Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Monster-Truck Cure For Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock—i.e., the feeling one gets upon returning to the home culture after growing accustomed to a foreign one—is a real phenomenon.  I know this to be true, because back in early 2008, I had a bad case of it.

At that time, I had just come off the Africa leg of a one-year journey.  I returned in mid-December, just in time to catch the crass commercialism and frivolity of the Christmas holidays.  Blow-up Santas on front lawns; special $3.99 containers meant to present that perfect Bed, Bath & Beyond gift card; overpriced Hickory Farms sausage-and-cheese gift packs; Kleenex with holiday designs; Snuggies and ShamWows; that kind of thing.  It was hard to take after all I’d seen and experienced. 

Long story short:  I tried, without success, to fight my culture.  It was a losing battle, and it wasn’t winning me any friends, either.  No one likes to be told that their expensive shoes cost more than an average Bolivian makes in a year.  I’d become a drag, and it wasn’t helpful to anyone:  not to me; not to the friends I’d endlessly irritate with my soapbox lectures; not to the people living in the slums of Nairobi. 

It took me forever to beat back the reverse culture shock as a result.  This time, I was determined to nip it in the bud—ASAP—preferably by the end of this Memorial Day weekend.  My strategy:  don’t try to beat ‘em; rather, join ‘em.  Embrace what makes my country, my country.  Firmly take my place back.  Be proud to be an American. 

Serendipity, it seems, conspired to help me overcome.  My first day back in America—in Clearwater, Florida, to be more precise—was also the first day of my brother’s family’s vacation out of town.  I now had the run of his large home, and custody of his Ford F-150 monster truck.  “Don’t scratch the rims,” he said, before I was turned loose.

I spent the next few days drowning in excess.  Here I am:  flipping through the 1,952 channels on a ginormous flat-screen TV; taking the longest and hottest showers as humanly possible; cranking up the AC; running the dryer endlessly; leaving the lights on in all the rooms; watching Seinfeld reruns (of course); nibbling Wheat Thins Stix straight from the box.  (When did they start making those?)  For days I’ve done nothing but luxuriate in every excess I could think of and get away with.  I’m not in Albania anymore.

First Starbucks in Florida.  The logo changed!
It had been six months since I’d driven a car, and now I was perched twelve feet off the ground in a bad-ass truck, owning the Florida roads.  Last week, I was walking everywhere.  Here, I’m driving unreasonably short distances to buy expensive cups of coffee.  Because I’m an American, and that’s what people in America do.  What do you mean we should walk to the Starbucks just around the corner?  What are you, crazy?

My brother said only “don’t scratch the rims;” he didn’t mention anything about flying down the highway at top speed, singing Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life at the top of my lungs; or taking my hands off the wheel while I banged air drums to Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar On Me.  So I figured those things would be okay.  I’m addicted to this truck now; it’s so American—the way it guzzles gas and barely fits into a parking space at Target.  I love it, unapologetically, and I don't care if all those people back in Europe think it's not sensible.  It’s just like Jon says:  I just wanna live while I’m alive.

There are other things I’ve been doing to conquer the reverse culture shock quickly.  First, I’ve stopped telling strangers that I just got back from traveling abroad for six months.  Nobody cares, and anyway, Americans think it’s weird, all that traveling to foreign places when we have a perfectly good country right here.  I can tell by the looks on their faces.  I must tuck those “when I was in Macedonia” stories away for someone who's not just pretending to care.  The sooner I get back to the insular and provincial, the better;  I know.

I’ve also stopped living out of my backpack.  I unpacked it and transferred the stuff into a regular roller-suitcase.  I’m still homeless, but I’m no longer a backpacker wearing the same two pairs of pants.  Yesterday I went to the mall and bought new clothes.  I used plastic.  It’s the American way.  In fact, I'm thinking of going back today to get that expensive facial cream I had my eye on.  I'll figure a way to pay for it sometime down the road.

And perhaps the most important thing to make the transition complete:  it’s time for me to stop posting to my travel blog.  I know—it’s going to be hard—but it’s time.  I’ve got one more post left, and then it’s over for Travelarity.  Of course, in the weeks to come, I’ll still check the page-visit count obsessively to see how many hits the blog continues to get.  (Yes, I just did it again.  It’s at 8,396.  By no means viral, but still totally decent.)

Meanwhile, throwing myself headlong into American culture has been nothing short of euphoric.  Yesterday I stopped at the Circle K, where strange things are, indeed, afoot.  On Sunday I visited my eldest brother's family in the next town over.  We ate pulled pork smothered in Sweet Baby Ray's barbeque sauce and watched the first two Twilight movies back-to-back.  (I prefer Edward, but my gosh does that Jacob look good without a shirt.)   On the way there, I spotted an oversized Scarface towel and thought about buying one.  I could take it to the Courtney Campbell Causeway, where maybe I'll rent a jet ski.  Who knows, I might even take in the Gun Show scheduled for next week.  The possibilities are just endless.

Here's something you don't see in Luxembourg.
Soon, I'm sure I'll begin to pull back a bit.  I’m actually thinking of walking to Starbucks one day, and I may even let myself feel bad about spending $3.00 on a cup of coffee every single day, and sometimes twice.  But in the meantime, I’m back, baby, and loving this culture of mine.   I've come to realize over time that, here, nothing is really shocking.  I think that's why I so adore the good ol' U.S. of A. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Master and Johnny Cash: A Travelarity Book Report

The National Library of Russia in Moscow.

I once read somewhere that, to be a successful writer, one should (1) write every day, and (2) read all the time.  I followed this advice religiously during my travels over the past six months, so I’m thinking I must be on the cusp of something big.  In fact, I can smell success as I write this.  It smells like money, and Barnes & Noble, and really good coffee.  

When I travel, I like to read contemporaneously about the places I’m visiting, if possible.  That’s why one day I shelled out 450 Russian rubles (about $15, even at half price) for a book called The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov.  I’d never heard of it until my Russophile roommate in St. Petersburg, Scottish Janine, highly recommended it.  It’s a Soviet-era satire concerning the Devil’s visit to Moscow.  I loved it, just like Scottish Janine said I would, and was not the least bit surprised to discover that The Master and Margarita is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

I read and learned from The Master as I struggled simultaneously to write my own book.  Take The Master’s opening, for example.  Here’s how Bulgakov began:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds.  One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand.  His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size.  The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish-hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers.

If I were writing this same passage, I would have said: 

I saw these two guys sitting by a pond.  It was hot.

See the difference?  From that day forward, I tried to be a little more like Mikhail Bulgakov—and a little less like a first grader—in my own book writing.

Drawings in stairwell of Bulgakov Museum, Moscow 

The Master was over 500 pages, and I didn’t finish it until I reached Ukraine, where, incidentally, Bulgakov was born.  I was sad when it was time for me trade it in my hostel’s book exchange.  But I was also eager to see what would come next.

The hostel book exchange is one of my favorite aspects of travel.  It’s pretty straightforward:  leave a book; take a book.  I never know what I’ll be reading next, and I like it that way.  Sometimes you can find a real interesting gem.  A life-changer, even.

In Kiev, Ukraine, I ended up with a compilation of genocide-survivor memoirs called Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields.  And here’s the weird thing:  I saw on the inside cover that this had been a library book from a satellite-branch library in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I held a library card growing up.  How weird is that?, I wondered, thinking it was an omen of sorts.  

But what did it mean?  In recent years, I had become increasingly interested in human rights law and genocide studies, particularly after visits to Rwanda and Bosnia.  I was convinced that this book being left behind was meant to be a message for me; like it was pointing me in a direction as I considered my future path.  

I racked my brains thinking, but what?  Should I go to Cambodia?  Become a human rights law professor?  Apply for a job at The Hague?  Later I decided perhaps it was just a large coincidence.  But still it's weird that the book was from my library in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Over the course of six months, I read some great books picked up in the exchanges.  The topics were wide-ranging:  from the Lost Boys of Sudan, to the political, societal, and cultural aspects of Macedonia’s ethnic communities, to a catalogue of West Balkan Pramenka Sheep breed types. 

Two random, hostel-exchange books had major influences on my writing, I think.  At least that's what I'm going to tell Matt Lauer when he asks.  The first, mentioned in a previous post, was The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, which won the Pulitzer for fiction recently.  The guy’s a genius of a writer, and I pretty much worshiped him by the time I was done.

Another book took me by surprise late in the game, and I think breathed new inspiration into my writing.  The author’s name is Matt Melvin and I picked up his recently-published first book—Dracula is a Racist: A Totally Factual Guide to Vampires—in a hostel in Albania.  I read it front-to-back on the bus ride from Saranda, Albania to Athens, Greece, and it resonated.  It’s (very) dirty and funny and dark, which can be entertaining if done well.  Which is a relief, because lately I’ve been realizing more and more that I’m (very) dirty, and funny, and dark myself.

In the end, it was the autobiography of Johnny Cash that brought me in, back to America.  Even beyond Walk The Line, Johnny Cash has interesting stories to tell.  His book showed me that if your story is a good one, telling it doesn’t have to be complicated.  It’s a lesson I still needed to learn, I think.  “Just put them words on paper, girl” is what I imagine Johnny Cash would say, as I struggle to finish my travel memoir.

So, about that.  Here’s the long and short of it:

I worked seriously on writing my book over the past months.  I had a theme song for the book and everything:  M.C. Hammer's Turn This Mutha Out.  I'd listen to the Hammer periodically when I needed a certain boost, and I think I made substantial progress on the first draft as a result.  I don't know when the memoir will be finished and polished, but I imagine it will be sometime in the coming months.  The best thing is this:  I know now that my book is no longer a matter of if, but rather, when.  

I’m not making excuses, but in my defense I do want to say a couple of things about why I didn't exactly finish a full first draft.  I didn’t realize when I started this journey just how important and time-consuming my blog would become--not to mention, I spent a lot of time actually doing all the things I wrote about in the blog.  Travelarity forced me to practice my writing every day, and it was really a great thing.  I finish it tomorrow convinced that it was worth the time, even if it did slow me down on the book.  My book will be better for it.  

Also, Travelarity connected me with so many people at home and abroad, and helped me feel less alone as I traveled solo.  And here’s something really big:  it gave me confidence.  Sometimes, when people asked me what I do for a living, I actually told them I was a “writer.”  And sometimes, within those times, I didn't even feel stupid saying it.    

Now that I’m getting close, I’ve begun to worry about other things, like fame.  I was thinking back to my visit to Scotland in 2006 when I dropped in at the “The Elephant House” – one of the cafés in Edinburgh in which J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel.  The place has become a tourist attraction.

Inside the Elephant House

As I finish my forthcoming travel memoir—and prepare for the potential spotlight—I think about all the places in eastern Europe and the Balkans that may receive similar attention.  I wrote my book in many libraries, including, most notably, the National Library in St. Petersburg, Russia, where—to my amazement—I was able finagle an actual library card with my picture on it.  I wrote on the shores of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, in the Rila Monastery outside Sofia, and in endless cafes along the way.   Some of my best work emerged at the Café Memento on General Gurko Street in Sofia.  Perhaps that will be the next Elephant House?

My desk in the Rila Monastery.

A lot of times I kid—this being, after all, a humorous blog—but I want to say something seriously.  I appreciate all the support I was given on this travel-writing adventure.  With respect to the blog, I tried to give my best for those who followed along the way, and I appreciated the opportunity to write, show, and tell.  I have two more posts to go, and I’ll be sad when it’s done.   But the book is waiting, and regarding this, let me say, if I may:  if you liked this blog, you might want to cordon off a weekend when the time comes.  From what I've got so far, I'm thinking you won’t be able to put the book down once you get started.

On the flipside, if you think my blog sucked, then you’ll have plenty of time that weekend to catch up on laundry.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

And now, the Complete Travelarity Reading List, in case you’re curious:

When You Are Engulfed In Flames, David Sedaris
In My Hands:  Memories of A Holocaust Rescuer, Irene Gut Opdyke
Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, edited by Kim DePaul; compiled by Dith Pran
A Long Way Gone:  Memories of A Boy Solider, Ishmael Beah
Why Should We Teach About The Holocaust?, Jagiellonian University Institute of European Studies 
I Will Plant You A Lilac Tree, Laura Hillman
I Was No. 20823 At Auschwitz, Eva Tichauer
Survival In Auschwitz, Primo Levi
Into the Flames:  The Life of Story of a Righteous Gentile, Irene Gut Opdyke with Jeffrey M. Elliot
Mother Tongue:  The English Language, Bill Bryson
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Power Sharing and the Implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (2008)
Catalogue of West Balkan Pramenka Sheep Breed Types 
What Is the What, Dave Eggers
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
Dracula Was A Racist:  A Totally Factual Guide to Vampires, Matt Melvin
Cash, The Autobiography of Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Meet The Wilsons

Don't worry Wilson, I'll do all the paddling. You just hang on.

Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, 
Cast Away (2000)

Perhaps I understand more than most how Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away became insanely attached to an inanimate object.  The protaganist, Chuck Noland, finds himself stranded on an uninhabited island after his FedEx plane crashes in the South Pacific.  In one of the undelivered packages was a white volleyball.  Chuck eventually names the ball “Wilson” and the two fast become friends.  Chuck regularly talks with Wilson—even argues sometimes—as Wilson serves as Chuck’s faithful companion.  When Wilson falls overboard into the ocean, Chuck is naturally grief-stricken. 

I probably would not be able to watch that particular scene where Wilson floats away without breaking down.  I had two Wilsons of my own when I was out there in the world alone, and I think I can understand the extent of Chuck’s devastation.

My first Wilson was a black LL Bean long-sleeve, fleece pullover.  I bought it in an outlet store somewhere outside Wilmington, Delaware in 2006, and brought it with me when I left home to travel the seven continents in 2007.  At first it was just a fleece pullover, but by the time we reached Peru eight weeks later, it had become my Wilson.  At least, that’s what I called him.

Wilson was a good friend.  He kept me warm on frigid Bolivian trains.  He was a comfortable pillow on long bus rides through Patagonia.  He was a constant companion; always there to guard me against the night air’s chill.  Many times, he just hung at the ready around my waist, sleeves tied in front.

This is where Wilson was when we made our way into Oslo, Norway toward the end of summer.  I remember what happened like it was yesterday.  It was August 27, 2007, and our big plan for the day was to visit the Nobel Peace Center, next to the fjord at the harbor.  The Peace Center museum highlights past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded by a committee of five persons chosen by the Norwegian Storting (i.e., Norway’s Parliament).

Wilson and I took our time getting to the museum.  We stopped at McDonald’s and ate something called a “Laksewrap”—sort of a pita wrap with salmon inside that cost some outrageous amount of Norwiegan Kroners, considering it was fast food.  We also souvenir shopped for a friend whose grandfather was Norwegian, and passed the morning taking in the sights around town.

When I reached the Nobel Peace Museum, I thought Wilson was with me.  I toured around, reading about past winners that I recognized, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jimmy Carter.  I also learned about other heros, like Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist and founder of the Grameen Bank which provides microcredit to help poor people establish creditworthiness and financial self-sufficiency.  Soon I reached the gift shop and it was then that I realized:  Wilson was gone.

At first I was fairly calm.  I started back through the museum, retracing my steps, feeling confident he was somewhere within.  My panic increased as I discovered:  he wasn’t in the theater; he wasn’t in the Points of Light room; he wasn’t in the bathroom; he wasn’t in lost and found.  He was nowhere to be found.

Now I was beside myself.  Where could Wilson be?  How could this have happened?  I left the museum and began to visit the souvenir shops where I stopped along the way, being careful to conceal the panic in my voice as I asked various shopkeepers if they had perchance found a black fleece pullover.  No one had.

I began to allow myself to accept that Wilson was gone, and it made me feel sick.   I knew it was probably crazy for me to cry, but I didn’t care.  Wilson had become my friend along the journey, and I was devastated at the thought of continuing without him.  Suddenly I felt completely alone in the world, and the tears began to well.

That’s when I spotted something in the distance on the ground near Oslo’s City Hall.  It was black and just lying on the sidewalk.  Could it be Wilson?  My heart raced as I sprinted over to see.

It was Wilson!  He must have fallen from around my waist when I passed by this way hours ago, and here he was on the ground, waiting patiently for me to come back for him.  I snapped a picture to memorialize the happy moment.  I then picked him up and hugged him close to me.  “I’m sorry, Wilson,” I told him, vowing not to lose him ever again.

Later, in December, Wilson was with me in Johannesburg, South Africa, when we boarded the long plane ride for home.  Together we had been to forty-two countries over seven continents that year, and it was one wild ride.  Wilson was a little worn out from the trip, so we decided that he should retire.  Every now and again he makes appearances at the budget travel classes I teach back in Los Angeles.  He’s part of the backpack show-and-tell night, and he’s always a hit.

I didn’t think another Wilson would emerge on this latest journey, but another Wilson did.  My second Wilson came into my life in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Second Wilson is a small water bottle, purchased at a supermarket in the Passage Shopping Center on Nevsky Prospect.  The bottle was light and held a perfect amount of water for walks around town, and conveniently fit into the side mesh pocket of my small backpack.

I had the bottle with me through Russia, and Ukraine, and Poland.  By the time we reached Belgium and Luxembourg, I realized that this was more than just a water bottle.  This was my friend.  I named him Wilson, as well, kind of like how George Foreman names all of his kids George. 

I carried Wilson everywhere from eastern Europe to the western Balkans and down to Greece, and refilled him with water everywhere from the Rila mountains in Bulgaria to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro.  Wilson connected me with so many people in restaurants and elsewhere who happily complied with my request that he be refilled.  Many interesting conversations were struck as a result.  By the time I reached Albania, I was thinking how special Wilson had become.  I had even decided to feature him and the first Wilson in a blog post called Meet the Wilsons.

One night, in Athens, Greece—just days before my long journey was to end—I was hopelessly lost looking for a certain sushi restaurant.  Finally, after winding through endless back alleys, I found the place.  I went to reach for Wilson for a sip and noticed—to my horror—he was gone.

Along the way I had stopped in several shops and a nearby hostel, asking for directions.  I knew that if I had left Wilson behind and someone found him, he or she probably would just throw him away, thinking Wilson was just a plain, old water bottle, rather than a close friend of mine.  I ran through the streets in a panic, hoping against hope that I would find Wilson before disaster struck.  I thought it would be a bad omen, too, to lose Wilson just before our journey was to come to a close.

I approached the last place I visited—the hostel where I stopped for directions—and peeked through the front glass window.  There Wilson was, on the counter where I left him.  I ran in and took a picture to memorialize our happy reunion, just like with the first Wilson.  I tried to explain to the people behind the counter what Wilson meant to me—but they just returned my words with odd looks.  I left with Wilson securely in tow, feeling positive that we were both going to make it okay to the very end.

Wilson rode home with me the other day on the plane from Amsterdam.  We both recognize that it’s time for him to retire, too.  I gave him a good washing, and now he’s ready to join first Wilson when our travel classes start up again.  I think he's going to love the spotlight on backpack night, and I'm sure he and the first Wilson will get along swimmingly.

And yes, I realize—especially now that I’m home and surrounded by actual, human loved ones—all of this is totally and completely nuts.  But if there’s one rule I’ve kept with this blog, it’s this:  I speak my truth.  And the truth is, the Wilsons were, and always will be, friends who kept me, among other things, warm, hydrated, comfortable, and--most important--company.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Reporting from Moscow: A Get-Down With Black Russians

Last night, I spent the night in my brother’s office-slash-guestroom in Clearwater, Florida.  I arrived at his home close to midnight, found the key where it was hidden, and let myself in.  Everyone was already fast asleep, and soon I was too, after almost 24-hours of continuous travel homeward.

The last time I slept in this room, I lay in bed, crying.  It was December 8; the night before I was to begin my long journey abroad.  I felt exhausted from wrapping up affairs at home, handling logistics, and saying my goodbyes.  And I was afraid.  The road ahead—which was to begin in Russia—had me feeling scared.  Really, really scared.

My sister-in-law entered the room and tried to soothe me.  But I was a bigger-than-usual mess, and the tears kept flowing.  She called for backup, and soon my brother joined us.  Together they told me that I didn’t have to go; that I could change my plans; that I could delay my flight until I felt more ready.

I had a million reasons why I couldn’t take their suggestions.  I had already quit my job, given up my apartment, put all my things in storage, and so on.  But, perhaps more important in my mind, I had already announced—bragged, even—that I was leaving; that I was going to write a book; that I was taking a big adventure.  The exit, planned over months, was meant to be grand:  I would board a plane on my 40th birthday bound for Russia.  How could I not follow through now?  What would people think?

“It doesn’t matter what people think,” my brother said, imparting his usual, older-brother wisdom.  “You have to do what’s right for you.”  My sister-in-law agreed, but also understood my dilemma.  “You could stay here and write your book,” she offered in suggestion.  “We can just call the office Moscow.”  I laughed at the thought of pretending to everyone that I was in Moscow, when really I was holed up in my brother’s guestroom.  In the end, my heart appreciated knowing I could stay, but it also knew:  I had to be on that plane the next day.

Looking back over the past months, I now know all the things I would have missed had I let fear throw a wrench in my plans.  I know I would have missed one of my favorite experiences of all time on this trip, and that is, my night getting down with Black Russians at a mad-crazy holiday party.  Here’s how I got the invite.

One evening, I sat on an adjacent beanbag in the common room of my St. Petersburg hostel with my host, Irina.  Russian television was on, and we started chatting over the commercials.  Irina told me that she is Caucasian, meaning, she is from the Caucuses; northern Ossetia, to be more precise. 

“I’m Caucasian, too,” I said. 

“What do you mean?” she asked, curiously. 

“That’s what we call white people,” I explained.   “Like, our race is Caucasian.  So, if a white guy is suspected of committing a crime, the cops will say, for example, that they’re looking for a Caucasian male, 35-years old, wearing a blue sweatshirt, or something like that.  Caucasian means the person is white.”

“Actually, Caucasians here are considered black,” Irina said. 

Now, it was my turn to question.  “What do you mean?” I asked, looking at her light-colored skin.

Irina then explained something I didn’t know.  Apparently, in Russia, certain groups of people who are ethnically different—particularly people of the Caucuses, including Ossetians, Chechens, and others—are referred to as “blacks,” perhaps due to their darker features.  They face discrimination and social exclusion by ethnic Russians.  In fact, just days before, race riots had erupted near the Kremlin Walls after a football-related brawl that left one Russian dead.  The trouble had spread to St. Petersburg.

I listened to Irina intently and with great interest.  I knew a little bit about some trouble between Russia and other regions, like Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, but I didn’t know anything about discrimination against so-called black Russians.  I told Irina that, from my perspective, I couldn’t really spot the difference between the ethnic Russians and so-called black Russians, either.   

A couple days later, Irina and I sat together in the kitchen, having a snack.  She looked at me and said, “I would like you to be my guest at a party I’m hosting on Thursday.  You could come hang out with black people and see what they’re like.” 

Intrigued, I asked, “what kind of party?”  Irina then told me that she is a teacher of traditional Ossetian dance, and this was a very special holiday party for her students; approximately twenty-five in all, all Caucasian.  There would be a banquet with special food from the region.  “And we will have our special dancing,” she told me.  “Kind of like how you have hip-hop in America.”

I was worried about the absence of party clothes in my backpack, and expressed this concern to Irina.  She assured me whatever I wore would be fine.  “We just want you to come,” she said.  “Do you think you’d be interested?” 

I told her, in a manner of speaking, that I was totally down with it.

Thursday night rolled around, and Irina, her mother, Alla, and I met at the hostel.  We drove to a restaurant reserved just for the party somewhere near St. Petersburg’s city center.  Irina was wearing a beautiful maroon-colored dress that I had watched Alla knit and sew throughout the week. 

We entered the restaurant and I saw huge spreads of food and wine covering each table.  The girls were beautifully dressed in fancy party dresses.  There were also lots of young, handsome men, smartly dressed, hanging in cliques and tossing back vodka shots.

Being an outsider, and the only white-Caucasian in the room, naturally I was feeling stand-out and nervous. I noticed some sidelong glances, and quick looks, and even a couple stares.  It felt like all eyes were on the American stranger in black jeans.  And worse:  the chill in the air seemed to have followed us inside.

Soon I realized that the students were not just watching; they were also waiting:  waiting for their chance to talk to the American guest-of-honor.  It wasn’t long before the ice broke and I had a steady stream of people and introductions and handshakes and questions.  Many expressed genuine excitement to be meeting and talking with an American, and from Los Angeles!  We talked, and laughed and feasted on scrumptious, authentic Ossetian dishes, including some kind of cheese and meat pies that I still wake up thinking about.

Several formal toasts were offered, and soon the Ossetian dancing commenced.  It was fascinating to see this young, hip generation carrying on the old traditions of their forbears.  Some time—and lots of vodka later—the music turned more to rock and hip hop.  My new friends pulled me onto the dance floor, and that’s how I came to get down with bunch of so-called black Russians at an awesome Ossetian dance party in St. Petersburg, Russia.

As the evening wound down, I sat with a group of young men and women who knew English pretty well.  They asked me what I knew about Russia.  “Whatever I learned in Rocky IV,” I said, joking.  They knew Rocky IV, and one of them laughed and said, “we know Rocky Balboa!”  I wondered aloud whether they knew that Dolf Lungren isn’t actually Russian, something I had just recently learned.  They responded in unison:  “He’s Swedish.”

On a more serious note, one girl asked if discrimination against blacks in America had gotten better since Barack Obama was elected president.  Everyone turned to look at me, waiting for my answer.  These kids knew what it was like to be black and discriminated against.  Now they wanted to know what things were like for their comrades in America.

It was a tough question, I thought, and one to which I really didn’t have an answer.  But, judging from the eager looks on their faces, I knew I needed to offer something. 

“When I was your age,” I began, looking around at kids twenty years my junior, “it didn’t even seem possible that a black guy could be President of the United States.  And today--there’s one sitting in the White House.  So, obviously, things can change.”  They smiled, and seemed both satisfied and encouraged.  Perhaps there was hope for them.

In the days leading up to our dance party, many people were seriously injured, and some killed, in race riots between ethnic Russians and the so-called black Caucasians.   In a rally in Moscow’s Manezh Square the previous week, people were heard to be shouting “Russia for Russians!” and “f@#k the Caucasus!”  I was thinking of the current troubles as we said our goodbyes with warm embraces and kisses and well-wishings for the future. I hoped, as we parted ways, that change would someday find its way to Russia. 

The next day I woke up thinking about the party, which was without question one of the most interesting nights I had spent in all my travels.  It was then that it dawned on me.  If I hadn’t gotten on that plane, I would have totally missed the once-in-a-lifetime get-down with a bunch of sweet, young Caucasians.  And that would have been a shame.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Caught Up in the Schengen: My Dutch Deportation Interview

“You cannot be serious!”
--John McEnroe

This morning, at the airport in Amsterdam—before I had any coffee—I found myself in a secondary interview with a Dutch immigration official with the threat of deportation looming over me.  It was the last thing I expected as I began my journey home this morning.  I might have laughed if I hadn’t been so scared.  Here’s what happened.

I woke up this morning with the plan to get to the airport in Amsterdam ridiculously early in order to be extra, extra sure not to miss my flight home under any circumstances.  I woke up before my alarm even went off, zipped up my backpack for the last time, and set off.

Instead of hopping a tram to Amsterdam’s Centraal train station, I opted, symbolically, to hoof it one last time with my backpack.  I walked for approximately 30 minutes through largely desolate Amsterdam streets and arrived at the train station at 7:00 a.m. sharp.  The next train to Schipol Airport was waiting there for me.  I hopped it, and soon arrived at the airport, more than three hours before my flight.  I was in.  I was on my way home.

I checked in with United, got my boarding pass, and headed to passport control.  I stood in line chatting up fellow passengers, telling everyone and anyone who’d listen that I’d been away for close to six months and now was going home.  I was in a great mood.

Soon it was my turn.  I approached the passport booth and handed over my documents.  The officer took a long time looking through all of my visa stamps, but I didn’t think anything of it.  He then asked, with a mixture of sternness and perhaps suspicion: “When did you arrive in Europe?”

Now, looking back, this might have been the one real-world case where knowing your geography and stating the answer with precision really mattered.  But I didn't realize it at the time.  I said:  “December 10,” which is when I landed in Russia.  Because, I thought, Russia is part of Europe, right?  I mean, the map of Europe on the inside of my travel journal had Russia on it; or at least the part I visited.  Perhaps technically parts of Russia are considered to be central Asia--or maybe even "Eurasia"--but for purposes of this passport-control interview, what did it matter?

The officer then asked, “Have you been in Europe the entire time since then?”  Again, I thought for a second, and responded “Yes.”  I believe all the countries I visited were part of Europe.  I mean, I didn’t go to Asia, or Africa—the two closest or connected continents.  So, yes, I had to be in Europe the whole time, right?

The officer looked at my passport more and asked a few more questions about what countries I’d been to.  He also wanted to see my so-called itinerary.  I told him I didn’t have one.  I had only an e-ticket saved on my computer's desktop showing a flight into Russia on December 10 and one out of Amsterdam, scheduled for 11:15 a.m., a couple hours from then.

It was then that I was completely blindsided.  Another officer emerged from a side room and approached.  I was told to follow him.  I was shocked, and that's when my native Jersey-Italian voice started talking over everyone and everything in my head.  It questioned, incredulously:  Are you f@#*king kidding me with this?  

But what could I do?  I went with the officer.

He led me to a back room with plastic bench-chairs that lined both walls.  I set my backpack down, heart and mind both racing.  I said, nervously, “Is there some kind of problem here?”  The officer replied, and I quote:  “We have to check to see if you’re an illegal alien, and if so, you’ll be deported and won’t be able to return.”

What?  Illegal alien? Deported?  What in the hell is this guy talking about?

The man could see the apparent shock on my face, so he continued speaking.  He explained that under the so-called Schengen (sounds a little like "chain-gang") rules, I was permitted to stay in Schengen countries in the aggregate for a total of only 90 days in a 180-day period.  If I had exceeded that period over the past six months, I would be deported and unable to return to any of the Schengen countries.  Like, for the rest of my life.

Now I had two problems on my hands.  First, I had no clue exactly which countries I visited were so-called Schengen countries, so I couldn't even begin to calculate whether the travel guru had screwed up and unwittingly done something to trigger deportation.  Second, assuming I would be deported, my immigration-law experience told me that I wouldn't be boarding any flight that morning.  There would be lots of paperwork, and likely a fine.  I wanted to cry.

Now, here’s the thing.  I had heard of something called "the Schengen Agreement" several years prior on my European leg of the 2007 tour.  I understood it to be an agreement under which people could travel freely between certain European countries without having to go through border inspection, similar to the way we can travel between, say, Florida and Georgia in America, without stopping for a border check.  And I did know a kid from New Zealand who had some kind of visa issue that concerned timing.  But he’s a Kiwi, and I’m an American.  From extensive experience, I just didn’t think any stringent rule would apply to me the way it often applies to others.  But there I was, in a backroom, being brought to my cocky and presumptuous-American knees by this inspection officer. 

I began to feel panicky.  I needed to know, right away, which way this was going to go.  I asked, breathlessly, “well, which ones are the Schengen countries?”  To which the officer responded, curtly, “there are 25 Schengen countries.”  I didn't like his tone.

To mount a defense, I opened a salvo of Schengen-country questions: is Bulgaria Schengen?  is Macedonia Schengen?  is Albania Schengen?  The officer seemed annoyed by my specific-country questions and quickly I realized this was not the right approach.  Pleading ignorance, I said, “I’m sorry.  I’ve been through a lot of borders, and this is the first I’ve heard of this.”  And, perhaps in a moment of weakness and desperation, I added, dramatically:  “If this turns out to be a problem for me getting home today, I think I am going to die.”

It was then that the officer’s demeanor softened a little.  He went to the next room and came back with a blank, white piece of paper and a pen.  He wanted to take it from the top.  I was to tell him all the countries and the dates I visited, starting from the beginning.

I opened my journal to the back and showed him that I had recorded my daily expenses every day from the day I landed in December.  So, I knew, from my notes, on what days I changed countries.  I’m guessing the evidentiary standards are pretty lax in Dutch immigration, because from that point on he took all the dates and places I called out from my "Daily Expense" chart on faith.

I went through the twelve countries visited, beginning with Russia, and ending with The Netherlands.  It was established, from the officer's notes, that only five of the twelve countries were part of the Schengen region, including Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Greece, and The Netherlands.  We then figured out the number of days I was in each of those countries.  It totaled approximately 45 days. 

So, in fact, I hadn’t run afoul of the 90-days-within-180-days Schengen restriction.  I wouldn’t be deported after all.  The officer left the room with my passport and then returned.  In it was the required exit stamp.  I was a step closer to home.

I practically ran to the Starbucks, still shaky from the adrenaline.  I’d like to say the horror of the morning ended with the price of the cappuccino in the airport, but it didn’t. 

The hits continued as I proceeded to the gate—which also doubled as security screening.  I was greeted with more grilling and a talk with a security supervisor about my trip.  For one thing, they couldn’t believe I was gone for so long, not working, and carrying nothing but an over-the-shoulder day-bag and this smallish backpack on my back.  Finally I convinced them that it was all true.  As soon as I told them I left on my 40th birthday, the security phalanx immediately stood down.  Everybody—in every country—knows that turning 40 can easily trigger something that otherwise seems out of the ordinary.   

By the time the question-and-answer portion of the security check was finished, I was the only passenger not on the plane.  I then proceeded through the Dutch version of a body scanner (which doesn’t use X-rays or take pictures) and was thereafter treated to the most intrusive pat-down I’ve ever received in all of my travels, Israel included.  I am not exaggerating when I say there was not one part of my body that this girl did not rub, squeeze or grope; for real.

But, at that point, I would have gotten down and licked the dirty airport floor if they had said that’s what it would take to get me on my flight home.  Fortunately, they let me go with just the grilling and scanning and groping.  Approximately seven-plus hours and some bad (but free) movies later, I touched down in Chicago.  

The U.S. border and customs officials welcomed me home warmly.  They even let me take a picture of my first stars-and-stripes spotting where cameras weren't technically allowed.  I emerged into the terminal and spent my first American greenbacks on a Super Pretzel. As I progressed through O'Hare, I was greeted by more flags, and more things America.  I was back on U.S. soil, with one long flight down, and one domestic flight to Florida to go.  That would be nothing, I thought, as I passed the long layover marveling at everything around me.