Two Days in Lisbon

Portugal
May 2003

Portuguese isn’t like Spanish at all. The words look the same, but it comes out sounding as if it’s spoken with a Russian accent mixed with a touch of French, as if conjured by long-exiled descendants of the Romanovs. I’ve gotten “obrigado” (“thank you”) down, but fortunately many people speak some English, and most information is in Portuguese, English, and French.

All the things I did yesterday I should have done today. I wore myself ragged yesterday in the Alfama, straight off the plane, while Bairro Alto was done easily today, but the two main sites were closed.

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I Don’t Have a Bucket List

Yes, you read the headline correctly. I don’t have a bucket list. There’s no ledger of future destinations. There’s no master plan.

I do this purely by whim.

I used to have a bucket list, when I started. No, before then, when I got out of college and first wanted to travel: Britain, France, Spain, Europe in general. Those were the trips I didn’t take when I was young.

Later, when I started traveling, I’d come home on the flight already plotting the next place on the list. And, I’d be adding new places to it.

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Reinvention

I’m going to tell you my darkest secret. I’ve never told anyone the whole story.

In the summer of 1999, I lost nearly everything. The magazine I worked for went out of business. I lost my job. My only serious romantic relationship ended. I lost all my savings, which were tied up in our house. We sold the house for a loss.

I was jobless, broke, heartbroken, sad, and angry. I was scrambling to keep it together. I was a mess.

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The Jinxed Year

I can’t pinpoint exactly when this year went wrong, but it seems to have started on the night of my birthday during the college football national championship game, when the University of Georgia Bulldogs blew a 13-point halftime lead to lose to Alabama in overtime.

The next night, a friend, an Alabama graduate, teased me about whether I was sad that Georgia had lost the game. I told her it wasn’t a big deal — football isn’t my sport. But maybe it was a warning.

Soon after, my water heater sprung a leak. I went a week taking Japanese-style Furi Kuri baths with a large kitchen pan full of hot water I set up in the shower. That’s all the water I dared run to keep it from spraying out all over the garage.

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Morning Train to Milan

Italy
December 2005

“I was drunk last night,” the girl tells her friend in accented English. “In the bar, I was drunk.”

“I didn’t see you,” her punky friend replies.

“With those boys. I had too much.”

“I’d like to see you drunk.”

Approaching Milan, two teenage girls sink into empty seats. The punky blonde beside me wears a nose ring and a puffy down parka. Her friend sits across from her, in a pink jacket and glasses. She has a brown ponytail. Neither of them can be older than fourteen or fifteen.

The biggest movie in Italy at the moment is about a girl like them.“We should get drunk tonight,” the punky girl says.

“No, no. My head hurts too much.”

“I want to see you drunk.”

They are Spanish, from Barcelona. They have traveled far for girls their age. A school break.

The biggest movie in Italy at the moment is about a girl like them. In the book on which the film is based, she travels to Barcelona on a school trip, gets drunk like these Barcelona girls. You’d never see American girls their age on their own so far from home.

The train approaches the station. People mill in the aisle waiting to disembark.

“Your English is very good,” I remark to the punky girl.

“He says our English is very good,” she tells her friend.

Featured image: Piazza del Duomo, Milan

Bus Food

Somewhere in Northern Argentina
November 2011

For tonight’s dinner, we have a fine piece of ham, bread and butter, mayonnaise for a sandwich, some kind of cold meat pie, a packet of crackers, and a spongy square thing I poke repeatedly with my plastic fork, served by a man from the first bus station we stop at, who looks like Diego Maradona.

I trade Karimé my ham and the insides of the spongy thing, which was also ham, for her meat pie. Karimé constructs a double-decker ham sandwich. I’m convinced it’s the crackers that make the meal.

One of the guidebooks said overnight buses in Argentina served good wine.“Why are you cutting up your cookie?” Karimé asks me. That’s a cookie? It is a hard, flat shape that had been wrapped in silver paper. “Yes, it’s a cookie,” she says. It doesn’t look like a cookie to me.

Garçon, the steward, arrives with warm coke from a two-liter bottle. “Coca?” he asks, offering us each a plastic cup. If only. The taste is flat and unrefreshing, with a nonexistent bouquet.

One of the guidebooks said overnight buses in Argentina served good wine. This isn’t one of those buses.

The Night Bus to Battambang

Cambodia
October 2010

Three hours from Phnom Penh, late afternoon, the bus makes a rest stop at a restaurant with a market out front. If this is the midpoint, we have three more hours until we reach Battambang.

The market is crowded with people getting off work. People from the bus purchase fruit and pastries. I buy them, too. A surprising amount of good pastries in Cambodia, the legacy of French colonization. I haven’t eaten all day.

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