"Look at this entry, Dad. Granddad wrote this in 1938 when he and mom came out to visit from Peoria. Do you want me to read it to you?" "O.K." "We came into Portland at six o'clock. It is a very pretty town. We found a nice place to eat. I had a cheeseburger that was very good, and so did Mom. Then we found a nice place to stay. It was very clean. Then we drove around and looked at the houses. Portland is a very clean and nice city. Everyone is very friendly."
I am sitting in the airport, kibitzing on this roaring banality and at the same time reading one of those pathetic stories out of the newspaper about a family of losers whose son killed a couple of nice young women working in abortion clinics in Boston. So what if he heard voices? They were good voices--the voices of God and the saints.
How glad I feel to be leaving Portland for a while. The monotonous pasty-white faces, the drizzle, the stupid traffic going back and forth, back and forth, hundreds of thousands of morons going nowhere. Yuppies with cell phones plastered to their heads, making deals. A kind of rushed mediocrity as a way of life. DUHHH "How about those Blazers, huyukk."
My traveling companion is an unknown factor, however, and already promising to be a real pain. I should have had the nerve to go by myself, but I still have this feeling that I'm not supposed to get out there on my own, I guess, where I'm not available for persecution. None of my other friends has the money or time to go along. Nor does my husband. And I don't like traveling in groups. So that's my excuse for the way I ruin my own chances for fun. Well, considering the way I was brought up, or, in my case you might say, provided with the minimum needed for survival and sometimes threatened by my caretakers, but managing to achieve adulthood, it's no wonder.
My beginnings were like many another's in this particular dysfunctional age: alcoholic, depressed mother, now gone to her reward, narcissistic, nicotine - addicted father, war, economic downturns, never enough money for the good things of life. And being a girl. That was probably my biggest mistake. Next time I'll try to choose the preferred gender. When I think of the trouble it would have saved me in life… but I'm sure you've heard it all before, so I won't mention it again.
Our flight has been called, and we rise creakily to our feet. As usual, I panic at the thought that I may have misplaced my passport and tickets. No, they're there. I do exist. I fumble for my reading glasses, such a nuisance in middle age. Marcia does the same, in her tiny, ladylike way. As we board the plane, our adventure begins:
"Marcia, do you want to sit by the window?"
"I don't care."
"Well, it's just a short flight, and it's a nice day."
"Well, no, I think I would rather sit by the aisle. I might have to go to the bathroom. I have a bladder infection."
Marcia, in order to combat her bladder infection, sips little amounts of water every ten minutes or so from her bottle, and a result, has to pee all the time.
Our pilot turns out to be a hot-rodder. It's one of those early fall days with an east wind. He flies his Fokker, sporty for a commuter jet, all over heaven. We dip and drop; we go right over Mount Saint Helens, he cants a little so I get a good view of the crater and the conelet within. Marcia is very nervous, so I tell her what I'm seeing.
"Manny used to fly an airplane. " Manny’s her ex. Manny the dentist, I swear to God.
"Once, he took me up in a single-engine plane. It made me sick."
"Did you throw up?"
"No, but I almost did."
I know, a few minutes into a trip of three weeks, that I have made a Big Mistake.
Marcia is not a really old-time friend of mine but someone who picked me out to befriend a while ago and has come with me on my invitation (Yes, I did it to myself! I have only myself to blame!) and whose mother wants her to visit an elderly cousin in the Czech Republic as a kind of family missionary from the U.S. I'm going to see my friends that I have not seen since I left Switzerland after living there for so many years, bringing up my kids, having that whole life there.
Marcia's mother at first wanted to check on her relatives in Prague in person, and to avert that, Marcia has decided to travel with me instead. She has told her mother that she’s too old to travel, so she’ll take care of matters herself. She figures her mother would be more of a nuisance than me, I guess. She knows I won't get mad at her or make scenes as her mother would, but she needs a person who will take responsibility for her the way her mother always has.
Sucker that I am, I have provided her with the perfect opportunity to do things as easily as possible and get her mother off her case. Her mother practically raised Marcia’s kids, but now with the kids grown and gone, Mom's a functionless pain. She interferes with Marcia's current romance, too, having stated that she is not terribly fond of the gentleman in question. Having clinched the deal (getting me to travel with her), Marcia's become totally passive, and I don't know what to do about it. I seem so competent, and she's using me, I think at this point, as a kind of sidekick, the good-humored but not important adjunct to her mission.
Well, she's thin and I'm heavy. Perhaps she does not think overweight people are serious human beings; it's kind of like being a mammy or something. Put on the old "do" rag and shuffle around. I guess we're Quixote and Panza, The Lone Ranger and Tonto. She's on her mysterious, exalted, thin, mission into the heart of the Old World, and I, large and easy-going, am just visiting a few friends in my once home of Zurich and my once exchange student "daughter" in Milan; I will see to it that we get to the trains on time.
Maybe it's being the maternal type? Why isn't Marcia the maternal type, too? She has three grown-up children; I have two. She never talks about her kids, except once she said that her son's wife "wasn't right for him."
With my background, and the way everyone thinks I'm Mom, it's easy to see how I get set up for this sort of thing. Always and forever rescuing and enabling, and I don't seem to be able to evade this fate. I should have been on my guard, the way her boyfriend thought it was such a great idea for her to do this. Had she been getting on his nerves? Well, at least he could do sex with her, otherwise it would be hard to know what to do with her. I don't mean that, but it does have an element of truth. I mean why starve yourself if not to be popular with men? Otherwise you might just as well go ahead and eat a square meal. Imagine always being hungry. How horrible. I while away the time to Europe thinking of these things. Marcia reads her novel.
Amsterdam. Walking into our pension, situated next to a whorehouse, two hefty, extremely bored whores in the window, a slow night, I guess, I observe that everyone in the pension, including the owners, is under 30 and stoned to the gills. Marcia panics. But it isn’t the ambiance that gets to her; it’s the stairs, four flights of them to our room. No one had told her about Europe and stairs, and I thought she knew. Why did I think she would know anything about Europe when she had never been to Europe? My fault , I suppose. I had failed to read her mind. That's what she gets for being a woman of few words.
She never told me, even though she had to hobble pathetically about for most of our trip, but I later found out that she had been in a car accident that had damaged one knee so badly that she could only use stairs with a great deal of labor. We had to eschew the Anne Frank house, too, because of the stairs. So Amsterdam was pretty much a waste of time.
Maybe we should have had some Amsterdam hashish, but I really by that point didn't know how she'd react. I try to get her to laugh at the horny postcards of penile and labial piercings, etc. but she looks very worried. She gets that little line between her eyebrows. Now this throws me, because, she's been pretty active in the sex department, compared to me. It's like the way she's had more kids than me, but she still is built like little girl, and the way she's had all this sex but she won't talk or joke about it. Oh well. What really bugs me is that the responsibility of her forces me to be under tight self-control all the time, finding comfortable places for her to sit and so on while I go visit some of those paintings I've been so looking forward to seeing. My best memory of that time is admiring my horoscopic animal, the crab, in a tiny Van Gogh painting. You can tell that Van Gogh ate it when he was through painting it. That's my kind of person.
We stop over for two days in Gay Paree. We have a tiny room with a double bed in a tiny hotel. She sleeps cautiously, I snore. The next day we do the Orsay, or rather Marcia sits and waits for me while I spend a guilty hour looking at the art. We meet for lunch in the heavenly yellow-painted dining room, perhaps the most beautiful room in the world, certainly the most beautiful room I have ever seen. Food and wine work their mellow charms on us, even Marcia eats her entire meal--salmon in aspic, as I recall. She seems almost happy. She eventually decides she loves Paris, as a matter of fact, sitting in a cafe across from a mysterious old church near our hotel and watching the Paris crowds go by pleases her so much that I can even tell she's pleased.
But by now I realize that Marcia finds me a total bore. She's obviously not ready, yet, to enjoy the companionship of other women. She hadn't expected the walking, the crowds. She's in love and missing her lover, and here she is in Paris, city of romance, with ME. So how can I expect her to give anything to the situation?
Not that she mentions this--I'm supposed to have this great empathy and read her mind about everything, while at the same time she's so sensitive and I'm a crude peasant. Whose people skills may here be indicted I do not know. In particular, any enthusiasm on my part for anything makes her very, very tired, so after a while I stop talking to her altogether.
When we're outdoors, her chief concern seems to be not getting any sun on her face lest she become wrinkled and thus aging and unattractive to Him. I point out to her that the sun in northern Europe in the fall has very little oomph, but she puts on her duck-billed cap with the bow in the back every time the watery sun comes out anyhow. ( A year later, after she's nailed the guy and has actually become Mrs. Orlowsky, she goes out on her verandah, and, for the first time in years, no doubt, turns her face to the sun.)
An exciting incident in the railway station before our departure from Paris, involving two Algerians having a knife fight, has frightened, but not animated, her. She seems catatonic on the train ride from Paris to Zurich. Except for bathroom breaks, she does not move or speak for hours at a time. This is OK when we're sleeping, but odd otherwise. A friend of mine tells me later that when under stress Marcia likes to meditate. Yes, but all her waking hours? And what stress? This seems odd, especially when you're paying a bunch of money to go on a trip to Europe, you might at least look out the window.
We get to Zurich late at night. Has that place ever deteriorated since I lived there ten years ago. The floors of the railway station are covered with pee, and homeless drug-addicted teens with orange and purple hair dance to boom boxes and slip around in the wetness. No wonder. It costs one franc, or the equivalent of a dollar, to relieve your bladder in a public toilet in this rich country. When we use the lady's, a suspicious native keeps an eye on us to make sure that we don't try to cheat by holding the door open for the next person, but we do it anyway. She sniffs and glares at us. (This is true.) I would not set foot in this vest-pocket Fascist state if it weren't for my friends. And I do feel sorry for Marcia when a particularly nasty Swiss official with the trademark harsh and grating voice literally throws her credit card back at her when she tries to get a cash advance, because it's only silver and not gold.
Luckily, my friends treat us well. With one exception, none of them are Swiss, and they all wish they could live somewhere else, but they're tied to jobs and children. Portland is no paradise, but I give many thanks to my guardian angels that I live there and not here. Portland may be a burg, but in the last few years the meanness of the Swiss has become a catastrophe.
My friends keep saying, "What's wrong with your friend?" She's totally catatonic by now. Prop her in a corner. Is it culture shock? Most of the time, when she can, she lies in bed reading the International Herald Tribune. I have learned to buy my own copy, because she never lets me read hers until she's finished with it, and she often cuts out articles to send back to her boyfriend. She gives me her mutilated copy as if this should be a big treat. She's never shown signs of being selfish before, so I'm baffled.
But now, in spite of Marcia, I'm starting to have fun, having learned to leave her to her own devices. I am friendly and non-committal. If I see that something has come to her attention I try to show that I have noticed it too. But mostly she doesn't do much of anything but come along, except for the days when she just stays behind. I ask her if she's feeling well. "Yes," she says doubtfully.
The next leg of our trip is to Prague. This is the payoff for her and the part of the journey that she is supposed to be responsible for. Luckily for her and me, it turns out that her relatives have taken care of everything. They meet us at the train station, take us to our hotel, wine us and dine us, drive us all over the place--they're fantastic people. By our standards, they have very little--an old Russian-built car painted orange, I forget the model, a modest and modestly furnished apartment--both parents work full time and the daughter is in college. They're working-class intellectuals who know the world mostly through reading. Eating out is a rare treat for them. The last vacation they had was a trip to Paris in the early 70's. The old grandmother, his mother, lives with them. She's a cousin of Marcia's mother and in bad shape, dropsical and almost unable to get around. She has all her mental faculties, however. Marcia falls in love with the old woman. So the trip is not a failure for her after all. For my part, I've met these people, through Marcia, that would never otherwise have been known to me. Really, it's a privilege. Marcia, who spoke Czech at home until she went to school, talks to the old woman. They look at pictures and she tells her many family stories. Marcia is thrilled. Wenceslas Square is a fairyland at night. Marienbad and Carlsbad move us with their old-world if threadbare charm.
They send us off with many hugs and kisses. We're both elated. Marcia really seems happy and fulfilled, for the first time on this trip.
In good spirits we set out for Milan and my exchange student daughter's family. When we get to their home, Marcia calls her mother to tell her the good news of her successful visit with the Czech cousins.
"Well, you knew she was living with her son now, didn't you?" I hear. Marcia hangs up looking very tense.
She doesn't say anything then, but later on she tells me.
"That was the wrong cousin Bettina. The one I was supposed to visit lives way out in the country. Mother says she waited all weekend for me to call."
"My God. How awful."
"Yes, Mother was kind of upset."
End of conversation.
Well, that finished things off for Marcia. She lay in bed for most of the rest of the time while I shopped for jewelry, went to museums, and explored the Milan cathedral with my Italian "family." Their free-wheeling temperamental ways, their lavishness and generosity, the emotional storms of my "daughter's" younger sister, driven almost to madness by a broken leg in a cast, provided a strong contrast to the vegetative state of my companion.
Our last day in Europe, a lovely soft day. We went out to Lake Como, where my exchange student daughter's grandmother lived in the family villa. She was an ancient woman with emphysema, suffering a great deal but still involved with her family and much adored by her grandchildren. This is what she told me: "When you get to my age, what you cherish most is your golden memories." She died six months later. Marcia's mother's cousin, the one we didn't see, died at about the same time.