Category Archives: travel

18. Red Light District

Dudface invited Hayden to Amsterdam, and Hayden invited me.  We got on a train on Friday and arrived late afternoon, checking into a bed and breakfast.  We didn’t have the money for two rooms so we took one room instead.  I wonder what the owner thought of that.

I loved the architecture of Amsterdam, with its beautiful fanciful fascades along the canal.  We ate at an Indonesian restaurant that night, and I remember the plates were divided into little sections with small pieces of food in each one.

We went to the Red Light District, so called because of the prostitutes who displayed themselves in red lights in glass rooms.  Prostitution and drugs are legal in Amsterdam, so we bought some hashish and smoked it.

The hashish made me randy and that night in bed I forgot Dudface was there.  I have no memory of what happened, but Dudface did.

“You got kind of wild last night, Karen.”  I still wonder what I did with Hayden that night.

The next day we split up and Hayden and I went to the Riks museum and stood marveling in front of the gigantic canvas of Nightwatch.  I stood there a long time, wanting to remember every detail of Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

But my favorite museum in the world was the Van Gogh museum.  They had every period of Van Gogh’s work, and many colorful canvases that I had never seen before.  Then art historians still believed Van Gogh killed himself, whereas today there is speculation that he was murdered by a local bully.

That night Dudface revealed that while we were at the museums, he had visited a prostitute.  I don’t know if the prostitute was male or female, but I suspect he was male.  Apparently the night before had made Dudface excited.  I was disgusted.

On Sunday we were scheduled to leave by train that night so we could get back to class on Monday.  Dudface and Hayden wanted to rent bikes, so we biked into Holland’s countryside, past a brewery.  I was falling behind, until I could no longer see the boys.  The roads were flat and lined with perfectly symmetrical trees.  I had come to a fork in the road, and panicked.  I was holding everyone’s passports and money, so it was not only rude, but incredibly stupid, not to wait for me.  I decided not to turn but to go relatively straight.  I came across an old man with a black hat.  He didn’t speak English, and I tried in vain to act out if he had seen two boys, one in a long black shirt that looked like a coat, Hayden’s favorite bizarre outfit.  I was getting more and more upset, acutely aware that I was alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t know my way back to Amsterdam.  I turned around and went back to the fork, sat down and waited for a long time.

Finally, the boys reached me.  I was furious; they were nonchalant.  I still wonder if they left me to have sex.  What’s worse was that we missed the last train back to Paris.  I became incensed.  “I have never in my life missed a train!”  I yelled at them.  They acted like I was a lunatic.  We would miss class and we would have to figure out a place to stay another night.

Of course, I wasn’t really angry about missing a train.  I was angry because I suspected what had really happened between Dudface and Hayden.


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17. A Movable Feast

The three bedroom house we had rented had no shower, only a bathtub with a hand held shower.  We had to be up so early to go sit in that cold tub and try to wash with one hand while holding the shower head, take the train to Paris, and then the metro, which we soon memorized, to the school for french class.  I was in the intermediate class, Hayden was in the beginner’s class.  I was afraid to open my mouth and speak french outside of class.  I ordered a “Oiel frite”, a fried eye, instead of an  “oeuf frite.”  While at the cheese shop, I tried to say, “go ahead of me” and said instead “on y va”–shall we go.

What I remember most–though I loved the museums, especially the musee d’Orsay–are the croque monsieurs ( a kind of grilled cheese sandwich) and croque madames (grilled cheese with egg on top) I ordered for breakfast each day.  The bread was fried, but it didn’t taste like French toast, and you just can’t get it in the states.  I would eat them in nondescript corner cafes with a big bowl of cafe au lait (another delicacy, as this was years before Starbucks).

We wouldn’t be like anyone else: we hadn’t brought cameras, choosing instead to live in the moment.  In hindsight, this was a terrible mistake.  We were unabashedly precocious.

In class, the bespectled teacher with his grey-brown curly hair asked me who I was.  I said in French,  “I am a nymphomaniac!’  Everyone’s jaws dropped.  No one ever looked at me the same way again.  I was, in fact, becoming some kind of nymphomaniac hopelessly in love with a beautiful  gay man. We were like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, coupled yet uncoupled.

“Karen, you’re a gem, ” he would say.  He professed undying love for me constantly.  I didn’t really know anything about gay men, it was never spoken about.  In high school, we would call unpopular people “fags.”  We didn’t know it was short for faggots, the sticks used to burn homosexuals while “witches” were being drowned.

A pretty, thin girl in Hayden’s class had a crush on him.  She would stand between Hayden and I after school and say she was going on a diet, every day.

My favorite outfit to wear in Paris was a blue dress from the future.  I got it on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  It had a mock turtleneck, and a button on one side.  It hung over a short, hip hugging pleated skirt.  Hayden dubbed me “the blueberry girl.”

Water was the same price as wine so, as in “The Sun Also Rises”, we ate steak frites and got drunk.  I learned to love my steaks incredibly rare.  We went to “Le Shok Hitchcok” movies because, being young, we got homesick.

We had befriended an attractive couple from N.Y.U., Tom, and Wendy and their friend Gina.  “Gina puts her girdle out to dry on the shower rod,” Wendy told me in confidence.  I didn’t know you could even still buy a girdle.  Gina would sleep with French  men who spoke no English.

“The best position is woman on top!”  Gina gushed, and proceeded to explain why  in graphic detail.

When I told them the story of the sex abuse trial, Tom got visibly disturbed. He was flushing and fidgeting and looking sick.  Finally, he excused himself.  I silently concluded that he had been abused…or was he an abuser?

We all took the train out to Versailles, and took rowboats out  and had a water fight.  We had met Wendy’s friend Hans there, a tall, goofy looking guy wearing birkinstocks.  Hans slipped me a note.

“Meet me in the room of mirrors.  I want to kiss you,” it read.

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16. Itchy Puss

Here I was in Paris, with venereal disease, like Boswell in his biography of Samuel Johnson.  Who had given me chlymydia  since I wasn’t sleeping with Hayden?

During Christmas break, I met a preppy, good looking guy on the Long Island Railroad, who I knew because he was my high school boyfriend’s friend.  We flirted and I gave him my number.  We went out to drinks, where he admitted he would like to try hang gliding.  He took me back to his place, and quickly proceeded to insert himself inside me.

“Do you have protection?” I asked.

“No,” he said, breathlessly.

“Then GET OUT!  GET OUT NOW!”  I screamed.  “How stupid do you think I am?  I don’t want to get pregnant!”

“Shit, now I have blue balls.”

He drove me home in hostile silence.

I was itching like crazy.  My mom took me to a gynecologist all her friends raved about, named after a famous sadist.

“Who ever did this to you is a cruel jerk.  Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No,” I said, because Hayden wasn’t sleeping with me.

“What a shame, you have such a beeeoootiful body.”   Did he say this to all of my Mom’s friends?  Today he would probably be in prison.

“You might not be able to have children,” he said.  I went numb, pretending not to hear this.  Later, another male gynecologist told me the same thing.  Then a female gynecologist asked me if a male gynecologist had told me I wouldn’t be able to get pregnant.  “Yes, ” I said.  “‘Well that’s not true.”  She said.  When I was forty-three and trying to get pregnant, I was told that my reproductive organs had been traumatized, and I might not be able to get pregnant.  Then I read in Oprah magazine that if you were treated immediately, you could still get pregnant.

So there I was in Paris, having to shove yellow suppositories the size of eggs into my vagina every night, wearing a maxi pad, which feels like a diaper.

“No sex for two months, ”  The doctor said, which was ironic, since Hayden didn’t want to ever have sex.

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15. The Pregnant Puss

Dudface got an idea.  “Hayden and I are going to N.Y.U in Paris for the summer.”

“Hayden, you can’t go to Paris without me!  And where is Dudface getting the money from?”

“He’s taking out a student loan for five grand.  You should come too!”  So I took out my first student loan.  I was lucky then;  my parents paid for college.

“We’re not going to stay in a dorm,” Hayden said.  So there we were, heading off to Paris for three months with no where to stay.  At nineteen, we were being adventurous, anti-bourgeois–not incredibly stupid.

With my beginner’s French, I tried to explain to the cab driver where we were going.”Enn Egret oooh a Paris” I kept saying, to no avail.  I handed him a paper with an address.

The first night we stayed in a grand luxury hotel on the Rue de Rivoli.  Our room was trimmed in gold.  While I ate the free croissants and coffee, Hayden went out in search of a paper.

“I found this American paper for ex-pats,” he said.”And there’s a house we can rent in Poissy.”  We didn’t know where Poissy was.  We called the number, and an American woman answered in English.  It turned out she had gone to Cornell, too.  Her house was a forty minute train ride from Paris.  She had never bothered to learn French, though she had lived there for many years.

The house didn’t look especially French, though it was made of stucco, but without details or charm.  When we arrived and went into the kitchen, we were appalled.  This was the dirtiest kitchen I had ever seen in my life–she lived here with her family in filth and never cleaned the kitchen at all.  The stove and counter tops were encrusted with grease, rotting food, dust, stains.  The pots and pans had never been cleaned.  We gave her rent money, then couldn’t help ourselves, and started to clean the kitchen in front of them with brillo pads.

“Oh, you’re just like my mother, clean freaks.” She said. ” Oh, there’s one more thing–our cat is pregnant.”

“When is she due?”  I asked.

“Late August.”

“But we won’t be here then.  We have plane tickets for mid-August.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it.”  What did that mean?  We were going to leave a cat and her kittens behind? This felt like the worst ending to Breakfast in Tiffany’s, if Cat had been thrown out of the cab and left to his own.  I still don’t know what happened to that cat and her kittens, and it haunts me.

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9. The Sadist in Brussels

Jane’s house in Brussels, on the prestigious Avenue Moliere, was a white townhouse with five floors.  Inside and out, it was decorated with beautiful moldings and designs.  It was the most beautiful house I had ever lived in.  I lived on the top floor, in a big  bedroom with a mattress on the floor and a large bathroom.

The moment I arrived as the nanny, Jane told me that she didn’t get custody of William that summer after all.  “But I want  to pay you to be my Gal Friday.”  Jane was the best boss I ever had.  We were friends and confidantes.  Jane told me that having a baby was like “shitting a watermelon.”  That I could imagine.  When I gushed about the house, Jane said, “You know, it costs the same as the house in San Francisco.”  The house in San Francisco was a small ranch house in the suburbs.

Jane often cried about William and I tried to comfort her.

“We’re going on vacation to Greece!”  Jane announced.  I was traveling to all the places in the news.  There had been a riot at a sports stadium in Brussels and Reagan told Americans not to travel to Greece.  Jane wanted to be with her lover and I was to travel around the country by myself visiting small towns where no one spoke English, which frightened me.

A travel agent tried to show me a map of the buses I would be taking on my travels.  I couldn’t pay attention.  “You’ll be fine,” Jane reassured me.

Every time I got off the local bus a swarm of young men like flies would try to get me to stay with them instead of a hotel.  In one town, I liked the look of the marble lobby, although Jane had warned me that marble was so prevalent and cheap in Greece that it was like linoleum.  I was taking a siesta (in Greece everyone stops work and goes home to have a large lunch, creating four traffic jams per day) when three feet of  water gushed into my room.  I ran down to the lobby and tried to communicate with the owner to come upstairs.  Finally I grabbed her hand and led her upstairs, and she became frantic.  They upgraded my room and put me on a higher floor.

I knew the symbol for alpha in Greece so I looked for buses with that symbol to get back to Athens, where I saw a leper on the street.  I didn’t know lepers still existed, and he was frightening to look at.  I stayed at the YMCA and immediately befriended a group of French girls, and we went out at night to the  Plaka, the old section of Athens which Plato frequented.  We drank and were called up on stage to dance.  The American men at the next table were comparing my curvy body with the body of an extremely thin girl, and were arguing over our various attributes.  As we left, I shocked the men by yelling, “I’m an American and I understood every word you said!”

When we returned to Brussels, where men did not wear sneakers  but shined shoes, Jane told me she had to move back to the states.  New people would be moving in.  “But I told them only on the condition that you could stay on the fifth floor.  I’ll give you the rest of the money in my bank account, and you can stay here until your plane leaves.”  A young African American man and a girl in her 20s moved in, and we rarely saw each other.  That is when I began eating cookies for dinner.

I took an intermediate French class in the morning, but I had to fill up the rest of  the day.  So I had this brilliant idea of putting an ad in the paper looking for people to speak french with while I would teach them English.

I met Francois in a coffee shop that sold pastries, a distinctly European place before there were any Starbucks.  “Why are we meeting here?”  Francois, a man in his 30s with jet black hair, neither attractive nor unattractive, asked.  “This place is for old ladies.”

“Your french is horrible,” said Francoise.  “You need to go to a speech therapist because your mouth and tongue are not pronouncing the French vowels.”

He picked me up every night at the house.  He would berate me for not speaking French properly, then ask me about idioms in English.  “We have a saying here…what is that in English?”  I was at the point where I was losing my English and slowly progressing in French.  He wanted me to tell him sayings my Mom always told me, like “That’s the way the cookie crumbles” and “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

“Why don’t you work?” He would ask me over and over again.  I explained in French that I was starting a teaching position in the fall at a University.  “You need to get a job, ” he said.

One day we met outdoors at a cafe.  I had a framboise, beer with raspberries at the bottom.  Everyone in Brussels had a special implement they carried with them to crush the fruit at the bottom of their beer.  Francois ordered me a strange dish, cream cheese with a whole scallion and something else I can’t remember.  I began eating the scallion whole.

“Non non non” Francois screamed in French.  He took my  plate and minced the scallion, and went through a whole process of how to eat the dish, which I could never have known.  I was getting sick of Francois.

We sat at his house watching a movie in French.  He asked me to describe the movie.  I had a slight idea of what it was about and told him the story.  He flew into a rage.  “That is not the plot of the movie!  You have it all wrong!”

The next time Francois came to the door,  I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore.  He protested.  I slammed the door in his face.

I decided to meet someone else at a cafe.  As I approached, I saw a man waiting there with no eyebrows.  I ran the other way.  I was finished with strangers.

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6. Monkey Business

While in Spain for our 20th wedding anniversary, we drove our rental Passat to the end of the Iberian peninsula, and prepared to cross the border into the British-owned Rock of Gilbraltar.  Josh began compulsively shooting photos at the border.  A security guard tapped on our window.

“Sir, can you explain to me why you are photographing the border?”

“Uh, I like the flags?”  Josh answered.

“Give me your camera, I need to delete those photos for security reasons.”

He thought we were terrorists sussing out the place.  It was lucky that we we weren’t detained.

We proceeded up the mountain to St. Michael’s cave.  We walked inside to absolute splendor.  We eventually came to a cavern whose ceiling  was incredibly high.  There was an organ and seats for a concert with perfect acoustics.  The stalactites and stalagmites were enormous.  When we came out, I went into the gift shop to buy a magnet for my collection.  Outside, sitting on a tree stump, was a Barbary Macacque, posing for photographs.  I wanted to pet this ape, who was unique to the Rock of Gilbraltar.  The sign said:  “No touching.  Ape may bite.”

As we drove through the trees, Josh opened the window to get a better shot of the water below.  And that’s when it happened.  A giant macacque jumped in through the window and on to Josh’s lap.

“AAAH” said Josh.  “Get out get out get out!”

Josh had grown up in Spain, Malta, and Libya, and he missed the unique taste of the Spanish Mars Bar, which had a different taste than the American one.

There was the mars bar, in between us.  The ape grabbed it.  I had a natural instinct to protect the food, so I briefly fought the ape for it, stupidly.

The ape won and escaped through the window and sat on the top of the car.  We heard the rip of the wrapper, which fell beside the car.

“We need to get him off of our car!”  Josh said.  He pulled forward.  The ape banged his fist on top of the car.  Josh pulled forward again.  Again, the ape knocked on the top of the car.  He wanted to finish eating where no other ape could steal the pilfered bar.  Finished, he got off the car.

First, we were laughing hysterically.  Then Josh said, “That was pretty dangerous.  That ape could have bitten us.”

When we returned to the states, there was a story on Oprah about a woman who had a pet chimpanzee.  Not a wild ape,  but a pet chimpanzee.  And this chimpanzee had eaten the face off her best friend.

After our encounter with the ape, we drove to Seville.  We walked through the narrow streets until we came to the square.  We found a tapas place and happily ate the famous egg and potato omelette, happy to be eating, and not eaten.

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5. Different Countries, Different Bathrooms

During a four hour bus ride from Alexandria to Cairo through the Sahara Desert, I drank a lot of water from the ice chest next to the guard with a machine gun.  Citizens of Egypt cannot own guns, which briefly made me consider living there.  The guide was perhaps exaggerating when she said there were no rapes or murders in Egypt.  The bus broke down in the middle of the Sahara, but the bus company had a spare bus following us in case we were raided (and with an Israeli stamp on my passport, I would be the first person to be shot).  I had a plan how to save myself from Arab terrorists.  I would say, “Hun yukka habee yuk ah bee bee, ” the Arabic phrase I learned from watching “I Dream of Jeannie.”  I don’t know the exact translation,  but it is a form of endearment followed by a declaration of love.
We arrived at the pyramids, and I was surprised that the building blocks did not form a smooth pyramid, as you might think from photographs.  Apparently they did at one time.  Up close you could see the giant blocks, each sticking out.  It was very exciting to see them far away through the desert haze and then close up.
We had paid ten dollars in advance for Josh to ride the camel.  I had already ridden a camel in Israel, where my thighs hurt from being too spread apart over the camel’s wide stomach.  I was trying to get a photo of Josh on the camel, but the man pulling the camel kept moving too fast.
“Give me the camera and I will take the photos” the man said.  I gave him the camera.  He took a few photos, then places a scarf over my head, made a turban, and told me to pose with Josh.
“You are the Queen of the Nile!”  He said.  I looked miserable as he took the cheesey photo, which came out terrible.
“Can I have the camera back?”
“That will cost forty dollars, ” he said.
“No, give me back my camera!  And get my husband off that camel.”
“That will cost thirty dollars, a total of seventy dollars.”
I ran off  to get the tour guide.  The ridiculous thing about this encounter with the con artist is that we had been warned at the lecture on the  cruise ship about these ploys, but warnings had never stopped me, unfortunately.  When I an anounced that I would be flying to Puerta Vallarta for my honeymoon, a woman at a party warned me not to order any drinks when the plane stopped for fuel, or afterwards, because the ice is made of toxic water.  The plane refueled, and sure enough I was so thirsty I ordered a diet coke with ice. Of course I spent the next three days in the bathroom.
The tour guide called the police on the con man, and he was taken away.
Here’s the facebook post I wrote from the ship:
Riding a camel, ten dollars.
Taking a photo, free.
Getting off  the camel, thirty dollars.
Getting the camera back, forty dollars.
Spending time at the pyramids, priceless.
When we arrived at the magnificent Sphinx, I really had to pee, and the bathroom was far away.  I had make a terrible mistake in not carrying Egyptian change.  I don’t know about you, but when I have to pee really badly, the closer I get to the bathroom, the more urgent the need becomes.  So I stand in a long line only to realize that they are selling toilet paper and I have no change.  I run away and yell for my husband.  It turns out he doesn’t have the equivalent of a nickel either, so he just gives the gate holders to the bathroom a bunch of money, but they still give me one square of toilet paper.  I’m not like Julia Dreyfuss on Seinfeld begging for one square of tissure–I need more absorbency.  If I had had to poo, I don’t know what I’d have done.  But then the unthinkable happened, and I peed my pants once inside the bathroom so badly that I told myself “this won’t show at all.”  I looked int the mirror, and the entire crotch of my denim shorts,, back and front, was soaked in urine, and it was obvious to all that I had peed my pants.
I had entirely missed the lecture on the Sphinx.  It was so hot that my shorts dried pretty quickly.
For our twentieth wedding anniversary, we stayed in the Costa Del Sol, Spain.  We visited  the Picasso museum in the town where Picasso was born, and I was absorbed by his rose period, which no one talks about.  I thought these pink pictures the most beautiful Picassos of them all.   Josh and I both had to pee, so we went downstairs.  After I finished, the lights went off.  There I was in a stall in pitch blackness.  I felt around the door for the opening, but couldn’t find one on the right hand side, where the door openings are in the U.S.  I was getting claustrophobic and panicky, anxiously feeling all over the door to no avail. So I screamed.
“Help!  Help!  It’s dark in here and I can’t find the latch in the stall!”
A woman outside asked my husband, “Someone is not mentally right in the bathroom. What is wrong with her?”
Josh told the woman I was his wife and to go help me.  It turned out the latch was
 on the left hand side.
“Why did the lights go off?”
“To save money.”
And still Spain went broke.

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