Monday, June 20, 2016

A "Traveler."

To me, instant coffee, the kind that comes in those little packets, the powder that you pour under
boiling hot water, tastes like Italy. And it tastes like my grandmother's apartment in Eastern Europe, the one with drawers full of old Communist love letters and where me and my father would hang our cleanest dirty clothes above the shower. Those instant coffee packets taste like the late nights in Milan when we didn't have enough money for an espresso. It tastes like stress. Like wondering where you will sleep the next night.

I remember getting off of a bus near Treviso in the region of Veneto, Italy with my father. And from there, we walked all the way to Venice. My father with the backpack on his back and I with my guitar in its case in my right hand. And we had to have been the only Americans who went to Venice and did not ride in a gondola. When I returned home people would ask me, did you go to Murano? Did you go to Burano? (The islands around Venice.) My response every time was, "Is it possible to get there on foot? Because if it's not, I haven't been there."

Passing through, wherever we happened to be passing, people began to joke, calling us "white gypsies," "zingari bianchi," "tigani albi." And we looked the part too. Especially after we climbed one of the tallest mountains in Moldova, "Ceachlau" in the range of the Eastern Carpathians, in one day alone.  We reached the summit in the afternoon and were back on the ground on the other side of the mountain that night. My dad picked up a hiking stick along the way and carried that with him which didn't help much with the previously mentioned image. We had to cross to the other side in order to catch a train that night that would arrive in the capital city of Bucharest by the morning. I remember my eyes being closed in the train with my head against the window, I was drifting off when I heard two young girls, about my age, laughing. I opened my eyes and saw them pointing to my legs and as I looked down, I realized that the pantyhose I was wearing under my dress, had holes in them.

I remember walking through the cemetery in Bucharest with my father, the one where the relatives of my grandmother were buried and as we were leaving, a gypsy man with dark skin and green eyes, who was sweeping the walkway, lifted his broom from the path upon which we were walking, so as to make way for us. He kept his head down but as we passed him, he smiled at my father and bowed before me. He said to me in Romanian as I passed,

"Saru' Mana." May I kiss your hand.

I didn't understand until we left the cemetery and I asked my father what he meant. He explained to me that people from a lower class do not greet others with, "good day" or "good morning" but instead, "may I kiss your hand," as a way of showing respect. Not even a moment later, we passed a bus stop on the street where the bus driver was screaming at an old gypsy woman to get off of his bus, that he did not allow people like her on his bus. A white woman stopped us and asked us why we wouldn't lend the gypsy woman any money to ride the bus, in that moment she turned to us and showed us her hands, full of coins. She had more than enough money to ride the bus.

That night, my father and I had run out of money. We decided to just go to sleep because we didn't have enough money for food, The thing is, every time I hear an upper-class, Tuscany vacation-home owner call himself a "traveler," I can't help but wonder whether he has worried where he will sleep the next night. I want to ask him how many times he has used his backpack as a pillow in the last empty train car, or argued with the woman selling bread on the corner of the street. I wonder if he has ever seen discrimination, occurring before his eyes, in a foreign language, and tried to comprehend the world in real time. I wonder if, when he smells the smell of instant coffee, his mind is instantly flooded with images of the open window in an apartment without air conditioning and the millions of little wrinkles on an old woman's hands, filled with coins. The blissful ignorance of never having seen or felt. Is it really his luxury to never have known these things?

The last night we spent away from home that summer, I lay awake in the chair in which I had been sleeping, in my grandmother's apartment. And I'm embarrassed to admit it. But I cried.  And I couldn't tell whether it was because I was sick to death of the growling noise my stomach kept making, or if it was simply the frightening image of my country that loomed in the near future. An image of responsibility. The image of a country in which, I had a life made out for me. The country in which, I had to be someone great. The country that my parents came to so I didn't have to sleep in a chair, on an empty stomach every night like they often did. And I was scared to death. Terrified even. I started to question myself, who I was, where I was from, where I belonged. It was a feeling in my heart. I lay awake and wondered if any of the others I had met, the ones who flew to Tuscany every summer, the one's who called themselves "travelers," had ever felt that feeling, in their hearts. Lost, alone, and terrified.