Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Dreams and Scribblings

Home sick today with a seasonal cold, bored of reading and tired of watching Netflix, but not quite ready to go to bed. I started looking through old e-mails and draft e-mails, absently clicking here and there. 

Sometimes when I get an idea for a story, or something happens that I want to set down somewhere, I write a draft e-mail and save it, let it hang out in the Drafts folder. It waits for me to delete it, or to come back and tweak it. Today was a 'tweak it' kinda day.

This story is from a few years age, based on a dream I'd had. When I wrote it out, it became more of a story and I wished I knew the rest of the tale. The main elements from the dream that remain clear in my memory are the clarity of being me, but also being a guy named Cal; bumping my head into the man and his exclamation in response; the three evil guys; and the end part about the mysterious second book and the emotions it evoked. I tried hard to communicate the silly yet intense nature of the dream in the style of writing.

Anyway, here's the story I fleshed out of the shreds of my dream. I have no title for it and am not sure if I'll ever figure out the rest of it, but here you go! 

---

I can never quite recall it clearly. The details get a bit murky, you see, and it’s hard to tell if was me, or someone else, who is the center of the story, or even the narrator. Was it a dream, or is it a memory? All I know is that there is me, and there is Cal. Am I Cal? I certainly don’t think so. No, love, it’s completely unclear.

Cal – a jaunty, smirky, mischievous and yet honest bloke, has red hair, short and spiky. Spiky? Maybe not. Messy, more like, and what with the cap and all – yes, a cap, that’s right – his hair more often than not seemed to stick out somewhat spike-ishly. He wore rustic clothing, rough-hewn and green and brown. He was stick thin. There, you see, not me at all. And yet, these things happened to me, sometimes, and at other times to Cal. It’s all quite confusing, more so for me even if I am the one telling the tale.

It had to do with maps, you see. I could point to a spot on a map, concentrate for a moment, and be in that place. Not any map, of course, but Cal kept the secret of his maps close, and I couldn’t tell you what was particularly special about them.

You’ll have to get used to this, sweetheart, this switching between me and him. I just can’t be more clear. It’s like the bathroom mirror, the one over the sink, you know, that’s really a small door into the medicine cabinet. If you open it, and watch the mirror, the world swings. Well, the room does, anyway. That’s what it’s like for me, thinking of Cal, thinking of his maps and me in the woods, in the snow, that one time when it was harder to get through. Wait, back up. 

Sometimes it’s me that the story is happening around, you see? Sometimes it’s Cal. And switching between us is as smooth and random has the mirror on the bathroom medicine cabinet door, opening or closing, making the room behind my reflection swing and shift to become Cal’s.

But to be honest, I really don’t think we’re the same person. Absolutely ridiculous. I look abysmal in a cap.

Regardless, I could point to a point on a map, and concentrate, and be there. I don’t know how. It’s not magic, I can tell you that, although people in those places that I could go seemed to think so. Simple folk, really, although they weren’t really simple at all. It’s just that they thought Cal was magic, you could see by how they looked at him, spiky hair and triangular cap and rustic garb. You could almost envision him with a knapsack, although he didn’t have one.

Head first – bumped my head, couldn’t get through. Someone – a  man, an impatient man – refused to move, and even said something, I don’t recall what, but to the effect of, “Stop that!” So Cal stopped, paced, dreamed, and eventually made the effort again to go to the same point. He pointed, his fingertip on the map, and then there he was: in a wood, a wood of birch trees with a ground blanketed with snow. It was that maddening silence, the beautiful peacefulness, with no trace of the impatient man in black. No footprints, no coals from a fire – more’s the pity, it’s cold – nothing to indicate who it might have been. It would have been interesting to meet him, since no one has ever been in my way before, and it seems odd that I should bump my head on someone. I walked through the snow, the slush and dead leaves sticking to my breeches.

Cartoonish, three wise men, glittering snake-like eyes that were blue, and black, greasy hair, and sharp noses. They stood close, even when walking, and turned to glare maliciously over their shoulders.

The people, richly dressed in velvets and silks, bodices of lace and satin, sequined shoes, were yet so provincial: they wanted my blessings, they put together a list of names, written in elegant script that made their names no easier for me to pronounce, so that I could read them out and bless them. Cal, give blessings? He in his leaf-blown, dirt-patched pants and long overcoat? Ridiculous. He struggled to pronounce the names correctly, but even so the people – there were hundreds! Or perhaps a hundred… but so many, anyway! – would reach out to him, not to touch him, or grab him, but as if to encourage him to say their name, yes theirs, now, please – hurry! I got through the list wondering at the strange mix of consonants and vowels written on that parchment.

That parchment is gone now – Cal must have lost it, or perhaps it was taken from him after he butchered the pronunciations so badly. At any rate, that was when he saw the three wise men, the evil-infused sharks of men, whose eyes glittered at him menacingly.

Later, I was with the king and queen, who were at that venerated stage of wisdom and kindness, and also of frailty. They seemed as provincial as their people, although they were infinitely quieter, wiser, and more intelligent. They showed me their books, kept in a lighted alcove on a book stand. The first was common. Cal sneered slightly – they thought this was a relic! – as they showed him the book of maps. It was much like his, which was interesting but hardly unusual. Everyone had maps. These weren’t special. I could tell that just by pointing, I could travel by it, but that applied to most maps in the worlds I visited. Sure, it was a dusty tome, and large, and well preserved, but their awe in showing it to him was unjustified. The king seemed to realize this, and lifted the huge thing, asking if the other was of more interest.

Imagine the alcove: curved back wall, a slightly elevated platform, just a step or two above the floor of the main room. It was perhaps five or six paces deep, just large enough for all three of us – king, queen, and me – to stand around the book stand that held the book of maps and the book that lay open beneath it. As the king lifted the book of maps – it was as wide, opened, as he was! – dust swirled in the light from above, and there is Cal, standing with arms crossed, smirk on his face, as if onstage, facing the audience, turned slightly away from the book stand. His breeches and tunic have dried now, but are still dirty. His height and his spiky red hair put him out of place against the clean, rough stones of the alcove.

He glances over to see the second book, fully expecting the mundane of another book of maps, and the smirk melts off his face. His eyes widen slightly, and although he fights to control the expression on his face, a tic under his right eye mars the effort.

The book underneath is, indeed, another book of maps. The pages are opened to a map of the Old United States, unusual in itself; disturbingly, though, this book shows truth in the awful charcoal strokes that obliterate the east and west coasts of the continent. It’s as though a child took a stick from the fire and used it to scribble carefully, but the effect is jolting: it shows what is left of OUSA. I have never seen this map before and hope to never see it again. It sends chills down my back, makes every inch of my skin crawl. I am suddenly aware of everywhere my dirty tunic is touching me and it itches terribly.

I’m frozen within that alcove and I can tell that the king and queen have seen. Cal tosses his head and coughs, begins to make a joke but lets it die away. They all three stare at it, a map in yet another dusty tome, and suddenly Cal wishes he’d never come through to this world. He doesn’t want to be here, doesn't know what to do. 

I don’t know what to do.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Ending the Year ... Already?!

Hello readers, o' faithful few!

Greetings from a gray and rainy day in Paris, halfway through a long weekend and the beginning of a (purportedly long) government shutdown!

It's been a couple of months since the last post and the only reason I can find to give is that it's been pretty up and down for me. It got dark, for one thing, so that on a Monday through Friday basis, I go to work in the dark and head home after work in the dark. That's kind of grueling. Otherwise, winter has been coming and going in Paris, alternating between quite chilly to cool and wet. There may have been sleet at one point but no real snow (yet). Work has been going well, an uphill climb 'til just recently, when I hit my groove. It feels good not being the slow adjudicator any more (meaning I do the fewest interviews in a morning, causing my co-workers to have to do more), though I'm by no means the fastest. My workplace is fun, friendly, and challenging.

The challenge has been at home, getting myself to do any of the things that I know would improve my life. Exercise, or eating healthy, or meditating, or even sleeping more/enough. It's odd how such seemingly simple things can seem so unattainable. In a place like Paris, it can be easy to feel like you have no right to complain or to feel hardship; but it's just as easy as in a place like Mali, just in different ways. Anyway, I have many new year's resolutions and plans to help overcome some of the difficulties... so we'll see!

Since my last post, I've gone to Spain and had a couple of visitors, most notably my parents. Visitors are such a boon here, because they get me out and about doing things on my list and that I've never heard of before. Below is a recap in photos...


September: Exploring the Marais with Amelia and Eric, who are posted in Cyprus. 

October: Road trip to Normandy with Jacques and Emma, who is posted in Mali. 

Contemplating the waves. 
Road Tripping

Beach hound

The Paris Opera: Palais Garnier ceiling

After seeing Decadance, a ballet show at the Opera, with friends from Washington DC

October: Sangria in Spain with Julia, posted in Estonia

Pretty doors in our AirBnB neighborhood of Little Barcelona

Arc de Triomphe in Barcelona with the cool kids

Windblown on the beach

November: The parents come visiting Paris and here we are with Panama hats?! At the Chocolate Expo.

Birthday mama at La Duree

Me and the 'rents with the Eiffel Tower in the background

Some fall colors at the metro

Rodin museum garden

St Chapelle church, looking straight up!

We did not spontaneously combust, but we did enjoy the view

Walking along a bridge at the Île de la Cité

Parisiennes in red berets

Sunday, September 9, 2018

A Trip to Malta, Paris Cooling Off

To begin, I'd like to give you some context: I am sitting on my balcony in Paris, which looks into some trees that thankfully block the view of the apartment building next door. Not that it's ugly, but it's nice to look at green instead of concrete.

I'm sitting on a brand new plastic wicker chair with a maroon cushion on it. Next to me is a little table with a mosaic-glass top, glinting in the morning sun. It's about 8am on a Sunday. To my left is a tall, leaning plant, a sort of little ferny palm kind of thing. One of the stalks leans dangerously, and I've turned it so that it rests on the balcony railing. To my right is a hammock hanging in its stand, with two large potted plants in front of it. It's a very pleasant balcony, with a pleasant view, and there's a pleasant chill in the air.

On the glinting mosaic table, there is a tall drinking glass filled with a chunky green liquid. It is the result of big ambition and little planning. Deciding that my diet was sadly lacking in fruits and vegetables, I researched juicing recipes yesterday and went shopping for seven days worth of juices. In Mali, a friend had sold me his juicer and the results were refreshing and healthy and fresh: three things that weren't necessarily staples there. Anyway, I brought the juicer with me to Paris.

Well, most of it. Turns out there is one small but critical piece missing. I didn't figure that out until this morning, of course, after having bought all the little ingredients, the greens and the fruits and the vegetables, and dreaming about the concoction that would fill me with good things. Reordering the part is possible, and I did so: but $24 and 3 weeks of waiting does not help me in the moment. I check the internet and it assures me: a blender will work fine. All one needs is cheesecloth to strain the blended muck into.

Not surprisingly, I lack cheesecloth.

So here I am, on my all-around pleasant balcony, chewing my breakfast juice. It's not bad: celery, parsley, spinach, pear, lemon, and water to thin it out a bit.

That's my morning context for you. As I chew thoughtfully, it seems like a great idea to think of my last weekend, which was spent in Malta with friends.

Malta

Malta is made of of one large island and a few smaller ones. Parts of it have been the backdrop for many movies and TV series. There's a medieval touch to some of the cities, like Mdina (pronounced um-dee-na). It reminded me a bit of Dubrovnik, with the smooth stone walls and alleys. On the other hand, in the more modern areas, progress has decreed that one must build, build, build. The friends I was visiting - we shall call them C and R - live on the third floor of an apartment building smashed between two other buildings. Their apartment contains a long hallway that connects the kitchen to each of the five or six rooms of the apartment: two bedrooms, one storage room, a bathroom, an alcove with a view to the wall of the building next door, and an office. It's a very long hallway.

The apartment is bright and sparkly: at one end of the hallway is the living room, which has glass doors leading to a balcony overlooking the bay and looking onto Valetta. The apartment floor is made completely of shiny tile. C and R have decorated nicely, so that it feels roomy and calm and comfortable.

My weekend in Malta was short, just Friday to Monday. In that time, though, I was able to go to a beach, visit an old city, ride an electric scooter down the street, eat dinner in town, catch up with friends and go sailing for a day in lovely blue waters. Here, take a look at a photographic recap of the weekend:


An interesting statue in Valetta.

Another interesting statue in Valetta. 

C and R and me

The marina

View from Valetta

Zipping right along in C and R's Cooper Mini convertible. 

View of our beach day from above. 

Mdina entrance. 

Pretty me by a pretty wall. 

Master chef C grills fish for dinner. 

Master chef C and me. 

After a day of sailing, we head home.

Happy sailors. 


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Paris, continued

 More pictures from week 2!

Bastille Day cruise on the river Seine

Feeling classy!

So happy, feeling like I'm in heaven!

It's fuzzy, but that's fireworks coming out of the Eiffel Tower!

Bastille Day fireworks and a demonic looking Eiffel Tower

The day after Les Bleus win the World Cup, it took me an
hour and a half to get home from work. On the way, I passed this!

Park at sunset

My street


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Vivant à Paris: La Premiere Semaine

In short: I'm loving Paris so far! More to come, but here is a taste via some photos...

Jacques checks out some flowers in nearby park Bois de Bologne. 

Lake and geese at the park. 

My favorite path so far in the park. 

View coming out of the metro on the way to work. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Pre-Departure Preparations

I'm one week out from heading to Paris! As usual, the preparatory tasks start piling up, even though it feels like I've been trying to stay ahead of it all. In any case, here's my monthly blog post to sum it all up.

The past six weeks were a real roller coaster for me. Coming back to FSI (the Foreign Service Institute, where much of our formal, professional training takes place) was both fun and stressful. It's odd, because FSI is like an idyllic college campus: lots of green space, walking paths under the trees, picnic tables, a few little gazebos, a decent cafeteria with some variety, and hallways packed with people learning tradecraft, languages of all kinds, and other useful diplo-skills.

I was excited at first to see familiar faces from previous trainings. Oddly enough, though, the anticipation of seeing familiar faces caused more anxiety than nostalgic fondness for me. By the end of each day in my first few weeks, I would feel like I was frantically checking out the face of every person I passed in the hallway, wondering if they knew me or vice versa. It was strange, even as I felt myself tensing up and angst-ing about it, the thought would cross my mind that I loved seeing familiar faces, it shouldn't be so stressful. Talking to other people helped me feel better: many people feel the same way.

It's disappointing and confusing, that 'coming home' is not the easy, simple thing one imagines it will be. Sure, I'm not dodging suicidal motorcycle drivers along unpaved roads, or going through my seventeenth power outage of the hour. Maybe I understand (mostly) the language spoken around me, and I don't have constant low-grade digestive stress. On the other hand, the stores seem overwhelmingly and unnecessarily over-stocked with options, and nothing hits me emotionally like I think it "should." There's a stress with coming back that is undefined and nebulous, but no less intense for all that. Interpersonal relationships feel strained. Good friends seem distant or, worse, too judgmental.

Thankfully, some of that unnamed stress melted away as I learned about visas and our processes for granting or denying them; passports and nationality, and the unexpected rights and limitations that come with them; and all about the services I might be asked to provide for Americans living overseas (like visiting them in prison, or doing welfare and whereabout checks). It was a great six-week course and although I know it'll be necessary to learn all over again on arrival in Paris, I feel at least marginally more intelligent on the subject matter than I did before.

Which brings me to the present! As I said, it's one week until blast off, and I'm busy getting ready. I drove down to Durham on Sunday with Jacques in the back seat. Today we went to the veterinarian, got our $95 EU health certificate, and sent it off to USDA so that they can provide their $28 APHIS approval stamp and send it back in my $25 overnight FedEx package, hopefully in time to take with us to the airport on Monday. Whew! They aren't kidding when they say having pets in the Foreign Service ain't cheap!

Last minute shopping, separating stuff into shipment piles, changing my address, and getting my stuff together all take time, energy, and focus. Luckily, I have wonderful parents who are willing to help and keep me going, as well as great friends who support me and cheer me on. The mobile life style does help clarify relationships, and those that can stand the test of sporadic visits and my intense bouts of scrambling to get things done are definitely keepers. I'm a very lucky person to have such incredible people in my life.

Next post will be from Paris!

--Z

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Back in Training

Greetings from DMV! (That's DC, Maryland, and Virginia, not the Department of Motor Vehicles, just to assuage any concerns!)

About three weeks ago, I packed my bags and piled my things and Jacques in the car and motored up to DC with my dad. After spending a night, dad headed up to Baltimore to meet my mom, who was staying there to help her brother after some serious surgery (he's on the mend now).

After a couple of doctor's visits and meeting up with friends, I began consular training, often called "Con-Gen". This is a six week course wherein I learn all about the work I'll be doing in Paris. Broadly, it includes processing visa applications and helping Americans abroad in various contexts (adoptions, deaths, jail, passport issues, etc). After two weeks, my brain is buzzing with all that I've learned about the fascinating world of how non-Americans apply for visas, and the role I as a consular officer will play in the process. The class is challenging but the instructors are good: dynamic, knowledgeable, and understanding of the stuffed-head feeling all us students have right now. Training includes lectures, homework, roleplays of various scenarios, computer training, and a healthy dose of real-life stories.

Meanwhile, I'm staying with my friends Joe and Cody, and Jacques and I have settled nicely into the roomy basement apartment. A local dog-walking company comes every weekday to walk him, which he seems to enjoy. He's still quite reactive to other dogs, but we're working on it! Jacques also enjoys meandering around the back yard of the house, watching and barking at cars, pedestrians, dogs, and birds. And sometimes things I can't see. :)

My training takes place at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington. It's fun to be back there, because there are so many familiar faces: former French instructors, people I met in Bamako, A-100 colleagues back for training, and occasionally someone I worked with at Main State. It was a bit overwhelming at first: I would find myself getting anxious, that first week, as I looked at every face I passed in the hall, wondering if it was someone I should remember or know. I continue to carry my IFAC (individual first aid kit) around with me, a habit picked up in Bamako. Overall, the level of anxiety I've felt since returning to FSI has surprised me. Talking to other Bamako-returnees, it seems within the normal response continuum, but still... it's harder than I thought. That seems to be my foreign service mantra!

My between-posts resolution is to write a blog entry at least once a month... wish me luck!

Friday, April 20, 2018

A New Year, A New Adventure

Happy 2018 and, as is becoming a distressing recurring phrase, sorry for not writing for so long!

Last I wrote was September 2017. I was in Mali making new friends, raising my pup Jacques, and looking at my last six months at post. To kick off restarting blog posts, here are some highlights from September '17 until today. Enjoy!

September: Trip to Ghana for work and a little play!



October: Trip to Morocco with good friends!



November: Time well spent in Bamako, celebrating Thanksgiving and lots of walking and hiking with Jacques.


December: Work trip to Conakry, Guinea, plus taking pictures in my Bamako neighborhood.




January 2018: Enjoying the dry "cool" weather on some hiking trips in/around Bamako.




February: Several Bamako photo safaris and a road trip to Dakar!












March: Saying Goodbye (last photo safari and some random pictures)







April: Home leave, relaxing in Durham, NC, watching spring spring.