walking by sound so wonderful that it has the power to put you to sleep. Maybe because as a child you grew up in a house where several European languages were spoken and trying to comprehend this new language makes you get all dreamy and dreary-eyed and blissful. And this causes these people to believe that you are at least partially autistic.
Who knew there wouldn’t be any air conditioning anywhere in the month of August. Not in small stores that reeked of sweat or at the post office that smelled of cigarette smoke and sweat, or, of course, not on the bus that smells of sweat, perfume, and what everyone had for lunch. Many houses and mostly all apartments rely on the wind from open windows, or there will be a small open-air terrace to help deal with the summer’s angry humidity. All meals to be taken outside. In Europe, American comfort is never guaranteed.
So you don’t really understand a snitch of the menus, you can read far enough to understand the gist of the newspaper’s headlines, even though what it writes of is irrelevant, and not much of what is said means anything to your frazzled brain. Mostly communication has to be done through exaggerated body language motions. And you generally spend a lot of time trying to make friends with birds of which you notice there aren’t a whole bunch.
Because it seems logical and because you are mentally destitute, you spend hours in small circular “corner” parks where the ground is gravel and there might be, but probably aren’t, a few metal configurations for children to play on. Where there are some trees that hide the overbearing city from the furrows deepening in your forehead. Where there is a badly manicured lawn cultivating its own crops of bird poop and cigarette butts, but a lawn nevertheless. Even if it’s not one that is to be sat upon with an idea of gazing at clouds overhead. It’s a park where people come and actually become publicly romantic on park benches or they sit and read a publication bought at a magazine stand. Or they come and let their children run wild in the dust and climb trees because when kids are inside they act as perfect Victorians. Off the leash of culture and society, they go Neanderthal.
A circular park, a potted plant of greenery that sometimes sadly is the home for the destitute who try their hardest not to look like the homeless by wearing acceptable clothing and offering to hold doors open, to work as doormen essentially, for those entering the post office.
Circular or triangle shaped parks filled with the sneaky furry shadows of wild city cats, missing an eye, missing an ear corner, missing a tail, who were once domesticated so they do respond to your mewing but will never come near a human. In the parks, unknown people read newspapers, eat snacks (but never a lunch), they use the free space as outdoor smoking rooms, romances are started and kindled, trash is stranded in alarming amounts, and the best aspect about these places is the fact that eighty-seven point two percent of the population doesn’t even think to visit them.
Some consider the parks to be dog poop atriums. And most people are quite content with viewing their pools of shade and spots of green from third floor windows. What they don’t know is that from the circular parks, the insides of apartments can be seen. Especially if you climb their trees.
It’s a well-known fact that Europeans aren’t as prudish as their American cousins. All sorts of human activity can be seen taking place within the frames of tall, usually un-shuttered windows. All sorts of activities involving various amounts or lack thereof, of clothing. The secret of the parks is that they’re amphitheaters of humanity.
“Curiously unpeopled” is how, many years later, they will describe your writing. And to think of all the days, years, consecutive hours, the afternoons we as humans exist within ourselves. When we step back from the reflection of the mirror we never wholeheartedly trust. When we sit back to have a cup of tea. When we eagerly read the Sunday paper wishing for escape from a place that has the comfort of a Sunday paper reading hour. On the night of the big party when we decide to stay home and read. When we travel to nearby cities to simply not be in the one we see every waking day. When we sit at a desk or on the floor in the vain, illusory, even childish attempt to transcend the curse and folly that this magnificent tenure life has doomed us with: being only one person. Wondering if the world itself believes in the goodness of people. Aren’t people, as in “a people,” a wave? A movement, a mass radiating thought, a herd, a grouping, a clump, a unit we are supposed to try, though it’s impossible, to void, to not be. Aren’t we to be individuals who do strange and wonderfully specific things, like write un-publishable manuscripts, paint pictures that might not ever sell for fifty bucks, fall in love three to four times a day and then try to figure out why, or at least do something about it. Aren’t we as singular humans supposed to plant dead tree branches in our front yards, as land art, so then birds would pose on them displaying their bird-ness? Aren’t we to move to a foreign country where we must ask the stunning platinum blonde, whose skin is so tan it smells of sun, for batteries, but because of her stunning-ness you accidentally ask for “pills” in her language while she wonders what you really want and who the hell you are and why you are trying to get high and why are you looking like her at that. If it weren’t for people and their acknowledgement nothing would be accomplished because we mentally need to rub up against each other non-stop like the weird mental cats we are.
No room at the Inn was the answer we heard on the employment front from every little nook and cranny of the world of smart thinkers. Attempting to become an outright teacher of the English language seemed like the most logical of ideas. The mostly English descendant overlords of the field were at first encouraging and well mannered. Especially the older gentleman from Scotland who must have been related somehow to Sir Sean Connery. He was as tan as a leather belt, teeth as white as polished ivory. He said to come as soon as my working papers were issued. It was a promise made with a wink of his dazzling blue eye.
The feeling of unemployment comes down to a feeling of monumental, all-pervasive inadequacy. Until this point in the B movie of my life, a job, even a part-time gig, had been a constant. To wake up every living day knowing that you weren’t required anywhere and that your forays into the world of the eight-hour daily diversion would most likely end in failure and frustration was a strangely liberating anodyne. Hours could be spent reminiscing about the meanings of clocks, how one’s voice sounds over a phone, just what level of desperation could be (under) achieved.
You begin to stay in one room and watch its carpet degrade, try to figure out what its pattern of wallpaper is representing, dream of possible jobs you know you could never bear to do: camp counselor, babysitter, hiking guide for the elderly. You take your own afternoon walks to free your mind from its prison of self-loathing and to convert your body into moving flesh, to change it from the stone pillars it has become.
To be in your late twenties in a foreign country with no hope or prospect for employment, hardly any money in the bank, no clear way to feed yourself, is a dream come true. How do you survive other than subsiding off the family of your beloved by doing menial jobs for them (part-time guilt work)? To have no career, no purpose, no future while looking out onto the blue green of the Mediterranean sea and taking, as it were, trips to the Alps, first to view them, and going on drives to villages to rummage through their ruins, to wander in their cemeteries wishing you could be so lucky to be buried there.