I leave the house while the world is still sleeping.
Blue dawn is just giving way to cool golden daylight. There’s an unseasonable chill in this midsummer air. Even the sheep are still huddled together, snuggling among the low tree branches on their hill. Arriving at the station, I see one other lonely soul waiting on the deserted platform. The orange LED timetable display is blank, dormant.
Shuttered houses snooze, while the first birds are swooping and cackling above our heads.
I wait for the tinny tell-tale vibration of the tracks that signal the train’s arrival. Birds cheep, cars rev into second gear, plastic trash bags rustle. No vibration, no train. The sky darkens, cool air licks up my spine and blows away my grogginess, giving way to worry.
I’ve been pacing, while the minute hand has sliced through half a revolution. A husky wheeze of a bus engine signals behind me. A rosy-faced motherly woman commands the immense steering wheel, and waves me over. Climbing aboard, rosy perfume mingles with the fatigued, stale odor of bus seats who’ve seen better days.
There’s always one passenger who’s got to make friends with the driver; today, it’s a woman who looks just like her, short and plump with hair to match. Her rough smoker’s laugh matches the wheeze of the bus engine, periodically firing off as we gallivant through the countryside.
Bus bounces through impossibly narrow country roads, past steep green hills of grapevines that make way for flat horizons of corn fields. Detours take us through isolated roads, until we reach the point of no return: a road barely large enough for a horse and buggy. A Herculean effort is necessary for our valiant driver to back on up out, and eventually we find the main road.
The passenger next to me is glued to his smartphone. I recognize him as a train employee, on his way to work like the rest of us. His globby fingers daintily poke at the touchscreen, and he’s still wearing yesterday’s 5-o’clock shadow. I keep sneaking glances at him, just another guy on the Saturday morning bus. He seems so much smaller than the man whose gaze I avoid while he suspiciously scrutinizes my train pass.
The bus finally hauls its tired mass into the station. I left home nearly 2 hours ago. My legs are a blur, propelling me through the familiar streets rendered foreign in Saturday morning light.
The streets are dingier in the gray light. I pass by a man, roughened and beaten down by life, shuffling stiffly along, hollow mouth agape, framed by a dirty beard and long-neglected hair. The sight of him inspires disgust, then hot shame.
Past the post office, whose sidewalk reeks permanently of urine, sprinkled with crumbles of doubtful origin… Are there THAT many large dogs left to freely defecate on this same sidewalk? Doubtful.
A man strolls along, engrossed in the glow of his smartphone, which emanates suspiciously pornographic sounds.
Just before arriving at work, I catch a whiff of shair. Why is that rank-ass smell following me today?
Rip the door open at work, and there’s nobody but my coworker chirping, “Good morning! Your student called and said she’s gonna be late for class…”
I crouch into a squat and collapse into laughter. Sweet relief mixes with exhaustion and sudden buoyancy. Everything’s okay, and I can finally take a moment to laugh at the thoroughly bizarre start to my day.
My own little slice of hell.
It’s the morning business rush; the 9am-ers position themselves along the platform, discreetly eyeing the competition.
The train wheezes into the station, and all order is lost. Herding themselves in front of the door, they commit the cardinal sin of train travel: Never impede passengers trying to exit. Those poor saps barely escape before the herd lumbers on, in search of fulfilling their primal need to sit down. The tense scuffling of feet, exasperated sighs, desperately roving eyes and sudden acrobatic manoeuvres at the sight of an empty seat… I have to admire the organized chaos.
In summertime, add in oafish commoners with ill-fitting cheap sunglasses who lug too much baggage onboard, along with their cross-eyed hyperactive children. Solo travellers scurry on to find an empty pair of seats, plop down, then protectively seat their hardside luggage next to them. I walk by, and they avoid eye contact.
It’s a 15-minute ride. I think I’ll survive if I stand.
I try to read, but I’m distracted by the flutter of conversation around me. Banal conversation, rehashed. Kids, weather, job. I burrow deeper into my book.
Suddenly I catch a whiff that offends my senses, emanating from the miserable latrine. My nostrils are burning. Good God, have these people no shame? Passive-aggressive territoriality at its lowest. How dare they subject the rest of us to the injustice of smelling their beastly morning constitution? Is this what freedom looks like? Forcing others to suffer the indignity of inhaling their ungodly coffee-fueled evacuation…
We approach our destination, and these bovines elbow discreetly toward the door. Self-important squares need to be the first off the train. Underlying message: “I’m more important than everyone else here.”
Indeed, we are at the center of our respective universes. Every morning at 8:24am, there are a hundred supremely-important universes fighting an imaginary battle for a prime position on the livestock transport line.
The herd shuffles forward, hooves clacking in the urgent rush. A self-herding mass, headed straight for the abattoir.
My heart bays: I don’t belong here.
[Warning: Nothing but poop-talk here.]
As a reasonably well-seasoned traveler, I think my sensitivity to shit has diminished exponentially. They don’t tell you that in the guidebooks, but it comes with the territory. Having to use questionable toilets (if you’ve got the luxury of calling it a toilet, so much the better), with or without anything for post-action cleanup, open bins for paper disposal, and other such experiences have helped build me into the iron-clad stomached woman I am today.
In Japan, there was Shair (shit + air = Shair). A lovely breeze while walking through the streets of Osaka would occasionally slap you into reality with a dose of rank, thick Shair. This was almost palpable on the tongue, and it would immediately strip away the joy from the moment.
Then I went to South Korea, where toilet paper wasn’t meant to be disposed of in the toilet. The horrors that I witnessed in those ladies’ restrooms… It was astounding sometimes, to see such put-together-looking women entering the bathroom, and leaving such carnage in their wake. Open wastebins seemed to be a general suggestion: “Aim somewhere in this vicinity.” Not everyone was an accurate shot, nor were they particularly worried about concealing the nature of their excretions. Not to mention the wretched Shair that I caught in the mouth on a bus ride to Siheung one day…
Now, I’m in France: land of baguettes, cheese, stripey shirts and not picking up after your shitty dog. People on a stroll with their dogs in the countryside, in small towns, in the city: no matter where, you’ll be sure to find a steaming pile of go-fuck-yourself left by some lazy dog owner. And depending on when it was deposited, you’ll be dismayed to find that several unsuspecting pedestrians, bike-riders, or even other dogs have stepped in it. And then, realizing their mistake, apparently decided to smear it all over the sidewalk. You could piece together the entire history of an ill-placed dog turd by analyzing the surrounding area. In front of restaurants, in busy pedestrian areas, on stairs: you’re never safe from danger.
Perhaps the best-placed turd I ever witnessed was in a busy pedestrian walkway in the center of Angers. On a corner in front of a store was a gold-painted living statue, who apparently wanted to make a few bucks on a nice, sunny day. He was positioned near a huge, already well-trodded dogpile, in the perfect spot where anyone that caught a glimpse of the living statue while walking past were taken off-guard and distracted by him, thus placed in a direct path to make contact with the turd. It was so perfect that I had to ask myself whether he didn’t pick that spot on purpose. I imagined how great it would be if instead of changing poses when he received a coin, he’d change everytime someone stepped in that monstrous shit. And so this scene made my day.
Unfortunately, this arguably charming type of poop story comes up far too infrequently. I’m just glad my stomach is strong enough to see the humor before the disgust sets in.