Sweden <--> Ohio: Student

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Stranger places to find resonating descriptions of travel might exist, but this, for me, is the strangest yet. Brian, of the MP3 blog Moistworks talks about travel and I'm jealous:

"I remember feeling caught between the sadness and disgust I felt at the shore's utter ruin, and the sense of wonder, of interest (the sensation I crave most), sparked in me by the tableau-- the Christmas trees lined up like mummified sentinels and a rotted wreath hanging on a raw wooden post; some of the tires so barnacled that only their shape betrayed them, clustered and weirdly beautiful, like archipelagos viewed from a plane. It was as if the debasement of the world renewed my ability to perceive it, which is the ultimate goal of all travel, and even now, several days back into my routine, some part of me is still standing on that windy dune, the malevolent refuse of a construction project looming behind me, they sky violent and bruised, rotted pine at my feet, staring down at those artificial yet glittering skerries, caught between conflicting desires-- for the world to be always transformed, yet somehow preserved."

I've been waffling on posting about my Turkey trip with A (a male friend from the states).

It was good, overall, though exhausting, and in the end I was so tired, emotionally overwhelmed, and burnt out that I have to say I might have hated Istanbul more than a few times before we got on the plane to leave.

I expected that feeling to disappear as I got back into the rhythm of Swedish life (conformity, equality, nature). I thought the exhaustion would improve my feelings retroactively, that a good night's sleep in my own bed, a few meals of knackebrod and muesli and yogurt, and I'd be missing the amazing kabobs, the joyful insanity of taxim, and the delirious contradiction of modern transport among ancient city walls.

I still don't miss it.

It's been two weeks since A and I left and I still don't have an interest to go back anytime w/in the next 5 years (after that, yes). As I think about why, this is what I've come up with:

Turkey is like the USA. Sweden, while it has problems (oh *does* it!), is characterized by far _far_ more equal power relationships between men and woman. This is the closest thing to gender equality I've ever seen (and the best situation I expect to see in my lifetime). Turkey, while having (like us) officially separated church and state, is still a shitty place to be a woman. There are official reports I'm sure, documenting the differences, enumerating the health, economic, and status detriment that your sex has on your life expectancy, general well-being, and access to power.

My firsthand experience of Istanbul was glowingly positive for the first 4 (of 6) days that we were there. At my insistence, A and I told everyone that we were married (when registering for hostels or in casual conversation) and I told people that I was from Vancouver, Canada.

A said he was from Canada a few times, then started telling people he was from Chicago. While I applaud his convictions of honesty and truthfulness and ambassadorship for our depressingly backward country, it wasn't a risk I was willing to take (my rationale went like this: I don't agree with the policies of our country, so I'm not willing to risk my safety on defending our collective reputation).

What happened on Day 5? I told someone (a hostel-worker guy we'd been friendly with several times and were having enjoyable conversation with) that A and I weren't married.

Bad move. An hour later, we're on our second cup of free coffee, we've just seen the (private, guests not allowed) rooftop view of Istanbul including glorious view of the Blue Mosque and the nightlife of Sultanamet. Not bad, right? I'd also pried my hand off of a hostel bannister where it was crushed in an attempt to sneek a kiss while A's back was turned (don't worry folks, this was a "polite" attempt and it was foiled). As we exited this fine establishment, I got desperate hand-grabbing, promises of rides home before our plane ride the next morning, and more offers of free drinks (maybe alcoholic ones this time). Charming, huh?

I was glad I was as tired, exhausted, and dead sober as I was that evening, because I can say it wouldn't have been particularly safe to be anything else. I also feel I got the polite treatment (no, I'm serious, this really felt like the local concept of polite) because I was a tourist and in a progressive, tourist-friendly, liberal section of the city (and dealing with someone self-described as liberal, educated, and whose job and livelihood was dealing with tourists). I can't imagine if I were poor, drunk, non-western or less-assertive.

A and I walked home quickly, staying with well-traveled and well-lit public streets -- and I thought about the absence of this feeling: this fear, of bodily harm, of lack of self-ownership, of rape, that I've been "missing" for the last four months. It's subtle, but I feel no fear walking home alone across a dark campus late at night, even drunk, here in Sweden. I'm perfectly comfortable sitting in a remote, basement room of a building I don't live in, stark-naked, all alone, late at night. (It's the campus sauna, in case you're curious.)

The contrast is in how familiar that feeling was, how expected, how normal, and how unsurprising - I'm "used to" the high-alert super-paranoid expectation of someday dropping my guard in exactly the wrong circumstances and suffering the "consequences", as we call them, of being drunk, wearing a skirt, having breasts, staying out late at night... and being female.

So do I want to come home? No, not particularly. I don't miss that feeling and I don't miss the lack of autonomy, or being treated like public property... or dirt. It's a feeling advanced education, a powerful job, money, investment portfolios or other markers of success can't eliminate.

Had a long conversation with another female American exchange student last night. We traded experiences and observations of the shocking-to-us gender equality, and our own responses to the occasional reminders of the constant fear we live in in the states.

We also bitched about the conformity, the culture-wide racism and frustrating same-ness... and how much we miss the diversity, relatively quick acceptance of immigrants, and widespread personal expression back home in the states.

It's not perfect here, but I expect to miss it for a long time.

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