I’m back from my travels to Istanbul, Samsun (another city in Turkey) and Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands.
It was a very, very good trip that was soul-nourishing and reminded me of the kindness of many humans—friends and strangers both. I ended up spending a good amount of time with friend and fellow writer, E, who, though he’s been in California for the last 22 years, is from, and happened to be working in, Istanbul. He met me at the airport and helped me find my way into the city and to my AirBnB, and in subsequent days took me to restaurants, showed me various neighborhoods and introduced me to the various aspects of the city’s transportation system—consisting of buses, trains, other trains, and ferries. He also filled me in on some history and context of the places we went in a very interesting way, and we had some conversations about writing and the writing life as well.
Additionally, both of my AirBnB hosts were great, with very pleasant housemates. T, my first host, was a social studies teacher. She made breakfast on a couple of mornings when she was around, and plied me with fresh herb teas and honey and ginger for my cold that had descended the day of my departure. I think her remedies helped, because the cold largely resolved in a few days without ever becoming the kind of scary chest cough bronchitis thing I’ve been prone to manifest in the past. (BTW It wasn’t Covid, and I wore a mask in close indoor situations.) My second hosts were a couple with a 1.5 year old and three cats. He was a computer software engineer, and they both also run a Tango-dancing school and teach classes. We hit is off and, along with E, went out for drinks in their neighborhood my first night.
In between my two Istanbul AirBnBs was my trip to my Solar Return assignment, Samsun. I showed the bus drivers outside the Samsun airport the address of my hotel. They put me on a bus, then, after conferring with each other in Turkish, gestured for me to disembark and get on another bus instead—and it was one that brought me where I needed to go. My two nights at a hotel were a perfect break—alone time with luxuries like my own bathroom and extra pillows. I rang in my birthday by staying up too late reading a novel in bed, and the next day I spend some time on a bench looking at the sea and thinking, and even attempted a sketch, which I haven’t done for ages.
The last leg of my trip was The Netherlands—where I met Paul for his 3-day fast Solar Return trip. We stayed with old friends from Australia who are living in Utrecht for a couple of years, While they were at work we did some sight-seeing in Amsterdam, going to the Ann Frank house and the Van Gogh museum, but the best part was coming home and getting to hang out, play board games and catch up with our friends and get to know their two fabulous kids.
I’ve arrived back in LA spiritually refreshed, but sluggish from the time shift (Istanbul is 11 hours different from LA, and Amsterdam is nine). Tonight, I succumbed to the temptation to fall asleep on the couch at about 7:30 PM, and woke wondering if it was morning… It was 11:30 PM… which is why I am writing this now, at almost 2:00 AM, and am thinking about watching some TV before going back to sleep, even though I know that’s not a great decision for “Tomorrow B,” who is slated to attend two holiday gatherings tomorrow!
What is the purpose of this theatrical exercise—of standing on stage, arms outstretched then falling backwards trusting life will catch you, of taking leaps of faith to prove to yourself you won’t hit the ground… at least too hard?
Maybe it’s that trust takes strength and skill, the development of which requires practice. We play scales and the exercises of Czerny on the piano—thousands of notes designed to be forgotten— in order to be able to play other notes which are arranged to be remembered.
This is what I wrote in a notebook a few weeks ago, when I was feeling philosophical.
This week I’m not feeling so philosophical. This week I’m mainly wondering, why the fuck would someone who has as much pre-traveling anxiety as me keep choosing to undertake a monumental yet completely optional and frivolous pilgrimage each year?
For the past week my chest has been tight, I get these weird pressure headaches in the evenings, and my right eyelid has been twitching intermittently. Every travel arrangement seems fraught.
For example, to keep costs down, I purchased cheaper tickets with carry-on luggage only, which seemed like a nice self-discipline when I booked – wouldn’t I be happier not lugging around a huge case? But it’s turned out that every flight has slightly different carry-on requirements. I’ve spent hours measuring, reading rules, and consulting Reddit threads about how strict they’ll be about an extra inch here or there. I have two flights on Pegasus Airlines, which seems to be the Turkish equivalent of Allegiant Airlines, in that the flights are cheap, but the baggage allowance is exactly one piece. Any item, including a purse or laptop bag counts as that one piece, regardless of its size. Anything additional must be purchased in advance or will cause a large fee at the airport
On one hand, I feel outraged at a world so clearly determined to penalize the poor at every turn. On the other hand, I absorb the judgmental messaging about what it means to be of lower economic status. If I “mess up” and end up paying a punitive fee, then I probably deserve it for failing to diligently read all the fine print, or selfishly packing so much that I can’t also fit my laptop bag into a 20” carry-on. And the fact that I chose such a low-rent airline to begin with points to suspect life choices. When people make better life choices, their money flows like a river instead of arriving too-seldom and unpredictably like the rain in LA. People who make better life choices fly Turkish Airlines, which is civilized, and allows both a suitcase AND a personal item.
Between my natural tendency (augmented by training) to see small events as representing larger issues, and the fact that these trips coincide with my birthday and the end of each year—the two traditional times for evaluating one’s accomplishments and questioning life’s purpose—it’s not surprising that in these anxious moments I can transform every little thing into a reflection of and referendum on my life. It’s not a great headspace.
But I know from experience that once I’m on the plane, a huge amount of this anxiety will disappear. In my current state, I fear that it won’t, but it will.
I know some of you have been waiting with bated breath to find out what astrologically recommended trip I’ll be taking for my birthday this year…
(For those unfamiliar with this blog, in the last few years I have become, reluctantly, a person who lets an astrologist use the time and location of my birth to calculate my “transits” and then recommend the best places to spend my birthday, I wrote a bit about the origins of this practice last year in this post.)
First, let me tell you about a couple of the contenders for this year’s “best place,” because I think they’re more entertaining than usual: According to our astrologist (yes I’m aware of exactly how California it sounds to talk about “our astrologist”)…
The VERY BEST place to be during my Astral Solar Return (i.e. “ASR” i.e. my birthday) would be:
Takaroa: an atoll in the French Polynesian islands. An atoll is apparently a ring-shaped island with a big lagoon in middle. Takaroa is 17 miles x 4 miles in total, but only 8 square miles of that is land, and the rest, I guess, is lagoon. Takaroa’s population is 674 and it has a tropical monsoon climate — with my birthday month of December being the wettest of the year. Traveling to Takaroa, while not impossible, looks expensive and a bit complicated, involving an unverifiable flight from either Tahiti or Papeete. Does an island with 700 people have an hotel?
The BEST (and “only good choice”) in the U.S. was:
Umiat (OO-mee-yat): an unincorporated community in North Slope Borough, Alaska. Located 140 miles from Deadhorse in the Arctic Circle, it’s accessible only by air or river. It is known as one of the coldest places in the US, and “has no permanent residents, being a camp and fuel stop for aircraft and helicopters operating in the area.”
Reading these first two options, I thought for a minute maybe I was being punked. (For comparison, Paul’s first choices were Amsterdam, the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, and Dublin), but apparently this is how my stars aligned.
Out of a handful of other choices ranging from “good” (Maldives) to “very good” (Bishkek, Kyrgzstan) to “other best” (a tie between Nairobi, Kenya and Samsun, Turkey), the winner is….
Samsun, Turkey! It’s a port city on the north coast of Turkey with a population 710,000. It looks pleasant (although it is right across the Black Sea from the Ukrainian nuclear plant we hope the Russians won’t target). I’ll likely just be hanging out there for a night or two, and spend some additional days in Istanbul (…which is not Constantinople)!
Wait, you’re probably thinking, Is she “literally” on a plan to Argentina, or is this going to be one of those posts where “flying to Argentina” is some weird metaphor? The answer is I am typing this on an American Airlines flight that just took off from Dallas Fort Worth, and in nine and a half hours will land in Buenos Aires.
The plane is full, it’s dimly lit. Some folks —including my traveling companion—have already taken their in-flight drugs and are sleeping, chins to chests. Glowing screens on the walls show our flight path, and more glowing screens on the seat backs silently play commercials, episodes of Ted Lasso, and movies with car chases and fight scenes. One contented baby is sleeping in the seat in front of me, while one discontented (and incredibly strong-lunged) baby cries across the aisle. It’s okay. I’m wearing earplugs.
But you don’t care about any of this – you’re wondering why I don’t get to the point and tell you why I’m on my way to Argentina. I’m procrastinating because the answer is a little embarrassing.
It’s because an astrologist told me to.
A few years ago, a friend (who’d been having some good luck in love, career, etc,) told Paul that she had been consulting an astrologist, K, who specialized in Solar Returns. The idea has something to do with looking at the position of the stars when and where you were born and somehow using that information to calculate where your “best stars” are for any given year. The astrologist then recommends where on the globe you should spend her birthday, in order to mitigate transits that might be unlucky, and optimize what can be optimized.
That was the first year that, for our anniversary, Paul got us readings from K. I can’t say I exactly believe in the astrology, but I do believe in affirmations, and it seemed like taking a trip with one’s goals in mind is a strong affirming action. And it could also be fun. At the same time, it always feels a little “out there” to spend a lot of time effort and resources on an astrology trip… at least for me, if something feels too frivolous it becomes more stressful than fun. Paul is someone who takes big swings more in stride. He sometimes enjoys something more because it verges on the ridiculous!
For the last few years, things worked out in terms of our personalities. The first year I had the option of making a road trip to Eureka, California, while Paul went to Japan. The next year, I took a two hour flight on Southwest to Loreto, Mexico, while Paul journeyed to a small town in Italy. Last year, because of the pandemic, we told the astrologist to just give her best shot within driving distance. I got Goleta, California (near Santa Barbara) while Paul took a longer trip to Arizona.
But this year, when our recommendations arrived, the tables had turned. K noted that that even if Paul stayed in Los Angeles, it would be “neutral,” though he might improve his horoscope with a fairly easy trip to Hawaii.
But after that she said:
For Barrington the choice is much more difficult. She will have very bad transit trends for health this year (Saturn for about 4 months puts health at risk), so we need to do ASR possibly very protective for health and without dangerous values! In view of the heavy transits, I would like to offer you the best possible horoscope for health protection and throughout the US there are NO places that are completely safe! This means that I could NEVER make the positive prediction with birthday 2021 in the US (too bad stars).
Then she offered up my BEST options, which she said would be “VERY protective for health, with success in all kinds of projects and extraordinary benefits for human relationships and love, money and carrier.”
They were specific cities in:
Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Guyana.
The second best choice was in Barbados, which she said was protective for health, projects and relationships but with some stress for money with extra expenses throughout the year, (apparently because of Mars in the 2nd House—something astrologers will understand but not me). A third option was Guam. Lastly, she included Boston, although she described this as “NOT a completely safe horoscope. I can only propose it as a ‘less worse’ emergency solution.”
None of these were the kind of easy, inexpensive trip I was hoping for. Distracted by other things happening that evening— like watching our Creepshow episode for the first time and doing fun prep for a morning colonoscopy—I put it out of my mind.
Until, twelve hours later, I received the completely-out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis.
Which certainly felt like a coincidence right after the big health warning. In several years, K has never been quite so specific or adamant about health. I figured it couldn’t hurt to explore the options. And, of course, planning a trip is more fun than planning a cancer journey…
Our friend Brazil didn’t have time for a road trip to the recommended city of Curitiba, and said he wouldn’t recommend trying to drive there from Sao Paulo during monsoon season.
Guyana—just a hop from Miami—was the closest and cheapest, but it had big red travel advisories for both Covid and a huge recent crime surge.
But then my friend, A, said, “I’ve been thinking about going to Argentina.” She speaks much better Spanish than me, and has a friend in Argentina who wants to show us around his city, which is midway between Buenos Aires and my “magic birthday destination” of Bahia Blanca. We’ve been friends for a long time, but have never traveled together and the idea started to seem more fun. Clearly, I’m at a place where the future is feeling uncertain, so… why not?
I’ll say again that I probably don’t believe in astrology, specifically. But from experience, I have to acknowledge that sometimes the universe gives you enough little pushes.
And that’s why I’m writing this post on a plane to Argentina!
Telling people you are planning to drive from one end of the country to the other in the midst of a pandemic gives rise to some questions. Do you think it’s safer to drive than fly? The answer is “maybe.” We have to make more stops, but we won’t have the hours of sharing air with strangers in a confined space. Also, we’ve brought our car to Florida and need to get it back to LA, along with all of our stuff, so it’s attractive to feel like driving is the safer option. Do you think an AirBnB would be cleaner than a hotel? Not really. I feel like the cleanliness of individually-owned properties is less predictable than a hotel that is part of a chain. In New Mexico, where we’ll spend our second night, the occupancy for hotels is capped at 25%, so it will be almost empty, and I figure I can wipe down surfaces and touch points in a single room with less error than in a house.
On the flip side, we’ve also made the decision to spend the first night with my uncle, who lives deep in the country heart of Texas. Because my uncle is not one for phones, emails, or plane trips, and because he is still recovering from a badly broken leg several months back, my family worries for him, and would like me visit. Paul is not a fan of this; he worries because he doesn’t want to be responsible for making him sick. I don’t either, but, I reason, we’ve been sequestered for several weeks, my uncle’s house is fairly large so we can spread out, and as an essential worker, he has been going to work, so he’s being exposed to some outside people already. Of course, the flip side of that is that we are also being exposed to him. Either way, though, we’ll need to do two week quarantine when we get back to Los Angeles. When I tell Paul my family is in favor of us going. He asks “are they okay if we go and then one of us gets sick and dies?” This is a fair question, so I call my mother and uncle and ask: They all say to go for it, and think it is weird that I should ask. Apparently, if something tragic happens, my husband may blame me, but my family will not.
April 24, Friday –Pre move plans always include going to bed early and getting up mega-early the day of the move… and never really work that way. Still, we are loaded and on the road by sometime between 8:30 and 9am. In addition to the bag of snacks we had on our way east, I’ve put together another bag, containing rubbing alcohol, a roll paper towels, a roll of toilet paper, and a container of Clorox wipes A small container of hand sanitizer sits in the center console, along with the cloth masks my mother has sent.
It should take about eleven hours to get to my uncle’s house. We have one “fun” item on the the itinerary, which is stopping at a Buc-ee’s filling station and purchasing brisket sandwiches for lunch after we cross into Alabama.
Our last planned stop in Gainesville is the Starbucks for Paul, but as we near it, we see the the drive-through line — the only line since there’s no in-store service — extends down the street. We keep driving, planning to find a sugary caffeine drink on down the road.
Two hours later, it’s time for our first bathroom break. Since restaurants are closed, the choices are gas stations and state rest areas and I think rest areas are the way to go. The bathrooms are spacious and, with few people traveling for leisure and mostly-male truckers, I’m guessing not crowded. When we arrive, I enact for the first time the routine I have planned: using a Clorox wipe to open every door handle, latch the stall door, and, after perching the wipe on the top of the door while I use the facilities, using it again to exit the stall, push on the faucet handles and activate the dryers. I wipe each touch point I pass as as a little act of service to whomever uses it next.
In Tallahassee, where we went to grad-school back in the day, our pre-pandemic plans had been to see friends, reach out to professors, revisit old haunts. Our new plan is to drive straight through. But outside of town we decide we can each text one friend, and offer to drive by and wave. Twenty minutes later we have a short ten-year reunion with our friend Susie, with us parked at the end of her driveway and she standing eight or ten feet away. She tells us about her kids, the birds in the backyard, working from home and painting designs on furniture.
She is in the middle of her workday, and we are still ten hours from our destination, so after fifteen minutes we are on our way. We make another spontaneous detour to see the graduate student housing where we lived for three years, only to discover the university has razed most of the buildings, including the one where we lived.
The line for the Starbucks in Tallahassee is even longer that the one in Gainesville, so we continue to the highway.
Before leaving, I asked the Facebook what music we should listen to on our trip, and got a handful of responses that includes Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Step Inside this House by Lyle Lovett, so we’ve downloaded these, along with an album I’ve been hearing about all week, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. These all seem a little less “basic” than the music we listened to coming the other direction– Paul’s choices of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and the Hamilton soundtrack.
We play the Lucinda Williams, and I’m getting into it — I’ve always had an affinity for raspy female recording artists — but four songs in, Paul says “I don’t think I can do it.” He hits the control on the steering wheel that I’ve never gotten the hang of, and next thing I know, we’re listening to “Memories” by Maroon 5, which, I have to admit, is catchy. I’ve always had an affection for the earworm masterpiece that is Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and that affection transfers to this pop song that borrows heavily from it.
After a little while, Paul starts Weezer album, which I think I remember liking. Now, though, high-hat cymbal feels constant and grating and tinny — but I don’t say anything. It’s good to listen to an entire album and experience it as a whole, I tell myself.
At 2:15pm, Kelly Clarkson plays as we discuss the new Heidi Klum-Tim Gunn show Making the Cut, trying to break down precisely what it means to have a taste problem, what it means to feel more expensive, and how each of these might translate to both the entertainment industry and life. “I think maybe we’d be better off,” says Paul, “if I felt more expensive to people.”
By this time we are already passing billboards for the Buc-ee’s, even though we’re still 100 miles out. For those who don’t know, Buc-ee’s is a Texas-based gas-station chain. A Buc–ee’s generally has at least a couple dozen gas pumps (one location has 100), and a convenience stores the size of a small Costco. Each store has a deli, a fudgery, a meat carvery, a desert case, and lots of branded tchotchkes. Fans wax poetic about the signature chopped brisket sandwich which, in case you don’t get the chance — tastes like a heightened McRib’s with pickles on it.
As we cross into Alabama, we can see some congestion going the other direction, at a checkpoint going from Alabama into Florida. There’s no checkpoint in our direction. For us, the only slow-down is the line of cars entering the Buc-ee’s.
I’m a bit ashamed of how much social environment affects my perspective. I’ve found myself wearing the mask outside when there’s no one within a hundred feet. Based on my reading and common sense, I know this is unnecessary, but everyone else is doing it, so I do, too. In Alabama, outside the Buc-ee’s, the opposite is true. People are hanging out by their vehicles, and those entering aren’t wearing masks. For a moment, this seems reasonable. The store is as big as a theme park– we’ll be able to social distance easily, right?
But as soon as we walk through the sliding glass doors we realize this is not right. The lines at the two checkout stands are spaced in six foot increments, but because of this the lines extend down main aisle of the store — the same aisle that every customer needs to traverse to get to the contents of the store. While customers have space from the person in front of them in line, they are also within two feet of every customer entering the store .. like us.
Paul and I look at each other and in unison don our masks.
All around us, people without masks dart away from each other, like bumper cars, or like people with no umbrellas trying to dodge the rain. “If we come home with the virus,” I joke to Paul, as we grab our foil wrapped sandwiches from the bustling carvery, “it’s probably because we had to gett sandwiches at Buc-ee’s.” It wasn’t that funny of a joke.
We eat our sandwiches in the car. We’ve reached the “depressing part of the day.” Which is that time you are thinking you should be almost done driving, but according to the GPS you have five or six more hours to go…