Thursday, July 30, 2009

Venetian Glass and a Dumbass

After my overpriced and wholly American meal near Piazza San Marcos in Venice, I continued on through the rain, hearing much more English than Italian. I discovered that, despite the confined space of the narrow streets, the Italians weren’t anything like the Spaniards and almost hugged the foul-smelling walls to keep from running into me. Despite my hobo appearance and the fact that I had been carrying everything I had on my back from the last seven weeks, I had made sure to wash almost daily with soap and water, and at first was puzzled at their preference to the musty wet brick. Then I noticed they were doing it to other tourists as well, and as an American I was supposed to enjoy having my space, a fact I had obviously forgotten in my short time away from home. Since I assumed the Venetians weren’t skirting us out of cultural deference, I deduced that they probably found us to be a vermin-like race whose mannerisms were contagious through direct contact.
I wandered around some more until I made it to the boat stop that took me straight to Murano, home of the Venetian glass shops that gave all the local shop owners something to arrange when they weren’t blatantly watching you browse. I was directed to what I assume was just one of many glass factories on the island and stood with a mixed group of tourists as a narrator tried his best to explain the process in five languages as the glassblowers silently ignored us. Although there really seemed to be no method to their madness, they moved around their workshop with quiet efficiency, seemingly oblivious to the gawkers standing 20 feet away. They were toting around metal rods with red-hot globules on one end, rolling the rod constantly to keep the liquid glass from dipping off onto the floor. The maestro and his helpers knew just how fast to roll the rods to keep the shape of the glass uniform as they blew air through the rod and into the glass bubble, creating a hot balloon on the end of a stick. Slowly, the glass cooled and was decorated with colorful beads and stripes before a stand, neck and handles were added to make a one-of-a-kind vase. The maestro actually looked more like he should have been serving a prison sentence than blowing intricate glass shapes. He had tattooed arms, silver looped earrings, a Mr. Clean bald head and smoked constantly. He could have been hammering out license plates for all the fervor he was putting into it. Nevertheless, I had never seen anything like it and was disappointed when I was shooed into the showroom so other people could watch.
I was looking at jewelry when I was noticed and latched onto by one of the salesmen, a 20-something Italian with curly hair, green half-lidded eyes and a swaggering insolence that made me want to whop him upside the head with a piece of heavy and sharp-edged Venetian glass. He informed me that the jewelry was half off, then proceeded to belt out songs in various languages until he noticed I was actually a lot more interested in the glass than what he had to say. Then he said something along the lines of putta matre, which sounds a lot like the Spanish puta madre, which in turn translates into something like “mother bitch.” In Spain at least, it is used as a generic term, like son of a bitch, to swear under your breath when you’re tired, bored, frustrated, or just for something to say. The thing is, he didn’t mumble it under his breath. He practically yelled it, which is probably why I understood it. I chuckled, and he looked up.
“Do I…crack you up?” he asked, without the least bit of warmth and a triple dose of sarcasm. I moved away, toward some cheap glass animals at the other end of the store. But he didn’t get the hint. Mr. Insolent followed me and waited while I picked out a small green swan. I asked if they had a way to package things to make sure they wouldn’t break.
“We wrap them in bubble paper and you can play football with them if you like,” he responded.
If anyone else had been speaking, this comment would have seemed funny and perhaps even charming, but Mr. Insolent was so very insincere that it seemed someone had coached him on what to say without bothering to tell him how to say it so it would work. I picked out a gondola to go with my swan and two necklaces. Mr. Insolent charged me 10 Euros instead of 14 Euros, he said, because he was such a nice guy.
“Do I make you happy? Do you want to kiss me?”
I didn’t answer, hoping it was an offhanded comment he wouldn’t repeat. He raised his half-lidded eyes and looked into mine.
“Do you want to kiss me? Do you want to kiss me, for an hour?” he probed, smirking impudently.
“Yeah, just like everyone else who gives me a discount,” I said dryly, not wanting him to take back his generosity but having to resist the urge to throw up all over him.
He made a gesture like he was going to kiss my hand as I took my package from him.
“Ciao, bella.”
“Putta matre,” I mumbled.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Never Again, I Swear

We got to London at 7 a.m., after jostling all night through England. I spent about 30 minutes in the bus station, smoothing out the wrinkles left in my face from the bus seat, then tried to figure out how much I could see of the city in very little time. In truth, I was so exhausted that there was nothing I saw that I later remembered.
By late afternoon, I just wanted to lay down and fall asleep anywhere that would have me. I decided to get my bags and head to the airport, hoping they would let me on the evening flight to Málaga, since my current flight was scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. Once I factored in tromping through the streets in the wee hours of the morning from the hostel to the bus stop, the hour-plus bus ride to the airport and the requirement of having to check in an hour and a half before departure, it wasn’t worth paying 20 pounds for three hours of sleep in London proper.
The help desk was more than helpful once they heard my predicament.
“Oh, sure you could get on a flight tonight, but you have to pay the difference in cost, which would be about £140.”
Considering I had paid about £30 for the ticket, this was outrageous to me.
“Even if the seat would be empty anyway?” I asked.
“Yep. Sorry.”
Ever so helpful people.
So I sat down for a 12-hour wait. I decided I didn’t want to try and curl myself into a wholly unnatural position in one of the chair banks with its annoying armrests until fewer people were around to watch me snore and twitch. I brought a book out and started to read instead. Soon an elderly grandmother came and sat down next to me with a cartful of luggage.
“They wanted to charge me £80 to take an earlier flight to Belfast,” she said indignantly.
And that was how it started. I was stuck talking to Irish Granny for three hours while she waited for her flight to Belfast, and all the while she was tut-tut ting over how much this cost, or how many black people were working at the airport, or how her children lived so far from home, or how America was a country of the devil (though she had never actually been there to witness our devil-worshipping) or how the British added an “r” to the end of all the words that ended in vowels. Despite her constant wrinkled nose and the huge mole on her eyelid that flapped when she blinked, I found her to be comforting in a grandmotherly sort of way. You know: old, wrinkled, set in her ways, and wondering just what kind of devil-worshipping parents I had who let me go traipsing all over the world alone.
Eventually I said goodbye to Irish Granny and settled as comfortably as I could into a carpet-covered chair with my luggage as a footrest and my inflatable airplane pillow. I may as well have been trying to get comfortable sleeping in a tree. I twisted and turned and at one point hung my legs over the armrest. All this accomplished was turning my legs blue and waking me up with nightmares that they had been cut off and a metal rod put in my back.
Finally, I was released from my tortured state by someone else’s pure genius: he stretched out on the floor. Even though it was hard, cold tile, I was relieved, because I was lying down and my legs were still intact. I folded my sheet in half and crawled inside. Although it was a fitful sleep interrupted constantly by a British voice reminding me to never leave my luggage unattended and that the pay-park machine accepted credit cards, it was, nevertheless, sleep.
From that moment on, I had nothing but flights with 24-hour layovers in between. I went back to my chain-smoking companions in Málaga and bought wine and olive oil with them to take home with me. To make room for my purchases, I gave away a towel, clothes and shoes and shared one last night of second-hand smoke and chocolate with my old friends. The best part of getting there, however, was the shower. I had gone so long without bathing that I felt I had been dipped in body coating candle wax.
The next morning, I boarded a flight back to London. The plane left an hour late, causing me to run like a frightened deer from my gate through the halls, impatiently plod through security, onto a bus, and through another terminal, only to arrive with ten minutes to spare. I wasn’t too surprised when I reached New York and my bag wasn’t on the conveyor belt, the first time I had actually checked it during my whole time abroad. I was out of luck, though, because the only shirt I had with me was the one I was wearing, which I had managed to decorate with a huge dollop of braised beef on the plane.
After an extremely restless night of sleep in the same hostel where I had begun my adventures nearly two months before, I was struck with jet lag and nowhere to rest until my flight took off at 9 p.m. I had arrived at about midnight, and the only room left was right next to the common room, which was full of yuck-yuck laughers until 3 a.m. I woke up too early and packed my purse to see what I could see before my flight left. I gave in and bought an “I  NY” T-shirt that almost looked worse than the braised beef decoration. I was so tired and fed up that I ended up in the airport extremely early, without a bag and having finished my book. When I finally climbed on my flight back to Washington, I vowed to stay out of airports for as long as humanly possible. Or at least until the travel bug bit me again. Then, when I was tired of my job and inspecting my backpack and airfare prices, I would have forgotten all about the braised beef shirt and how uncomfortable it is to sleep on airport floors.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Calamities With Stripes

Though it didn't seem like it until I looked back on the past few weeks that I had been living in Mexico, really I had been through a series of calamities that were trying, but nonetheless must have made me stronger. Otherwise, there is absolutely no reason to suffer through them.
Calamity number one: Montezuma’s revenge hit me upside the head with a double-edged ax. Well, actually, it was in the stomach, and for those that don’t know what Montezuma’s revenge is, you've had the luck of never having it. Basically, there are all sorts of very enthusiastic stomach bugs that the Mexicans put in the food here to slowly but surely kill off the gringos that have infiltrated their country. Symptoms include diarrhea, lack of appetite, the urge to vomit, and doubling over in pain and whining for mommy, all in the middle of watching the dubbed version of Bad Boys in a movie theater. Treatment is finding a Mexican doctor that does not have his own office but will meet you at the nearest hospital, where he'll examine you in an extra examination room, give you a shot of antibiotics in the ass, charge you $40, give you a prescription and a list of foods you can't eat, including chocolate even though it's your birthday, and send you on your way.
Calamity number two: the rain. It does not rain. It waterfalls on top of you. It does. Constantly. It never stops. Actually, it does. The rain stops long enough for you to go outside, look carefully around as if trying to spot a waiting predator, get through the front gate and make it a couple of blocks. BAM! Thunder, lightning and dark clouds scoot in at ¨lightning speed¨ and you're drenched and stepping in puddles up to your neck.
Calamity number three: I am being sucked bloodless by the mosquitoes. The house I live in has a back garden with a fountain that is never on but has plenty of standing water where the little bloodsuckers breed. They somehow make it from there upstairs into my room and are slowly killing me while I sleep, which is the only time I wear shorts. My legs look like a minefield. It doesn't help that Mexican mosquitoes don't have the whining approach like their U.S. relatives, so they can sneak up on you undetected. It also doesn't help that when I am asleep, I don't notice that I am scratching my legs until I awake in a bloody frenzy. I showed my landlord my wounds, and she looked genuinely confused. How strange, she said, standing in front of the open sliding glass door that leads out to the garden and waving away some bug that flew too close to her. Because the mosquitoes rarely come in the house, and we never leave the doors open. I stood there in front of her, my legs trickling blood, and thought of all the days I had come home and found the sliding doors open. Actually, I didn't even have to think of all the days, because it was every day! Then she gave me a real zinger: maybe it's just your exotic blood. Ha! She just called a white, redheaded freckled girl from Washington exotic! THAT is a calamity! What an insult the really exotic people of the world!
Calamity number four: my job. I knew this was going to happen, but that didn't stop it from happening. As part of my job as an intern for an English language newspaper, I wrote a story about all the nasty things you can find in the tap water here and why you shouldn't drink it. I gave it to the editor on a Tuesday (the paper is finished on Thursdays) and asked him to look it over to see what else it needed. He lost it and didn't ask for it again until Thursday morning. I gave it back, he told me to change the lead, then I had it proofed by the copy editor and turned it in. It didn't come out in the paper that week. He called me in on the next Tuesday and gave me something that I am sure was once my article, but it was really impossible to tell because it was covered in teal and black ink. He went through it with me, telling me things I needed to change, some of which made a lot of sense, and others that I think changed the whole meaning of the damn thing. This, I have discovered, is because when I talk to the editor about an article, he has already decided what's going to be in it before he sees it. I could tell him I'm writing a story about the zoo, and if he decides he wants to hear about the monkeys and I write about the zebras, he'll tell me I am all wrong in saying the monkeys have stripes.
Anyway, I make the corrections, and hand it over to the copy editor, who gives me back a paper that, as he fondly put it, was a bloodbath (he uses a red pen). By this point I am fed up. He too thinks I am trying to paint stripes on the monkeys and refuses to listen when I try to explain that they are ZEBRAS. I locked myself in the bathroom and cried angry bitter tears and was afraid to wash my face afterward for fear that I would inhale something dangerous from the tap water. I finished all the corrections and turned the thing in yet again. Once again, it doesn't come out in the paper. Moreover, I find another article that I had originally written where the editor took all the information I gave him and wrote his own article. So I decided to talk to him about this. As I sat there trying my best to keep from acting like a leaky faucet, he told me in no uncertain terms that he was usually being nice to me just because I was an intern, that I obviously didn't know enough about water quality or how the water gets through the pipes to write a story about it, that he has the right to change my articles without telling me, especially when I turn them in 20 minutes before deadline (which, by the way, I have NEVER done unless it's given to me right before deadline. I turn most of them in a day early.) He also said that I am not good enough at translating to get the full context of a conversation and write it again in perfect English, and oh, by the way, don't get discouraged, because you're by far the best intern we've ever had. Apparently the others were trying to paint stripes on buildings or something.
In response, I went home, waved away the buzzing mosquitoes, and consoled myself by eating my way through the rest of a chocolate pudding pie.
The lesson? They are monkeys, regardless of the stripes, and chocolate really is a cure-all.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Polite Pole Vaulter

His name was Mitchell. He was 8 years old, from Texas, and called me ma'am. He and another kid from Texas, Brady, were my only charges that day, and both had kind of gotten to the point where they could wedge themselves to a stop, so I decided to take them up to the beginner chair up on the hill via another chairlift. Despite my extensive explanations, they both biffed it trying to get off, but really this is nothing new. I tried to get them to ski down a hill about as steep as a table top, trying to teach them to stop on their own without falling, turn maybe, and God forbid they be able to get up by themselves. Brady could stop, about 50 feet ahead of where I was at any given time, but Mitchell was having problems with even that. Near the bottom of the hill, I was hot from lifting them, tired and frustrated and threw off my coat as they mewed in little heaps of snot around me. Right then a seasoned instructor and his row of perfectly skiing ducklings slid to a stop behind me. As the kids began to push each other, Tom asked me if I was all right. "How do you,” I gasped, trying to focus on something productive. It didn’t work. “WHAAA!"
Okay, so maybe that's a little melodramatic, but I felt like a fool trying to stop crying like my 8-year-olds. Tom took me by the shoulders and made me look at him.
"Don't let them see that they're getting to you, or it will all be over." I felt like I was stuck in a kennel with rabid dogs that I had to keep from seeing my fear.
I pulled myself together and put my goggles back on before we parted ways, them down the hill in a perfect line and I leading my group to the chair lift. It is our policy that the instructor go up the chair first so that someone could help them off at the top, and after I got on I turned around and watched Mitchell keep walking instead of stopping at the line to get on the chairlift, his little snot-encrusted face staring up at me as he walked right off the front of the loading platform. The lift operator sideswiped Brady before he could be whacked in the head by the chair he was supposed to sit on. I sat on the non-moving chair for five minutes watching the liftie take my kids' skis off, move them out of the way, help them put the skis back on and stand them on the line with the explicit instructions to stay put. When they got to the top, I was waiting for them, but the liftie wasn't watching, and neither of them made any move to get off. I lifted them down after they tripped the safety gate, then pointed to a distant spot across the hill where we would meet. Too bad they couldn't make it to that distant spot. Right at that moment, like a bad horror movie, I saw my boss incognito in a baseball cap because it was his day off,, and before I could stop them, both my kids tried to go across the hill, but they were pulled DOWN the hill in a gravity riptide into a hole with a big pole sticking out of it, inconveniently placed below the offloading ramp. Brady, the better stopper, managed to fall down with one of his skies halfway into the hole, as I'm screaming in slow motion to Mitchell to fall down, FALL DOWN MITCHELL! before I watch his little frame pick up speed, launch over the hole and literally wrap himself momentarily around the pole before I hear the thud of his helmet whacking into the cold metal. Then he is a crumpled heap at the bottom of the hole. I almost fainted. I ran over, unclicked my skies, and touched his arm. "Are you alright, Mitchell?" I am on the point of hysterics. "Yes," came his muffled reply, since his face way half-hidden in his coat and halfway into the snow. When I had established that nothing hurt and I could lift him out without doing him any harm, I did so and sat with him in my lap.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
His little snow-covered eyes blinked at me.
"Yes, ma'am."