Friday, March 12, 2010

Maybe Somewhere Else

High school is finally just about over. A few more weeks and I will be done. It’s been a three-year slog. I came back to the American high school after five years of living abroad and none of it had really gone well.

The high school that I entered – age fourteen, grade ten – was modern and sleek, a beige one-story building built in the sixties, corridors lined with beige metal lockers and a smooth linoleum floor. The chairs attached to the desks in a mold of chrome and formica. Spiral notebooks and loose-leaf binders. Boys in blue jeans, tee shirts, sneakers. Girls who wore a different outfit every day.

I stepped into it, feeling like an alien, wanting very much to not only blend in, but be successful there. I wanted to be one of the girls with a boyfriend who slung his arm across her shoulders as they walked down the corridor between classes. I wanted friends of any sort, but something had caught in my throat two years before and though I’d hoped that the excitement of moving back to America – “America” – would dislodge it, I found myself still mysteriously crippled. There was something that hung over me that I could not shake off. I beat at it, tried to outrun it, but it was always there, a shadow, clinging to me, forbidding me to talk to other people, especially the ones I liked, or worse, admired from a distance. I shrank from the people I liked, so certain that they would crumple me up like a piece of scrap paper and throw me out if I cam anywhere near them.

So I was glad that graduation was in sight. I was sure that once I didn’t have to show up for these ridiculous classes and once I didn’t have to be with these people anymore, things would get better.

Then my father told me that he had arranged for me to go to Hungary for a month after graduation. It wasn’t couched as a graduation present. My father was Hungarian, my mother Canadian. They had never received graduation presents in the very different cultures from which they came, and although they had both lived in the States a good 20 years or so, neither of them became familiar with American norms. They remained outsiders, virtually without friends, and always with a strong resistance to anything American. Except for things like democracy and the right to vote, the word “American” was not flattering in the house I grew up in. American usually meant childish, spoiled and uncultured. “You sound so American,” my mother would sometimes say to my sisters or me.

So my father was giving me this trip, the purpose of which was to enroll me in a month-long program for children of Hungarian parents born abroad to teach us Hungarian language and culture.


I tweaked the trip a little. I asked to fly Icelandic to Luxembourg because, I told my father, it was the cheapest way to go. I didn’t mention how much I’d read about how everyone flew Icelandic to Lexembourg and smoked pot on the plane and I hoped maybe the shadow would melt away on that plane and I could turn into a girl in the back row, passing joints, in the thick of a crowd laughing and talking, with a boy or two falling in love with me.

I negotiated a backpack, a EurRail pass, a journey first from Luxembourg to England and then from England I’d make my way east to Budapest and my month-long program.

I wanted to be a backpacker in Europe. This might crack open my tomb. I had hitchhiked the previous summer across the States, alone, lying to my parents that I was on a Greyhound bus, and though this had brought me the company of Joseph, a worldly 27-year-old man of the road, and it had been almost my fantasy, I had still felt the lump in my throat, the inability to speak, the terror that if I spoke my fragile camouflage would disintegrate, someone would see behind it, and there would be nothing there that anyone could like at all.

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