[Dickinson, North Dakota] Modern Dakota is not a spaghetti western. Sun-creased ranchers don’t greet you from porches, shotguns on shoulders, sizing you up with generations of homesteading instinct. When I knocked twice the woman inside slunk away from the window, never to be seen again. The second house’s plastic blinds split open then bounced shut when I rang the doorbell. Twice. The third house: a farmer practically reaching through the screen to shake my hand. He let me park in the drive for two weeks, agreeing that the US$84 fee at the nearby airport was too much given the vast expanse of field all around.
[Toronto, Canada] The bicycle heightens awareness. The repetitive motion of a physical activity in which death is always two tons of metal and inches away forces you into a single-minded absorption. The hour between the sushi restaurant and her second-story apartment is now permanently etched in my mind, each turn her extended arm, a wrist limped gently downward, a slow flutter of fingers that marked the way as if sprinkling every corner with happiness. If my happiest moments involve bikes, why don’t I ride more often?
[Zurich, Switzerland] Not Alps, plots. Tiny squares of self-sustainable argriculture. Even from the air the Swiss are precise and well-groomed. After a quick up and down from London and a rapid train through the suburbs, a high-ceiling’d station opened like an echo chamber of summer sounds. Julien stood near the highest arched doorway. Years back we met in Buenos Aires, both of us having run out of South American runway. Now, in his home country, he traveled three hours to buy me beer and chocolate and reaffirm that life is less about finding one’s own self and more about creating one’s own path.
[Tirana, Albania] “Respect is above the law.” This is how the man explained the system of honks and high beams on the unlit, unmarked highway. His words summed up everything that was right about Albania—and also everything that was very wrong with it. Disrespect, by this logic, is also above the law and inconsistent punishments are dealt out during fits of irrational rage. A single act of disrespect can and does ripple blood feuds through generations, sons killing sons to avenge the deaths of great grandfathers they never knew.
[Shkodra, Albania] “Eight-five percent of Albanians lose their virginity in a bunker,” he said raising a shot glass and sipping slowly as if remembering that dank, dark moment of youth. I liked the imagery: kids defeating the old order from within by out-regenerating the bastards. Refilling our glasses, he told me his father was a bunker builder responsible for some of the 700,000 cement sores that still remind the country of its communist past. “Did he believe in the cause?” His eyes scanned mine, looking for the joke. “You cannot not believe, you say yes always. The only other option is jail.”
[Thethi, Albania] Her olive-skin could be dirty, bronzed, or both. A layer of dust is the only blush she’s ever known. With cupped hands she drinks from waterfalls, head down eyes up, like a doe whose only defense is heightened hearing. With the tips of her dirty blond hair still wet we smash a log just because. From trees she picks leaves then discards them when distracted by cloud formations. The cliffs have faces too, she shows me. Provoking sheep with bahs, each louder than the last, is her idea of the perfect date. My partner is a 12-year-old peasant, and I forgive her for chipping my camera’s lens with reckless ant photography.
[Thethi, Albania] At first I was intrigued—I was watching democracy sprout from the wreckage of a whacked-out dictator—but after 15 minutes the ever-escalating discussion got old. Every language’s politcal talk rises in tone, but Albanian spikes in decibels. In our ten-seater van, on that rutted single track up the side of a mountain, each argument was jet passing over stadium. Demokratike blah blah blah! Socialiste yadda yadda yadda! Komuniste derpa derpa derp! Cows defending those who milk them dry.