Tag Archives: travel

Once Upon a Delta

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Mental health has never been a strong point of mine.

In undergrad I used to fantasize about going to prison because I enjoy firm mattresses, you don’t have to pick out your own clothes, and they give you books.

Sometimes I think a stay in a drug rehab clinic would be a nice vacation, but my only addictions are knitting and downloading sheet music, and those aren’t covered by Obamacare.

I’m twenty-four-years-old but own a stack of coloring books.

I have an irrational fear of vomiting.

The rest you can ask my psychiatrist about. Actually, you can’t, because HIPPA’s a thing.

You can see that mental health isn’t my forte. But it wasn’t until today that I realized that I am literally clinically insane, where the definition of insanity is completing the same action over and over again with the expectation of a different result.

Today I booked a Delta flight.

Now, there is nothing inherently “insane” about booking a flight with Delta. The insanity comes with booking a Delta flight after being warned of others’ experiences, experiencing a Hell-flight for yourself, and then expecting the next time to be different.

Having been warned of Delta’s reputation for Hell-flights, I take full responsibility for my experience. The flight was affordable, and I figured that as long as the plane didn’t crash or disappear over the Indian Ocean, I could handle whatever Delta threw at me. After all, it wasn’t Malaysian Airlines, and unless Long Island chose to secede, the odds of flying over a war zone were pretty slim.

I haven’t underestimated my coping abilities so severely since freshman year when I ate that calzone before running a half marathon.

My flight was scheduled for 6:00AM. Not trusting myself to wake up on time, I decided to stay overnight at the airport, which of course required first that I actually get to the airport.

I have vestibular migraine disorder, which means that I am extremely susceptible to motion sickness. So much so that I have to take ridiculous amounts of medication to ride in a moving vehicle. Otherwise my brain thinks that it’s having a stroke, the world is ending, and the Second Coming is upon us.

Naturally, I took a bus to the airport, without any medication, after not having been on a bus or in a car for five months, in West Yorkshire, where there are hills.

If you’re from central Ohio, you of course do not know how to drive up a hill, or probably, even what a hill looks like. To drive up a hill, you cannot drive straight up the hill. You have to drive all around the hill in all sorts of crazy twists and turns while the driver taps his foot on the brake, presumably to some sort of imaginary dubstep.

By the time the bus arrived at the airport, my arms and legs were shaking uncontrollably from my brain going off the fritz, and I was trying desperately not to throw up. But having tackled the most nauseating part of the journey, I figured it couldn’t get any worse.

The first two flights went as planned, and when I arrived in Detroit, I was eager to get home to Columbus. Not only was I excited to see my friends and family, whom I hadn’t seen since I left for the field in July, but I was definitely looking forward to going to bed. I had stayed up all night in the airport, and then for the duration of the flight (I never have been able to sleep on planes, and besides, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was on T.V., how could anyone sleep?).

News of the first delay came at about 3:00PM. Now, a good rule of thumb for flying planes is to make sure you have people there to fly them. But of course, things happen, people run late, and the crew wasn’t there yet.

News of the second delay came at about 4:00PM, after an hour of being told that we’d be boarding in “about ten minutes.” The problem this time? A mechanical malfunction.

Ok, fair enough. I’d rather mechanical problems be discovered before we’re seven miles above the Earth.

But then it took another half hour to decide if they could fix the problem, or if they should just get a new plane altogether. When it was decided that they could fix it, the problem, which was a parking brake malfunction, was repaired, and we were permitted to board.

After we were finally on the plane, we were informed of the third delay. This time, the crew could not find the paperwork stating that the brake had been repaired. Turns out you’re not legally permitted to fly without said paperwork.

Once they finally found the paperwork and it was signed by all the relevant parties, we thought we were on our way.

Nope.

They were waiting on one more passenger, and then we could pull away from the gate.

I am generally not a violent person, but when that passenger arrived on the plane, hair dishevelled, bags open and everywhere , I wanted to shove her boarding pass up her nose holes. Oh, and you get one carry-on bag, lady, just like everyone else. ONE.

We still weren’t moving. Why weren’t we moving?

The pilot came over the PA and announced another delay. There was too much fuel on the plane, and it was too heavy to fly. We had to wait for the defueling truck.

I pulled out my cell phone and sent my brother a text message. He was supposed to be picking me up from the Columbus airport, and our plane was supposed to have arrived already.

He texted me back to say that there was a miscommunication, and Delta was reporting that we had already landed.

Not quite.

Then the pilot came over the PA again. The defueling truck had arrived, but it was broken and was defueling more slowly than it should be, but we should be off the ground in half an hour.

I was hungry, and tired and wanted to cry. It felt like I hadn’t slept in ages.

Then I felt bad for wanting to cry. Some people never get to go on an airplane at all, and at least I’ve been on enough of them to know this is not ideal.

I was beginning to wonder if the plane was even going to fly, or if we were all going to die in a giant fire-ball.

I prayed a Hail Mary just in case.

Somehow, by the grace of God, or presumably because more competent people got on the plane and took over, we eventually took off an arrived safely at Port Columbus International.

The airport was all but deserted by the time our plane arrived. I hurried down to baggage claim, where my sister hugged me and lifted me off my feet.

Getting carried away in the excitement of being reunited with my family, I hardly noticed the distress of the other passengers, at first.

But then I was informed that somehow, despite the four-hour delay, Delta had failed to get the checked bags onto the plane, and our luggage was still in Detroit.

“Well,” I said, lying down on the airport floor in resignation. “At least the plane didn’t crash.”

Condemned to spend the evening in my sister’s underwear and pajamas, I vowed to stay up and wait for my bags, but having been stretched to the limits of my patience, I fell asleep on the couch, and didn’t even hear my phone ring at 2:00AM when Delta called to tell me my bags were delayed…

White Walker the Horse and the Gates of Hell

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White Walker the Horse and the Gates of Hell

Nothing interesting ever happens in Trim.

The proof of this is the entertainment value placed on archaeologists. I’m sure that if you stuck a bunch of us on a stage with microphones and a couple trowels, together we’d equal the value of one iTunes purchase.

I feel about Trim how I imagine a mother might feel after having just given birth to a child that looks like a root vegetable. Other people might not understand the overwhelming joy that I experience when I return to Trim; most of them just see an ugly baby. For me, however, Trim olds a special place on my heart-globe. It’s where I first learned how to excavate, and it’s where I get to work with some of my favorite people in the whole world.

Trim, or Baile Átha Troim in Irish, is located on the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland, about half an hour northwest of Dublin. Its largest landmark is Trim Castle, which was founded by the Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath Hugh de Lacy in 1173 under England’s King Henry II (Encyclopedia Brittanica). The town itself, though, is thought to have been occupied since 500 AD (Meath County Council). Hugh de Lacy’s son Walter eventually inherited the castle, then passed it down to his granddaughter, Mathilda, who was married to a French lord named Geoffrey de Geneville. Mathilda died in 1304, de Geneville became a monk. Since monks can’t have castles, it went to his daughter Joan, who was married to Roger Mortimer. His family had the castle until 1425, by which time everybody had died. It then went to Richard of York, and then to his son Edward IV when Richard died in 1460 (Potterton 2003). The castle was left to deteriorate by 1599 (Meath County Council).

During the 15th century, Trim was relatively prosperous, bringing in more revenue for the English government than the surrounding towns. By 1541, however, it had decreased fairly substantially (Potterton 2003). In 1541 it was decided that Meath would be divided into two counties, Meath and Westmeath (Potterton 2003).

In 1204 Walter de Lacy was granted permission to hold an annual fair in Trim. Items traded included wheat, corn, cereal, wine, wool, cloth, hide, iron, flour, salt, butter, cheese, garlic, oats, onion, meat, honey, fish, livestock, wood, cauldrons, millstones, charcoal, and metals (Potterton 2003), among a thousand other things that would take me all night to list and cite. If these had all been local items, that would have been one thing. But a lot of these things were brought into Trim from other areas including Kilkenny, Waterford, Dublin, and Drogheda, meaning that Trim was a sort of hotspot for Medieval consumerism, or at the very least, a good trade location.

In addition to the yearly fair, weekly markets were also held in Medieval Trim on Market Street, which still stands today (Potterton 2003). Individual shops were open even more frequently (Potterton 2003). Items traded in markets and shops included fish, meat, corn, flour, shoes, cloth, leather, and wine (Potterton 2003).

Total economic devastation throughout Ireland resulted from the Cromwellian Wars in 1641-1652 (O’Carroll 2011). Because Trim had been militarily significant, it was particularly affected (O’Carroll 2011). In the time since, Trim has not been able to become again the commercial powerhouse it was in the middle ages.

Consequently, as I said before, nothing interesting ever happens in Trim. Unless, of course, you are really into Medieval history. There are none of those things that developmentally normal social youths use for entertainment (shopping malls? clubs? I missed some milestones and genuinely don’t know). Secondly, while Trim does have a promising tourism industry, it is largely a rural farming community, and as such, it has a lot to teach us about the versatility of empty fields.

Empty fields, like the one located behind the local SuperValu, can be archaeology sites such as the Blackfriary. They can be playgrounds. They can be build-it-yourself private landfills. They can be gardens, places to drink underage, light shit on fire, and graze your horses, and they can be most of these things at one time.

There is one exception; an empty field cannot be both an archaeology site and a horse pasture at the same time because horses are jerks.

If you don’t mind working in a giant bovid-toilet, keeping a bunch of herbivores on site is a wonderfully cheap and eco-friendly alternative to regular lawn care, and if you’ve ever waded through a forest of nettles, you know how important it is to control vegetation on an archaeology site. So, after what I presume were a long series of clandestine meetings between local farmers and Blackfriary site directors and staff, the Blackfriary found itself with three oversized Satanic lawnmowers.

The largest horse, whom the students called White Walker, was the leader of the Evil Equus posse. He was a white and brown horse with pale blue eyes, and he was an asshole. He kept the other two members at his beck and call, the smaller of which appeared to be some sort of fat horse-pony hybrid, or possibly even two men in a horse costume. White Walker was the instigator, and Medium Horse and Fat Horse Pony followed.

I am not a particularly large woman, and White Walker knew this. I’m five-foot three on a good day, and I haven’t been to a gym in six years. White Walker is fucking huge because he’s a horse.

Every day the routine was the same- and White Walker studied it. The site director would pull the van up to the gate, we would open the gate, she would drive into site, and we would close the gate.

On the morning in question, for reasons I still do not understand, I could not close the gate. It is heavy and awkward, yes, but I have closed that gate more times than I close my bathroom door to pee.

In my moment of weakness, White Walker acted. He bolted through the opening, and his spineless horse minions followed.

First, if you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t chase the horses. It doesn’t work.

I approached White Walker. He stared, daring me with his soulless blue eyes. I drew closer. He stared harder. Then he ran.

Second, as an archaeologist, there are few moments more terrifying than the one where you have to tell the site director that you just released three devil-worshipping quadrupeds into the public. And unless you’re an orphan who’s never watched television and you’ve never been exposed to any sort of parental figure at all, you know that a few words are worse than a lot of words. I was dismissed with an, “Oh,” as the director calmly ventured out on foot to track down the escapees. Ten minutes into the workday, and I had already resigned myself to death, either from the site director herself, or from the health and safety director whom I was convinced would come all the way from Dublin to murder me because you don’t just let a bunch of horses escape from site.

White Walker and his posse, however, had a much more pleasant experience, as did the locals, who all emerged from their homes in their bathrobes, cups of tea in hand, to see the fugitive horses gallivanting through town and pooping in people’s gardens.

Because the people of Trim never leave their homes unprepared, the site director, while in pursuit of the horses, came across a man who happened to carry a horse lead in his pocket, and White Walker and his posse were led back to site one at a time.

To that man I say, you sir, deserve a medal.

References

Meath County Council. 2010. Trim Development Plan 2008-2014 Progress Report.

O’Carroll F. 2011. Interim Report: Archaeological Research Excavations at the Blackfriary, Trim, Co. Meath. Irish Archaeology Field School

Potterton M. 2003. The Archaeology and History of Trim, County Meath. Dissertation. National University of Ireland, Maynooth

How Big is Your Trowel (Part IV)

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I am by no means a cultural anthropologist. I study bones, I play in dirt, and I offend people all the time, usually without meaning to. I am therefore completely professionally unqualified to argue that middle-aged Croatian men fetishize women with shovels. I have, however, met enough middle-aged Croatian men to feel comfortable making this assertion. How big was my sample size, you ask? First of all, you don’t need a sample size for anecdotal evidence. And it was five, which was plenty big enough.

To be fair, I have to give them credit for being so boldly confident in their sexuality at a point in their lives when most of their peers and their peckers are falling to erectile dysfunction, and a lot of credit is due to the forest workers in particular. Slaving away in a forest of enormous, erect phallic objects while your own wanker slowly withers away like an overdone noodle must be most disheartening.

So when a group of young foreign women appeared in the Phallic Forest, it must have seemed as though we had been beamed down from the heavens, our shovels our mighty staffs that could open a portal to a world of vaginas and manual labor.

The Men of the Phallic Forest did not hesitate to make their feelings known.

“You see that man there?” asked Mirko in his thickly accented English. It should be said that Mirko, in addition to sharing a name with a close friend’s beloved cat, Mirko is a wonderfully honorable man whose pores leak integrity when he sweats. He, like the other Croatian archeologists on our team, does not fetishize women with shovels. This could be because they see vagina-wielding-shovel-holders all the time, but I suspect it has more to do with their upstanding character.

“Yes,” I answered, glancing at the individual in question. He stood at the edge of a trench with another one of our team members, gesturing madly and chatting away in what sounded like a mix of distinguished authority and a Balkan speech impediment.

“He wants to marry you,” said Mirko.

“That’s disgusting.”

“Yes. But do not worry. I told him you are vegetarian, and now he does not want to marry you. He is worried that if you are his wife, he will have to go into the fields every morning and cut down grass to feed you.” Mirko paused, then added, “He would not be a good husband. He has only one hand and a big tongue. He would not be able to please you, and he would talk too much.”

First of all, Eastern Europe, I don’t know what you’ve heard about American vaginas, but they’re not the fucking Mammoth Caves. One hand is more than enough. Second, vegetarians don’t eat grass. Those are cows you’re thinking of.

It turns out that my long time vegetarianism did not deter my middle-aged, one-handed, garrulous Croatian suitor. Throughout the next several weeks, he and his posse of forest workers brought countless gifts including chocolates, cookies, pretzels, mosquito repellant, and apples they stole from someone’s yard, and I only had to get my butt touched twice.

Why accept gifts from men if I didn’t want attention, some of you might be wondering. For one, I’m a grad student, so almost by definition, I can’t afford to feed myself. Seventy-five percent of my diet is comprised of the Easy Mac my grandma sends me in the mail and the food professors use to bribe us to go to department events. For another, not accepting food from Croatian people is not something that one does. It’s a lot like littering in the States. You just don’t do it. If you litter in the U.S., everyone will think you also butcher baby whales for fun and hang their carcasses in your living room, and you won’t have any friends. Similarly, if you don’t accept food from a Croatian person, you won’t have any friends, and you probably also butcher baby whales. You might even also butcher Croatian children; you’re just that bad of a person.

On the last working day on site, my one-handed suitor showed up with three huge boxes of burek, rakija, coffee, and two liters of goats’ milk. The burek, rakija, and coffee were for us all to share, but he handed me the goats’ milk and said that it was for me, because that “is what vegetarians drink.”

If you’ve ever had goats’ milk and apple burek, you know it’s definitely worth any subsequent butt-touching. This was a fair trade. Balanced reciprocity or whatever.

After what felt like the millionth meal break of the day, however, I started to wonder if these men also had a thing for feeding women, like in that weird episode of CSI. Maybe they all shared a peculiar and highly specific fetish for foreign women with shovels backfilling trenches while eating.

“Zašto puno ti radiš i ne jediš?” asked one of the Forest Posse members, inquiring why I worked all the time and didn’t eat. I didn’t have the vocabulary or audacity to tell him that this was the third meal break of the day, and it was only two in the afternoon, or that I was so full that I was chewing my precious anti-nausea ginger gum normally reserved for motion sickness so that I wouldn’t throw up all the burek I had already eaten.

“Jela sam,” I answered. I did eat.

“Ni si.” No you didn’t.

“Da, jesam.” Yes, I did.

“Kad?” When?

“Jebi ga.” Fuck. I told him I ate burek at the dig house for breakfast. Then I came to site and had more burek for second breakfast. Then we had grilled vegetables for lunch. Now he was offering me bread and cheese.

He held up his hand and said that I am like a pinky finger. A woman should be like a thumb.

The Forest Posse spent the rest of the afternoon using their cell phones to take pictures of us backfilling a trench.

I still can’t decide if I’m satisfied that I’m a pinky finger, or disturbed to have been involved what seems to have been a bizarre plot to reenact the story of Hansel and Grettle, but I have some great new ideas for a calendar fundraiser.

How Big is Your Trowel (Part III)

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There are some places where you would think that until we arrived, the locals had never seen a woman hold a shovel. This could be reasonably inferred from the reactions of said locals upon seeing a woman hold a shovel.

But I’m here to tell you that this is a lie.

I have seen a Croatian woman hold a shovel, and she is a force to be reckoned with.

Gospođa Fruk is the owner and landlady of Fruk, a self-catered accommodation of sorts, frequented by our team of archaeologists, and, as far as I know, anyone else who might be hopelessly lost in rural Eastern Croatia. Located on one of the two main roads in Vrbanja, Fruk welcomes its visitors with a warm peach-colored exterior and flower garden with enough gnomes to take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a death match.

A stout older woman with short white shiny hair, Gospođa Fruk is the embodiment of the dictionary definition for “matriarch.” She is a shrewd businesswoman and attentive mother, grandmother, and wife. One day I asked her if she ever sleeps. Of course, she said. What a strange question. I don’t think it’s a strange question at all, and frankly, I don’t believe her.

Normal literary custom suggests that it is conventional to say that one rises when the rooster crows. I haven’t been on many farms, but every rooster that I’ve encountered in Croatia appears to suffer from chronic insomnia. One time Andreja even showed me a rooster that crowed all night long while wandering in front of traffic. To say that Gospođa Fruk woke with the roosters would be inaccurate because the roosters just seem to stay awake forever making as much noise as possible until they die of exhaustion. I’m sure the roosters are certainly a contributing factor, but more than likely it’s her military-grade worth ethic that compels her to be awake at dawn, known in America as “that-small-period-of-time-during-which-it’s-socially-acceptable-to-eat-at-a-Denny’s.”

It is quite possible that Gospođa Fruk is not a human, but rather some sort of bionic woman crafted from high-efficiency biomechanics, computers, and synthetic skin in a top-secret research laboratory with a grant to design a superhuman.

During my time at Fruk this summer, every morning after hitting the snooze button on my alarm fifty-three times, the fifty-fourth sound I would hear was always Gospođa Fruk sweeping the floor, her long calico dress swishing along with the motion of the broom. After that, she would feed the geese, water the plants, wash the laundry, hang the laundry, change the beds, work in the office, and on occasion when we’d return, we’d find her planting new flowers in places we didn’t even realize could accommodate more flowers. I don’t know about you, but if I water a plant, that’s enough chores for a week.

And these are just the things that we saw her do outside. I’m not sure what she was doing inside, but I’m sure she wasn’t lounging on the couch reading O Magazine.

You will not be surprised then to know that Gospođa Fruk, despite being a woman, is well practiced in the handling of shovels. She is so well practiced, in fact, that she wields it like a wizard and wields a wand, making others gasp in awe at the versatility of such a seemingly simple tool.

To be fair, I was not present when the following events took place. That said, the story has been told to me so many dozens of times, that I am comfortable enough to retell it.

One thing that a respectable landlady and businesswoman will not have in her guest rooms is a snake. This is wonderful for anyone who, again, happens to get hopelessly lost in rural Croatia because there are a lot of them and they’re huge. The last thing most normal people with well-functioning brains would want is to wake up next to a snake the length of your entire arm span. This season, the snakes had been doing particularly well because of the floods, so there were even more of them than usual. Wonderful if you’re a snake, not so great if you’re an archaeologist whose trench walls keep falling down because they’ve been undermined by snake holes. Is it just me or is the wall hissing again? This ain’t no Chamber of Secrets, Beady Eyes. Move on out.

As long as you aren’t the Crocodile Hunter, and you aren’t because he’s dead, chasing snakes out of the trench all day only to come home and find one in your reptile-free-sanctuary would be at least a little bit annoying.

Skippy, the site director’s dog, felt the same way. After a busy day of eating mice and frogs in the hot sun, Skippy was in no mood to be dealing with intruders and made her feelings known to Lisa, Andreja, and Gospođa Fruk. Gospođa Fruk’s husband emerged from inside to see what sort of problems the archaeologists and their reprobate dog were causing this time (the previous commotion had been caused by Skippy killing one of their chickens, so his concern was not unfounded).

Gospođa Fruk bent down and looked under the bed in the outdoor room. She stood up, nodded, and said something to her husband in Croatian, who returned with a pitchfork. Gospođa Fruk looked at the pitchfork and then looked at her husband with an expression that clearly said, “The hell do you expect me to do with this?” Shaking her head, she walked past her husband, into the tool shed, and returned with a shovel. Using the shovel, she then pulled the snake out from under the bed, decapitated it, then calmly picked up both pieces and put them in the trash bin.

And that’s the story of the time the Gospođa Fruk killed the snake under the bed.

God-Vaginas (Part II)

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One of the most horrifying moments of my undergraduate career took place in the North Market parking lot in downtown Columbus. Fortunately, all of the people involved (except for the questionably homeless guy) are some of my best friends and, even though they are academics, have never judged me for my faith, and have never done anything to make me feel ashamed. Otherwise I might have pooped myself.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” asked the Questionably Homeless Guy.

Oh, fuck. I had always been told that under no circumstances are you to deny Jesus.

Even if someone has a gun to your head?

Even if someone has a gun to your head. You’ll just go to Heaven faster.

I looked to Best Friends. They were absorbed in conversation and Polish mashed potatoes.

“I do,” I answered.

“Do you believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father?”

Best Friends looked up from their mashed potatoes.

“I do,” I answered quietly. I could feel my face turning all kinds of red.

“Do you believe that He came down from Heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit, was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man?”

“I do.” How much blood can flow into your face before it explodes? Best Friends were going to think I was so dumb. Virgins can’t get pregnant. That’s like Sex Ed 101. You have to have sex to get pregnant.

“Do you have any spare change?”

“No.”

First, you can see that if this was one of my most embarrassing moments, obviously I didn’t get out much. Second, as humiliating as that experience was, I’m grateful that I don’t have to experience more alienation on a regular basis. I could be Jewish or a Muslim and be ironically patronized in a superficially friendly academic environment. I could be anything other than white and never be taken seriously in academia. Or I could be a female…

Oh, wait.

But aside from that fact, I am genuinely grateful that I’m as privileged as I am.

Even academia, the safe haven of reason, is not free from people who want to poke around in your god-vagina. For academics who are supposed to take a relativistic approach to their studies, anthropologists seem to forget that they are allowed to treat the religious practices of their colleagues with the same relativistic respect that they normally reserve for their subjects. There isn’t a ban on appreciating Western religion for its cultural value, and there isn’t a ban on believing in a god or gods just because you’re an intellectual. And quite honestly, you’re doing a disservice to the rest of the world by patronizing them for engaging in cultural practices that don’t appear to have a direct scientific outcome.

Now, to be frank, I’ve always had some self-esteem issues to begin with. Working in an environment where colleagues are, on a fairly regular basis, dismissing Western religions and mocking faith exacerbated this for a while.

What if I can’t be a real scientist because I believe in God?

What if they have x-ray brain vision and can read my thoughts and know that I believe in God and think I’m stupid?

What if this skull in my hands comes back to life and yells, “Stop touching me! I want a REAL anthropologist!”

Actually, that part would be pretty great because it would need its mandible to talk, and I can’t figure out how to put it back together, so if it could reassemble itself, that’d be super helpful.

Lately though, like God and your genitals, I’ve decided that I don’t give two shits. This sounds like a decision you’d come to over a long period of time whilst preparing for a religious sacrament or diving into a self-help book, but I actually decided on my level of shit-giving in the span of about twenty minutes in a run-down church in Zagreb.

Located in the heart of what must be the world’s biggest farmer’s market, Dolac, the Church of St. Mary was built in the sixteenth century and quite possibly has not undergone any renovations since that time. It’s easy to imagine that its bile-yellow exterior must have at one time looked more like sunlight than dog vomit as the church of the Blessed Virgin looked down at Her patrons in the marketplace. The bell tower is typically Eastern European, with gilded markings against a dull green bubble and a gilded cross at the top struggling in vain to stand out against the back drop of the unending construction project that is St. Stephen’s Cathedral. A worn statue of the Blessed Virgin guards the entrance, shedding flecks of paint faster than you can say, “lead poisoning.”

Hesitantly, I walked into the church, dipping my hand into the basin of Holy Water and collecting instead a finger-full of slime. Reluctantly, I blessed myself, making a mental note to sanitize my hands and forehead upon leaving.

Inside, the church was silent, but not empty. I made my way to the last row of pews, genuflected, blessed myself again, and sat. Behind me, a line of women stood waiting for their turn in the confessionals. In the row across from me, I saw a nun on her knees whispering the Rosary.

The windows were narrow, and the room was dim, lit only by some battery-operated plastic candles. The walls were little more than solid gray stone decorated with the Stations of the Cross and cobwebs. Outside it was ninety-degrees, but inside it was cold and damp, and it smelled like a wet basement and mold.

I looked at the alter lined with plastic flowers.

I should pray. That’s what churches are for.

When’s the last time you prayed in church?

Um. February? I think I went to part of an Ash Wednesday service…in 2013.

That’s a long time.

Church is depressing. I prefer to pray in the shower where no one can see. One time in the shower, I told God that if we got a snow day, I’d fold all my underwear for a year instead of shoving it in a drawer, and it worked.

I started by saying the Hail Mary. That’s a good starting prayer. It’s also how Catholics call God. It’s like dialing the operator, and she’ll put you through to Him. I don’t know why, in 2014, God still relies solely on a landline, but He does.

I apologized for the normal Catholic stuff- not praying more, not going to Confession since 2006, and in general, existing.

I thanked Him for the opportunity to travel and study, and that I hadn’t yet died in a plane crash.

In 2004, when I was beginning preparations to make my Confirmation, the nun in charge of the whole shebang asked if I ever prayed to my dad. No, I answered. What’s the point?

There might be a point, but like most people, I try to avoid things that make me feel like Jack the Ripper is slicing through my heart with a hunting knife. So I rely on Holy middlemen to do my bidding.

Please tell Daddy that I miss him, and love him, and thank him for the scholarship, but we could have found another way. He didn’t have to go. We could have found another way.

Tell him I do archaeology now. He would like that. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

Talking to God in the Shower

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I can’t be rude on purpose.

This is a problem.

You see, it’s not that I’m stupid or naive. In fact, I like to think I’m quite the opposite. I often think the absolute worst about everyone until I have reason to believe otherwise. People can be bad, and I do not warm to them easily. In the words of my role model Agent Mulder, and those of my lesser-known role model Catherine Clark, “trust no one.”

I do not trust anyone.

I’m just not good at showing it.

Take, for example, a recent encounter with a panhandler.

“Excuse me there for a second, love,” said the woman as she approached me. “Could I bother you for a pound? Listen, my car broke down and I need to get the bus. I’m pregnant, and it’s too far for me to walk.”

I quietly responded that I didn’t have any money, as I had only just moved here and used everything I had (which was sort of true). I popped my headphones back in before I could hear her response.

My mental response, however, was quite different. It went something like this.

Oh no. If you’re going to interrupt my playlist, you better be dying. Just because I’m the only white person with all her anterior teeth within the city limits doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. That “my car broke down and I’m pregnant-“ heard that one before; we have that in the US too, you know. And by the way, you are NOT pregnant. That ship has long sailed, lady.  Oh, and pregnant women can walk. You are an embarrassment. 

This thought process is not congruent with the reaction.

This is not dissimilar to a recent encounter with a panhandler in Zagreb.

Nor to the other gazillion panhandlers in Zagreb.

Nor in Columbus.

Although there was panhandler in Columbus that I managed to scare off. He asked if I had any spare change. I said no, but I had some chocolate vaginas and would he like one. He didn’t ask me for money anymore after that.

Anyway, I do not trust people. I assume that when panhandlers ask me for money, they will use it for drugs. When I pass youths on the street, I assume they’re going to mug me.

So you see, the issue is not that I am too trusting. It’s that I’m too polite.

I’m working on trying to rectify this. Really. Sometimes now before I go out I listen to Eminem. Then I practice frowning and puffing out my chest to make myself look bigger and less pleasant. If I had a tail, I’d try puffing that out too.

I find it particularly difficult to be rude when I’m traveling. After all, it’s not my country. Who am I to be rude to the locals?

Before going to dig in Croatia, I stopped in Sarajevo for a few days. I had heard that it was a unique mix of cultures, a meeting point for Eastern and Western Europe.

And it was. Within the same city block there was an Orthodox church, a Catholic church, a Synagogue, and a Mosque.

I had never seen a mosque before. Growing up, everyone was Catholic or Protestant, descendants of either Irish or German or both, and if you were Catholic you were going to Hell said the Protestants. Did you know your dad’s in Hell? Yes, you’ve told me that a thousand times I think.

I stood at the gate of the mosque in the old city center. I couldn’t enter, said the sign on the gate. My legs were showing, sticking out of a skirt that was too long, and my arms and shoulders were exposed in a tank top. My frizzy hair was poking out of a bun in every which way.

I was indecent.

Allah doesn’t like it when your hair’s not covered.

Jesus doesn’t like it when you wear hats in church. Face forward, you aren’t to look behind you. Don’t look at the clock during Mass. Fold your hands like this, now like this. Kneel down. Stand up. Stop hitting your brother. I’m telling Sister Jane. Don’t say His Name.

Jesus Christ.

I peered through the gate and watched all the men, women, and children gather for prayer in a Holy place where I was not welcome.

Nothing new.

“Hello,” came a voice from behind me. I turned around and saw a young man about my age, perhaps a year or two older.

Hi.

What are you doing?

Just watching.

Are we different?

Not much, no.

Where are you from?

America.

Are you afraid of Muslims?

No.

We are a kind and peaceful people.

Ok.

Are you traveling alone?

Yes.

That must be lonely.

It’s not.

Are you busy tonight?

No.

Do you want to meet in the city center? We can go for ice cream.

Um.

I thought you said you were not afraid.

I’m not.

Then meet me for ice cream.

Why don’t we just go now?

It’s Ramadan. I’m fasting. I’m a good Muslim.

Oh.

I knew there wouldn’t be ice cream. I’m not stupid. Why did I meet him? To show him that not all Americans were bigots? That we’re not all afraid of Muslims? To apologize?

For what?

For being American and existing, duh.

We met on a park bench. It was dark. I could hear the tinkling of the little bells in the memorial for all the children who died in the war.

Should we go for ice cream now?

No, let’s stay here.

I think we should go for ice cream. It’s dark here.

Kiss me.

No thank you.

Come on.

No thanks.

Why not? Won’t you kiss a Muslim?

I don’t want to kiss anyone.

Kiss me.

No thank you.

I inched away on the bench. He inched closer.

Please kiss me?

I don’t know you.

He took my face in both his hands and kissed me. I tried to turn away. He had strong hands. His tongue was hot and wet in my mouth. I gagged.

Kiss me back.

No thank you.

Kiss me back.

No.

Come, let’s go to my place. You can meet my mother. Maybe if she likes, we can get married, and I can move to America.

I think I should go. Bye.

Are you sure?

Yes.

Can I call you?

I don’t have a phone.

Back at the hostel, I took a shower with the water on all the way hot.

The Floods (Part III)

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As I said before, in Bosnia you do not need a prescription to access birth control, and as an American, it had never even occurred to me that this was a possibility. I would sooner have believed that the moon landing took place on my left ovary than I would have believed that some women can access birth control without first experiencing the emotional trauma of a pap smear.

It is not uncommon then, for women to come from other countries to Bosnia to stock up on the anti-procreation pill. When we went to Bosnia this year, I did not know that we were going as progesterone-pirates. Otherwise I would have gone prepared with something to trade– money, clothes, or a kidney, for example. Next year when I go to Croatia, I’ll be taking a Bosnian detour faster than a rich old white guy can say “DEFUND PLANNED PARENTHOOD.”

There are two main roads to take to get into Bosnia from Vrbanja, the shorter of which runs through Gunja, a village on the banks of the River Sava. Geographically lower than many of the surrounding areas, Gunja had been one of the villages most severely affected by the flooding in May.

After talking briefly with herself, my progersterone-partner-in-crime decided that it was best to take the road that ran through Gunja. We were leaving the next morning, and still had some business to take care of in Vrbanja, so we were on a tight schedule.

The distance between Vrbanja and Gunja is only about thirty kilometers, but as we neared Gunja, it began to feel like a different place and time altogether.

“Well I can already tell this was a bad idea,” said my co-conspirator as she lit a cigarette. To my right I could see the River Sava, perfectly still in the setting sun.

On either side of the road lay bags of sand and signs that had only months before been roadblocks. Guardrails lay in twisted piles of metal. Beyond the road was acre upon acre of rotting crops, toppled over on themselves in black and brown heaps. In the distance, pillars of smoke told of farmers burning the debris that was their livelihood.

In the village, homes stood like empty shells. Broken windows and missing doors revealed houses with only walls and roofs. Inside there was nothing. There was no furniture. There were no toys. There were no pictures hanging on walls or carpets on floors or flowers in gardens. There was no laundry on lines. There were no children in yards or men in pubs. There were only signs on houses forbidding entry, and piles of rubble that might have been homes.

More than anything, there was nothing, like life itself had been turned off.