Nordic Business Forum 2016

I had the great privilege to attend the Nordic Business Forum conference in Helsinki last week. As a writer for Nordic Business Report, I was tasked along with four other reporters with producing short pieces following talks by Pixar’s Ed Catmull, entrepreneur extraordinaire Gary Vaynerchuk, tiger mother Amy Chua, and others.  My pieces can be found below:

Ulster Fry

This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.

***

Ulster Fry

There really is something about the sea. The moist cool salt air comes in off the waters of the Belfast Lough and into the winding streets and big hills of Bangor, County Down. Bangor is a summer resort but it looks fine all year round, a 20 minute train ride from Belfast. Big castles of stone homes right on the water colored lime green, creamy yellow, students about in their blue uniforms, plump old ladies with white hair and wonderful smiles who look just like my grandmother. And that makes a lot of sense, because her father’s family was from right here, this tiny speck of the earth. I guess part of me is from up here too, but I only feel it when I smell the sea.

There is the delicious smell of grease in the air of Bangor, too, all of those quaint chip shops with their Fish Frys and Ulster Frys. I have to tell you what an Ulster Fry is just so you can have a heart attack. The people of this land cook soda bread and potato farls in bacon fat until golden and crispy. Then they add Irish bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomatoes, and fried eggs. A shinier meal has never been seen. They advertise £5 specials on the streets. “Ulster Fry! Keeps you full all day!”

It’s a sign more welcome than the one back in Belfast. From my hotel window on the 18th floor, you can see a giant mural on the side of a nearby building. The background is blue and the words are written out in black, You Are Now Entering Loyalist Sandy Row, Heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters. There are two red fists painted on either side of this slogan, as well as an image of a paramilitary man with an automatic rifle. To see it is to be terrified. And they say the Troubles are over. But on February 22 a Unionist car bomb went off in Newry. Last week a Republican one detonated in Holywood.

That’s just a 20 minute car ride west from this used book shop.

I love used book stores, but this one in Bangor is causing me troubles. It looks the same as all others, stacks of books, old wooden shelves, a musty smell, a bored looking old man in the corner reading a newspaper. I stopped in to buy a souvenir for Epp. I might have gotten her an Ulster t-shirt but it seems like nobody sells Ulster or Northern Ireland t-shirts in Belfast, at least not in the shops I have visited. Not sure why. And here there are Irish books aplenty, with a whole shelf for Iris Murdoch alone. But Epp has so many books. She has libraries stashed at three or four locations across South Estonia and there might be boxes of books somewhere else I have forgotten about. The last time I brought her some paperback Françoise Sagan novellas, they quickly became coasters for coffee cups. This girl loves books, but she just has too many books and can’t read them all. And yet what better gift for a girl who loves books than more books? And something from Ireland must be about Ireland.

The trouble here in Bangor is that other than Iris Murdoch and some volumes on Irish mythology, most of the books are about The Troubles, Na Trioblóidí and Na Trioblóidí  is really depressing. I can’t figure out which one of these titles is the least romantic. Is it Lost Lives? Killing Rage? A Long, Long War? It seems like the thing the people of this land like best other than blowing up cars is reading about blowing up cars.

Maybe just getting her some flowers at the airport would be a better idea? There is one volume that has a poetic title though. It’s called The Price of My Soul by Bernadette Devlin. “The fighting Irish girl MP tells her story and what’s really happening in Ulster,” is the subhed. The author’s face is on the cover, long limp hair parted on one side, round face with those special Irish looks, weary, darkened eyes and hand raised beneath her chin, as if deep in thought. A book by an Irish Catholic socialist published in 1969. “Che Guevara in a mini skirt,” the back of the edition says.  And Devlin does look tough. I like her.

***

When people talk about the north, they usually think of it as being cold, but one could say that the air blowing down from Northern Ireland into the rest of Eire is particularly frigid. All during my stay in Dublin, whenever I mentioned that I was heading up to Belfast next, people seemed to pull their jackets in tighter as if buffeted by a brisk wind and say, “So you’re heading up north, are you?”

There was a warning in the Dubliners’ frost blue eyes, and one woman at the National Archives even recounted a trip up there not long ago. “I’ll never forget the sight of those British Army guard towers,” she said.

I remembered images of those towers too, from watching news broadcasts growing up. They said the Troubles were over with the peace agreements of 1998, and again with the power-sharing deal between the Unionists and Sinn Fein in 2006. But yesterday, Bobby Moffett, a member of a Unionist paramilitary force called Red Hand Commando, was gunned down outside a shopping center… by other Unionists.

I know my grandmother is Irish, and a lovely lady she is, with curly white hair, craggy dimples, a great smile and wry wit, but there is something about these people that I will never understand. The clannishness and unending feuds. How many Irish families consist of siblings who disown each other or don’t talk to each other for years? No one can recall the origins of the spat, but it’s there, and nursed from time to time. And so it is for the Irish Protestants and Catholics, who have been at it for centuries. For to me,  there is no difference between Protestants and Catholics. To me, all the Irish look like my grandmother, or my mother. Speckled skin and mother hen frame. To me, the Irish all look the same.

***

Belfast itself is a fine town, much rougher, more working class than Dublin. Dublin feels youthful, well-tended and wealthy. The people look good, the houses look good, and St. Stephan’s Green looks really good. In Belfast you meet graffiti, head shops, chip shops, and plenty of construction. Whenever I step over the construction barricades downtown during my strolls, I think about my conversations with Quentin at dinner the other night.

Quentin is a local guy, works for a technology firm, short dark hair, pale blue eyes bears an uncanny resemblance to U2’s magnificent guitarist The Edge. And a bit like my Uncle Frank for that matter, for it is an Irish face this man has, or at least one of the dozen Irish faces you see on every person on this island.

Quentin is also a maniac. When I met him in Barcelona years ago, he was portly and looked about 40. Now he’s training for a triathlon and looks about 25. He has cycled from his home north of Belfast to the company headquarters south of the city three times in the last four days. “That’s 100 bloody kilometers,” he cheers the next day at an upscale Belfast restaurant. The man just sweats energy, his legs are hopping under the table like a rabbit in springtime. When he’s not being a technology officer, he’s also a photographer and a writer and a father. For dinner he devours a massive piece of sirloin steak and that’s it. “My body needs the fekkin’ protein, ya know.”

Quentin grew up in Belfast during the 1980s. “What was it like? It was like having your school bus stopped every day and having a British officer with a gun walk up and down the aisle before you could continue,” he said. He’s hard to place in the pantheon of Irish thought. Is he a Unionist? A Republican? Quentin spoke as if whatever has happened in Northern Ireland is beyond his control.

“You know what the taxi driver told me,” I said to Quentin at dinner. “He said that you can tell a Catholic from a Protestant from the way they say the letter ‘H.’ Protestants say ‘aytch,’ while Catholics say ‘haytch.'”

“That’s exactly the kind of nonsense I am talking about! People. They always need someone to hate they will find any reason to hate them.”

“He also told me that Irish is a dead language.”

Quentin nodded, carving up his steak. “It is a dead language.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No. When you have three old Native American ladies who are the last speakers of a language and the last one of them dies, then the language is dead. But there are more than a hundred thousand native Irish speakers.”

“It’s 3 percent of the population. And the problem with Irish is that anybody you meet who can speak Irish can also speak English. Plus you don’t need to speak Irish to be Irish.”

“Do you speak Irish?”

“I do, but … See, my wife is a fluent Irish speaker, except that she learned the Connemara Irish and I learned Ulster Irish. We try speaking it to each other but it doesn’t work. It’s just a dead language.”

We didn’t mention the Troubles in length during our steak dinner, but we didn’t have to. While I was in Belfast, two British Army officers were shot outside a guard hut. They had stepped away for a moment to haggle with a pizza deliver boy.

***

“The dissidents are middle aged guys like me who haven’t benefited from the peace deals,” this is what Stephen told me as we drove from Dublin to Belfast for a working lunch with Quentin’s company. It was a hazy day, and we road through the rolling hills of the greenest grass you ever saw, with the prettiest yellow flowers and most content sheep. I couldn’t help but look out the windows at the countryside and sigh, and then try to pronounce those impossible Irish road signs.

“Benefited?” I said.

“Aye, benefited,” I watched Stephen’s lips move in the rear view mirror, saw his straight, yellow teeth. “There wasn’t enough gravy to go around for them. Oh, sure they have youngsters out there, doing their dirty work, but most of them have been doing this for a long time.”

Stephen is an older gentleman in a tweed jacket with a flat cap. He has a pronounced nose, not too big but easy to draw, and that fleshy, ruddy quality to his skin that only the Irish possess.

“Do you speak Irish?” I asked him.

He glanced up in the mirror at me with those blue eyes and bushy gray eyebrows. “Irish?”

“Yes, do you speak it?”

“Irish is a dead language. I can’t speak a word,” Stephen said. “They keep it as a state language here down south for identity reasons and historical reasons.”

“I saw Gerry Adams speaking Irish on TV in Dublin,” I said. “Have you seen that guy? Thick hair, thick beard. He looks like a werewolf.”

“Aye. But Sinn Fein is run like a bloody gang. There are places where you can’t get jobs if you are not a party member. That’s what I mean about gravy. There’s still not enough to go around. There was money in the peace process, but not enough for everybody. And that’s why we still have so-called dissidents.”

“But how do they even tell?”

“How do they tell what?”

“How do they tell who is Catholic and who is Protestant?”

Stephen adjusted himself in his seat, as if he needed to be more comfortable to tell me next. And it came in a whisper. “There are some ways to tell. Class, the way a person looks. And, well, when Protestants say the letter ”H’ they say ‘aytch’ but when Catholic’s say the letter ‘H’ they say ‘haytch.'”

My heart sank when I heard it, but I knew it was true. People killing each other over how they pronounce a letter of the alphabet.

***

Back in the Bangor book shop, these conversations from the past few days spiral around my head. It’s such a nice day, so pleasant to be outside in that rare Northern Irish sunshine, but I can’t get this hurt feeling out of my chest. It just sits there and throbs. Why has this been going on for so long? Protestant? Catholic? How about Irish and Christian!

‘You come to a factory, looking for a job, and they ask you which school you went to. If its name was “Saint Somebody,” they know you are a Catholic and you don’t get taken on…’

To leaf through the pages of Devlin’s book is to be immersed in cold stew. Listening to an Irish Catholic tell a national history is like hearing a survivor of childhood molestation give a deposition on the witness stand. Maybe that’s why I have kept my own Irishness packed away. It comes wrapped up nice in an emerald box with sweaters and dances and drinks, but I’m certain that if I open it up it will explode.

I take one more look at Bernadette Devlin’s face and place the slim volume back on the shelf. Epp has enough books as it is and I have had my fill of Northern Ireland and its endless Troubles. Time to go out and enjoy life. Walk the boardwalk, smell the sea. Maybe even get an Ulster Fry.

‘Their Backpacking Days Are Over’

This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.

***

‘Their Backpacking Days Are Over’

It is hot and stuffy in the Hotel Hortensius in Amsterdam. There is something dirty in the air of the main room and the narrow corridors that stretch out beyond it. The walls of the corridors are marked up with black scratches, maybe from people’s backpacks being dragged up against them, and the lighting in the shared bathroom is dim, and when you look too close at the beige tiles and all the tiny hairs on them, you start to think it’s best that way. We have a room beside the bathroom, a rectangular space with two bunk beds and a carpet that looks as if it has never been cleaned, or that it even could be cleaned. The dirt of the ages has just settled into this place. The tired filth of time. The muck of hundreds of pairs of kicked off shoes.

In the bottom bunk, my wife lies beneath a worn blanket, our daughter facing her, almost in an embrace. Finno-Ugric Madonna and Child. They slumber as they did on the eve of her birth in Tallinn Central Hospital, so weary and just burned out by it all and looking so peaceful. True bliss. But the room is so warm and the air is just unbreathable in here. Everything feels brittle, stiff, menacing. I lean in, kiss their warm foreheads and those tiny beads of sweat, notice how the end of the blanket is frayed. Then I walk over to the sink, look into a fogged up mirror, wipe away some of the slime. Splash some cool Dutch water on the skin. Weary 25-year-old face. Puff around the eyes.

We can’t go on like this.

In the main room, which is full of dangerous-looking characters with torn clothing, combat boots, beards and facial piercings, I tell the owner Frank that we have decided to move out and to cancel the rest of our reservation. We had booked the Hotel Hortensius for six days, but one has been enough. Frank is rotund with short cut brown hair and glasses. He looks like a hedgehog. He can’t be much older than me, but he has the vivaciousness of a man who has run this hotel all of his life. Half of the time he is on the phone. The other half of the time he is yelling something at his co-partner, a miserable-looking Nederlander with pink dreadlocks, a nose ring, and a few tribal tattoos. Her laptop went missing this morning. I heard her sobbing in the hallway. Who stole my computer?

“But I don’t understand,” Frank says shaking head. “We always get four stars on TripAdvisor.”

“The Hortensius is a very nice place, Frank. We just need a place that is a bit more child friendly.”

Frank blinks at me with those knowing hedgehog eyes. Every time I look into a Dutchman’s eyes I can’t help but wonder if he is running a hash cafe or live sex theater on the side. It’s the nature of the place. In the office in New York, Kirell, my brainy pervert of an editor, claims that any word can be made dirty by just inserting the word “Dutch” in front of it. A “Dutch vacuum” is a blowjob, by his reckoning. A “Dutch lampshade” is an uncircumcised penis. And I don’t even want to tell you what “Dutch licorice” is.

“But children stay here at the hotel all of the time,” Frank says. “Are you unhappy with the condition of your room? Let’s go have a look at it.” He starts to move from behind the counter.

“No way.”

Frank recoils, blinks. “Why not?”

“Because my wife and daughter are sleeping in there.”

“Oh,” Frank scrunches his nose as if even more confused. “But I can move you into another room.”

“Can you move us into a room with its own bathroom?”

Frank looks at me as if I have asked him to loan me his favorite Beatles LP. “Don’t be funny, sir. You know we do not have such facilities at the Hotel Hortensius!”

“Then we will need to check out. Immediately. This place is great for backpackers. Not for us.”

“Very well,” says a sullen frowning Frank. “I will, er, refund you for the, uh, remaining four days.”

“Don’t worry, Frank,” I say. “We won’t write anything bad about Hotel Hortensius on TripAdvisor.”

This seems to restore his buoyant mood. He’s back to answering phones and searching for lost laptops. We are packing our bags. I do feel bad for Frank though. We would have stayed here for six nights if it was just we two. We have probably both stayed in places worse than this. But there are no longer two of us. There are now three. We are a trio. A triad. We need a cleaner place to sleep.

***

I guess you could say that we have been living in denial. Many people had warned us that having children would change everything, and we took it like a lot of advice: heard but unprocessed. Of course, having children would change everything. There were three of us now instead of two. But it was our traveling lifestyle that I sensed people around us were most eager to see snuffed out. To see the looks on relatives’ faces that spring when I got the New York Job and cut my hair. “He’s growing up at last,” was the sentiment. “Soon they’ll settle down, get a mortgage,” it was agreed. “Their backpacking days are over.” The idea was like a shovel-full of dirt on the coffin of my heart.

And haven’t we proved them wrong? A week in Amsterdam, another planned for Edinburgh and Glasgow. And there will be genetics conferences, too! I’m a professional now, you know. But if you are going to travel with children, then you’ve got to shed your rugged clothes, your foul hostels.

That’s all.

Walk out along the water in the sunshine, a perfect late morning, bags on our backs, stroller out front. The canals, the bridges, the cycling bicycles. Beautiful family. Man and woman. A little girl with golden hair that all are always happy to see. “It’s so good to be back in Europe,” gushed Epp when we arrived a day back, walking to our first hotel. “Even the garbage men are good looking.”

At last, we discover a good hotel. Clean room three staircases up. A skylight and view of the waters. Our daughter freshly bathed, freshly snuggled beneath freshly washed blanket and sheets. Our own bathtub, our own toilet. Even our own television set! Luxury. A show for Dutch children with little puppets dancing. Daughter peeks curiously out from behind the blanket, hears the strange tongue. Mother and father are smiling again. All is going well. And then daughter vomits all over the sheets.

A spectacular runny mess.

***

The first time I glimpsed Amsterdam was through the clouds, but it was still gray underneath. All of those cargo ships, all of those sea containers as our KLM plane came in over the port. Big boxes of blue and orange, marked Maersk, NileDutch, and CMA CGM, and yet they all had that rundown, brownish, beatup, dirty Dutch tinge to them. Everything in Holland was dirty. The carpets and sheets, the streets and the people. Ancient muck seemed to be floating through the air, depositing filthy particles on every solid object with which it interacted. Growing up, you came across those paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, those hunched over pale-faced, shadowy 17th century figures against a gray sky with every tree and house in sight bent and crooked-cartoonish, and here you realize that they were just painting what they saw and what they saw was still all around you. To listen to the Nederlands on the taxi radio, which sounded so familiar and yet out of reach. The first time I encountered spoken Dutch, I really did think, “This is the worst English I have ever heard!”

But that was Holland – weird. Wooden shoes, canals, a tulip obsession, and the Anne Frank House. Fantasy and science fiction. In the Red Light District there were golden water fountains shaped like phalluses and the women would knock at the windows in their red bikinis and tired eyes. You would recoil a bit to see other men go inside and then feel a fluttering in your intestines to know that you could go inside too if you had the money. But would you? Would you really dare to go inside? Money for sex? At Christmas, the ship would rove the canals, a bearded Saint Nicholas with staff and his African assistant, Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, in blackface makeup and Renaissance garb.  They would go sailing by under the windows and the gray light would reflect off the messy sheets. Once upon a time I had a girlfriend in Amsterdam. Epp had her own crazy Dutch adventures too.

But that was before we met, before we cohabited, before we had children. A very long time ago. This time around we have good weather and the Red Light District has been swapped out for zoos, the old bars replaced by handicrafts workshops, night wanderings substituted with boat tours. When the shaggy-headed old Hippie men come swaggering down the alleys, my instinct is not to see where they are going or wonder who they are, but to pull our daughter out of their way. Maybe they are crazy, maybe they are dangerous. Whoever they are, I can’t have them anywhere near my child.

So little in this world of Amsterdam seems to be made for children. And the few places that are for children are enclosed and have an admission price. It is as if nobody wants to accept that children exist. But they do exist. Where else do you think all of these 15 million Dutch people came from?

***

A door creaks open and an old lady’s shrewish face looks out through it. Tight curly white hair, long Pictish nose. The black cab pulls away from the row house and down the lane. The sun is setting over the treeless hills of Holyrood Park, and a purplish dusk is descending in the cool moist air. A somber scene it is to stand on a stranger’s doorstep like pilgrims waiting to be let in to security.

“You said nothing about an infant,” the old woman looks at the slumbering bundle in our arms. Holland to Scotland and still sick and weak. She puked on the bus from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Twice.

“I am pretty sure we reserved a room for three,” I tell the old lady.

“Yes, you reserved a room for three adults, young man. But you said nothing of an infant.”

“What’s the difference? Three people. Two adults, one child. We reserved the room for three!”

“It is the explicit policy of the Dorothy McKenzie Bed and Breakfast not to allow in infants,” she says, with those crooked Scottish vowels angled all up in her mouth. What a cold Presbyterian bird. Explicit policy.

“Who is Dorothy McKenzie? Can we speak with her?”

“I am Dorothy McKenzie, young man.”

“Oh.”

“I am afraid you will simply have to find another place to stay.” The woman goes to close the door.

“Wait! Dorothy!” she holds the door slightly ajar and blinks at me, as if to say, What nerve! “Dorothy, I mean, Mrs. McKenzie, the girl at the tourist office in town saw us, she knew we had a child when she called you. Please let us in. We have no other place to go and it is getting late.”

The lady squints down at the child sleeping in Epp’s arms as if it was a mange-infested dog. Then there is more softness in the texture of those gray irises. “Oh,” she sighs. “All right you can stay. She is a bonnie wee bairn.”

When you are inside the B&B you can see why it has a no child policy. Vases, paintings, tapestries, fine old wall paper, silence but for the radio in the kitchen and the ticking of the clocks. When our bags are put away, we decided to walk around the block in the shadow of Holyrood. It was so calming just to walk around that neighborhood, see the lights of the families through the windows. Why is it so hard for others to understand what traveling can give a person, these moments of peace.  This is such a beautiful world and we are so lucky to enjoy it, just for a blessed evening like this. Why are so many people of the opinion that the travels must end, and that we must get so serious?

Scottish breakfast, runny eggs, runny beans, under-cooked bacon, under-toasted toast, weak coffee and watery tea served in Old Dutch China. “The worst eggs I have ever eaten, I mean how did she even manage to cook these things?” asks Epp. A gray day. Inside, the smell of old books. It all costs £57. Miss Dorothy McKenzie is very polite to us, but I can imagine she will be so very grateful when “the family” is gone. And with good reason. The bonnie wee bairn vomited all over the lady’s hand-woven blanket last night, but we cleaned it up so well it looks as if it never had happened.

***

The family sees Scotland on foot, and also on occasion by train, ferry, even bus. One bus for us, a coveted, multi-evening, sightseeing caravan into the Highlands, is off limits. I sit opposite a young Scottish lady in a floppy Jamaican Rasta hat who takes down our names and birth  years as I try to register for it, and then gives me a puzzled look when I give her the birth year of our third companion. “Two thousand and three?” she seems truly perplexed. “But that was two years ago.”

“I know,” I say. “Our daughter is a year and a half old.”

Daughter?” she shoots me a suspect look. “Did you say daughter? But how old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Hmm. Well, I am sorry but we do not allow children on the Highlands Bus. It’s not our policy.”

I want to ask why, but I already know. The Highlands Bus is the domain of young wanderers looking for guitar sing-a-longs, urgent hook ups, dope sharing, political philosophizing. Children cannot be allowed into such a freewheeling circus. No one would be able to have any fun.

***

Instead, we took her on our shoulders. Down the old walking streets of Edinburgh with all of the coal-smog-darkened Georgian buildings with their proud columns and rows of glass windows, the rising war memorials to Scottish regiments lost through centuries of colonial warfare, bagpipes in one arm, weapons in the other. In Glasgow, it is the same but grimier. On a Saturday night in Glasgow, the downtown peace is shattered by drunkards. A car pulls up alongside a young man walking his tiny daughter, a Scottish gent jumps out, urinates on the sidewalk, jumps back, and they speed away. There are excursions to Fort William, where there is good hiking, but we are in no shape to hike with a stroller in tow, and to Oban, on the coast, where there are good whiskey tasting tours, but we cannot bring a little girl to taste whiskey.

At Oban, there are ferries out to the Hebrides, those mysterious craggy islands that I looked at too many times in the atlas when I was a child, but the water looks freezing and there is a cold, damp air coming off of it, and we can’t afford for the child to get even more sick. In Oban we take refuge in a pub to get a bite to eat. There is a sign on the door that says, “NO COLORS.” When I ask what “NO COLORS” means, the curly-red-haired waitress tells me in her rolling brogue that fights break out too often here between fans of rival football teams. Wearing the wrong colors on the wrong night can nearly get a man killed, she says. This is the world into which we have brought our child.

On the Isle of Arran, we take turns holding her while hiking through the grasses to look at the Machrie Moor Stone Circles, but by the time we get there with our daughter to view the ancient standing stones, she has fallen asleep on my shoulders. I set her down to lie in the grass among piles of fresh sheep dung. We have carried this little person to the end of the earth, and for what purpose, for our own need to prove to ourselves that we can still travel anywhere, anytime, no matter what?

And yet it’s not all so hard. One fine sunny day I have the bonnie wee bairn on my shoulders and we go running across a bridge over the River Clyde in Glasgow. She snorts and giggles as we run the length of the bridge, and I loosen my grip every other second, so that she bounces up and down, as if she was on the back of a horse.

When we reach the end of the bridge, she yells, “Veel!” “More” in Estonian, and I take her back over the River Clyde, dashing away. And as soon as we reach the other shore of the Clyde it’s “Veel!” again, “Veel! Veel! Veel!” A red British public transit bus goes past us and the Scottish commuters inside are staring out of the windows at the lunatic with the tot on his shoulders who keeps running across the bridge. But prudish Scottish people, dirty Dutch people? Whatever. My daughter and I don’t care what other people think about us on this July day in Glasgow.

We are just happy to be alive.

This is What Happens in Mexico

This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.

***

This is What Happens in Mexico

Some people say that the morning after is difficult, but for me it’s beautiful. Sitting on a balcony overlooking an abandoned white stucco building, dog barking somewhere, collapsed-in thatched roof, shaded by palms.

The guys are in the room snoozing. They don’t even know that I am back. The last thing they know, I wandered off with some nightmare hippie girl from the Booze Cruise. They were combing the beaches for me and we were hidden in the bushes. We watched them walk by.

I even remember the way Tom the Marine was holding his head down in the moist nighttime air stepping over the hooking up couples, writhing bodies sexing everywhere in the sand. This is what happens in Mexico. The hotel owners want money for you to hook up in the rooms, so the people come down to the beach and do the deed there. Men with hands full of women, women with fingers full of men. Then a Mexican hombre with a rifle strapped over his shoulder will show up and interrupt your lovefeast under the palm shadows with a query for dinero. “You wanna do it, gotta spend the dinero, muchacho.” But we have no money. Yes, we are from the wealthy Estados Unidos, but we are only 20-something college dudes. I mean, come on.

Tom the Marine, solo, walking the beach. Couldn’t tell if he thought I had fallen overboard drunk or just depressed that his carton of condoms remained underneath his cot in the hotel room unopened. He was the one most excited about getting laid in Mexico and he hasn’t snagged a girl yet. Any way you may you look at it, it has been a nightmare. For this is a bad dream, Mexico. The disco music from hell, the easy women, the muscle-bound fraternity idiots with their tattooed machismo. Yet nothing could compare with what happened earlier this morning, with the angry guards and the walkie-talkies. And yet I got out of that mess. I escaped big Mexicans with guns. Last action hero!

An open truck full of soldiers goes zooming by but the sound doesn’t awake my sleeping comrades who snore on, mouths open, as flies flit around the room. One of them, James, I think, lets out a terrible sounding fart. Like a plane crash. I can’t smell it though. All I can smell is truck exhaust, the smell of the sea, the stink of booze still hot on the breath. It’s been hours and now, at last, I think I am completely sober. Maybe. There are azure waters beyond this building, an old supermercado by the looks of those faded soft drink and cigarette advertisements on the walls, and there is a broken down truck beside it. Who knows what kinds of other terrible scenes this old supermercado has seen. Rapes? Murders?

At dusk last night, we were down there by the water buying sugary cinnamon sticks from local ladies. It was so innocent, the transaction. Hard money for homemade food. The innocence of those women’s ancient Mayan faces. All dressed in cottony white. The way the cloth billowed around their soft brown limbs. Cinnamon sticks! They are holy people the Mayans, even if they practiced ritualistic human sacrifice. The Mayan ladies, those tormented looks in their eyes to even have to deal with us. Gringos! Idiots! Drunks!

***

Whenever I am with the local people I am reminded of the village we stopped in years ago, not too far from here I think, but way out in the jungles, away from the strip malls, restaurants and nightclubs. How the little boy ran up to me in his crisp Catholic school shirt, a tremble in his voice, a hesitant fear in his eyes, trying to sell the fellow little boy from Estados Unidos some candy.

I was eight then, tall for my age, but still bluish pale, with brown hair cut across the front, like a miniature Paul McCartney. I asked my parents to give me money so that I could buy the homemade toffee, wrapped in colorful pieces of paper. When my father reached for his wallet, there were more children around him, begging him, “Please, sir, please, would you like to buy some candy, sir?”

We fled to the tour bus. All along the highway to the ruins at Chichen Itza we passed desperate scenes, the stone houses with roofs made of palm leaves, naked children playing in the dust. When my family got back to the hotel, we were famished and ordered room service. I remember how I called up and asked for a hamburger, thinking about the candy seller and what he might be eating. Through the windows you could hear the wind and that soothing, lullaby crash of the ocean waves.

You can hear it in Cancun right now.

***

Where was I? Ah, yes, the tequila. The tequila cuts you down like a machete, explodes in your guts like the hydrogen bomb. It goes down and plants a seed in you and then the mushroom cloud of alcoholic gas comes back up and billows through the nostrils. This sweet-tasting, clear-colored Mexican drink of choice breaks your consciousness up into bits and pieces, smithereens, molecules, atoms. There is no more you on tequila. There is just tequila and only tequila, if that makes any sense.

There are five of us in the room and each night we buy a bottle of it, Morelos Blanco Tequila, cheap, then return home to divide it all up. Hecho in Mexico. Tequila Blanco de Agave. 38 % vol. The victuals are taken at seven o’clock in the evening, it’s that precise. Jude really does look at his watch and announce in his leading man stage voice, “Gentlemen, ahem, I believe it is that time.”

Then the shot glasses are dispersed, and James fills each to the brim.

“To getting laid in Mexico!” James cheers with a dirty shot glass in the air.

“TO GETTING LAID IN MEXICO!” the men around the table chant.

And so it goes, the tequila, down the hatch. BAM! EXPLOSION! The start of something atomic and terrible.

Tequila Blast Off happens only a few hours after we have “lunch.” Nobody has breakfast on Spring Break in Cancun. We sleep through the morning hours and have one of the cheap meal options, all you can eat quesadillas, refried beans, and rice. And even if we had staggered in wasted bleary eyed in the early morning hours, ashamed of our conduct, swearing we would never touch a drop of drink again, when the Mexican waiter in the white suit comes and asks us what we would like to drink with our lunch, we typically go for a beer – Dos Equis, Corona, or, for the stronger stomachs, the heavier Negro Modelo, menacing Mexican grog that will get you running for the nearest toilet.

Sometimes we go to the beach and wade in up to our necks, the water so clear you can see the hair on your toes. Oh, the Caribbean salt water. Like the best bath water of the best bath you ever took as a child. We watch the muscle-bound jocks and their bodaciously-bodied bikini-d babes play volleyball and entertain ourselves by eavesdropping on their idle idiot chit chat. “Oooh, oooh, oooh! Who is that hottee over there in the yellow swim trunks?” a beautiful black girl purrs to her friend. “I think I’ll be seeing him at the nightclub tonight.” These are the faces of young America. In a few months or years, we will be but highly greased gears in its tireless corporate machines. We we will always have those sinful and wicked memories of those sexy lost weekends in Cancun though.

But first, to make the memories.

From the beach, it’s a short walk to the liquor store to get our hands on the tequila. A bottle of rum is purchased, too, to build on the tequila drunk, but I prefer the clear rum so much more. That slightly sugary mellow taste. The way it doesn’t burn on the way down but just settles in like an old friend on your living room couch. On tequila, a man barely can spell his own name. On rum, a man can think, philosophize, write embarrassing love poems to brown waitresses in high school Spanish.

… Los ojos bonitos, de color de cafe, de color de chocolate caliente. Mi corazon funde …

Si! Your heart melts for her like simmering hot chocolate, Justin. Mi corazon funde … Mayan and Iberian girl. A mix. A mestizo. You run down the steps to the restaurant downstairs, hand the letter over to her companion waitress because you are too nervous to give it to her yourself. Later when you pass their restaurant, her friend calls out to you and whistles, “Hola, hombre, Ella esta aqui!” but the object of your Mayan-Iberian affection is in the corner blushing in her lovely black braids and blue dress. These are the fleeting moments of contact with the locals. We see each other, but so often we just ignore each other. We are just the barracho-ed drunken gringos. Money, that’s all.

The radios call out to us with the sounds of nightmare carnival.

A little bit of Monica in my life, a little bit of Erica by my side
A little bit of Rita is all I need, a little bit of Tina is what I see
A little bit of Sandra in the sun, a little bit of Mary all night long
A little bit of Jessica here I am, a little bit of you makes me your man.

Lou Bega, “Mambo No. 5”

When I asked the the Mexican hotel owner what he thought of Shaggy, Britney Spears, Lou Bega, he replied, “It’s the music from hell.”

It is. And we are from hell. We are walking zombie disasters. If you see us coming down the Calle, hide your daughters away, dear Mexican papas, lock your doors. We are like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, except that we left our guitars at home, have no money, and live in a two-room apartamento in a hotel where the plumbing is so weak that we have to run across the street to the three-star hotel, to use the facilities. DO NOT FLUSH PAPEL DOWN TOILET, THANK YOU! warns the sign in our room.

There is nothing that is beautiful or innocent in Cancun. Even the love that is made on the beaches at midnight is not love. The sex that occurs is not sex. All that occurs within Cancun is degraded. And we are just pieces of this flotsam degradation. They lay it all at our feet – Hey Gringo! – But we did not create this soup of sperm and spit, vomit and palm trees and coconut lotion doubling as paradise. All You Can Eat Quesadillas. Special Offer. It’s not me. It’s us.

So sad about us.

***

One question always forms on my mind on hot blurry Mexican nights, when your body seems to sweat alcohol, and I am staring back at the pink flushed faces of four other twenty-year-old university students and that question is, “When did I fall in with the wrong crowd?”

When did it happen? Where did I go wrong? James is studying film, okay, fine, Tom is going into the Marines. Both Drew and Jude want to be actors though they’ll both probably wind up as waiters. All I do is write secret thoughts in this journal. We are losers. There is no way around it. There is not a future president or chief executive officer among us and our behavior is atrocious. Drunk and disorderly every night. First the tequila, then the rum, then the misadventures.

So when did I fall in with the wrong crowd? How did it happen? OR the even more horrifying question – Am I the wrong crowd and have these innocent men merely fallen in with me? I used to think I was innocent, but I am no longer so sure. Who is the devilish man among us who has partied hardest this year? Who is it among us who ends every weekend with his face in a toilet bowl? Who is it who almost got arrested while yelling at the cops when they came to break up a party? It is me. I am the wrong crowd. I am the sinister one. Maybe that’s why, for me, Cancun is so much fun.

“Did you hear about Williams?” asks James in his Southern accent. We sit around the wooden table playing cards. James’s got on his dark-rimmed hipster glasses, his yellow curly hair is a mess. Most of the women I introduce to James say he is my only good-looking friend. And when I look at him with his cherubic face and blue eyes, I have to admit, James the Virginian does look like a young Bill Clinton fresh out of Arkansas.

“No, what about him?” I ask.

“Williams,” he lets out his breath, “is gay.”

“No. Shut up, Williams is not gay!” Drew spits some tequila out of his mouth and onto the cards.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jude says. “That was good tequila. We paid for that you twit!”

“I know it was, I know, I’m sorry, man,” says Drew. “I just couldn’t believe that Williams is gay.”

Drew Schwartz is an aspiring actor from New York City. He is the German Jew in our midst, black curly hair, black eyes, brown complexion, the face of the man who should be driving a sports car around Hollywood. And maybe one day he will, if he can focus more on finishing college and less on what he should wear to the cast party. Everything with this actor Schwartz is an exclamation. He wears Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts. He dates Catholic girls and then calls up his Bubbe in Miami and apologizes for it. “Don’t worry, Bubbe, I’ll find a nice Jewish girl soon, I promise…” Schwartz is my roommate. He is also an insomniac but only I know this.

Jude Hart is our Russian Jew, but not quite. Lanky. Pale. Black hair. Fine features. For some reason, women like him as much as James. Jude always wears dark clothes to reflect how he feels about the world. His father is a Wall Street stockbroker and his mother is an heiress from Saint Petersburg with connections to pre-Revolutionary Russian society. Jude is a womanizer. He will do it for all to see. It’s both animal and mechanical. We all know this.

“Listen up boys, Williams is indeed gay,” says James. “Tom knows. Tell them what you heard, Tom.”

All eyes around the table settle on Tom, our shirtless, shaved headed Marine. Tom O’Kelly. Another Southerner, this one from Mobile, Alabama. He didn’t want to join the Marines, but his brother is a Marine, and his father is a Marine, and his grandfather, and all of their brothers, cousins, acquaintances, et cetera.

“Well,” Tom peaks out at us with his Irish blue eyes. “What I heard is that Williams got up at one of those meetings,” he leans forward, “you know, where all the gay kids at school get together after classes, and started talking about his feelings and stuff.”

“No!” exclaims Schwartz. “He didn’t!”

Our Williams?” I say. “The funny kid with the red hair who always walks around playing the harmonica? Our Williams is not gay. He showed me a picture of his high school girlfriend.”

“I swear to Lord Jesus Christ and God Almighty, I do,” says Tom with that dancing Southern twang. “And Williams said, and I quote, ‘I-I can’t help it. I-I am also i-interested in m-m-men.'”

“He did not!” Schwartz exclaims.

“Drew, would you please settle down,” Jude chides him. “You’re embarrassing me.”

Also?” I say. “Also doesn’t mean he’s gay, Tom. Also means he’s probably just bisexual.”

“What it means,” says Tom, looking out from above his shot glass, “is that Our Williams is a butthole surfer.”

And like that, Our Williams is excommunicated from the church of heterosexuality.

A few laughs around the table, but mostly a collective groan. “That’s just not funny,” says Jude.

“You know what I think we should do with Williams,” says James.

“What’s that?” I ask.

James leans in. I can smell the tequila on his breath. “We should get him really drunk one night, tie him up, and carry him up to Dupont Circle.”

This is the gay neighborhood in Washington, DC, where men make out openly in the park.

“No, you wouldn’t!” exclaims Schwartz.

“Drew, I most certainly would,” says James. “Here’s what we gonna do. First we hang with him. Get him good and wasted. Then we take him up to Dupont, chain him up to one of them trees in the park, and let the gays have their way with him. ‘Here you go, Williams!'”

An evil laugh. It’s so evil, I have to laugh too.

“No, that’s just not cool,” says Jude. “You should respect the man’s choices. Respect his lifestyle.”

“Pssh! Lifestyle? Why the hell shouldn’t we do that?” says James. “That’s what Williams wants. You heard Tom. He can’t help it. Hell, he’ll probably thank us for it later. Hey, Petrone, what kind of bullshit are you writing there now?” James stares down at my journal.

“Just a poem,” I look up. “For the waitress downstairs.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Petrone,” James shakes his head at me. “Will you please just kill that romantic shit? It’s fucking killing my party mood. We came here to get laid and drunk. Tom and I brought two cartons of condoms for that purpose. Not to fall in love with some Mayan girl with gold teeth!”

“But that’s what makes her so hot! Gold teeth! She’s a real person. Not like these other girls.”

A plume of laughter from the mouth of James. “A real person?! She’s just some Mexican.”

“Gold teeth!” Drew exclaims.

“Okay, show me what you wrote,” says Jude, leaning in. “And it better be fucking good, Justin. None of the prissy shissy sheisty.”

“Oh are you drunk,” says Tom and refills Jude’s glass.

“I’m not showing you a single word,” I say.

“Show it to me now,” Jude snatches the book from my hands.

“Give it back! It’s personal!”

Jude just smiles and opens the book and begins to read. “Ahem.  Los ojos bonitos, de color de cafe,” he raises a dark eyebrow. “De color de chocolate caliente. Mi corazon funde …” Wow, Justin, this is pretty good,” he tosses the book back into my lap but I don’t even take it because my head is so hot with tequila and embarrassment.

“It’s not good,” mutters Drew. “It’s a ten year old’s love letter.”

“Why don’t you write us some poetry in Spanish? Let’s see how good it is,” says Jude.

Everybody looks at Drew and then they look at Jude and then they look like me. Then Tom says, “I know how to settle this. Let’s drink some more tequila.” He raises a glass high up, “To getting laid.”

“In Mexico!” Drew exclaims. The tequilas go down hot.

“You should just go marry that Mayan girl,” says Jude to me with a pitiful grin. “El matrimonio.”

“You’re a dickhead,” I say. “I told you not to read my poem and then you read it.”

“I think it’s a great future for you, Petrone. Marry the Mayan girl, stay here, open a nightclub, play Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lou Bega, all your favorites. We’ll go back to America …”

“Yeah, good for you.”

“… get fabulously rich, send our sons and daughters down to your club for a good time.”

“Sounds great.”

“And your Mayan wife can mop up the puke.”

Jude keeps talking but I can’t hear him any more because I am lost deep in the fantasy of becoming a Cancun nightclub owner with a Mayan wife. Puke mopping aside. In fact, I’m secretly starting to think it’s a great idea.

***

Later, we take the Booze Cruise ferry to Isla de Mujeres, which is a spit of land off of Cancun covered in palm trees and one town, population 12,000. I went there when I was a kid, too, went snorkeling, took pictures of the fish underwater with a special underwater camera and collected pieces of interesting looking coral. Still have a bag of the stuff tucked away somewhere, along with the obsidian arrowheads from the gift shop at Chichen Itza. I remember the food that day was good, fried fish, pasta dishes, beans, delicious, and the food on the island was again so good, except this time we arrive late at night.

To stand on the white sands, surrounded by noisy jungle, is to feel oneself on the moon. We are alone here on the island, just hordes and hordes of young drunken tourists. The Booze Cruise. The whole premise of Mexico is sex. They announce it over the PA on the boat. “Nobody has a boyfriend or girlfriend on Cancun.” On the boat, the shots of tequila and rum are watered down and too expensive at the bar, but I pay for them anyway. Anything to stay drunk. Anything to forget where I am, what I am turning into. The whole time over I have my eye on this girl with dark hair, voluptuous figure, maybe half Japanese. An exotic girl in a sparkling dress, but a normal girl. I try to chat her up but nothing seems to stick because she is just normal, banal, average, not a spark between those ears. All I can get out of her is a name and a sentiment, which is either nice or good. And then Drew Schwartz, the actor, he’s in my face on the beach exclaiming, “You’ll never get that one,” with his Hawaiian shirt catching the light off the stars, and I say, “Why the hell not?” “Because you’re awkward, that’s why,” he exclaims. “The hell I’m awkward.” “You write love letters to waitresses in Spanish,” exclaims Drew. “That’s pretty awkward.”

And he’s right, because voluptuous half-Japanese girl is soon under a palm tree somewhere kissing a muscular, fraternity type in a black t-shirt. I am so angry with Drew meantime that I tell that thespian exclamation point to go to hell and run away. I leave Drew, Tom, James, and Jude forking over piles of beans at the benches by the tables of food and follow the loud electronic beats. There is an illuminated stage there out in the island jungle and they are playing hip hop music and men and women are taking turns rapping into the microphones.

This all takes place in front of what feels like thousands of half-naked people trying to dance with each other. The whole scene is so corroded, so degraded, so blurry, and drunken that I wish at times I had never been alive, or at least think perhaps that I am in hell. Then I notice a girl watching me from beneath a palm tree. A big girl, big face, big breasts, big legs. Shoulder length brown hair, tan as tan, and blue eyes, and I mean those eyes are too blue and they scare me a bit they are so light. I go and sit beside her. She can barely string words together and neither can I. I don’t remember what we talk about, but it probably involves the Grateful Dead. Maybe I have my Grateful Dead t-shirt on or because she has a tie-dye Grateful Dead shirt on. We have a connection! The same t-shirt! I think her name is Jill or Jessica, but this does not matter to me. What matters is that this girl is henceforth known as Nightmare Hippie Girl.

***

After the ferry takes us back, Nightmare Hippie Girl and I are in the bushes at the beach, which is where we see Tom the Marine and the others walk sullenly by to their terrible apartamento with its unopened cartons of condoms, moving their heads from side to side, as if searching for something. That girl who got away. Then Nightmare Hippie Girl says she wants me to go back to her room and I say okay. But the owner at the front desk won’t let it happen. He tells Nightmare Hippie Girl that the room is full and that we will have to pay for another room. I try to play dumb with the front desk man and tell him that I am from Italy and that I do not speak English, but he does not believe me. Meantime the Nightmare Hippie Girl is losing her patience with the owner and with me. “God, you are really drunk, aren’t you,” she says. “I’m-a-sorry,” I tell her in front of the owner. “I’m-a-from Italy. I a-no-a-speak a-the-English.” Then we tell the owner, ‘Okay, you win,’ and head outside into the night.

What time is it? There is no more time. When the owner’s head is turned, we are up the stairs and into the room. But we are both so exhausted now that we just collapse into bed and fall asleep. When the sun hits my eyelids, they open. I kiss Nightmare Hippie Girl on the forehead and am out the door. An armed guard walks by and I duck into a closet. Then I get down the stairs and out into the morning sun. And who is waiting for me, but the owner, all dressed up in a white suit, with his big black mustache! He sees me and nods and grins, like some kind of predatory forest animal, and then he lifts the walkie-talkie to his lips and mumbles something. In the distance, I can see the high metal gates to the hotel start to close. The rest of the hotel is surrounded by tall hedges. The high metal gates are the only way in and out of the hotel. The owner is standing there with that satanic joy on his face, and I see that more armed guards are coming from the booth at the gates. What will they do to me? Arrest me? Beat me up? Extort some money out of me?

But I have no more money. I spent every last peso on the Booze Cruise!

He’s staring at me and I am staring at him. And that’s when I decide to make a run for it, lunging past him and up toward the hedges. Behind me, I can hear the owner yell into his walkie-talkie, hear the sound of boots pounding on the path as the armed guards come after me. I can see daylight through the bottom of one of the thick hedges and go for it, down on my knees, wriggling through this tiny hole, with all of the branches poking and scraping at my skin. In a moment, I am out, free, on one side of a highway. There are no cars on this side. I run straight across the road to the other side, where a local transit bus is waiting, hop up onto the bus, and slide into a seat beside a gray-haired Mexican man in a button-down shirt and blue pants, probably on his way to work.

In fact, I am the only gringo on this bus. It’s all working class Mexicans, the ones who make the beds, make the quesadillas, sell the souvenirs. These people make their livings off of Young American Idiots like me. Like us. I look back sadly at the Mexicans on the bus and all I can say is, “Hola.” Nobody answers me because to these people I am invisible. They are invisible to us and we are invisible to them. None of us are actually here in Cancun. Nobody has a name here. Nobody has a boyfriend. Nobody has a girlfriend.

None of us exist.

To think of the Mayan waitress at the restaurant downstairs again, to think about her life. She works every day, so hard for so very little, smiling through it, maybe to take care of a few children, and then gets some juvenile poem from a gringo youth. I am so ashamed of my country, of its people, its dark ways today. I am ashamed of myself. I would just like to erase myself from all of these scenes, cut myself out of any remaining photographs. There is no meaning here in Cancun. There is no enlightenment. There are palm trees, wonderful beaches, beautiful people, shopping centers, and the spiritual depth of a salsa bowl.

When my roommates awake in the lousy hotel, I am greeted with astounded looks.

“We thought you were dead,” says James in his drawn-out drawl. “We thought you drowned.”

“We were just hanging out on the beach, in the bushes,” I tell them.

Tom squints at me. “That was you, Petrone? In the bushes? I knew I saw people up there.”

The way they are grinning at me out on the balcony is congratulatory. Even Tom O’Kelly goes so far as to say, “YOU ARE THE MAN!”

But I don’t feel like the man.

Later, I leave my comrades at the all-you-can-eat quesadilla lunch buffet and take a bus south until I reach the hotel we stayed at when I was a child. There was a limestone Mayan ruin on a hill behind the hotel, so I walk through reception, pass the pools in the back, and climb the hill toward the ruin, passing all of those lizards that lounge on the rocks.

When I was a boy, I came up to this ruin many times, and fell so in love with it that I stole one of the pieces of limestone and brought it back home with me in my coral collection bag. I forgot to bring the small piece of limestone with me to return it to the ruin, but I have it with me here in spirit. I lay a hand on the side of one of the walls, close my eyes, and whisper an apology to the Mayan Gods.

Then I open my eyes, run my hands across the ruined wall, feeling the texture of the stones, and put the invisible rock back into its proper place.

The Last Virgin in Switzerland

This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.

***

The Last Virgin in Switzerland  

Around and around, up and down. The Ferris wheel goes up and it goes around and every time it reaches the top I look out on a sky of swirling city lights and stars, like needles of gold in the blanket of dark, with the hunchbacked, lumpy shadows of the Alps beyond, and the pale blue of the lake on the bottom of it all, like a cool tongue, licking me away out and into the distance.

Lake Zurich.

I would have just preferred to take in all the sights, not like any decent camera could ever capture the infinite sparkling beauty of them, let alone two teenaged eyes, if she wasn’t sitting across from me, or should I say, sitting across from us, meaning me, my mother and father. Neither of them even notices her, well, maybe my father does, but he tends to notice every woman within a certain distance from his torso, so it’s all just wallpaper to him.

He wouldn’t go for this girl anyway. He likes them statuesque with ample powders and cosmetics and perfumes and creams and polishes. He likes them dolled up. I have followed his glare enough times. But this woman is no doll. And I can’t figure out why I should have noticed her. She’s nothing special, nothing radiant, dressed in a gray sweatshirt with short blonde hair, a slight build, breasts that would barely cup in your hands, or cup in mine.

But she has such a pleasant white face, like a maiden in a Renaissance painting, so familiar and so different, so ancient, even eerie. She’s a ghost. None of my classmates has a face like that. And then there are those round chocolate pupils. They keep drawing me in and she returns my glimpses, sometimes with curiosity, but mostly there is a look of alarm in those two Swiss German eyes. She just wanted a ride in an American-themed amusement park on a Friday night and wound up getting seated across from two American tourists and their pervert son.

Poor girl.

How old is she? She’s got to be about 20 years old. Or maybe she’s just 18. Or 27. Who knows? The only thing I know is that I cannot in any way be with her. I have no money. I have no place of my own. I can’t even drive. I’m not even 15 years old. I have a man’s impulses, a man’s looks, but lack the credit cards, the experience, that good humored yet intense and shark-like gaze my father affects when he is served by a pretty waitress. Besides, if this woman across from me was to actually do something intimate, perhaps be as bold as to hold one of my hands, I just might pee in my pants.

I’ve never even kissed a girl.

I would kiss her though if I could manage to get rid of my parents and lie about my age. If I could just shed my identity for the night and say I’m 19. I’m tall enough. She might believe me. But maybe my kiss would give it away. How do you even French kiss anyway? Slide your tongue in and just swirl it around? That’s what some of my older friends told me. Must be true.

But no. It’s just not going to happen. I can’t even talk to her as she is speaking in Swiss German to her friend and probably only knows some form of caveman English. I imagine our talk like this,  “My name Dagmar” “You first time Zurich?” “Is very beautiful, yes?” “How long you stay?”

Two more days.

Around and around, up and down, lovesick, heat sick, sea sick on a Swiss Ferris wheel. My mother is squeezing my arm and pointing at illuminated churches and I am saying “Wow” and stealing glances to the chocolate-eyed Swiss girl, the Swiss Miss, and she is returning them. My father is counting the bills of francs in his wallet and reshuffling them and returning the wallet to his back pocket and looking at his new Swiss watch, the way the lights from the city at night catch on its silvery face. It’s not fair. Why does he get to be a man? Why does he get to be free?

Why am I stuck in this body?

I keep hoping that something will happen. Something has to happen. Maybe an earthquake or an explosion. Either will do. Then the Ferris wheel will dislodge, come off its hinges in a cloud of sparks and steam and flying cables, and roll across the old city, over the bratwurst stands and public toilets, and murky river waters, over the nose-ringed punkers and the old Hippies selling used LPs, over the souvenir shops of leiderhosen and yodeling CDs, flattening the pigs roasting over spits, rolling it all down before coming to a crashing halt somewhere between the watch shops on the Bahnhofstrasse and the Stock Exchange.

And in the hot chaos and thundering cataclysm, I would get the chance, my only chance, to climb off the Ferris wheel and escape to the city below, mumbling something about amnesia, but really just to join in the happy free-wheeling circus of a country so free they leave pornographic magazines out in barber shops and a small yellow van delivers fresh needles to the junkies in the park and the teenagers drink beer right in the streets and then ride the trains back to the suburbs, no designated drivers needed.

Europe! Why is it so much freer than my own Land of the Free? Look at her, steal a glimpse at her, take her in, consume her raw. None of this would ever happen in America. Not me, not this woman, not the Ferris wheel or the lights. There is no magic there. Things back there are stagnant, lethargic, and dry. They are like old songs on a drug store radio. But here, here in Switzerland, in Europe, they are fluid, moving, like the cool Alpine lake waters, licking me away.

Something needs so badly to be broken, I feel. Something needs so badly to be blown up and destroyed, set on fire, purged and burned and crushed to pieces. Something, somebody, needs to be fucked, if only to sate the volcanic anguish within me. I shoot another glimpse at the girl.

Is she a virgin? Probably not. Nothing in Switzerland is virginal. Nobody blushes at anything here. Sex, love making. Whatever you call it, they have done it, and how I wish to be like them! Doing it. That’s all my friends talk about. And yet none of us have done it. We only know about doing it from looking at our older brothers’ stashes of dirty magazines, the ones way in the back of the closet.

When the ride ends, we slide off the seats and the Swiss Miss with the chocolate eyes and kissable lips brushes by me and then she disappears into the night with her friend, who is so uninteresting to me that I can’t even remember what she looks like. The Swiss Miss never looks back, but I can smell the air she displaces as she moves on by. She and her friend laugh as they walk away. What are they laughing about? That boy on the Ferris wheel? That stupid boy.

I can barely shave. There are whiskers in the oddest places. I dab the cream there and here. It’s hilarious.

“So this is what Swiss people think America is like?” my father jokes as we make our way past placards of men with cheesy blond hair and leather jackets playing saxophones and big-breasted women in red bikinis, paintings of sports cars and surfers, and hamburgers and fries.

In between them are enormous posters of American superstars like Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley, Madonna and President Bill Clinton. David Hasselhoff, too.

“You know he’s more famous here than he is back at home,” my father says, tossing his head toward the exuberant image of the Knight Rider star. “The Europeans love him.”

Maybe if you were a real man like Hasselhoff, you would have gone home with the Swiss Miss.

“He’s a famous singer,” my mother concurs. “He’s had number one hits. Can you believe it?”

The fools!

I look at David Hasselhoff and the paintings of sports cars and surf boards. It doesn’t look anything like the America I know, and it doesn’t look like any place I’d ever want to go.

“I can’t believe they really think we live like that,” my mother says.

I hear them, but I am still thinking about the girl, though I’m having a harder time remembering exactly what she looks like and what she smells like. That Renaissance face. The chocolate eyes. The comforting air. It’s almost all gone. Why do they always come and go like that? It hurts.

“So, want to go get some bratwurst?” my father addresses me as we near the exit of the American theme park. It’s mostly empty. I guess America isn’t that big a draw.

“John, we have had bratwurst every night for the past week,” my mother complains. “I can’t have any more salty food. My ankles are swollen with fluid. And can you stop walking so fast?”

“I was talking to Justin,” he ignores her.

“Yeah, okay,” I say. “I like bratwurst.”

“Ein bratwurst mit sempf,” he says, smiling and running his fingers through my hair. “Und ein bier bitte. Well, ein Coca Cola for you.”

I frown.

“Hey, look, we’re only going to be in Zurich for two more days, so we should make the most of it,” he puts his arm around me. “It’s been a great vacation, eh, son?”

***

When we got back to John F. Kennedy International Airport a few days later it was hot and humid. August. The tormenting stink of sweat, exhaust, the plastic bottles and paper bags littered up on the sides of the roads. There were so many people around me in New York and yet I felt as if I had been abandoned in a desert. Something was wrong. I went and slept in my old bed but it was different, off, amiss.

I missed Zurich. I missed Europe. And I knew in my teenage guts what would have to be done.

I would have to go back.

‘So, How Was Montana?’

 

This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.

***

“So, How Was Montana?”

That’s what a lot of people asked me on that summery first day of the eighth grade. The place was called Setauket, which is a hamlet in the State of New York, on the East Coast of North America. Setauket is even smaller than a village or a town, though as you drive east from New York City on Long Island, which is still pronounced in the Dutch fashion of Lange Eylandt, the city runs into towns and into villages, with hamlets strewn about like confetti, and there is never really an end to human development until you get a good hour east of Setauket, and then there are pumpkin and Christmas tree farms, wineries and fishing ports where men really fish.

“But how was Montana?”

Most of my good friends growing up would leave the island in the summer for a spell, to go to Europe or the West Coast, some place exciting, although it was never so easy. To leave the island takes dedication, initiative, money. There are a few ferries, a number of bridges, and several airports. Surrounded by sea on three sides, and on the west, that treacherous East River, Long Island is both a sanctuary and a prison of the mind. The softness of the sands, the repetitive movement of the water against the coast, it lulls one to sleep, until he never would even dream of leaving. And yet in this sonorous stupor of insular contentedness, a young man can find himself dreaming of other faraway places, where more exciting things might happen.

“Petrone! Great to see you, man. Did you have a good time in Montana?”

In June, when the school lets out, the students of our leafy school district trade boasts about coming summer adventures. And this past June, the one that ended a tumultuous seventh grade, the one that saw me grow about a foot, sprout whiskers on unusual portions of my face, smell awful almost all of the time, get ugly metal braces, and lose most of my elementary school friends, I thought I had something to boast about. My father had come home one day with a brochure from the travel agent for different excursions in Montana. Montana, so named by wandering 16th century Spaniards because of its remote and rocky mountains. There were pictures of grassy plateaus and green streams, snow capped peaks, vast blue skies, and cozy log cabin hotels with wagon wheels built into the architecture – a table made from a wagon wheel, a chandelier made from a wagon wheel – as well the heads of slain furry animals on the walls. “Are you really up for it son?” My father was exuberant. “Are you up for a big trip to Montana!”

“Justin, it’s so good to have you back in class. Did you enjoy Montana?”

I told every person in every class about our impending adventure in Montana. And how cool I did feel. “Did you hear?” people began to whisper. “Justin Petrone is going to Montana.” “No way. Really?” Nobody had been to Montana. Even Michelle, a pretty blonde-haired girl in Latin class who would wear a t-shirt to school that said GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK on it, had only been to Wyoming. But Montana? It was the fourth largest US state! Only Alaska, Texas, and California were larger than Montana. I imagined how we would sit around a campfire in the mountains of Montana somewhere and remembered the story about how my older brother’s father Jack had gotten into a fight with some Native Americans who had “attacked” their campsite in Wyoming at night, pulling one off of his horse. Later, they found out that the Indians were just actors who were paid to “attack” the tourists for fun and there were some mumbled apologies and no hard feelings. God, isn’t my brother’s dad crazy or what?

“Justin! What’s up man? How was Montana?!”

As that summer began, I started to wonder when we would go to Montana. How would we get there? Montana was so far away, we would probably have to fly. Or would we drive? I knew of some families that had driven across the country. It took them a week to do it! I asked my father a few times about Montana, but he shrugged and said, “I have to call Denise at the travel agency and check on how that is going,” and “Oh, I forgot to take care of that this week, let’s see, next week I’ll probably have time to look into it.” June turned into July, July into August, and soon school would start again. And so the thing is … we never went to Montana. I spent the summer at the beach, staring at the water, reading books and watching my IQ points evaporate. And the only one who knows this is Brett Chase. Brett Chase lives down the street from me and he knows I didn’t go anywhere this summer. He knows that Montana was just one of my father’s ‘could have happened’ stories. Later, he’ll come up with an excuse for why Montana never came to be. It might have to do with a misunderstanding at the travel agency or something. There must be some kind of reason.

“Mr. Petrone! Back from Montana!”

Brett Chase. I love him like a brother and I hate him like a brother. And yet we could never really be brothers because he’s so perfect and that’s why I detest him even more than is brotherly possible. Everything about the man irritates me. Even if someone drops his name in conversation, something rubs me raw on the insides as if I had swallowed a spoonful of sand.

Brett Chase. A perfectly square head on a perfectly rectangular body. The sinewy muscles of a basketball star. Everything about the guy is handsome and symmetrical. Bright blue eyes, ash blonde hair, a toothpaste commercial smile. And he’s always so tan. Unusually tan. Bizarrely tan. There are various theories in school about the origins of Brett Chase’s brownness. One is that Brett is part Cherokee Indian and he has inherited some kind of recessive swarthy gene. Another is that he spends so much time in the Caribbean that he doesn’t have time to lose his magnificent bronze color. The moment it starts to fade, Mom and Dad have him on a plane to Antigua or Barbados someplace sunny like that. I prefer the Cherokee Indian theory myself.

“You didn’t go to Montana, did you, you big goof.”

This is what Brett Chase says to me on that first day of eighth grade.

I cannot respond and only look around and hope that nobody can hear him. Then I nod yes.

“Ha! Petrone told everybody he was going to Montana and then he didn’t go to Montana.”

Brett Chase has on a yellow t-shirt that has an image of a beach, palm trees, and a sun sinking into the water behind them. Underneath it, you can read the text: “Everything is Better in the Bahamas.” I wonder what my t-shirt from Montana might have looked like. Maybe it would have had an image of a dead animal’s head on it. Or a wagon wheel. Or an Indian. Maybe all three. I still can’t say anything, but Brett just stands there with his perfect smile, each one of his teeth perfectly shaped and white and square, all in a row. That guy will never need braces.

He passes me in the hallway, the bell rings and it’s time to go to class. First day of eight grade.

Another dreary year.

***

I still keep in touch with Brett Chase, believe it or not. It’s a friendship that’s mostly long distance and virtual these days. But that doesn’t mean that Brett Chase is out of my life. Far from it. Brett Chase is in fact closer to me than ever before. Like a lot of people, we keep in contact via the world’s most successful networking website. And through it old childhood friends like me are kept up to date on the adventures of the world’s most perfect man.

Brett Chase has been busy. The past few days he’s been back in New York City, selling multi-million dollar apartments to other rich people and sipping whisky at trendy bistros with his entourage of equally perfect people — wine importers, Internet entrepreneurs and the like. But Brett won’t stay in Manhattan for long. No way. Captain Tan is getting restless. Soon he’ll be back at John F. Kennedy International Airport, boarding another jet for a jet-setting adventure.

The New Year began for Brett Chase in the French Alps, where he and his wife, a half-Swiss, half-Chinese pixie named Cassandra showed off their high-end ski gear and good looks, sipping champagne on a mountain top in Chamonix. After a few weeks selling Manhattan apartments, February brought this perfect pair to a quick weekend getaway to Costa Rica, where they surfed every day and dined on trays of delicious local foods and gallivanted with rock lizards, while making sure to photograph their well-toned, tanned bodies so that no one with whom they were remotely connected could be unaware of how perfect and completely awesome it was to be them. And they are awesome. I’ve met Cassandra. She’s wonderful. They are both so wonderful.

Over Easter, Brett and Cassandra surprised us with a visit to Memphis and Mississippi where they ate fried catfish in old blues joints and visited Al Green’s church for a little hot buttered soul and fashionable digital photography. In one of the photos, Brett Chase is wearing a designer blue shirt open at the collar and black boots, with his square handsome face looking directly at camera. Cassandra is beside him, like garnish on a gourmet dish, a tight dress with an ethno pattern restraining her figure, lustrous black hair is tossed back in the southern air.

When I saw the photo on the social networking site later that day, I was consumed with jealousy. Sickened is one of the right words. Spasms of nausea convulsed through my abdomen. It hurt to even look at it, so I had to look at it three or four times, like a child picking at a wound to check if it’s stopped bleeding, I looked at the image of wonderful Brett and Cassandra in Memphis.

In the span of three months, they had done the French Alps, Costa Rica, and the Mississippi Delta. And what had I done? It seemed as if I hadn’t left our apartment in Estonia in ages! All I did was write. I hadn’t left home since March, and then only for a swing through Cambridge in the UK while my wife was away at an ashram in India and the kids were with a babysitter in Viljandi. But still! He had done three places in the same amount of time! That bastard.

When I saw the Easter in Mississippi photo set, I remembered how Brett Chase used to invite me over to his house when we were teenagers so that he could try out his basketball moves on me. I would stand there below the net, and he would charge up, twisting his torso through the air on the way to a slam dunk. To see all of those images of his global life, well, it was like being slam dunked on again. He was up there, leaping into the air, blocking out the sun, palms up like Michael Jordan, sweat dripping down on me, ready to shatter all of my self-confidence again, and then land beside me, asking, nonchalantly, “So, Petrone, do you want some lemonade?”

This time though the stakes were higher. Because instead of a measly orange basketball, it felt like Brett Chase held the whole world in the palm of his hands.

Wikipedia tells me that envy can derive from a “sense of low self-esteem that results from an upward social comparison threatening a person’s self-image.” Moreover, “if the other person is perceived to be similar to the envier, the aroused envy will be particularly intense, because it signals to the envier that it just as well could have been he or she who had the desired object.”

In the case of my old friend Brett Chase and me, going back to our painful Montana dialogue, the desired object has always been the world. As soon as I saw the most recent images of his globe-hopping travels, I started scouting local travel bureaus for interesting deals. And soon enough, a number of exotic offers were at my finger tips. The Canary Islands, Singapore, Egypt. There would be images of me lazing in the dunes of Maspalomas, diving into hotel rooftop swimming pools in Singapore, riding camels in the Sinai! At long last, I would have my revenge.