Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > Am I a Famous Expat Yet?

Am I a Famous Expat Yet?

19 Apr 2002

Throughout this sequence of letters home I've been in the odd situation of often writing about people who will presumably read my reports on the web. While I try to avoid writing a gossip column which will read by the people who are its own topics, we reach the apotheosis (I know that word is a little strong, but I've always wanted to use it in a sentence that is not about theology (Is this self-referential and pretentious enough for you? Do I sound like Charles Mudede external link or John Barth external link yet?)) of this situation: among the recipients of this email will be the main person it's about. And her mother. And several of her close friends.

Bunches of you will probably get email about all this from her. Which I can post to my web site when she sends it to me. [JM 26 May 2002: Here it is!] We can be like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein external link. But not too much like. A Movable Website external link? Anyway, she probably is more Hemingway than I am, and I'm more Gertrude Stein than her. Or how about Christopher Isherwood external link? That's probably better. Maybe I can be T.S. Eliot external link [after-the-fact thought: a Jewish T.S. Eliot? Well, Alan Ginsburg was a Jewish Walt Whitman...] and she can be Djuna Barnesexternal link. I shall wear my trousers rolled.external link No, wait...

[after-the-fact thought: Not on top of my form as a wrote that last phrase. Of course it should be:

"...a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit."
]

I just had a 2-1/2 day visit from the redoubtable Jessica Long, who is living in Berlin. I have known Jess almost half her life, which is to say almost a quarter of mine; you do the math. Her mother Kathy (hi, Kat) is someone I count as a very good friend, and was one of my collaborators on the Peace Heathens' Seattle Crisis Resource Directory external link, so much so that at one time, it would probably have been more appropriate to say that I was one of her collaborators.

Jess has led an eventful life. I will spare her a detailed public narration thereof, and I hope she won't be offended by the following list of salient points. She was, for a while, a homeless adolescent (not a runaway or throwaway: she and her mother were homeless together), went through the kind of late teenage period one is lucky to survive (her closest friend from that era - another person I actually like a lot - is currently serving a long prison sentence, and I bet she knew half the Seattleites of her generation who didn't make 21), did a lot of good things related to AIDS education/prevention and the like, briefly attended Smith College (where she did fine on academics, but not on living in a small New England town closely surrounded by the daughters of millionaires), does good, obsessively detailed, artwork, writes like ... well, writes like a writer, and has shown herself to be very good at raising other people's children, which she is currently doing in Berlin as an au pair. I'm toning it way down here: I'll save the rest for the novelization.

On her current journey she is travelling her with a Berlin-based gay male Bavarian friend named Misha (who is also a really, really nice, interesting person and a serious world traveller, but who will be spared any long stories about himself on the Internet mostly because I already have such a good central character). Speaking as we were of Christopher Isherwood, Jess tells me that when she was 14 she wanted to be Sally Bowles. [Apparently so did quite a few other girls.external 
link] At 26, she's more like someone Sally Bowles would have wanted to be.

I decided to take two days off for their visit and have rarely made a better decision in my life. This was about the most just sheer fun I've had in -- well, I won't try to say it that way, because one of you will write back, "Wait, we did such-and-such within that time frame, you mean to say it was more fun than that?" Let's just say it was one of the best times I ever had with my clothes on and not breaking any laws, human or divine.

Although a physically small person (she's supposedly German, Irish, and Native American, but I think there was a pixie in the woodpile), Jess can be a bit larger than life, and in this city where I am thought of as a little loud and flamboyant, walking around with Jess was a bit like being arm in arm with a beacon. Unlike most people of whom one could say such a thing, there was nothing embarrassing about her conduct, just widescreen and technicolor in a smallscreen black and white town (not an uptight town, you understand, just a little lacking in production values). People in Bucharest do not go into a Liza Minelli imitation while walking down B-dul Regina Elisabeta. People in Bucharest do not wear thrift store chic to the Opera. But they don't mind when someone else does it (I bet half of them were trying to work out what movie they'd seen her in or whether they could identify her band).

When they first arrived, Sasha [a co-worker of mine at Unidec/RDC external link], coming off a 12-hour workday, insisted on playing chauffeur so he and I went to meet them at the Gara du Nord in Sasha's circa '82 Mercedes. Sasha was in the mood for a drive, so Jess and Misha's visit started with a whirlwind auto tour of the Northern suburbs, mostly places I'd never been, my god, some of it looks just like Redmond except the lots are a little smaller and there aren't as many trees or hills. Why do rich people choose to live that way next a city where there are magnificent old villas for sale? Of course, you could ask the same about much of Seattle's East Side. Anyway, I was wondering, isn't it really inconvient for these people when they want to (for example) buy groceries and the answer, of course, is that these people don't buy groceries, they have servants who buy groceries.

Besides general city wandering (street food, Obor Market, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, the Count Dracula Club, which Jess and Misha liked, too: that's another seal of approval for brilliant kitsch and good food, I'm getting to where I think I can recommend the place without apologies), Jess, Misha, and I attended both a ballet (an excellently choreographed and beautifully danced version of Anna Karenina, with a "collage" of music by Tschaikovsky; unfortunately, the music was recorded rather than played live, but the sound system was good enough that we were ten minutes in before Misha noticed the lack of an orchestra) and an opera (Marriage of Figaro again, a couple of cast substitutions since I saw it a few weeks back, including a really fine singer whose name I unfortunately do not know in the role of Cherubino. You can't tell the players without a program).

We also went to the Fire Club, which seemed about the right sort of place to go drink and dance. Jess and Misha tell me it's the perfect opposite to Berlin clubs: no techno (and here I've been jonesing for techno), no pretentious yuppies, cheap beer, lots of space (my god, upstairs isn't crowded), cute boys who weren't full of themselves and who all eyed or even flirted with Jess but none of whom made the mistake of presuming that a little flirting meant she was abandoning us and going home with one of them tonight. Nor did they presume that she was on the verge of ducking into a dark corner with them (which is partly to say they were not French or Italian.)

Hope Jess doesn't mind that I'm going to quote here from two of her Berlin emails: "...after this I was invited to yet another hidden disco, this time in what seemed to be a back room of some sort of meat packing plant! it's hard to know the difference between being abducted and sold into white slavery or being shown a really cool secret club, both events begin the same here, with being led down strange abandoned corridors with little light and nobody around... so far I'm lucky all the wanderings end in discos and not in a freight box en route to Albania..." (I would add that in Bucharest, you can go through the equivalent just to go to a restaurant. Or a church.) "I've also invented a new T-shirt slogan: front = 'Please don't talk to me...' and back = 'I've already been vaccinated against you by previous experiences.' This should be translated into Italian and French."

[I'm big on the belated edits this time: One more Jess-ism: Britney Spears's "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" is the perfect lip synch song for a pre-op transsexual drag performer. It was probably things like that which prompted Gertrude Stein to say to Hemingway that "remarks are not literature." Or maybe Stein was merely quoting a now-lost remark of Shaw's to Oscar Wilde? (Actually, Stein's "remarks are not literature" almost perfectly annihilates itself. It's probably as famous -- and as perfect -- as anything she ever wrote.)]

Anyway, we stayed up to all hours talking (total "vivir sin dormir", we ought to be from Madrid), could have continued that for days, given the opportunity, probably -- no, make that certainly -- annoyed my neighbors, which I will have to work out a way to make up to them, but it was worth it. We got to know each other better than we ever had before (after all, last time we had a lot of time together, Jess was still in her teens; since then I've mostly run into her at parties or occasionally in Broadway -- that's Seattle Broadway -- coffee places external link).

Who knows when we will next cross paths, but I hope it will not be years.

That's the news from Lake Wobegonexternal link.


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Originally written: April 19, 2002
Last modified: February 9, 2009

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