It feels a lot like 2016.
Okay wait–hear me out.
An election year for the States, 2016 saw a revivification of Black Lives Matter including nationwide protests, scary incidents of white nationalism worldwide, Casey Neistat was vlogging every day (seriously, if you hadn’t noticed, this is happening again), and I moved like seven or eight times in five different states and never really managed to live anywhere.
I turned 36 that year; I was (kind of) living in New Orleans on my birthday and didn’t really have anything to do, so I pinned a dollar to my shirt and went out alone as all (2) of my friends were working. That night, I hung out with some annoying Austrian guy who I ditched to crash a bachelor party, the groom of which I woke up next to very hungover the next morning.
Then I walked home from the Quarter to Midtown.
I do not remember that dudes’ name. I wrote him on my list as “not Anthony” because his friends’ name was Anthony.
The only other time I remember spending the night of my birthday alone was my 20th, when, after dropping my coworker off at home, I went back to the Halloween party we were just at where I technically knew no one, went home with some couple, and woke up in the morning intertwined with only one of them on the living room floor in a North Portland attic.
Just a few years later on my 24th birthday, I went to the oldest bar in my hometown where my best friends’ dad played a show. I was dressed as Dr. Frankenfurter, so maybe it was all that androgynous hyper-sexuality that I had draped myself in that made me sleep with my friends’ dads’ married bandmate.
While these three years also had the added element of infidelity, my birthdays have generally been peppered, sometimes liberally, with some kind of sexual indiscretion. The years excluded from this all-too-classic-Miranda trope were the years I took a trip, so beginning with my 30th, I’ve tried to take a birthday trip every year.
I went to San Francisco for my 30th birthday, revisiting the city where I lived from 24 to 27, and rather than getting fingered by a heroin addict via the access my mini-dress provided while ordering another Maker’s rocks and PBR (this really happened on my 26th birthday,) I celebrated with a quiet dinner at my best friends’ house and a couple drinks in Lower Haight.
On my 31st birthday, I went to Mexico City where I, believe it or not, was wined and dined early enough to be in bed by 10.
32 was the famous Three State Birthday when I had midnight drinks in Brooklyn, breakfast in Atlanta, and dinner in Austin. This was my all-time favorite birthday until last year when I ended up in Tokyo at the last minute being treated to private omikase sushi, the price of which I never want to know exactly and I certainly did not pay for.
I was talking to Bianca the other day. She’s a pro-nomad and just celebrated her 40th birthday; I messaged her something to the effect of “isn’t it weird to not be planning a birthday trip this year?”
And like, it’s so weird. I had such grand plans–that included Bianca, actually–I was going to rent a suite at a hotel in New York, and invite all my girlfriends that live there to come sip champagne and swim in the pool, and ring in my survival of four fucking decades on this fragile fucking globe at what is maybe the place most becoming a nomad like myself.
“I have slept in many places, for years on mattresses that entered my life via nothing but luck,” begins Diane Seuss‘ absolutely fucking bewitching poem in a recent edition of the New Yorker that made me think about all the places that I had slept by chance: random hostels booked on the fly, couches of people that have taken me in, even the pristine, white-sheeted hotel beds that I never want to rise from. It has been so fucking rare that I’ve actually put more thought into picking the place where I slept than the city that bed was in.
Before Covid, I had intended to rectify that; I wanted to go to New York for my birthday because this hotel is there, not the other way around.
The TWA hotel, named after the now defunct Trans-World Airlines, is housed in what used to be the TWA terminal–terminal 5, if I remember correctly–at JFK. It was designed by famed Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, and despite its futuristic design, it was closed in 2001 because it couldn’t accommodate the size of modern airplanes and security retrofitting in our then-new post 9/11 reality.
It then began the nearly 20 years of days when it sat virtually untouched and largely vacant.
I was devastated when the Saarinen terminal closed. I got to see it for myself in 2000 on my way back from Milan; I had a 5 hour layover at JFK before my flight to St. Louis, and I remember making my way there from immigration, stepping inside the front doors, and immediately picking my jaw off the floor.
The buildings’ macro design is impressive enough–made to imitate a bird in flight, it resembles the Sydney opera house in shape and color–but what photos of it fail to render was the tiny 1″ tile with which every interior wall is covered. I remember running my fingertips across them, wondering why I had never even heard of this place before.
Though I’d love to tell you that the Saarinen terminal was simply too beautiful to destroy, it was largely saved by its addition to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Most Endangered Places list in 2003, sparking preservation efforts from many different angles. It was finally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, which not only prevented its demolition, but also protected its maintenance budget, forcing the Port Authority to shell out the moola to revive it.
This forced Jet Blue to build their brand new, multi-hundred-million dollar terminal around the existing Saarinen terminal in 2008, even so far as to connect the two, though the latter would remain completely closed to the public.
Until two years later.
In 2011, as a part of Open House New York, the Saarinen terminal was opened for exactly two nights for people to tour. I lived in Brooklyn at the time, and had been dying to see it again since I first laid eyes on it when I was 19.
But you see, I was too busy planning a birthday trip to DF for such an event to even be on my radar. I only found out that it had happened weeks after I returned home from Mexico with a mild sunburn and a wicked case of shigella.
And here’s what I mean by all of this:
I’ve been looking at flights lately. I’ve been wondering where, exactly, an American such as myself could go by the end of next month. Now, I’m not saying that I’m definitely staying or definitely going, but I know for sure that I currently live in a 7,000 year old city of 17 million people that sits in the middle of the world.
So as far as cities go that behoove someone who’s been traveling between them for her entire adulthood, the only one that sits on two continents is probably a better place than most.
Because if I do decide to leave, what do I risk missing during all those days of planning? And if I stay, maybe I risk a repeat of 2016: some cavernous CBD short term rental, a monumental hangover, and some dude next to me who’s name I can’t recall that’s getting married in two days time.
But hey, I still have 38 days left to decide.
[up next: plane tickets, or no?]
I went to the Feriköy Antique Bazaar yesterday, which is like Les Puces (The Fleas) in Paris, but smaller, and somehow better.
I posted a little video on Instagram and my friend Ben in Seattle messaged me when he saw it.
“That open air market looks like it’s full of treasure.”
It’s my new favorite place in Istanbul, and it’s full of the craziest stuff.
You can find records, vintage textiles, leather goods, hundreds and hundreds of enamel pins, sewing findings and old kolonya bottles and knives and even some Nazi memorabilia which I didn’t know how to handle seeing and hurried past.
You could dig through things at this place for hours, but it only took me one to find the only thing I bought: a single 1000 Lira bill from 90s Italy.
Now, I didn’t make it to Italy until 2000, but the currency still looked the same. This was a handful of years before they adopted the Euro, and I remember thinking the denominations were crazy: 1000 was the smallest bill? It was only worth half a dollar.
I’ve been thinking about that trip to Italy so much this year. It doesn’t exactly seem like it was 20 years ago, yet I also feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes between my first time overseas – when I flew from Seattle and landed in Milan with little more than a prayer to my name – and now – when I flew from Johannesburg to Istanbul to try and make a life in a city I’d never been to before.
In some ways, so much has changed between then and now.
9/11, the anniversary of which was last week, changed the way we fly forever, and the Euro stripped Italy, and so many other European countries, of their own currencies.
And fuck me, you can’t get pages added to a US passport anymore. I wish I would have known that before I renewed my skinny 26-pager only two years ago because it’s already half-full.
But corona has now left flight attendants dressed like intensive care nurses, so I probably wont need those pages anyway because my passport has been rendered virtually worthless.
But some things are exactly the same.
In this strange-as-hell 20 years I’ve maintained the exact same drive to see everything that I had when I was a kid. I’ve given everything else up for it – jobs, cars, apartments, any kind of legitimate financial stability – and yet even the times when I’m eating a banana out of a garbage can (Miami) or getting kidnapped (Paris) or even when I’m forging documents to get on a flight (many times, but literally less than a month ago in Johannesburg, too) the idea that I just have to keep going has simply never left me.
No matter how bad it gets, how poor I become, nor how many places I end up I still just seem to keep on going.
I remember coming home from that two weeks in Italy and immediately wanting to turn around and go back. I had merely criss-crossed a single European country, but most people I met along the way were, at the very least, on their way to a handful of countries in Europe, and I wanted to be just like them.
It took me about a year, but when I landed back in Rome, a month seemed like an eternity to be away from the States, but by the time I had made it to Madrid to catch my flight, I still wasn’t ready to leave.
But I got on that flight, and on it I watched an absolute treasure of a movie, the just-turned-20 Almost Famous, and I remember getting home wondering how I could write and travel, too. Did people do that but just write about…traveling? The only travel writing I knew of at the time was in National Geographic, where I assumed the authors were, like, very serious anthropologists and biologists and stuff, and I was then midway through a shitty college education at a private Fine Arts school populated by privileged white children, so I thought that was out of the question.
Watching that movie, back then, made me feel like the first time I saw the video for Pavement’s Spit on a Stranger, where you see an inordinately baby-faced Stephen Malkmus amble around Paris and London for seemingly the first time.
And you know, if I could have one wish today it would be to have a chat with some of the ladies that inspired the character of Penny Lane.
Bebe Buell – otherwise known as Liv Tyler’s mom – is 67.
And Pennie “Lane” Trumbull – for whom the name of the character was taken – is 66.
And much like them, I’m not trying to live another 25 years only to look back with any regrets, so I’m trying to stay as wild as possible for as long as possible.
And I suppose, also like them, I swear like a goddamned sailor.
But all joking aside, if I had my way, I’d happily stack another 20 years on top of this one spent digging through this big-ass world, looking for all the little things that I always inevitably find along the way. And if I’m very, very lucky, I’ll never lose that sense of anxiety and wonder and fear and awe when I arrive somewhere I’ve never been and feel 19 all over again.
Zai’s been gone a week now. He’s catching up with his family in Amman and composing new things in his home studio. My birthday is next month, and if I had my perfect wish for what to do on it, it would be to join him in Jordan so we could go together to the Treasury in Petra. I remember seeing it in a Nat Geo when I was a kid, but back then, I thought only, like, archeologists and stuff could go.
But as it turns out, any scrappy soul with a plane ticket and a prayer is welcome.
As long as your passport isn’t worthless.
[up next: So WTF, Miao got chicaned on the train?!?!]
So I didn’t move last Tuesday, but I did move today, and it was not without its complications. I had “sworn off” Airbnb after they stole nearly $1000 from me while I was in Johannesburg (long story,) but, here in Istanbul, it’s effectively the only game in town.
So I found a cute, tiny flat down a cute, tiny alley in Beyoğlu. It had a terrace, which I imagined myself working on, so I booked it for a month.
Unbeknownst to me, the owner had actually lied about the terrace, so it was more like a cute, tiny prison cell with literally nowhere to set my laptop: just a box that barely enveloped a bed with a barely accessible window.
The hardwood floors were gorgeous, though.
So it turns out that this guy owns a hotel off İstiklal, and as Zai and I were already late to meet our friend Andreu before he left for the western coast, we agreed to take a room there instead instead of spending hours painstakingly rebooking our stay with Airbnb’s overworked customer service agents.
It…is a hotel room. There’s a bed. There’s three actually, though I’ll only use one and Zai will only be staying a night as he scored a flight back to Amman. It does have wifi. But that’s pretty much the end of the list of good attributes of this place.
Not only is nearly everything in the room broken in some way, but to complement the many rips and tears in the wallpaper, there’s a generous splattering of blood on the walls, like someone sacrificed an animal in here.
And it’s on this loud-as-fuck block with two other hotels and a bunch of ad-hoc plastic tables and chairs in front of the abandoned tenement across the street where all the Johns sip tea and wait for their favorite sex workers to retrieve them.
A lot of these dudes are terrible, and between them and the new host of neighborhood cats, I wonder who the real animals are: I literally saw one dude trying to negotiate one woman’s price down from what I am assured is already a criminally low wage compared to sex workers in other cities.
If you’re unaware about the stray cats in Istanbul, you should check out this goddamned charming documentary about them. It’s my new favorite thing in the world.
To explain briefly, the confluence of city life and the tenants of Islam create a scenario where street cats have proliferated into the thousands. They’re everywhere: sleeping on chairs at outdoor cafés and waiting outside the butcher for the scraps they’ll inevitably be thrown. They’re beloved and cherished by Istanbulites, and I am now among them.
I fall in love with nearly every one I see, and I’ve had to train myself to not stop to pet them all.
My friends will tell me not to touch them, that maybe they can carry disease (*cough* CORONA *cough*,) but I mean, come on: Istanbulites are totally cool with them. Plus, a squirrel got the plague in Colorado, and you still see white people on Instagram keeping them as pets, so I think it’s cool.
And who else is supposed to keep me company when Zai leaves?
Just kidding: Lovage, Emma, And Miao are still here.
And there’s always Animal Crossing. You think I’m joking, but I downloaded it back it Johannesburg to pass the time, and now I’ve been playing for so long that I’m playing to fucking win.
Am I religiously playing a game intended for literal children? Totally. And seriously, don’t @ me, but do come find me if you also play Pocket Camp. I’m on level 157 and I have two fucking pools, son. You can find me at 6905 0804 639.
But if you’re anything like me and your circle of friends is dwindling and you’re worried that even Animal crossing wont be able to placate you in coming weeks, you can make like the unofficial 2020 mascot and just start screaming into the void.
For real, if you know of a better nominee than this peacock in San Francisco that wont stop screaming then I’m open to hear about them. But until then, I say we just all bow in respect at our future King Peacock, because I honestly don’t even think that’s weird anymore.
But hey. That’s coming from someone who plays a game intended for ten year olds and lives in a room that I’m pretty sure was used to slaughter chickens.
So what do I know.
And do you fucking know what else? After all that, we actually missed Andreu anyway.
[up next: Zai is leaving tomorrow.]
I’m moving tomorrow, but I’ve spent two weeks staying in a hostel near Taksim square, which is, in many ways, the center of this surprisingly vast metropolis.
It’s been a long time since I’ve stayed somewhere quite like this–somewhere that long-time travelers flock to, that fosters such a specific type of camaraderie. And now, traveling during Covid-19, we’ve all gathered here like moths to a flame: Istanbul, the largest city in one of the few countries in the world with open borders.
And it’s in an interesting location–placed just so that it straddles the Bosphorus, joining Europe and Asia into one, huge, cosmopolitain megalopolis. It’s a bit Mediterranean, a bit Middle Eastern, and all together a perfect place for a bunch of scrappy nomads to convene from our far flung countries. And we cling to one another like we’ll never make a friend ever again.
You should meet them.
First, there’s Lovage. She’s a Chinese coder from Guangzhou. One day last year she quit her job and fled, and right before the lockdown she managed to get to Serbia, where she’s spent much of the pandemic until now.
There’s Andrei, a Romanian who hates Romania so much he rarely tells people that’s where he’s actually from. Right before he managed a flight to Istanbul, he deleted all of his social media, even his WhatsApp, got a new phone, and is now determined to stay gone after finding himself stuck in Bucharest for too many weeks.
And there’s Zia, a Jordanian composer who’s trapped here waiting for the border to his home country to open. Of us, he’s the only one actually trying to get home. He misses his family. The rest of us barely understand this concept, but we’re trying our best to empathize.
About a week ago, right around her birthday, Lovage bought a ticket to Kyiv. Her Turkish visa was set to expire today, and without a residency permit she’d be in danger of a ban or a fine. Compared to most places, it’s shockingly easy to get a residency permit in Istanbul, or any part of Turkey for that matter, but the industry surrounding it has become this odd, slightly corrupt system where too much money makes it into the hands of the wrong people.
Basically, this is how it goes.
Most landlords require some sort of residency permit to rent an apartment to you, but you need a rental contract in order to get a residency permit.
Enter: the “entrepreneurs.”
In order to get a residency permit, pretty much everyone literally just buys a rental contract for a place they will never live, and have no intention to. Hundreds of people a week apply for their residency permits from the same handful of addresses–but the location acts as merely a mailbox to use to get your papers that they will send outlining your next steps. Beyond that, as far as where you will live, you’re on your own.
I still have two and a half months on my visa here, so I’m not applying. At least not right now.
I’m still holding onto the idea that Georgia will open its borders soon, and I’ll find myself within the safe arms of Tbilisi where I can stay for up to a year.
And in the meantime, my new cohort and I will wrangle these mean-ass streets together, like I used to with so many other hostel crews I’ve assembled all over the world in my twenties and thirties: the crews I still talk to from Austin and Panama City and Bangkok and San José and Paris that have been my little, brief, rag-tag families in places I hadn’t yet ever been.
And you know–I’m not even sure I want to move. My whole plan since I arrived was to get here, stay at this hostel for a couple of weeks, and figure out exactly where I wanted to stay. But from my vantage, the one where I was trapped completely alone in Johannesburg for nearly five months, the idea of moving into my own apartment sounds a bit…scary.
Some new people arrived yesterday. The Guatemalan Edgardo and Quebecois Florence arrived fresh from the Philippines where Covid has kept them since March. They speak of being trapped–and I totally understand that part–but their stories involve greeting the morning with a swim in a sparkling blue ocean, and lounging about in hammocks in the afternoon reading.
After I met them, I made a note to myself: one about treating every country I go from now on like one I could be trapped in, and making my decisions about where to travel accordingly.
For me, lockdown was literally days in a row within four walls, my weekly trip to the grocery store being my only outing.
And that’s why I’m a bit wary to live alone again, especially when I’m far more lucky than most to have already assembled a crew so tight that I cannot imagine a future where I don’t know them.
But regardless of where I end up, none of the four of us are planning on leaving any time soon, and the four of us are connected in that way that nomads often are: by that place and time that sometimes, somehow, turns into those friendships that last beyond the borders that we’ll all someday cross.
Just as soon as they open.
[up next: Will I move? Who knows.]
I’m in Istanbul.
It was scary leaving South Africa; I was still so fearful right up until the last minute that I somehow wouldn’t be let on the plane that I didn’t even book a place to stay until my flight to Doha was getting ready to board.
But I made it, and not too worse for wear; I’ve checked into a little place in a very touristy part of the city, but it’s nice and they have free coffee all day, and now that I type it I want one now, even though it’s 6pm.
There is also alcohol. And cigarettes. But mostly I’ve been into the food.
And there’s fucking food everywhere: at the market and in bakeries and right out on the street.
This morning I went to a bakery down the road with one of my roommates for breakfast; I had a trio of this decadent thing called a pogaca – a sesame seed smothered bread filled with feta cheese – and a cup of tea so strong you’d swear I bought it in the commonwealth.
Before I got here I was so excited to try a real baklava, and real Turkish Delight: although I wasn’t one of the kids who was enamored with this food by C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I read an incredible account of what several people thought of this treat as a child having never had it on Gastro Obscura. The author notes: “For kids who weren’t already familiar with it, though, “Turkish Delight” was likely to be meaningless—which meant we could project onto it whatever confection seemed most delicious.” I’m not a kid, but I had long assumed that the few I had come across in the states were merely inferior, but my taste tests so far have proved me wrong.
I went for the rose flavor, as I’m a sucker for the color pink. But alas, they are, to me, more beautiful than delicious. Though I will admit that I’ll almost certainly have it again.
I think the thing that I was projecting onto the moniker is something more akin to Botan Rice Candy – the vaguely orange-flavored, pink, chewy candy from Japan that you could find at corner stores in my home town of Seattle when I was growing up. While Now and Laters were frequently collected by color and traded at school, a box of Botan Ami would make us go fucking wild. A single piece could be enough to trade an entire lunch for.
I now regret not looking for it when I was in Japan just months ago.
It was winter when I left Johannesburg, and most weeks I would buy a small bag of apples or pears on my weekly trip to the grocery store, but here, all the storefronts have overflowing produce stands outside that are overflowing with multi-colored fruits. When I saw them, I felt like I had forgotten that they all exist, and I can’t help but buy a few pieces everyday.
The peaches here, though. They’re so big and so ripe I had been almost scared to buy one, as if I didn’t even deserve something so decadent.
But then I came across this beautiful comic that reminded me why I’m out here in the first place: to remind myself that I’m alive. That we can decide for ourselves what we deserve.
So I bought a single, soft, fuzzy peach. Its circumference was bigger than my palm, and it was so ripe and juicy that it easily yielded and leaked beneath my little knife. The juice ran down my arms as I ate it, my eyes rolled into the back of my head, and I felt like I had never eaten a peach before.
But my favorite thing here so far has been an absolutely delectable fucking mouthful called a midye dolma – like a dolma you might be familiar with, the kind you find exported all over the world from here or Greece that’s wrapped in a grape leaf, the filling is similar. But instead of a grape leaf, the wrapping is a whole Bosphorus mussel.
At night, when people are about in the square sipping beers and lounging about on patios, the midye dolmici come out with their huge round pans set into carts. For a Lira or so a piece, they’ll shuck a stuffed mussel right in front of you, douse it in lemon juice, and present it to you steaming ready to eat in one bite.
They’re rich and acidic all at the same time, and so delicious that it’s shocking.
After my first one my eyes widened, a little sound escaped me. I unconsciously brought my hand to my mouth to cover it while I was chewing as if I was doing something illicit.
They’re so good it’s a crime.
It’s nice having people around again; I was so chronically alone in Johannesburg that I was starting to go a little nuts. But the conversation seems to always be where we’re headed next, and I feel like the only one with no plan at all.
When I first started traveling, I was always so jealous of the people who travel long term with no clear goal at all, and now that I’m one of them, especially this year, I feel a bit left out. There’s no border that I’m waiting for to open, no city I have in mind to see next. I was so determined just to connive my way out of Africa that I forgot that I used to have dreams about where I wanted to go next.
I was watching the new episode of Hot Ones the other day, which, if you have not seen it, is fucking delightful. Each new episode has some celebrity or another that eats an increasingly spicy queue of hot wings, all while answering questions about their craft. Bless yourself with an episode or two if you never have, it’s the perfect quarantine binge.
But the last guest was Drew Barrymore, who, when asked about what types of movies she likes to watch, answered with the almost oddly prescient: “If it’s good, I don’t really care what it is, I just want to get lost in it.”
Maybe I don’t need to know what’s next right now, when there’s a giant city right here to get lost in.
[up next: I guess I have to find an apartment? Stay tuned.]