Travel causes in me an addiction to leaving. To changing on the insides and perpetually finding movement in all things. I grew up trying to find home in every uncomfortable room in the house. I find myself clinging to end and obscurity. Identifying pieces of myself within every new stranger I meet in whatever language. The combination of highs and lows and unknowns and discomforts, being forced to figure it out, is something that has been magical to me since I first stepped off a plane in a strange place many years and mistakes ago.
When it all started in the Czech Republic for me it was exhilarating. Cloud floating euphoric dreamy perfection; I wiggled in and out of trains with my big heavy snail shell pack crammed with rolled up sundresses and things I still haven’t worn; monotonous weight I was uselessly dragging around. (Note to self; high heels are useless in Europe. Life may in fact be too short to tolerate such useless pain.) I sat in a beautiful big glass train station in Frankfurt with the light shining yellow and white streams through the windows onto the green of the inside trees; making shadows. I waited to catch the train to Prague to board the bus to Susice. I thought about home.
I find that meandering about train stations and lingering in airports in foreign places is always a rather lonely affair, some intoxicatingly solitary adventure. I lived in Spain for a year when I was 20 and there was a moment when I was crying to my brother across the ocean about being lonely in a sea of people and experience and he said to me, “That’s how you know it’s working. Erin you are learning and getting learned. You are getting schooled by the world, and the loneliness… It’s all part of the process.”
Since then the distilled sensation of coming home had created in me bigger rivers that eroded more rocks, with all their liquid forces made of confusion and tangled up, sometimes messy experiences, carving clearer, wider paths. Sometimes being stagnant moves you. I never thought I could go back again. The mere idea of leaving Salt Lake City for…anywhere was like telling me I could go home.
Arriving had its moments of insanity. Traveling (especially in countries where you don’t speak the language at all) is a little like closing your eyes and holding your breath and swimming under water for 36 hours. Needless to say I was glad to have arrived. The train to Prague was 6 hours. Having not slept well for a week, on top of staying up until 3:30 the night before my 6:00 flight, I nodded in and out of uncomfortable train upright pack sleep for the duration of the journey.
The train shot through little red roofed German villages and bright green and yellow hills with canola blossoms and chubby white cloud infused blue skies, (that later turned to long wet gray afternoons), haunted with images I’ve only seen in heavy history books and movies about war.
The Prague Sušice stretch was the hardest part of the trip. The part where you start asking yourself “Will I ever get there?”
I had anticipated Prague to be a little cleaner, a little less sketchy. I ignorantly anticipated ubiquitous English. I’m not sure why. There were lots of exaggerated hand gestures. I was dropped at an unprepared outskirt of the city and after a yellow metro ride that made me a little nervous I could see the numbers of dollars scrolling like a slot machine as I counted the worth of all the things on my person: the laptop, the ipod, the passport, the cash, the credit card, the clothes, that sat squeezed in my bag on my back in the train filled with tattooed people looking at me funny. I realized quickly that even if I had to run or fight, I wouldn’t be able to do it very fast. Not that agility has ever been my strong suit.
I got off the yellow metro and got on a bus crammed with people. Once the aisle was nearly entirely full of people standing up against each other I thought to myself, “There’s no way they’re going to let those twelve other people waiting get on…I mean, right?” Alas they did, and we squeezed. I stood between two men, spending a good majority of the ride trying to psych myself out of fainting (I have a tendency to faint). I kept reminding myself of my experience traveling. I could handle anything. Everything would be fine. Just get there.
I finally made it to find my Czech family; Vendula, Vacek, and Martina waiting for me at the bus stop by the wide river lit by street lamps in the cool green evening. Vendula is pretty with light brown shoulder length hair, bangs, round mom glasses. She wore a pink t-shirt and cargo capris and had an eager smile, though her eyebrows made her look nervous. Vacek is portly with a husky goatee; he was wearing a printed button up shirt that hung low over his short shorts with hiking boots holding up his round frame with his skinny legs. Martina is beautiful, with exotic eyes and long, dyed black hair. She was wearing a low, strapless orange striped shirt, and acid washed bell-bottom jeans. Her silver hoops were as big as mine. As I envision it in my head now, it’s like all three of them had big wide stretched open arms and were jumping up and down they were so excited to see me. We walked to their apartment ‘downtown’, where I got to plop off my pack on my bed in Martina’s room, with a Vacek rendition of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles painted on the orange wall. I later found out that Vacek was a night watchman that also painted and wrote poetry. Martina once gave me a poem he had written, entitled “Erin” though she had a difficult time translating exactly what it meant. I don’t know what ever happened to it. When I found a microphone and a keyboard all set up, ready for duets with Martina. I immediately felt at home. Everything within everything felt very good.
The Project “New Eyes” ® group had met up a few times for “pre-departure classes/ details/dinner parties” After getting to know each of them, thinking back on first impressions was always, and is still amusing.
Steven Sternfeld is the eyes of the project. The father and creator of it, and all of us, and seemingly everyone I’ve come across since I met the man. He is audacious and authentic with long imaginary blond curls over his bald reality, two daughters, one grandson, and a six-pointed brown felt hat filled with mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
Heather Hirschi was the co-pilot, the mom of the group, the friend when Steven was the grown up, and the grown up when Steve was the friend. She is soft and feminine with deep blue eyes and a gentle voice. Short, not quite spiky, blonde hair and is often seen wearing red cashmere sweaters, with dangly colorful bracelets. A writer and discusser of things, and like all writers and discussers of things, has a penchant for Irish whiskey, and an understanding, somewhat mischievous glint in her eye. She was the mother, the good mother who has been there and written and read that.
James Sewell was a 28-year-old grad student. Very serious. Except when not. The type I always perceived as the shelled one wishing to get cracked. Smart. Handsome. Sharp even. He was doing the masters program in linguistics and had written an opinion article for the university paper that I frequently read and thought nearly every time, “It’s too bad he’s scowling in that picture.” He’s a verbalist. A linguist. A hard-boiled egg-ist. A little hard and white on the outside, but soft and yolky on the inside I think. I once heard him raise his voice two octaves over a baby, as well as heard him once confess he wished for a girlfriend. I think we all kissed him by the end of the trip.
Maya Souedi brought a large bottle of Jagermeister to our first Sunday night dinner party before leaving. It was the first time we met, and I remember her wild curly chocolate brown hair and her even wilder personality. Her jingly silver bracelets intimidated me a little bit. She was loud and opinionated, exotic and gorgeous with long legs and good style. I must confess my bias, as since meeting her through the program we have remained very close friends.
Todd McKay was the one I sat next to at the dinner party and he immediately struck me with the sincere beam of light that shoots from the sparkle in his smile (it’s that good…) His voice is almost startlingly deep for his fit, small rock climber structure, and I couldn’t help but admire his honesty when he admitted, sitting around that candle lit table of jet setting European bound writers, that he doesn’t actually read books very much at all. He would later climb on every structure we came upon, and do it well.
Sadie Dickman has perfect dimples and vibrant green eyes. Not quiet or shy, but still sweet in her demeanor. I learned the first night at that dinner party at Steve’s that she had done a study abroad with him before, that time in Italy. She came off as very smart, and squarer than she later turned out to be. She lived in the orphanage in Kaspersky Hory, a town about 20 kilometers away, living with abandoned, mostly Romany children and seemed perfect from the beginning for the job.
The Kaley family came late to the first dinner party. A small baby sleeping gently in a wrapped sarong slung around Merideth (who later became Meri.) Michael was the student in Project “New Eyes” ® (and he is also a 6th grade teacher) with thick salt and pepper (mostly pepper) hair, a stately goatee, and black-rimmed Alan Ginsberg glasses. I picture him wearing blue checkers. Cole has deep, precocious eyes that sparkle when he looks at you straight, though a shy 11 with his low slung baseball cap, he rarely does, fully clad with band t-shirts and an a ‘tude to back it up. Merideth didn’t say much that first night, but it was later, in Prague when we drank absinthe and talked about women, and men, and music, about Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin that we all became friends. I asked Michael how long he has known Merideth and he said in his gentle voice “2000 years.”
Jane Bobet and I realized shortly into the trip that we have many, many mutual friends. My boyfriend’s good friend from high school was her roommate, her sister Felicity, was a friend of mine from high school who dated the bassist from my band, and thus years prior Jane had come to shows, her other older sister is life long friends with my oldest friends family, (Salt Lake is convoluted as such anyway) Her long thick, real life, blonde locks and goddess like voluptuousness paired with her dry wit and deep pitched candor deceived everyone into thinking that she was not only the most sophisticated but, in fact, the eldest. I didn’t learn that Jane was 19 until well into the trip. She has a scarab beetle tattooed on the inside of her forearm.
Sam Matyjasik once told me he loved me in front of our class of 16 Czechs (aged, respectively 14- 50). We were teaching our class about travel vocabulary/commands/formulating questions. I was pretending to be a travel agent and him a client. There was a board up between us and we were both pantomiming being on the phone. It was the end of the conversation and I said “Thank you sir, we’ll be in touch” and he replied “Okay. I love you. Goodbye.” From then on “I love you’s” were regular occurrences between Sam and I. Sam is nearly impossible to describe. Tall and fit, an unsuspecting gym bunny, with shoulder length blond hair and black dipped tips. He always wore a necklace and often had a du-rag with him, which he showed me once, is quite versatile. One day waiting to go to Kašperské Hory we were talking about our favorite books. When you’re lucky enough to get to know Sam well, you hear every fragment of an almost childish sincerity in his voice. Five to ten minutes after we had changed the subject Sam emerged from thought and said,
“You know, I think Where’s Waldo…. Well… that or maybe Siddhartha, cause I mean that’s a good one too.” Sam later became Sambo.
A few days in I sat on the banks of the Otava River. Near the town football field, a few meters from a chatty restaurant balcony filled with Czech gossip and tall cold golden beers. I sat in a puddle of lush green, surrounded by big tall green trees, growing out of grassy green ground, surrounded with beautiful big green bushes, with a glittery, sparkling black river cutting itself through the middle of all of it. I felt cradled in the light of leaves, so soaked up and delighted with the exhilaration of leaving and having arrived in a new place. The addiction of change and growth. All that build up and even just that one moment seemed worth it.
As it always seemed to be in different worlds, SLC time was different than foreign country time. Two weeks in the Czech Republic felt like a month, easy. Martina and I immediately gravitated towards each other, as we are both boisterous singers, with attitude and sass to boot. I realized our closeness after a night where a Czech boy unintentionally hurt my pride by pointing out the fact that I talk too much. That in this small town, word had already spread that “I never shut up.” Martina took to my defense immediately “Thank God you never shut up!” She said, “That’s why you’re here. To talk to me all the time, and help me with my English! Ooooh! When I see Jarda I tell him to shut up! You are my American Sister!” I immediately felt validated, about everything.
I would spend my mornings sitting quietly with Martina’s mother, Vendula, drinking hot Turkish coffee and staring out the window at the Dandelions. We each had dictionaries to aid us in our limited conversations. One morning she removed her jars of spices, unscrewed every lid, put the jar under my nose, I took a big whiff. “Oregano,” I said. “OregAno?” She would repeat. “Basil,” I would say. “Baseel?” She would repeat, and so on. By the time the third week came, Vendula and I were friends. “I wish you could meet my mom,” I told her one morning, homesick and rainy. She didn’t understand me.
It was one of Steve’s concrete intentions to take us to the Synagogue. He had stumbled upon it a year prior and was so moved by its history that we had all heard (and read) about it prior to even leaving SLC. To be perfectly honest at first I felt like a third grader going on a field trip to a museum I didn’t much care about. That’s what history becomes when it’s so far away, uninteresting and intangible. It’s more difficult to accept how close all history really is to our present and future. I had cast aside these historical figures and events like the characters from a book I never really read.
We arrived and Heather even took me and Maya (who, astoundingly, talks more than I do) aside and told us that Steve intended for this to be a reverent experience and to, please, take it seriously. I was insulted, but I shut up. The synagogue was light blue and the friendly man waiting outside wearing his yarmulke on the cloudy day shook our hands as we entered.
I learned that the original synagogue was one of many to be destroyed during the final years of WWII when that region of the world (former Czechoslovakia) was butchered in the face of war and got swept away as the Nazis tried to clean up (and hide) what they had done. Several large black and white photos lined the walls. The one on top would be a delicate Our Townesque photo of a small village with a church and houses, trees and sprawled out buildings and farms, with a year like 1934 written on a little card below it. Directly under this photo there was an identical photo from the same angle, except there was no village. Just dirt and hills. The year under it is 2004. There were five or six examples of this. The museum guide told us that much of it was destroyed by the communists as target practice for bombs and mechanical weapons.
The most interesting part for me was that the museum was split into thirds. 1/3 was dedicated to the period prior to Nazi Germany, when the Czechs/Slavs and the Germans shared land peacefully, the period when Czech Jews were removed from their land and homes and sent on death marches, put into concentration camps, or just killed, and the last third was the period following WWII when the Czechs “expelled” all Germans from their territory, many were also killed and put out of their homes for intangible reasons.
Violence leads to violence and how many innocent people are dead in the end? Is there an end?
We watched a video of a woman recounting her experiences during the early 1940’s. She was never religious, she explained, her family affiliated with Judaism, but she thought of herself “as a Czech before a Jew.” One day she was told she couldn’t attend school anymore, at the time she was 12 or 13 years old. Shortly thereafter she and her mother were sent to a concentration camp. As the war was ending the Nazis were in a panic to get rid of all of the evidence (which comprised mostly of humans) so many of them would take people out of the concentration camps and send them on death marches. That is to say, send them walking until they died along the way. The little girl had to leave her sick mother on the road two days in. They slept in a cow barn and to keep warm during the winter night she slept in a cow paddy. When she woke up she was covered in a layer of snow and everyone was gone. She meandered 12 miles before a woman found her and took her in. After the war she ended up re-encountering a boy that she had met years earlier in the concentration camp with her mother, and she married him, and has been married to him since. The barn she had slept in that night, after leaving her mother to die, was just up the road from the synagogue I sat in.
I couldn’t control my tears.
I was made to examine my lifestyle, my goals and paces from a perspective I haven’t seen from. Part of the love of leaving is being able to extract you from “home” from the normal comfort zone and pin yourself all naked up against the universe and strangers. Who am I to them? Am I funny? Am I kind? Am I just some rich American? They keep asking me how many rooms I have in my house and I feel embarrassed to admit it.
I wondered if the look on their face when they found out my parents pay for me to go to college was similar to the look on my face when Vacek asked Vendula to dance in the kitchen. Sometimes I can hear them full bellied laughing in the tiny apartment. I don’t know what they’re saying, but I can see clearly their love.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” They asked me on my first night (or at least I deduced it from hand gestures and pointing at photos).
I held up 6 fingers. They looked shocked. “But I have four parents.” I said holding up four fingers. They looked perplexed. I found the word “divorce” in the dictionary. They looked at me understandingly.
A couple of months after returning home I sat in a posh café in Salt Lake City that had shiny floors and hot waitresses and haircuts, tan, and waxing next door. “Well what am I supposed to tell David and Sari in New York when they ask about you?” My mother asked me, gesturing with her salad poked fork. David and Sari are old Jewish Ivy league East Coast types that are close friends with my Mom and my Step-Dad, the types that worry what pre-school might determine what college. “…Well, she’s finally graduating from the U. Um, she’s in a band… She’s seeing a boy…He’s also in the band, he’s not in college.”
“Mom you’re a snob.” I said.
“No I’m not.” She said, “We have certain values in this family, I’m sorry.”
What am I with out what I’m associated with? Who am I with out the numbers of rooms in my house? Who am I without that piece of paper, or an appropriate résumé or boyfriend to be bragged about at cocktail parties? What are my values? What has been carved on me? For that matter what has been scuffed off? When everything is stripped away, what is left?
I am Martina’s American sister. I am funny. I talk too much. I am a person that likes to watch other people and the little things that make them happy.
I am a person that enjoys discomfort and the way it makes me think of sad pasts that were forced upon me to create new beginnings. I look at history and cry over loss.
I am addicted to change and growth, ever winding and confusing, re-birthing and infinite. I’m trying to open my eyes and keep them open.