Postcards from Rachel, Abroad. essay by David Shields

Hi, David. Here I am in Geneva. The Swiss have the second-largest standing army in the world. They can mobilize their entire force in less than 30 minutes. All men 18 and older serve one week per year in the army, running drills and practicing shooting (I’m sure you’d love that!), or doing paperwork when they get older (more your style). They all have loaded rifles and pistols at home in their closets. I guess they want peace at any cost. They made me wait in a crowded room for my physical exam just to be allowed into the country. I had my chest X-rayed for tuberculosis. Sitting there, I realized that everyone around me was from somewhere else: Senegal, Lebanon, Turkey. I feel like the only one of my kind here. I feel like the outsider.


I’m sitting on the Quai Wilson during the Fêtes de Genève (the annual carnival). To my left is a group of young women fully dressed in Arabic clothing (sharia and jilbab). One of them thinks I don’t see that she’s staring at my naked skin—bare legs, bare feet, bare arms, neck, hair being free. I assume that she’s hot under her black robe and that she wishes she could be as free to choose as I am. It’s only when they turn to leave and our eyes meet that I realize what I see on her face is not jealousy but pity. I miss talking to you about stuff like this.


Went out with my friends last night in Geneva. We went dancing at L’Usine. “Black Night” or “Nuit Black,” as my young friends call it. (Are you starting to feel old now, too?) Most of them are from Senegal and Ethiopia and know nothing about PC. They celebrate their differences in language and culture, and they know that here the Arabs and the Portuguese are “below” them (in the Swiss’s opinion). “At least we speak French” is what they say. I didn’t realize the Swiss hated anyone openly. I’m learning a lot. I feel colorless with them. It’s nice.


On the bus on my way to work today in downtown Geneva, I saw a group of banner-carrying Serbs smash the glass bus shelter right in front of the U.N. They were burning into the grass a word I didn’t recognize. Our bus driver took one look at them and lowered the arm to the electric cable, taking an alternate route. When I came back after work, the only sign of it ever having taken place was that the grass had been mowed to a new, short length and the burnt parts sprayed with what I guess is some sort of Astroturf paint. There was nothing on the news that night. If a word is written, and no one reads it, does the word exist? Is this the sort of esoterica you’re still interested in?


Got strip-searched in Tel Aviv while trying to leave the country. I’m sure it seemed suspicious—two young Americans, holders of U.N. travel cards, coming to Israel for a four-day vacation—but that’s what it was. My friend Matthew took me on a crazy vacation before his move to Hungary. They examined our bags first, X-rayed my shoes, and ripped the film out of my camera, before making me stand in my underwear while the inspector checked me out (jealous?). I guess being white and female doesn’t always mean you’re above suspicion. Matthew thinks it’s his fault: he’s sure they could tell he’s gay.


I’m in the Zurich train station, waiting for the train to Berlin. Next to me is a large family—Romanian? Hungarian?—with trash bags and battered suitcases. Their whole lives are jammed into these bulging cases. When they begin speaking, I lean in to hear what they’re saying. It’s yet another language I don’t speak. When will I know enough languages? When will I be more than just an American woman?


Matthew’s boyfriend Nicholas wants me to marry him. No, it’s not quite like it sounds. He’s French and holds a Swiss C-permit (next best to being a citizen) and I, of course, have the almighty green card behind me. It’s tempting to imagine offering my future children all of these passports—all of these opportunities. Knowing me and my great guilt, I doubt it’ll happen. And besides, Matthew would kill me. Um, why didn’t you and I ever get married? Because being with each other we scared ourselves. (Nearly wrote “scarred,” which is true, too.)


Things the Merrill Lynch lawyer told me about Swiss work-permit renewals: 1) I can stay for two separate periods of three months after it expires (with 24 hours somewhere else in between). For this I’ll need to go to the contrôle des habitants with annonce de départ and get a visa touristique. 2) I can stay as a student and work 20-25 hours a week. I’d need to get a new permit. 3) I can try to get a job with the U.N. (I won’t need any permit to work for them). The lawyer hates this idea—of course, he’s Swiss. 4) If I marry a Swiss or a person with a C-permit, I will get a C-permit immediately. This is illegal. Guess I’ll apply to the U.N.


Not one but three offers: the first is with the International Organization for Migration, the second with the World Intellectual Properties, and the third with the World Health Organization. I think I’m going to take the IOM job. I’ll be working with a team of people creating a database and statistical reports that track immigration and refugee movements. If I stay long enough, I could get sent to work at one of the missions—Africa, Hungary, Thailand, Haiti. I’ll actually be having an effect on people’s lives. I’m sure this seems hopelessly idealistic to you, but the world is a real place, monsieur.


I found out today that the man I rent a room from goes to Thailand twice a year to sleep with prostitutes. While cleaning the living room, I found some photographs of beautiful young Thai girls and I asked him about them. He told me that if he weren’t sleeping with them, someone else would be and that at least he is disease-free, nonviolent, and generous with his tips and gifts. I had heard that this sort of thing happened, but I never knew anyone who actually did it. He’s not bad looking—he’s a dead ringer for that guy (Patrick?) we used to go to movies with in LA—and he’s young enough and interesting enough to get a woman over here, or so I thought. He said that the girls are young, sometimes virgins, and that they always ask him to marry them. Well, no kidding, I said. He’s Swiss and, in their eyes, he offers them a freedom they’ve never known. He says he’s even considering it. They don’t even speak his language. I think he just wants a sex slave. (Now, if he only wanted to be a sex slave . . .) He’s really highly ranked in the Swiss army and—get this—his name is Christian. Perfect. Time to look for a new apartment.


Went to L’Escalade and watched people run through the windy streets in the cold. The race is run every year to symbolize the retreat of the Duke of Savoie’s army. They run through Geneva’s steep streets and climb its many flights of stairs. Matthew bought me a marmite (a chocolate cauldron filled with brightly colored marzipan vegetables). It’s a symbol of the Mère Royaume housewife who killed an invader with a hot cauldron of vegetable soup when the Duke of Savoie was trying to take over Geneva. She defeated him and the city remained free. Europeans turn all of their attacks and wars into holidays.


I love the winter holiday season in Geneva. Mont Blanc and Le Salève (local mountain) are white-capped and the air is crisp and cold. The city is decorated in old-timey lights and ribbons, and everywhere I go are vendors selling roasted chestnuts. I wait for the tram, holding the warm cone of nuts in my hands, smelling their richness, and watching the Swiss. They stroll past, hand in hand, red-cheeked and smiling. I don’t know how, but they remain sweetly childlike in their fascination with holidays. Très kitsch, but I am chock full of longing and envy; I’m sure you can relate.


Szia! See ya! That’s how you say the Hungarian word for hello. I’ve been in Budapest, visiting Matthew for a few days now, and I couldn’t understand why everyone was telling me goodbye right when I first met them. This place feels so steeped in history and yet so modern. Young Hungarian women wear such short shorts that there’s not much left to the imagination. They mostly have great bodies and they dress as if they’re waiting to be discovered by Vogue. And yet they all live at home; families of 10 or more people share 3 rooms. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Hungary was shuttled back and forth between the Germans and the Russians with the fact that Hungarians remain such gentle and open people. It makes sense only when I see that all of the Communist stars— on bridges, buildings, statues—haven’t been removed, merely covered with a thick canvas. Nothing is permanent.


In Budapest, foreigners must carry Hungarian money on them at all times. If the police stop you and you can’t show them the money, they kick you out of the country. This is their solution to “squatters.” Last week a friend of mine got caught and thrown in jail. After he’d gotten back to Romania, I didn’t hear from him for a week. He’ll sneak back in later next week; he needs to find a job to support his family. I told him I’d give him some money to carry in his pockets. He said that it wouldn’t help; he’s a tzigane (gypsy) and looks like a tzigane and will always be forced to leave: See ya!


Driving through northern Italy with friends. The beauty of this area amazes me. Mountains and water—so green and blue that only Italian could describe them. And the black gray of the tanks that appear quickly as we move through the switchbacks. Europe never lets you forget that you are fragile, that you are different from everyone else on the planet, that this difference is both lovely and awful. Ah, but you already knew this. We knew this together, didn’t we, sweetheart? Love, Rachel



David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), and Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Forthcoming are War Is Beautiful (powerHouse, September 2015), Flip-Side (powerHouse, 2016) and Other People (Knopf, 2017). The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, The Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages. “Postcards from Rachel, Abroad,” is an excerpt from the forthcoming Other People: Takes & Mistakes (forthcoming: Knopf, 2017), and originally appeared in Conjunctions on the Web (online) and in Enough About You (S&S, 2002).

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This entry was posted on June 29, 2015 by in essay and tagged .


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