I move amongst daggers, pendants, golden calligraphy, amulets, candlesticks, jugs, bird pins, perfume sprinklers, jewels. The fingers of another time offer these gifts. I’d like to lay down my Marc Jacob’s bag and pink Gucci glasses onto Fifth Avenue, surrendering my eyes to a blurred and beautiful world. I tell my emails to stand in line, and they bunch together, hands on hips, sending each other on pretzel runs to the corner bodega while I gaze at nudes. Unfurled and alone at the Met, I imagine myself sitting on crimson cushions, sharing goblets of wine with ghosts whose indigo stained hands rest on my knee with love. It feels holy to breathe space around these objects. In the sculpture garden, I toss two wishes into a sea of shiny wishes, and the collective gasp of still stone creatures warms my shoulders.
The museum closes, and I travel from Rome to Egypt to Syria to 82nd Street. Europeans sprinkle the museum steps and sidewalk, and I walk towards a couple leafing a map.
An and Kristof are in New York for the last two weeks of a six month long vacation. They come from Belgium. Their eyes sparkle and their skin crinkles. I am amazed by their travels and ask for details. They tell me that first they went to Asia – China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Then they went to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and then the west coast of North America. Now they’re in New York, and they’re going to Guatemala last. They stand close to each other.
An is a social worker who works with mentally disabled people. She took a leave from her job to travel. Kristof quit his job – he was a campaigner for an animal rights organization.
Two years ago they went to Africa and last year they went to Peru, and they always dreamed of travelling for a longer time. An’s wind band decided to go on tour to China last December. An plays the clarinet, piano, and the trombone. The couple knew that a friend was getting married in Tasmania in February, and they thought…let’s not fly back to Belgium from China and then leave again one month later for Australia. So two months became three months and three months became six months, and they started to tour the world together.
I ask them how the trip has affected their relationship. An says, “Oh, people said – six months together? You’ll have a lot of fights and you won’t know what to say to each other any more.” Kristof laughs, and says that their travel was a confirmation of their relationship, that it’s been an unbelievable six months.
They met at a student’s home in Belgium eight years ago.
In the museum, An and Kristof saw statues from Greece, Egypt, and Europe. Kristof says, “Auguste Rodin is one of An’s favorites. We saw the Burghers of Calais, which we saw in Paris, too. I think it’s a replica here. I really love masks – African masks. We saw things here that we also saw in Australia and New Zealand. I was a little bit refusing to come to America. The image of America is totally different than what we experienced here. It’s unbelievable. The west coast, the four corners, and now New York- it’s unbelievable. The image of America is not always that great in Europe. But together with Vietnam, it’s the best part of the trip.”
Luckily, for An and Kristof, the United States and Vietnam are no longer engaged in active combat. I ask them what their personal impression of America was before coming here. An thought of America as a country perpetually at war.
Kristof says, “The image of America is old, conservative, Republican. It’s totally not the case. Everyone helps you in the subway. We had the totally wrong image, I confess.”
I ask them to tell me about their travels.
Kristof shares, “Once we were making some mistakes about booking a hotel. We realized at 9 at night we would have to sleep in the car. We were between Yosemite and San Francisco. We couldn’t find a motel with any vacancies.”
An says, “First we saw an RV camp but we couldn’t find anyone who was responsible for the RV camp. So next door was a church and there was a big parking lot, so we thought it would be ok to stay there. There was one camper in the parking lot and the woman came out of it and started looking at our car. I got out of the car and explained the situation. She said, ‘This is actually the minister’s house. The minister and his wife live here. It’s a home. You just have to ask if it’s ok to sleep here, and probably it will be ok, but just ask their permission.’ So we went to the house. I was thinking – can we just leave? We have to ask a minister? We’re not Christian people!”
“A woman opened the door and I explained our situation, and she said – it’s ok for me, and the minister will probably think it’s ok, too, so just park here. So in the evening, we were taking our sleeping bags and organizing the car because it was full of stuff.”
Kristof interjects, “We were really changing clothes.”
An admits, “Yah, we were changing clothes. It was really hot. We were putting on shorts. A car came, and I was like – oh shit. I put on my shorts. There were flashing lights. It was the police.”
“The sheriff came and said, ‘What’s going on out here. And we explained the situation. I said, the minister’s wife said it’s ok, and he said ‘I’m the minister.’”
“He was the sheriff and the minister. In Belgium, that’s really something that we always thought could happen in America – that the officer of law is also the minister. If you get a ticket, suddenly you have to go to the preacher. We laughed a lot about that.”
Oh holy America, where in some states, the job requirements for the sheriff match the job requirements for God’s emissary. Do we judge and punish as a country? Then I think about guillotines and the Crusades. Judgement and punishment does not belong only to the United States. What about Dostoyevsky? What about ethnic cleansing? Just a couple of hours earlier I stood before a Roman sarcophagus from the 300s with the inscription: “If anyone shall dare to bury another person along with this one, he shall pay to the treasury three times two thousand. This is what he shall pay to the city of Portus, but he himself will endure the eternal punishment of the violator of graves.”
My parents would never speak to me like that. Eternal punishment strikes me as harsh. Authority? Blech. What is the point of Roman magistrates paroling the Elysian Fields?
An and Kristof smile easily. They talk easily. I like what they wear – An wears a poofy white skirt. I like the lines in their faces. I like that they only planned to come to the Met for 20 minutes. My European friend once said that Manhattan is an island off the coast of Europe. Well, we certainly don’t wear cowboy hats in the city, and I have no desire to hang an American flag out of my 3rd floor walk up window. But…how European are we? Do we take naps? Can we pick figs from trees in central park or fall in love by the Jersey Shore?
I want to be still, yet from time to time, that preacher-sheriff appears on my liberal Jewish free to be you and me shoulder admonishing me through missing teeth that my hair is too long and my heart is beating too softly, and there is a litany of things I should to be doing – anything but what I am doing in this moment. Surrendering to the romance and spirit of life sometimes feels like medieval Texas torture.
On a trip to Jerusalem fifteen years ago I met a friend sitting on a couch and drinking beer from a communal refrigerator. We spoke of love (and sex) in the ancient city. When I left An and Kristof, this out of touch friend’s name appeared in my head. She is from Belgium. We haven’t been in touch in over ten years. I emailed her when I got home, and the next day she wrote back. These ghosts are alive, making pottery, playing music, getting married. My friend from Belgium spells October Oktober and has a cat named Sjimmie.