Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reason I love to travel #4

I've learned that a smile can get me out of all sorts of trouble – particularly when it comes to dealing with the (presumably) self-appointed, easily excitable, bullet proof-vested Nicaraguan beach patrol and its collective libido.

Short skirts, on the other hand, only get me into trouble.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fewer things to kill me

If you believe everything my mother tells you, then you'll know she has no moral issue with endangering your life for the sake of 10 minutes of pleasure, or however long it takes to eat her spaghetti.

At the family table, it was everyone for their respective self. We didn't say grace, but my mother occasionally kicked off mealtime by announcing the possibility of death, advised us to be vigilant and, smiling, encouraged us to dig in and enjoy.

According to my mother, the bay leaf – a spice known for its distinctive fragrance and flavour – is both essential to any good spaghetti sauce and entirely capable of slicing your intestines with its razor sharp edges and causing internal bleeding.

Pigging out on Mom's meat sauce, I surmised as a child, could result in anything from indigestion to dying quietly in your sleep. This I believed, among other questionable, unquestioned quasi-truths:

Jesus is a white guy. Raw hot dogs will give me worms. Uncle So-and-So isn't gay. My face could get stuck like this. Bay leaves can kill me. Me, and everyone I love.

Having survived my childhood, I thought it best to avoid cooking with bay leaves altogether when I moved out on my own. I just couldn't bear the thought of my mother receiving news that, despite all her warnings, I'd gone and accidentally offed myself in that particularly unsavoury way. Not until I cooked with someone unaware of the risks of this common albeit deadly ingredient was I forced to, for the first time, express these thoughts out loud.

"Let's leave out the bay leaf," I suggested, explaining the risks.

"Who told you THAT?" my co-chef asked, scrunching up his face.

"My mother," I declared, considering her the authority on all things culinary.

"Doesn't she also think her house is haunted?"

"Well, yeah," I said, "but so do I."

He just looked at me. "Bay leaves can't kill you."

"Yes, they can," I said, steadfast.

Leaves in hand, locking his eyes with mine, he motioned toward his mouth.

"Don't do it!" I yelled, and tried to grab them away. The last thing I need is an accidental suicide in my house, I thought. "No!" I screamed when he shoved them into his mouth and began to chew.

"Why would your mother put something in your food she thought might kill you?" he asked. He was talking with his mouth full.

Because my mother takes cooking very seriously.

"If I die, you win," he taunted and swallowed.

Later on, when he didn't die, he didn't shut up about it for long enough that I kind of maybe sort of wished he had. Just a little bit.

Still, through the fog of my annoyance, I managed to glean that sometimes being wrong is best for everyone.

Photo: Mom and me on an evening walk, after another perilous meal.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Reason I love to travel #3

Travel allows me to hone valuable powers and render them "super", like the ability to sleep anywhere. Anywhere. Even in Miami's mouse-infested airport, surrounded by grumpy strangers:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Happenings down below

If you're a serial killer looking for the perfect spot to first torture, then maim and slaughter your next victim, perhaps you'll consider the basement of my last apartment building. Built circa 1910 and changed very little since, the bowels of the edifice easily surpass the expectations of any set hunter, outdoing even the creative minds behind the creepiest of contemporary gore flicks.

Trips to the basement I limited to daylight hours and avoided as long as possible. To prevent my own apartment from adopting a similar stench, I was forced to go about once a week, because that's where the garbage is disposed.

I'd often wondered what might happen if I were to round the final corner of the serpentine concrete hallway – past the filthy basin with corroded, dripping faucets, and through the heavy meat locker-esque steel door – and encountered a stranger. There are only two things a person could want to do in that dimly lit bunker, I reasoned, and they both involve disposal (trash or bodies).

When it finally did happen, I screamed. Loud.

Bags in hand, I made the final turn and there stood – with hair greasy and matted, teeth sparse and yellowed, clothing torn and ill-fitted – the hunched, twisted form of...the janitor.

When I stopped screaming, I realized he'd been screaming, too. I want to claim my reaction was only so violent because he looks like a crazed maniac, but I also scared the shit out of him, and I'd like to think that had nothing to do with my own appearance. He mumbled an apology in a nervous mixture of French, English and Spanish, and I stammered mine.

The events that followed, I could never have predicted.

The bunker fell silent. I launched my trash into the bin and, seizing the opportunity, he thrust a small tube into my now empty hands. Then, he turned away, mumbled something incoherent and lifted his shirt. I looked to my hands for clues as to why the elderly janitor was undressing for me in the basement, and in them was the tube of arthritis-relief cream. Perhaps he'd felt we'd bonded, what with screaming together that day, but I still felt that expecting a massage was a bit of a stretch.

Is this a creepy, or oddly sweet request? I asked myself, and hesitated briefly, but the long, ancient scar on his back where he wanted the cream, trumped that thought. As I rubbed in the offensively strong, sinus-clearing menthol-scented cream, I realized just how old he must be. His skin was devoid of elasticity, his spine was twisted bent, and he struggled to steady himself under the gentle pressure of my hand on his back. Still, I had my suspicions.

"Do you need cream anywhere else?" I asked, testing his intent.

"No, murr-see, tank yoh, gracias," he answered, covering himself. He turned to face me and his expression was soft and appreciative.

Awwww, he really did just need help, I was thinking, when he interrupted to say, through a mischievous and mostly toothless grin, "Dat wuz dee firz time a wooh-man touch me in twenny yeerz."

"Creepy" and "oddly sweet" aren't, apparently, mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Fortune echoes in the void

Of hundreds of meals enjoyed in my Park Avenue apartment, chow mein was my last. It was my $6 reward for having dragged, rolled and huffed another 60 pounds of my former life – the one I had before I decided to relocate to the UK – eight blocks to the donation bin at the local mission. I suppose I could've just used that $6 for a taxi, but then I wouldn't have gotten a fortune cookie out of it.

In the sole remaining chair in my apartment, I sat before the now empty Chinese takeaway carton, with a few more ibuprofren-enabled hours of lugging boxes ahead of me.

Tearing open the fortune cookie's clear plastic wrapper, I thought three things:

1) They don't even have these in China.
2) I hope this cookie isn't stale like the last one.
3) This fortune better say something good.

It read, "You will soon travel abroad."

Drawing a slow breath, I scanned the nearly empty space that was once my home. Assessing the final precarious tower of awkwardly packed boxes awaiting transportation, I couldn't help but feel that the cosmos hadn't been paying attention to my life plans at all. Incredulous, I responded as any exhausted Canadian might, after spending more than a grand and weeks of preparation to move overseas:

"Noooooo shit!" I yelled.

"No shit," my four walls echoed back. "Nooooo shhhhhhit."