Other Places to Be
1. The Finca
Finca Bardina was built with stones from the surrounding plot, each one carried by hand to a new life — some had not moved in thousands of years, and now took on collective shapes — first a bedroom, a kitchen, then a bathroom, until each stone renounced itself and became part of a house.
The finca is set into the waist of a mountain, protected from the gusty Saharan winds. There is a garden of black soil, aloe plants, and olive trees. Cacti pop up along the driveway, each as surprised as the next by its own existence — and quite right too, for not much can live on the dry soil of Fuerteventura. I have grown used to the island’s empty horizons, but how I missed the upward aim of trees when I arrived.
With its front door facing the ocean and its back wall to the mountain, Finca Bardina has only three windows. In the bathroom, a long rectangular window selects a view of olive trees and ocean. From here I stand most mornings, brushing my teeth, looking at the life I too have selected. It does a person good to see the ocean from their bathroom. I am cleaner for this view.
My husband and I left New York for the island of Fuerteventura because we had wanted to give in to purposelessness — a pretentious and nonsensical remark, but we were New Yorkers then, filled with these sorts of pocket ideologies. It is impossible to be purposeless, of course. The energy reserved for our careers is now handed to household tasks; the shopping list; the washing up; the double bagging of the garbage bin; the cleaning of the electric toothbrush base. It is a familiar stress, applied to novel things.
Daily, we walk up a mountain, or go to the beach. On the tops of mountains there are sea shells, delicate and complete — keepsakes from a time when the mountains were submerged. There are goats. They surprise us with their colored fur, chewing on the last of the island’s yellow flowers; bored, terrified, then bored again.
How many more goat photos can we take? How many pocketed mountain shells are enough?
On beach days, we walk single-file down a narrow path, careful not to disturb the shrubs, winding this way and that towards our no-good beach.
The sand at our no-good beach is black and filthy with the stuff of storms. Its current is too strong to swim. Its low tide fragrance is musky, off: a smell of mollusks dried on rocks. And rocks, if nothing else, have turned up in their crowds. The more colorful ones are collected and brought home with us, ever drying in disappointing shades.
When the sea is calm, I take off my shoes and put my toes in the cool water. I let the waves bring their kind suggestions to my feet: A bottle cap? A piece of seaweed rope? A crab leg? A bit of deck chair, maybe? I nod. Yes, these are all good suggestions.
It is a no-good beach; and yet, we have come to call it ‘our beach,’ and on the way there we have once found written on a rock: ‘our beach.’ So, it has been someone else’s before.
I am at peace with the black sand in our bed; my nightly exfoliation. I learn to live with the sand in my scalp. In the folds of my clothes. I find it in my food. Black sand is with us, always. There is no solution for this.
But other things we have conquered. The ants have gone, and we have managed to live largely off a small budget, driving to the center of the island for a shop only once each week.
The mistake of naming unwanted things has been made – and learned from. The mouse, Michael, was captured twice, and has twice escaped. For his ingenuity, we have given him a bowl, and in the evenings he sits at our feet, eating coco pops.
Eventually, the same old worries return, and new ones take shape. Sunburns come and go, sometimes adding youthfulness, sometimes adding age. Life is a tricky balance. Still I have not read The Brothers Karamazov. I had envisioned a better self here: A lady of letters, of foreign languages, a runner, even. Perhaps this should be comforting: it was not New York’s failing after all.
Days pass, each one more samey than the last. We are here, two months, three months, now almost six. Rude birds land on our roof at night and drag their feet. We bang the ceiling with a broomstick, just like New York: still the irritable neighbors downstairs.
At our no-good beach the surfboards we bought slip out under our bellies and drag along the rocks. Sometimes I see myself from above, emerging from the water, panting, bloodied, desperately self-improved.I write postcards. I do not mail them. They hide in books I do not finish. Hello from Fuerteventura, they say. Hello from vacation life. Friends, I’ve written to say: take heart that I have what you crave but feel the same.
2. The Freight Ship
I had imagined bunk beds and communal sleeping rooms, quite the opposite of where I sit now: a small and comfortable cabin. There is a desk and a double bed, two round windows filled with a view of the sea, a couch, a mirror. The furniture is secured to the floor. The cupboards and drawers are fastened shut, opening only after one or two minutes of heated discussion between fingers and clips. It takes fifteen minutes to walk the circumference of a freight ship, longer if you maze through the shipping containers, which are stacked, satisfyingly, like enormous Lego blocks.
Our time in Fuerteventura ended abruptly. The decision to leave Finca Bardina and our onboarding of the freight ship took place within six days. Now Fuerteventura is disappearing from view behind us; the horizon ahead is clear and unobstructed, it is sea and sky in two shades of blue, like velvet swept one way then another.
We are a crew of twenty-three: twelve men from the Philippines, eight German officers, my husband, myself, and Captain P Reinhart.
Captain P Reinhart entered our lives at a brothel in south Fuerteventura called Woman Express, which was hidden in a valley between two mountains and visible from the main road only at night.
We had arrived at the door of Woman Express in an air of irony. We did not go there out of loneliness. We did not climb down the mountain from Finca Bardina in torchlight and through the red corridor to quell a need, to use the thing for what it is. It is how journalists must come to approach the world with rolling remove, reaching out towards truth but reaching out unnaturally, reaching towards it in hazmat suits — at once comprehending and detaching. New York is the city of journalists, and not only those in the business of it. In this sense we had been journalists too, scaling the experience of New York artificially, drifting through places, people with wraith-like remove: now in a dive bar, now under the plastic canopy of Rainforest Café, comprehending, detaching.
Likewise, we were at Woman Express. It is a small wooden house, flat-roofed and boxy, with six rooms in total: a small bar, a poolroom, a bathroom and three bedrooms in a semi-detached space. We had seated ourselves at the bar next to a compact man in his late 50s. He was full bellied, muscular, the way short men often are.
What were our names, he wanted to know. How did we like Fuerteventura, what languages did we speak, where had we come from.
Three shots of tequila arrived, were finished, refilled. The Sea Captain, Peter Reinhart is how he introduced himself.
He asked if we might be interested — if we might be adventurous enough, is how he worded it — in joining his next freight transfer, which would leave as early as the following week from the Port of Hamburg, bound for the Port of Izmir in Turkey.
I had never considered travel by freight ship, indeed I had not known it was possible. Still, I found myself telling the Captain how I had wanted to travel on a freight ship all my life and just as I’d said it we raised a round to our voyage, then another, and slowly, slowly, then quickly, quickly, the agreement slipped from proposal to irrevocable plan, shaken on, clinched with tequila.
It is 3,912 nautical miles between Hamburg and Izmir, a distance that can be crossed in one week but will take three after stopping at the additional ports of Antwerp, Piraeus, Istanbul, and Gebze.
It is good to be moving. The most trivial of tasks carry the added gratification of having been undertaken while going forward, and without the claustrophobic, seat-ridden restrictions of a plane or train.
Meals are served three times a day in the officer's mess room, which is separate from the crew's mess room. A fondness for polished wood has been realized in the walls and the floor, the circular dining table, the chairs, buffet stand, the bar.
At the bar there are beers on tap. There are spirits fixed along the wall and wines, mixers, ice bags, cut lemons, and Maraschino cherries in the fridge. Good use has been made of the label machine. Among other self-explanatory objects, the television has been labeled, the fruit bowl, the sink. What strange contributions these would make to the bottom of the North Sea.
An alarming amount of drinking takes place on this ship. At night I stumble along its corridors towards the deck, saying to the ship careful now. There is no horizon after sundown, no spectacle of blue, only a salty breeze to say that you are moving; the water below looks a thick and gloomy syrup.
Hangovers quickly mature into the more sympathy-inducing condition of seasickness — it is one of many perks of freight travel. I am seasick often. Come the second week, I learn to escape the Officer’s Bar after dinner and spend my evenings in the engine room, among its garden of propellers and propeller shafts, turbochargers, coolers, heaters, pumps, valves, fuel pumps, and cylinders, all painted a wet and energetic green. The noise is deafening. The heat is immediate. There is an overwhelming scent of grease and metal. It is lively, and the season here is always spring.
More spectacular still is the command center, which rises towards the stern of the ship as the colossal ruler of freight containers. A hard couch inside faces the center console of buttons, radars, pretty charts, clocks, and little red lights that wink at us with monstrous possibility.
It is healthy to feel, now and then, submissive to humankind’s celestial and terrestrial inventions — for the soul to be navigated in time and place with accurate pomp. Perhaps one day we will turn from our exhausted countries and find refuge in the miniature, self-contained societies of boats, these small slices of human creation as Foucault had called them.
But life aboard a traveling metal island is not all good. Whole days we are anchored at dry land with not enough time to disembark, meaning we are sentenced to act out our ship routines while docked, which remain likable only as long as they are performed en route. Showers, as well as drinking and cooking water from the tap, while completely acceptable when moving, are revisited with skepticism when stationary. There is a swimming pool below deck. I had been swimming each day while at sea, and now docked I hurry past it with my head down, avoiding its sorry, blue eye.
On our fifteenth night onboard, six nights before our final destination, Captain P Reinhart announces in the mess room that a "terrific" nearby storm has just missed us, and do I detect in myself then a slight disappointment, a feeling of missed opportunity? A survival story So, we had entered the society of the freight ship as we entered Woman Express, ever voyeurs, ever meaning the experience and not, comprehending, detaching.
3. The Farmer’s House
Good news: the wind is back. I am on the shore of Chicken Bay in Karpathos, Greece, a car ride and a few ferries from Izmir. I am in a wet suit and a pair rented water shoes, watching as the fluorescent wings of windsurfers, my husband among them, zip and unzip the horizon.
The sport of windsurfing, once an image of uninhibited 80s fun, has come to symbolize an era of guilt-free consumerism that ended sometime in the first decade of the new millennium, when all that was slightly ostentatious started to feel silly.
And while the ironic recycling of 80s trends is itself all the rage (the shoulder pads, the chokers, the mirrored shades, et al.), windsurfing is far too impractical to pursue with any kind of casual hipsterism. It is, for starters, an exceptionally difficult sport to learn. The gear is expensive and hard to transport. And it is limited to the few places on earth that offer strong, reliable winds. And so, with perhaps the exception of Eastern Europe and Russia, where overt luxury is still enthusiastically pursued, windsurfing has slipped into the collection of things profoundly uncool, its impending death assured by the birth of a younger, more accessible sibling: kite surfing.
The Greek island of Karpathos is one of few remaining strongholds for windsurfing in the late spring to summer months. So I am here, loving wife, among the ruins of ancient civilizations and the remains of an antiquated sport. The wind has died again, as it does all day on and off, and the windsurfers, guardians of neon, stand frozen on the horizon, then plop pathetically into the sea.
We have arranged to stay in a farmer’s house in the south of the island, set on a cove of chalky cliffs; white, cubic, quaint, and with its blue door and shutters, typically Greek. As for the farmer himself, he has taken his goats into the mountains, where the vegetation can survive the early summer months.
There are two rooms in total. In the first: a stove, counter, fireplace, fridge and a small dining table. A dresser and a double bed are fixed into the corner of the room, under a whistling window that will not be taped into silence. Behind the main room is a bathroom, its door opening into a tiled courtyard walled by potted herbs. An olive grove stretches up the mountain behind the house. There is a leaky water tank. The distant bleat of goats and goat bells. There is a wattle tree and a eucalyptus, all three of us, cheerful Australian immigrants.
Novelty is a luxury. Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne: a magic dwells in each beginning, wrote Hermann Hesse.
Mornings we climb down the cliffs, half-asleep, to a small cove below the house and lay on the rocks until we are brave or bored enough to face the shock of the Mediterranean Sea in April.
For breakfast: fresh eggs, soft boiled, broken on hand-kneaded bread and two cups of black coffee taken in the courtyard, under the shade of Bougainvillea’s pink, puckered lips. We buy dill, peppers and punchy tomatoes from the fruit-seller on the side of the road and turn them into rich sauces.
From the farmer’s orchard we gather apricots, a few each day. We make homemade marmalades and fragrance them with the purple blossoms of thyme. We freshen plum sauces and pomegranate jam with mint from the garden and eat them with a mild goat’s cheese in the afternoon. We add wild sage and honey to tsipouro, a Greek brandy, and leave it on the windowsill for two months, and then we drink it all in one go.
In this new life a uniform emerges: a smock each day, one of two oversized shirts in either blue or pink, or for special occasions (of which there are few), a green dress. If I wear shoes they are flip-flops. Whatever prejudices I had against uniforms, I repeal; I am happy to live a life of unthinking smock rotation, with the odd celebratory green dress peppered in.
It is May or it is June. Months pass by noiselessly, sometimes namelessly. We drive each week to the sleepy town of Pigadia for supplies, a higgledy-piggledy kind of place, only to find one afternoon that it has awoken. Roller shutters are pitched open, like eyelids, and behind them souvenir stores stare glassy-eyed along the main street. At the beach, sun chairs are un-stacked in alarming numbers. Cappuccinos appear on taverna menus like old friends we had avoided. In summer, is the fate of every full-time traveler to relinquish their off-season smug and admit that they too, like everyone else ordering off the menu in English, are tourists.
In July we hide in our stone house from the heat and from the other tourists, consuming whole days with the production of marmalade and tsipouro, or simply by moving our bodies from the warm tiles of the courtyard to the shaded ones, back and forth, whole days like this. What a pleasant day will do to productivity.
The plan to leave New York, to drop out, was made in the early stages of our relationship, forged in the late nights of new love. It was made at a time when I considered myself unhappy in my job and disillusioned by the notion of a big career in the big city. I know a great many people will maintain that trading in one’s savings for one or two years of seclusion and simplicity is irresponsible, and they are probably right.
I, however, am satisfied to drop a premium on the illusion that new selves are formed under the roof of new apartments, neighborhoods, or countries. I say illusion, aware that while some redefining of the self is always possible, a complete redefinition is not only unrealistic but also supererogatory; wherever you go, there you are, is how the aphorism runs. Perhaps I should say: in the light of new contexts — in the appeals and demands of unfamiliar layouts, the nuances of foreign taps and showerheads, the odd rearrangements of our old things — we too reassess our old ways.
I welcome the old career ambitions when they reappear, and they do, quite suddenly, after seven months of separation from New York. I get up earlier, often skipping the morning swim to read articles on my phone in bed. I take up online courses. I set strict routines in place to write for two three-hour intervals through the day. I fall obsessively in and out of healthy eating habits, leaning extremely in one direction and then the other. I am changed, or I am exactly the same; who is to say?
On the drive to higgledy-piggledy Pigadia one day we are held up by a herd of goats. An old woman stands under the shade of a lemon tree and sings to her goats, a shaky, operatic number. She picks a lemon and puts it in her pocket. Her skin is folded in folds. Her goats will not move off the road. Everything absurd, everything tragic and everything gay has happened here, Lawrence Durrell once said of Corfu, but it is true for all of Greece.
We drive with the goat herder’s song in the car, past the old olives and wheat fields; at the café eat freshly caught sardines with lemon, cheap white wine, bread, oil.
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