Sunday, August 29, 2010

Venice: Getting Hungry?

“A beautiful woman should never have to eat alone,” purred the Italian man, his long fingers spread out against the surface of my table so close they nearly singed my skin. He paused here for a moment, his eyes lasers burning right through me.
My breath quickened; I might be melting under this stare.  
Finally he took a long breath in, patted my table twice and departed for a more divine locale. With his bronzed skin and black-fire eyes, he could have Mercury.
At least, this is what I imagine he said to me. He could have said, “This table is reserved,” or, “That book sucks, you should not be reading it.” There’s no way to be sure; I don’t speak Italian.
“American?” asked a harsh voice attached to a squirrely man whose head leaned in too close to me. He was eying the cover of my book.
“Uh, yes.”
“Me, too,” he needlessly informed, scraping a chair across the stone walkway and seating himself at my table, “Are you waiting for someone?”
I had the look of someone who wasn’t. “No.”
He spoke in a rapid-fire-monotone that was impossible to follow; his words were a sloppy car crash. “Wow. Really? You’re here by yourself? Doesn’t that bother you, being here alone? Isn’t it weird being in another country and not having anyone to talk to? Why are you by yourself?”
I lowered my book cautiously, leaving one finger tucked inside to mark my place: the unmistakable signal that this was not to be a long conversation. “It doesn’t bother me, I travel alone quite frequently. I actually came here with a friend, but he’s gone home now and I’m staying on.”
“Wow. That would be so hard, being alone in a foreign country.”
I shrugged and flashed my teeth at him, more snarl than smile. “I like to be alone. I work alone.”
“Man. I couldn’t do that. I’m here with my brothers and their wives but they went somewhere for the day so I’m here now but they’ll be back tomorrow and then we’re going to Saint Mark’s Square. I want to see the church. I’ve heard it’s beautiful.”
“It’s tacky. I think Mark Twain described it as a big beetle-bug with its legs sticking up in the air. But you should definitely go see it.”
“Beautiful. So, what brings you to Italy?”
The waiter drifted by with an extra glass and poured this man a drink out of my bottle of Pinot Grigio. He was camping, right here at my table, squatting on my meal, drinking from my wine. Who was this man?
“I’m a travel writer,” I mumbled, practically snatching the bottle from the waiter and pouring my own glass so tippy-top full that I had to siphon a bit off before I could raise it to my lips.
“Cool. That’s cool.” He took a sip of his wine—my wine—made a face like a baboon and coughed all over the table. “What is this? This isn’t very good. What are you drinking? I thought they made good wine here. You know, what I like? White Zinfandel.”
This was neither the time nor the place to educate him about the complex bouquet that is a proper old-vine zin and the sugar juice that is its pink counterpart. Do not say it. “That’s not wine, that’s juice.”
“Really good stuff.” He drank again, scrunched up his nose again and coughed out my wine again.
“Antipasti,” announced the waiter, lowering the tray of baby Adriatic sole to the table and placing a small white plate in front of each of us.
“Wow. That looks amazing. The food here is really good. Do you mind?” He didn’t wait on a response; he just dove in, headfirst.
I wished the water were shallower.
“So, you’re a writer?”
“And you write about travel.”
“Would I have heard of you?”
With tiny fish spilling out the sides of his mouth, he cocked his head, scrutinizing me diagonally as if I might be more famous askew. He asked, “What’s your name?”
“Crystal Beran.”
“Baron like with kings and stuff?”
“Uh, no.” It was a common enough question; I couldn’t blame him for asking. “It’s spelled B-E-R-A-N and it’s Czech for ram, like a male sheep.”
“Huh. Czech. Are you Czech?”
Is that a real question? “Yes.”
“What’s that, like, Russian?”
I stopped mid bite, stuck in place with a tiny spectacularly seasoned fish halfway off my fork and into my mouth. I examined him, this madman whose brothers and sisters-in-law had abandoned him here at my dinner table. When he manifested no sign of jesting, I brought the fish the rest of the way into my mouth and chewed carefully before answering, “No, it’s Czech.”
“But, that’s like, Russia.”
“No. It’s its own country. It’s called the Czech Republic.”
“But that’s Russia.”
“It was occupied by Russia for a while, but it’s its own country.”
He shook his head at me like I was fooling him and stole the last of my fish. “My family’s from Germany and Ireland and Scotland and England and Wales.”
I refilled my wine.
The rice had been dyed black with cuttlefish ink, a black that would stick to your tongue and the backs of your teeth for the rest of the day. It was the kind of thing that was cute shared with a best friend or a lover and horrible shared with a complete stranger who’d just told me my origins were imaginary.
“How can you drink that wine?” he asked at last, his teeth already black.
“It’s one of my favorites.”
“It’s not very good. This is awesome though. How do they make it black?”
He stopped eating. “Ink?”
“Yes, ink.”
“Like from a pen?”
“No, from a cuttlefish.”
“It’s from a fish? That’s disgusting.” Using the full length of his arm, he slid the bowl slowly away from him, frowning horribly at the rice.
I ate on, hoping with enough fish ink on my breath I might be granted a similar disgust. Maybe he would push himself away from my table in that same long, smooth motion.
He watched me eat for a few minutes, which I did quite cheerfully, taking long drags of my horrible wine between bites.
“So, when did you get here?”
“Last Thursday.” I signaled to the waiter to bring me another bottle and slid my book back and forth across the table impatiently.
“Wow. So you were here on Sunday. Cool. How was Saint Mark’s?”
“It looked like a beetle-bug.” Was I in a time warp?
“No,” he chided, wagging a pretentious finger at me, “How was the service?”
“What service?”
“The church service, silly. How was church? I’m really looking forward to going tomorrow.”
“I have no idea.”
“You didn’t go to church?”
“Why not?”
“Seriously? Are you seriously asking me that? I’m not Christian.”
By then the main course had arrived: whole fish grilled a stunning caramel color, heads intact, little fish lips puckering up. My friend stopped staring at their faces and turned his full attention to me; it was the first time. As he soaked in the abominable truth about me, his eyes bulged and his lips parted slightly in his best impersonation of my dinner.
 The question was almost too horrible to ask. “Then what are you?”
 “My own thing; mostly Buddhist, I guess.” I may as well have told him I was a space alien or Bigfoot.
I used the silence to pluck an eye out of one of my fish and popped it into my mouth.
He choked on the air. “Have you heard of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?”
I shook my head, not because I hadn’t, but because I was having trouble believing that this was a real conversation.
“You’re going to Hell, you know.”
“I’m going to Bali.”
My wine arrived. I plucked the cork out with my teeth and sucked the booze right out of the bottle, barely a human being.
At least he left me to enjoy my tiramisu in peace.

Friday, August 20, 2010

NYC Midnight Entry the First

**This is not a work of travel-related fiction, but in the interest of not creating another blog, I present this story to you here nonetheless. If all goes well, you'll see four such stories posted over the course of the next few months, seemingly random in their topic, bouncing across genres as if made of free-floating electrons. Indeed, topics seem to be assigned through the use of three giant wheels: where will they land, where will they land? Today's story landed here: Genre=comedy; Location=a news van; Object=1 kilo of cocaine. My assignment: in 48 hours create a 1000 word or less short story that follows the assigned genre/location/object parameters. Here we go...
-The Author**

“Upbeat, dynamic, engaging: words that do not describe you. You have until the end of the day.” With that, The Boss dismissed Barbara Ferara from his office as contemptuously as he would any other buzzing, biting insect.
Steam wafting from her ears, Ms. Ferara stomped out of the office, her pretty pink panties bunched way up her butt, her fists clenched like a defiant child’s.
Outside, her assistant flitted back and forth, voice shaking. “What did he say? Are we fired?”
“Get my brother on the phone,” Ferara spat, “I am not losing this job.”
Within the hour Peter Ferara’s rust-brown bucket of a car coughed up alongside the shiny, white news van, six undelivered pizzas riding shotgun. He’d been waiting for this call. This was the day it paid to be connected. The era of mooching endlessly off his sister’s B-level fame and extra-zero salary had arrived. Peter slipped his hand into his right front pocket, feeling the smooth powder hugged safe inside a Ziploc bag. Cha-ching.
“Give it to me,” Ferara growled, yanking her brother by his Metallica t-shirt into the belly of the channel 7 news van. “Give it to me now. I have news to tell.”
Behind the door that sealed as tight as her news team’s lips, Ferara readied herself for the six o’clock news.
They arrived at the corner of Chester and Winsome, and Ferara spilled out of the van, high-heels clicking wildly. “I need to check my hair. Give me a mirror.”
Sticking his head out the window, Peter warned, “I wouldn’t recommend that,” but his sister had already snatched the mirror from her assistant and was plummeting face first into her reflection.
“Has my nose always been that long?” she whispered, voice low but words spilling from her lips at warp factor 8. “What is this?”
“What’s what, boss?”
“This, this, this reddish splotchish spot. Right here: look, look.”
“I don’t see it.”
“It’s in your eyes, my sistah.”
“Shut up, Peter. Don’t you see this?” She pressed her nose against the mirror and poked the spot, digging her long red nail into it, creasing a crescent onto her face.
“Seriously, get that mirror away from her,” Peter repeated, flopping halfway out the window to grab it, “I’ll take this. Go tell the news. Remember: energy!”
Standing slightly pigeon-toed in front of the van, Ferara waited for her news team to ready the equipment. They seemed to move in slow motion, feet made of molasses, voices an octave too low. Her heart thundered against her bones; she squeezed her eyes shut.
 “Energy!” the cameraman reminded, placing his hand on her shoulder, “You’re on in 5, 4…”
“Energy,” Ferara repeated.
“3, 2…”
The news came pouring out. “This is Barbara Ferara live on Chester Street where Mindy Evans and her team of watchful women have successfully gathered enough evidence to aid police in making an arrest earlier this morning in the Case of the Kitty Capers. For weeks the cat burglar has terrorized this quaint neighborhood but that’s all over now thanks to Mindy. Mindy?”
“Oh, it wasn’t just me you know, we—“
“Mindy? Is that a Dutch name?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure? It sounds like it should be. I hear the name Mindy and I want that person to be Dutch. You’re not Dutch?”
“Uh… No.”
“But your name is Mindy. Huh. That doesn’t sound right. Go ahead, anyway. Tell us how you nabbed the cat bandit.”
“Well, it was Carla who-“
“Who stole the cats,” Ferara interrupted.
“No, who first suspected the water delivery man.”
 “Water man? So this scum enters your homes under the guise of bringing you water and just snatches your cats? Snatches them right away from you? Cat snatcher.” Reaching out a hand to Mindy’s shoulder, Ferara paused. “What fabric is this?”
“We need to go to Holland.”  Her fingertips circled along Mindy’s sweater, lost in the threads. “This is very soft. Do you ride a motorcycle? You’re a real hero. Excuse me for a moment.” Stroking the sweater one last time and biting a hole in her lip, Ferara disappeared into the van.
Thrown, Mindy froze. “Is she alright?” she asked, trying to peer inside, “Are, are you crying? I just did what any conscientious citizen would. I installed a hidden camera and caught the thief in the act. Then, I turned the evidence over to the police and they took it from there. The cats-”
“The cats! I’d forgotten about the cats.” Ferara leaped back into frame, sniffing once and rubbing her nose against her palm, words spattering out uncontrollably. “Are they alright? What’s wrong with people, stealing cats right out from someone’s home and taking them for who knows what reason to who knows where and not allowing the cats ever to return again? Did they find them? Are they okay? Tell me these cats are okay. Tell me. No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” She tried to release her grip on that soft sweater, but it had her by her fingers.
“They’re fine. They were all in his house. They’ve been returned…”
“To their homes.”
“…To their owners, yes.”
“What a beautiful story. Cats kidnapped, concealed, kept in the cold, then turned to the light and set free, free to go home again. I applaud you for your bravery, Mindy.”
Ferara brought her hands together in genuine admiration, and then turned again to face the camera.
“This is Barbara Ferara reminding you that if you see something, say something since stopping scandal should start with you. Cats are precious. Don’t let the water man inside. Stay tuned for sports and weather after the break.”
The cameraman scratched his beard. “Clear…”
When Ferara answered the phone that buzzed against her thigh, The Boss’s curt voice jabbed out at her. “That was certainly upbeat. Ratings are up and that means keep it up.”
He hung up.
“Peter,” Ferara barked, “Get me a kilo of your best cocaine.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cameroon: Getting There

       Clearly, this was not a good idea.

       I’ve been lost before. Hell, I’ve made it a standard practice. I wander the world directionless, shifting through an endless maze of crowded bodies and coiled streets, signs only sometimes written in a script I recognize. I’ve learned to love losing myself, descending into city and popping out again where I least expect to find me.

       I’d been warned.

       “Public transportation is never safe at night,” my guidebook read, “If you must go somewhere after dark, stay in a group.”

       “That’s a red zone,” Dorothy whispered, voice so low it shook, “We don’t go there anymore.”

       Even my country’s reckless government kept its volunteers away; I stood alone at the brink of needless hazard.

       I arrived deep in a starless night. The sky was an ink spill leaking through the seams of the horizon, soaking into every blackened blade of grass. My eyes squinted through the scuffed glass into the emptiness that the ascetamine glow of the one working headlight failed to banish. Blind, I dug into my purse, searching with the my fingertips, digging through the damp tissues, around the cookie crumbs, and under the wallet that refused to get out of the way. I fought the illogical urge to dump everything out upside-down, and letting out a frustrated breath, grabbed hold of the cell phone at last. Midnight.

       A part of me felt secure holding the soft weight of the phone in my hand, reporting in with a friend now five hundred kilometers away. A smarter part of me knew indisputably that if the shit went down this could be my own story’s climax.

       Despite my growing sense of dread, I’d done my best to make friends with the man pressed against my left side. We’d been squished together that way for the past eight hours, four passengers in a row of three. Each of us spoke just enough French to have something to answer each other’s questions with but neither of us knew enough to understand the questions correctly. He’d made me his charge, though, which I appreciated even as I kept my trust clasped tight in one hand, hidden away from him. I didn’t know this man but I needed him.

       ”I have to go here,” I told him, pointing on the map, “I need to go to this hotel. This is where my friend is waiting for me.”

       “Ah, of course. I know that hotel well and I know what you need to do to get there. You will need to get off at the second stop, you know. [I nodded.] Yes, don’t worry though, I will help you get off at the correct bus stop so that you can go to your hotel,” he told me using a complicated mixture of French, Cameroonian, facial expressions and pointing.

        At least, I hope that’s what he was trying to tell me.

       We stopped at the north edge of town.

       “Is this my stop?” I asked in English.

       Everyone shook their heads, the next one, I understood in their pantomime, and so I leaned back from the night and allowed myself to be carted further into the center of the red zone.

       At once, all heads but mine turned to look behind us.

       We just passed your stop, that was it there.


       A few kilometers further down the road the bus rolled to an incomplete stop and my keeper bounded out of the car, yanking me along, handing me off to a rickshaw driver and showing me which colorful bill I was to use to pay him with. Do not overpay, give him only this much.

       I had already loaded my backpack into the cart when there was a change in my plans. My guardian snatched me back up, pulled me and my bag away from the army of rickshaws that lined the late night streets and put me back on the bus.

       Most of the passengers had gotten out, and I found myself now seated next to a man about the same age as me.

       “It’s better to go in the car,” he told me in English.

       “In the bus? But they passed my stop already.”

       “No, to go back. Better in the car.”

       “The bus?”


       We had already left the city limits and were crawling around and around the black alleys before I realized that he meant his own personal car.

       My caretaker got out. He will take you back to your hotel.

       As the passengers disembarked and the night deepened, the drivers shifted the cargo from the top of the van to its interior. I sad amidst the bags of rice, charcoal and live poultry, protected by a fortress of mislabeled 50 kilogram sacks. A goat sat on my left, his legs tied. If I’d been the humming sort, I would have started humming here.

       A few stops later and the man who offered to take me back stepped down off the bus, holding up a hand to stop my approach, “It’s late. I have to go now.”

       “Wait, how am I getting back to my hotel?”

       But he was gone and I was alone with the four bus drivers and the goat.

       “Are you taking me back to my hotel?” I tried, first in English, then in French, forcing my lips back and up into a mockery of a smile.

       None of them turned my way.

       I asked again, louder, in French and twice.

       No response.

       I touched the goat in the eye, just to make sure I still existed. He blinked; stared right through me.

       I texted my friend with another late-night update.

       “That’s weird,” was all he wrote back.

       I turned my eyes back out to the universe, soaking it in, filling myself up with the darkness around me. If this was going to me my final adventure, I was going to watch each moment roll along outside, even if all I could see was black. In the night outside my window, I pictured the cityscape, watched families sleeping next to a softly glowing fire pit, the deep orange embers cozy and familiar.

       But that orange glow was real, and arched up along a vertical surface taller than two of me standing one above the other.

       And the glow curled along a soft cursive French word, and the word was familiar.

       We screeched to a full stop in front of the neon sign.

       “Hotel,” the driver told me, and giving the goat a playful pat, I bounced out of the van and into a hot shower and a soft bed.