The good news is that in January I read two books with exclamation points in the titles: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout and Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth. It really is too bad how uncommon exclamation-pointed titles are, so what a delight to get to begin the year with two, the bright emphatic marks little flashlights in the winter gloom. It’s possible that there really is no connection between these books beside their punctuation; unless, of course, we want there to be, and, as I see it, we may as well want there to be, don’t you think? From what I can tell, both books can be summed up by that beautiful, Möbius strip of a statement by David Foster Wallace: “Although of course you end up becoming yourself,” with the likenesses and differences of the stories dipping and wrapping through that theme.
To begin, there are the easy similarities: both stories are told in the first person by female narrators who are writers. Lucy Barton of William! is a novelist and Ellinor of Post Horn! writes copy for a public relations firm. Both live in big cities (New York City and Oslo), both are, at least part of the time, unraveling a mystery, and both have distant mother figures, though Lucy’s situation is quite a bit more complicated. Ellinor feels detached from hers in a run-of-the-mill way that still involves some worry and love, but Ellinor is distracted from all interpersonal relationships by her sudden realization that life is a stagnant bog, nothing more. Lucy, perhaps being older, perhaps just being a different person altogether, is not as aghast at life as Ellinor is. For example, while Lucy celebrates the to-ing and fro-ing of a crowded city, Ellinor only finds Oslo drab, full of “shapeless and hideously dressed people with strands of hair sticking out from under their hats…their faces grey.”
And there is the loneliness (always, isn’t there?) that each reacts to in her own way. Lucy holds the shards of her loneliness carefully and with a kind of grace that allows light to glint off them. She doesn’t pretend to not feel lonely, but she is gentle toward herself and toward others, and she sees that being alone, as she most often is, isn’t the only cause of loneliness: “People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.” Ellinor doesn’t so much face her loneliness as peep at it with sidelong, panicked glances. Above all she wants to protect herself from herself: “I could see he was tired and I wanted him to leave, but if he left, what would I be left alone with?”
Ellinor feels this fissuring from others and from herself strongly. She laments being a “letter with an incomplete address, a letter with no contents.” She regrets not even being “on first-name terms with myself, so to speak.” Over on the other side of the Atlantic, Lucy, even though she is rather more self-possessed, is also wondering how anyone possibly knows themselves or anyone else: “But again, my point! My point is: What is it that William knew about me and that I knew about him that caused us to get married?”
And so, both are muddling along through the existential precipitation when each is presented with a mystery that inverts their umbrellas with an exclamatory gust, leaving them a little winded and exposed to the elements but more alert and ready to dig in, knuckle down, persevere.
The mysteries are, at least initially, of opposing natures: one involves a baffling new life to come to terms with when Lucy learns that her ex-husband has a sister he’s not known of for seven decades; the other involves the abrupt absence of a life when Ellinor’s longtime colleague disappears and then is found drowned near his boat in a French port. In both narratives, they follow their leads northward. Lucy finds herself in Maine, and Ellinor in Finnmark, up in the very tip top of Norway. In these northern realms they both rummage around in their souls for a while, and come away knowing themselves—even if just by a hair—better.
The two women have most likely never met, but Lucy’s closing remarks would probably be of great comfort to Ellinor, who, toward the end of the story, realizes, “I had a hunch that life had taught other people lessons and that it would do me good to talk to them.” Lucy remarks, Oh, Lucy! so tenderly she remarks:
But when I think Oh William!, don’t I mean Oh Lucy! too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!
“I should like to see a good flare up. It would clear the air. At present we are all thinking so much, and saying so little.” — Hercule Poirot
Spring by Ali Smith
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
El misterioso caso de Styles by Agatha Christie (translated by Stella de Cal)
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
“It was a comfortable life. There is much to be said in defense of comfort.” – John Darnielle, Universal Harvester
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
Mil veces hasta siempre by John Green (translated by Noemí Sobregués Arias)
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
“A major conflict in the first half of the book is when he was slightly embarrassed to live alone with an orange blanket.” — An American Cynic on The Dispossessed
Grayson by Lynne Cox (translated by Alberto Magnet)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Signs of Life by Stephen Fabes
Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
“My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes. That’s a sentence I read in a book once, and I say it over to comfort myself whenever I’m disappointed in anything.” – Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré
Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Ana, la de Tejas Verdes by Lucy Maud Montgomery (translated by Ángela Esteller)
“I am feeling that the world is so big, so full of our dreams and our love stories, and our grief too.” — Lovely, A Burning
Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres by Stieg Larsson (translated by Martin Lexell & Juan José Ortega Román)
The Moth and the Mountain by Ed Caesar
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui
“While other people don’t matter, either, treat them like they do.” – Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist
Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
Sobre los huesos de los muertos by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Abel Murcia)
“One simply jumped into loaded cars, as I see it, and stayed seated in them.” — Buddy Glass, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
Summer by Ali Smith
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger
Maldad bajo el sol by Agatha Christie (translated by Antonio Sanchez)
“One must shake off the curse of books.” — W.H. Hudson, A Most Remarkable Creature
A Most Remarkable Creature by Jonathan Meiburg
The Sunset Route by Carrot Quinn
El Extranjero by Albert Camus (translated by José Ángel Valente)
What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Wayward by Dana Spiotta
“The afternoon felt like a giant soap bubble.” — Thomas Grattan, The Recent East
The Recent East by Thomas Grattan
Millones de pasos by Carolina Reymúndez
Beautiful World, Where are You by Sally Rooney
“We have to admire the world for not ending on us.” – Colum McCann, TransAtlantic
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Girlhood by Melissa Febos
Paris is a Party, Paris is a Ghost by David Hoon Kim
Bajo la fría luz de octubre by Eloy M. Cebrián
“Be as wonderful tomorrow as you were today.” – Manager, Klara and the Sun
Dishwasher by Pete Jordan
On Animals by Susan Orlean
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Desierto de agua by Carlos Pedrós-Alió
Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
Mad Prairie by Kate McIntyre
“This journey will go better if I don’t dread and curse the things I cannot control.” – Mr. Fabulous, The Unlikely Thru-Hiker
Below the Edge of Darkness by Edith Widder
Icebound by Andrea Pitzer
Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen
El rumor del oleaje by Yukio Mishima (translated by Keiko Takahashi and Jordi Fibla)
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
The Unlikely Thru-Hiker by Derick Lugo
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, 1905
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” — Frederick Buechner, 1973
“It was terrifying and beautiful, like all my favorite journeys.” — Melissa Febos, Girlhood, 2021
We were sitting at a café where seagulls loitered. Perched atop lampposts and umbrellas, they waited for tables to empty so they could swoop down for the remains of food, knocking dishes to the ground in the process and making the servers scurry about. I read the three quotes to my dad and asked why these two words, in particular, were always together? He applauded a diving gull as it snatched a strip of ham and broke two glasses and he said that maybe it’s the asymmetry of the words that is at the heart of the meaning. None of the authors chose terror/calm or beautiful/ugly or any other more traditional pairs of antonyms. The asymmetry, perhaps, can hold both sentiments without any contradiction. It was October, a sunny, leafy month and at times my heart was aching. As we talked I thought of the two books I was reading, both with lines that echoed this asymmetry:
“There is always room for at least two truths” and: “I can hold both of these stories inside me. There is room for one in the other.”
My grandma died on the last day of summer. It was a long process, and my mom cared for her, and cheered her on, and did more than I’ll ever know, spending the majority of a year and a half away from her home, all with a grace and sense of humor and pragmatism I so admire. My sisters remembered that we should send flowers, and I volunteered to do the ordering, my heart a little out of sorts for many reasons, and I was happy for the small task. A few hours after I placed the online order I was sitting on my bed, feeling far away from myself and from so many people, when I saw my phone light up with an incoming call, area code 505. I stopped crying to answer and the most comforting mid-America accent washed through the speaker, straight into my bones.
After we hung up I felt a tug of excitement in my chest, because how strange and neat life can be, the oddness and joy muddled in these unexpected ways. There I was, with some small sorrows in a small Spanish city, talking to a stranger in New Mexico, who was telling me, with one of those voices that sound like they are inviting you into their home, how hard it is being a delivery person these days. People don’t answer their doors or phones anymore, except maybe to complain about a delivery, but she was very upbeat about the whole thing, and she was calling, she said, because she wanted to make sure there wasn’t a certain time for the mums to be delivered, just in case they needed to make it to a memorial service, she’d hate for them to be late (as though the chrysanthemums were valued guests and not flowers) but there wasn’t an hour listed on the ticket and she had some other deliveries to attend to, and so she thought she should check. She chatted on, just like that, the occasional comma and no periods. I wanted to keep her on the line, but she sounded busy, and so we thanked each other, and I felt warmer.
For most of the week, it wasn’t as rainy in the Pyrenees as we had worried it would be, except for the day with the steepest and longest climbs. It was wildly beautiful, and even my lumpy attitude couldn’t diminish the enchantment, but after we had each fallen at least once and our knees started to inquire about all the up and down and our socks became sponges, dispositions began to take a dip. As we came to a flat stretch our new friend, who had hiked ahead of us, emerged from the fog. He must have felt as battered as we did but he cheerfully took a roll of cookies from his pack: “An Oreo to lift your spirits?” he asked.
An older man holding a set of wooden poles and a plastic bucket was saying goodbye to another older man, who had his own poles and bucket. They arranged to meet at the same place in two days. I was curious what the sticks and buckets were for and, being new to this city and feeling a little lonely, I interrupted the man as he was taking his leave and asked what they were up to. Hunting for octopus, he responded, as he very quickly and kindly adjusted to being accosted by a nosy foreigner with a funny accent. He went on to explain that they hardly ever catch anything—there are lots of octopus fishers and very few octopuses it seems. We continued chatting and he said that he has three children. One daughter just down the street, a son in Barcelona and another in France who has children, so he doesn’t see his grandchildren all that often. He’s retired and has lived in Gijón his whole life, he said, and loves it. With that, we wished each other a good afternoon, and he turned left toward home and I kept on the boardwalk, soothed by the brief connection. Talk of cephalopods and getting a glimpse at another human’s world were, it turned out, much more interesting than the clouds building in my mind.
I’m not sure this is true, but I think it is: my favorite book I read this year is Klara and the Sun. I read it, whenever possible, in patches of sunlight, oftentimes on the east side of the beach where the sun lands with the most generosity in this cloudy place. In it you’ll find gentleness and care and loneliness and connection. I realized long ago that individuals are not so very unique, and then this book sent a gentle hook into my heart and reminded me of something else I also find true:
Mr. Capaldi believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.
Even though none of us is exactly singular, the context we’re in—those around us—is. I live with a person who, no matter what, will happily make me an omelet, putting his whole heart into it so that it’s just right. I get to have virtual happy hours with my best gal pals, and I have friends who send the liveliest videos of their dogs and bookshelves and shining faces every day. I have a dad who doesn’t mind beating me at online chess whenever I want, and a brother who will (one day) finish the scarf he is knitting me. I have sisters who are one of my primary sources of strength (no pressure!) and a mom who—magically—knows from 5,000 miles away if I’m having an off day.
It is so easy to see in my life which direction the asymmetry leans. Beauty abounds. I’ve got it in spades: it is there first thing as I watch freighters march out to sea in the morning fog; it is going on a run in a healthy body and then afterward dashing into the salt water, arms raised in a futile attempt to not feel the sting, that wonderful sting, of the cold water. Holy smokes, is it all around me, and there it is, too, in the uncomfortable feelings, the wave troughs and the drizzle. And, of course, the height of the beauty, especially in the more difficult moments, isn’t the landscape or fresh-baked bread or the Spanish language. Recently I watched a New Zealander’s documentary about the Pacific Crest Trail and I learned a Maori proverb, which begins with the question: What is the most important thing in the world? And the answer goes like this:
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.
While we looked for a more permanent-type piso, Yolanda, our Airbnb host, allowed us to extend our stay day-by-day, lowered the price, gave us a bottle of wine (a drinkable wine, she assured us, when we said we didn’t really know how to like wine), didn’t charge for our last two nights, gave us sheets, towels and a Vitoria-Gasteiz apron, and drove us and all our bags to our new home when the time came.
The owner of our apartment, Marta, was entirely unconcerned when we didn’t bring enough for the deposit because we had reached ATM withdrawal limits for the day. Tranquila, she said, I’ll get it from you another time.
Marta saved us the pain of muddling through government websites by writing out what number to call to make registration appointments at the town hall, exactly what to say over the phone to make sure we made the correct kind of appointment, what documents to bring, which building to go to and how to get there.
She also annotated our lease in everyday Spanish to help clarify the long-winded legal language required for such documents.
Amin down at the print shop, who speaks English and Spanish to us, French to others, and Arabic to others, told us if we needed help with anything to let him know. We live on the same street, we found out.
It takes a while to get internet connected in Spain, especially when you want it to happen quickly so that you can watch your stories and do your work. So we bravely tromped upstairs to ask our neighbors if we could pay them to use their wifi in the interim and they responded so kindly and enthusiastically, and refused payment of any kind. Todos somos extranjeros, Youseff said.
Later, Youssef brought us a tray of Moroccan treats (he and his family come from Marrakesh), and every time we bump into him leaving or going into the building he asks how we’re settling in and how everything is going.
My colleagues have made me feel welcome in every respect. Some examples: Ana often treats me to coffee from the machine in the teachers lounge and even brought me a mug so I don’t have to carry mine back and forth. She speaks to me in Spanish when I want to practice Spanish, and English when I want a little break. In one class, Paco’s students told me about traditional Christmas sweets and the next day he brought me a turrón to give it a try.
Josh tutors a high schooler twice a week. When we met with her mom to receive his payment, she paid him extra (with the money tucked into a Christmas card), and said that, once travel restrictions are lifted, she’ll be happy to drive us on a sight-seeing tour of Álava.
One day in the BM supermercado a woman overheard our unmistakably American English chatter, and approached us to explain she’s from Texas and is married to a Spaniard, and to give us her number just in case we need anything.
Javi, the groundskeeper at Josh’s school, gives Josh and the principal, Arantza, a ride back to Vitoria-Gasteiz at the end of the school day. Every day, Javi puts on an English CD and they proceed through the lesson in turns: first Javi repeats the English, then teaches Josh the Spanish equivalent, then Arantza gives the English a go, and so on for the twenty-minute ride.
started hiking after 4pm at 270 Degree Overlook; bear bag hanging difficulties that continued throughout hike; heard wolves at night
took delightful two-hour break at S. Carlson Pond; heard wolves at night
followed moose tracks in light morning rain; arrived at Magney State Park in full sun; cleaned and dried everything; walked along Lake Superior!; swam a little and filtered and drank Superior water
Grand Marais Campground & Marina
arrived in Grand Marais during the Arts Festival; resupplied and got Subway for lunch; bought new socks; very luckily got a spot at campground
Indian Camp Creek
got breakfast sandwiches at Holiday gas station on walk out of town; 2 mile road walk to trail; walked over a large beaver pond (no beavers sighted)
Mystery Mountain campsite
arrived at Lutsen ski area; found drinking fountains and empty deck to dry tents out and make lunch; ate a pivotal plate of nachos at ski resort bar; got caught in slammer
Temperance River State Park
walked up Carlton Peak with very pretty views of Lake Superior; reached 107-mile terminus at Temperance; ranger at State Park put a lot of effort into helping us get a wonderful camping spot right above the lake even though all sites were reserved through the summer
Chart showing mileage and interesting facts of the Captains’ partial thru-hike
“Eighty percent seems good enough.”
We, the Captains, sat eating nachos in a nearly empty ski lodge in northern Minnesota in July of 2019. Dark wood paneling covered the floor and walls, and carved bears holding signs that said things like “Get Lost” and “Gone Fishin'” stood guard in the corners. I eyed the growing grey clouds out the window while the bartender let us know there was a 400 — “probably even 500!” — pound bear in the area that recently and often helped itself to snacks from the restaurant’s bear-proof trashcans. A few seats down the only other patron in the restaurant, clearly quite a few drinks in, informed us that a bad storm was imminent and we had better not venture back into the woods just yet. “It’s going to be a slammer,” he predicted solemnly and maybe with a touch of schadenfreude, first to us and then once or twice more to his Heineken.
For me there are two variables of nature that feel particularly sinister: bears and lightning. Bears only sometimes, and I can normally logic my way out of the fear. Lightning, inordinately, and the faintest whiff of it sets a course of panicked adrenaline through my veins.
Captain Math paid for the nachos and we headed out. “I can do this!” I said to myself. “It’s an adventure, it might not rain, it might not lightning, it might not thunder, bears aren’t real, I can do this IcandothisIcandothisIcandothis.” It was an unhinged mantra, muttered without any conviction and dissolved without a fight by the first drops of rain.
It was a bona fide storm we found ourselves in, with real torrents of rain and real lightning and thunder. It was, indeed, the slammer that the barfly soothsayer had warned about. The sky darkened as though the sun had set and it made sense to wait it out before walking over Mystery Mountain, but there was no real danger, no call for real alarm or panic. But sometimes alarm and panic don’t need a real threat; they’re happy to settle in given the slightest opportunity.
At my behest, the other two Captains gamely agreed to turn back a mile or so to set up an early camp at a slightly lower elevation. The storm, and my anxiety with it, eased up, and after a relaxing evening of reading and a sound night’s sleep, we woke up around 6:00, made small talk with two other hikers who had waited out the storm in the same meadow, and walked 16.6 miles to Temperance River State Park. It was a hot and sunny day, with rare views of Lake Superior and all the Captains were in good spirits. After seven days of hiking, blisters were on the mend and aching muscles, though not becoming less sore, were starting to feel more normal. As we filled our bottles at a spigot inside the park I announced, 160 miles short of our goal, that perhaps it was time to call it a day on the trek.
It’s hard to tell why exactly I decided I was done with the hike. I had been eagerly planning it for six months, and I had felt excited to test my mettle on a relatively short and tame trail, with loftier hiking goals in mind. Perhaps it was the fateful plateful of nachos in Lutsen. If we hadn’t stopped for a nibble, I wouldn’t have been intimidated by the storm crawling across the horizon while the bartender spun his tall tales and the tippler offered his ominous counsel. Maybe the thunder-and-lightning spell of anxiety carried over into the next day and made me doubt that I actually wanted to be on the trail, when I had an apartment to pack and a big move to accomplish shortly after completing the hike.
Whatever the reason, it’s been quite proven in my life that quitting comes naturally to me. In fact, I’m a card-carrying member of the False Summit Club, whose philosophy is that sometimes reaching a false peak — literally on a mountain as well as metaphorically in other realms of life — is at least good enough, and often is preferable to making it to an actual summit. I discovered the joy of the FSC on a hike with my big sister, Amy, the summer I was 15. One and a half miles from the top of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park we decided that we’d had enough of walking in the dark over sharp rocks and along endless switchbacks. We stopped at the Boulder Field, shivered, ate an apple, and turned around, no worse off for having not reached the summit and glad to be out of the cold and thin air.
Fifteen years later, I’m happy to not give a situation one more go, a run one more mile, a job one more month. I’ve quit countless jobs (once I put in a two hour’s notice so I could go on a picnic), have been relieved on many occasions when plans fell through so I could stay home and read, and often consider cancelling trips right before I travel because it’s just easier not to go.
Yet, a year after bailing early from the Superior Hiking Trail, I feel a little disappointed about being so skillful at quitting. In the moment, I had felt so sure that leaving the hike was the exact right thing to do. I didn’t anguish over the decision. It cropped up in my mind, I perfunctorily considered it this way and that way for a few miles of walking, and from where I stood, there really was no other option. Only after I had made up my mind did I consult with the other Captains, not even considering how my new plan would affect them. They were kind and thoughtful about thechoice, and showed admirable empathy and understanding, even when I couldn’t quite understand it myself.
Even as a truncated trek, it was still a highlight in a year full of highlights. The adventure started in Duluth in Harriet Quarles’s 15-passenger van. Harriet, a septuagenarian with pink hair and a penchant for Parliaments, runs a shuttle service along the Superior Hiking Trail, and drives in a slapdash fashion, cell phone in one hand, cigarette in another, a cursory turn on the steering wheel every now and again. By the time we had reached the trailhead I was completely enamored by her wild stories as well as had a splitting headache, and Captain Watch was surprised we had made it at all. Shakily, we tumbled from her van, walked a mile uphill in a light drizzle to the official northern terminus of the SHT, waved to Canada in the near distance, and turned back downhill to begin our journey. From there I got to spend seven days walking in the woods with two of my favorite people.
We followed moose tracks and walked over beaver dams. We heard wolves in the middle of the night and on the second night I convinced myself there was a dog in our camp so that I didn’t need to worry about the wolves. The dog had spirited away by morning, but I had slept better for its imagined presence. I swam in and drank from Lake Superior. I finally understood how handy hiking poles are. I got better at filtering water, learned (and have forgotten) how to tie knots and hang a bear bag, got more tolerant of bugs and proudly grew my biggest blisters yet. One evening we played a game of chess at a scenic campsite near a murmuring river. Another evening we feasted on sophisticated Mountain House meals my sister Laura had sent us. I learned that 2.5 days in the woods is enough for me to start to feel nostalgic for solid walls, electrical outlets and running water.
I vacillate between calling the hike a “failed thru-hike” and a “partial thru-hike.” In the last 12 months, I’ve generally preferred the latter. It has a delightful oxymoronic ring to it, doesn’t feel quite as defeatist, and nicely obfuscates the missing 160 miles. But lately I’m beginning to favor the former. I like its frankness. It makes clear that a thru-hike was not hiked all the way through. It lifts its chin high, unabashed that the goal was abandoned, the metaphorical summit left unclimbed. And it reminds me that, really for the first time in my life, I’m not quite satisfied with an ambition’s early terminus.
The False Summit Club in all its unconcerned, low-key glory is a valuable mindset to have. It can prevent you from being miserable in any number ofsituations, from not wasting time on a book you never will enjoy to not staying in a relationship past its expiration date. But I wish that I had made myself hike at least one more day, say another 20 miles, to give myself a chance to change my mind. I wish I had let the other Captains have more of a say; it was their hike, too, after all. Superstar climber Alex Honnold has said, “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.” This is, more or less, the antithesis of how I live my life. I am unconcerned with “achieving anything great” (whatever that means), and tend towards coziness and comfort as much as possible. However, I’ve learned from this hike that my first impulse might not always be right. Perhaps—but only perhaps, because I still believe in quitting—it can be worthwhile to be uncomfortable for one extra day, just to see how you really feel.
Early in the evening of February 3rd, Josh and I stood beside Beijing Road, our bags in a pile on the sidewalk. It felt like a late spring afternoon with sunlight filtering through the trees. The street was almost completely empty and you could hear birds singing, a rare sound in this city of 24 million. Somewhere above us arpeggios from a trumpet floated out an open window as we waited for the Didi we had ordered to take us to Pudong International Airport.
Four days earlier, neither of us felt sure whether we wanted to stay in China and wait out the virus, or call it a day and say zàijiàn to Shanghai. We had spent almost two weeks inside our apartment, with trips to the Star Market around the corner and walks in the nearby sculpture park our only outings, with the occasional short run when the air quality permitted. The combined effects of the coronavirus and the Chinese New Year left most public places closed, and even though some restaurants and coffee shops did stay open, we agreed it was better not to spend too much time out and about. You know, just in case.
So we spent our days reading, watching Netflix, watching movies, watching YouTube, doing YouTube yoga, and cooking Brussel sprouts and pasta. Which isn’t a terrible routine, really. But we didn’t know when schools were going to start up again (at the earliest it would’ve been February 29), and, although I’m the very definition of a homebody, I felt restless and antsy. However, there was still a lot that we liked about Shanghai, and we were about to start new jobs teaching literature, with good pay and four-day weekends so we would’ve had a lot of opportunities for exploring China. It was hard to tell what the best thing to do was.
Then the front entrance to our neighborhood was closed and we could only enter and exit through the back gate, and we had to sign in and out (which proved quite challenging since our already-limited Mandarin was fading as weeks without lessons slipped by). Then the sculpture park, our one truly enjoyable outing, shut its gates for an unspecified time. Then the U.S. Department of State raised its travel warning to China from level two (“exercise increased caution”), to level three (“reconsider travel”), to four, the highest level (“do not travel”), with the advice that “those currently in China should attempt to depart by commercial means.” So we booked a flight to Denver, and it was cancelled twenty minutes later.
I don’t think that we were in any danger of getting the virus. A very small number of cases were confirmed in Shanghai, and we were cloistered in our corona-free apartment. But all the things that I liked about Shanghai were temporarily on hold. Exploring the city by subway, finding new restaurants, going to museums, reading at my favorite coffee shop, having Mandarin lessons, planning trips to other provinces—these were all on pause for the moment and it was hard to tell (is still hard to tell) when all of that could resume. So when the flight to Denver was cancelled, well, that made me feel like I’d rather not wait around for all flights to be postponed indefinitely.
With most flights to America either suspended or prohibitively expensive, we decided to head west, to the land of milk, honey and windmills. We booked a flight to the Netherlands on Friday, refreshing the airline’s website constantly throughout Saturday and Sunday, our breath bated, half expecting another cancellation. And on Monday, we left China.
Sitting in the back of a minivan on the way to the airport, we rode through the city in the gloaming. Unlike most of the underground traveling we did around Shanghai, this last ride gave us a chance to see the city. Not in its entirety, of course, but in larger swaths than how we usually got to see it. We could look behind us and there was the Oriental Pearl and the Shanghai Tower and that one building that looks like the Eye of Sauron at night.
It felt weird to be leaving just three days after making the decision, and sad, too. But at the same time I have never felt so relieved for a flight to board on time, so grateful for the crew who already have what sounds like the most exhausting job, now flying in and out of a country nervous with a novel sickness. After two temperature screenings at the Shanghai airport and one during a layover in Abu Dhabi, and after wearing face masks for over 24 hours, we exited the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and breathed in the windy, crisp Dutch air.
(I drafted this weeks ago and never got around to posting it. Even though I’m not in China anymore, I still like these things.)
A delightful trip to Huangshan (Yellow Mountains)!
We rode the train from Shanghai to Tunxi, in the Anhui province. From there a bus took us to the town of Tangkou. We bought cherries and a mango from a fruit seller, and walked to the cozy hostel/hotel Zero Five One Seven Inn, where we had a delightful stay. The folks there made us breakfast in the morning and helped plot out a hiking itinerary for us.
It’s hard to describe how beautiful Huangshan is. The day we were there it was icy and crisp and granite peaks stretched so far into the distance. At first I was grumpy with the big groups of people and accompanying loudspeakers, but, like anywhere touristy, a little extra walking will take you far from the madding crowd. Before we completely left the tourists, we had a really pleasant interaction with a woman selling postcards from a wooden kiosk. With our very limited Chinese we talked about how lovely it all was. Normally people couldn’t understand us when we attempted to speak in Mandarin, but she was very patient and encouraging, asking us where we lived and what we were doing in China. It was a brief conversation, maybe lasting a minute, but left a warm and lasting impression.
Coffee breaks along the Bund!
A few weeks ago it was a sunny, fresh-air day and we set off on a walk in no particular direction. We ended up at the Bund, where we sat, drank a Family Mart coffee, read a little, and watched people. The city looked good and the air felt good. It was one of those days that feel like school is out and everything is a possibility.
Every park I entered in Shanghai was so lovely. Some were full of people walking, playing badminton, dancing, and practicing musical instruments, while others were quiet and seemed far removed from the churn of the megacity.
There was a park by my job that I loved. I always made a point of walking around it at least once before going into work, and liked to bring a tray of fruit and a book there during lunch. Often there would be groups of musicians playing together, flutes or saxophones, trumpets or clarinets, and stringed instruments I couldn’t recognize. On one rainy day, a musician set up two big umbrellas over his synthesizer and sheet music and played away, safe from the constant drizzle.
My favorite part of the park, of all the parks, were the cats. There were at least a dozen cats that lived in this one park and they seemed well-taken care of and content as only cats can be content. One morning I saw an old man tearing newspapers into small sections and periodically placing them on the ground. Then he bent over each little newspaper plate and filled it with rice and kibbles for all the park cats.
I’m not actively worried about contracting the coronavirus. Chances are that I won’t come in contact with it and even if I were to get it, I would be fine. But it is a weird time. I got a bad cold a week ago, which took the wind right out of my sails, and then the air got really rotten, and then it kept drizzling a stupid grey drizzle that just made things wet but didn’t freshen things up, and then the sun stopped shining (for good, it seems).
I’m off work because of the Chinese New Year and the air has finally cleared up quite a bit, but I feel a little shy about going to any public spaces because what if someone coughs on me and that’s it? And many places are closed for the new year, anyway. Today, when Josh and I finally mustered up the fortitude to walk to one of our favorite restaurants for lunch, we found it closed. It was an almost eerie walk—normally a bustling street, it was nearly empty and the few people we did come across were all wearing masks. I know it was quiet because people are ringing in the new year in their hometowns, but it’s easy to imagine a post-apocalyptic scenario where a virus breaks out and all the stores sell out of masks and you aren’t supposed to go outside because there are zombies that carry the virus and if you aren’t wearing a mask then you’ll get eaten and you’ll get the virus.
I like living in China, I do, I even have posts dedicated to how much I like it, but sometimes I shake my fist at the country at large and shout: “BE DIFFERENT!” I want to turn on the faucet and be able to drink the water and I want to check my air quality app every morning and think, “Oh yes, of course it’s a good air day and I can go running whenever I want to.” I know I’m being a little unreasonable, but sometimes I even want the language to be different. Maybe just two tones instead of five, how’s about?
I love you, China, but I’m going to go have a sandwich and watch The Office now. I’ll see you tomorrow.
I live on the west side of the Huangpu river, where there are all the coffee shops, restaurants, malls, cars and scooters you could hope for. Sometimes it is nice to cross to the other side of the water, where there is a 45 km foot-and-bike path and where, even if it isn’t actually, the air feels fresher. This time of year there are marigolds along the path and some of the trees still have their leaves.
A few weeks ago, Josh and I took the line 2 subway (which I like to complain about because it’s always crowded and I’m a grump about sharing space on the subway) under the river, and got bikes from the ubiquitous bike-share program Hellobike. Armed with a baguette, some pastries that are like madeleines but aren’t, and a thermos of instant coffee, we leisurely biked in the very autumnal air. (The only speed of biking I know how to do is leisurely. Sometimes I think I might just tip over sideways, I go so slow.) We saw a big bridge, biked alongside barges lumbering down the river, and heard a saxophone coming from some hidden park.
We noticed buildings every once in a while that looked like little cafes, with signs that said Service Center, and each had a number. Heading home we stopped at one and it was the most pleasant discovery. A big room with big windows looking over the river. Tables and chairs, a sofa, and a counter with stools along one of the windows, bookshelves with books for borrowing, and an electric tea kettle for heating hot water. It was basically the coziest coffee shop I’ve been in, only you don’t go to buy anything (you can bring your own food and drink, and there is drinking water available); you simply go to have a space to be.
Josh and I settled in with our treats, coffee and books. The winter sun came warm and low into Service Center 4. Some people typed away at laptops, others read, and three older men sat around a table, emphatically discussing (something), drinking tea and peeling oranges.