Monday, May 19, 2014

Z-Arts Annual Writing Contest Winning Entry

While traveling to Norway earlier this month, I received an email saying that I won 1st place in the adult non-fiction category for the annual Z-Arts writing contest. Z-Arts is the local arts and humanities organization serving the Zion Canyon communities of Springdale, Rockville, and Virgin, Utah.

The Nefarious Passport of Bliss

               International travel is one of those things which can easily take a person from her comfort zone to something far from it in an instant. It is a crucible of intense growth and understanding of personal capacity, especially when one is actively involved in the process. In the moment a situation may be the worst thing imaginable, but as time passes one may be able to realize the humor in the situation. Moreover, based on the individuals involved in a situation, the same event could be viewed as great or just plain awful.
               Many times during my time traveling abroad and living abroad, I cursed my situation and often holding an American passport because of the ideas people held about Americans based largely on whatever American TV show was currently being dubbed and played there. Sadly, many of these shows are from TLC, which shows perhaps the worst of what America has to offer. However, many times my passport got me to the front of a border crossing, especially on days when it was so humid that it would start to suck any remnant of life from you.
               For two years I lived in a post-Soviet country where my marital status, or I should say lack there-of, was a constant source of concern and distress for people. I was in my early thirties –gasp!- not married. Having lived in Utah for most of the 11 years prior I was accustom to this, but I was not accustom to serious offers of men or potential engagements minutes (literally) after meeting someone.
               For the first few weeks this concern held a sort of endearing quality, but quickly it became downright obnoxious. Soon I learned all the proper responses in the local language, and played along. It was hard to articulate, however, that 1) I know they felt I was a failure because I wasn’t married and 2) that I would never marry a man from that country because I knew how men there treated women.
               My time abroad also introduced me to many new and exciting forms of “transportation,” a term I use loosely. Most modes were levels of hell that not even Dante could have conceived of. Being American, trains are a mode of transport most people have not experienced much beyond the commuter realm. Moreover, my idea of train travel had been highly influenced by Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, which conjured images of train travel in its heyday. (Adrian Brody was an added bonus.) Sadly, trains in a post-Soviet country are leftovers from the past and held together with something intangible like hopes and dreams. Consequently, the prospect of travel within the country lost a lot of  appeal quickly based on simply getting there. The lesser of two evils didn’t exist.
               Considering my increasing displeasure over the constant discussion of getting me married off to a “kai bitchi” (a nice local man), and the fact I grew to loathe in-country travel, it is ironic that one of my favorite memories eventually came out of a combination of the two. Years later I smile when I reminisce about it, but in the moment I did anything but.
               One cold February, my host brother, a government official, and I both had business trips to attend to in the capital at the same time. I was meeting with the Minister of Education who became mesmerized when I said I lived in a little mountain village outside of Las Vegas, which is true in a sense, but mainly I said it that way because I actually knew those words in the local language. For reasons I never fully understood, Las Vegas holds some mystical power over the local population. Our return trip involved the infamous night train. Because our employers were footing the bill for the transportation, we were able to stay in a cabin. Most of the other passengers could only afford the seats that only imperceptibly reclined for a long 9 hour train ride to the coast.
               For several days my host brother could think of only one thing, and discussed it excitedly, perhaps too excitedly, to the point where I was becoming concerned.
               “Chemi da (My sister)…I hope that our cabin mate on the train is a hot woman…that would be great.”
               My host brother was 38.
I looked at him with a considerable amount of skepticism, and slowly replied, “Really? That is all you want?” I had half expected him to say he wanted our cabin mate to be a guy that I could marry as that answer would have not been unusual in the least.
As our 10 p.m. departure time grew closer Zviadi became increasingly giddy at the prospect of the fourth person in our cabin, with the third being his work colleague. The stars did not align for Zviadi that night. Perhaps things would have worked out better if he had lit some candles at one of the Orthodox churches before our departure.
Instead, we got Marcel.
Marcel spoke no English, which made conversing with him difficult, as my language abilities were limited and I spoke with the coastal region accent. Marcel had two notable qualities. First, he was single and looking…hard. Two, he was from Dmanisi. Dmanisi is the site where one of the oldest humanoid skeletons has been unearthed. Judging from his size and stature, I would venture a guess that Marcel was a direct descendent of that man.
We quickly learned that Marcel was going on vacation to the coast, though later admitted to be moving there. Within minutes he was entranced by me, despite the fact I felt I could not look any worse than I did right then. Hair askew. Dark circles under my eyes. Old work shirt made to look even worse by poor local washing powders and washing machines. Zviadi would translate Marcel’s earnest inquires about me. He went from “Would she like to go get dinner?” to “Would she like to get married?” with a furious speed that I was even unaccustomed to and I was from Utah the move quick to marriage capital of the United States! Apparently, answering affirmatively to whether I liked certain local cuisine made me a more than sufficient prospect for marriage. My host brother and his colleague reveled at my situation. At one point, I realized he said he was going to live on Chavchavadze Street, which meant down the street from my host brother and me.
“Do not tell him where we live,” I said through almost clenched teeth while wearing a smile so as not to arouse suspicion on Marcel’s part. As we disembarked from the train I fervently prayed not to run into Marcel. I didn’t want the family to know I had turned down a serious marriage proposal from someone who might provide my children with very ancient DNA. They would be crushed, and I would bring them a great shame.

I never ran into Marcel after alighting from the train. I’m okay with not knowing what bliss might have come of that.