I close the bathroom stall door, turn
the lock, and read
“’As amid the hectic music and cocktail talk
She hears the caustic ticking of the clock’
- Sylvia Plath”
other towns, there’d be
squirting penises and wide-eyed nipples,
“xxxxx is a bitch” or “Call [some number] for sex”
scrawled in black permanent ink.
We were strangers sitting in a circle in a low-ceilinged, functional room. I was visiting my pregnant sister in Edinburgh, helping her out while her husband was away on business, and she had invited me to join her for her first prenatal class. A rosy-cheeked woman stood in front of the group, welcoming everyone to the National Health Society’s program for expecting parents.
“This course will help prepare you for birth and baby,” she said with a Scottish burr, “but you should also view this as an opportunity to make new friends with whom you can share these exciting times. And who knows, maybe a lifelong friendship or two may come of it – it happens often enough. So why don’t we have everyone introduce themselves?”
To my right, a young woman with a northern English accent introduced herself. She and her husband had moved up from Manchester: he is a detective who investigates bank fraud and other financial crimes while she works for a paint company as a chemist, having specialized in the color white. There were a couple of lawyers, a banker, a biologist studying amphibian hibernation patterns; also a couple getting ready to open-up their own pub, and an American woman who, like my sister, had recently moved to Edinburgh.
Although their occupations were representative of Edinburgh’s Morningside, their wording and accents gave away where they came from – with the exception of one woman. I can’t remember what she did for a living because I was so irritated by her accent, which sounded perfectly Scottish to me although she was, in fact, American, and had moved to Edinburgh 13 years ago. I wondered if she had practiced rolling her r’s like that.
We’re social animals. No, we’re social chameleons, and I am as good an example of that as anyone. After one year at Munich International School, I suddenly had “a massive amount of homework” to do rather than “a lot”, was “getting-off” rather than “making-out” (in theory), and I still say “as well” instead of “too.” When I order a cup of tea, my voice goes up a note and I say “Could I have a tea-eee, please?”
There’s a Friends episode in which Amanda Buffamonteezi, originally from Yonkers, returns from London to New York and wants to meet-up with her old roommates, Monica and Phoebe. When Amanda says, “Oh bugger, should I not have said that? I feel like a perfect arse!” Phoebe mutters, “Well, in America you’re just an ass.”
Everybody hates that person. I hate that person and I am that person.
I practiced my German r’s to get rid of my American accent. There were many practical reasons for me to want to perfect my German, but the reason why I wanted to sound German was that once people heard my accent they’d ask me to explain American culture, or lack thereof, or even worse – foreign policy. There were awkward conversations at parties when all I wanted to do was make friends and drink beer like everybody else (never mind that I didn’t like beer).
Once I’d made it through my early twenties – once I’d figured out how to make a living and survive awkward social situations – I finally had the time and energy to return to the English language, back to reading and writing. That’s when I discovered how much my English had deteriorated.
It wasn’t until after I’d bought my domain name that I realized I had spelled “traveller” with a double “l” the way the British do, rather than the American “traveler.” I had looked at the book title by Washington Irving, which had not only been printed in the UK, but also before Noah Webster’s spelling reform dropped the superfluous second “l”. But still.
There are many reasons to let where you come from, who you are, and what you can’t do hold you back. Jack Kerouac apparently doubted his language skills because he came from a French-Canadian working class background and grew-up speaking joual. He didn’t learn English until he went to school and he never felt entirely proficient, so he saw himself forced to improvise in his writing. But still. I ain’t no Jack Kerouac.
In January, I found myself sitting in another circle – this time with my writing group. I asked them to give me feedback on my first blog post, and when a few grammar issues came up and I voiced my insecurity, my German friend said in a perfect American accent “But that’s what editors are for,” as if it were no problem at all.
I enjoyed feeling like I was in a Hercule Poirot novel. We were on Portugal's Algarve coast, staying at a small boutique hotel. A fountain bubbled quietly in the white-tiled lobby and scimitars glinted from the wall above the fireplace. Large bay windows opened out onto the terrace and the garden that, with its secluded pool, its many date palms, and its lounge area at cliff’s edge offered plenty of opportunities for secret meetings and murder. The wind was so strong and so loud, that no one would be able to hear a thing.
Every morning, the hotel’s guests gathered for breakfast on the terrace beneath a palisade of horseshoe arches, the blue of the sea and sky luminous in the background. I watched them for clues, hoping that they had something to hide. Perhaps that Englishman and that German over there had met before, one night in Kabul…
Unfortunately, they all seemed like nice, boring people, feeding the sparrows bread crumbs and getting sunburns – with the exception of one gentleman, who worked on his laptop all day, every day, while his wife lounged in the sun, smoking one cigarette after another. The question of what he was working on haunted us: was he a shady market broker, or an industrial spy? I tried to fabricate a story, but I couldn’t come up with anything satisfyingly sensationalist that might explain his presence in this small hotel in a part of the EU where factories are nesting areas for storks and the mule-and-buggy a form of transportation.
I wondered if he was a writer; maybe he was working on a historical novel about the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, or the horrors of the major slave trade port that Lagos had once been. Whenever we passed him that week (once we were out of ear shot) we’d comment on what a workaholic he is, how sad that is, his poor wife, etc., but secretly, I was jealous.
I wasn’t sitting in front of my computer, writing. I was spending my days in the sun in spite of the incessant, goose-bump inducing wind, like any sane person on vacation would. The wind was so strong that my beach towel threatened to fly away whenever I changed position on the recliner, and it kept ripping the pages of my book out from under my fingers. The wind blowing through the palm trees was so loud that I couldn’t hear the Atlantic waves crashing, although I could watch them coming in to shore, one after the other.
On our last afternoon, we played backgammon. Sitting on a wicker lounge sofa in the sun, we could see the southwestern tip of the European continent in the distance. Then a sea gull swooped and the wind spattered its feces all over our game, the table, the chairs, my arm, my boyfriend’s hair.
While my boyfriend showered, I opened the window and sat down on the bed, spreading the map of Portugal from our travel guide out in front of me. I like looking at maps, am comforted by the rare clarity they provide. For a moment, things are as easy as getting from A to B; there’s a clear goal, I can figure out how to get there, and I know where I currently stand.
Edward P. Jones compares writing to driving a car from Washington to Baltimore. He says you can take detours, but the reader expects you to get back on the road to Baltimore. Most of the time, when I write (and also when I’m not writing), I wish I had a map. Most of the time, it’s dark out and I have weak headlights and I just hope I’m headed in the right direction.
Studying the southern coast for the best route back to the airport, I was surprised to discover the Ruta de Washington Irving, its bright blue dots tip-toeing around little symbols for golf clubs, gas stations, and windmills, along beaches, past the airport, across Portugal’s border into to Spain, and over the map’s edge. It was like the night I bumped into someone from back home on a street corner in Hong Kong; I had just re-read “Rip Van Winkle” in the 600 page “The Oxford Collection of American Short Stories” that I’d brought with me.
I had no idea why the Portuguese would name a Ruta after Washington Irving. Considering that every American child grows up with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and not one can make it through High School without encountering “Rip Van Winkle”, it seemed strange to me that I should know so little – know nothing, in fact – about their author. I grabbed my smartphone from the nightstand and looked him up on Wikipedia.
Seventeen years he lived in Europe. He wrote “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in England, learned Spanish in Paris, and was then invited to work in Spain as an attaché to the American embassy. While there, he lived in and wrote about the Alhambra, Christopher Columbus, and the prophet Mohammed.
Later, in one of the few biographies I could find, I read that many contemporaries questioned Irving’s validity as an American writer. His life certainly doesn’t marry happily with the image of an American patriot, traipsing off to Europe for years on end like that, showing interest in foreign cultures, languages, and religions; he didn’t even particularly believe in democracy. Perhaps his story is too messy to be good biography material, his life too full of detours.
Detours are interesting, though. As appealing as the simplicity of A to B may seem, it’s really quite boring. Detours make great anecdotes; some few are life’s plot twists. Others are stupid and a waste of time and beside the point, like spending a week freezing in a bikini instead of writing. Still, it seems I learned something in Lagos: the next time I’m on vacation I’m going to write every morning (essentially turning my boyfriend into the woman smoking cigarettes, as he pointed out when he read this). And I find that Brian Jay Jones’ biography of Washington Irving, in all of its complexity, makes for some colorful and entertaining reading.
Stories, like maps, provide a structure and an order missing in real life. No pointless seeming detours. No coincidences: the scimitars hang on the lobby wall for a reason. There’s a coherent plot. Meaning. But the best stories do instill a sense of real-life chaos, of complexity and uncertainty, of mystery, leaving questions unanswered, making you think. Where do we come from (point A) and where are we going (point B)? Like Adam Johnson’s “Cliff Gods of Acapulco”, for example, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”, or Jennifer Egan’s “The Goon Squad”. Those are the questions and the stories that make me want to write.
I got up and closed the window; it was getting chilly. Then I spent too much time trying to fold the unwieldy map back together again, and called it a day. It was my turn to shower, anyway, and I was hungry. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go for dinner.