Magiska Amerika Södern

Magiska Amerika Södern was a free choice I allowed myself at the library, despite a pretty heavy bookish agenda. (My book club roster now includes four different groups.)  What would a Swede make of the American South?

Cover of Magiska Amerika Södern by Daniel Svanberg
Image courtesy HOI Publishing

Author: Daniel Svanberg

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.33 stars

Language scaling: N/A (only available in Swedish)

Summary: Daniel Svanberg spends nearly two weeks traveling throughout the American South, singing the praises of Southern cuisine and musical history and asking people why they love America.

Recommended audience: Anyone nostalgic for those halcyon days before the 2016 election

In-depth thoughts: The first thing I realized, when I sat down to write this post, was that I don’t think I ever wrote about Amerikanskt here, which is a tragedy.

And the fact that my first instinct, with this book, is to think about another book pretty much says it all. Svanberg is often self-aware enough to recognize that he is a naive and wide-eyed wanderer (his own language, not mine) but he glosses over those moments in favor of enthusing over roadside diners, sweet tea, and the blues. You can’t blame him for that, of course, but the result is that the book tows a weird line. Svanberg seems like he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s not really digging very deeply here, and yet he makes no comment at all on the lack of depth. There is engagement with the more brutal and inhumane parts of America’s history that played out in the South but it feels very pat and surface-level: glib statements about how terrible slavery and Jim Crow was, but no connection to the legacy that remains even today; an enthusiastic nostalgia for Americana and everything the “retro” vibe entails without considering the flip side of that coin.

There are a couple other conceits that run throughout the book: images of heavenly choirs are invoked at almost every meal, surreal dreams about the day’s travels close the end of every day, and  “The Shadow,” a metaphor (if heavy-handed) for his own depression and despair over…not ever really understanding America, I guess?…is a constant companion.

If I were a Swede reading this, I think I’d be disappointed. The over-reliance on the above cutesy conceits takes up valuable word real estate; the resulting pictures painted are neither broad nor detailed. But I’m not Swedish! I’ve even done my own (shorter) road trip through the region from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and back, up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t need someone to tell me what it’s like; I’ve been there.

Instead, the value I got from it was the little Swedish observations, similar to comments my sambo would make during his visits over Christmas and New Year’s. (“The cars here are HUGE.” “Wow, that’s a lot of churches for such a small town.”) And that’s something you really have to actually be American to appreciate: having someone comment on the Tarantino-esque “little differences” you’d never notice yourself because it’s such an ingrained part of your existence. The cars have always been this size; there have always been three different churches in this tiny little village of only a couple hundred people. Why would it ever be any different?

My favorite that Svanberg points out is the little red flag on American mailboxes you flip up to indicate that there’s mail inside, either to pick up or to be delivered. Of course that’s different between the two countries; I just never would have considered Sweden’s lack of a little red flag on mailboxes something worth remarking on. I can say with 100% certainty that I never felt like it was something missing here. Only when someone else pointed it out did I realize “Oh, I guess maybe that would be something weird and noteworthy if you grew up literally anywhere else.”

Sadly, those moments were few and far between, and more ink was spilled on little metaphorical asides about The Shadow that I feel a little guilty for not enjoying because it seems like Svanberg was really aiming for pathos with them. Most of the time the book felt a little slow and draggy without really digging too deeply, even though the writing itself was pretty peppy and engaging. Other Americans might enjoy an outsider’s perspective on their own country, but at the end of the day, Amerikanskt is the better book.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 19.5: Boston, MA to Stockholm

I say “19.5” because with a flight out of the country in the evening, this wasn’t exactly a whole day in Boston. I spent a smidge over 24 hours in town, so should that count as two days?

I woke up a little before Diana’s alarm and futzed around a bit on my phone. She showered and got ready for work, and I got dressed in my lazy bum traveling clothes and we were off.

My morning wasn’t too eventful. I dumped my travel bag at the station, and then spent the rest of the time I had until burritos with Diana and Walter writing in Boston Common and then wandering through the botanical gardens.

The Massachusetts state legislature on a sunny day.
Much State. Very Legislature. Wow. So Government.

 

A plaque commemorating the dedication of the Boston Common, gold text on a black background set in a white marble facade.
I appreciate the bird photobombing but not dude in the fannypack.

 

A zebra on a carousel

A fountain in Boston Common on a sunny day.

It was SO. HOT. that day and I very much wanted to jump in any and every body of water I saw. Fountains, duck pond, the little kid wading pool…all of them.

All of this was right after Nazi demonstrations and protests and tiki torches and all of that good stuff. (I picked a helluva time to be back in the US!) It was a topic of discussion when we were at dinner in Old Orchard Beach. Seth (Walter’s boyfriend) was amazed that Nazis would even dare to turn up and show their faces in Boston, of all places—the city is so progressive and liberal and etc.

I shook my head. “Nah man, what I’ve heard from non-white friends of mine who live there…it’s a different experience.”

There were leftovers of protests and rumbles on the Common.

"RACISM WILL NOT WIN" in pink and white chalk on black asphalt.
The text spraypainted on the ground reads “Racism will not win.” We can only hope. =/
Close up of a monument to The Pilgrims in Boston Commons, with graffiti: "$ IS POWER X FREEDOM I$ RESISTANCE"
And on this monument to I guess the Pilgrims? “$ IS POWER XFREEDOM I$ RESISTANCE.” I don’t know if I hold entirely with that logic, protest artist. The first half, yes. But I don’t know it’s connected to resisting or freedom. Maybe “resistance is freedom”? Otherwise you’re maybe putting the cart before the horse.
A Civil Mar memorial to white officers and black rank and file.
Civil War memorial to “white officers” and “black rank and file.” It feels like a lukewarm attempt at Black History TM by throwing them in with the white officers but on the other hand if they fought together, shouldn’t they be memorialized together?

I finished my writing and my photo-taking and wandered in the direction of the public gardens, because I guess that’s what I do on vacations now?

A sign for the Boston Public Garden, founded 1837. City of Boston Department of Parks and Recreation. Martin J. Walsh, mayor.

Purple and pink roses in the Boston Public Gardens on a sunny day.

Overheard in Boston:

“The flowers are dyin’ ’cause they don’t water ’em.”
“They do water ’em, every day.”
“Why are they dyin’, then?”
“‘Cause of the sun.”

Purple hyacinths and other flowers in the Boston Public Garden on a sunny day.

A pond in the Boston Public Gardens on a sunny day, lined with weeping willows. A duck boat tour is turning around a small island in the middle of the pond, and a goose and some ducks are swimming in the lower left corner in the shade of a willow tree.

More overheard in Boston:

“MOM! A duck bit my thumb!”

There were a couple buskers out in the park. An elderly Asian man playing what I think was an erhu, and then a hip young white dude with a tenor sax: “Careless Whispers,” “What A Wonderful World,” etc.

A tree with an interesting pattern in its bark on a sunny day.

I wandered over to the burrito place to meet and Walter. It was a take-out place for nearby young professionals, and since I was eating with young professionals, that meant there was no place to really sit or any time to really talk.

We said our goodbyes and I walked around the city a bit, despite it being SO. HOT., because I figured if I’m going to say that I visited Boston, I should have at least seen some of it? The other times I’ve been in Boston, I’ve been sequestered away indoors at anime conventions so I wanted to say that I had actually been in Boston. Or whatever.

Psychadelic-style street art on a utility box: guitar outlines with different stained glass-like images against a backdrop of abstract color swatches.

A light gray cupid and sun stenciled on white concrete. The cupid has the planetary symbol for Venus painted in black on its wing, and another alchemical symbol painted on its groin.

I was due to meet another friend, Amy, at a marketplace in the afternoon, though I turned up quite a bit early so I could browse around a bit and enjoy the air conditioning. I bought some yarn for one of my knitter friends back home, and picked up a business card from American Stonecraft. I love rocks, and I love New England, and this is exactly the kind of thing that my mother-in-law loves, so I’ll probably buy something online for her birthday or Christmas present. (Probably a coaster or two.)

Pots of sunflowers at an indoor farmer's market.

Once in a green time a flower
Oh, fell in love with the sun.
The passion lasted for an hour
And then she wilted from her loved one.

A cash register with a sign on the tip jar that reads 'SCUSE ME WHILE I TIP THIS GUY and features an image of Jimi Hendrix shredding.
I appreciated the tip jar humor but was fresh out of any cash at all by this point. Nor did I feel like buying some nuts, even as the guy behind the counter was really friendly and offered me some free samples. Womp womp.

Amy did the very smart thing and brought GAMES because two people with low-key (and sometimes not so low-key) social anxiety need all the help interacting they can get! Or at least I do, even if meeting Internet friends is always less fraught than I expect it because it’s not like I don’t know them at all or anything. Although I was still a bit of a traveling mess—piecey hair, clothes chosen for comfort rather than fashion, indescribably sweaty—so props to and everyone else that day for spending time with my unattractive self!

After we got chocolate and chatted a bit and I saw some Andy pictures I hadn’t before (ATTACK OF THE FIFTY-FOOT TODDLER!), we played a couple rounds of Hanabi, which I sucked at but enjoyed nonetheless and have since added to our small roster of games (Munchkin, Dixit, Magic: The Gathering).

After that it was off to the station to pick up my bag, which I had to pay some extra for by all of ten? fifteen? minutes. Ugh. Nonetheless, it was worth the convenience. I had a hell of a time finding the bus to Logan, and then the check-in line for Norwegian was FOREVER LONG. It wasn’t as stressful as it would be if it were my flight going in—I had no pressing plans back in Sweden that would suffer if I got bumped back a few hours or even a day—but it still made me anxious. The family behind me, on the other hand, realized they had the wrong passports, and it was a rush of phonecalls and sending out teenage son to meet dad and etc. to fix it. So someone was having an even more stressful wait than I was!

We boarded on time, though, and everything went smoothly. My layover in Copenhagen was slightly shorter this time around, so I didn’t try to do any more exploring. I just hung out at one of the terminals, charging my phone and letting my boyfriend know that I would be at Arlanda in a couple of hours.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 19: Walden Pond and Escape Room in Boston

We hit the road early the next morning, while Theophanes’s brother and his girlfriend and her nieces were still asleep. First order of business: a picture of this thrift store sign, which caught my eye even on the delirious and sleep-deprived drive up in the middle of the night. Unless Mildred Wymen was really into Stephen King? Orthography is hard!

Then breakfast at a greasy spoon and we were off to Concord!

I was originally going to bus down from Maine to Boston, but Theophanes  volunteered to drive and do Boda Borg with me and my hostess with the mostess in Boston, Diana. I broached the subject of stopping by Walden Pond on the drive down, since it wasn’t too out of the way and I didn’t know when I’d be in New England again. (I mean, I’m sure I will be—I just don’t know when.) She puzzled it over in the GPS and agreed, since it wasn’t ridiculously out of the way. It just would have been a little far for a day trip from the cabin.

It’s really hip these days, at least among the people I like and admire, to hate on Thoreau and Walden. And I guess I get it—he was only able to stay at the cabin as long as he did because of the good graces of other people and he was an obnoxious houseguest to boot, he’s maybe (even inadvertently) the foundation of modern American libertarianism, he was kind of a pompous ass, etc. etc.—but for a weird, thoughtful kid in high school to read about this dude being weird and thoughtful by himself in the woods was reassuring. Even as I drink tea and continue to use a doormat.

I was surprised to see so many parents of very small children trying to do the educational, dutiful thing and go through the assorted signs and the replica cabin and whatever tourist center is also on-site (we didn’t visit it, though). Maybe I’m underestimating kids, but I don’t think a 6-year-old is going to be super interested in, or at least appreciative of, someone living by themselves in the woods. I’m pretty sure they just want to go swimming in the damn lake.

I have to admit, sometimes a cabin out in the woods sounds like the most appealing thing I can imagine. We peeked inside and it was easy to imagine me holing up in such a space for the rest of my days. Maybe in a place a little bigger, only because I’m less stingy than Thoreau when it comes to books worth holding on to.

It was then very weird to see that the plot of land where he went to live simply, away from people and society, so filled with people. In addition to all of the signage and statuary and sites associated with Thoreau, the pond itself is now a local swimming hole. The sound of people talking and laughing and splashing in the water was the background sound for most of the trip. Incongruous, but at the same time, maybe it’s better that such a spot be appreciated by the general public rather than forgotten.

(I still did my best to get this picture of the lake without any people in the shot, though.)

There were also these assorted illustrations from some kind of Walden ABCs book where I’m not sure if it’s actually for kids, or a kids’ book for adults (a la Go the Fuck to Sleep), along the assorted paths. This was by far the reach-iest one of them all:

and I, when we saw the first one (“C” or something), started speculating as to what they’d do for the trickier letters. I thought “X” would be for “fox,” but no. “Z” either was or should have been “zephyr.” I was right, though, that “Q” would of course be “quiet.”

If the pond and the museum-type stuff was relatively packed and full of people, the site of the actual cabin was mercifully quiet. Theophanes pointed out that many of the trees in the area were fairly young, so one wonders what happened to the patch of forest between when Thoreau was here and when the site was discovered in 1945. (Or perhaps it was never actually discovered; perhaps that’s just a random spot along the lake that they decided to declare Thoreau’s Cabin in order to give visitors something concrete to experience.)

People also left little stacks of stones next to the cabin. For me, this is something people do in Korea (maybe East Asia?). I saw this all the time, especially in temples; from my understanding, it’s part of a folk Buddhist tradition that has to do with making wishes or requests. (Do ones this small still count as cairns?) For example, here are some I saw by Cheonjiyeon falls in Jeju in July, 2012:

And an anonymous Korean woman building one at Bulguksa in Gyeongju, January, 2010:

And yet maybe last year or two years ago, my crunchy granola friends started sharing articles like this one, as if making those tiny towers had suddenly become a widespread Thing in the US as well. It was certainly a Thing at Walden, anyway, and I left my own, because it’s a way for me to connect my time in Korea with the places I visit elsewhere.

Other people left messages or drawings on stones, which I hadn’t seen in Korea. (Though at temples, you can buy a roof tile for X amount of won and leave a message on it.)

The weather was warm enough that by the time we were back at the lake I was regretting leaving my bathing suit in the car; Theophanes as if reading my mind, said, apropos of nothing, “I’m going to take off my shoes and dip my feet in.” I followed suit. The rocky shore of the lake made the barefoot journey less than appealing, but the payoff was worth it. The water was ice cold and stung pleasantly at the myriad mosquito bites I had acquired at the wedding (open-toed shoes and a knee-length dress means lunchtime for bugs). We stood in silence for a while and watched some small fish come and dart around our ankles. I splashed some of the water on my arms and face and filled up a tiny pocket of my heart with the experience to draw on later, when I feel like garbage. I also picked up a white piece of something (quartz? marble? I’m a bad junior geologist, guys!) as a souvenir.

When we used to visit Emerald Lake State Park as a family, I (and maybe my brother?) would always want to take home a rock or two from the bottom of the lake. Dad, a former Boy Scout and adherent to the “leave it better than you found it” ethos, would always make us put them back: “What if everyone took one? There’d be nothing left!” (I totally managed to get one out with me once, still, when I was maybe eight.)

The thought crossed my mind as I washed the grime off the rock and dried it with my shirt: “What if everyone took one?” I’m an adult now, and that means I get to violate Boy Scout prescriptions on nature preservation whenever I want!

Diana had been anticipating watching the eclipse with us (this was the day of the eclipse), but we ended up spending it at Walden instead, which I’m kind of okay with. Spending a significant astronomical event at a site that’s personally meaningful is a pretty okay way to spend it, in the end.

Another friend from the wedding, Walter, wanted to meet up in Boston once he knew that’s where I was going, but he couldn’t make it out in time for Boda Borg, so it ended up being just me, Diana, and Theophanes. This was probably for the best—they say “up to five” in the groups, but anything more than three people would have been cramped, really. It was my and Theophanes’s first escape room and I suppose we did OK, although the first room we picked was obnoxious and we couldn’t get it. Fortunately, it seemed to be way harder than many of the other rooms, and we still managed to solve a few puzzles and pick up a few stamps.

Before Boda Borg was Vietnamese food and introductions. Afterwards was boba tea and farewells. Theophanes was off to her mother in Rindge, not super far from Boston (certainly closer than the Maine cabin). and I spent the rest of the evening with Diana watching The French Revolution episode of The Supersizers Eat and talking about stuff. I left most of a six-pack of Yuengling (I am trash and love my regional PA trash beer that would be prohibitively expensive and thus pointless to acquire here) and the last of my roadtrip music (Black Masala, Gangstagrass, and I think also Galactic?) in exchange for an autographed stand-up album. Before we hit the hay, I solidified plans with people the next day: lunch with Diana and Walter, then later meeting up with a blogger buddy  before the long flight home.

And like the other Maine parts of my trip, Theophanes also wrote about it. There are a lot more pictures of Walden and some more details about Boda Borg over on her blog.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 18: Old Orchard Beach, Portland, and Fort McClary ME

Since the cabin was about two hours from Old Orchard Beach, we hit the road relatively early for bagels and other goodies at Aaron’s aunt’s house. Everyone else had made plans amongst themselves;  Theophanes and I had decided yesterday to visit the International Cryptozoology Museum. One of my Hamilton friend’s boyfriend has been there before: “It’s just, like, two rooms of stuff, and this guy following you around, telling you how Bigfoot is real. One of the display is, like, a GI Joe doll standing next to a stuffed beaver to show how large giant beavers are supposed to be.” He laughed and shakes his head; Theophanes and I looked at each other like YESSSSSS. That is definitely what we’re doing next.

Her GPS didn’t have an updated address for the International Cryptozoology Museum, which unbeknownst to us had moved to some old warehouse unit behind the Greyhound station, so we had a nice little wander around downtown Portland.

That’s a long fellow you’ve got there!

It was a cozy little wander full of graffiti and politically-minded stickers.

I felt at home here; I could imagine myself in Portland (if I ever wanted to leave Stockholm). As I texted my friend back in Austin: “The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland ME, too.”

For our one and only actual stop in downtown, we visited The Green Hand and despite the incredibly temptation I resisted the urge to buy books. Still, I wanted to get something, so I bought a little High Priestess pin and a ton of postcards.

They very conveniently had a poster by the register with directions to the new location of The International Cryptozoology Museum, so we realized our mistake and (after a fight with the parking garage) were able to rectify it.

We had a little trouble finding the museum once we were on the warehouse campus—we literally walked right past it and didn’t see it until we turned around—but we were still there before closing. It was everything I love in a tourist trap: weird and kind of grubby but incredibly enthusiastic. It’s situated in a weird place; it splits the warehouse room with a fried chicken restaurant, so we had to walk through another place to find the entrance. (It has its own door, too, but on the other side of the building.) We watched the little introductory video by the founder first (Loren Coleman, no doubt the “creepy dude” mentioned earlier), then I paid for our tickets and we explored.

The first floor is a riot of assorted mounted weirdnesses—this is the “hoax” section, which the video explains is included because the founder wants you “to be critical and skeptical.” It includes Fiji mermaids and Jackalopes and so on.

And bits about assorted species once considered mythical that turned out to be real: mountain gorillas, etc.

The infamous GI Joe (actually an Indiana Jones action figure) and beaver.

Upstairs is dedicated to hominids and the founder’s little shrine to himself and assorted cryptid kitsch.

The museum It reminded me, a little, of The Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA, in that these are both vanity-ish projects that are kind of the crystallized, refined essence of what makes their founders tick. Only The Museum of Jurassic Technology isn’t really self-aggrandizing about it and is much more about “here’s this stuff I like!” The International Cryptozoology Museum is a little more, “Here’s me, and here’s the stuff that made me famous.” Anything that made him famous: an overhead LED light that was used on a camping trip when he potentially saw Bigfoot, the computer Coleman used to write his first book on cryptozoology, that sort of thing. A wall-mounted TV plays a video of his appearance on some show or other (but we didn’t stay long enough to find out if it loops).

 

 

They have a photo op set up, and naturally we availed ourselves of it.

I spend my last remaining pocket change on a postcard in the gift shop and we decided to try to the deep-fried PB & J food truck we saw while we were trying to find the museum.

Everything sounded really good, or at least really interesting; I settled on a sort of sample platter that’s half a regular (deep-fried) PB & J and half something called a S’More: no peanut butter or jelly, but fluff and something vaguely Nutella ish. We chatted for a little bit with another customer, who was maybe itching to talk to people and so when he heard me give my name for the order opened up with a story about a woman he knew who was named, for real, “Katherine Katherine.” We talked about unusual names and doping in sports and NASCAR and then our sandwiches were ready, so we took our leave and give them a try.

The cook in the truck helpfully pointed out which sample was which; I decided to start with the s’more sandwich since the PB & J seemed to be the flagship standard. The s’more one was an absolute delight; the PB & J less so, if only because the jelly seemed to have more or less evaporated with the heat of the deep fryer, so it was essentially a warm peanut butter sandwich with powdered sugar on top.

But the s’mores one was SO DAMN GOOD.

Hunger sated, we headed back to the car to decide what our next stop for the day would be. Theophanes  had a couple suggestions, and we eventually decided on Fort McClary because it was the closest one to us. It was still an hour away, about, but we had time.

Some people from your childhood, if you meet them again as adults it’s weird and you have nothing in common with them anymore and you struggle to understand why you were ever friends to begin with. Maybe sometimes you kept an inseparable circle of BFFs. Visiting Theophanes with is somewhere in the middle. Thanks to Facebook, we’ve more or less kept tabs on each other, though we never interact one-on-one. But in person it’s fine, and it’s not weird, and it’s like: here’s this person who’s known you, if not always very deeply, forever. We drove a lot and what could have been long, uncomfortable car rides with a virtual stranger are perfectly comfortable. Silences occur and are natural, but most of the time there was easygoing conversation.

We poked around Fort McClary without paying the “suggested donation” because we’re rebels. This is all you need to know about Fort McClary:

“During the Civil War, plans were drawn for large masonry forts on major rivers, but advancement in weapons caused them to become obsolete before construction was completed. The huge granite slabs on this site remain where they lay when work stopped.”

We alternately poked around for pictures, enjoyed a view together, or stopped and shot the breeze. We quite possibly scared a couple of dudes away when the subject turned to birth control and periods. I watched the boats in the water and thought about Murder, She Wrote and drank in the smell of the ocean.

Somebody had it in for Sir William Pepperrell!

RIP Granite Wall

It’s a small and unremarkable park, but it does have a lovely view. I can understand why someone would be honored by a memorial bench here.

We decided to leave when the sun started to go down, since we still had a long drive back to the cabin. By the time we get home, Theophanes’s brother, girlfriend, and her nieces are already there. We knew that they were going to be staying overnight that night, so it wasn’t not much of a surprise; we just didn’t know what time they’d be arriving. For it being such a small cabin, though, it didn’t feel cramped with all of those people. Theophanes and I are beat (we did a lot of walking), but we hung around and chatted a little bit about our plans tomorrow: driving to Boston, Walden, Boda Borg. Neither Theophanes nor her family were really familiar with the concept of escape rooms, so I explained.

“I hope they let you out if you can’t solve the puzzle,” the girlfriend joked.

We needed an early start the next day, though, and we were seriously bushed from our adventures. We didn’t talk for long until we said our goodnights and collapsed into bed.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 17, Part II: Wedding at Old Orchard Beach

“Wouldn’t it be funny if we saw Walter and Seth?” L asked as we tooled around, looking for a parking spot. I don’t know if he said that because he’d already seen the two lanky figures, one blonde and one brunette, ahead of us or if he was just idly wondering, but there they were.

“That’s totally them,” I said, and waved my arms as we drove past. Maybe L honked? Somehow we caught their attention and they wave back. L found a place to park and we spilled out to say hello. Bucky with her family (baby Luca, husband Joe) and Becca with her boyfriend were also wandering around, so we stood and caught up in the middle of the sidewalk.

The last time I was in Old Orchard Beach was in 2008, at the very beginning of June, or maybe the end of May. Tourist season hadn’t started yet and everything was largely abandoned. It felt like we had the whole town to ourselves. I couldn’t imagine it being any kind of major travel destination.

In the short drive around with L, I could see there are a lot more people than the last time I was here. Parking along the street was pretty crowded (maybe it was wedding guests?) and a steady trickle of cars passed us by as we talked on the sidewalk. We didn’t see anything of the bride (Shufang) beforehand, but we caught the groom, Aaron, and the groomsmen (and groomswoman) to say hello and introduce ourselves.

 

The ceremony was brief and bilingual, with Aaron’s dad reading some bits in Chinese and Shufang’s father reading some bits in English, and mercifully free of tepid Bible verses. (“If I have to hear ‘love is patient, love is kind…’ at one more wedding,” L had grumbled on the way up. Saved!) They exchanged the rings and everything and, for the third time, they were married (they’d already had two weddings in China: one more or less ceremonial and one legal). In my head I made a joke about how does this mean they need to get divorced three times if they want it to stick, but I thought better of it and didn’t say anything. Everyone left the venue to the tune of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” as rendered by a dude with a guitar, and we had a few minutes to kill before the lunchtime reception at Joseph’s By the Sea. L wanted to head to the beach, and I did too, so after we stopped for some coffee with Becca and her boyfriend, we wandered towards the shore.

I hadn’t been to a beach in ages, so it felt really good to take off my shoes and get some sand between my toes. L and I both went right down to the water and got our feet wet. He was wearing long dress pants, so it didn’t quite work out for him like it did for me in my knee-length dress.

We walked back to the reception, L soaked almost all the way up to his knees.

“Do you want a towel?” Becca asked. “We have one in our room.”

“Nah, I’m fine. It’s just water. It’ll evaporate.”

The reception wass at a mixed indoor-outdoor space, a restaurant that had a porch and then patio leading down to a lawn overlooking the beach. (Hence “Joseph’s by the Sea,” I guess.) L and I milled around and ate at a table on the lawn, accidentally separating ourselves from the rest of the Hamilton crew and spending the lunch with the bride and some of her friends instead, chatting about public health and economics.

Then it was time for wedding party photos. They took some photos of the bridal party on the little wooden porch, and during the photos of just Shufang and Aaron, a parasailer drifted by, in a huge skull-and-crossbones parachute. I immediately remembered Aaron as he was in college, plaid pants and a Misfits t-shirt; there couldn’t have been anything more appropriate to suddenly fly over his wedding. I’m sure the photographer tried to keep that out of the shot, though, which is too bad.

We joined everyone else back on the patio after the toasts, and the cake was cut and the dancing began. There were a few short family dances to Aselin Debison’s version of “Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World” and then everything really kicked off with “Ballroom Blitz.” No one danced at first, except Aaron and Shufang. I was a few drinks in by now and fidgeting in my seat. After maybe thirty seconds I couldn’t stand it anymore and rushed the dance floor to keep Aaron company. He grinned.

“I always want them to play this at wedding receptions and they never do,” he said-shouted over the music. “I told the DJ I wanted this song at least. I don’t care about anything else.”

The rest of the playlist was equally danceable and we danced our collective asses off. L even got a chance to use his contradance powers to save the day when no one could remember how to do the electric slide. I always assumed it was like a collective racial memory; that a large enough group of people will just know how to do the electric slide, but nope.

All the Hamilton people drifted out to the lawn for a breather. The photographer wanted to get some photos (“Great, when everyone’s all sweaty from dancing?” I complained mostly to myself) and so we crammed into assorted group shots in between conversations. All that taken care of, L decided it was time to drive back to Albany soon (eight hours in a car for four hours at a wedding? I guess…) and so he and Walter and I ducked out so I could drop my bag in Walter’s car to make sure it didn’t end up back in Albany.

 

When Walter and I got back to the restaurant, it was clear that the rest of the reception was beginning to wind down. The restaurant needed to start getting ready for dinner, so by 4 p.m. things had more or less wrapped up. We returned to the motel and I hopped into a closet to change out of my dress and into a tank top and bike shorts. My thighs were on FIRE.

I wanted to know what we were doing next so I could give Typhani a heads up, and eventually we decided on dinner. Things took a little negotiating and research, since both Becky and Becca have Celiac’s and thus restaurants need to be reliably gluten-free. After all of the appropriate preparations are made–changing clothes, setting up baby playpens, using the bathroom–we left. We had a little trouble finding the restaurant. It was peak tourist hour along the boardwalk, and we were swamped with swarms of people and families, loud music, signs announcing beer specials, and kiosks hawking typical beach tourist gear. I had sudden flashbacks to the boardwalk shops at Rehoboth Beach, where my family vacationed every summer for years.

 

After some finangling and Google maps and asking a traffic crossing guard, we managed to figure out where we were and how to get to the beach shack/diner-y place Becca we had settled on.  Typhani had a heck of a time trying to find parking, but she managed to squeak in right after we order. The food was filling, though not particularly memorable, and we talked and joked away for a couple of hours.

There were plans to go to some bar or other after dinner and hang out with Aaron and his friends. But first I had to go back to the motel and get my bag into Typhani’s car. Becky was there before us, getting Luca settled and still coming down off whatever fight she’d had with her husband before dinner. I gave her a good, solid hug and then Typhani and I were off to the afterparty.

Oh good Lord, it was TOO MUCH. Now my long day was starting to hit me, also paired with Typhani and what I knew about her own sensibilities. The loud sports/dance bar with fog machine and lasers? Not her scene. And it wasn’t feeling like much of mine, either. But I said hello to  Aaron and introduced him to Typhani and congratulated him, and he let us know that there was a breakfast tomorrow morning for everyone courtesy one of his aunts. We hugged goodnight, and Typhani and I were officially on our way to the camp in Pittsfield. It wasn’t as long a round-trip drive to make as the drive from Albany to Old Orchard Beach, but it wasn’t a short one.

 

“The camp” is really a prefab little cabin, but it’s surprisingly well-designed and roomy-feeling (and solid-feeling) for being what it is. The property belonged to Typhani’s grandmother and used to house what she described as a crazy, rambling shotgun shack that kept having additions added to it, with light switches outside of rooms and wobbly stairs that went up too high and then had to descend down again. But it had burned down a while back and Typhani’s mother used the insurance money to get the cabin. I dumped my bag in one of the two bedrooms and fished out my gifts: some Söderte and my copy of Journal of a Solitude.

“I think you’ll really like it,” I explained as I handed it over. “It’s about a woman who just spends a year living out in the country, just writing.”

Typhani is big into the homesteading and farming movement, and by her own admission she was on the verge of getting the farm she had set up with her ex to finally turn a profit when he dumped her. The plan now is set her nose to the grindstone and get her own homestead and community farm up and running herself, but these things take time, especially considering her invisible health struggles. In the meanwhile, I thought May Sarton could keep her company.

Typhani also has a gift for me: a little clay owl magnet that she made:

We stood around and chatted for a bit. It was close to midnight by now and I was feeling a little delirious from exhaustion and dancing. It felt like I’d been up for days. Exhaustion and dancing also meant I was sweaty and gross, so I hopped in the shower and heat blasted all of the grime right off of me. Nothing like hygiene to make you feel human again.

“How many bucks do I feel like?” I announced when I come out of the bathroom. “A million.”

With that, I bid my hostess good night and collapse onto the brand-new bed.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 17, Part I: Road Trip to Maine

It’s showtime!

This day ends up being long, to the tune of 20 hours long: I got up at 4 am and I finally crashed at around midnight. It was basically two days crammed into one, so I’ll split it into two parts.

A insisted at the close of last night that she’d be up to say goodbye, but of course she wasn’t and I knew she wouldn’t because she’s an exhausted mother of two children, so I wasn’t surprised. I managed to make it out the door without leaving anything behind, except Her Smoke Rises Up Forever. I didn’t realize that for a while, and when I finally did I was a little sad because I get sentimental about books from friends, but I already have other books from Noah in my library (The Fifth Season, Harpo Speaks!, Name of the Rose) so I wasn’t as heartbroken as I might have otherwise been when I finally realized what had happened.

“I absolutely do not trust myself to drive on any leg of this trip,” I told L as we get ready. “Driving myself? Fine. If I eat it, whatever. But you’re a dad now. I couldn’t live with myself if something happened. I’ll stay up and keep you company, though.” Which is a bigger deal promise than maybe it sounds because I can fall asleep in cars at the drop of a hat.

“That’s fair.”

It was still dark when we took off. The only other cars we saw were trucks and tractor trailers. Every time we passed one, I held my breath and tensed up. I trusted L; I did’t trust truckers on the road at 4 am.

“The one thing I really wanna do on this trip is get breakfast at a proper greasy spoon truck stop diner,” L said early on in the drive. “A place where you can sit on stools at the counter. I can’t do that with the boys. I was thinking we could find one once we get to Massachusetts.”

“Omigod, yes. Sweden doesn’t do diners. That sounds perfect. My treat.”

We hit Mass at around 6 in the morning, and after a little futzing with the GPS we decided to try a coffee shop in a strip mall. I was wary, because it’s hard to have a proper diner in a strip mall, but coffee is coffee and you want the driver on your road trip to be as awake and alert as possible, so I took the compromise.

Except it wasn’t a compromise, and inside it was a proper full-on greasy spoon, including the low-budget Americana decor.

A diner in Massachusetts in the early morning hours. The view is across a counter, under which you can see some basic food prep supplies, to the far wall with a fridge full of sodas, a shelf of tea selections, and plants and wall art.
A beloved American tradition.

Yes, we got to sit on stools at the counter. L was pleased as punch and so was I.

American-style waffles with creamy butter and some fruit, on a white plate.
Big fluffy American waffles!

“If this isn’t nice, what is?” I thought to myself, and for the half-hour or so that we were relaxing and having a proper roadtrip breakfast, I could forget about all of the stress and awfulness going on around us.

The glass display counter by the register had some baked goods, because of course, and so we each picked out a donut to have as a snack later as I paid up. The shelf behind the register also boasted a number of teas; in addition to the usual English Breakfast and Earl Grey, I spotted THIN MINTS TEA.

A box of Bigelow Thin Mints tea.

“Holy crap, they make thin mints tea now?!”

The waitress gushed. “Oh yeah, it’s great. Here, take a bag. Free sample.”

“Aw, nice. Thanks!”

Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty tasty tea.

The sun was up now. It was weird to think that it was 7 am and we’d been up for hours. Bolstered by our food (diner food is magic, I’m pretty sure), we continue northwards. There were other cars on the road now; it felt more normal and less lonely and apocalyptic. Once we hit Maine, we pulled over in a rest stop to have our donuts and change out of lazy driving clothes into proper wedding clothes.

This was when L realized that the pants he meant to wear, with the cigars he bought for the occasion, were at home, but the good news is he had everything else, including another pair of dress-y pants in the car already, so it wasn’t a sartorial emergency. We also realized that we didn’t have the address for the church and since neither of us had data on our phones, I put in a call to A to do some Internet sleuthing for us.

“Hi sweetie!” A chirped. I was calling from L’s phone.

“Hi sweetie yourself,” I joked back. She laughed.

“Oh, hi Koba. Everything going okay?”

“Yeah, peachy keen. But can you do us a favor and look up an address for us? The invitation only has the address for the reception, not where the ceremony’s going to be.”

“Sure, just a second.” I could hear her negotiate with the oldest over use of the tablet, and some wondering aloud about if the place she found Googling was where we were going, but eventually she found it.

“Sorry I wasn’t up to see you guys off. I totally meant to, but…”

“Nah, it’s fine. We left super early.”

“Well, have a good time! It was good to see you. That was a good talk we had. It’s a lot to think about.”

“Anytime. It was good to see you, too. I’m sure I’ll be around again at some point. People can’t stop getting married.” Four more friends from this college crowd aren’t married yet and I can safely assume I’ll be invited to those weddings, plus Noah’s if they decide to take that leap. Plus the odd assortment of friends I have outside of Hamilton. “Have fun with the boys.”

“I will. Bye Koba!”

“Bye!”

L had estimated the time for the wedding ceremony wrong, but in our favor: he was planning for 10:00 am, not 10:30. “Oh, sweet. Then we have time to get some Moxie!”

I laughed. “Yes, definitely.”

We found the nearest grocery store according to the GPS and L helped himself to the remaining cases of diet Moxie left on the shelf, four in all. He knew that an anniversary present from A arrived in the mail the other day, but I had no idea if he knew that it was Moxie. Well, it’s not like it’ll sit around unappreciated, I thought.

“Someone likes Moxie,” an older woman remarked quizzically, confused over why someone would stock up on so much regional soft drink. Diet, at that.

“We don’t have it in Albany,” L explained, and the woman maybe nodded or said something, I forget, but we made a beeline for the checkout, loaded up the car, and returned to the church-adjacent neighborhood to find some parking.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 15 and 16: Albany, NY

Day 15

We’re up early to see L  out the door to work. A makes some eggs and toast for breakfast, and we have some of the Söder to go with it and wake up from the late night. After some art and doodles, the oldest wants to have a puppet show, and I keep both boys distracted for long enough with Monkey the Dentist and Giraffe the Doctor that A  has time to jump in the shower and have a few minutes to herself (until the youngest gets some serious separation anxiety and I drop him off to be in the bathroom with Mom).

I also have a fun time reading to the oldest, because I love reading anything, even if it’s kiddie picture books for the five thousandth time. I chat with A  over the boy’s head when he’s deeply involved with a book himself, though we never get back to the topic of friendship and time. Once in a while he wants some quiet, or he wants attention, and he yells at us: “Stop talking!” After numerous incidents, A lectures him a little about having patience and waiting, and that’s the last “Stop talking!” for the rest of my stay.

We also read through a book about dragons, and at the end it mentions Komodo dragons. One of my students has family in Sri Lanka and has visited on and off, and told me once about seeing a Komodo dragon on temple grounds, where it was allowed to just hang out and be a Komodo dragon because you aren’t allowed to kill anything near the temple. I bring up the story with A,  and she mentions that oh yeah, when she worked at the zoo she got to get up close and personal with a Komodo dragon, close enough to touch it.

Cue the meltdown from the oldest.

“NO MOMMY DON’T TOUCH THE DRAGON”

All the days I’m there, he doesn’t go down for a nap in the middle of the day, so as the afternoon drags on he gets a little overwhelmed and fussy (which makes dinners a little rough going, but we bribe him through with alternating reading pages and having bites of food).

While the youngest (still an infant) is down for a nap, I go out for a run in the park across the road.

 

I jump in the shower to wash off the sweat and grime when I get back and air out my workout clothes on the porch. A offers to wash them with the family clothes, but I figure they’ll be fine with some fresh air. A smart move, as it turns out: a stray crayon ended up in the wash and while nothing was ruined, it made the process a little more stressful than usual. It stressed A enough already; if a guest’s clothes had been involved, it would have freaked her out even more.

 

But the big event, in between books and arts and crafts and puppet shows, is the oldest’s favorite TV show: “the moon show.” “The Moon Show” is just his name for it, of course; can you guess why he calls it that? A hint:

“Do you know what Miss Koba’s favorite TV show is?”

“No, what?”

“The Moon Show!”

I don’t understand what about MST3K can possibly appeal to three-year-olds but there you have it. We don’t make it through the entire episode before L gets home and it’s time to start getting ready for dinner, but enough that I’m satisfied. After dinner and baths and bedtime books, the three of us sit down to a classic MST3K episode (a fond Hamilton favorite: Eeegah!), which ends up being background noise while and I (with input from A) break down how the new season compares with the series and give voice to our assorted little nitpicks (I think Jonah comes across as really nervous in the host segments; A misses how cheap the props used to look). We don’t make it through the entirety of Eegah!, either, and this time everyone heads to bed much earlier.

Day 16

L has taken a half day off work the next day so he can be home and hang out with us a bit, and also talk to the guy from the solar panel company who’s coming to evaluate the best place to put more solar panels. That means he’s also home in time for lunch, which is pierogi, one of my absolute favorites. I’m touched that A remembers—especially when she has absolutely no way of knowing that I haven’t had any in ages. What Sweden calls “pirogi” are really pirozhki and now if I want any I have to make them from scratch myself instead of getting an acceptably tasty ready-made version. I read a bit more from Her Smoke Rises Up Forever during the afternoon, while L plays with the oldest. We also putz around outside on the slightly crooked swing set.

Dinner is a bit of a hassle, again thanks to lack of an afternoon nap, but “eat, then read” bribes (tonight’s book is The Missing Piece Meets the Big O) get the job done. Everyone is a little rushed because we’re expecting my high school friend Fox, along with her boyfriend,  for company and board games, so it makes the oldest’s fussiness a little extra trying. But everyone gets shuttled off for a bath and bedtime stories successfully. Instead of helping with bedtime stories like I did the last couple nights, I set to work sweeping up veggie burger bits and washing dishes.

Fortunately, Fox and her boyfriend are running a little late themselves, so we have plenty of time for snacks and board games and adult company. This even though L and I have an early morning tomorrow: a four-hour drive to Maine the day off the wedding. We won’t have a lot of margin for error!

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 12 – 14: Bethlehem, PA to Albany, NY

My time at my parents’ is winding down, but I still feel like it wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted to do. Now that the books are sorted (FINALLY, FOR REAL) and packed up, it’s time to mail them. I also have some other things I’m shipping back to myself, mostly jewelry-making supplies and gifts for other people.  I run into the patriarch of one of the families I’ve known from church forever, who’s mailing a cell phone charger back to his son. We chat a bit, the way you do with people you went to church with your whole childhood.

I also get in a few good hours with Best Chemist Friend and her boyfriend at their place, catching up in real time and enjoying some (non-alcoholic, for me, since I’m driving) drinks and watching her cats.

When the time comes for me to leave, as in leave the Lehigh Valley, there’s a little confusion over how I’m getting to the bus—is Mom dropping me off? are both parents? is Dad around?—but it goes smoothly. I say bye to Dad, and the usual goodbye ritual:

Rub noses, touch heads, give a kiss, a hug, and the other side

Which we did every day when he left for work when I was little, and then we do every time I leave on a long trip (or just, um, leave these days; these aren’t “trips” that I’m taking abroad).

The last time I took one of these buses to NYC, there was a scheduling mishap and I ended up arriving hours later than I had planned. But this time the full bus actually radioed through and the overflow bus was there to pick us up just a few minutes later. Success!

I had messaged another college friend now in NYC about hanging out or getting lunch while I was in the environs, but between an international wedding, a work trip, and a death in the family, things didn’t hook up and that’s 100% fine. So I spend my morning at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, familiar and reassuring in its kind of grossness. I’m still reading Journal of a Solitude, though I also crib the free WiFi to putter around on Facebook and gchat.

I get bumped up from a layover bus trip to a direct bus, so I don’t have to mess around with changing at Kingston. As usual, the ride is ugly all the way through New Jersey and then gorgeous in New York. Sometimes I think about where I’d live if I had to go back to the US, and New England (and New England adjacent) is top of the list. Did I go to college there because I loved it, or do I love it because I went to college there? Hard to say.

My ride, an Internet friend from high school who grew up in the area, relocated to Arizona for a few years, and is now back in Albany, picks me up and gets some Swedish candy for her troubles, and we go out for really goddamn good Thai food before she drops me off where I’ll be staying in Albany, with two friends from college, L and A.

A delicious-looking Thai red curry on a funky square white plate.

Everyone is on a tightly choreographed schedule. My ride’s boyfriend will need the car soon, so there’s no chance to wander somewhere for dessert (cider donuts!) and give my hosts a little extra time to get the kiddos down; coming directly to their house from the bus station instead of getting dinner with my ride would have plopped me there at Peak Chaos. We’ve timed things juuuuuust right.

I knock on the door and L answers.

“Koba Commander! Your timing is perfect. If you had been here, like, ten minutes earlier, you’d have met a room full of naked men.”

(It’s bath time with L and the boys.)

I go upstairs to say hello, and I sit with L and and the oldest son (now 3?), and we read a few stories before bed. A sings the youngest to sleep in the other room, like actually for-real sings a lullaby. Kids to bed, the grown-ups sit in the living room with some tea. I dig out my thank-you gift: some Söderte, in bags because I figure busy parents don’t have time to mess around with tea diffusers and etc. The whole conversation is a weird overlay for me; I’m reminded of my parents’ college friends that we saw sometimes. They had kids around my age (and my brother’s age), and they were just over in Jersey, so it made sense for visits to happen and for the children to get shooed out to spend time together while the adults caught up.

Now I’m living the life I remember my parents living, kind of: I’m visiting with college friends who have just put their kids to bed. I’m just coming from a little farther away than Jersey. Adulthood. I forget what we talk about, but L ducks out the earliest while A and I keep talking about grammar and mathematics and things, but also a lot about friendship and how it changes over time and, naturally, assorted college memories.

“But like, that part of our lives is over now. We’ve been out of college longer than we were in it.”

A is an absolutely lovely person, and one of the things that’s lovely about her is that she has a combination of profundity, kindness, and no filter. She can get right to the heart of an issue, accidentally phrase it in the bluntest, gauchest possible way, and then realize how it might come across after the fact and feel awful and immediately apologize. When she goes on to say that her college friendships have become essentially dead and meaningless, she immediately catches the implications of what she’s saying.

“I mean, I’m happy to see you and I’m glad you’re here, Koba—”

“No, I know what you mean.” And that’s when I start thinking about Arrival and “The Story of Your Life” and my perception of time within friendships as being eternal and circular and many-layered, counter to what sounds like a very Zen approach (“I’m the person I am NOW, not eight years ago.”) that A has.

There is some irony in the fact that we are having this conversation about the ghosts of our past and the temporary whatever that was college with our mugs of tea resting on a cheap, wheeled table/drawer thing that L found while “suite shopping” (dormitory dumpster diving) to outfit the suite we had for our junior (A’s senior) year at school. Some things never change.

But sleep comes for us all, and since we’re the adults who will be in charge of a pair of little ones in just a handful of hours, eventually we have to pack it in. A goes upstairs and I collapse on the dangerously comfortable couch.  Never enough time; always too much to talk about.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 11: Bethlehem, PA

My baby-est, littlest cousin—my maternal aunt’s only child—turned 21 this year.

I was 10 when she was born, and I remember thinking to myself, “One day she’ll be 10, just like I am, and I’ll be 20.” At the time, it was barely fathomable to me that I’d ever be an adult (or that the wriggling red mass I was looking at would ever be “big” like me). I don’t remember if I had that same thought when I turned 21: “Someday Haley will be as old as I am now, and I’ll be…even more of an adult.” It’s a thought I could easily imagine myself having. In any case, that’s the reality of it now. She’s 21, and a junior in college—a period in my own life that doesn’t seem ten years ago, and yet it obviously was!—and before you know it she’ll be in her thirties, and married (or not!) and a mom (or not!), and I’ll be even older…

Speaking of my family, Day 11 of the trip was dedicated mostly to lunch with Mom’s side of the family. This would normally include Haley, but she was at the shore, so not this time.

It was a Sunday, and Mom suggested that I could go to church with her before we leave for lunch, and I more or less gracefully dodge that bullet.  I spent most of that morning doing some more cleaning and then reading by the pool.

Some books in my collection I had been clinging to since high school or thereabouts, because I really wanted to read them (or maybe more accurately, really wanted to be the kind of person who would read them), but could never get around to it. One of those was the Illuminatus! trilogy omnibus; I ditched that one because I’m definitely no longer a 14-year-old girl with a crush on a pretentious snob of a classmate. Another was Journal of a Solitude, which I bought at a library sale (the library that’s now reaping the benefits (?) of my book hoarding tendencies) on the premise of “woman alone in the woods.” This was right after I had AP English Language and Composition and fell in love with Walden and so a lady version of the same thing held a lot of appeal for me.

I decided to take a break from the boxing and the repacking and the sorting and sit with Journal of a Solitude out by the pool. It was summer, so it was basically peak beauty when it comes to the flowers and the landscaping.

A clear blue in-ground swimming pool with red-orange tile edging on a sunny day, with flower bushes and green trees in the background. Green flowering landscaping featuring black-eyed Susans and a bush with pink flowers.

Not pictured are my absolute favorite flowers: some huge red hibiscuses just off-camera to the left in the first photo. But they had their moment before my trip and so there was only a couple of sad, drooping blooms left by the time I arrived..

This time Journal of a Solitude stuck with me, really stuck. I finished it on the bus to Albany and ended up giving it to Homesteader Friend, my host in Maine, because it seemed like exactly her thing. I was glad I held on to that book for as long as I did, because I’m glad I finally read it, and I hope Homesteader Friend gets something out of it herself.

Black and white cover of May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude," a shot of an empty desk with a typewriter, lit by a lamp from outside a window.

Anyway, Mom only took the time to change out of church clothes and then we were off to visit my grandmother at the senior home for a little before meeting everyone else (my aunt, my brother and his wife, and my “aunt” Doris) at the restaurant. My grandmother just turned 90 this year, and she’s still “with it,” but has it a little rough getting around. Her hearing also isn’t the greatest so you have to slow down your speech by a third (and also crank up your volume by a third). We talked a little bit about how I’m doing in Sweden, and how she’s glad that I’m not in Korea anymore.

We had lunch at an Italian place that my mom and her sister habitually take their mother out to, because it’s close by and it’s easy for her to maneuver and they have food she likes. There were enough of us that we had a large table in the back to ourselves. I had a lot of the same conversation again with Aunt Donna (actually my aunt) and Aunt Doris (my grandmother’s best friend and accepted friend of the family): what I’m doing in Sweden, good thing I’m not in Korea anymore, etc. I also get a very belated birthday card.

Aunt Doris was keen to know what life is like in Sweden, and it was hard to know exactly what to tell her. Everything about my life is pretty banal and not that different from the US, except that I don’t drive. I landed on the story about going to the doctor on New Year’s Eve to get a small piece of metal out of my foot and how it was less than $10 US for a quick (but necessary!) visit that took all of five minutes. The conversation was immediately sidetracked by the insane state of the American health insurance system and how much that kind of visit would cost with their respective insurance plans. We also talked about my brother’s Instagram, which his wife hates (“anyone who doesn’t know you or your weirdo sense of humor will just think you’re an idiot”) and which, according to Aunt Donna, Haley loves (“she gets it, John, she thinks it’s hilarious”).

After lunch, Mom and I stopped at one of the vineyards between my grandmother’s and home. We don’t get a bottle but I get a wine slushie, which I sipped for the rest of the drive home.

There was more cleaning once we got back home. The books were basically all done by this point; now I was up to my eyebrows in knick knacks and mementos. I also tried to get together jewelry stuff to either mail back to myself or to give away to crafty friends. The whole time I was home it simultaneously felt like I didn’t have enough time in the day and that I also didn’t get anything done, the worst of both worlds. But now Musikfest was over and there was nothing left for me to do except take care of my stuff and see Best Chemist Friend.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 9 and 10: Bethlehem, PA

Day 9

After I wake up from my late ‘fest night, I catch the LANTA bus like usual. I realize as soon as I get to the bus stop that I left my phone at Best Chemist Friend’s. Priscilla is also too old to run Google hangouts so I’m just kind of cut off from the world until I meet her for dinner with my parents later.

I read some more out of Her Smoke Rises Up Forever while I wait for the bus. The guy sitting next to me—probably in his 40s, has a pattern to his speech that suggests some kind of mental or cognitive disorder—sees my ‘fest mug and starts talking. I oblige but give him a fake name, and sure enough the question comes up:

“Are you single?”

“No,” I answer, shaking my head.

“Are you married?”

“Yes.” Technically correct; the best kind of correct. His interest immediately diminishes, but I still breathe a sigh of relief when he gets on a different bus.

It’s another day of cleaning and purging. I find an old notebook with details of part of a trip I took to Chicago back in 2009 and type it up, along with some  travel notes from this trip.

With the books mostly whittled down, cleaning and purging now comes to the gifts and knick-knacks and things that I like and have had for years, but have to put through the “Do I want to pay money to ship it across the ocean?” gauntlet. More than a few things don’t survive that.

I drop off the bag of goods outside, then wander inside for the first time in four years (I never managed to drop in while I was home in October). I stay long enough to see if there was a belt that might really work with the dress I had for the wedding, but leave empty-handed.

The rest of the day is uneventful except for dinner with Best Chemist Friend and my parents, when I get my phone back.

Day 10

Today I’m scheduled to hang out with blog friend Hillary at ‘fest. The weekend also is my last chance to visit the Quakertown Farmer’s Market for the next indeterminate amount of time, so after some more closet purging, I toss two garbage bags full of clothes into the car and drive to Quakertown.

I buy a cannoli and do a single circuit around. There are too many new shops and empty stalls for my liking, but it’s comforting to see some things remain: the sticky bun bakery, the “Korner Kupboard” (I don’t know why the K’s and maybe I don’t want to know), the hippie incense store (that expanded, for a hot minute, into another hippie pagan store that quickly closed), the movie/video game store, the low-rent Spencer’s-cum-secondhand store. In better news, the live alligator that had been living in a tank in the back of that store is no longer there; later Googling at home reveals that he’s been sent to an animal sanctuary, then literally the day before I sit down to type this up, Best Chemist Friend messages me on Gchat to tell me that Wally the Gator is dead and that there’s a memorial sign in his former tank.

Wally the Gator, the mascot and pet of one of the vendors at the Quakertown Farmer's Market, in his sketchy, too-small cage back in 2012.
RIP, Wally my dude. You deserved a better life than this. // Image courtesy cc at Meals I Have Eaten

“Our childhood is officially dead,” she says.

“Guess we’re real adults now.”

Some of the empty stalls have been converted to some kind of food court or meeting place, with plastic tables and chairs and bulletin board for announcements. There’s a jug band playing on chorus risers that serve as a low-budget stage, so I sit for a while to write and enjoy the music.

But even with that break, my walk around doesn’t take that long, mostly because I’m deliberately avoiding buying things because where will I put them? Do I want to mail them across an ocean? No! And it’s a good thing, because like a chump I decide to park at Musikfest and so I part with my money there instead. I definitely spent more time on the road to and from the farmer’s market than in the market proper, but that’s okay, because it’s also nice to drive again (until the novelty wears off). I also managed to drop off those bags of clothes in a collection bin on my drive to Musikfest so arguably it was even a productive trip.

I meet Hillary down by the Nintendo product tent, where her husband has been sucked into the void that is video games. I get some lunch at Johnny’s Bagels and we wander around and chat. There are a couple of consignment or secondhand or whatever shops on Main Street that I’ve never really stopped in but that Hillary’s eager to try, and I guess she’s my secondhand good luck charm because I walk away with a really cute pair of dress shoes (something I needed to buy at some point anyway) and a nice top to boot! We also watch the tail end and then the entire act of some street performers, then wander back off Main Street to get some food, pick up my final music purchase (an LP from Black Masala), see some shows, and meet up with some of Hillary’s friends.

We also run into cave coworker Kelly, our (as in Kelly and I) mutual friend Janine, and Janine’s new boyfriend, so that’s a pleasant surprise and we stand around and chat a bit. Janine is a bit deep in her cups but in a charming and friendly and hilarious way. But I’m a crappy mutual friend and fail to mention at the time that both Hillary and Janine work in special ed. Oops!

There is some massive issue trying to drive home. A car that might be a Papa John’s delivery car is blocking the box (so to speak) in front of the closest bridge to get out of town, with a couple of cop cars to boot; everyone is being diverted into a righthand turn instead of being allowed to go straight. I circle around and pull into a Wawa. I debate if it’s worth just taking another bridge out of town, but after I get some more writing done (and enjoying the bakery cookies from the grocery store that I can never resist buying) and listening to Black Masala, things have cleared up so I just take my regular route home.

There’s a paranoid parrot in the back of my brain who is convinced that I’ll get run off the road by some drunk fester or other, but obviously I don’t and I make it home fine, a little more sunburned and a little more sweaty than when I left. Mom and Dad are still up (not waiting for me; it’s just not that late yet) and I chat a little with them before I go upstairs.

This is the day where all of the tiki torch insanity goes down in Charlottesville. I don’t have data on my cheap-o plan but Hillary does and so I’m halfway apprised of what’s going on in the world while I’m seeing friends and listening to music and having a good time. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. I catch up a bit on Facebook and all of that good stuff, then curl up in a ball and feel sad until I fall asleep.