Nuns on Bikes and Problem Geometries—

—among other things, have kept me occupied these long months working on a book proposal for a travel memoir about the around-the-world trip the TravelJen blog documented. Hopefully you’ll have a book in your hand someday—that is, my book, not just any old book. (I know you already have other books, being the literate sorts that you are.) It includes a chapter called “Nuns on Bikes and Other Revelations” that picks up where the blog left off—in Poland. Later chapters cover a return trip to Warsaw on assignment, some surprisingly revelatory gambling in Atlantic City (who knew that was possible?), and happy happy Spring days in Istanbul with Steve, my indomitable HusbandMan.

What the final chapter is, I don’t know yet. The thing is, I’m still living the book. Life isn’t providing me any easy-to-tie-up narratives these days. But then again, when has it? The ends we draw on our stories are arbitrary, because the world goes on without them. It ignores our limits and our lines in the sand.

Henry James wrote: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere…the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing: drawing circles.

Until my as-yet-imaginary book is in your hand, you can read about some of my adventures by clicking on the months at right or searching in the little window below them for any of the countries I visited—China, Vietnam, Thailand, India, UAE, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, the UK, or Iceland. You can also try terms like “elephants,” “politics,” and “bondage.” The results will be both more and less exciting than you would think.

Also take a look at the photo galleries. I’m working on getting together a photography show, with actual, touchable (well, don’t touch em!), corporeal photographs hanging in frames on real, honest-to-god walls.

Thanks for reading. It’s been lovely.

Proud to Be Polish

For those of you still reading the TravelJen Blog (anyone? anyone? Bueller? Bueller?), my apologies for the long delay since the last posting. I’ve now been back in NYC as long as I was overseas and have been stressfully busy as all hell. While the trip abroad seemed to last much longer than four months—more lifetime-y than one-third of a year-y—the past four months back home have passed in a dismayingly fast, and largely unsatisfying, fashion. Blame it on the wanderlust that still puts ants in my pants. But I’m determined to end the TravelJen Blog, and not just let it peter out. It can’t go on longer than a few more weeks. I mean, this is getting ridiculous. Meanwhile, last week I took a non-fiction book proposal seminar at my graduate school alma mater. Hopefully this blog will have formed the skeleton of a larger project that will, inshallah, result in something you can hold in your hand.

And then, double inshallah and technology willing, I’ll start a new blog that will actually capitalize on the real-time aspect of the Interwebs—you know, daily updates and the like. Think travel, science, culture, books—and the future. (Cue Evil Mastermind Cackle.)


When I was a kid, my father had a T-shirt that said I’m Proud to be Polish! But this was not your standard off-the-rack nativism (which in America, of course, is often immigrant flavored). For one thing, there was the color: a safety-cone orange, a Tang-toned blaze that was both Saturday-morning cartoon and Better Living Through Chemistry. And then there was the quintessentially 1970s fabric appliqué the words had been adhered to the T-shirt with—a slick and rubbery patch that always tweaked the latent teething toddler in me. (Well, at least with my own T-shirts. I left my dad’s alone.) Finally, there was the actual phrase. The word “Polish” was misspelled five times, each iteration skewed at a “wacky” angle and then crossed out. The correct spelling ended the list. It had a gleefully triumphant exclamation point: Polish!

The fact is, most of the Polish jokes I heard when I was a kid I heard from my father and other second-generation Poles, as well as from Italians and the Irish, whose blood I can also claim a touch of. (See: Mom, freckles.) Like every other word “taken back”—think nigger, fag, or bitch—the derisive terms for these later European immigrants were eventually used by them. In northern New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s, Polacks, Wops, and Micks routinely smacktalked each other along a clearly satisfying continuum of white ethnic slurs. The Brzezowskis and the D’angelos and Fitzgeralds called each other stupid (Poles), lazy (Italians), and drunk (Irish), and then made babies together. That’s how you wind up with someone like me, who according to these tropes is genetically drunk and stupid. Forget being proud to be Polish. I’m proud I can find my own face.

But if I thought growing up with constant reminders of my Polish background might make me feel some sort of intrinsic connection to the Home Country, I was wrong. In fact, my experience turns out to be the opposite. Many of the things I encounter seem so intrinsically Polish, and so completely unrelated to anything in my family history, that I end up feeling more wholly American than ever.

It all comes down to the nuns on bikes.

So a Solidarity Icon and a Former Leader of the Free World Walk Into This Bar…

Monika‘s mom is trying to tell a joke about Lech Walesa and Bill Clinton. It’s not going well, because she can’t stop laughing. To contain the giggles, she tries ducking her chin towards her beer, which she has clutched to her sternum. To her left is her sister, whose house in Augustow Monika, her mom, and I are guests in on Mother’s Day in Poland. This sister looks more like a twin than a sibling and probably is genetically compelled to laugh along. To her right is Sabine, this sister’s neighbor, who has the second most contagious laugh I have ever heard. (The first was a lover from college. Alas, the memory of his titter lasted far longer than the fling.) I am next to Sabine and helpless not to laugh when Sabine does. It’s like being tickled. Monika, her cousin, and her cousin’s friend fill out the rest of the table. There is a dampness to us, and a bit of happy hysteria that is half female and half beer.

We women retreated inside a half hour ago when an early summer thunderstorm rolled in purple-green waves above the fields between us and the road to Lithuania. Our backyard barbeque has been officially rained out. Monika’s uncle and Sabine’s husband, by virtue of being grillmaster and male friend, respectively, nevertheless remain outside, the backs of their plastic chairs pressed against the house, periodically squinting up in disappointment at the dripping eaves. They drink Foster-sized cans of Polish beer and poke the grilling meat. Poland is the first predominantly Christian country I’ve visited in nearly four months, and nothing establishes this fact better than the grill. An inventive array of a half-dozen types of pork singe to tasty on the flames. I choose kielbasa and something vaguely baby-hamster shaped. Both are delicious.

Our women’s table is a bit punchy. It could be the beer, thought we haven’t had much to drink. It could be the humidity, but the beer is keeping us cool. Or maybe it’s the joke about Lech Walesa and Bill Clinton, though we haven’t heard much of it yet. Monika’s mom is still snorting and gasping her way through it. Brushing tears from the corners of her eyes, Monika translates the joke so far. It has something to do with Lech Walesa giving a bison to Bill Clinton. Surely, Poles love their meat.

I have understood this much when we are interrupted by Monika’s uncle, who stands damp and sheepish in the doorway to the patio with a look that says he’s rather be inside with the women but can’t for a whole host of reasons, one of them being that we’re a group of women—an impenetrable coven. He holds a tray of getting-soggy pork. The storm has doused the grill flames.

“What should I do with this meat?” he asks his wife. Hearing this, Monika’s mom takes one look at the tray and loses herself in merry shrieks. I guess I can assume the bison in the joke was in cutlet form.

“Maybe he should give the meat to Bill Clinton,” I say. Monika says “HA!” and translates. Her poor mother is nearly apoplectic. Sabine slaps the table and then my shoulder. “You know, I live in New York,” I continue, and Monika passes it on in Polish. “I could give the meat to Bill Clinton.” I rap my knuckles on the table and mime extending a tray to Billary’s front door with an eager flight-attendant smile. Now everyone is half crying and half laughing and clenching their stomachs.

Trying to catch her breath, Monika turns to me and says, “You are doing very well.”

We never do get to the punchline.

Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary: Getting Lei’d, Toe-tally Taking Advantage

Bosphorus Express Couchette Car

he Hungarian Anesthesiologist is having trouble focusing. His eyes strain to settle somewhere between my apparently impressive breasts and the Great Beyond.

But he’s focused, all right.

“I’d like to have sexual relations with you,” he slurs, eyelids bobbing up and down like a drowning man in rapids.

I raise my eyebrows. I haven’t been within 5,000 miles of my husband, Steve, in three months. The last three weeks in Turkey have been particularly rough, the sexual pressure increasingly, ahem, mounting. Despite my noncheating ways, or perhaps because of them, there is a supernova of TAKE ME NOW! radiating out between my thighs. I am confusing men (and some women) with it. Still, I’m not going to shtup this guy on the Istanbul-Budapest train clink-clunk-clinking through the foggy Bulgarian night.

But I wish this anesthesiologist would try a little harder. I’m worth it, even if I’m not going to put out. His come-on lacks all art. It’s comical and clinical—a fatal combo. Maybe this approach works with the unconscious. (“Don’t move if you want to have sexual relations. Okay, I will do as you ask.”)

We are six hours into a two-day train ride from Istanbul to Budapest and three hours into the screw-top red wine I brought with me. Earlier, the Hungarian Anesthesiologist—let’s call him HA—and his travelmate, the impressively overweight Trauma Bone Surgeon (never has there been a more grievous collision of three words), invited me to hang out in their compartment, which is right next to mine. We three are the only passengers in this car. TBS disappeared a while ago with beer and a CD player. I am sitting cross-legged across from HA. I took off my shoes hours ago, a pair of black mules I bought in Istanbul that are the first really feminine thing I’ve worn in months.

HA leans forward and puts his hands on my knees. I raise my eyebrows so high they’re climbing into my scalp, but I don’t remove his hands. Not just yet. It has been three months since I’ve had hands on my thighs that weren’t my own. I feel like one of those mangy guard dogs at Coney Island that used to be locked in all winter with the rides. They would lean into the fence when you passed by, staring at you with needy eyes, hoping you’d touch them just a little, just for a moment of warmth, just for a merciful reprieve from their soul-hollowing lack of pack.

HA is monumentally drunk, existentially drunk, in-outer-orbit drunk. He slides his paws up my thighs. His face attempts a wolfish leer, achieves sleepy puppy. He is quite cute. When he nears the fun zone, I shove them off.

Leaning back, he switches tactics. “I’d like to fuck you.”

Now that’s better! A little enthusiasm!


“But you are so beautiful,” he protests.

“You’re so drunk,” I correct him. “And I told you. I’m married.”

“Yes,” he says with a charmingly insouciant shrug. “But your husband is very far away.”

“That is true,” I agree.

There is a silence as I realize this full weight of this. My husband is really very far away. So far away this one-night stand could happen and he would never, ever know. Hey! Maybe it would even be his fault that I cheated. Sex is a natural and healthy part of mental and physical hygiene. Where the hell is he when I need him? It’s not fair, dammit. So what if I’m the one traveling around the world for months and he’s the one holding down the fort back in Brooklyn? That’s just a technical difference. He’s not here, and I am so horny I might swoon.

Or maybe—and here comes the second realization—it’s the combination of Xanax and wine that’s making me all romance-novel-cover. Anticipating sleeping in a crowded couchette car for six, I had taken the anti-anxiety pill just before getting on the train. Turns out the car was mine alone. Now reality is coated with a thick gel. It’s like maneuvering through a languid underwater version of a classic scene. Woman Flees Overly Persistent Suitor in Slo-Mo.

“I think it’s time for me to go,” I say, twisting closed the cap on the bottle of wine.

And that’s when HA grabs my foot and shoves in his mouth.

As he moans around my toes, I start to laugh. It’s absurd and unreal. It’s like being attacked by an enthusiastic labrador. Woman Flees Foot Fetishist. But he is sincerely transported, groaning and whimpering at once, revealing such a deep need that even as I laugh at the bizarreness of the situation—is a Hungarian anesthesiologist really huffing my feet on a crappy train through Eastern Europe?—I feel a sort of tender pity. I don’t know if there’s anything in this world that makes me as ecstatic as my toes are making him. Kicking him off would be like kicking a puppy.

I wait until HA pauses to breathe and gently extract my foot from his grasp. I slide it, damp, into my shoe. His shoulders sag. He seems vulnerable and defeated, and suddenly far more sober.

“Well, good night,” I say lightly.

“Yes, good night.”

The next day at 4 pm, we pull into Videle, Romania, to wait for our car to get hitched to a train to Budapest, where HA and TBS are returning after three weeks backpacking in eastern Turkey (they smell like it), and I have to catch yet another train to Warsaw. It’s roughly 18 hours after we left Istanbul, and Videle is, honestly, nofuckingwhere. It’s so quiet that it takes me an hour to realize we’ve even stopped. Even my book, which is pretty lousy read, is more engaging. We have three hours to wait for the Budapest train.

There is no food or water for sale on the train, and the only amenities are sheets and a pillow, which are surprisingly clean, and a bathroom, which is unsurprisingly not. In Videle, you can restock for the overnight trip to Budapest if you have Romanian currency, known as lei. I do not. Coming back from the station shop, HA loans me some. I promise to pay him back when we arrive in Budapest the next morning. “Oh no no, this is no problem,” he says, avoiding my eyes to take in the stray dogs lounging between the train tracks. He looks queasy and embarrassed.

I buy sausage and feta cheese and some deep-fried snack that is the unholy union of a potato chip and a peanut. I’m almost out of wine, so I also buy beer.

According to TBS, who has periodically joined me in the hall of the car to lean his forearms on the open windows and breathe in the sometimes green, sometimes mechanical air of the relentlessly November-gray Romanian countryside, HA has spent the day yakking out the window and sleeping it off. When HA loans me money, it’s the first time I’ve see him since the border crossing the night before. Border police had banged on our compartment doors at 4:30 am. For 30 minutes or eternity, dozens of people zombified by interrupted sleep had wandered around on the tracks as if waiting for a cue from George Romero. As we looked out the train window, HA pleaded with me not to leave the train with my passport, as if the undead really were out there waiting to eat our brains.

“You cannot go,” he said, nearly in tears, weakly holding my arm. “You cannot. You must not. No. You are too beautiful—”

“I’m too beautiful to get my passport stamped?” I snarled, yanking my arm out of his grasp. I do not wake from a wine-Xanax coma in a good mood. I promptly went outside and did my own undead shuffle until herded into a cruelly bright office where after filling out a tourism questionnaire about my visit to Turkey (why? at 4:30 am? on the Bulgaria-Romania border? is this a dream?) my passport was stamped. Eventually we got back on the train. I slept well. I had a pleasant day in my compartment listening to music, writing, and watching the green fields flutter by.

Now, as nightfall nominally darkens the already bleak landscape, we pull out of Videle. The train chugs along. I read. The window is open to the cool and damp air. I am cocooned in the warmth of my sleeping bag. It’s a delicious combination.

A couple of hours later, HA and TBS invite me next door. HA seems to want to pretend nothing happened as much as I do. I bring the rest of the wine, as well as the feta cheese and sausage and beer from Videle.

We talk about Hungarian music for a while, about which I know exactly nothing, and then about Goethe and Kerouac, about whom I know only a bit more, having never read Goethe (one of those Somedays) and having hated On the Road. (As far as I’m concerned, the Beats can suck it.) TBS stays long enough to bum a Xanax and then disappears, as he had the night before, into an empty car with beer and his CD player. I wonder if he thinks HA is going to get into my pants. I get the feeling this isn’t the first time this has happened. TBS has the long-practiced resignation of the sidekick who gets out of the way while his good-looking friend gets the girl.

And the fact is: HA is awfully attractive. He is lean and fit with pale blue eyes. He is unassuming. He’s intelligent, well traveled, and well read.

But, as I dutifully recall, I’m married, and there’s only wine in me tonight, so I’m horny but not swooning. I relax into our conversation. We are on the not-so-cheery topic of anti-Semitism in Hungary when I stretch my feet across the aisle, cramped from sitting cross-legged for so long. They are perhaps 24 inches from him. My toenails are painted a slutty purple exactly the color of my mom’s favorite boots in 1981, which was applied six weeks ago during a friendly but half-assed pedicure in Kerala, India. My feet also have a less appealing film of sleeping-bag sweat and Istanbul street dust.

As we talk, HA keeps glancing down at my feet. Just to see what will happen, I begin to use my right foot as a tool of emphasis, pointing it around the car as I describe how when I was 13, my best friend, who was Hungarian, was suddenly not allowed to be friends with me anymore. “Her father told my father that he didn’t want his daughter to be friends with a Polish Jew,” I say, aiming my foot toward the compartment door. His head swoops to the left. “My father only told me this about five years ago.” My foot wags from side to side, and his eyes follow it as if watching a tennis match. “I don’t know what my dad was more stunned by: the guy’s anti-Semitism,” I continue, my foot briefly alighting on my opposite knee, “or that the guy thought he was Jewish,” I finish, bringing my foot to rest on the red velour next to him. I casually cross my ankles.

“But what about your feet?” he abruptly asks.

“My feet?” I say innocently.

“Yes, how are they feeling? Would you like a foot massage?”

I’d take a free foot massage from a crackhead outside the Port Authority. I promptly rest my heels on his kneecaps. He begins to rub the ball of my foot. His neck is tense; his mouth wants to strain toward them, but he resists.

“So you like feet, doncha?” I say conversationally.

“Yes, very much,” he says, not meeting my eyes. We’re silent as he rubs my feet, roaming from the heel to the pad, rolling the knuckles between his fingers like money, squeezing and kneading as if working bread dough. He tries to keep his mouth away.

The thing is, he isn’t very good at massage. Perhaps this foot fetish is new territory for him, an urge he’s only beginning to explore. Perhaps this train ride through interchangeable countryside—connected to nothing in his real life, where he puts people to sleep for a living, where perhaps his girlfriend (does he have one? I don’t even know) freaked out when he rolled his tongue around her pinky toe one brave night—has opened up to him the possibility of doing something he has long desired, something he may have been told isn’t right but feels oh so right, something that only he and I would ever know about.

Suddenly I am cringing with guilt. I had thought this was an equal exchange. He gets to touch my grubby feet, and I get a free foot massage. But it seems clear that I’m taking advantage of him. What would my husband say about abusing this guy’s kink just to get a foot rub? Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. That’s what. I try not to think about what he would say about letting HA touch me at all.

I lift my feet out of HA’s palms.

“Thank you very much,” I say lightly.

“You’re welcome.”

There is a silence.

“I should probably go.”

“Yes, good night.”

“Good night.”

We pull into the Budapest central station about 8 am. HA and TBS figure out their respective trains, say goodbye, and then HA helps me to find the line to Warsaw. With a wave, he quickly takes off.

It’s only a week later as I am boarding a flight from Warsaw to London that I realize I never repaid him for the lei.

One-Offs with Sounds: Hidirellez Festival, Istanbul

Hidirellez is an annual Spring holiday celebrated on May 5. In Istanbul, it’s a five-day street festival that rocks Ahirkapi, an area near Sultanahmet, where several of the city’s most famous sites cluster, including Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Archaeological Museum (including the Museum of the Ancient Orient), and the Main Bazaar. Dogan invited me to join him and his friends to check out half-dozen many bands, and in particular Buzuki Orhan Osman, a German-born Greek musician who leads an amazing orchestra through Roma, Greek, and Balkan tunes. We were supposed to hook up with Sercin and Cem—I considered calling her from my mobile, as I had a shiny new TurkCell phone number—but somehow we never got in touch. It’s a shame, too, because she would tell me later they didn’t have a very good time, whereas we had what can be officially categorized as a Blast.

This is what some of it looked like, and how some of it sounded.


The streets were sardined with enterprising kebab makers, cheery Efes pourers, and hawkers of those quintessentially Turkish blue-glass amulets that offer protection against the evil eye.

Smoke, kebabs, and Efes, the Budweiser of Turkey.

Smoke and Kebabs

Each band was surrounded by a twisting throng of dancing Istanbulites spilling their beers all over each other and not minding a bit. We headed for the deepest section of the festival, a large arena surrounded by Byzantine walls.

The mildly demonic-appearing Osman (right) and his orchestra jack up the already boisterous thousands into a shimmying frenzy (Listen).

Demon Band

Everyone dances. EVERYONE.


When they’re not dancing, they’re singing along, as Dogan and Ismail do here.

Dogan and Ismail

My dancing was considered insultingly tame. I learned that the shoulders must shake, and the arms must fly overhead. The hips must whip back and forth, and sometimes you do the bump.

More Dancing

Osman is known as a bouzouki master. He was remarkable. He even played the instrument backwards over his head. Here he leads a call-and-response scattin’ extravaganza (listen).


It’s traditional to welcome Spring with a leap over a fire. We came across this one in the street a few blocks away from the festival, just past a police station.

Jump your way into noncorporeality!
Flame-Jumping Woman

Flame Jumping Kid

Thanks to a flash, I maintained my solid state.

Flame-Jumping Jen

And that’s goodbye to Turkey.