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To Shave or Not to Shave Pt. II: A (Quite Literal) Exploration of Waxing

9 Jan

As promised, I’m back to continue my musings on my newfound obsession with hair.  Last week, I stuck to a general overview of all sorts of body hair, from the kind on your face and head to the sort on your legs.  However, this time I’ll be venturing into parts less known and even less talked about: the hair between your legs.

*True story: while writing this post in a popular coffee shop, a man came up to me. Our conversation went thusly:“What are you typing away about, sweetheart?” “I’m blogging!” “Oh?” He leaned in a little. “I like your scarf. Are you a fashion blogger?” “Nope! I’m writing about bikini waxes!” He choked on his coffee and I returned, quite satisfied, to my work.

Although you can get away with discussing shaving and waxing of innocuous body parts like eyebrows in polite conversation, pubic hair maintenance is a don’t-go-there kind of topic*.  You might as well mark it with a jagged, red X and write “Here be dragons” next to it (or at least “Here be landing strips,” “Here be vajazzling,” or any number of the bizarre things people do with their, er, lettuce groves**).   This made me insatiably curious, as taboo conversational subjects tend to do.  What kind of wax was used?  How much did it cost?  What was it like to be a salon technician and spend all day peeling hair off of people’s crotches?  Who that I knew got bikini or Brazilian waxes?  Was a bikini wax a gateway drug into harder stuff, like full-body waxing?  How did you avoid the awkwardness of stripping off your clothes and baring everything for a stranger?  What did the damn thing feel like?  And, most importantly, what compelled people to pay other people to apply hot wax to their genitals and then rip it off?

**I wondered a good deal about what to call the area to which a bikini wax is applied. The technical term would be ‘pubic region,’ but that sounds so unfunny and medical that I decided to call it a bunch of different things, some of them just as silly as ‘pubic region’ is dry.

I resolved that I would not leave Spain without answering this question.  And indeed, dear readers, I carried through on this resolution so that I could tell you all about it.  Here follows one woman’s maiden voyage into the waxing salon.

I had spoken with my friend Sarah, a waxing veteran, about my plan of attack.  She agreed to come with me as moral support – and potentially physical, should I be doubled over in agony.  Together, we chose a salon near the center of Valencia.  I strutted up to the counter, trying to look as if I had done this a hundred times before.  “I would like a wax,” I said in my it’s-obvious-she’s-not-from-here Spanish.

The man behind the counter pulled out an appointment book.  “We have an opening at 7:00.  Where?”

“On my…um…” It was only now that I realized I didn’t know the Spanish phrase for ‘bikini wax.’  I gestured at my crotch as if I were directing a plane to land there.  “Here.  I want it here.”

The man gave me a (justifiably) weird look.  “All…right.  We’ll see you at seven.”

Sarah and I frittered away two hours in Starbucks.  I kept biting my nails and twitching, wondering just what I’d gotten myself into.  When we came back, we were introduced to Leticia, the waxing technician, a woman in her late thirties with dyed-red hair, impeccable eyebrows, and a businesslike demeanor.

“So…this is my first time,” I said, imitating a nonchalant tone.

She took my arm.  “Your first time?  Are you scared?” she said in Spanish.

“Uh…a little,” I admitted.

“Don’t be.  I’m very good at what I do.  Go inside and strip down to your underwear.  And call me Leti.”

“Cool.  Um, can I bring a friend?” I pointed at Sarah, who was hovering in the doorway.

I got my second weird look of the day.  “Is she gonna hold your hand?”

“Hoping we won’t get to that point, but maybe.”

Leti grinned and shook her head.  “Yeah, she’s fine.”  She ushered us in and closed the door behind us.

I glanced around the room.  There was a massage table covered with a sheet, a bureau topped with neat stacks of paper strips, and a metal tray full of waxing apparatus.  A pot of greenish goo bubbled sinisterly in the corner.  I took off my clothes and shoved them in Sarah’s direction.  “Oh my god.  Oh my god.  Is she going to make me take off my underwear?”

***An awkward anecdote to add to this pile of awkward anecdotes: in Spanish, the word ingle means ‘crotch.’ The word inglés means either ‘English’ (as in the language) or ‘Englishman.’ When Leti asked if I wanted my ingle done, I tried to assure her that, sadly, I had no Englishman for her to wax.

“Probably not,” said Sarah soothingly, and patted my shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  You’ve got this, girl.  Go lie down.”

Leti knocked and entered a few moments later.  “Okay.  What do we want today?  A bikini wax or Brazilian wax?”***

Not a Brazilian,” I said, fervent.

She stirred the pot of goo – which was, as I had feared, the wax.  “And do you want any designs?  Hearts?  A letter?”

I briefly considered a ‘w’ for ‘why did I do this?’  “Er…no.  Just keep it normal.”

She began applying the wax to my skin in wide strokes.  “Do you have a boyfriend?”

I winced at the temperature of the wax.  “Yes.  Back in the States.”

Leti pursed her lips.  “Did he make you do this?”

“God, no.”

“Good.  Lots of men make their girlfriends do it here.”  She applied a strip of paper to the quickly-cooling wax.  “Ready?  It won’t hurt very much.”

I motioned for Sarah, who snorted and gave me her hand to grab.  I didn’t hold out very long, I thought.  “Grip your skin so it’s taut.  It hurts less that way,” said Leti.  I gripped.  She stripped.  It felt like one of Daenerys’ dragons from Game of Thrones had gotten caught between my legs and started belching flames while someone beat my nether regions with a brick.  I squeezed Sarah’s hand for dear life.

“See?” said Leti, grabbing the wax applicator again.  “That wasn’t so bad!”

“Right,” I gasped.

“So,” said Leti, brushing her angular, red bangs out of her eyes, “if you’re not doing this for your boyfriend, then why are you doing it?”

“So I can write a blog post about it.”  I tensed again, waiting for the rrrip of the waxing paper.  It came.  I tried not to whimper.

“Whatever makes you happy,” said Leti, sounding doubtful.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” asked Sarah.

“I did,” she said.  Her face fell.  “For three years.  But we just broke up.”

“That’s awful. You want to talk about it?” said Sarah, ever the therapist.

Leti did.  So we launched into a conversation about the reprehensible behavior of our various exes, especially hers, who had cheated on her.  I found it more than a little ironic that we were man-bashing (which is not a good thing to do, but you just go with the conversational flow when you have hot wax on your lady forest, trust me) while conducting the stereotype of ‘crazy girl things.’

By the time we had finished about ten minutes later, I had been denuded of a pretty big portion of what I normally keep around my southern soul patch.  Leti gave me a cream to apply to my stinging skin and left the room so I could get dressed.  I’m not sure why, since she had already seen way more than I show most people.  “Make sure to write something good about me on your blog!” she said over her shoulder.  (Which I have done, because she deserved it.)  Sarah and I left the salon a few minutes later, thanking her one more time.  Dusk was falling in Valencia, and the elaborate displays of Christmas lights in the main plaza were coming to life.

“So how do you feel?” Sarah asked.

“Better than I expected,” I admitted.  The pain was slowly seeping away.  “But Jesus, Sarah.  People do that on a regular basis?”

Which is, essentially, what I’m taking away from this experience.  Sarah explained to me that some people do it because they’re allergic to the metals used in most razor blades, or because their skin is so sensitive that shaving inflames it (which is her situation).  But for those of us who have no such aversion, I can’t imagine going back to the salon every three weeks for this treatment.    As I said in my last post, my feeling is that women and men should be free to do whatever they’d like with their body hair, and if that involves getting it all waxed off, then so be it.  However, I don’t like the idea of people doing it to conform to some standard of nether hairlessness.  The biological truth is that we grow hair down there.  Waxing will only remove it for a few weeks at most (oh, and have I mentioned that it’s agonizing?).  In addition, it’s expensive – I paid €15 for it, which is about $20.50.  If you wax once a month, which is less frequent than the recommended every three weeks, it adds up to $246 per year.  That’s a lot of money to pay just to keep your hedge trimmed.

I suppose this essay comes down to one question: would I do it again?  The answer: probably not.  Not unless I suddenly become an underwear model, an Olympic swimmer, or a porn star****.  Although I felt a little more like Adriana Lima afterwards, I also felt guilty about subscribing to typical feminine beauty expectations.  No matter where it grows, the hair we’ve got is a part of us.  I’m assistant directing the Vagina Monologues right now, and one of the characters says, “I realized that hair is there for a reason: it’s the leaf around the flower, the lawn around the house.  You can’t pick the parts you want.”  Or rather: you can, but you have to go to an awful lot of trouble to do it.  The kick-ass Balpreet Kaur, a Sikh woman who has a bit more facial hair than the average woman, also exemplifies the same notion in her reply to Reddit bullies when she wrote, “My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body.”  And with that in mind, I’ll take a leaf from Balpreet’s book – at least in regards to waxing.

So, although I respect every person’s decision to do with their hair what they want, as I wrote last week, I don’t believe I’ll be engaging in any more wax-related bush-whacking, jungle-weeding, hen-plucking, or any of those other ridiculous euphemisms.  I’ll save my time for other things, like fighting dragons in Skyrim and reading McSweeney’s Internet Tendency articles until I pass out.

Read Pt. I here: To Shave or Not to Shave: The Cultural Aesthetics of Female Body Hair

****Hi, Mom!  I hope you’re not reading this!

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The Big Bad Travel Story

16 Dec
The face of an entire trip.  photocred: Katherine Black

The face that launched a thousand misfortunes. photocred: Katherine Black

Let’s be frank with each other: we all have a Bad Travel Story.  You know what I’m talking about – the I-was-stuck-in-the-airport-for-48-hours, got-malaria-and-was-in-critical-care, had-my-everything-stolen-by-gypsy-children kind of story.  The one one you take turns telling on Thanksgiving, or the one you have on reserve to impress people at parties.  I have never been particularly patient with Bad Travel Stories, since it seems like most people exaggerate them (“and then we were attacked by a hoard of ravenous dingos!”) or are being a teeny bit whiny (“and then we realized that our hotel room didn’t have a private espresso machine!”).  However, after one of my more recent travel experiences, I not only have a Bad Travel Story of my own, but came away from it with some surprising conclusions.

My friend Katherine and I had been looking for a weekend getaway: something smaller and more picturesque than Valencia, maybe colder and more autumnal.  We chose Cuenca, a town an hour outside of Valencia by high-speed train.  Nestled on a steep hill, with its famous casas colgadas (hanging houses) clinging to its edges, Cuenca is one of Spain’s national heritage sites.  But el día de todos los santos, a Spanish holiday on November 1st when most Spaniards go back to whatever pueblo they’re from to visit their families, meant that all the hotels were booked.  Our only option?  Rent an apartment for the weekend.  And why not, we figured?  The apartment company had okay ratings on bookings.com.  What could go wrong?

There was, of course, a good deal that went wrong.

Perhaps thinking that we were lesbians because we attempted to book an apartment with one bed, the company ‘upgraded’ us to another apartment.  Except they conveniently forgot to tell us where it was.  Also that the front door didn’t open without kicking it.  Also that there was no heat or hot water.  (And may I add that it was about 30 degrees in Cuenca that night?)  But, to our great good fortune, we happened to ask a particularly helpful local for directions.

“Eh?  Rincón de Malu?” he said, scratching his thick, white beard.  “Don’t know where that is.”  And before we could stop him, he had banged on all the doors in the vicinity.  “Hey!  Anyone know where Rincón de Malu is?”

A woman in curlers stuck her head out the window.  “Nearby.”

Another woman, this one clutching an icon of the Virgin Mary, said, “The next street over.  I’ll help you with the door.”

Katherine and I spent the evening cuddling and watching the first Harry Potter movie in Spanish.  We slept in the same bed anyway, piling all the blankets from both beds together to keep warm.  (Take that, homophobic rental company.)

The next morning, I was awoken by the rental company calling.  “Your debit card number didn’t work,” said the woman on the other end.  “Give it to us again.”

I blinked, groggy.  “Um.  Only if you cancel our other two nights here.”

“Give it to me or I’m calling the police.”

I shot out of bed.  “Woah.  Okay.  That is not necessary.”

Despite everything, Cuenca was...actually really pretty.  photocred: Katherine Black

Despite everything, Cuenca was…actually really pretty. photocred: Katherine Black

From her rapid Spanish, I gleaned that she’d give us our money back if we left by 9:00.  It was 8:50.  We threw our clothes in our suitcases and dragged them up the narrow, cobbled streets of Cuenca to the bar where we’d been promised free breakfast.  There was, of course, no record of this when we arrived.

“That’s okay, though!  You’re wearing a Valencia soccer club scarf.  Have some toast!” said the restaurant’s owner.  And he plunked two plates of bread in front of us, chattering as we pulled out my laptop and bought new return tickets to Valencia for that night.

“You all want to leave your luggage here?” he asked.  We nodded, grateful, and he whisked it away to a back room filled with entire legs of jamón.  From there, we left to take advantage of our one day of sightseeing.  We went to the Cuenca cathedral, filled with gorgeous panes of modern stained glass.  We walked down trails lined with fallen autumn leaves.  We visited the modern art museum and pondered what a clump of steel wool glued to a canvas meant.  (Our favorite work of art: a square canvas, covered entirely in gray paint, entitled “Gray Square.”  Changed our way of looking at the world.)  Then we picked up our bags from our cheery friend the restaurant owner and headed back to the train station.

However, because this was November 1st, there was no one there to print our tickets.  We climbed onto the train anyway, exhausted.  When the ticket-checker came by, we explained our situation.

“Just give me your names and I’ll call the operations center,” he said.

“Elizabeth.”

“Eli – what?”

“It’s not a Spanish name,”  I said.  “E.  Liz.  A.  Beth.”

He looked at me balefully.  “Why couldn’t you have been named María?”

“I…don’t know?”

“You know what?”he said, shaking his head.  “Just stay.”  And we slumped back in our seats, relieved.

But, to put the proverbial cherry on top of our sundae of misfortunes, the train pulled up short an hour outside of Valencia.  There was, we learned, a train strike.  We were shunted onto the metro system instead.  Katherine and I wandered, lost, until two men (they introduced themselves as Juan the Valencian and Gonzalo the Colombian) kindly took us to the right stop.  The next metro didn’t come for an hour, so we sat on top of our suitcases, trading jokes in Spanglish.  Gonzalo gave us cookies.  When the metro came, they both kissed us on the cheek and wished us safe travels.

Katherine and I still haven’t gotten our money back.  We probably never will.  But what we do have is a swell Bad Travel Story, even more unique because we chanced to meet so many generous people.  And we also learned that a) life tends to turn out okay (as long as you take the advice of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and DON’T PANIC), b) we love the smell of police threats in the morning, and c) wearing a Valencian soccer club scarf will make you friends everywhere you go.

“Did you at least have a good time?” my host mother asked when I got home at 1:00 A.M. that night.

“Did I ever,” I said, and fell asleep in my chair.

Katherine and me in a rare moment of put-togetherness.

Katherine and me in a rare moment of put-togetherness.  photocred: Katherine Black

What’s the Difference between a Spanish Latte and an American One? More than You’d Think

12 Dec

latte

For the most part, American stores and restaurants aren’t common in Valencia.  You’re more likely to see a hole-in-the-wall cafe, its display cases filled with Spanish tortilla and jamon-covered bocadillos and its espresso machine hissing behind the bar, than a Panera.  If you’re looking for clothes, you’ll stumble upon 15 Zaras, Mangos, and Sferas before you find the Lacoste boutique.  However, lining the fashionable streets of Gran Vía del Marqués de Turia and Calle Colón are a few businesses that both Spaniards and Americans love to hate and love to eat at: Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Starbucks has three locations in Valencia, both with the name emblazoned on its storefronts in familiar, green lettering.  At first glance, Starbucks seems to be much like its American counterpart.  Jazzy Christmas music fills the air, warm-toned prints cover the walls, and deceptively plush-looking couches surround a collection of tables where Valencians meet for interviews or a casual cup of coffee.  However, apply a keener eye to the store and you’ll notice the differences.  The Wi-Fi, for example, is password-protected, and only available for 45-minute intervals.  Spanish Starbucks guard their internet connection like Smaug squatting on his hoard, as if afraid that someone might steal the whole Internet when the employees have their backs turned. The bathroom is similarly protected.  A number pad, its code only available if you’ve bought a drink, keeps the facilities perpetually locked.  Behind the cash register is a sign that reads, “Beware of your personal items.  Professional pickpockets operate in this zone.”  In my mind, this converts Starbucks into a shifty back alley: every gaggle of teenage Spaniards, laughing and sipping their chai lattes, is waiting to steal the iPod out of my pocket and the scarf off my neck.  I wonder if the pickpockets are waiting to jump out from under the armchairs or tackle me from behind glossy displays of Kenyan dark roast.  (Maybe they all got locked in the bathroom?*)

*MAJOR NOTE OF SADNESS AND CAUTION: As some of you may have already heard, my iPod was stolen off a table at Starbucks a few days ago when I turned around for all of three seconds to grab my drink.  Irony is a cruel, cruel bitch.  Bottom line: like Luke discovering that the Force was inside him all along, I discovered that the pickpockets were, in fact, with me.  All.  Along.

Also, unless you specifically ask for your drink to go, the baristas will give it to you in a white mug, froth almost spilling over the sides.  This, in my opinion, is an excellent idea – it cuts down on waste and makes you feel a touch classier.  Though the menu is smaller, the drinks are generally better-made.  Teas are steaming, flavorful, and made with milk, even for cups of non-chai.  Cappuccinos come with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings.  Instead of bagels, cake pops, and pretzels, the food options include croissants, toast with tomatoes and olive oil, and camembert-and-turkey sandwiches on ciabatta.

Despite what it may sound like, I do not go to Starbucks that often.  In fact, I go mostly because it’s a reliable source of central heating (something which my apartment in Barrio Ruzafa lacks).  This, I admit, is still sad: imagine me curled catlike in a chair, greedily using every single second of my 45-minute Internet allotment, sucking in the heat as fast as I’m sucking in my caramel macchiato.  Living in Valencia has turned me into a sunflower.  I look for patches of heat and light (and coffee).

A Valencian McDonald’s.

The McDonald’s on Calle Ruzafa takes up two stories and most of the street outside.  Although most Spaniards I’ve met seem to think that McDonald’s is the font of all American obesity (more of them than you’d imagine have seen Supersize Me), they still, in the way of Regina George hating on Gretchen Weiner’s hoop earrings so she can wear her own, consider their own McDonald’s a trendy place to sit down for dinner.  In a supreme rejection of the phrase ‘fast food,’ they treat their Happy Meals like gourmet burgers, taking up to an hour to leisurely slurp down their Cokes and polish off their McChickens.  Weird but true: as ketchup is, to them, a symbol of American excess, they tend to eat their fries naked.

Yeah, I had a hard time believing that McDonald’s could produce something this appetizing, too.

European McDonald’s often have an even classier aspect to them: the McCafe.  Imagine finding a dress without any cheap sequins or fraying pleather in the dizzying loads of clothes at Forever 21.  This is the McCafe.  It’s filled with assorted flavors of macarons (my favorites so far have been pistachio, raspberry, and cappuccino), cream-stuffed pastries, and surprisingly delicious cups of cafe con leche.  If it weren’t for the ‘Mc’ appended to the name of every menu item, you could almost forget you were at a McDonald’s at all.

Although it isn’t a matter of preference, comparing the habits of one country to another when their citizens are occupying the same business space can tell a lot about that country’s underlying culture.  James Watson’s book “Golden Arches East” explored consumer behavior in Asian McDonald’s from an anthropological standpoint and found some significant differences between the way citizens of Beijing eat a hamburger and the way Americans do.  The same idea can be applied to Spanish McDonald’s and Starbucks.  In general, the things I’ve noticed reflect pretty significant differences between the way Spaniards and Americans treat the act of eating.

I have to admit – when I come back to the States next week, I’ll miss my creamy McFlurries and hazelnut hot chocolate.  But at this point – call me a consumer whore – I’d give up a hundred bocadillos for one pumpkin spice latte.

Babel

2 Dec

iss

This past summer, I wrote a few pieces of short fiction for the Library of Virginia´s Dark Side contest (one of which ended up nabbing second place and winning me, among other library knickknacks, a snazzy Walt Whitman-scented candle – whatever that means). I´d forgotten about the rest of the entries I wrote until my literature professor here in Valencia asked us to write a piece of science fiction with a female narrator.  As this fit the bill perfectly, I thought I´d try my hand at some translation.  Below is the story in both English and Spanish.

English

It’s shifts like this one where I’d trade every last cigarette from my ration pack for a scoop of ice cream that isn’t freeze-dried, or a green skirt instead of my uniform jumpsuits, or a window that doesn’t look out on stars and nebulas pinwheeling past. Shifts that go for eleven hours, from the moment I roll out of my bunk in the American quarters until I head back for a protein bar and a few minutes of quiet. Shifts where my fingers burn from manipulating keys and wires like it’s some kind of game.

“Talia.” I don’t look. There’s a crick in my neck from staring at one of the maintenance boards for the main solar panel array. “Hey. Talia. You hear me? Look alive.” It’s Ramirez’s voice, the young Texan with big ears who got here two weeks ago. He still has that sturdy glow of someone who’s come from Earth not long ago.

“What do you need, Ramirez?”

“Pass me your set of pliers, would you?”

“Yeah, sure.” I give him the worn set we share among our crew of six.

He touches me on the shoulder. “Only half an hour left until we’ve finished our daytime.”

“Yeah, maybe. We need this repaired if we want to keep the toilets flushing.” I wonder when the stale air and sterile walls of the ISS will grind down his smile, the light in his eyes.

It only takes forty-five minutes past the end of our day cycle for us to completely rework the wiring. “Not so bad,” says Xiao, listlessly flipping her black ponytail over her shoulder as we pack our toolkits. “We’ll be able to shower for another week, at least. Come on, let’s check out the news.” Our wrists ache as the six of us – Ramirez, Xiao, Welch, Koerner, Ortuña, and me – walk single-file through the narrow halls. We pass a woman with the Japanese flag on her uniform, two whispering Brazilians, a gaggle of Spaniards. We only nod to the Japanese woman. President Adamson is in diplomatic talks with the Japanese prime minister right now, so we can afford to be friendly.

The rec room is filled with the tang of sweat and the babble of five different vidscreens. There are people eating packets of rehydrated kung pao chicken and playing cards, but most are watching the screens. I see images of tanks and soldiers and men in suits flash by in the dizzying tango of a news report.

“It’s the Israeli-Egyptian border this time,” Swenson, one of our astrophysicists, tells me as I slide onto a chair. “The Egyptians have surrounded it. Their president says he needs proof that they don’t have neutron bombs.”

“Are we involved yet?”

“Adamson hasn’t commented.”

“Just doesn’t want to hurt his chances in the 2052 election,” mutters Xiao.

“The Egyptians are using this as an excuse,” says Arsenault in his guttural English, puffing on a smokeless cigar. We’ve been on good terms with the French lately, so Arsenault and the rest of his crew are sitting near the American table. I look around and notice that the Egyptians aren’t here. The Israelis are huddled in a corner, fingers clenched, brows together. I remember what my superior told me when I made it into the ISS Bridging Borders program a year ago: You’ll be representing the United States, okay, Gardner? So you’ll act like every single person up there is your brother or sister, even if their higher-ups are trying to beat the crap out of ours planetside. Easy in theory. Not so much in practice.

“Hey,” says Xiao, whipping a deck of cards out of her uniform pocket. “Anyone up for a game of blackjack before night cycle?”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“What’ll we bet?” asks Ramirez.

The idea is in my head before I can stop it. “Our comm minutes. If you go bust, you give them up.”

“But…” Swenson blanches. “We only get fifteen this week-”

“So don’t play,” I say, grabbing the deck from Xiao and shuffling. A perk of being one of the best mechanical engineers in the world is the ability to riffle a deck better than a Vegas card shark. Swenson’s eyes go hooded, like a snake’s, and she sits back down. I deal out two cards to her, Xiao, Ramirez, Koerner, Arsenault, and myself. “Remember. Over twenty-one and you’re as good as spaced. Xiao? Hit or stay?”

“Hit me,” she says, her fingers restlessly twining in her hair, her gaze glued to the vidscreen. I send a card shooting across the table.

“Koerner?”

“Hit, captain.”

“Swenson?”

“Stay.”

Their voices weave themselves into the hum of the news report. David Ely, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford, joins us with commentary. I think of those extra minutes blinking on my comm, of my mother’s tinny voice, piped in from Virginia. Of Cassie’s low, animal-like cooing. Sometimes I think I am forgetting the way it feels to tug a brush through my daughter’s hair. I don’t know how tall she is anymore. We need you, my superior said when I asked for leave. It’s a mess down here, but up there? You guys might be doing something good.

“Bust,” says Xiao three rounds later, leaving only Arsenault and me still in the game. He has three cards face-down and one, a jack, face-up. I stare at him. His lips are pursed like an old woman’s.

“Stay,” he says, not shifting.

Sources have not yet found evidence of enhanced radiation weapons.

I have a six face-up, a three, four, and seven face-down. Twenty. With four cards and one a face card, he has to be at twenty-one. Or twenty, and dealer loses a tie.

“Hit,” I say, and deal myself another card, fingers twitching for an ace. Arsenault watches, stone-faced, as I turn it over. It’s a seven.

“Well?” he says.

This just in, blare the screens. Egyptian forces have crossed the Israeli border.

“Your game,” I say, and get up to leave.

Spanish

Estos son el tipo de turno cuando intercambiaría mi último cigarrillo de mi paquete de raciones por una bola de helado que no se deshidrate, o una falda verde en el lugar de mi uniforme de mono, o una ventana que no mire a las estrellas y nébulas como molinillos. Turnos que duran once horas, desde el momento en que me despierto en dormitorio americano hasta que yo vuelvo para una tableta de proteína y unos minutos de silencio. Turnos en que me duelen los dedos a causa de manipular las cuerdas y los cables como si fuera un tipo de juego.

-Talia.- No miro al hablador. Tengo tortícolis a de quedarme mirando al tablón de mantenimiento que controla los paneles solares. -Ey. Talia. ¿Puedes oírme? ¿Estás viva?- Es la voz de Ramírez, el joven tejano con orejas grandes que llegó aquí hace dos semanas. Todavía tiene el buen color de alguien que no hace mucho tiempo que ha llegado de la Tierra.

-¿Qué necesitas, Ramírez?-

-Pásame unos alicates, por favor?-

-Sí, claro.- Le doy los alicates que compartimos entre nuestro equipo de seis personas.

Me toca el hombro. -Solo media hora hasta que hayamos terminado con nuestro ciclo de día.-

-Quizás. Tenemos que reparar esto si queremos tirar de la cadena.- Me pregunto cuándo el aire viciado y paredes estériles de la estación ISS hará añicos de él.

Cuesta cuarenta y cinco minutos después del fin oficial de nuestro ciclo de día para revisar completamente la instalación eléctrica. -Bien,- dice Xiao, lanzando su colita negra sobre el hombro mientras arreglamos nuestras cajas de herramientas. -Podemos ducharnos por otra semana, por lo menos. Vamos, vemos las noticias.- Nos duelen las muñecas mientras nosotros – Ramírez, Xiao, Welch, Koerner, Ortuña, y yo – caminamos uno tras otro a través de los pasillos estrechos. Nos cruzamos con una mujer con la bandera japonesa en su uniforme, dos brasileños cuchicheando, y una bandada de españoles. Solamente saludamos con la cabeza a la mujer japonesa. El presidente Adamson está en conversaciones con el primer ministro japonés, así que podemos ser amables.

La sala de recreo está llena del olor penetrante del sudor y el parloteo de cinco pantallas. Hay gente comiendo paquetes de pollo kung-pao rehidratado y jugando a los naipes, pero la mayoría están mirando las pantallas. Veo imágenes de tanques y soldados y hombres vestidos en trajes pasando a toda velocidad en el tango mareado de las noticias.

-Es la frontera entre Israel y Egipto esta vez,- me dice Swenson, una de nuestros astrofísicos, mientras me sento. -Los egipcios la tienen rodeada. Su presidente dice que necesita una prueba que de no haya bombas de neutrinos.-

-¿Estamos entrañados ya?

-Adamson está sin comentarios.-

-Él no quiere hacer daño a su casualidad en las elecciones de 2052,- murmura Xiao.

-Los egipcios están usando eso como excusa,- dice Arsenault en su inglés gutural, dando pitadas a un cigarrillo eléctrico. Nos hemos llevado bien con los franceses recientemente, así que Arsenault y el resto de su equipo se sientan cerca de la mesa americana. Miro alrededor y me doy cuenta deque los egipcios no están. Los israelíes se acurrucan en un rincón, los dedos apretados, las cejas de punto. Recuerdo lo que mi superior me dijo hace un año, cuando ganó la entrada al programa de ‘ISS Bridging Borders.’ Representarás a los Estados Unidos, vale, Gardner? Entonces vas a actuar como si cada persona fuera tu hermano, aunque sus superiores estén tratando de dar una paliza a nosotros en la Tierra. Fácil, teóricamente. En la práctica, no lo es.

-Oye,- dice Xiao, cogiendo una baraja de cartas del bolsillo de su uniforme. -¿Alguien quiere jugar la veintiuna antes del ciclo de noche?-

Me encojo de hombros. -¿Por qué no?-

-¿Qué tipo de apuesta?- dice Ramírez.

La idea está en mi mente antes de que pueda detenerla. -Nuestros minutos de móvil. Si alguien quiebra, renunciará a los minutos.-

-Pero…- Swenson se pone pálida. -Recibimos solo quince minutos esta semana…-

-Entonces no juegues,- digo, cogiendo las cartas de Xiao y barajándolas. Una ventaja extra de ser una de los mejores ingenieros mecánicos del mundo es la habilidad de hojear una baraja mejor que un tahúr de Las Vegas. Los ojos de Swenson están encapuchados ahora, como los de una serpiente, y se sienta. –Recordad. Más de veintiuno y estáis muertos. ¿Xiao? ¿Doblas o no?-

-Doblo,- dice, los dedos entrelazándose nerviosamente, su mirada fijada a las pantallas. Le tiro una carta a ella sobre la mesa.

-¿Koerner?-

-Doblo, capitana.-

-¿Swenson?-

-No voy a doblar.-

Sus voces se mezclan con el zumbido de las noticias. David Ely, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford, joins us with commentary. Pienso en los minutos extras parpadeando en mi móvil, en la voz metálica de mi madre, que está en Virginia. En el arrullo bajo de Cassie. A veces creo que me olvido como me sentía cuando cepillaba el pelo de mi hija. Ahora, no sé su altura, exactamente. Te necesitamos, me dijo mi superior cuando pedí permiso para estar con mi familia. Aquí todo es un lío, pero ¿allá arriba? Es posible que hagáis algo bueno.

-He perdido,- dice Xiao después de tres rondas. Nos quedamos yo y Arsenault en el juego. Él tiene tres cartas boca abajo y una, la sota, boca arriba. Miro fijamente a él. Frunce los labios como los de una anciana.

-No voy a doblar,- dice.

Sources have not yet found evidence of enhanced radiation weapons.

Tengo un seis boca arriba y un tres, un cuatro, y un siete boca abajo. Veinte. Con cuatro cartas y una boca abajo, tiene que tener veintiuno. O veinte, y el repartidor pierde un empate.

-Doblo,- digo, y me doy otra carta, los dedos esperando un as. Arsenault me mira, con la cara como piedra, mientras la pongo boca arriba. Es un siete.

-¿Y qué?- dice.

This just in, retumban las pantallas. Egyptian forces have crossed the Israeli border.

-Has ganado,- digo, y me pongo de pie para irme.

Obviously, I´m pretty new at this translation business, so if you have any suggestions or ideas for me, don´t hesitate to let me know.  I´d love to hear from any Spanish-speakers about how this piece sounds!  In addition, thanks to Jesús, my superguay professor, for helping me translate.

“We Regret to Inform You of Another Delay”

11 Nov

An account of the joys and terrors of my first air controller strike in Europe.

Previously published this essay in the October issue of the Brown Yorker, so if you’re a Brownie, you’re lucky: you got a sneak preview at my weird adventures on the tarmac at Gatwick airport!

Striking is not a phenomenon I am terribly familiar with.  To me, it conjures up images of women in shirtwaists and men with pocket watches, hoisting handmade signs in faded photos from the early 1900s.  The only real strike I remember experiencing is the Writers Guild of America debacle from 2008, and only that because it disrupted my weekly ritual of watching Heroes.  When an email popped into my inbox from Easyjet, informing me that my flight from London to Toulouse might be affected by striking air traffic controllers, I didn’t pay much attention.  I’d just finished a vacation in London and was going to cap it off with a few days in southern France.  Striking was not the foremost thing on my mind.

That morning, the plane had already started taxiing down the runway when it suddenly stopped.  The pilot’s voice crackled over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that, due to a lack of communication from the Toulouse airport, our flight will be delayed for two hours.”  The girl next to me rolled her eyes.  I glanced at her.  Improbably, she was smaller than me and drowning in an oversized hoodie, with black hair hastily thrown into a ponytail.  In one hand, she held a Blackberry; in the other, an iPhone.   She switched back and forth between the two with dizzying speed.

“Um,” I said.  I didn’t want to bother her, but my only hope of contacting my friends in France was to get my hands on a European cell phone.  “Can I use your phone?  I’m American, and my phone doesn’t work, and-”

“Please, go ahead.”  Her English was crisp, tinged with a soft French accent.  “I just need to finish this email to my boss.  I won’t make my meeting.”

“What do you do?” I said, eyeing her clothes.

“I’m an art dealer advisor.  I work for auction houses across Europe,” she said, worrying a piercing on her lower lip.  I tried not to let my eyes get too large.  Here I’d been trying to figure out how many years younger than me she was, and she probably had enough money by now to buy more Hermés scarves than I’d even see in my lifetime.  Her name was Élise, with more emphasis on the first syllable than the second: the verbal equivalent of skipping a stone across a lake.  We drank paper cups of Earl Gray as she nobly tried to find me WiFi.

The movie that shaped my expectations of flights: rampant vomiting, inflatable pilots, and constant near-crashes

Later, I ambled up to the cockpit to ask the pilots if they knew how I could make a call.  I had some hazy idea that I’d find Ted Striker from Airplane! sitting in front of a wall of dials and controls, but instead two young women sprawled in the pilots’ chairs, checking Twitter for updates on the strike.  (This was oddly comforting.)  Although complaining about the French is a national English pastime, they were sick of it by now, so they expertly showed me the inner workings of the cockpit and let me log on to the airport network in the bargain.

“Where are you from?”  said one.

“Virginia.”

I watched her face.  Most Brits did not seem to know where this was, despite the fact that it was dedicated to a certain British queen.  “Is that near Texas?” she asked.

“Um,” I said.  “Sort of.”

“That’s okay,” she said, cheerful.  “I was top of my class in flight school.  I don’t need to know where it is unless I’m flying to it.”

The air traffic controllers at last deigned to let us through, and we took off for Toulouse.  I watched the sun rise from my dirt-stained window, tranquil despite the delay.  Airports can throw you all sorts of surprises, but I hadn’t expected to meet three talented women who were barely older than me.

Later, as Élise and I filed through customs, she unzipped her hoodie to reveal an impeccably fitted silk blouse.  “Au revoir,” she said, thumbs still glued to her Blackberry.

“Au revoir,” I repeated, and wondered if I’d see her name beneath a Sotheby’s sale one day.

Apparently the French strike all the time- they’re only rivaled in this by the Spaniards and the Italians.  Anyone else experienced strikes across Europe (or anywhere else, for that matter)?  Did they turn out as serendipitously as mine?

Why I Can’t Walk Through Valencia Without Embarrassing Myself

3 Nov

I have a confession to make: I have a dog problem.

This is maybe not a new development.  I was raised by parents who considered the two dogs they adopted before my birth to be their first two children, and I’ve grown up with no less than five dogs of varying size, breed, and personality.  Whenever I Skype my parents at home, I get a few minutes to reconnect with the three who are still with us.  Schizo Dog, whom we added to our family after she had been abused as a puppy, is a gorgeous Chesapeake Bay retriever: ladylike, regal, and completely insane.  (She once ate an entire door frame, and her bladder control has never been what you’d call…constant.)  Snuffly Dog is a shaggy black mutt who has the same cheerful, cuddly ugliness as most indiscernible mixes (is she a shepherd?  A Lab?  Maybe part spaniel?  It’s anyone’s guess!).

Small Dog, who is undoubtedly a bit of a camera whore.

Small Dog, who is undoubtedly a bit of a camera whore.

Small Dog, a late addition to our family, is half wire-haired Dachshund and half Shih-Tzu, meaning that many people mistake her for a teddy bear until she barks.  This breed is apparently called a Schweenie, which is possibly the silliest name for an animal ever created.  Growing up with dogs rubbing their faces against my knees, eating food off my plate, and licking my nose when I’m sad means that it’s never been a question of whether I’ll adopt a dog when I get my own place.  Instead, it’s when.

The root of my problem is that Valencia.  Is full.  Of.  Dogs.  I can’t even walk to the fruit store next door without encountering several Chihuahuas, a few pugs, and maybe a terrier or two.  Owing to the small size of most Spanish apartments, most dogs are of the little kind (it isn’t strange at all to see hulking men in leather jackets walking frilly Pomeranians with bows in their hair), but the occasional golden retriever or Bernese mountain dog isn’t uncommon either.  In the main plaza, I once encountered a Great Dane so large I probably could have ridden him down the streets of Valencia instead of taking the bus.  It seems like every single Valencian has a canine best friend, which means that I feel the pain of lacking one even harder.  Maybe it’s my latent maternal instinct kicking in and telling me to reproduce, except that my brain seems to think that I’m a dog, because all I want are puppies.  Lately, I’ve been ending every message to my family with “and please send me a puppy in the mail, xoxo, Elizabeth.”

In which I bond with Maravilla, the cuddliest donkey ever.

In which I bond with Maravilla, the cuddliest donkey ever.

My obsession has gotten so intense that I’ve found myself going gaga over animals everywhere.  A pair of regal, plump Persian cats that I’ve named Victoria and Albert live on the balcony below my apartment in Spain.  My roommate Sally and I sometimes spend our mornings meowing at them, trying to see if they’ll meow back.  (They haven’t.  Yet.)  In the nearby town of Bocairent, I let a two-month-old boxer puppy chew on my fingers and leave bite marks on my leather Steve Madden boots, then had an intimate moment with some random man’s donkey.  I will sometimes stop dead in the middle of a street to stare at someone’s schnauzer or doe-eyed chocolate lab.  At this point, I’m considering making a sign to tape to my shirt that says, “I’m Not Staring At You, I’m Staring At Your Adorable Dog.”

Things have gotten so bad that I found myself Googling “animals in teacups” a few nights ago.  Did you know that all kinds of baby animals can fit in teacups?  Because THEY CAN!  Take a look:

Kittens!

Bunnies!

And this hedgehog even matches the color scheme!

After reading this Buzzfeed article, I terrified my boyfriend by telling him I wanted a kid for Christmas (before I clarified that I meant a baby goat).  I told my mom that I was thinking of adopting a dog and keeping it in my dorm room next semester.  Perhaps I’ve always had it in me, or perhaps living in Valencia has brought it out, but I am starting to lose it to clumsy-legged bundles of fur.    All I can hope is that I’m able to hold onto my senses until I return to Schizo Dog, Snuffly Dog, and Small Dog in December – or my host mom might come home to find that I’ve snatched a ‘regalito’ for her off the streets while some poor dog owner had his back turned.

An Open Letter to UVA on Sexual Harassment and Assault

17 Oct

Two weeks ago, I celebrated my one-month anniversary of living in Spain by grabbing bocadillos (thick, bready Spanish sandwiches) with my friends Sarah and Katherine.  We chatted with Rita, Katherine’s intercambio (language partner from Valencia), mouths full of bread, egg, and chicken.  The steady 2:00 sun filled the cafeteria of the Valencian psychology department with light.  We remarked on how much better our Spanish is getting: no longer do we have to fish around for quite so many words, or blush and stutter because we can’t get our point across.

Studying abroad has taught me two crucial skills thus far: to communicate openly and to know that I am stronger than I think.  Writing these posts has been a way of being frighteningly, cathartically open about my experiences.  Living in a country in which my native language isn’t the one emblazoned on street signs, splashed across advertisements, and spilling from people’s lips means that I treasure every moment of honest communication I can find.  Five weeks ago, I wondered whether I had it in me to stay here until December.  Now I know I can, and that knowledge has given me the peace of mind to discuss another subject that I feel is worth talking about.

Rape and sexual assault on college campuses and other educational institutions has become such a topic du jour around sites like Jezebel and xoJane that it seems as if some people ignore it entirely.  Not so long ago, I would have counted myself among that number.  It happened, I knew, but surely not at my school – or if it did, it couldn’t occur frequently.  Then I came to Valencia, and during some of the most open, frank conversations I’ve ever had, I heard stories from almost every girl I met.  One got drunk at a party, went home with a boy but told him she didn’t want to have sex, and found him on top of her later.  Another was raped at a frat and then blacklisted.  The cases of assault and harassment seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.  With those stories filling my ears and humming in my blood, I decided to tell my own.

Almost six months ago, when joining an organization at my university that I very much enjoyed participating in, I found myself in need of fulfilling one last requirement to join.  As a prospective member, I had to get to know several long-term members in an informal setting.  The day before the semester was over, I needed one more meeting.   A man in the group had reached out to me previously, and since we shared interests in travel and foreign languages, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind chatting with me over coffee to nab that final requirement.  As the day wore on, the situation began to change.  First he pushed the meeting back to night.  Then he said he’d pick me up.  Then he said we could just go to his apartment.  Then there was no one else there.  It became clear to me that a casual conversation about all the places we’d traveled wasn’t what he had in mind.  Despite my repeated excuses, he continued kissing me, pinning me to the couch, and touching me.  It took me two hours to convince him that I wanted to go home.  I walked, shaking, up the steps to my dorm room, papers in hand.  In the ‘location’ space for the meeting slot on my sheet, he’d written that we’d talked in the library café.

It wasn’t rape, I kept telling myself over the following days.  It wasn’t rape.  I never said no, not exactly.  The other half of my brain kept picking out the flaws in those words.  He was twice my age, twice my size, and twice my strength.  He held a position of power over me, both physically and metaphorically, because he knew I needed one last meeting before the next day.  He probably thought that, as the only first-year female in my prospective group, I wouldn’t turn him down.  And just because it wasn’t rape didn’t mean that it didn’t signify anything.

I eventually went to the president of the organization to tell her exactly what had gone down.  Furious at what had happened to me, she wrote out a list of my resources.  Let me take a moment to say that, during this step of the process, I met a group of dynamic, intelligent individuals who took the time to constantly make sure I knew all my options.  I was fed waffles.  I was treated at the Pigeon Hole.  I was given legal advice and personal advice, all of which was sound.  But the president told me that the only way to expel this member from the organization was to hold a hearing and pass a vote.  Not only would this man have the chance to twist the scenario to his liking and reveal my name, I had no evidence.  This was a classic example of a he-said-she-said case: no evidence on either side, just bitter feelings and a gnawing sense that this had been wrong.

I then considered reporting him to the university.  In my research on that front, I found some truly disappointing statistics.  In the past twelve years, UVA hasn’t expelled a single student for sexual assault.  However, during the last academic term alone, it’s expelled six for violations of the Honor Code.  For those of you who aren’t students here, UVA expels students who break the Honor Code, as per the single-sanction rule.  The Honor Committee website defines an honor violation as follows: “a Significant Act of Lying, Cheating or Stealing, which Act is committed with Knowledge. Three criteria determine whether or not an Honor Offense has occurred:

  • Act: Was an act of lying, cheating or stealing committed?
  • Knowledge: Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was Lying, Cheating, or Stealing?
  •  Significance: Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?”

Call me crazy, but sexual assault seems to be on par with, if not worse than, lying, cheating, or stealing.  To put things in perspective, let’s apply the same parameters to what happened to me.

  • Was an act of sexual assault/harassment committed?  Yes.  Again, let’s look at UVA’s resources.  The sexual violence page defines sexual assault as “any form of forced sexual contact.”  Compared to cases of rape and other forced sexual contact, I was lucky.  But did I want this contact?  No.
  • Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was sexual assault/harassment?  This one is a little harder.  Perhaps this student somehow interpreted my friendly behavior as a sign of interest.  I doubt that he took me to his apartment specifically thinking, “I am going to sexually harass this girl.”  But my reluctance and lack of verbal consent should have been a clear sign that I wasn’t interested.  A reasonable UVA student – hell, a reasonable human being – should know not to proceed from there.
  • Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?  I cannot imagine a response to this question other than “yes.”  Imagine a situation of sexual harassment or assault happening to someone you trust, and who trusts you.  Would you like that to happen?  No?  That’s answered, then.

I try not to pretend to be anything other than what I am.  I am only a writer.  I am not a lawyer, nor am I an educator, nor am I any kind of authority on what kinds of laws govern sexual harassment/assault cases on university grounds.  I was not raped, just put in a situation that made me queasy.  And outside of the organization in which I am involved, I didn’t report this to anyone.  In some ways, that makes me part of the problem, and I wish I had taken further action six months ago.  But I know enough to say that all people – women and men both – who are enrolled at any educational institution deserve proper protection from that kind of situation.  If it does happen (and it will – I’m not naïve enough to imply that it can be eradicated entirely, even by the best schools), they should feel safe in the knowledge that whatever happened to them will be treated with the same gravity as lying, cheating, or stealing.  To any members of the UVA Sexual Misconduct Board who happen to read this post: you are on the right track, but you are not doing enough.  When students who have been courageous enough to report their stories (Kathryn, Annie, Anonymous Wahoo) consistently come away saying that they feel blamed and that their perpetrators are able to get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, you may want to consider that the way that you’re evaluating cases could use some work.

I have come to love so many aspects of my university: lying on someone’s old quilt spread across the Lawn on a fall day, taking creative writing classes with the incredible English department, blissfully stuffing a Bodo’s bagel in my face.  Others I have come to hate, and none more so than this one.  The University of Virginia already has a centuries-old reputation for sweeping distasteful problems under the rug, such as misogyny and elitism.  It is now also gaining a reputation as an institution that fails to protect its own students in the most basic of ways.  Nearly ten years ago, Hook wrote a story called “How UVA Turns its Back on Rape.”  I’m still not sure it’s accurate to say things are much different.  Today, when debates over rape culture, allocation of blame, and nitpicking over sexual assault laws, semantics, and definitions run rife through the media, it is now more important than ever for UVA to tighten its standards.  A true community of trust, after all, does everything it can to foster that trust in every aspect of student life.

An aside: thank you to all the students I’ve met who have shared their stories with me.  You have all survived so much and are so incredibly strong.  You are my role models.