the year of broken bones

I’m now five months post-jaw surgery. The entire healing process, everything from surgery on, was so different than I imagined. This surgery loomed in my head for years before I actually had it, and I worried it smooth. I had the time to worry about every little aspect of it–what if I can’t breathe when I wake up? What if I puke? What if I can never feel my face again? What if I have an adverse reaction to anesthesia? What if my pain meds make me nauseated? What if I don’t like my face? What if I still have pain? What if it causes new pain? What if I’m somehow awake during surgery? How can I possibly live on a liquid diet, when I don’t have any weight to lose?

To everyone, anyone reading this who may have this surgery in the future, I hope it’s a consolation to know that my experience wasn’t NEARLY as bad as I worried it would be. I lost about 8 pounds during my liquid diet period, which lasted about five-ish weeks. I cheated a little at the end. I did get tired of drinking all my food, but after a while it just became a monotonous reality. Food just won’t be enjoyed for a while. It will merely be tolerated. Which is livable. I didn’t blend up anything nasty, like hamburgers or chicken or eggs. I drank chocolate Ensures and fancy Bolthouse and Naked drinks for the first few weeks. The rest of the time I had the energy to blend my own smoothies. I especially liked this raspberry one I would make.

Recipe, if you’re interested:

-frozen raspberries

-tsp. espresso

-plain Greek yogurt

-almond milk

-scoop of chocolate whey protein

-vanilla extract

-2 tbsp. honey

I’d mix what seemed like right amounts of everything and blend it up. I think this was a recipe I modified from a booklet a fellow jaw surgery survivor sent me. It got me through my last two weeks of a liquid diet, because it didn’t taste like chalk.

I experienced none of my fears after surgery. No puking, no nausea, no choking. Granted, just having lower jaw surgery totally helped in the breathing category. My pain was very manageable throughout. My pain was managed so well that I had time to get annoyed over the splint I had to wear for the first three weeks. It was embarrassing to speak in public, since it made me really lispy.

Now, 5 months later, I have no pain in my jaw. My teeth are aligned, and I get my braces off next week. (I’ll do another post then to show video of me before and after everything.) I’m really looking forward to looking my age again. I can eat anything I ate before. I avoid certain foods still, like hard, raw veggies or gumballs or whatever because I still have braces, but that is what dictates my restrictions, not my jaw’s ability or lack thereof.

The only thing that’s still a work-in-progress is my numbness, which I knew to expect, but it’s still a bummer. The right half of my lower lip and chin is still 90% numb. I just started getting baby feelings in that area a few weeks ago, which was a huge relief. Feeling a tiny bit is infinitely better than feeling nothing. I still eat with a mirror at home so I can be sure I don’t have food on my face. I’m hoping my numbness will continue to dissipate as more months pass.

Now, onto my latest woe. In December I regrettable climbed up a building wall like Spiderman, fell off of it, and landed on back, with my left elbow underneath me. My arm looked kind of funky and hurt like hell, but I’ve fallen off the monkey bars and stuff when I was younger and hurt my elbow similarly, only to have it feeling better within a few days, so I went to bed. The next day the pain was so stabbing when I moved it that I felt nauseated,  so I went to the emergency room and found out I had broken clean through my olecranon, the upper portion of my ulna. So basically, my elbow. It hadn’t shattered, but I needed surgery that I had to wait a week for. That week was not fun.

img_0348

During surgery, my sexy orthopedic surgeon put some metal in my elbow. He described it as “a plate and some screws”. I was in so much pain and just wanted my arm back to it’s straight self that I went under not really knowing much more than that. I was anticipating some bruising, and a like two-inch incision. When I uncovered my arm again a few days after surgery, it looked like this:

arm

Absolutely horrifying. I felt like a zombie. Every shower was a terrifying new time of discovery. I’ve only every seen a dead body on Forensic Files look so rotted. When my physical therapist told me I had 30 staples in my arm I about passed out. So much for a two-inch incision.

I had really limited range of motion and everything hurt. I flew home for Christmas two days after surgery. I knocked myself out on two oxycodone and a dramamine. I physically couldn’t put my luggage in the overhead bin, so I kept it cramped by my feet. This was my introduction into the world of what it’s like to live without an arm. Thank God I’m right-handed.

For six weeks, things I did with one arm:

-wash my hair

-wash my body

-put on lotion

-type (became easier faster than other things)

-cook

-get dressed

-do my job etc. etc.

It’s now been seven weeks since surgery. This healing process has been incredibly painful, way worse than jaw surgery. I still can’t straighten my arm fully or bend it fully. I can feel the three milimeter-thick plate in my arm with my finger. I can’t rest my elbow on a table or desk. I can’t prop myself up to read a book. My elbow gets very tight when it’s cold. Bumping it or getting bumped into is enough to make my eyes water. Here is my most recent x-ray, taken a few days ago:

arm-metal

The first x-ray is older, from when I still had staples in. The second is new. I had no idea exactly how much metal was in my arm, or in what formation. Now that I can see all those criss-crossed screws in the tip of my elbow, it’s little wonder it’s so sensitive. My sexy surgeon told me most people elect to remove the metal after six month to a year of healing. Despite my incredibly high health insurance deductible, I might just have to bite the bullet and get that shit taken out, because it’s such a literal pain.

So, 2016 was a year of broken bones, pain, patience (and impatience), and recovery. I’m hoping 2017 doesn’t follow suit.

the 23 day-post-op blues

I was warned of it, and assumed it would happen immediately after surgery, with me plugged into an IV, bleeding from the mouth and unable to talk, but when I sailed through the first week and a half of healing, I thought I had gotten lucky and missed the post-op blues. Everything I had read (which had been a lot, probably bordering on obsession) said that the first three days were bad, but if you could make it through the first week after surgery, it was smooth sailing. Well here I am at a little more than three weeks after, and I’m in a slump.

The origin of the slump is probably due to two things: rate of visible healing and pain level. The first couple weeks I could see changes in my face every day. Swelling was going down, bruising was lightening up; just the incredible relief of having a surgery I’ve dreaded for years be done with was a high I rode for a while. Due to narcotics and nerve damage, my pain level was surprisingly low.

Now it feels like I’ve taken a step back. I ran out of painkillers around day 10 and started on just ibuprofen, which felt like a kick in the face at first. I’m also slowly, oh so slowly gaining feeling in my face back, and shit hurts like hell. Unfortunately, the majority of feeling is returning first inside my mouth, meaning the gums that have stitches all tied up in them. I bought some Orajel stuff to squeeze on that suture line, but it’s a constant dull throb, especially now that I’m talking more. I’ve gotten the all-ok from my surgeon, and nothing looks infected (I got a good peek at the stitches tonight and nearly fainted); it just hurts. My surgeon also took out my splint (yay) but gave me some mighty powerful elastics to wear instead (boo). They’re rubbing on my gums and making my teeth sore.

Only being half-done with my liquid diet is also a disheartening and monotonous thought.

I went back to work last night for the first time after surgery. In preparation, the night previous I watched Me Before You and cried and cried and threw myself a pity party. I’ve got to face it–my body is ready to go back to work. I’ve been out shopping WAY too much in the last week, which is how I know. But my mind isn’t there yet. Considering how I feel about my job, that’s not too surprising, but, I mean, I was REALLY dreading returning.

One good thing in this post of bad is that I haven’t been losing too much weight. Being 5’10” and 127ish pounds normally, I was worried that I would turn into Jack Skellington on a liquid diet. But, I got the chance to weigh myself the other day and I’m only down to 121 pounds, which is about half of what I had expected I’d lose.

To wrap up, things just feel glummy and gloomy right now. I’m going to leave you with some progress pictures and one I snuck at the surgeon’s office of my mouth x-ray three days post-op that made me queasy.

 

picture progression: from braces to jaw surgery

I guess I should take a step back here and share some pictures of the journey my mouth has been on in the last year.

My dental fiasco didn’t start last October, actually. It started when I was 11 and I was told I needed braces. I got an expander (and then another) at 13 and braces on at 14. I got them off the summer before I turned 17, open bite and all. I made the terrible decision at 26 to stop wearing my retainers and see what happened and BAD THINGS HAPPENED. I jammed my top retainer back on, but it was never to fit very well again. The bottom was a lost cause. So that’s where these pictures are starting out, from day 1 of getting braces for the second time on October 21st, 2015, until right before the mandibular osteotomy/genioplasty in September of 2016.

Day 1, October 21st, 2015

These pictures are in time-order. I would take pictures every time I had an orthodontist appointment (every 4-12 weeks). In these four pictures I had bite turbos on my back molars in order to allow my cross bite to be corrected with elastics. This was not a good time for talking or eating.

Bite turbos out, yay! Things are coming together. These were my last four appointments before surgery, and with the Damon system of braces (which I have) your wires get thicker and thicker which each appointment, so my mouth was getting its shit together fast. During the time the last two pictures were taken was the first time I could touch my front top teeth to my front bottom teeth in 16 years. That really was a special moment and a huge relief.

My previous couple posts depict the uglier side of recovery, so here’s one taken on day 16 post-surgery to shine a little ray of hope into all this metal and misery. I can only mean mug right now and pretend like I’m trying to be sexy because of this goddamn occlusal splint, bane of my being, torturer of my soul. I get it taken out in two hours, giddy-up!

12

Green bruises and all.

12 days post-op

Have I mentioned how annoying this splint is? It’s like a retainer times 10 and makes it difficult to speak and eat. I negotiated with my surgeon when I last saw him on Monday to take my splint out a week and a half early, and he conceded, so that’s something to look forward to. I feel bad for anyone who has to have this thing in for the whole six weeks.

I thought I’d upload some pictures commemorating my first non-doctor’s appointment outing since surgery. I went out to a bar to play trivia with my boyfriend, and drove my car for the first time since surgery too. My mouth is open because because it’s still difficult and awkward-looking to close it fully because of the splint. Don’t be fooled by my mad makeup skillz–I still have green and purple bruises along the sides of my face and neck.

 

I stopped taking hydrocodone this week and my mind feels so much clearer. I have more intense jaw owies and twinges, but nothing so bad I wish I was back on narcotics. I’m still sleeping a lot, but have been trying to get out in the sun at least a little bit every day.

Tonight I was feeling really sick of cold protein shakes for dinner, so I bought some broccoli cheddar soup and orzo pasta. I combined them to make the soup a little bit more substantial, and have been swallowing the mixture whole, and it’s making my night. This is way better than when I tried to put macaroni and cheese in the blender (pretty gross, but I did it twice out of desperation). I have a feeling my surgeon’s going to find some icky pickles when he removes this splint next week.

Other than that, I’m still swollen, though a lot of that has dissipated. I’m still not chewing, though I have nightmares that I catch myself doing it on accident. The left side of my jaw and chin hurt a little where the screws are, and I’m also gaining feeling back faster on that side. My bottom lip down to where my neck starts (plus some cheek out to each side) is all still completely numb. I’m still scared to look at my stitches or explore too much in my mouth. I’m still sleeping with my  head elevated and putting hot compresses on my face to help get rid of the bruising. I still drool and have food on my face unbeknownst to me. It still kind of hurts to yawn or cough. But time is passing, and I feel so relieved to be through the worst of it.

9 days post-op, featuring The Bruise

I’d like to introduce my new friend, The Bruise. All the black and blue bruising I initially had in my face has now migrated down my neck, mainly on my left side. It’s turned into an enormous green bruise, not unlike what it might look like if someone tried to strangle me. My boyfriend and I feel aware of it going out in public, knowing it’s clearly visible and wondering if people suspect him, rather than the surgeon, of being the culpable party.

 

Left: The Bruise. The picture on the right was taken on day eight post-op. That’s my attempt at a close-lipped smile. I still have some work to do. But my swelling is going down.

There have been some surprising aspects of my recovery that I hadn’t expected. I have experienced close to no nausea, despite being prone to it in life in general. I think the Scop patch must be a miracle-worker. Either that or I’ve been taking aspirin under the guise of hydrocodone this whole time.

I’ve also been surprised by how much I can open my mouth. I could open it immediately after surgery because I wasn’t wired or rubberbanded shut, and the amount I can open it has been increasing as time passes. I don’t do any special jaw exercises or anything, but I can eat things (poorly) with a spoon now and easily drink out of a cup, so no more of that pathetic-looking syringe eating.

Another thing is how I can feel both aware and confused, lovely side effects of hydrocodone. I feel completely there mentally  when I’m watching Netflix, talking to my boyfriend, or texting someone, but I find myself forgetting a lot of things too. Did I tell him that or was it a dream? What am I looking for again? What was I excited to have for dinner? Why did I come back into the house? Have I listened to this part of the podcast already? It’s an early taste of senility.

Related to that, I haven’t read yet. Being an avid reader, I stockpiled books on my fireplace, ready to read for after surgery. But with my mind sort of fuzzy and lazy, I’ve preferred to watch Netflix or listen to podcasts or scary stories. I’ll probably start in on the books once I’m off narcotics.

There are a few other observations I’ve made that I don’t necessarily find surprising. I’m not surprised I tire easily trying to talk. This splint is really killing my vibe in that arena. I also keep biting my cheeks because they’re numb and swollen, so if I swipe my tongue between my molars there are raised teeth marks running along both cheeks like the joker, but inside my mouth rather than outside.

Something negative to pop up since I last wrote is that my pain level has slightly increased. I think it’s because my numb nerves are starting to heal, which is a good thing, but it’s leaving me with more feeling in the surgical sites. The left side has been especially achy, so I’ve been putting a warm compress on it, which only sort of helps.

Another negative is that my bowels are packed with poop that’s going nowhere fast. Side effect of narcotics, again. I went from never having taken a stool softener in my life to eating almost a whole bottle only to produce the most unsatisfying of rabbity turds. Sigh.

On a more serious note, my family and friends have been so caring and supportive during my recovery. I’ve received several care packages, cards, and texts wondering how I’m  doing. I’ve been particularly touched by how selfless my birthmom has been, volunteering to fly out here and help me during and after surgery, and how kind a couple of my coworkers have been, checking up on me, offering to bring me groceries, and suggesting movies to watch, though we’re not especially close. Having people I know simply remember I had surgery and acknowledge that I might be having a hard time goes a long way in keeping my spirits high while I bumble around my apartment alone.

I’ve gotten into the habit of sitting on my second-story porch at around 3am and watching documentaries. The other night I decided to do just that, but to pamper myself a little and use a Korean-style face mask with a cat on it that my boyfriend’s mom had given me. I ended up looking like leatherface.

0921160052

I laughed fucking hard for a sec, then put my icepacks on my face, tied onto my head using a canga (a Brazilian piece of cloth towel thing), Grey Gardens-style. While sitting out there, I thought about how terrified I would be to be walking down the sidewalk back from the club on a Friday night and look up to see THAT silently staring down at me.

 

 

jaw surgery–three days after

I’ve made it to the other side and it feels so good. So much time that used to be clogged with worry over this surgery has now been freed up in my  mind that I don’t even know what to do with the extra energy.

I’ve made little comments  in a journal along the way, hoping to be able to relay some helpful information to those who may be undergoing a similar procedure in the future and are also freaking out. Reading others’ blogs was my number one source of information and comfort in the time leading up to surgery, and no doubt they will continue to help and encourage me in the future.

Day 0 was full of new experiences, since I had never been in a hospital as a patient before (even though I work in one), let alone for surgery. I arrived at 5:30am for surgery at 7:30am. The nurses, anesthesiologist, and doctor were all so comforting and caring as I was being prepped for surgery . I was really grateful for that. I got some great hospital socks out of the ordeal, too.

I tried to keep my mind off of it as best I could; after waiting so long for this much-anticipated surgery, the few minutes before going in felt surreal. Apparently I was supposed to have been given Versed before entering the operating room, but someone messed up somewhere along the line and I was totally cognizant as I was flipped over onto the metal operating table. There were so many people in there, including my doctor with a suspicious-looking toolbox that probably contained horrible things like bone saws and scalpels. The room looked like a morgue, but by the time I was thinking that I was already waking up in recovery, with a tight, itchy layer of Coband wrapped around my head.

My time in the hospital was actually pretty good. I’m sure having a pain pump full of Dilaudid helped. My birthmom stayed with me through surgery and my boyfriend stopped by, and I was able to talk (mostly) intelligibly with both. I had very little pain in my face, but I was exhausted, and I still am. I was able to drink water, apple juice, Ensure, and some cream of wheat through a syringe, also a better experience than I was expecting. It’s slopping and cumbersome, but possible with a little bit of patience. I was numb inside and outside the lower half of my face. I didn’t throw up after surgery, and haven’t really felt nauseated either. The IV in my elbow and splint my surgeon put in my mouth  bothered me more than the surgical sites. Another thing that bothered me was that anytime I’d drink something or try to talk, my mouth bled. I went through a box and a half of Kleenex that day. My throat hurt from being intubated. I’d still say the first day my pain was around a 2.

Items that helped me out in the hospital:

facial wipes

iPod, headphones

phone

Arnica salve for stretched and cracked lips

free-standing mirror to allow the use of two hands while drinking out of syringe

glasses and glasses case

deodorant

face lotion

face mist (mine is bougie and scented, but it could just be a bottle that mists water–very refreshing when you’re feeling hospital icky)

 

I brought some other stuff, including a change of clothes and a notebook, but I didn’t end up using anything other than what I’ve listed.

Day 0

day-0

Come at me, boys.

 

The next day, day 1 after surgery, all of the anesthetic had worn off, so I could feel my tongue and the inside of my mouth again, which is great for eating, but not so great for pain level. My pain went up to a 4 and I had slight nausea. My swelling had increased dramatically.  I got to leave the hospital that day, and it felt so good to take a shower and move around my house unencumbered by an IV pole or pulse oximeter.

I was prescribed Ibuprofen and Hydrocodone for pain, Scop patches and Promethazine for nausea, and steroids and antibiotics for swelling and healing. I got behind on my meds yesterday after sleeping through the alarms I set to take them, and my pain level got to a 5-6. I got better about managing my meds after that, so it’s back down to 3-4. My lower face is mostly just incredibly uncomfortable. The skin on my cheeks and chin is swelled so much it’s shiny, and I have intense bruising around my mouth and on my neck, which is a lovely shade of purplish blue right now.

Day 3

Tomorrow is my first post-op appointment with my surgeon, which should just be a quick check-up. I’m dying to get this splint out, but won’t for another few weeks. It’s a food trap and makes it hard to talk. I think things will vastly improve after that. I can’t imagine going back to work with this thing in my mouth.

I’ve been sleeping a ton since getting home, and I keep dreaming I’m chewing food. Last time it was a hot dog fresh off the grill. The dreams stem not so much from food cravings as from the fear I’ll mess my new face up. I’m not wired or rubberbanded shut, which kind of freaks me out. At this point, I don’t like exploring with my tongue in my mouth very much. It’s like a Martian landscape that used to be Earth, and it will take some getting used to.

 

 

 

 

jaw surgery–before

In two days I will have a Mandibular Bilateral Sagittal Split Osteotomy and Genioplasty Advancement. In other words, jaw surgery. When I originally found out I would need this surgery three years ago, the orthodontist thought I would also have to have my top jaw surgically corrected and possibly segmented into three pieces to widen my bite. Thank God my orthodontist here is a miracle-worker and has resolved my open bite and cross bite without surgical intervention. So the problems I have left are my lower jaw and chin.

HOW: The surgeon will make two diagonal cuts through my jaw on both sides in order to pull it forward 12 millimeters and screw it in place. That may not sound like a lot, but it is when you’re dealing with facial proportions and jaw placement. Secondly, he’ll cut through the tip of my chin and move that forward too, screwing it in place to give my face better proportion after the movement of my lower jaw.

jaw

The places marked in red will be cut and moved.

WHY: I’ve addressed this in previous posts, but I’ve had a cross bite, open bite, and significant overbite since puberty (for about 17 years now). I had two expanders and braces as a high schooler, but none of my bite issues were corrected. At first, just the open bite bothered me, but I was pain-free. As time passed, I started having increased muscle tension and discomfort, especially on the left side of my jaw and down my neck. I also chew farther back on my teeth than I should, meaning my molars are wearing down faster than they should. My open bite and overbite also affect how I speak, giving me a little lisp and making me thrust my jaw forward to enunciate, which is exhausting, especially when I’m teaching linguistics, when accuracy and being able to talk at length is vital.

I’m adding some before pictures to show some of the issues I’ve mentioned and to be able to compare them to after (assuming I make it).

Left to right: the day I got braces for the second time, teeth 10 months later right before surgery, profile from both sides before surgery

Did I mention I’m extremely nervous? Current list of worries:

  1. Being aware but paralyzed during surgery
  2. Throwing up after just getting my jaw broken
  3. Getting a blood clot
  4. Having to wear a splint in my mouth when I go back to work and not being able to talk
  5. Not having my jaw rubberbanded or wired shut, so my freshly-detached jaw is just flying free
  6. Waking up with an incredibly swollen, different face than I went to sleep with
  7. Having to swallow medication immediately after surgery (not a pill swallower to begin with)
  8. falling into a deep depression
  9. crying immediately after surgery and having difficulty breathing

Obviously some of these fears are more justified than others, but in my anxiety-ridden mind, they’re all equally devastating prospects. I picked up a journal I’ve dubbed my jaw journal, and on the front it says “It’s Gonna Be Okay” with inspirational quotes sprinkled throughout the pages. I thought this would be a good, uplifting exercise, focusing on positivity, but I just don’t think I’m cut out for it. Most quotes have my cross-outs or scribbles on them, like “fuck optimists” or “bullshit,” then my own version of uplifting quotes written in place of the originals. For instance,”If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.” Seeing as I live in Phoenix, I obviously don’t agree with that pithy sentiment. I replaced it with, “It’s the same sort of cold comfort when we look up into a clear sky and see that we are mere specks in the enormous universe. Our actions here on earth contribute, no doubt, to the evolution of civilization, but in such a minor and minuscule way that there is freedom in knowing that what you do doesn’t really matter, can’t matter, in the scheme of things.” That’s from Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend, which you should read, by the way.

So I guess, in a way, my journal idea is working, just not the way this journal intended. I’ve been brainstorming ways to wrap my mind around this, deal with the fear and pain, and with not eating food for six weeks. I think good books, journaling, sunshine, and watching good shows will go a long way. Everyone says watching comedies improves your mood, but I’ve found that watching the most fucked-up things I can find (stories about kidnappings, murders, the deep web, torture, craniofacial surgery way more severe than mine, stalkers etc.) helps me put things in perspective and take my mind off my comparatively-petty problems. Whatever works, right?

So, with my fridge stocked with liquids and my credit card charged with any and all things from Target I thought might make this process more comfortable, away we go.

newness

Like most, the new year is one of my favorite times to reflect and adjust accordingly.

Last year I resolved to keep record of all the books I read in 2015. I did that, but my competitive side started counting and thinking I should be reading more and it became stressful. I would start a book, it wouldn’t be my thing, and I would be loath to stop reading it because then I wasted days reading something I couldn’t put on my list. I started to rationalize that the 37 I did finish wasn’t a true reflection of the actual 5o or 60 books I started and read parts of, not to mention I had to find time to watch all seasons of Mad Men and Sex and the City in there somewhere, so that lack of time should be factored in somewhere, right?

This year, a friend of mine sent me a list of types of books to read, and I think this will turn out better, challenging me to read outside what I might have naturally chosen while minimizing the pressure to read quickly or get through a certain number of books. My working list is below.

  1. a book published this year (2015)–Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh
  2. one I can finish in a day–Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli
  3. one I’ve been meaning to read–The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
  4. one recommended by a librarian or bookseller–The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
  5. one I should have read in school–Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
  6. one chosen for me–Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  7. one banned–The Boy Who Lost His Face, Louis Sachar
  8. one previously abandoned–Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
  9. one I own but never read–The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
  10. one that intimidates me–Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  11. one I’ve already read–Wanderlust, Elizabeth Eaves

If I don’t like any of these, I’m resolving now to toss it and not feel guilty. Any other recommendations welcome.

Onto a topic far less interesting and much more stressful: my teeth, an almost constant pain in my ass in recent months. I got braces again in October in anticipation of jaw surgery. The orthodontist said to expect to be ready for surgery 10-12 months after getting them on, and I sincerely hope he’s right and this shit doesn’t drag out.

Reliving the nightmare of braces as an adult is disheartening, primarily because of the pain I don’t remember feeling the first time around. My teeth have been varying levels of sore for the past three months. I got my wisdom teeth out two months ago, and am now dealing with nerve damage resulting in numbness in my lower lip and chin. That’s ever-so-slowly improving, but it’s been a frustrating process. I have rubber bands pulling my cross bite out, bite turbos keeping my jaw open to allow for that, and eight tongue tamers glued to the backs of my front teeth (google for maximum level of sympathy). The bite turbos make it hard to talk (read: lisp) and also make me grind my teeth in my sleep so hard they squeak, which is kind of scary.

I also just feel ugly. It might all be in my head, but it feels hard to be respected as a medical professional when I’m lisping my way through an explanation and looking like a weird tween. I try to bond with my older pediatric patients by asking them about their braces, and they are never having it. Throw me a bone, teens.

Overall though, it feels good to be started on this jaw-fixing journey. Getting started was an enormous obstacle, mentally and financially, and getting through the worst of this ordeal is a goal for 2016.

What other goals might an introvert troll have? The constant one, to try a little harder, give people a chance, or quickly dismiss them but put myself in a place where I can meet others. To go to uncomfortable events, to talk to strangers. To establish myself further in this place. Not to get to a place where I feel socially desperate, like I did a while back when I seriously considered trying to hang out with my dental hygienist.

Come on 2016, be good to me.

Arizona nightdwelling

I am now in Arizona, a land of continuous sun. It’s where I’ve wanted to put myself for years now, and I’m finally here.

Despite the persistent sun (to the tune of 115 degrees), I am a nightdweller. I’ve gotten a job as a sleep technologist working 12-hour overnight shifts in a hospital (cue the sound of my masters in linguistics being flushed down the toilet). Therefore, the setting and the rising of the sun are the bookends of my days. I usually go to bed at 8am and get up at 5pm. I get supremely annoyed when people are noisily going about their business at noon, and even though I have no right to tell them to shut the jizz up, I want to. Lawnmowers have become enemy number one. Children playing in the pool has become the equivalent of the upstairs neighbor playing dubstep at his shitty party at 3am.

On my days off is when I feel this most acutely. When I’m working, I can forget that it’s night. Everything is quieter and I’m at my best, but those are the only real cues that it’s nighttime. The fluorescent lights and lack of windows make me feel like it could be any time/I could be 50 feet underground/on Jupiter. Time ceases to exist except as numbers standing out in white on my computer screen. On my days off, the world is only spending time with me for a handful of hours. I’m eating breakfast while they’re eating dinner. I could easily party until 6am (if I had friends here) while they’d be dead by 2. I have to rush to get my ‘morning’ Starbucks or to get to Target before it closes. And heaven forbid I have to do anything during business hours.

Last Friday night I woke up at 8pm, horrified that it was already dark, and went to go see a movie. I caught the last showing of The Diary of a Teenage Girl and left the theater at midnight. The streets were dead, everything was closed. That’s when the waiting begins. The world here ends at midnight and leaves me to fend for myself. I went back to my mostly quiet apartment, overheard a drunken fight between shirtless men that ended, ‘give me my fucking beer back and keep steppin”, and spent the next six hours in dark silence. I read, drank, watched Netflix, read some more, drank some more. Because no one is awake there’s no one to call to catch up or hang out with. There are no runs to the grocery store or the bank. I can’t get my oil changed or wander the stacks at the library, two things I’ve been meaning to do for weeks but haven’t found the daytime hours for. I’m in an overly air-conditioned vacuum. I light candles. I feel stifled. I go outside and sweat within minutes. I look at my phone. It looks back at me. I go back inside and start the cycle over again.

Icelandic midnight sun

My time in Europe ended with a trip to Iceland, a convenient pause on the way back to the US.

In sum, Iceland felt martian. I arrived in the dead of night to the midnight sun. We drove through lava fields, great black and green mounds covering the ground.

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It was only ever dusk at darkest the three days I was there. I stayed with a Chinese family who had moved there because they were in the tourism business. I fell asleep in their spare bedroom at 3am, the gray not-quite-sunlight coming through the sheer curtains.

Everything works perfectly in Iceland, much like it does in Scandinavian countries. Tourism is bringing in tons of money, and it’s obvious in the infrastructure the small fishing country has to sustain bougie tourists. Since the re-vamping of the Blue Lagoon and the free stopover offered to Icelandair flyers on their way to Europe or the US, tourism has expanded greatly in recent years. (Not only was this evident by everyone and their mom (literally) being there, and as a consequence guided trips and transportation to those trips being made so easy a three-year-old could figure it out, but a swimmingcapped Icelandic woman with fuschia lipstick confirmed this at the Blue Lagoon as I wiped the silicone ish she was handing out all over my face.)

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I learned that there, lots more people than normal believe in fairies, they eat raw puffin hearts, the national beer is like 2% (learned the hard/expensive way), and Icelandic is frustratingly only hardly familiar from my days studying Old Norse.

My last day there, I sat at a nearby lake. The sun was out, the water was calm, and across the way I could see that in lieu of a beach there was only green. A derelict wooden cabin was visible on the shore. It looked like the Shire. I sat there for a long while and read.

Geneva, Budapest, Amsterdam, and reverse culture shock

I’m back in the US after nearly three years away. Will I stay? For a while, at least. Maybe forever. I have some grown-up concerns to address, like my jaw problems and my quickly-accumulating pile of student loans. It’s hard to look past those huge obstacles at this point.

Traveling has me totally burned-out and grateful. I promised to write about Geneva, Budapest, and Amsterdam, and I will here, briefly. My last trip was to Iceland, which I’ll write about next time.

I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland alone and couchsurfed for the first time there. My host was great, but I’d never do it again. The expectation to chat and wow and entertain a stranger while traveling is exhausting, even if they are cool. I got to dip into France again after six years away, which was surprisingly nice, despite bringing back memories of my traumatic au pair experience. I ate delicious pate and drank delicious coffee and got treated like shit by my waitress, so everything was just as I remembered. It felt like returning to a sort of home after ostentatious Spain. Geneva proper was lovely, opulent, and liveable, if you’re part of the 1%. I spent a nice afternoon by the lake, reading on a sunny spot of grass. My French has deteriorated embarrassingly, but I hardly needed it. I tried to use it anyway, after rehearsing whatever I wanted to say in my head first. I usually got Englished, but not in a rude way.

Budapest feels like a dark cloud. It rained almost the entire time I was there. That coupled with soviet-era buildings made for a depressing time. I mostly remember my wet shoes, always wet. I’d take sopping shoes off at night and put them back on in the morning. I started to have a very bleak outlook on life that radiated directly from my feet. On the last day there, I went to the Hungarian baths, and though my feet were wet all day again, I didn’t mind it. The sun actually came out for a couple hours and I got to luxuriate outside in a pool full of Polish people, touching my sallow skin to the feeble sun. The ruins pubs were dark, strange, dilapidated, varied, and perfect. Beware of palinka: it will put you on your ass if you’re not careful.

Everyone knows a Dutch person who incessantly brags about how great Holland is. I also grew up in a Dutch immigrant-saturated area of the US where a common saying is, ‘If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much,’ so I was out to prove that wrong. But Amsterdam (or Hamsterdam, my preferred name for it) really is a little inclement paradise. Even the red light district was tasteful. I ate amazing cheese, drank great, dark beer, and stayed in an ideal apartment. I only almost got ran over by bikes twice. It was expensive, but not obscenely so. I went to a sex show, and even watching a woman feed a drunk American a banana out of her vagina seemed tasteful (no pun intended). Add to that stroopwaffels and the torture museum and Amsterdam gets an A+, as much as I hate to admit it.

Now that we’re caught up to present-day minus Iceland, some thoughts on re-entry. I feel like that kid in The Flight of the Navigator minus the alien abduction. He falls down a ravine on the 4th of July and is unconscious for ten years. Don’t ask me how he stayed alive, but when he comes to, he runs home only to find that another family lives in his house, and, though it’s the same house, everything is strange and different. He’s reunited with his family, but they’re all ten years older now. I feel that kind of depressed being back. The area I’m from seems both stagnant and different. Time has passed and I no longer belong to this time and place, just this place, which isn’t the same thing at all.

In general terms, I’ve forgotten how American things work. When I arrived at the Boston airport my first day back, I ate at a restaurant and forgot how to leave a tip on a card. I thought I had to add it before they ran the card. The waitress looked at me like I was an alien. I’ve also forgotten the sequence of how to buy things with a card without a chip in it. I’ve been handing my card to the cashier a lot when I shouldn’t, or trying to insert it into the bottom of the machine. I also forgot I could run a debit card as credit. I’m not used to being able to pay for everything with a card again either; I keep on having mild bouts of anxiety over the fact that I only have $4 cash in my wallet. Dollars too–they’re all the same size. Reais and euros vary in size and color based on denomination.

It’s amazing to be able to freely make calls on my cell phone again. A sense of dread comes over me every time I have to call my loan service provider, the bank, or even a family member, thinking I’ll have to use Skype, Viber, or some other equally annoying application to use when you have a bad internet connection, something I’ve consistently for the past few years.

I drove to Holland, Michigan my first weekend back in the US and I was surprisingly stressed out about driving on I-94 after not driving for months. I find myself not driving as fast as I normally would or stopping before I have to. Car repairs, gas fill-ups, and car insurance haven’t been parts of my world in a long time. Neither has autonomy.

Libraries are a wonderful thing. To be able to get virtually any book I want to read and have that book be in English and made out of paper and ink is exciting. My Kindle has been invaluable over my years abroad, but nothing compares to feeling the heft of a real book in your hands and the sense of accomplishment you get from flipping the pages as you finish them.

Lastly, I’ve forgotten my Subway order. This is no small feat, since I love Subway, always order the same thing, and used to work there during my darkest of days. I went in the other day and forgot all my options. What’s that bread with the grain things on it called? What is that white cheese called again? I am an alien exploring this place called Subway for the very first time and I don’t know what food is; please help me, please be patient with me.

So basically, I feel like an 80-year-old freshly-escaped from a nursing home. I don’t know how to work new phones, I don’t know what movies are out, I haven’t watched American TV in a really long time. I hope as the days pass that I’ll gradually feel 70, then 60, until I’m back to my normal age, because it’s disorienting being Rip Van Winkle.

preamble to more travels; a note before continuing

My relationship with travel has of late been more hate than love. At first, it was all an adventure. Everything was new because all I knew was where I grew up. I couldn’t sleep on planes because I was too excited to land in a new place and notice all its little differences: the faces and gestures of the people when they’re hungry, worked up, or indifferent, their versions of ‘um,’ ‘huh,’ and ‘what,’ the things I could buy at the grocery store that I couldn’t in the US and vice versa.

For the past year or so, my view of travel has been changing. Trips now seem like work. I joke with my roommate the night before every trip, ‘But I don’t WANT to go to Geneva Budapest Amsterdam Iceland.’ Part of me isn’t kidding. But I have to see them, the romantic and over-inflated ideas I have of these places come to nearly-always-disappointing life.

And maybe it’s right that I feel this way now. In a week and a half, for the first time in three years, I will be leaving countries of heat, dancing, and loud, idle chatter with neighbors. I’ll be leaving bland food and parties until 8am, sun and reggaeton. Tits out on the beach, asses out on the beach. Being drowned in olive oil, wine, cachaça, and brigadeiro. Overly-safe cities, overly-dangerous cities. Fighting to get my residency documents, pick up a package, or deal with my landlord in Spanish or Portuguese.

And it’s best that I go. I’ve grown, groaned, ached and loved during my time in Brazil and Spain. That was three years of my twenties, three years in which a lot happened, both related to being abroad and not. The hard part is realizing that though you’re open to new experiences, a place can still be just not for you, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve realized I’m not a warm-culture person. I don’t like talking to strangers. I don’t like touching even those I know well. Dos besos my ass. No, I don’t want to pet your dog. No, I don’t want to hold your baby. No, I don’t want to dance samba/forro/salsa with you. I don’t want to go to language intercambios and small talk about how I like Brazil/Spain/anywhere and what I think about Obama and gun laws. I’ve long-since seen all of this in myself and I’m ready to move on.

I have Arizona on my mind. Desert, cacti, a new start, an American salary, an apartment all my own. Space to spread out. Silence to reflect. Time to read. A worthy job to put my hours toward, I hope.

All this preamble in preparation to commit my three most recent trips to virtual paper, I’d like to say soon.

Trip 1: Geneva, Switzerland

Trip 2: Budapest, Hungary

Trip 3: Amsterdam, Holland

Dublin, Barcelona, and an escalator bite

Over spring break I went to Dublin, Ireland for an easy, relaxing time away from work, which is exactly what it proved to be. Though, Dublin almost didn’t make it on my travel itinerary. I had my heart set on going to Malta and the Canary Islands, the former because of its differences from mainland Europe (did you know Maltese is the only Semetic language spoken within the EU?), and the latter because after thorough Google weather searches, the Canaries were the only place with (barely) beach-worthy weather in March, something I’ve been starved for since leaving Rio. But when it came time to book the tickets, the flight prices were astronomical for that week, so thanks to Ryanair, Dublin got bumped up to first pick.

What I liked about Dublin is what I like about the US: Generally nice people willing to help you if you need it. Touching strangers is uncommon and is apologized for if it happens. People walk with purpose down the streets. Secondhand English bookstores are aplenty and the selection is impressive. There is no lack of filling comfort food and rich, dark beer. You have no idea how much this mostly-vegetarian has been aching for a good hamburger.

I was pleasantly surprised by how brick-and-cobblestoned the streets were; it lent a quaint air to a bustling city. My overall impression was that if it weren’t for the ferocious wind and rain, I would have liked to live there myself.

One rainy afternoon my traveling companion and I took a bus an hour south to go to an aquarium we had seen advertised. The closest bus stop to the aquarium was about five blocks away, so we walked against the wind, the rain biting our faces, my umbrella flipping inside-out. We laughed when we arrived: it was for children. Spongebob stickers adorned fish tanks; 90% of the patrons were no higher than my waist. Still, we had come this far, so we paid and walked through. We wended our way around strollers and crying kids and exasperated parents, looked at a little shark, enormous, ugly fish, oceanic oddities. Aquariums always make me melancholy. What a life to be trapped in a tank.

Afterward, we went to the very much adult restaurant on top of the aquarium and sipped beer and ate brown bread while looking out over the churning ocean.

The past couple weeks have been a lesson in patience for me. While running up an escalator on my way to work a couple weeks ago, I fell hard, the escalator teeth hitting me right under my knee cap. I’ve gone through various states of crippled over the past couple weeks as I’ve slowly, oh-so-slowly been healing. No more running to catch the train, no more taking the stairs, no more running up escalators. I live on the fourth floor of a walk-up building; it now takes quite a bit longer to get up or down them than it did before. Though I can’t wait to get better to have the option to move quickly again, I can’t help but notice that taking an extra couple minutes to get somewhere instead of rushing has significantly reduced my stress level while in transit. Since ‘in transit’ is a state I’m in more often than not here, that has been something important for me to learn, and I’m grateful for it. But I still want my knee back.

Last weekend I visited Barcelona, mostly because of the weight of ‘I should do this’ rather than out pure desire to go. I’ve been told several times that I don’t travel enough within Spain, that I have to visit Barcelona before I leave, I just have to. People from home have more than once confused my home of Madrid for Barcelona, asking how I’m liking it there. So, you all win. I took a train to Barcelona.

The feel of the city is different than Madrid. It seemed quieter. The streets felt narrower. It was wonderful to see the sea again, to sit on the pier and just watch the water. I went to the erotic museum, and, glass of champagne in hand, learned about the link between scent and desire, saw a lot of paintings, carvings, and pictures that ranged from beautiful to ludicrous, and was reminded that people have been experimental, nasty perverts for millennia, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Check out silent Spanish porn from the 1920s–you won’t regret it.

My weekend in Barcelona was a nice reprieve from what have become somewhat routinized weekends in Madrid. Despite my feeling forced to go, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see the Sagrada Familia, watch the waves, and be surrounded by Catalan.

I have trips booked every other weekend from now until I leave Spain for good: Geneva, Budapest, Amsterdam, Morocco, Iceland. I booked them all in a frenzy last month after starting to anticipate returning to the US and all that entails, like debts to pay and a greater sense of permanency. I want to see all I can before I can’t.

Segovia and the doldrums of February

30 degrees Fahrenheit has a different meaning when you don’t have a car. In Chicago, it’s 30 degrees before it’s even winter and I don’t really think about it as I run from my heated house to my heated car, and drive in my heated car to my heated location. Here it’s different. It’s 30 degrees in the mornings before the sun rises as I get off the train where I work. That 15-minutes walk from the train to the high school I teach at leaves my ears throbbing and my jaw aching. I count my steps to distract me from the wind. Every outing requires the unspoken consideration of if braving the cold (the cold that’s colder than my unheated apartment) for 10 or 15 minutes is worth meeting my friends at whatever bar, or going to Spanish class, or going to yoga. I’m growing soft and full of olive oil and wine and cheese and cake, the things I feed myself when I’m feeling cold and sad. This has been my February in Madrid.

Last month I went on my most recent trip: a local one to Segovia, a small town an hour by bus from Madrid. It was January and raining icedrops. I went with someone who had studied abroad there years ago, so I put on my weird earmuffs and gloves and tottered after him as he led me to what there is to see. There’s a castle there, and an aqueduct from the 1300s. I sat on the damp lookout wall looking out over it, and tried to imagine what life was like when it was built, and the different ages and people who have moved and lived and changed things around the aqueduct while it remained unchanged.

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The whole town looked more like somewhere lifted from the past than anything existing now. I’m discovering the charm of small Spanish towns. They have something all their own that neighboring countries don’t quite do the same. I liked Segovia’s stone steps and medieval feel. We ducked under an archway and out of the rain to eat sandwiches with ultra-spicy French mustard, and laughed as it gave us brain burn and made our noses run. We finished the day with whiskey shots and a sleepy bus ride home.

Next month is Spring break. I’ve been looking forward to this break ever since Christmas; it’s been for me a sign of warmth and travel to somewhere relaxing, this oasis shimmering from far off. I don’t know it if will be any of those things, but I’m excited to break up my routine. The destinations currently in the running are Malta and The Canary Islands or Madeira. I’ve got islands on my mind.

December: Lisbon, Istanbul, Athens, Santorini, and New Year’s

My first ten weeks in Madrid were spent worrying about finding an apartment, worrying about finding another apartment, making friends, starting work, filling out the necessary resident paperwork, and flopping around in Spanish. Because one of the main reasons I chose to come to Spain this year was to travel to places in Europe I didn’t get to see the first time around, the pressure began to build as soon as I felt settled.

Over the first long weekend I had from work, I went to Lisbon with the brand-new boyfriend. We took Bla Bla Car there and back. It was my first time using it, and I was initially nervous–not because I was afraid the drivers were serial killers or rapists, but because the idea of driving in a car with a stranger for six hours sounded like a true nightmare. I made myself small in the backseat and talked as little as possible. I probably looked like the killer.

Lisbon isn’t what I thought it would be. I imagined this ideal city, a romantic one in which the people speak not only a language I speak, but one I love, and who are more melancholy than the average Brazilian. A place I’d want to live forever, if only I had the opportunity. In reality, I hardly got to speak Portuguese because everybody there assumes no tourist knows it, and also because they’re all rock stars at English. I tried to force it anyway, which more often than not just made the exchange awkward and probably a great study in code-switching. I found the melancholy stereotype pretty accurate, which was refreshing after so many years in close-talking, loud-speaking, hand-flinging countries. Lisbon looks a lot more like Brazil than I thought it would. I assumed the run-down colonial buildings in Rio were a product of a lack of money or care to maintain them, which does lend a feeling of derelict romanticism, but the buildings in Lisbon look much the same. I felt like I was back in Brazil, which was not a feeling I was expecting to have. What stands out to me about Lisbon is that although it’s certainly a whimsical place full of grand things, the city feels abandoned once dark falls. It’s eerie how hard it is to find a substantial cluster of people after 8pm. The streets feel dark and lonely and almost dangerous in their emptiness.

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Two weeks later my Christmas break started, and a few days later I headed to Istanbul with my roommate and her sister.

Istanbul is a magical place set in the past. I stayed in Sultanahmet, which is where the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque reside. Men sold ornate lamps and silk scarves in the Grand Bazaar, beginning each potential sell with “Yes, please.” “Yes, please, come inside.” “Yes, please, give me your money.” Never before have I been to a country where I didn’t speak the language at least a little bit, and considering something as simple as “thank you” in Turkish is the six-syllabled “teşekur ederim,” I didn’t learn much before going. It was daunting, but not as difficult as I had imagined. Not many people spoke English well, but most spoke at least a few words. I’m always impressed that so many people around the world speak English. It’s amazing how global a language it has become, regardless of how that makes people feel.

Istanbul is the closest I’ve ever been to Asia–technically just inside it, upon arrival at the airport. It was a treat to experience something different, to wake up and drink Turkish coffee and eat lentil soup with pita bread, to smoke hookah more in three days than I ever have while watching a dervish whirl. To go to a reggae bar and pet all the workers’ pets they bring with them (it’s been too long since I’ve pet a kitten). To be awoken at dawn by the call to prayer, which sounded ominous the first day, but by the last day it just lulled me back to sleep, barely a punctuation mark in my dreams.

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We had only a brief stint in Athens, two extended layovers on our way in and out of Santorini, a Greek island. Our first was on Christmas day, when we ate a lackluster meal and were plied with free wine. A quick night’s sleep in a drafty hostel and we were off again, bleary-eyed and hungover.

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We spent four days on Santorini. The entire island was a ghost town of apocalyptic proportions. It rained three out of the four days we were there, me umbrella-less in suede shoes. Many of the businesses close during the winter because there are so many fewer tourists, so we had trouble finding an open restaurant that served more than coffee and drinks. We spent one rainy day at the salon, where the hairdresser told us December isn’t even the slowest month. I imagined that by going in a down-month I’d have a paradise all to myself, but as we sat in a barely-open restaurant on a non-existent beach in what I can only describe as a gale, rain soaking my inappropriate shoes, I saw how wrong I’d been.

There was one sunny day, a burst of hope. We rented a car and drove to Oía, the first settlement on the island, high up on the cliffs. I got to drive for the first time in months, up and up around a winding mountain road til we could go no farther. We got out and walked among the steep, white houses like you see when you google “Greek islands”. We stayed for the sunset, a pink thing bursting behind a volcano. Present-day Santorini is shaped like a crescent moon with a volcano in the middle, but it used to be a circular island, before the volcano erupted and formed a caldera around it. The water is dark, deep-blue, and lethal-looking.

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One afternoon I had an unusual solitary moment, walking back from a few hours of coffee and reading. I rounded the bend to our place and from that hill I could see the sea. I was on an island in the Aegean and it was mostly gray and my shoes were kind of wet but it wasn’t raining and I was on an island in the Aegean. For me, for now, it’s worth the sacrifice of a well-paying job and a car and roots and less debt to spend one more year living this.

We made it back to Madrid on New Year’s Eve in time to watch everyone eating their grapes at midnight. I heard someone dies every year from choking on the grapes, unnoticed among all the flailing and revelry. I smoked a stranger’s rolled cigarette against a guardrail at the stroke of midnight, happy amid all the spilled champagne.

Portuñoling in Madrid

I’ve once again transported myself to a country of close-talkers, trash-throwers, and bad walkers.

On the other hand, I like to watch the way Madrileños, the kind you pass on the street and sit next to on the metro and buy horchata from, laugh raucously and gesticulate wildly. I’ve mistaken several people for deaf since coming here after watching them talk from afar. I’m especially endeared to the older men who work at restaurants, the kinds of places where you can sit on the street under umbrellas. I like their simple sweetness, usual rotundity, and their sincere attempt to understand what I’m saying.

My Spanish consists of my Portuguese interwoven with memories of the Portuguese for Spanish Speakers class I took four years ago because it was the only Portuguese class offered at my university that semester. Add to that Dora the Explorer flashbacks and the few phrases I’ve picked up since coming here, and there you have it.
I’ve had several interactions in Spanish that have gone like this:

Stranger: Where are you from?
Me: The U.S.
S: Do you speak Spanish?
Me: What language are we speaking in now?
S: Well, there are a lot of people here who don’t speak Spanish. You should learn it.

What the fuck. These interactions keep happening, and they confuse me every time. I was spoiled by living in a country where if you uttered a shitty ‘tudo bem’ you’d have people falling over themselves to tell you how great your Portuguese was. Being constantly told I need to learn Spanish as I make the effort to speak it with strangers makes me want to try less. Or stop talking to strangers.

Here I’m re-learning some lessons I’ve already learned and forgotten. First, there is nothing more humiliating than learning a language. As someone who refuses to try anything more than once that I’m not naturally amazing at, trying again and again to communicate only to be giggled about or misunderstood is the worst. Telling someone something serious, asking why they’re laughing and getting the answer, ‘Oh, the way you said that was just cute’ makes me want to slap my interlocutor. It’s a rush to the finish line, the finish line being communicative competency. I’m trying to cram as much into my head as possible until I reach that level, at which point existing in a foreign country becomes markedly easier.

The second lesson I’m re-learning is what it is to be poor. I’ve never had money, but here I exist on euro-pennies, which are the tiniest, cutest little things you’ve ever seen. I take packets of sugar from restaurants to use at home in my tea. I carry around a plastic water bottle I bought my first week here that’s probably giving me cancer. I scour the bottom of my purse for change to buy a 90-cent bocadillo for lunch at work. A sign on the street offering coffee for one euro has my attention. If someone cancels a tutoring session with me, it’s a minor disaster. After a difficult first month here money-wise due to a rental fiasco, I’m already down to the end of my last paycheck. The whole point of coming here was to scrape those pennies together to travel to some places in Europe I wanted to visit the first time I lived here but was too poor to, and so far that plan is slow to start. I have a one-way ticket to Istanbul for December 22nd. If I’m too poor to buy any other flights by then, you know where to find me. It all feels like a giant step back in what my mind thinks it is to be an adult.

Speaking of adulthood, I’m already thinking about what’s next. For the past three years, there’s always been abroad. As an Italian passport holder, I could stay in Europe easily enough, though I think I’d head north. But finding a job might be harder than finding one in the US, and I’d also miss the ease of living in my own country: knowing and being comfortable with the cultural norms, the language, and how to go about finding a job and a place to live. My student loans are screaming at me to go back and pay them off as quickly as possible. I had a dream last night that I inherited $6,000 from an unknown relative who I watched crash his plane on purpose to help me financially. It was like winning the lottery.

But, in general, life in Madrid is easy. It’s safe to walk around at night, there’s good shopping, and there are three Starbucks within walking distance from my house. I live in a hobbit house and sleep in an attic bedroom that looks like a place of punishment from a fairy tale. I can easily find peanut butter. Olive oil is delicious and cheap. Lots of people speak English. My job, while not that enjoyable, certainly isn’t challenging in any real way. And the best part of all, I can buy good enough wine for one euro.

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Finally, I’ve accumulated a strange little group of acquaintances here that I’m quite grateful for. I borrowed a wig from the art teacher at my school who just happens to have 15 (an exact number) wigs in her closet because she loves dressing up. She offers me beautifully arranged coffee while I tutor her son, and we tell each other stories while overseeing our students paint color wheels. I’ve met a misanthropic self-professed non-misanthrope who I feel compelled to befriend. I think it’s working. I’ve met a Canadian who thinks I’m the most interesting mystery he’s ever met, which I will let him continue thinking. I work with a guy who doesn’t know the meaning of coquettish or the plot of Lolita and dresses like Ellen DeGeneres. I met a Fulbrighter who I bond with over our weekly coffee date in the cafeteria at work. She let’s me flex my vocabulary and regales me with all kinds of stories. My favorite ones are about her parents, whose relationship she finds repulsive. My closest fast-friend here shares my name and height, the first being much easier to come by than the second. We got drunk together one night on free sangria and she stopped to muse, with a look of wonder, ‘Just what are the odds of someone as cynical as me being placed at the very same school?’

Leaving Rio

So much has happened in the past couple months that I would like to commit to writing that I’ve been putting it off, feeling overwhelmed by all of the emotions and events and decisions. But, I have a fresh, American-sized cup of coffee by my side and I’m sitting in a public-yet-comfortable chair, so I guess now is as good a time as any to try.

After two months short of two school years in Brazil, I have left for good. Three days ago I said an exasperated and overripe goodbye to Rio and all things Brazilian, and I’ve been basking in an American glow ever since. I got off the plane in Miami, ate a bagel and drank an unsweetened peach iced tea, and let out a figurative sigh. It’s refreshing to be home, as ultimately unsatisfying as this place is, for the brief time I have here before I head out again.

In a week, I will be flying to Madrid, Spain to work as an English teacher in a high school [insert cringe]. I think my students will be more like junior high age, rather than mature, heading to college age, which is intimidating, to say the least, and immensely stressful, to say the most. This is the price I pay to live abroad. However, it will be refreshing to knock about Europe again, especially with one of my oldest friends, who will be living with me there.

For the moment, I’m hardly thinking about what my life will consist of starting a week from now. I’m still too overwhelmed and content with all things home. A place where IHOP and Panera exist in abundance, where I can see my parents and sister whenever I want, where the desolate farmers’ fields and small-town, cheap shops just seem charming and familiar.

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Onto the end of my time in Brazil, so I can close this bulging and expired chapter of my life. The month of August was a month of highs and lows. I went to a work conference in Sao Paulo that worked me in the art of caring less and letting go. It’s unfortunate to have to be calloused when naturally inclined to be anything but, but it’s a necessary skill to have, a muscle I flexed liberally that week.

The following week I went to Iguacu Falls for another conference, and my mood was immediately lifted. I spent it with a few good friends I’ve made this year. We made the most of our time there, sightseeing in a rushed and planned way I normally don’t like to do. We visited both the Brazilian and Argentine side of the falls, the movie Up in my head. The falls were grand, obviously, but also jungle-y, unlike oft-compared Niagara Falls. Coatis descended upon us, grabbing at our granola bars and bags. I got 11 chigger bites, a fiery, intense brand of itch I’ve never felt before and hope to never feel again.

We also visited Paraguay for a day, the India-like Ciudad del Este. I was struck by how different each country was that we visited during that trip, though they all share a border. Ciudad del Este reminded me of the movie Elysium. It was the dusty, crumbly, dangerous L.A. of that movie, the mall there being the celestial Elysium where only the rich lived. We walked around the mall for a while, ate overpriced hamburgers, sprayed French perfume on ourselves, and bought Jack and Goldschlager. Outside, it looked like a place you might have been able to buy organs on the black market, alongside chickens and knockoff Nike socks.

After returning from Iguacu Falls, I made a mental list of the things I wanted to do before leaving Brazil for good. I don’t plan on going back soon, if ever, so I had to make it count. I had been wanting to do stand up paddle boarding for the entire year, always envious of those carefree enough to paddle far into the ocean with only a board to support them, the water lapping over their feet. I have this irrational fear of the ocean. I want to be one of those people, but it’s just not in me. I will never not worry enough about sharks or jellyfish or barracuda or dolphins (yes, they can maim you too) or big fish to swim freely into the unknown. But, my last full day in Rio, I pulled up my big girl pants and did it. It was liberating and terrifying, and after a half an hour I started to think I was crazy, so I went back in, but I was proud anyway.

I had been wanting to climb one of the many climbable mountains in Rio, so a friend of mine and I finally did. We took a bus to the start of Vidigal, the favela at the base of the mountains Dois Irmaos, which overlook Ipanema beach. We took mototaxis up to the start of the trail at the top of the favela. We climbed through a person’s backyard and scrambled over a cement balance beam in order to reach the trail proper. I stopped on the balance beam for a breath and noticed a girl staring at me from the roof of her house. I waved, and she stared back, frozen and mean. The trail was embarrassingly tiring for someone as out of shape as me, but even with plentiful breaks, it only took about an hour and a half to reach the summit. The view of the Lagoa, Ipanema, and the Atlantic was stunning. We laid on the rocks, sweating and dehydrated, enjoying the view. The hikers next to us were eating pineapple that I had an animal craving for. On the way down, we had to slide on our hands and feet down parts of the trail that were slickest and steepest. We laughed nervously, feeling childish, like we were just caught playing in the mud. We jumped in the ocean afterward, and with our remaining funds split a beer on the beach.

I also visited a Salvador Dali exhibit at a cultural center in downtown Rio. Dali is one of my favorite artists, so it was a pleasure to spend some time with his work before my flight home. The center was full of public high schoolers on field trips, and I vacillated between hating them for being loud and irreverent, and being happy they were there at all to be exposed to such beautiful things. My favorite pieces there were Surrealist Composition with Invisible Figures and Memory of the Child-Woman, both dream-like and scary.

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I ran into my building’s doorman as I headed out on my way to the airport. I had one enormous, broken suitcase, another smaller suitcase, and a backpack weighed down with textbooks. So, I was struggling. My doorman is this tiny person with a terrible attention span from the northeast of Brazil. He’s very friendly, and may also have an inappropriate crush on my French roommate, but that’s beside the point. I told him I was leaving, looking for a taxi, and without hesitation he grabbed my heaviest bag, the one he could easily fit into, and started rolling it down the street to a bigger street with more taxis passing. I followed him, yet again surprised by the generosity and friendliness I encountered every time I was starting to hate Brazil the most. Hauling those bags around in 95 degree weather had caused me to have a hate flare-up. I waved down a taxi, and he talked to the driver for me, something I’m still grateful for, even though I speak Portuguese. We loaded my bags into the car, and I was off, too tired to even look around one last time.

July: Curitiba, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Valparaiso

Never have I needed Xanax more. As a consequence of spending money like I’m Paris Hilton on the trip I went on in July, I’ve had to scramble to pick up as many tutoring jobs as possible in order to get out of the red. Has anyone every told you how fucking miserable it is to tutor anything? I must be a masochist, because I’ve been doing it for longer than anything, but it raises my blood pressure and dries my mouth out and exhausts me. Explaining what a noun is for hours to a grown adult and have her, in the end, tell you ‘to be’ is a noun, is a small sort of hell on earth.

But I believe it’s worth it. One of the goals I had this year in coming back to live in Brazil was to see other parts of South America, since last year I traveled exclusively through Brazil. The sole morale-boosting event in the doldrums of June was planning this trip. Two friends and I were to meet up in Curitiba, Brazil, the home of one of them in the south of Brazil, then travel together to Buenos Aires, Argentina, Montevideo, Uruguay, and Santiago and Valparaiso, Chile.

We came together and acted like overly sheltered kids during their first week of college. We started by drinking.

They drank too much. I drank too much. I had a hangover for 11 days in a row. Curitiba passed in 12-hour cycles: 12 hours inebriated, 12 hours recovering. We blurred at clubs, ate street hot dogs with two dogs in one bun and overflowing with chicken, we spilled them in cabs and ground chicken into the floor with our shoes. We slept on mattresses on the floor and couches that smelled of dog. A cigarette was always lit and someone was always coughing. We ate sushi and drank champagne for breakfast. We twerked on walls and played beer pong in bedrooms. The neighbors complained. We puked in strange toilets. We flew to Argentina.

I didn’t know much about Buenos Aires before landing there. I had flashbacks of both Sao Paulo in its enormity, height, and grit, and Rio in its colonial architecture. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that though I speak jumbled and slow Portunhol, people almost always understood me. I liked that there were so many bookstores and no lanchonetes. The girls wore thick-soled shoes and the men had nice faces. I drank the water and woke up at 4am, sweating and water poisoned. We stayed in a hostel with lice in the beds and overflowing toilets. A Chinese lady did all of our laundry for $12. We ate the most luxurious Armenian meal and I felt fully happy in that moment, under a haze of champagne and full of lamb and Greek yogurt.

We paused our time in Buenos Aires to take a 2-day trip to Montevideo. We went there by overnight boat, where we gorged ourselves on American make up and whiskey from duty free and where I promptly lost my debit card and only source of cash. I ate 4am McDonalds in the Montevideo bus station, my amount of upset increasing as my buzz faded.

Montevideo is a sleepy capital. Granted, we were there in their winter, but I liked that quality of it. It felt almost as if something apocalyptic had happened there. It also felt safe, which was a nice change after living in and visiting almost exclusively big, gritty cities for the past 6 months. There was something nostalgic about it, the wintery water, space, and flat landscape reminding me of where I grew up near Chicago. Even the outdated, sleepy hostel we stayed in reminded me of vacations to Michigan as a child, sleeping in dark wood bunk beds with heavy, plaid blankets.

Chile was my favorite. I came down with some sort of illness that I have no doubt was directly related to my inundated organs, so the drinking all but stopped and the vibe of the trip changed. The boys and I booked a 3-person room in Valparaiso, pushed the biggest bed against the wall, piled all the blankets on it and watched American movies dubbed into Spanish while we sipped wine. We had an odd, sibling-like fight involving biting and stabbing by bread. The power went out and we slept huddled there, covered in bread crumbs and blankets.

Valparaiso is a hilly, seaside town. We ate lunch one day in a restaurant at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. We climbed the cobblestoned streets and got out of breath. Street dogs sometimes scared us. A cat chased a dog out of a thin opening onto the sidewalk, and we followed where they’d come from down a dirt path a woman insisted was a road. We lingered in a brewery and were grateful for good beer. We decided to stay an extra night.

We finished out the trip in Santiago, a place with room to breathe. I was relieved. Pisco sours and ceviche abounded. We cooked dinner a couple of the nights. It was refreshing and relaxing to make something together. We accidentally did a wonderful thing and booked our last night in an apartment. We ate the best ice cream and fell asleep on a big, white, fluffy bed while watching Avatar. We woke in the middle of the night to return to Curitiba.

Returning to Brazil was harder than expected. Our flights were delayed, causing stress and other delays. We ate a depressingly expensive and tasteless dinner in a Brazilian airport and washed it down with piss water beer. Despite two of us speaking better Portuguese than Spanish, people had trouble understanding us. Compared to other South American capitals, Brazil’s didn’t match up. Having this new knowledge made me that much more loath to return to Rio.

A few days after coming back I worked a full day tutoring. I left at the end of the day to pouring rain. I’d forgotten my umbrella. I ran to the crosswalk to catch the bus, already soaked. I had to wait for a few minutes in the rain for the light to change. I hated everything. A woman dashed up to me and covered us with her umbrella. The light changed and we ran across the street.

I’ve gained a nationality: how I got Italian citizenship

Getting my Italian citizenship was a bitch. I couldn’t have done most of it without my dad, who tirelessly ran around Chicago fetching marriage licenses and death certificates for me while I was rotting away in Brazil.
I had a hard time finding information online about how to actually attain citizenship successfully, and the consulate website is thoroughly useless, so I thought I’d give a rundown of the process.

First of all, I had to find out if I was eligible. I am, because my grandfather was an Italian citizen when my father was born. If he hadn’t have been, I wouldn’t be eligible. If my grandmother was the one in my family who had Italian citizenship instead, I wouldn’t be eligible, because she was born before 1948. You can only claim citizenship through the maternal line if she was born after 1948. Bullshit, but better than not at all.

Next, I had to request new copies of all birth certificates in the blood line. That meant getting my Italian grandpa’s Italian birth certificate, which seemed difficult until a little-heard from Italian great uncle came into the picture and saved the day by sending it my way faster than I thought possible. It was the first birth certificate I received.

I then had to send out requests for the long form of the birth certificates of my dad (the son of my Italian grandpa), my mom, and my grandma. I also had to get my grandpa’s death certificate and marriage certificates for my parents and grandparents. There were spelling discrepancies in both my grandma and grandpa’s names. I got nervous after reading horror stories online of people who were never able to attain citizenship because of spelling differences between their name and their ancestor’s.

I then had to get all official documents apostilled by the states from which they were issued. An apostille is just a waste of a document verifying the actual document, which is already stamped and signed by all the appropriately official people.

From my grandma I got my grandpa’s U.S. naturalization document and old Italian passport. The passport wasn’t required, but I used it to prove that he did indeed spell his last name two different ways, as he did on one of the pages of his passport. I guess he was feeling creative.

Finally, the last step before being able to show these documents at the consulate was to get some of the documents translated into Italian, namely my and my dad’s birth certificates, my parents’ and grandparents’ marriage licenses, and my grandpa’s death certificate. My grandpa’s birth certificate was already in Italian and they didn’t need translations of the women’s birth certificates.

There were also a few forms I needed to print and fill out before going to the consulate. They were all available online. One was the application for Italian citizenship, another had to be signed by my dad saying he had never renounced his right to citizenship, and on the third I had to list all of the places I’ve lived in the past 10 years. Not an easy task.

I had emailed the Italian consulate whose jurisdiction I fall under to make an appointment months before. I had also called them. And called them again. There is a window of exactly two hours a few days a week when you can call to make an appointment at this particular consulate. My guess is that phone attached to that phone number is manned only half of that time, so it’s like playing Russian roulette trying to get a hold of someone. Once I did, a very short, brash woman told me I had to take the next appointment available, which was four months from then, when I would still be in Brazil and nowhere near Detroit. I had to call back months later to make the appointment. Still a four-month wait, luckily. I had a three-month window when I could have gone, so I had to time it right, and I did. I needed to send her a copy of my driver’s license, then I made the appointment for January 29th.

I was at the consulate for a surprisingly short amount of time. No one was there. I waited in the lobby for 15 minutes, then the very same short, brash woman I had been dealing with fairly inefficiently for months breezed in and took my stack of meticulously attained and organized documents. She started licking her fingers and flipping through them and throwing them into two messy piles. Luckily, I had Brazil to thank for teaching me how to deal with ridiculous bureaucracy and less than helpful attitudes, so I was ready to handle this notorious woman. I only spoke when spoken to. I answered in one-word grunts. I didn’t smile. I tried to listen to what she was telling her co-worker in Italian about the spelling discrepancy in my grandpa’s last name. Already knowing Portuguese enabled me to understand about 1.5 words. From what I gathered, it didn’t sound good.

She said as much in English, then said I would be hearing from the consulate. I asked when. She didn’t know. I left.

In May I emailed the consulate again, asking about the status of my citizenship application. They mentioned the spelling discrepancy and said they’d get back to me.

In June, I was wine drunk in Curitiba, eating pizza and getting molested by a dog, when I got an email saying I had been approved for Italian citizenship. They’re going to send an official certificate or something in the mail, I think.

The next and final step is to apply for my passport. I have to wait a few months to do it because apparently Italy doesn’t put all the new citizens’ information in for a while. Either way, it’s done. It was a two-year process, from getting the first document to becoming a citizen, and I’m relieved to finally and successfully be through with it.

(how an) INTJ travels

A year and a half ago, before I left for Brazil the first time, I had a boyfriend who didn’t get it. We had been arguing about me leaving, and after a particularly horrendous backpack shopping trip, he said, ‘Why do you like to live abroad? You don’t even like people.’

He was right about me not liking people, but not about the correlation between having a desire to travel and wanting to socialize. I’m an INTJ, which, for those of you non-MBTI-savvy people who have happened to stumble across this blog, means Introverted, Intuiting, Thinking, and Judging. It means crowds stress me out, as do repetitive music and loud people. It means I hate small talk and learning about things I have absolutely no interest in. It means adrenaline rushes are not for me and that trying new things is almost always scary. But it’s this last reason that motivates me to live abroad.

Something I’m noticeably bad at is living in the moment. This deficiency has helped me not get pregnant, overdose on drugs, or get a tattoo of a Chinese character on my ass, but it can also make me live completely in the future, a place that will never match reality. The future becomes the present, which is usually more disappointing than the future I had planned out. In the U.S. I have books full of lists and a routine that allows for over-planning. While abroad, I don’t. I have unexpected opportunities to do strange things with questionable people and I take them. I wander around and try to figure out another culture and language. It’s a challenge just to go to the grocery store or post office, and it makes me stop and notice in a way I wouldn’t at home. It’s annoying and new and uncomfortable and interesting. It wakes me up.

I felt guilty about this viewpoint at last year’s work orientation. Everyone was so bubbly and excited to learn how to dance forro and play samba and make so many new Brazilian friends while researching social inequality in the favelas or whatever. I was excited to drink caipirinhas on the beach and take things in stride, which, though I tried, I failed miserably at (but succeeded stupendously at drinking caipirinhas on the beach). I felt bad for not being enthralled with Brazilian culture. But then I realized I’m not enthralled with any culture, or really anything, except for about three people and books and kissing and the history of obscure languages. And that makes me a crotchety old hermit, but that’s ok. I’m allowed to live anywhere I want without a pat answer for why I wanted to live there.

When people ask why I chose to come to Brazil I say because I love Portuguese, which I do. I can see on people’s faces that this often isn’t enough of an answer for them, but it is for me. I’ve crafted a life here that I like. It includes starting a book club, attending a History of Portuguese class, and watching foreign movies at my neighborhood theater. I go to Starbucks and read. I speak Portuguese with other foreigners more than I do with Brazilians. I drink as much as I want and sleep in as late as I want on the weekends. I go to the beach and meditate and listen to music and people-watch. I stop to listen to violin players on the street playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major. I eat too much fried cheese on a stick. I travel around with reckless friends. We talk about sad things, smart things, stupid things; we laugh. It may be different than what others think it should be, but it’s enough for me.