Alicia once did a crossword puzzle in an airline magazine. The key was to complete the puzzle in order to put all the words together and get a “hidden message.” When she’d finished, the message read, “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
I have read a few pages. These are the stories.
The annual Christmas party of the Swiss club of Raleigh had a raffle when I was eleven years old. The prize? Two paid tickets back home to Switzerland. When they called out the winning raffle number, I remember the light shining in my mother’s face as she repeated half-disbelievingly, “But I never win anything! This is the first time I’ve ever won something!”
She hadn’t been home in twenty-five years.
Daddy bought two extra tickets for Alicia and me to come along with them, to touch down in Zurich, to see my mother’s country for the first time, to hear the cowbells and waterfalls in the Alps, to meet our cousins, to listen to her tell stories of her father and growing up, to fall in love with the mountains, cheese, and chocolate.
They took us to see the bears in Bern, visit the zoo in Basel, walk through the covered tunnels in Lucerne, play with kittens in Delemont, and hike in Eison and Münster. In Geneva, we peered through the windows of the store where my grandmother worked and walked up the stairs in the apartment building where mommy grew up.
She told me how, when her father brought her and her sisters to the United States, she stayed in the hold of the boat when everyone else was running to the railing to see the Statue of Liberty. She didn’t want to see it. America meant leaving Switzerland, and Switzerland was everything she loved.
I could taste that love everywhere we went, on every train we rode, in every trail we climbed. When I held my sister’s hand on our Alpine treks, when we picked wildflowers and swam in the icy falls, when Mommy would bend close and show us what Edelweiss looked like, I felt I was partaking in the deepest part of her, in her childhood and heritage. I felt like I was finally identifying its soil in my blood.
Since that first trip, I’ve gone back two more times. The four of us went back for a second visit when I was seventeen, and again I felt the valleys and Swiss summertime breathing in me. The chalets whispered just like I remembered. We hiked every day, got caught in rainstorms, discovered glacial lakes, pet mountain ponies, were licked by big blue-black cows, and listened to the crosses and grottos pray silently along the trails.
When I was twenty, Daddy took me back to spend ten days skiing in Davos. That first January day, I tripped and fell and slid down the Alps, miserable and uncoordinated. Then, suddenly, I found my feet, and began to ski like indeed the mountains were a part of me. The snow was a soft white powder; moguls and speed thrilled me. I took Daddy ripping down a hundred different pistes, waited for him at the bottom, and snuggled close on every chairlift ride back to the top.
In two weeks, I will be back in Switzerland for a week before I start my program in Paris. I am going to Geneva then driving to Lugano with my sister. Right now, my Swiss passport is lying, waiting in my purse for one more stamp welcome home.
The first time I went to Argentina, it was two weeks before my thirteenth birthday—the same birthday that coincided with September 11th and the horrible twist of metal that came with it. I remember sitting in Luis and Cristina’s living room in San Isidro, watching the bodies fall, and feeling sick and sad. Then our flight home was canceled, and we spent my golden birthday eating apple pie in a restaurant in Buenos Aires with tall candles stuck in my plate and a wintry-spring rain falling outside.
But that’s the end of the story. I’m ahead of myself.
We went to Argentina because Noel, the daughter of my parent’s best friends, Luis and Cristina, was getting married. When mommy, daddy, Luis and Cristina were young newlyweds living in Paris together, both couples found themselves pregnant at the same time. After mommy and Cristina had had their first child together (mommy: a boy, Jason; Cristina: a girl, Noel) they made a promise that no matter how far apart life takes them, they will be there the day that child gets married. They hadn’t seen each other in decades, but there we were, many years after the promise was made, flying into Buenos Aires. I still remember Cristina screaming in the airport and hugging mommy like I’ve never seen anyone hug her before.
After they picked us up, we immediately got on the highway and drove to Monte, out in the country, to their estancia where the next few days were spent around huge fires, cooking endless amounts of lamb and beef, with a big white tent set up for the reception. The gauchos sipped matte as they turned the meat over the fires and the grown-ups had tea as Alicia and I galloped wild little polo ponies across the pampas. I had been riding for two years by then, but I had never ridden so hard, so long, so far, or so fast. The exhilaration whipped tears from my eyes, and the many hours spent in the saddle left my twelve-year-old legs bowed like a cowboy’s long after I had dismounted. The day of the wedding, Alicia and I donned our dresses and sat gingerly in the pews, still sore from the trails.
I thought Noel was the prettiest bride I had ever seen when the church’s high wooden doors flew open and the sunlight flooded in behind her, blinding the congregation. Luis stepped forward holding her arm; her veil drifted with her smile.
To this day, I believe everyone should party like Argentineans. The wedding reception went on and on and on into the wee hours of the morning, and I danced until my parents dragged me away, a garland on my head, tangled in my blonde fly-aways. After I was sent to my room, I stayed up writing feverishly in my journal by the light of the furnace. Squinting in the dark, huddling close to the vague shimmer of orange flame, I wrote and wrote, knowing I wanted to capture the moment, knowing I was happy, and life was really beautiful. When life’s beautiful like that, you write about it, so you don’t ever forget.
Last summer, I went back to Argentina for a second time. At nineteen, it held the same happiness and beauty for me—the flat highways, Cristina’s insistent and ready laughter, the train tracks, the fireplaces and smell of the beds, of the house when you wake up in the morning, how the mud is different and the language feels gentle. The Argentina I know is wagging dogs and winter in July, long drives with a stop at the goat cheese stand, meat at every meal, copetine at six and dinner at nine, Luis wearing his red hat, and Cristina just waking up from siesta after we get back from horseback riding. It is church in San Isidro and a group of teenagers sitting cross-legged on the floor; it’s guitars in their laps and hair falling across their faces. Argentina is a soft Spanish communion that draws me in: a walk home along the cobblestones, ivy-covered walls, eucalyptus trees.
When I was fifteen, my high school announced it would send one student to represent North Carolina at the School Connectivity Project conference in Ohrid, Macedonia. A panel convened; the application was a single essay. Why you? I poured hours and hours of work into it, sitting up nights to proofread it with daddy, praying I would win. When my history teacher, Mrs. Immediata, gathered the group of student hopefuls together, she announced slowly that the decision had been too hard, that we were all too great. The school couldn’t decide between us—so they decided to send two people instead of one. They chose Eliza; they chose me.
Suddenly I found myself with Mrs. Immediata and Eliza hustling through airports in Charlotte, Vienna, Skopje, and Frankfurt in an eager trip that led me ultimately to a six hour bus ride across Macedonia (military checkpoints included) and a lakeside hotel in the mountains where I could look across and see Albania on the other side.
While I was there, I fell sick in the middle of a mass spoken in Macedonian—a hard language to understand, much less speak or follow. As I was stumbling through the usual Catholic moves, a fever began to run through my body. By that night I had a 103 degree temperature and lay in bed for two days, room service leaving trays of soup outside my door. At the same time, back home, mommy was in the emergency room with pneumonia, an email in my inbox telling me not to worry.
Desperate to not let the time in Macedonia—that I worked so hard for—slip away from me, I recovered quickly.
I was eager to soak in the country, to see the stray dogs starve and fill my fists with the dirt crumbling along the stone walls. We visited churches and stood outside elegant mosques. We wandered through forts built by ancient conquerors and took pictures of the sunsets over the blue of Lake Ohrid. We met and were seduced by Croatian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian boys. The clubs all played Toxic by Brittany Spears.
One day while we were there, Eliza and I stood in the doorway of a crumbling church—Mrs. Immediata was inside, entranced by the historic paintings on the walls by early Christians—and we noticed there were trays of sand there filled with candles. As we drew close to the flickering, a deep silence fell over us. It felt like we were praying to stone and darkness, to Macedonia and its violence and troubles, its history, its language.
The silence captured what it felt like to be there: the dark-haired children and city sprawl, the smog and cows in the roads, the donkeys in the medians, an electricity-powered cross glowing over Skopje. It was farmland melting into the suburbs like ripples, apartment buildings standing skewed and crooked, crowded with satellite dishes, laundry hanging between houses. It was ancient forts built by Justinian, and Mother Theresa’s childhood home marked by a plaque in the floor of a strip mall. The silence was me standing on that plaque and imagining the windows she once looked out, imagining her small hands opening her front door.
I spent 4 days in Paris when I was seventeen years old. It entranced me, the city: the man breathing fire in front of Notre Dame de Paris as the sun set over the Seine, the students clustered around a lone guitar player in a courtyard, the cobblestone alleyways, the crepe vendors and bakeries.
One night at midnight, Alicia and I sat on the curb in front our hotel in Île Saint-Louis and side-by-side watched the streets come alive. As we listened to each other’s fascination and silence, I felt part of me beg the streetlights never to fade, the evening never to end, for her and I to melt forever beneath the waving tricolour into a moment where we live and breathe in French. It was a turning point. I wrote in my journal that night, “Paris is beautiful. I am definitely going to live here one day.”
Thankfully, that day has come fast. Just 3 years later and I will be living and breathing Paris once again–hopeful and thrilled, tasting the sweet enchantment I felt at seventeen every day for five months.
Two words: Spring break. Mexico included a border town and tequila, a ride on a mechanical bull and a four dollar haircut in a salon where Christina and I drank Dos Equis and prayed our hair wouldn’t come out too mangled. There was a boy on the corner asking us if we needed boyfriends, and we bought bootleg copies of DVD’s like the House BunnyRachel Getting Married. Our margaritas were too strong and the enchiladas were great.
When I was a freshman in high school, Mme. Gherardi showed us a documentary on Morocco in French class. By the end of the period, I was utterly seduced by the country. It was my lifelong goal to get to go there. I had no idea that my parents, Brady, Alicia, and I were to be invited to Morocco for a week when I was nineteen.
Once there, I watched the moon rise over the red-gray houses of Tangier; I sat on the roof of the old American embassy at twilight and heard the Mediterranean and Atlantic break on the corners of Spain. When the electricity went out, I listened to shouts rise from every alleyway and kitchen as people stumbled to find light. I smelt the sting of fish markets and saw women paint delicate hands with henna. I broke my flip-flops while walking in the streets and went barefoot in the broken glass and mud. I attended a dinner party in the candlelit gardens of Yves Saint Laurent’s former estate and spent an afternoon on a desolate beach, walking along the white wave-washed rocks of the coast—my hair ripped and tangled by the insistent wind.
The five of us even roadtripped across the country in a tiny Kia with no air conditioning—our bodies stuck together with deserts raging outside, long columns of red air making dust devils along the road. We got into a traffic jam with donkey carts on their way to market, pulled up beside two camels parked at a gas station, and had a brief encounter with a Moroccan police officer who stopped us for going through a roundabout the wrong way. The car ride ended in Marrakesh where we spent days exploring the markets, entranced by snake charmers and spices.
Everywhere I went in Morocco, I found there were no words in my poor American vocabulary to describe what I found. The culture seeps deeper and speaks more subtly than language; nothing other than experience can convey the sunflower fields along the highway by Tangier, the fullness of the night and brilliance of the moon, the creeping hum of prayer call in the evening, the grit between the cobblestones.
In my first year at Carolina, I was selected to go with fourteen other students from the Newman Center to spend Spring Break in an orphanage in Montego Bay. The children there suffer from HIV/AIDs and/or are severely handicapped. Few of them can speak or move; they all need to be fed and bathed. Their caretakers are tireless, beautiful women who are always so grateful for our meager help.
Every day, we woke at 5A.M to get the children ready for the day, to sit on their urine-soaked beds and hold their cold hands, to sing to them as they waited their turn for the tub. The first morning was so hard as I heard them cry or—worse—saw giant, silent tears rolling down their faces, as I smelt how horrible the beds were after being soiled during the night. And I was so worried that I would be useless.
Yet, at Blessed Assurance, so little means so much. A hand on a child’s back can soothe all sobs, a little bit of music can evoke laughter. A bath and a meal is contentment, and there is the greatest, humbling joy in morning praise and worship when the children shake their small bodies to the music, grins stretched across their faces.
I have never felt so blessed as I did in Jamaica when I woke the children in the morning, held them after their baths, fed them lunch. We fell asleep each night listening to the caretakers singing, and every day, we gardened and learned the names of native plants. We took showers in a waterfall, pushed wheelbarrows, shoveled dirt. An eventful day included catching a stray donkey and taking a van ride along the narrow roads, gripping the seats and hoping to make it out of the vehicle alive.
In a very distinct way, my time in Jamaica was put in dramatic perspective because the trip took place a few days after Eve’s death. I was striving not only to carry on as Eve herself would have done, but I was seeking to push past the horror and find peace. I remember one night we were sitting in the kitchen after dinner, talking for hours like we were wont to do, and Sophia rushed breathlessly into the kitchen saying the killers had been caught. Kelly grabbed the two hands closest to her and replied, let’s pray, and tears came running down our faces. Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then someone asked Pam, tell us about her. What was she like, I want to know her. And there was a smile on her face as she told stories about Eve, recalling in detail the last time she saw her– how there was a coffee in her hand, how she stopped to chat cheerfully, how sleep-deprivation was written on her face but she seemed to be endlessly filled with life and time for others. It helped calm the questions, panic, and hurt in my soul. Jamaica helped me to remember her by not wallowing in worries and hurts but rather extending out beyond myself to care for others. It helped me remember that despite her death, a love and faith, a depth and meaning still exists in the world. Every day I could see it in the children’s eyes.
(I will be going back to Jamaica as a co-coordinator of the trip for Spring Break 2010. If you’d like to apply, please let me know :D)
*all pictures in this post are copyright caroline ashley fish