I step into a baby clothing store on a whim, looking for a gift for a friend who’s just given birth. The shop is cheerful and whimsical, with a fluffy pastel cotton-candy interior. I’m a bit disoriented in this foreign world of cutesy teeny-tiny fashion.
Smelling fresh carrion, two black-clad saleswomen croak “Hello” and descend upon me. They bare their teeth into something resembling a smile.
One of them, an older woman with deep-set eyes, indicates the rack for newborns. I peruse the adorable clothing, realizing a simple onesie costs 55 euros…
I have no time to fake a polite exit before the dark-eyed woman re-materializes in a cloud of heavy perfume and the oppressive stink of 30 years’ worth of cigarettes and red wine. There’s something sinister about this husky-voiced woman with stingy hair and George Washington’s wooden teeth, cooing at me with a saccharine voice.
“How old did you say the baby was?”
“Uhm, about 2 months.”
“So it’s NOT a new baby then!”
“I guess not…”
“Et, c’est dans quel pays?”
My eyes narrow in confusion, and my mouth is parted–I’m breathing discreetly through my mouth.
Quel pays? What country? What kind of trick question is this?
She repeats herself, cartoonishly enunciating “Quel PAYS?” Her gray teeth stand out against the spackle caked on her face; she looks like a 20’s vaudeville clown.
“No, no, no…” Her colleague joins in behind, and they are now both braying at me, in tandem: “Pays, pays, pays…” All that’s missing here is an undead barbershop quartet to complete this ghastly spectacle.
What did I do to gain entry to this hellish dog and pony show?
“The south of France…?”
“Oh, voilà! You know, we only ask because every region’s weather is different, every season is different, which you must keep in mind when shopping…” Her smarmy response disgusts me, and their logic has me stumped. I don’t belong here in this farce. I respond with logic that might speak to them:
“Well, this is a travelling baby. You know, the kind of baby that travels all over France with her parents, so any kind of clothing would be fine… At any rate, thanks very much for your help, have a great day!” I chirp and fly out of the store.
The air outside is heavy and oppressive, offering no relief from the burning that stings the back of my throat. I feel foolish, destabilized, unsettled. Despite their bizarrely condescending behavior, I still suspect the fault lies with me and my insufficient French.
It’s time to retreat home. I’ll buy the gift another 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.
I’m at a plastified table at a roadside café.
Gwen Stefani trills “Just a Girl” in my head, and I tap my feet with the drumbeat.
This place is an 80’s dream. Rows of glasses behind the bar, backlit in flourescent. Recessed lights overhead illuminate the curved bar, which is paneled. It looks hollow, as if the panels were made from balsa wood, ready for a Hollywood stuntman to crash into.
All customers, me included, have found seats in various alcoves along the perimeter of the wall. We’re burrowed in, and nobody makes eye contact.
Scratch-ticket enthusiasts scratch.
Lotto gamblers hand over betting slips.
Construction workers puff generously-rolled cigarettes and drink espresso from tiny cups.
Neighborhood regulars with gravelly chuckles sit muttering to themselves.
I listen, write, sip coffee.
My coffee tastes weird, watery and tinny, giving me the impression the water and grounds have been re-used.
A subdued, anonymous air hangs still in the café. Outside, traffic moans and chugs by. A huge truck bed is full of spiralled hay bales, like great unrisen cinnamon buns.
A parking lot buzzes with morning vitality. A man, half-asleep and wearing two days’ worth of five-o’clock shadow reaches into his car, thereby exposing the forbidden recess of his upper buttcrack, and his flaccid paunch hangs forward.
All the while, I’m humming to myself.
I’m just a girl in the world…
In class, one-to-one with a young woman. Her limp ponytail drags between her slumped shoulders. I’m patiently listening to her gulpy, whispered half-responses. Gently, I ask for a full sentence, and she’s staring down at the table, cold. Out of my peripheral vision, the television in the next room plays a special report: death rituals in some faraway country. The desiccated, hollow, toothy face of a man’s dead father comes up onscreen. My eyebrows twist in morbid fascination as he explains the bathing and offering of food and cigarettes to the mummified body of his father.
My attention whips back to my student, and I tune back in. It’s been almost a full minute of silence. I rephrase in favor of a black-or-white question. She continues staring down, frozen in time.
The full-length window facing the sidewalk buzzes with passersby. One figure looks in, then turns and stops. Staring at me through the window, vulgar, slack-jawed, grimy canvas vest, clutching a tattered shopping bag. I flush when my eyes meet his, and hurriedly tune back in to my student, who is just finishing her carefully composed response.
My eyes crinkle with a plaster-toothed, dry smile. “Great,” my voice creaks.
Canoe base, night. Outdoor bar, live band. Throaty, wobbly experimental electro music. White dude with locked hair bopping in the glow of his laptop screen. An unbuttoned office-worker type plays clarinet in time, and a third guy strums an upright bass. A fourth member sits cross-legged onstage, fiddling with something.
I wait at the bar with F, among a pushy mass of people. It’s finally my turn to be served; the bartender gives a “hello,” and I respond with an echo. A woman who’s elbowed her way through the crowd has usurped my place and blurts out her order before me, and he sets about serving her.
Incredulous, I raise an eyebrow at her. She avoids eye contact and flashes her cracked smile at the bartender, exposing a silver tooth in questionable condition, and cigarette-stained gums.
Whatever. F and I take our drinks, and watch the quartet onstage, nodding vaguely and politely in time with the noise.
Thursday night is party night. Leaving work, I hear echoes of music and rallying cries that hasten the merrymaking. I walk past a troupe of university-age men. A cloud of scent slaps me as they pass by: fresh laundry.
I imagine their mommies lovingly washing their clothes at the weekend: scrubbing their pit-stained t-shirts and skidmarked undies. Fold the laundry for their little boy, give him a kiss on the forehead and send him back to school. They wipe a tear away and wonder where the years have gone.
Meanwhile, their little prince is out trolling with his carbon-copy friends. They don’t speak–they grunt out slack-jawed dopey nasal duh-duhs while they pound beers and try to score chicks. Flaccid, sullied masculinity. With a whistle in their step, these stellar knuckleheads stroll along, in tandem and with intention.
These thoughts accompany me to the station, and I ride back home.
Sunday was day 0 in Amsterdam. I never count the day you arrive as a full day. You’re lost and disoriented, cars and trams beep, bikes plink bells at you, men seductively catcall in multiple languages, you’re surrounded by hordes of idiotic bumbling tourists, and you hate yourself for being one.
Stumble along on the sidewalk. Clouds of marijuana smoke explode in tufts from the mouths of eager testosterone-ridden men. They leer through the haze of the window and the weed.
Dragging my stupid suitcase, squeezing myself through narrow spaces between tourists, flattening myself against buildings to avoid bikes. I’m squinting into the sun and scuffing my sneakers on the uneven pavement. Bakeries are abundant and fragrant, and there’s music and movement everywhere.
I’m dazzled at this new, different city.
That feeling is reserved for Day 0. There’s none other like it.