September 24, 2016

The island where time stops

I submitted my dissertation and went to the sea.

The cheapest ferry ride took me back to the island where I licked my wounds four years ago. Nothing had changed, except September was even more beautiful than July. There are no cars on the island, or tourists anymore, only grumpy hilarious locals at this time of year. They complain about the new ferry because she is a riverboat, a shallow-draft vessel that leans in turns and high wind, whereas the previous rusty old favorite used to break waves like matchsticks. After being briefly on display in dry dock, it has now been scrapped, reminding everyone that one fell swoop is all that lies between breaking waves and breaking ships, and local teenagers have to find some other ropes to jump on and hang off of as the ship leaves port.

All ancestors' houses are the same, just like my family's farmhouse. They are haunted by generations' worth of memories. They have closets that smell of childhood and conjure up the past every time they open. They have cracks in walls and broken pipes that a grandfather built once, clamoring for repair. They have new furniture and tiles, as the new generations take over the upkeep. Stone, dirt, and wood mix with cement and metal as room is made for the young ones.

The seabed is still crawling with urchins, which means that the sea is as pristine as can be. There is an urban legend that female sea urchins adorn themselves by wearing pebbles on top, which, even if it isn't true, you still wish it were. The winds are haphazard and unpredictable: the southerlies make the sea warmer and draw a cover of pastel clouds above the sky, the easterlies bring sweet splashing waves, and the north wind chases bad weather away and chills the sea. The fishermen love the southerlies and the sailing ships come out to play when the north wind kicks in.

We swam. We fished. We played cards. No computers. Phones barely making touchdown with networks. We fed a herd of local cats whose nicknames were Batman and Robin, Squinty, Stumpy, Mother, Ninja, and Bro. After a week they were shamelessly stealing food from off our plates and we chased them away with a kid water gun, only to invite them back in when the rain started. We talked of going to the harbor for drinks, of climbing up to the World War II battery, of revisiting the snake hill, and the island where time stops dispelled all our plans.

There are two villages on the island, one historically communist, the other fascist. They hate each other and cannot live without each other. One road connects them, and on this road is a shared cemetery, separated by a wall. The last names on the tombstones are completely different, you will not find one village's names in the cemetery of the other. The men die at sea or in some senseless war, and their widows outlive them by forty years, roaming the tiny streets, gossiping and nurturing, clad in black for the rest of their days, as if the Adriatic island sun were some elixir of eternal life.

There is a woman in my brother-in-law's family, lovingly nicknamed “crazy Sonia.” Her husband died decades ago, and her son lives in the big city, simultaneously wiser than his years and a fatherless child at heart. She hasn’t left the island in ten years. Her crazy brother lives two houses down but no one calls him crazy. She is seventy but doesn’t look a day over fifty. She brings capered sardines, home-made bread and cherry cake and gives us all a lashing of her beautiful snake tongue. What nobody in the village knows is that there is a song from the eighties, a cover of Lobo’s “Baby I’d Love You to Want Me,” entitled “Sonia” in our language. It’s about a girl leaving a guy, and him still hearing her footsteps as she is in a hurry to get away. No one knows that it is about her, but the lyrics follow her everywhere she goes: “Sonia, just every now and then, please take me back again…”

I hate telling myself that all the sense-making will only make sense with time, but it's the truth. The taxi boat ride back to mainland is swift and exciting. My brother-in-law holds me down so that I don’t tumble out of the boat and my sister and I remove our sunglasses and let our hair down as we cut the waves and they spray us back, straight through a forest of blue-hulled sailing ships that seem to be playing ring-around-the-rosy in the azure archipelago. There are too many people and traffic lights back in the city, across the mountains and away from the sea. I am condemned to wait some more and make the best of the wait.

January 10, 2016

Dancing in no man’s land

The last time I’d been on that road I was in a car accident. We were reluctant to go this time, yet had no real reason. A Hungarian goddess was holding a flamenco dance class so we went for it. A rain, sleet, and fog interstice between two capital cities, an hour and a half ride, what the hell.


We never made it. Ten miles before our destination, somewhere between two tunnels, highway traffic stopped dead. Hey buddy, we’re running late, I texted our instructor. As we slowed down, cars parted to the left and right, like the sea, as if gently coaxed by some invisible hand. A rotating light whizzed by in the opposite direction. Then another, and a few more. An ambulance returned our way, followed by several police vehicles, then safety trucks carrying flashing road signs.


The car radio didn’t work because I’d knocked off the aerial a few days earlier swiping snow off the roof of the car. Our phones had no data service. There were a million headlights all around, a crowd of people neatly separated and packed inside little metal boxes with wheels on, hiding to keep the cold outside. We couldn’t see far enough ahead to know anything. Nothing left to do but nosh on breadsticks and tangerines, turn knobs and push buttons in the car, and check phones that wouldn’t work. An interstice of fog and sleet between two capital cities, an hour and a half ride through, apparently, the middle of nowhere.


My instructor called. Some maniac wrong-way driver crashed. You’re probably not gonna make it, but when you get here, at least stop for drinks.

Germans call them Geisterfahrer. Ghost drivers. Flying Dutchmen of the road.


We sat in traffic for two hours, abandoned by technology, stretching legs, cracking jokes inside our little warm box, counting the reasons we were running late in the first place. My friends’ bus, me forgetting the car insurance policy, her stopping for coffee at a gas station. Tiny distractions that held us back like Aphrodite’s apples, like breadcrumbs we needed to leave behind. Then the sea started rolling again, slowly and heavily diverted into a single lane. The newspaper reports would say later: one killed, several injured. Wrong-way driver in a Fiat Punto crashed into a Dodge, four more vehicles crashed trying to avoid the collision. Sorry M, but we think we’re just going to drive back home, I texted. Don’t be, he replied. I’m just glad you guys didn’t head out three minutes earlier.


We’re not the kind that need to be reminded that we are always close to chaos. That all the comfort, safety and trappings of civilized life are a tunnel, a thin metal membrane, and a steering-wheel swerve away. We don’t read too much into coincidences, but we keep them in mind. Viva la vida, we thought as we passed by the crash site. The little Fiat Punto looked like some otherworldly flower in full bloom, doors and metal sheets unfurled as they tried to get to the driver, and the Dodge had a big dent in its front left side. Three more cars were scattered on the road, lights flashing. A soul left this world, and our dance shoes remained packed away.


We turned around, back into the sleet and the rain and the fog. We stopped at a Marché to refresh and get our bearings. There’s something about these places between worlds, between borders. A franchise diner in no man’s land, looking like every other of its kind, with neat containers of fresh fruit and Vienna schnitzels and potato salad and muffins and ever-hot cocoa and coffee. We were the only people there. We had tea and cake and laughed with poppy seeds in our teeth. We spoke of Israel and America and family, and threw a little dance party between the Delilahs and California Blues and My Ways that played for no one but us. I thought of how I hugged my Mom before I left but didn’t hug Dad, because he just handed me the insurance papers through the window. I thought of how I would always be annoyed when my friend takes her time with things, regardless of the outside world. I thought of the “Danger! Slippery” sign in the restroom.

We spent nine hours in a car, getting nowhere, doing nothing. No drama, just life, unforgiving in its awkwardness and oddity. Happens every day. We live in lighthouses, connected with corridors of darkness and frost. We follow the music, and take wrong turns that end up righting someone else’s path. We drop out of connection and end up dancing to the music that was meant for us, not the one we thought we had chosen. It wasn’t my car crash this time, it wasn’t my music, but we danced.