Ode to an Expat: Bart Calendar, 1969-2022

Being an expat is a life-changing experience borne of privilege and humility in equal measure. Cognitive dissonance is a constant companion, as is a unique brand of loneliness.

It’s not only because you’ve forged a new life in a new place alone. It’s not even the language barrier. It’s because you don’t realize how much the bonds you form with other people largely depend on a shared cultural past.

My first few years in Europe I lived in Rome, and I remember learning that in Italy Peter Gabriel is known not for the quintessential love song “In Your Eyes,” but the inscrutable “Shock the Monkey.” Gen X Italians didn’t have the experience of John Cusack hoisting aloft a boom box outside Ione Skye’s bedroom window, thus defining true yet problematic love.

Peter Gabriel’s discography is hardly cause for an existential crisis. But it’s an example of a million small moments that form the intricate shorthand of lifelong relationships. It’s “AH’LL BE BAHCK.” It’s agreeing that Han shot first. It’s Seinfeld and Sally Ride and Snuffleupagus. It’s a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square versus Mussolini hanging from his feet in Piazza Loreto.

In the expat world, the chasm of cultural differences is profound and ever widening. Going back home for a visit, the reverse culture shock forms another chasm with people you’ve known your whole life. I had resigned myself to this dynamic as the price I paid for living my dream.

And then in 2004 I met a guy from New Jersey who was living his own dream in the South of France. Despite the enormous difference between us – I was exit 25, he was exit 109 – what I found in Bart was someone who understood all of me, from my Jersey Shore childhood to my then-current reality of being undocumented in Europe. Our bond was immediate, and intense, and together we believed we were invincible.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone who knew Bart to hear that our relationship was complicated. My God, he could be infuriating. He broke my spirit more than once. But as I write this final account, only the simplest times shine brightest for me.

Scarfing down loaded nachos at the Hard Rock in Barcelona without irony or apology. Seeing his favorite Bosch painting at the Prado in Madrid. So many concerts: Chuck D in Paris, Metallica in Padova, and The Cure in Montpellier, the Stones in Nice. Going to a midnight Harry Potter book launch in New York. Replacing July 4th picnics with Bastille Day fireworks. Dodging tear gas at protests. Hosting a “waifs and strays” open house every Christmas Day. Long summer days at Mediterranean beaches. Long autumn afternoons at a pub reading the latest thriller. Long winter nights bingeing West Wing and Buffy and Alias. Heading out at sunrise for Champagne and croissants after election results came in from back home. Always, always picking me up at the train station when I’d return from months away in Rome, no matter the time.

Without Bart’s influence, his worldview, and his unshakeable love for me, I would not have these and so many more incredible memories, and I would not be living the life I am now. Thank you, Bart. To paraphrase James Ellroy: I loved you fierce in danger. And I hope you are at peace.

November 16, 2022

Pietracupa, Italy

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A Sunday Morning in America, October 2018

DpeBg4HXgAAg2Ik.jpgFresh coffee and a cig on my parents’ porch. Marveling at the big sky, the mighty Atlantic, the salty autumn air. I can hear the Big Band music my dad’s playing in the bait shop behind the house, and organ music from the church on the corner.

A burst of laughter from a house down the block, one of the few with year-round residents here at the south end of the island. Other homes are closed up for the winter, leaving behind the hulking silhouettes of covered grills and a few lonely beach toys under patio tables.

My parents, now in their mid-seventies, have changed in the four years since I last saw them. I’ve missed personal evolutions and devolutions, and the political revolution I’m grateful they #resist. I’ve missed their smell, their hugs, their accents, their cooking.

I’ve changed, too. My hair is greyer. I’ve gained a few pounds, a second nationality, a third language. People, places and things that I’ve held as constants in my life in Europe have been altered almost beyond recognition, throwing me off my axis.

The dozens of photos in the hallway of my parents’ house span generations. There are graduations and birthdays and vacations and Sears portraits and moments that would have been forgotten if not for the camera’s eye.

In these photos I see the origins of my dimpled smile and my thick ankles. I see people who have died after long, epic lives, and I smile; others were taken from us suddenly, shockingly, and I flinch with guilt for not being here to bear witness to their passing. I miss them all.

I am the salty air and the old music and the reruns and the photos in the hallway. I am home.

How to Travel Like A Spy

“Mr. Bourne, your luggage is waiting for you in Baggage Claim.”

Last December, WikiLeaks did one of its notorious document dumps and revealed some information that frankly thrilled me. The WikiLeaks document release included two reports from the CIA whose titles sound like pitches for summer blockbusters: “CIA Assessment on Surviving Secondary Screening at Airports While Maintaining Cover” (dated September 2011) and, even more up my alley, “CIA Advice for Operatives Infiltrating Schengen” (dated January 2012).

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On Embracing Your Preconceived Notions

YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR

YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR

Did you know that I went to Berlin two years ago? I did. I spent a little over two weeks there, on the cusp of winter. It was unbearably cold, and dark; it looked like 9:30am all day until night fell in mid-afternoon.

I arrived in darkness after an 11-hour train ride, during which I tried and failed miserably to commit to memory the incomprehensible combination of letters that is basic German vocabulary. From the magnificent wall of windows of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof I saw the lit dome of the Reichstag, and for the first of many times throughout my stay I said under my breath, “Holy shit, Berlin.”
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On Homesickness

Literature

Ed. note: I’m reposting this after a wave of recent homesickness, but it was originally posted on June 28, 2011.

There are these weeds in Rome – I’m sure they’re in other places too, but I’ve only ever seen them in Rome – that have long stems that look furry, but they’re prickly. If you grab them without thick gloves it feels like your hand was dipped in acid for about two minutes, which is a long time when your hand feels like it’s been dipped in acid. During those two minutes you’re running to wash your hands and then you’re washing your hands and you can’t think of anything else except the blinding pain. And then the pain subsides and it’s hard to remember how badly it hurt.

This is what homesickness feels like, except the blinding pain is inside you so there’s no washing it out; you’ve got to ride it out until it subsides. Continue reading

Um… Why Isn’t Everyone Taking A French Barge Vacation?

Note: I’m reposting this because my friends could use more visitors to their Canal du Midi vacation barge, so if anyone you know is looking for a truly unique French vacation experience, GET ON IT!

Colombiers + Barge

Mel and I bade our sad goodbyes to Hotel d’Europe in Avignon, and armed with pastries and coffee from our guardian angel Fernando, we set out for our next adventure. But first – a pit stop in my adopted hometown, Montpellier!

Mel met Ladybird, who gave her some much-needed snuggles; and Cal, who proudly showed off the city he’s called home for more than 10 years. We walked through the Place de la Comedie and the Esplanade, and then took her on a tour of one of the oldest toy stores in France. Mel was thoroughly enchanted, and after a tasty lunch we were off again – this time to Colombiers, a small hamlet on the famous Canal du Midi in the Languedoc region.

After some helpful directions from an impossibly filthy mechanic on a forgotten street outside of town, we were greeted by my old friends Domi and Gwennie, and welcomed into – or rather, aboard – their home, Peniche Oz.

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Nothing Says Summer Like Pictures Of Eastern France In February

Les Deux-Fays

I got slammed with work again and since no one’s paying me $400 to write my pithy missives here (yet?), I need to go back to the dark side and finish up this assignment. However! I made a vow to keep posting regardless of my work load, and that is what I shall do. So while you’re holding for the next installment, which I promise you is a doozy, please enjoy these photos from the time I spent pet sitting in Eastern France this winter! And by winter, I mean I wore layers of heavy clothing and the owner’s rag wool socks and made a roaring fire every single day.

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Being Driven Around The French Riviera For A Day Is Pretty Awesome

between Tourette and...

Kensington Tours generously arranged this daylong tour, but all opinions are my own.

As anyone who’s asked me for travel advice knows, I’m not a big fan of tours. Large group tours are useless; it’s hard to pay attention, usually you don’t get to see the thing the tour guide is talking about until after they’re done talking about it, and also it’s mortifying to be herded around like sheep. And although none of these things were an issue on a very small tour I took of the Vatican a few years ago, for example, we were required to practically jog the entire museum complex – twice – in order to get through everything before the REALLY big crowds showed up. I was exhausted. And when I’ve spoken to other people who’ve done small tours, the majority unfortunately have had the same experience.

But seeing as how three of the four of us had never been to the French Riviera before, and that Kensington’s proposed itinerary featured places I’d never been to either, I decided that this would be a good way to get as much in as possible – for work and for pleasure. And so it was that on a warm and sunny morning in Nice, we found ourselves walking with Pierre, our driver and guide for the day, to our comfortable, roomy, air-conditioned minivan for an adventure.

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Photos Galore: Hilarious Berlin Signage

Berlin Signage

Next week I’m going to tell you about the rest of our trip through France and Italy. Next up is Nice, and you’re going to plotz when you see the awesome stuff we did. But in the meantime, did you know I went to Berlin last year? I did – for two weeks! It was weird and intense and fun and soon enough I’m going to tell you all about it. But for now, take a look at some of the crazy signs I saw in Berlin. Some of them cracked me up because of their use of all-caps and/or serious fonts; some because the German language can be unintentionally hilarious; and some because, at heart, I have the comedy maturity of a 12-year-old boy. Enjoy!

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In Passionate Defense Of The Rest Of France

St Guilhelm le Desert

You guys, seriously. France is so incredible. If there’s one thing I got out of writing about France for BootsnAll, it is a profound love for the entire country. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s got great infrastructure. (Giving you the side-eye, Italy.) I mean, I love me some trains, we all know this; but I can’t tell you how astoundingly easy it is to drive around France and see the most unbelievable things.

And yet, unlike Italy, it seems like nobody knows a thing about it.

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Summer Trip Planning

Alison's Car

So. I got a Eurail pass in the mail this week, courtesy of my France Travel Guide peeps at BootsnAll. I’m super excited to start using it. Since it’s good for 15 days over two months – and I can travel on as many trains as I can during each day – it’s going to take some planning to be able to visit as many places as I can this summer. I envision long, fun days of hopping on and off trains, running around gorgeous towns and cities, and then heading off to the next place on my list. BLISS.

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Hotel Rant: Not Singing My Tune

I’ve been traveling a lot recently and I’m excited to show you pictures and describe all the fantastic things I’ve done. But first, Cal, ever vigilant of my hotels obsession, alerted me to the most egregious hotel marketing stunt I’ve ever seen. While it should be noted that I’ve never stayed at a Tune Hotel, nevertheless I shall now rant about it. Gather the kids and make some popcorn, this one’s going to be a doozy.

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Visitors

So, I have been going online to see what I need to look like for my trip to Europe. I have already transitioned from full coverage foundation make-up by Kevin Aucoin to tinted moisturizer by MAC so that I have the Parisian nude look. Also, I am working on reducing my pores. And, I am going to buy lots of black clothing although I hear Scott should purchase brightly colored pants for Italy. Additionally, I have to find very expensive shoes. Any other suggestions?

-In which my very best friend in the whole wide world prepares to visit me. AND I LOVE HER FOR IT.