Diary of a Traveling Ghost

Transylvania, Romania, May 2017

Something must happen to me in the plane. I cannot emerge from long-haul travel unchanged. I disappear into myself, in that darkness, through those lost days and nights and emerge quieter, simpler and more watchful. My normal instinct for inserting myself into every scene and every conversation as a lead actor evaporates, and I become a quiet audience. A voyeur. A ghost who likes to watch. Quietly slinking through the lives and homes and habits, feeling, touching, learning, leaving no impact.

I have been told I look like I’m from this part of the world. I search for myself in the faces, expecting to find home or heritage. What I find in the faces is signs of great wear. Skin looks tired, more creased, more worn far earlier than I am used to. I realise I haven’t seen anyone I would bundle as middle-aged: the path from young to old doesn’t seem to have any rest stops. It is no romantic stretch (but one backed up by economic and social data) to think that life must be a bit harder here. And if it’s harder here now, what must it have been like twenty years ago, pre-EU membership, thirty years ago under one of history’s great insane dictators, seventy years ago under a largely forgotten Fascist leader who rivalled any for brutality.

I notice young people doing unskilled jobs, jobs usually done by migrants in the West. Young people with tertiary educations don’t drive cabs where I come from. I am struck by how ethnically homogenous the work force is – there don’t appear to be many migrants here. Then I realise, Romanians are the migrants for everyone else in Europe.

Our small local bus is driving through a faded story book. The snow-capped mountains form an enormous backdrop to the utterly flat countryside. Pitched rooves sag comfortably onto houses that could have been built centuries ago, the sharp spires of Romanian Orthodox churches the only disruption to the uniform height. Despite being the connection between two major regional towns, our bus will happily stop regularly, sometimes giving people a lift of a few hundred metres. This gives me ample time to stare out the window at a lifestyle confined to the past in my world: a horse-drawn plough in a slightly dilapidated field; a person working alone with a hoe; the complete absence of large-scaled mechanised agriculture. Then we pass a drive-through Subway. They don’t have those in Australia.

Bucharest, Romania May 2017

I love hardcopy maps. They make me feel like an omnipresent spirit circling a city from above, wondering where to swoop. I task my husband with asking our small pension for one and, after a lengthy search on their part, he returns with a map carefully marked with brothels and strip clubs. This either says everything about Bucharest’s tourism industry or everything about my husband.

After the architectural, cultural and human destruction wrought by Romania’s Communist regime, I expected Bucharest to be a grim, concrete, wasteland. Instead, it is one of the most beautiful cities to become lost in: quiet, clean, happily shabby here and there, and filled with surprising parks which are cool and well-used by youth and elders alike.

I could live here.

We discard the brothel map.

Comrat, Gagauzia, Moldova, May 2017

Regardless of age, all women in Romania and Moldova wear thick, flesh-coloured pantyhose. It is boiling hot. Is this a comfort thing? To avoid chaffing and rubbing of shoes and thighs? Is it modesty – the hose providing a fig-leaf for the short skirts and high heels beloved by the local teens?

With their open-toed sandals and thick hose, older ladies wear bright headscarves. Older gentlemen wear brimmed hats that seem too small as they sit perched high on the head.

My husband, as quintessentially Anglo-Saxon Australian as a kelpie, tall and brawn and bearded and snappily dressed in colour and tailoring (though toned down at my suggestion), is as out of place as a flamingo at a pigeon party. For a start, only Orthodox priests seem to wear beards. His beard worn with colourful shorts has garnered some odd looks from passing priests. And, as at 5’2” I am comfortably tall amongst the locals, his 6’2” seems unnecessary. Even in the height of summer, shorts are rare here. Triple denim is ubiquitous.

I saw a Zara in Transylvania. I wonder how long it will be until what looks weird to me will look weird to them. How long till they discard the scarves and the hose and the small jaunty hats for whatever Zara is selling?

Is capitalism the new colonialism as it sweeps in and displaces time and heritage with the new and the cheap? 

Chisinau, Moldova May 2017

We are staying in a grand Soviet-era hotel. Hotel Chisinau. There are two lifts but only one works at a time and then it can only travel in one direction. Well, this is what my charades with the dedicated lift operator tells me. This is ok, because I tried the lift once and it stopped at random intervals for random periods and it was small and terrifying.

Each wing has a dedicated well-coiffed lady in blue. She pops out to show you to your door.  I visited other floors and no matter how silently I entered the long, expansive hallways, out one would pop. The lady in blue proudly shows you to your bed and pulls back the duvet to reveal your top sheet neatly folded underneath. I cannot explain this opportunity for self-action.

Finally, breakfast is a complicated dance of pre-ordering the night before from a choice of three dishes. In the morning, one visits reception to obtain a ticket where you confirm your choice from the night before (but if you haven’t made such a choice the night before you will be banished, without breakfast), and take your ticket to the restaurant in a dungeon (possibly a former wine cellar) where you exchange it for your meal. It is a pleasant and communal method of food delivery. To accompany breakfast is a large television displaying writhing, lingerie-clad women. Rationing, scrupulous fairness, and utilitarianism still reign in Hotel Chisinau and I couldn’t be happier.

Tiraspol, Transnistria, May 2017

As one who loves to travel, and as one who tempers their addiction between hits with quick fixes of travel writing or documentaries, I’m really bothered by the apparent profundity of everyday experiences when cast through a white gaze.

In short, how can I visit places and not be a dick?

Today, I’ve heard people complain about the quality of coffee. Only instant is provided by the hotel in this unrecognised, breakaway region which lauds Lenin and Soviet-style Communism. Not sneering at what others have, and appreciating what they do have, is a good start to not being a dick.

I also momentarily removed my ghost guise to chastise a tourist in a church who was sneakily taking photos of both the church and its attendees despite warnings not to. I don’t care, he said. You’re a dick, I said.

Odessa, Ukraine, May 2017

I’ve just realised I haven’t seen a single gym, or yoga studio since leaving Vienna three weeks ago. I haven’t seen anyone running either. I guess there are other things to do with your time here.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 2017

There’s a natural process that occurs when the traveller knows they are nearing their time of departure. The energy for adventure quietens. The mind seeks reflection and quiet: to absorb all that it has seen and learnt. I’m sitting drinking coffee not even ten minutes from my door. Sam is getting a haircut. We are transitioning from invisible ghosts who roam a city trying to know all its secrets back to normalcy. It doesn’t matter whether I’m gone for months or weeks: as the airport lounge nears, so too does this transition.

The anonymity of the wanderer is waning. For weeks I have worn no makeup, dressed in the same clothes. I have two pairs of shoes and no perfume. A cheap pair of earrings and three items of makeup for the one or two ‘special events’ I have attended. I become a person I barely recognise when I travel. As she begins to enter her hibernation, I think, ‘I must wax my eyebrows when I get home’ and start questioning my certainty that these sneakers go with every outfit.

I walk everywhere here. At home I’ll hop in the car to drive 200m to the shops if it’s cold or hot or nearly dark or maybe looks like rain. Here I won’t countenance public transport for less than 3km. There’s no reason to rush after all. My chronic illness doesn’t vanish – of course – it just doesn’t matter if I stop a million times to sit and watch. Or if I need to rest and spend a day within 20 metres of my bed. I am in suspended time where the world is just for me, the voyeur. The city will keep on performing its part and it will be there for me to watch when I am ready.

But all too soon this ghost-like suspension will evaporate. As desperately as I try cling to its cobwebs, it will disappear as the texts resume and the chores resume. Connectivity to reality will puncture my invisibility and I will be seen again.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

A Non-Compliant Woman

Our lives are full of shoulds. For women, these shoulds act as the hands that form and shape a lump of clay. Like clay being formed into something suddenly respected as art, we are pressed into behaviours that see us recognised as ladies. This pressing begins so young, and is so omnipresent, that it becomes an intuitive and unthinking framework for every interaction. Like how we’re so used to stepping out of others’ ways, deferring space. Like when we’re told to smile, deferring our faces.

When we start challenging these shoulds, it’s uncomfortable, it’s shocking and it’s scary – for us, and for others. These shoulds are in fact, compliance. Compliance with a world that wants to bind and conscribe our behaviours, voices, bodies and ambitions, veil them beneath manners, politeness and contentedness with the progress we have made from being the chattel of fathers and husbands.

‘You should write happier things,’ says my mother, worried about the emotional and societal implications of my ‘complaining’ all the time.

I have started watching for acts of everyday compliance – instances where I subsume my preferences or comfort for another’s. They’re everywhere. But this has become much more than proving that if I don’t move from the path of oncoming pedestrian traffic I’ll get shoulder-checked five times a day.

I understand now the myriad ways I have complied my entire life. I understand why a barely known middle-aged man rested his hand high on my seven year old thigh. Why a guy refused to wear a condom when he had sex with a friend of a friend. Why so many of us yield to accepting what is done to us even though it makes our blood chill. I understand that we have been moulded and pressed and shaped so that we are compliant and cannot resist. I need to push against the hands that want to form us into something prettier and nicer and quieter. I am trying harder and more consciously to be a non-compliant woman.

Since I started my micro-movement of non-compliance, I have been terrified of the consequences of pushing back. ‘You’re going to get punched in the face one day,’ my mother has oft said following a small act of perceived surliness or, as I like to call it, standing up for myself. I’ve been screamed at. Ridiculed. Glared at. But what I take these reactions to show is the genuine and deep-seated fear that men have when we challenge the expectation that we’ll comply.

Some examples:

1.

I hadn’t seen him for a decade, yet every few years he’d crop up on messenger and just check in and say hi. Somehow, I would fold into myself and become 16 year old Naomi, on the cusp of her first heartbreak. Anxious to do everything right lest I made something go wrong. I was so eager for his approval. I was so eager to keep him happy and not upset him.

As each conversation ended and I morphed back into 30 year old Naomi, I’d feel sick afterwards. So unaccustomed to this role of subservience, of ego-stroking. Is this what it feels like, really, underneath all the superficial male-awarded affirmation, to be a cool girl? To comply?

So it went until he caught me on a day when I was grumpy, busy and NOT in the mood to listen to white boys playing four chords on the guitar and expecting me to swoon.

‘You’re still into music aren’t you,’ he asked. ‘Wanna listen to a song I recorded?’

‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I would find it awkward. You know I’ve taken music seriously my entire life. I’ve performed professionally. For a brief moment it was going to be my career. I tend to want to offer constructive criticism. If you enjoy playing that’s great. You don’t need to know what I think to enjoy music and I’m worried that what I think won’t be what you want to hear.’

This honest response unleashed a flood of comments that I was a stuck up bitch with massive tickets on myself and that I was incredibly rude and by the way I was really unattractive.

I just really didn’t want to listen to him play the guitar.

 

2.

‘You should get a job here!’ A smartly-dressed older man beamed at me.

I broke from the conversation I had been maintaining in my head while I waited in the queue to return his comments with an expression that said, ‘Huh?’

‘Here, at Priceline! You’d look gorgeous in their pink uniform.’

I looked down at my orange, undoubtedly food-splattered shirt and to the woman behind the counter wearing a pink blouse and a humiliated expression.

‘Pretty in pink! You should get a job here because you’d be pretty in pink!’

‘I have three degrees and an important government job. But I’ll throw all that away for the chance to be pretty in the uniform of your choosing.’

‘It was just a compliment! You don’t need to be sarcastic.’

I’m guessing the correct reaction was to laugh merrily and accept his gaze.

 

3.

I was at a wedding, a handful of friends and I taking a break in the fresh air from the furious dancing.

‘Do you guys have a lighter?’ An unknown wedding guest approached our group.

‘Sorry, none of us smoke,’ I said. ‘But those guys over there were just smoking so perhaps they can help out?’

‘Are you trying to get me to fuck off?’ My new acquaintance demanded aggressively.

‘No, I was trying to be helpful. But now you’ve spoken to me like that you can certainly fuck off.’

The atmosphere suddenly shifted. His body language morphed into something larger, squarer, and stronger. His eyes narrowed on me. I saw his hand tighten around the beer bottle he was holding. Women are very, very finely tuned into these atmospheric changes.

Just as it seemed he would explode, my partner calmly said, ‘Mate, she was trying to help and you blew up at her.’

Suddenly, our friend was on more familiar footing: how two white guys sort out a little problem.

‘Oh yeah no worries mate.’ He shook my partner’s hand.

‘No hard feelings love,’ he said to me, ‘give me a hug.’

‘No thank you,’ I said, offering my hand instead.

‘I just want a fucking hug what the fuck is wrong with you.’

It was a friend’s wedding, I was already weakened by one small round of resistance. I listened to the damn guitar and gave him a hug so he would go away, so I didn’t get hit and so I wasn’t rude. It was easier.

Why not just be nice to people instead of assuming the worst? Is what I want not valid? Especially when my niceness is exploited by intentions that are clearly not the best? Why is it so much more horrible to be truthful and honest, to be a non-compliant woman, than to allow myself to be formed into something quieter, meeker, smaller and unhappier? So what if the guy told you to smile where you were in your head about a serious issue? Well, raising a defiant eyebrow might be the first step to having a framework for saying what you really want, what you really feel, when it really matters. I send a question back: why is the scrutiny not directed at those who uphold the shoulds, who react angrily to non-compliance, who exploit the expectation that someone will acquiesce to their wants, who assume we won’t ask for more than we were given. Are not they the ones who should be doing things differently?

For many women, facing the condemnation of non-compliance is too terrifying because our social worth is bound in the approval our every action is given (or not) from men. Not complying will get you yelled at or dumped or hit or raped. So they just listen to the damn guitar. It’s easier. It makes them go away. But it hurts our souls and binds the fabric of compliance even tighter. I imagine that non-compliance allows us to stretch fully, to be radiant and brilliant and powerful without limit. And to imagine the true possibility of a womanhood without shoulds is terrifying in the most beautiful way.

To look into the eyes of someone who has asked me to submit to their expectations of my femininity, and refuse, is the most powerful act of womanhood. I feel adrenaline and power and strength race through my blood. Then afterwards, the shaking, rage filled tears of doing what I know is right despite criticism to calm down and not overreact; despite snarling, warm, drunk breath spewing insults at me; despite the fear of being hit – or worse. Non-compliance is more anguishing the more intimate the hands that press my compliance are, because it is shattering a relationship that was built upon my compliance, and I see that, to some people, I am not loveable when I say no.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Massage Nightmares: Why I can’t be naked and silent

Massages are meant to be a wonderfully relaxing experience, but not if you’re me. Unfortunately, the promise of luxury causes me to forget my regular propensity to forget how to human. At first, a massage sounds like a fabulous idea. I trot eagerly into the spa at the appointed hour and am shown to a room. But suddenly, the imminence of nudity and proneness and silence renders me completely incapable of remaining in control of my mind and body and my usual high risk of awkwardness suddenly sky rockets, creating certainty that I will do something unusual, unexpected and uncomfortable.

The trigger is the instruction to disrobe and lie face down on the bed. The resultant capitulation into complete clown can be broken down into three distinct dilemmas (that in reality are whirling and colliding in my head as I panic, exacerbating the difficulty in any attempt to ‘act normal’). Let us observe these dilemmas in turn.

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 1: Shit, I’m being asked to disrobe. How ‘nakey’ do I get? Do they want bra off or do they want to do the modest unclip of bra so when I roll over there’s less ‘flashage’? I could ask but that might sound like I’m anxious and/or can’t undress myself and now they’ve left the room anyway. OH GOD THERE’S A PAIR OF DISPOSABLE KNICKERS. These never fit. It’s so dark in here I can’t get them out of the tiny packet. Surely it’s a fire hazard to attempt to disrobe and apply unfamiliar undergarments by candle light? “Are you done in there?” “Not quite!” Shit shit shit I’ve been in here too long, they’ll be wondering if I’m stuck (this has happened before). Ok, knickers are out of tiny packet and a rough assessment indicates they’ll possibly cover the good bits. Not like that time that I nearly had them in a respectable position and then tore them. Like, literally ripped them a new one. I had no idea what to do with a torn pair of disposable panties so I panicked and put my jocks back on and the torn pair over the top. I can’t explain this decision. And all I could then think about for the entire massage was how the therapist would be spending the entire massage wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Ok. Ridiculous pants on. Now to mount this table….

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 2: Now I’m naked in ridiculous pants and I’m looking at a very neatly towel-wrapped massage table. I can never work out exactly what they want me to do. I have ruled out just getting on up sans modesty throw: my naked self, shining like a moon through the candle-lit darkness would be far too alarming for the already perplexed therapist. So I have to do something with the towel. Early on, I tried to loosely wrap it around my body before climbing onto the table but, no matter how loosely I wrapped myself, by the time the therapist tried to access flesh it had turned into a tightly wrapped kebab and their attempt to remove my wrap would necessitate my raising and lowering my shoulders, torso and legs so that it looked like I was performing a particularly disjointed attempt at a nude worm. And then there was that time that this failed and I just had to get up, unwrap, and clamber back up under the disappointed and confused gaze of the therapist. Either way, soon will cometh the half-time roll, where I am expected to somehow demurely and modestly rotate my nude (again let me remind you that nudity sets me to auto-awkward) heft in the manner of an animal – perhaps a walrus? – on a spit, without undue flashing, without falling off a narrow bench and whilst covered in a slippery slick of massage oil. For now, I do the superhero – swirling the towel around my shoulders like a cape so that it covers only my back. One does have to hold this at the neck so that makes clambering up that touch harder…

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 3: Why oh why is the bed always too high! I acknowledge I am somewhat shorter than the average bear (in fact, I am close to the average height of the shortest bear) but the table always seems to be set to (my) chest height. It is so hard to clamber when nude (I feel the knowledge of being naked limits me physically) and towels have such little purchase. I should have checked the brakes were on first. One time they weren’t and the thrust of my mount caused me to sail – elegantly and spectacularly ­– across the room on my table, and crash into a counter of beauty accoutrements, the inertia of my impact causing crashing, rattling, flying hot wax and the great distress, alarm and – once again – disappointment of my therapist.

Ok I’m up. Head in hole. Now I wait in the darkness, and the relaxation can begin… while I worry about everything I can do to embarrass myself while lying here doing nothing.