Smack my head

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

[Note: this was written in April of 2019.]

When I tell people I’m a writer, they often ask if my books are about our travels. Not really, I say. At least, not yet. The story I’m currently working on—about an art curator, Posey, whose prize discovery disappears before she can even open an exhibit—is meant to be the first in a series, which will have episodes set in various places around the world. 

As a matter of fact, the section of the book that I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks is set in—only a mild spoiler—Paris. I’ve even been toying with taking a short jaunt to the City of Light soon, to do a little research and get the details right. The books will be about art—thematically, I want to explore the role of art in history, culture, civilization, daily life—and Paris is a particularly good place to think about art, right? Plus, any excuse to go to France. 

Then last week, as pretty much everyone on social media seems to know by now, a Parisian icon, Notre Dame Cathedral, caught on fire. I got an NYT notification on my phone, and immediately turned to instagram (where I follow several foodie accounts in Paris), and sure enough, there she was, that graceful spire collapsing in the blaze.

Like almost everyone else in my IG feed, I immediately scrolled back through my old photos and found one to post, my personal homage to one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. I was genuinely saddened.

By the next day, though, the outpouring of grief (and of money!) began to make me a little uncomfortable. I was already feeling a bit discombobulated; we arrived in Madrid last week, after 4.5 months in Africa, and the wealth disparity is hitting me harder than it ever has before. A couple of days ago I went into a store that sold all kinds of beautiful little frivolities—notebooks covered in glitter unicorns, inspirational refrigerator magnets, and shower caps decorated with a wide range of cartoon characters (seriously?). It was all a bit overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure what to do with my emotions, or even how to name them. So I spent the afternoon snapping at my husband, as one does.

Then yesterday, we woke up to the news of the bombings in Sri Lanka.

For those of you who don’t know, several churches were bombed during Easter services, as well as several large hotels. The death toll is now somewhere around 300.

We spent a month in Sri Lanka, over the Christmas period of 2017. It’s one of the most physically beautiful places we’ve been, in 4 years of travel. It has an ancient and fascinating history, marked most recently by a long, bloody civil war and the 2004 tsunami.

I have faces and names—Nihal and Kelum and Andree—in my head that I associate with that island—meals eaten, kindnesses given and received, moments of (and I say this with all sincerity) life-changing beauty.

We stayed in one lovely little hotel, owned by an Australian woman who had gone there during the clean-up efforts after the tsunami. She told about renovating the building, stripping out the bathroom fixtures to be replaced, and offering the old ones to the workers. It seemed like a kind, earth-friendly gesture.

“Madam, I can’t take that. I don’t have plumbing.”

Confronting was the word she used to describe the feeling. It’s confronting, when you don’t even realize you’re making assumptions, never mind what those assumptions are. We had a lot of confronting moments in Sri Lanka, and even more in Africa, this past winter. I use the word often.

Ever since the fire in Paris, people have been donating money for the reconstruction effort. Roughly a billion dollars have been given. That’s great, and the fact that there were bombings in Sri Lanka doesn’t lessen my sadness over the destruction at Notre Dame, but I am having real difficulty with the notion of a billion dollars.

And this morning, when I skimmed through my social media, I saw not one mention of Sri Lanka. Perhaps that was too much to expect—so many westerners have no knowledge of the island. It’s so far away. We don’t know anyone who’s been there. We can only handle so much tragedy. Yada, yada.

But I just can’t wrap my brain around that billion dollars.

No one died in that fire. Not one person.

I wrote the above paragraphs, in a blaze of indignation or self-righteousness or some kind of disgust with humankind—seriously? A billion dollars for a building, when people are being blown up in a country where a lot of people don’t even have indoor plumbing? What is wrong with our priorities?!—and then I got in the shower.

In the shower, I had a revelation (yes, I realize the irony—indoor plumbing). This is precisely the dilemma that I want to explore in the books I’m writing. When we have to choose between saving human patrimony or actual living humans, how do we decide? I’ve long been fascinated by the role and importance of art during the Second World War; the value placed on the artifacts of western civilization. Difficult decisions were made—accomplish an objective, or spare some monument? Bomb the target, perhaps shortening the war and saving lives, or move on to something less precious, perhaps dragging out the carnage even longer? 

It’s easy for me to have opinions when the art in question is the monastery at Montecassino, or the ancient bridges across the Arno in Florence. It’s also easy to be horrified when ancient art is destroyed deliberately, as were the Buddhas in Syria.

But as far as we know at this point, the fire at Notre Dame was an accident, whereas the bombings in Sri Lanka were an obviously deliberate attack, designed to kill as many people as possible.

Wow. I think I’m a little appalled by how appalled I am. And also how long it took me to figure out that my outrage is precisely the gray area—the quick judgment, the one-sided morality—that I’m trying to explore in my stories. *smack my head*

I don’t know if my novels will do justice to the questions I want to explore, but I sense there will be no simple right answers. 

Are my books about our travels? Well, perhaps more so than I realized, if I can slow down and pay better attention.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to subscribe.

The thickness of skin

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

When we were in Ethiopia, we inadvertently got ourselves into an awkward situation. That happens a lot—there is much awkwardness in my life.

We had messaged our hotel to send a car to the airport to pick us up when we landed in Axum, a small town full of ancient ruins, in the rural northwest of the country. While we were waiting for our bags, I went to the toilet. When I came back, Lee was talking to a young man who seemed to want to take us to our hotel. Between the language barrier, the unfamiliar, small-town airport with no discernible systems, and our general laissez-faire attitude, it was hard to know what was actually going on, so we followed him outside and got into the van that our hotel had sent. The young man got into the front passenger seat, beside the driver, so we assumed he was from the hotel. Why they needed to send two people was a mystery, but whatever.

For the record, this happens a lot. Most days, in fact. One of us follows someone, or orders something, or just nods and smiles, and something startling and inexplicable happens. I have given up entirely on the concept of predictability. It usually works out just fine, but every now and again it results in me having a nuclear meltdown.

On this particular occasion, we did indeed wind up at our hotel. The nice young man who had met us in the airport waited for us in the lobby while we got settled in our room, and insisted on sitting down with us to make our touring plans for the next couple of days. This was when the penny dropped, and we realized that he was a bit of a rogue agent. Literally.

Most tourists who go to Ethiopia (the vast majority) do so under the auspices of a tour company, with all their arrangements made ahead of time, from accommodations to transfers to tour guides. This fellow was trying to create a business by guiding the occasional independent travelers like us. He tagged along on airport pickups and simply presented himself as a knowledgeable (and he truly was), competent English speaker. He was great.

The awkwardness came on our last day, when he wanted us to go have coffee at his house. We didn’t want to be rude, but we also very much didn’t want to go—we had driven past the “house” at one point, and . . . let’s just say we were already feeling pretty overwhelmed by the poverty of Ethiopia. Coffee in someone’s house seemed like it might be more than we were ready for.

The problem was that I had heard him on the phone, and I knew for a fact that he had asked his mother to make us shiro, which is the most important special occasion dish in Ethiopia. I just couldn’t make the word no come out of my mouth. I tried desperately, as Lee was heading for the stairs to go back up to our room, but instead I found myself saying, “Sure, let’s go.”

So off I went. I’ll spare you the details—the dirt floor, the corrugated metal door, the lack of windows, or electricity. The kind welcome from the disabled father, who had once led tours as well. The quiet, deliberate posture of the mother as she knelt on the floor and slowly roasted the green coffee beans over a tiny pile of embers. The casual generosity of people who can offer nothing more than one of the world’s oldest, proudest, most devout cultures, which stretches back millennia.

I said thank you, in my language, and in theirs. And then I went back to my hotel to pack up and head off to our next stop.

In the intervening months, the guide has stayed in touch, via WhatsApp. It’s not unusual; I’ve stayed in touch with a whole bunch of people we’ve met in the last few years, some of whom were locals we met in various towns and countries, others who were fellow tourists from all kinds of places. It pleases me to go through my various apps and platforms, thinking about the people I know around the world. It makes me feel like a global citizen, which is what I set out to be.

Anyway, I got a message from him a while ago. A sort of hi, how’s it going message, like I get once every few weeks. I didn’t think twice about a quick back atcha, buddy; how’re things?

And then.

He said the only way he’d ever be able to help his family get out of poverty was to own his own van, and would I please help.

Maybe it hit me at a bad moment, when I was exhausted from battling the dense human traffic in the Marrakech medina. Maybe I was exhausted from saying no, over and over, all day, to the touts and taxi drivers and snake charmers. Maybe I was having a hormonal moment, maybe I was hangry or cold or my left hip was bothering me.

It just hit me wrong. I was gutted. I spent lunch moping over a sad, bland vegetable tagine that tasted like plain boiled carrots with a dash of bitter disappointment. For dessert I moved on to resentment and self-doubt. How had I let myself be sucked in? Was everyone in the world trying to take advantage of me? Mostly, though, how in the world was I going to say no? Or maybe it was mostly: how in the world am I ever going to trust another tour guide? Or anyone else, for that matter? Sometimes I fear that my skin is just too thin for this lifestyle.

I don’t want to be cynical. I don’t want to lose my feeling of wonder, my desire to connect with other people, people whose lives are different from mine. I don’t want to close myself off and keep my distance, but being open means sometimes things get awkward or uncomfortable or embarrassing. I’m not talking about the obvious safety concerns that go hand-in-hand with stupid behavior, of course. I’m talking about the sticky, uncomfortable, potentially growth-provoking emotional fallout of being a person who values human connection.

Sometimes you’re just going to get a little bruised.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to subscribe.

Monday, Monday

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis

Some people think we’re on perpetual vacation, therefore the most egregiously Mondayish Mondays wouldn’t apply to us. We’re not, though, on perpetual vacation. We get up on Monday mornings and go to work like everyone else. Lee gets up much earlier than I do, admittedly, but I get to the keyboard eventually. In Dakar, our cleaning woman came on Monday mornings, so I made a point of getting out the door with a modicum of alacrity, by my standards.

But some Mondays are more Monday than others. Sometimes you know, from the get-go, that it’s going to be one of those. This particular Sunday evening, I couldn’t find strawberries at any of my usual spots. Overnight oatmeal just isn’t the same, in my opinion, without berries. I know, cue the sad violins. Princess is out of strawberries.

So I had no choice but to resign myself to making hot oatmeal in the morning, and topping it with cashew butter. It’s nice enough, but not my first choice in this subtropical climate.

I slept terribly. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and my hands were unusually painful. Plus the bed in Dakar was queen-sized, and the comforter wasn’t big enough (this is a stupid design trend we’re seeing everywhere, by the way—just, no), so we both wound up in the middle of the bed, and Lee kept breathing in my face. Five AM breath—not exactly minty fresh. Maybe I woke up a little grumpy. Maybe.

About a minute into the oatmeal’s cook time, I started smelling toast. Singed toast. Which is weird, because there wasn’t a speck of bread in the whole apartment. I stopped the microwave, and the water was still cold. Hm.  Was the whole thing about to explode? Were my internal organs being fried by microwaves while I stood there peering in through the glass, anticipating the boil-over that probably definitely wasn’t going to happen?

I had nothing else to eat, so I considered the regular stove. I hadn’t attempted to use it in the three weeks we’d been there, because there was a tank of fuel attached to it, and a box of matches on a shelf, and I think kitchen pyrotechnics (really, pyrotechnics in general) might be above my pay grade. Besides, the only pot was about the size you’d use to cook a pound of pasta, and I really couldn’t see dirtying that for one measly little serving of oatmeal.

I could go to the coffee shop and get a sad little mediocre croissant, but that’s just a waste of calories, and at my age, every bite matters. Welcome to midlife.

So I tried the setting that looked like it was meant to boil a cup of water. By some small miracle, it worked. At this point, though, I had frittered away too much of my morning, and needed to shake it if I was going to get out before the cleaning lady finished upstairs. I could hear her bumping around. I inhaled the oatmeal and hopped in the shower.

For the record (yes I counted, once I got the shampoo out of my eyes), the shower in Dakar was the twelfth one I used in 2019. This was in February. We’d been there three weeks, but for whatever reason, that morning I couldn’t remember which way was hot and which was cold. And this particular one was incredibly slow to adjust, for some reason. So I got scalded, then I got frozen, and I can confirm that it wasn’t No More Tears shampoo.

I got myself dressed, quickly, because the bathroom door had a full-length glass panel (also a poor design trend, in my opinion, although slightly better than the hotel room bathroom that is completely walled in glass, or worse, not walled at all—yes, we’ve seen both of those) and I prefer to be dressed when people walk in.

Then I picked up my computer and purse, put on my shoes, and went to the door.

There was no key. The door was locked, and I was trapped inside, because Lee had inadvertently taken my key.

Admittedly, this was less of a problem in Dakar than it would be anywhere else, because there’s always a guardian sitting by the front door, just under our balcony, and I could hear the cleaning woman upstairs and knew she was headed for us, but she usually waited until she heard me walk out, and remember, it was Monday. Some Mondays you just know, right?

I knocked on the door a few times (stupidly using my knuckles, which were already hurting), and nothing happened, so I went out on the balcony. It was a different guardian than usual sitting below, and my French, while good enough for buying strawberries and negotiating taxis, doesn’t actually extend to my husband accidentally locked me in and took my key. It didn’t that day, at any rate. It does now.

Anyway, the cleaning woman heard me mangling the language, quickly sussed out the problem (I guess she’d heard my knocking and ignored it?), and came down to let me out. The guardian clearly hadn’t understood a word, because when I got to the outer door, I had to knock a bunch more before he fumbled around with his keys and let me out onto the street.

Princess was feeling a bit pouty by this time. Our regular guardian, Pape, would totally have understood if he’d been there. He always let me out as soon as he heard my footsteps on the stairs.

The thing is—and I remembered this as I walked away from the building—Pape was off that day, because his four-month-old was having surgery for hydroencephaly.

Some Mondays are a real bitch.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to subscribe.

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