1. Let go of your material possessions
I spent months packing for the trip. My husband had just bought me new breasts. Thousands of dollars so that I would look like a European in Europe. A pair of double Ds pushed so high into the air that they nearly touched my chin. Wearing anything felt like wearing lingerie. There were a couple of times in Italy when they made me wear a plastic cover just to go into a church.
I got catcalled everywhere I went. At first I took it as a compliment. “Hey, pretty lady.” “Hi, beautiful.” Kissing sounds that followed me down the street. It’s not a compliment. Don’t ever think it’s a compliment. Despite the thousands of dollars I had spent, everyone knew I was American. They knew before I opened my mouth. It didn’t matter what I was wearing. I hadn’t packed any blue jeans and then I was shocked to find that everyone around me wore blue jeans and it was me, in my expensive slacks and skirts, that stood out as the outsider. I was always wearing the wrong thing.
The waiters all spoke to me in English. They made me feel inarticulate. I wanted to practice my knowledge of French. I was a French minor in college, but had since forgotten everything I’d learned. I purchased a series of miniature dictionaries before leaving, French, German, Italian, Spanish. I thought I could carry them around in my purse as a reference. Dictionaries, it turns out, are only useful for people who already know the language. It is difficult to make meaning by shouting a single word repeatedly.
I ended up leaving all of my dictionaries behind in a hotel in Munich. I was in a rush to catch my train. I kept confusing the hours after noon. What was 15:00? I kept trying to subtract two or twelve and only confused myself further. I realized my mistake while enjoying an afternoon liter of beer at a brauhaus. “Shit, shit, shit,” I said, and everyone knew what I meant. I stuffed all of my nice shirts in my bag, but left behind the dictionaries. I missed my train anyway. German trains always run on time.
2. Travel Alone
I had always wanted to go to Europe, my husband said. He bought me a plane ticket as a surprise for my birthday. We were at a restaurant. I was wearing a black sequined dress and heels. I’d been panicking for most of the day because I had a zit on my forehead and kept touching it, which only made it swell up larger. It was comforting to sit and eat pasta in the dark, candlelit room. I didn’t normally allow myself to eat pasta, but because it was my birthday, I made an exception. I kept sneaking slices of bread to dip into the marinara sauce. It is still considered sneaking when a person is hiding something from themselves.
I smiled when I opened the card and saw the ticket, though I was actually thinking about my zit and wondering whether my husband could see it or not and if, after fourteen years, such a blemish could cause him to stop loving me. It turns out that he didn’t even notice the zit, which might have been the only outcome worse than disgust.
I assumed he was going to go with me, along with our 14-year-old son, but he said no, it was a trip for me. Once the swelling went down in my chest, he put me on a plane with thousands of dollars of new clothes in brands that I thought I was pronouncing correctly but never really was, and told me to have a good time. My son didn’t even come to the airport to say goodbye. He was hanging out with his friends. He would see me when I got back, he said. I cried on the airplane while devouring several little bottles of vodka. The flight attendant refused to make eye contact with me as she swiped my credit card and handed over the bottles. As we flew over the Atlantic, it occurred to me that I had never really wanted to go to Europe in the first place. It was more that I wanted to be European. I wanted to be thin and rich and cultured while stuffing croissants in my face.
Once in Paris, I took a taxi to my hotel and lay on the bed and cried. I wanted water, but didn’t know if the stuff out of the tap was good to drink. I missed the ubiquity of American hotel rooms. I worried that my sheets were dirty and I didn’t like the way that the bed creaked when I lied down. I called my husband. He said, “Do you know how much this call is costing me?” I managed to leave the hotel in the evening to get a sandwich, one with crusty French bread and thinly sliced meat, and a bottle of sparking water that didn’t taste at all the way I had expected it to.
3. Eat Smaller Portions
I had imagined myself strolling through churches and museums, sitting down to eat small, yet luxurious meals, and having my excess weight melt off me in a way it never had in the United States. I was a regular at the gym, Zumba, barbell strength, and spin classes and I still had these pockets of fat that I carried around with me. I had expected the new breasts to make me look smaller, but instead they made my whole body look busty and inappropriate, and I felt the need to cover up with a variety of sweaters that further obscured my shape.
Inexplicably, several days into the trip my feet started hurting. I hadn’t brought my exercise shoes and only packed a pair of what I considered “smart” looking flats and a pair of heels for if I happened to come across a special occasion. I hadn’t worn the flats much before leaving and that had perhaps been my mistake. I wandered into a store while in Brussels, hoping to find a new pair of shoes, and discovered that shoe sizes in Europe were totally different than sizes in America, and this extra hurdle was enough to dissuade me from my purchase, and I left the store and bought a waffle with whipped cream, strawberries, and chocolate syrup to soothe my feelings, and spent the rest of the night holed up in my hotel room with a stomach ache.
Because of my aching feet, I only visited those tourist attractions that were described as “requisite” and even then I skipped some of those. There are a large multitude of beautiful churches in Europe, and when I walked into the first one in France, I was awed by the grandiosity of it. By the time I got to Italy, I had become used to the giant structures and preferred instead to find a nice restaurant and kill several hours by eating and drinking an extensive meal. Before going to Europe, I had fully intended only to frequent those little out-of-the-way spots known only to locals, but upon my arrival I realized that it was nearly impossible to find such eateries and settled for those heavily advertised establishments along touristy streets where the servers spoke perfect English and understood American needs such as having large amounts of water and other beverages served throughout the meal. It occurred to me that perhaps all this talk about European thinness was based totally off water weight as I was constantly thirsty and no number of plastic water bottles was able to quench this thirst.
I knew that Europeans dined late and I imagined myself spending entire days strolling through museums and then settling down to a nice meal late in the evening. Finding myself incapable of strolling for hours at a time, I often went in search of restaurants around 5pm, which was earlier than I ate in the U.S., and I was nearly always one of the only people eating at that time, except older American couples who also fell for the same tourist-trap restaurants that I did. I always felt better after housing a full meal and several glasses of wine though and would stumble back to my hotel room where I would take several Xanax and fall into a black sort of sleep where my body felt as though it wasn’t in Europe or really anywhere at all.
I was surprised when my pants seemed to be getting tighter, my belly drooping over the waist. On one terrifying day, I’d had to wash my clothes in a Laundromat in Germany and I told myself that it was the dryer that had caused my pants to shrink, and surely they would stretch out in no time. I didn’t want to bother going into shops and trying to acquire new things to wear because it would just turn into the shoe debacle all over again, so I spent a great deal of time pants-less in my hotel room and had several housekeepers walk in on me that way as I stuffed Toblerone into my face while wearing only underwear.
4. Don’t say things you don’t mean
I started to hate foreign languages. I still considered them foreign though they belonged to the places I went. I measured their foreignness from myself, the I at the center of it all.
The worst was Dutch. The words contorted their expressions. I had always thought that faces looked the same everywhere. I hadn’t known that words could inherently change bone structure. Half of their alphabet sounded like a clearing of the throat, a perpetual bronchitis. It left them looking sour even when they did not speak. This is not to say that the Dutch were unkind. Everyone was kind to my wide American face. Later I learned that smiling was symptomatic of the United States. A false impression of perpetual happiness.
I started to resent all the people speaking languages I could not understand. Familiar characters appeared on the television, but their voices had been warped into something unrecognizable. “That’s not what they sound like,” I told my hotel room, which of course was foreign in its own way.
I found myself clinging to traveling groups of Americans. I hung out in hostel bars though I had an itinerary of nice hotel rooms booked. There were other single people traveling through hostels, people who wanted to go out and experience the nightlife. They told me that it was good that I was following my dreams at my age. Europe was just not for the young.
One night in Florence, after partaking in another decadent meal, I was walking past a bar on the way back to my hotel room when I became certain that my son was standing outside, smoking a cigarette. I knew that it couldn’t be my son. The hair was all wrong and I never would have let him dress that way, but there was something about the stance, the way that he slouched over in avoidance of my gaze.
I followed him into the bar where I perched on a stool several feet away from the table where he sat with friends. Their loud American words punctured the music. I used to find it offensive the way everyone said Americans were loud, and used “loud” as an insult, as a synonym of classlessness. It was true, Americans were loud; I could hear every word of their conversation, I could see everything they were saying in their large gestures, and I loved it. If I closed my eyes, it was like momentarily being home.
I went over to their table. “Are you American?” I said. “Oh, thank god.” I sat down without them asking me to. I bought the table a round of drinks. I was already quite drunk from dinner, but I was so happy to sit amongst this group and all of their Americanness that I was gulping beer down.
They were studying abroad, they said. They had been in Florence for two months. They were going to go home soon. One of the girls kept touching one of the guys’ arm, not the one that looked like my son. The one that looked like my son was too little to draw attention. This other boy was the alpha male. I knew from the way the girl moved that she wanted him to love her, or at least wanted him to want to sleep with her, and that he didn’t want to. He was resisting her motions, and I knew this resistance well. I wanted to give her guidance as an older woman. I knew what it was like not to be appreciated the way one ought to be appreciated.
“Do you want a Xanax?” I said to her. She made an American face of confusion and then an American face of “You’re crazy.” She told me, “No, thank you.” She didn’t like to take pills. I told them about how my husband had bought me breast implants and a trip to Europe. They all looked at my chest including the boy who was my son. I could tell from their tone that they pitied me. I didn’t mind. I pitied myself.
The girl suggested that maybe my husband was cheating on me. I wanted to tell her that it was not polite to just say those sorts of things; she barely knew me. Instead, I vomited back into my beer glass. “Oh, no,” I said. “Now I need another drink.”
After my episode of vomiting, they wanted to leave the bar and move to a different location. No one invited me to come along, but I followed them down the cobbled streets. Florence wasn’t beautiful the way I expected. Florence was full of fat tourists that looked like me except all of them were there as a couple. No one travels to Italy alone. I grabbed my son’s arm as we walked. “You look just like my son,” I said. “Thank you,” the boy replied though it wasn’t a compliment. So like my son to not know what to say.
I only made it through part of a drink at the second bar before further sickening myself and spewing half-digested noodles across the floor. “You have to go home,” the girl told me. I gave her an American look that said I hated her. I turned to my son and said, “Will you walk me home?” I didn’t mean home, of course. Home was across an ocean. What I had meant to ask was “Will you walk me to my hotel?” He knew what I meant anyway. I could tell from his face that he didn’t want to walk me to my hotel. I latched my arm around his shoulder. “Take me home,” I said.
I was struggling to walk. My legs hurt and the boy was too small to support the weight of my body. “Maybe you can take a cab,” he suggested. I wouldn’t let go of his body. I knew that if I let go, he would leave. “Come upstairs with me,” I said. My breath smelled like the insides of a stomach. “I will show you my breasts,” I said in response to his hesitancy.
In my hotel room, we chugged down naturally carbonated water and I ate chocolate wishing it were bread. My son slipped his hand underneath my sweater. I was embarrassed by my stomach, all of those sandwiches and pizzas and gelatos. “Do they feel nice?” I asked him. I pulled his body close to mine and he let me. This was when I knew he wasn’t really my son. My real son would never have let me touch him like that.
He got nervous when I tried to take his boxers off and told me he had to get back to his host-parent’s house before the buses stopped running. I don’t know what time it was when he left. I missed my train the next day. I went back to the bar where I had seen him the night before, but he wasn’t there. I tried washing my shirt in the sink to get the vomit out and ended up throwing it in the garbage.
5. Fear of Nudity
I only had sex with one man while in Europe. I say only, but one is enough or too much depending on how I feel about my husband or my body or myself. He wasn’t European. No Europeans talked to me unless they were serving me something and I was giving them money for those services.
He was Australian and he told me that my trip was a very Australian thing to do. I was flattered that someone thought I was part of a culture beyond my own, even if my knowledge of Australia consisted entirely of criminals and venomous animals. We met in the hotel lobby bar. I had assumed at the time we met that he was staying in the same hotel as me and learned later that he was actually just looking for a place to stay. I should’ve known there was a reason he carried his backpack around with him for the entire evening. He was the type of Australian animal that fed on lonely older women in nice hotels. He asked if I would buy him a drink. I was charmed by his forwardness. I told him I would do him one better and would buy him dinner. I was in Spain at this time, and we were the only ones in the restaurant. I told the servers to just keep the food coming. He was the first person I’d met in my travels who could put food back at the same rate that I could. We went out afterwards to a bar where we were the only white people there. I told myself that I was less white because I was American. We danced for hours and then went back to my hotel room where he leaned me over the bed in a position that I hadn’t folded myself into for years. Afterwards he held me while I imagined all of our future travels together. I thought about calling my husband and telling him that I had found someone new to love, someone who actually wanted to travel with me.
The next morning he went out for breakfast and never came back. What a clichéd move, I would’ve told him if I ever saw him again. I went to an Internet café and searched for his name, but there was no evidence that he had ever existed. I skipped breakfast that morning and made up for it by eating an entire pizza for lunch. I didn’t care that I was in the wrong country for pizza. Pizza was good everywhere except Austria where they skimped on the sauce and dipped the slices in ketchup.
The entire trip existed as a countdown. The number of hours in a station until the next train. The number of days until I could return home. The minutes until I could eat a meal. How to get from one place to the next place.
My husband met me when I got off my return flight. I wanted him to see the visceral changes that had occurred inside of me while I was gone, the bad American habits I had broken, to call me European. Instead he said, “You ate a lot while in Europe,” and laughed and made me get my own bag off the baggage claim. He took me to a French restaurant where I explained all the food to him even though I didn’t really know anything. I told him about my trip even though he didn’t really listen. “Ah, yes,” I said when they brought out the escargot. “Those are snails.”
Tasha Coryell is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at the University of Alabama. Her stories have appeared in [PANK], The Collagist, and Word Riot. Excerpts from her novel This Isn’t Really About Fishing have appeared on Hobart and Cartridge Lit.
Photography by André Olivier Martin.