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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 Game

6 Jan

Another one of the entries I wrote for the Library of Virginia’s “The Dark Side” contest, a challenge to capture a moment in 1,000 words or less.  This one was inspired by a photograph of a storefront window in downtown Norfolk, 1915.

Harry C. Mann (1866–1926)
Schreier & Son Window Display, Norfolk, Virginia, 1915

“Oh,” said Dorothy, the small slope of her nose inches away from the shop window. “Oh. That’s my new favorite. Look at the lace along the edges of the bodice.” The perfect, pink circle of her lips fell open. “How much do you think it costs, Martha?”

“Every dress becomes your new favorite.” Martha kept one hand on the small of Dorothy’s back as if protecting her, or maybe holding her back. “And what does it matter? You already have five dresses for every occasion I could think of.”

“Play along, won’t you?” Dorothy caught Martha’s thin fingers in her own. Even at the end of the day, when the sun had set and department stores lining Main Street were flicking on their new and brilliant displays of electric lighting, she still reminded Martha of a sunbeam. “You’re smiling. You don’t mean it after all.”

“Of course not. I’ll play, if that’s what you want.”

Dorothy slipped her elbow into the crook of Martha’s arm. “Oh, good. What do you think of that one, then? The one with the empire waist and the cream silk bustle…”

They wandered down another block this way, Martha riveted by the dove-like cooing of Dorothy’s voice. She imagined what others would think, seeing them: two women in shirtwaists with fashionably tight sleeves, masses of neat curls piled at the nape of the neck. They could have been cousins – Dorothy the younger one, Martha a little older, taller, and plainer – out for an evening walk before supper. Thomas, Martha and her husband’s chauffeur, had parked by the edge of the street in their Model T. The car was still new enough that strangers eyed it with envy, but old enough that her husband didn’t fuss over it as if caring for a baby.  Thomas eyed them protectively every few minutes from beneath the gleaming black hood, then returned his attention to his cigarette.

“Did Edward come to see you today?” Martha asked suddenly.

Dorothy’s smile spread across her face slowly, like ripples in a lake. “Are you jealous?”

“Of course I’m not, I-”

“Well, he did.” Dorothy sighed. “Mother thinks I should marry him and have done with things.”

“And what do you think?”

She pursed her lips at a Thalhimer’s display across the street. “I think I don’t understand how you did it. Married John, I mean. Had William.”

Martha fussed at a few dark ringlets of Dorothy’s hair that had fallen loose. “It’s not  so bad. There’s much worse out there than John. And William was – is – a gift.”

“Oh, he’s darling. I just can’t imagine…marriage.” Dorothy broke away from her grasp then, pressing herself against the window of Schreier and Son. “Look. The one with the roses at the bust. That’s my favorite. Promise I won’t change my mind.”

“You’d look lovely in it,” Martha agreed. She stared at the way the electric lights brought out the russet streaks in Dorothy’s hair, her breath in her throat. “Should I buy it for you?” she said, feeling like a glass someone had filled until it overflowed. “Tomorrow, when they open?”

“Yes,” answered Dorothy. She stared at the mannequin’s shadowed eyelids, her posed arms. Something had lit up her eyes. “Can I ask you something else, Martha?”

Martha felt herself flushing. “Anything, of course.”

“Let’s imagine going somewhere else.  Away from here.”

“What?” She glanced back down the street. Thomas was still waiting for them, his head in his hands.

“We could go to California. Or Paris. Or Argentina, even. Somewhere for people who -”

“But you’d have to give up all your pretty clothes,” said Martha, desperation coloring her tone. Her voice sounded rusty and old.

“Play along, Martha.”

“I’m too tired.”

Dorothy put her hand to Martha’s face. “I’m nineteen.  You know what they say about girls who don’t get married, right?  Do you want me to be a spinster?”

She felt her body begin to warm. “I have William. And John.”

“John would remarry,” said Dorothy, careless.

“What would William think if he discovered that his mother had-”

“Shhh,” said Dorothy, gliding her fingers down Martha’s throat, playing at the sensible fabric of her sleeve before slipping her arm back into Martha’s. “We’ll walk some more, and think about it, and talk about it again when you take me to buy that dress tomorrow.”

Martha opened her mouth to speak, then exhaled the words into the cooling night air. They did not talk for several minutes. The heels of their shoes against the pavement now seemed loud and mechanically regular, like the clicking of typewriter keys. Eventually the thrumming of an engine crept up behind them, drowning even that noise.

“Miss Hartley?” It was Thomas, beside them in the Model T. He mopped his face with an oil-spotted rag, sweating even though it was October. His eyes flickered between the two of them. “It’s almost eight o’clock. Mister Hartley will be wondering where we’ve gotten off to.  ”

“Of course,” said Dorothy, and flung her arms around Martha like a little girl. It amazed her, sometimes, how Dorothy could change her whole character like robes to be slipped on and off. “Oh, what a grand walk! Drop me off on the way back to Martha’s, Thomas?  My mother will be waiting to serve supper.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson,” he said, shifting his weight back and forth. They climbed into the car, their noses filled with the stark scent of motor oil. Wilson put his hand on the gear and they began to glide down Main Street. The night was filled with the shock of the brightly lit windows. Martha turned her head to glance back at the dress with rosebuds in the window of Schreier and Son, but it was already a blur. She let her eyes close. Her fingers found the patch of seat next to Dorothy and rested on it, soft as the gray light of the morning that hadn’t yet come.

Hope you enjoyed!  I tried to include a few details about the time period while keeping the focus of the story on Martha and Dorothy (and their lady love, in case you didn’t get that, duh).

To Shave or Not to Shave: The Cultural Aesthetics of Female Body Hair

2 Jan

Let’s talk about hair, Nair, and everything in between.  (An idea inspired by No-Shave November that study-abroad forced by the wayside until now.)

Not only is November the time when my mother gets obsessed with hanging weird-smelling wreaths on our front door, as well as the peak of decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, it is also that strange month glorifying the men who put down their razors and let their beards grow free.  It has become what plenty of Americans know as No-Shave November, or Movember (a portmanteau of ‘November’ and ‘mustache’).  Some men do it in the name of cancer research funding, and some do it in the name of extreme beardliness.  When I was in Spain this semester, I joked to some girls in the UVA program that I, too, was going to participate in Movember.  Their responses all had the same underlying message: that’s weird.

That left a question stewing in my brain, one that I haven’t had time to really investigate until now: why?

When I googled No-Shave November to see what the Internet at large thought about the phenomenon, I noticed that the bigger the beard was, the more words like manly, masculine, sexy, awesome, and badass were used.  However, when referring to women who tried to join in alongside their beard-growing brethren, words like lazy, ugly, and strange were more common.  I discovered that last year, a popular Will Ferrell parody account tweeted the following:

fillwerrell

And I suppose I am late to the proverbial party, because yes, that was a year ago (and it’s January now, I KNOW), but that rubbed me the wrong way.

I am the first to admit that I’m not exactly slavish about sticking to a shaving schedule.  In the winter, I will routinely go months without letting a razor touch my calves.  The rest of the year, I shave when I have a moment here or there, meaning that I sometimes go out in the heat of summer with five days’ worth of fuzz on my legs.  I never bother with my thighs.  My boyfriend and I joke that it’s a national holiday whenever I shave both my armpits and shins on the same day.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel unfeminine when I glance at my ankles and see the hair I missed poking out of the legs of my jeans.  When I wear tank tops, I think twice before raising my hand or waving – when was the last time I shaved?  And I stay alert for any other stray growth that dares to show itself, mercilessly plucking my eyebrows every morning.  Sometimes, when I’ve nicked myself trying to eradicate the hard-to-reach hair on the backs of my knees, I think, I could be doing so many other fascinating things right now.  Like eating cheesecake.  Or sleeping.  Or singing into my hairbrush to Lorde. 

As women in a media-saturated society, we wage war on certain varieties of hair (legs, armpits, pubes, etc.) while spending hours encouraging other kinds (eyelashes, head hair) to grow.  Calliope, the narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, tells us:

“Sing, Muse, of ladies and their battle against unsightly hair! Sing of depilatory creams and tweezers! Of bleach and beeswax! Sing how the unsightly black fuzz, like the Persian legions of Darius, sweeps over the Achaean mainland of girls barely into their teens! When I close my eyes and summon the fond smells of childhood, do I smell gingerbread baking or the pine-fresh scent of Christmas trees? Not primarily. The aroma that fills, as it were, the nostrils of my memory is the sulfurous, protein-dissolving fetor of Nair.”

We shave.  We pluck.  We wax.  We thread.  We bitch about it.  Then we get so used to it that we frown on anyone else treating ‘bad hair’ as anything other than negative.  The first time someone else cracked a joke about my shaving habits, I was fourteen and on the tennis team at my middle school.  One mid-September day, I was practicing my serve with a few other girls, soothed by the satisfying thwack of the ball connecting with the sweet spot on my racquet.  I raised my arm, another ball in hand.

“Elizabeth,” shouted the girl to my left, “when was the last time you shaved your pits?”

I stopped, mid-serve, and glanced at my armpit.  “Uh.” There was a faint shadow in the crook of skin.  “Two days ago?”

She giggled.  “You don’t shave them every day?  I do.”  By this point, all the other girls were watching.  I saw a few of them surreptitiously glance at their own armpits.

“I just, um, forgot this morning,” I said, blushing.

“Well,” she said sweetly, “hope you don’t forget again.”

Pictured here: the awesome Emer O’Toole, an Irish grad student who is gleefully proud of the fact that she doesn’t shave her pits.

In terms of the United States, shaving hasn’t been around for as long as we might think.  (In other locations, where Islam is predominant, it has been for religious reasons – but that’s another story entirely.)  Ridding the legs and armpits of hair only became widespread when hemlines rose and necklines plunged.  We can date that pretty exactly to 1915, when Harper’s Bazaar ran an ad featuring a woman with silky-smooth pits.  Now it’s hard to imagine a standard of female beauty that doesn’t involve removing some kind of hair.  In fact, it’s so ingrained in us that media outlets go crazy over it.  Mo’Nique’s legs made headlines in 2010 when she blithely told Barbara Walters that she didn’t shave.  Kristen Stewart was made fun of as a kid for not caring about shaving.  Julia Roberts showed off her luxurious pit hair at a 1999 event and people still talk about it today.  And St. Baldrick’s, an organization for which people shave their heads in the name of cancer, is getting bigger and bigger every year.  Yet women who participate always make a splash, precisely because they are not supposed to shave that hair.

So what gives?

As part of my newfound obsession with body hair, I started asking my female friends about what they did or didn’t trim, and when.  Without exception, they all shaved their legs.  A few of them said that their boyfriends wouldn’t want to touch them if they hadn’t.  One girl said that she shaved her armpits multiple times a day – just in case.  Another talked about getting her arms waxed.  Although most of the girls I talked to didn’t get bikini or Brazilian waxes, they expressed a desire to do so, if they had the courage and/or the money.  They did, for the most part, shave or trim their pubic hair.  Most of them also plucked their eyebrows, and plenty of them plucked their upper lips as well.  Many of them admitted to me that they felt ashamed, gross, or undesirable when they didn’t remove hair from certain parts of their body.

The point of writing this is not to say that shaving is bad.  The point is to say that maybe we should rethink our cultural attitude towards feminine body hair.  If men are able and even encouraged to leave their beards untrimmed, then why shouldn’t women do the same with the rest of their bodies?  In my opinion, an important step towards good cultural body image is de-fetishizing the absence of hair everywhere but up top.  If you want to wax off everything, including your eyebrows and the hair on your head, good on you.  If you want to leave your legs as hairy as a wampa ice creature’s, that should also be fine.   Bottom line: if you see someone else’s body hair and you  think it’s weird, don’t mess with it and don’t talk smack about it.  Worry about what’s growing on your own skin.

After all, as a very wise woman once told me, “You do you, girlfriend.”

Side note: I hope that the NSA, should they be watching, is amused by all my Google searches of “beautiful hairy armpits.”

Join me next week, dear readers, as I brave the salon to find out what all this brouhaha over bikini waxing is about and then – yes – write about it.  UPDATE: read it here!

Oh, and a happy (hairy?) 2014 to all!

The Christmas Story

24 Dec

In one of my previous posts, I wrote, “God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time).”

I am now going to tell that story.  It is a story about how Jesus gave me a bitch slap and a black eye for Christmas.

I left Richmond for my first semester at the University of Virginia last August with a carful of carefully-chosen room decor, my very own Swiffer, and a selection of cutout dresses that I would be too lazy to wear to parties.  I promised myself to do something that scared me every day.  I told myself I would join every club that vaguely interested me and find all the best hole-in-the-wall cafés.  When December rolled around, I was involved, all right, and stretched too thin.  The skin under my eyes had turned a permanent shade of purple.  I had a malingering illness that left me unable to eat much more than a few slices of bread and some fruit each day.  Although I faithfully responded to every email I received each night, by morning my inbox would be bursting with notifications from professors, announcements from the extracurriculars I’d joined, and minutes from the student government council meetings I attended.  I had lost weight.  My attitude was more depressing than Eeyore’s.

When I returned for Christmas break, I felt like a stranger in my own household.  Had I never noticed the stench of dog pee emanating from the living room carpet?  What was so bad about eating Chunky Monkey straight from the container at 2:00 A.M.?  When we dressed ourselves in our finest to go see The Nutcracker, a family tradition, I realized that my younger sister had been wearing my favorite pair of black pumps.  Her feet, a size bigger than mine, had stretched the faux leather beyond redemption.  I trailed behind them as we walked from the parking lot to the theater, hissing threats at her and hobbling down Grace Street like a drunken mountain goat trying to scale the Alps.

In addition to the usual prelude duties I had at the late night Christmas service, my choir director had asked me to accompany the children’s choir on flute for the pageant.  A less-than-perfectly-melodic bunch at the best of times, the choir kids were less than pleased to be asked to harmonize with any instrument other than the triangle and the bongos.  Rehearsals made me want to bang my head against a wall.  On Christmas Eve, I threw on a dirty dress and slunk into church five minutes before the service began.

“Where were you?” said the choir director.  “Our last rehearsal was half an hour ago!”

“I was…baking gingerbread,” I muttered.  “Lost track of time.”

We stood in the sacristy among the bustle of acolytes tugging on white robes, clergy going over the service notes, and toddlers running around with shepherd’s crooks or angel wings, haloes askew.  One of the acolytes, a glasses-wearing boy of about twelve, ordered the younger kids around, boasting about how heavy the crucifix was.  “You gotta be strong to carry it.  Someone with muscle,” he said.  “Like me.  Lookit.” I cleaned my flute and glared at him.

“All right,” said Lyndon, one of our head priests.  “Are we all ready to -”

Suddenly, a blinding pain exploded in my right temple, and I staggered sideways.  One of the little angels screamed.  I blinked and realized that my vision had gone fuzzy.

“Oh, shit,” said someone.  “Sorry, I mean oh my God…I mean, wait, hold on…”

It was the acolyte.  I saw him, as if from far away, holding the heavy, brass cross like it had come to life and begun to dance the two-step.

“Did you just…” I began.  Pain lanced into my cheekbone and behind my eye.

“I swear it was an accident!  I was just lifting it and -”

My mother, a soprano in the adult choir, appeared from nowhere and grabbed my wrist.  “Let’s go to the bathroom, okay?”

“Mom,” I said, a few minutes later, looking at my blurry reflection.  “I think I might be concussed.”

“No, you idiot,” she said, fondly patting my arm.  “He knocked you so hard both your contacts fell out.  I found them on the floor.”  And she offered the two withered discs to me.  I slid them onto my irises, wincing.  “Do you know how close he came to taking out your right eye?  Half a centimeter lower, and…”

An enormous bump had begun to form under my eyebrow.  “Don’t I have to go play now?” I asked.

“The choir director says you don’t have to.  You know, considering the circumstances.”

“No,” I said.  “I have to.  I have to.”

I adjusted my wrinkled dress, grabbed my flute, and proceeded to give the worst performance of my life as my black eye started to grow dark and fat.  And that was, somehow, cathartic.  I looked like shit and I played like shit on a night when all of Christiandom was supposed to offer up their talents for the Christ Child (or something like that, anyway).  Between services, I nibbled on bread and clamped a frozen steak from the church pantry to my face.

At St. Thomas, the 10:00 service is always meditative, filled with candles and the delicate melodies of quieter Christmas hymns.  My friend Darren and I had rehearsed Dave Matthew’s “The Christmas Song” as the prelude.  It was a tradition from the place we’d met, an Episcopalian summer camp where I attended and he worked during the summer.  The wood cabins clung to the foot of a mountain on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.  On the kind of July nights where the air was saturated with cricket songs, one of the musically-talented counselors would pull out his guitar and treat us to a rendition of “The Christmas Song.”  That’s where a song like that is most appropriate: the quiet places, the ones with clasped heads and pensive thoughts.

As Darren’s fingers danced over the guitar fret, I sang the first verse and glanced around the shadowy nave.  Maybe, I thought, this was what I’d needed all along: an actual blow to the head to make me sit down and recognize the beauty of everyday things.  And maybe it was Jesus and maybe it wasn’t, but whatever his or her name was probably didn’t form the most important part of the picture.

By the time we’d finished the song, my temple had begun to pound less.  Darren and I returned to the pews and joined the congregation in “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  It was cold in the church, and all the churchgoers had chosen seats close to the warmth of the chancel.  Perfect strangers smiled at me as we progressed through the hymn.  If this was how the Ghost of Christmas Whatever wanted to get my attention, I mused, I was perfectly fine with that.

It’s exactly a year later now, and although I’m hoping this Christmas Eve won’t be quite as physically painful, I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to sing something so true in the quiet of a church in the nighttime.  Christmas is a hectic time – especially for those of us who, like me, are just arriving home from studying or working abroad – and it can do a lot more good than you’d think to take a moment to sit down.  Listen to some music.  Drink a cup of tea.

Because my personal opinion is that it is better to realize this yourself, before some metaphysical being bludgeons you with fifteen pounds of metal.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all those who stumble upon this essay!

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.

“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?