You Never Know Just How You Look in Other People’s Eyes

train passenger
By Gina Easley

By Nicole Walker

There are several ways to get to Siena, Italy. For Erik and me, to get out of Lecce, a town notched in the heel of the boot of Italy, and into Siena, where, if these boots had laces, you would tie the knot, we had to take a car, then a train, then a taxi, then a plane, and then another train and then walk straight up hill to the medieval city that is like Florence if Florence had not become heart-of-the-Renaissance-Florence. We took our first train from Lecce, through Brindisi, to Bari.

We are competent train takers. We take the subway when we’re in New York. We know you can sit forward or backward. We don’t get motion sickness. We can walk up and down the aisle. We know it is not like a car or a plane, but, admittedly, even though the Burlington Northern and Amtrak make us wait at the crossing in our Flagstaff hometown twice a day, we know trains as occasions, not everyday transportations.

The train from Lecce into Bari was late. We got into the cab to head to the airport. I told the driver, “We are late,” in whatever pretend Italian I knew then and have since forgotten. We were blond and carrying rolly suitcases. In Lecce, no one pretended to know English like I pretended to know Italian. But in Bari, the cab driver pretended to understand. Maybe I showed him the plane ticket. It was 11:40. Our flight left at 12:15. The train station is nowhere near the airport. I know he understood me because he spoke the international language of late-for-the-airport. He drove on the sidewalk. He took a left in a lane marked “right turns only.” His tires scraped curb. He stepped on the accelerator to speed around a bus to turn in front of it, bus honking, breaks squealing.

Now might have been a good time to tell the cab driver I was pregnant. Being pregnant shifts your perspective. Suddenly, your life, as protector of fetus, becomes much more precious, even if it’s a pregnancy you’re ambivalent about—it’s hard to be pregnant in wine country. Unlike normal times, making the plane on time seemed less important than surviving the cab-ride. But I did not know the word for pregnant and, although my perspective had shifted slightly, I didn’t want to bug the driver who was concentrating very hard to make a third lane for the taxi-cab where two lanes only existed.


We thought we missed our flight. But then we read the arrivals and departures wrong. We had time to make it to the gate where we had prepaid for assigned seats. In Europe, people who fly Ryan Air rush like Barian cab drivers across the tarmac, suit coats flying, hand holding hat, to get their seats. Erik and I fly in America where our seats are assigned, and we board as soon as possible because sitting in a too-small seat ensures on on-time departure. In Bari, I walked to my seat like a pretend-calm person even though I did not understand why there were two staircases leading up to one airplane. The flight attendants had opened the back door of the plane to let us board. I did not know planes had back doors although I did know, thanks to my desperate attempt to keep the plane from crashing by listening attentively to the safety speech at the beginning of every flight that “the nearest exit may be behind you.” That an exit can also be an entrance is a very European idea.

After that, easy peasy, as Max, who was then only a two-month-old fetus, would say as a five-year-old now. He lived. We lived. The flight. The cab ride. I did not know how dangerous knowing only iPod Italian might be. When we arrived in Siena, our host spoke English. The knot that had been in my stomach, squishing fetus Max, unwound. I would give anything for a host for forever, someone to take me to a foreign country, find the airport on time, speak Italian to the taxi driver, explain why Americans don’t use two staircases to board the airplane from the front and the back.


It’s impossible to know how high the seas will rise. Maybe they won’t rise much at all. Maybe whale poop will sequester the carbon. Maybe the mushrooms will. But some maps predict a bleaker future. In Grist Magazine, Greg Hansom describes pictures of sunken cities, newly named reliefs like Sea of San Diego and Archipelago of Bainbridge. San Joaquin Peninsula is all that’s left of Orange County. The coast we know now probably won’t disappear in our lifetime but in the next or the next or maybe sooner if the coal keeps burning and the cars keep driving.

I say “the cars” and “the coal” as if I am not sitting in a house, typing on a coal-burning laptop as the heater kicks on and pours naturally gassed heat upon me. As if the “the” means I won’t drive my Honda CRV to pick up my kids from school. Another article in the same magazine claimed that it’s liberals as much as Republicans who are the problem. We blame them for denying what we believe is there. But somebody else’s denial is necessary for us to believe that we liberals are doing the right thing, which is a whole lot of nothing. Nobody wants to be blamed for the Santa Monica pier falling into the ocean, but no one also wants to turn the heat down to fifty-five degrees in the winter or the air-conditioning to eighty in the summer. Heck, I have a dream to drive Route 66 all the way from Santa Monica to Chicago, Illinois. I wish I’d driven my car to Italy. Cars are a host country, like a planet. Every gum wrapper and seat print is our own. Our dreams are our cars. They take us out of here without it having to feel the pain of the unfamiliar. But, as the seas rise, perhaps we should get familiar with the boat.


In Siena, the Palio happens twice a summer. Around the Piazza del Campo, horses race. Men, called Camparsa, in medieval outfits parade flags from their district through the streets toward the piazza. The streets, lined with nearly black cobblestones, are bordered by tall, connected houses from the 1300s, red flags, black stone, a Duomo, the Siena Cathedral.

The food in Siena was not the food of Puglia, which was dominated by broccoli rabe and orchiette, a whole-grain pasta. Siena had pizza. It had gelato. It had the food of the American Italian Vacation and it had wine I couldn’t drink. Like a proper tourist, I bought a scarf for ten euros. Like a tourist full of regrets, I should have bought a hundred. We stayed in a hotel that overlooked a garden. The piazza formed a circle where, during the parade, the horses rode around and the centuries swirled around and everything was stone which is how you make a city last—make it stone, make it circular to keep the art inside and the pillagers out. You keep the Renaissance at bay by keeping Florence down the street. You keep nature managed by turning it into a vineyard called Tuscany. Italy is a land of circles made by square painting frames and plots of grape and tomato vines. In Siena, you can’t see far because of the tall houses and the circling streets. It is easy to get lost although most of the time, the Duomo is in sight but the middle of the Duomo too is round and so if you end up on the wrong side of it, you might never know.

And I didn’t know, when we were on our way back to Lecce, to return to Zoe, the already-born kid, who was being watched by her attentive but window-opening grandparents who didn’t know about the Vape that you plug into the wall and emits some mosquito death vapor—and who could know of them? They, like we, are from the United States where we have DEET but no Vapes and so invited a thousand or so mosquitoes into their cottage to feast upon our already barely-alive daughter. She wasn’t really barely alive, but she had the Bad Lungs and the RSV and the inhaler broke the minute we plugged it into the wrong wall adapter. We adapt less well to the foreign world. We have made mistakes. We repeat them. Mosquitoes can sting more than once.


The mosquitoes are getting worse. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that mosquito-borne diseases are already spreading more rapidly. In the regular times, like the eighties, at seven-thousand feet elevation, people are safe from mosquitoes carrying Dengue Fever. Dengue-fever-carrying mosquitoes once didn’t travel higher than 3,200 feet. But it’s getting warm up here. Mosquitoes don’t suffer from altitude sickness, just the cold. Which it is not. Not even in December. Scientific American, in a September 27, 2013 article notes that incidences of Chikungunya, a disease carried by the Tiger mosquito, which causes high fevers and rashes, is on the rise in Western Europe. Zanahoria, Italian for mosquito, was a word we all knew when we left Italy. Chikungunya is a word we do not know but maybe experienced that long night in Lecce when Zoe couldn’t sleep.


Erik and I wouldn’t be late for the plane this time. We made it to the Siena train station early. I read the schedule. Or, I tried to read the schedule. Pisa CSE, Pisa Centrale. Trenitalia. One stop in Empoli. Isn’t there a nonstop?

Erik and I peered through the glass, the train schedule old and blurry. Our phones didn’t work then, in Italy. The computer, as the nebulizer adapter died when we plugged it in, died on the plane in from Rome. If it were 1960 and Erik and I were on the platform, perhaps then things would have made more sense. We would have studied the book harder, not being so lulled into submission by easy info access on our smartish phones. We would have taken trains more often, understanding that Centrale and One Stop were the same idea. Perhaps, in the 1960s, when the mosquitoes were happy at 3,200 feet and San Diego was confident of its shores, we would have been more versed in chivalry. Perhaps it would have been a time when Erik understood One Stop and Centrale to be the same destination, I would have trusted him. Perhaps if all our verses had been written in 1960s chivalry, he would have waited for me while I was in the bathroom instead of getting on the train without me. Perhaps I would have trusted him and his new British friends as they all waved to me to get on the damn train. Perhaps my 1960-self would have been more credulous. Of course Erik made new British friends and boarded a train without me. If only we could go back in time and then, again, in time, because it keeps coming, time, perhaps I would have jumped on that train, full of belief and trust in trains I did not know and toward the only Pisa that could have been waiting for me.


We use the word “believe” when we talk about climate change. Fox News doesn’t believe it. Members of the National Resources Defense Council do believe it. Readers of Scientific American mostly believe it. Belief is the word you use when you cannot be sure about the future. And the scientists aren’t sure how high the mosquitoes will fly. They aren’t sure how high the oceans will rise. Belief, though, whether you do it or not, only worries about the future. When you believe in God, you pray to him to make good things happen. When you believe in climate change, you believe that maybe good things don’t. One of my mentors believes science will save us—big carbon scrubbers in the sky. How is hope different than belief?


Instead, I did not get on the train. Erik did not get off the train. I stood on the platform as the train pulled away. Erik stared at me through the train window. Incredulity is another word for stubborn. I sat down on the concrete platform, underneath the schedule that predicted when Erik would come back. I’d figured out the train schedule by then but not my husband. I figured out that he might have been right about all trains leading to Pisa but that didn’t necessarily make me wrong. I waited as one train came back. Two trains. Three trains. He was not on any of them. I figured out that maybe sometimes it’s important to just go with the person you are with rather than let your butt get cold on the concrete platform of the Tranitalia Empoli station. Longing is another word for not knowing what to do next.


If I had a house on the Olympic Peninsula, built fifty feet behind the neighbor’s property, which reaches out to the shore of the Puget Sound, how long would I have to wait until I could claim millionaire status for my now-ocean front property? When the water swallowed the neighbor’s strangely-suburban lawn? When the water lapped at my neighbor’s duck-dotted welcome mat? When the country duck hanging as a welcome sign is as wet as the doormat? When the roof of my neighbor’s house makes a nice fishing dock? You are silly to think oceanfront property will mean anything when you have to stay indoors to keep the mosquitoes from injecting their malarial parasite near the now-warm waters of the Puget Sound.


Eventually, I got on a train to Pisa. Eventually, Erik came back. Our trains must have passed each other. When I got to Pisa, he wasn’t there. I went back to Empoli. He wasn’t there either.


The seas have risen far enough to turn Queen Anne into an island at least once before, Jurassicly. They can do it again. Of course, the pretend house I built on the Sound will be under water by then, but, then, the sea doesn’t mind the taste of human constructs.


Finally, our flight back to Bari, back to our mosquito-ridden daughter, back to our flight back to Rome that would get us out of Italy nearly departing, I rode the train back to Pisa. I had the plane tickets. He had to be there. And he was. He stood at the edge of the platform. If this had been a movie, I would have run to him. He would have run to me. Open arms.


I am a good swimmer. If not a good reader of schedules or husbands. I am ready for you, warm waters of the Puget Sound. I know it would be too much to ask for you, dear ocean, to leave me any oysters.


But this is not a movie. His arms are folded. Crossed. I’m so happy to see him. My heart thrills. I am home. But still. I cannot believe that he left me behind.

He says, “I cannot believe you.”

Which I take to mean, I cannot believe in you.

But I say, “You can’t believe me? I can’t believe you!”

I touch my arms. My hair. I am here.

“You’re the one that left me,” I say.

“You never trust me,” he says.

“I’m the one who speaks Italian,” I say.

“You cannot read a map,” he says.

“I came to you. Twice.” I say.

“I went back for you,” he says.

We each folded our arms because no one wants to believe they misunderstood a schedule, a wave, a bathroom break, a pregnancy, a train-trip to somewhere so beautiful so badly. If this were an O’Henry story, this would have been a love story. But this is not O’Henry. Erik was raised by a single-mom who did everything by herself—made peanut butter and jellies, went to work, paid the mortgage, bought a car, hiked in the desert, took the kids to the dentist, mopped the floors. He doesn’t believe that just because I had to pee, just because I was pregnant, just because I wanted to be convinced by the signage, that I shouldn’t have just gotten it together, got on the next train, and met him in Pisa. A feminist is the guy who figures his wife will figure it out. His mom could have done it herself. And, on my side, I don’t believe I should have just trusted him, just gotten on the train just because he said so, without even talking to me. I’m a feminist who doesn’t believe anybody should tell me what to do, even if that means I wait on the platform for two hours to be rescued by some chivalrous husband who does not believe in chivalry. Two stubborn faces staring through the window. There’s no way to know how to go back. I sing a version of the Charlie on the MTA song,

Did he ever return, no he never returned 
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Pisa
He’s the man who never returned. 

Erik doesn’t laugh. And then he does.


You can know a few things. You can know this: No one is going to rescue us. We are going to miss our flight from Pisa to Bari. We are going to miss seeing our kid, with her mosquito bites, harboring a virus we cannot pronounce. We are going to spend the rest of our lives passing our traveling companions on the train from Pisa to Empoli, from Empoli to Pisa. But we won’t know what it feels like until we open the windows and actually touch the water. Until then, all we will see is our warped faces, reflected back at us. Duck decorations can’t swim. I should have believed Erik instead of staying put and hoping he’d come back to save me.

They say with time, you look back and laugh. For Erik, that’s not so long. For the island of San Diego, it’s too soon to know.


NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg  (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University where she will host the 2015 NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

Read more FGP essays by Nicole Walker.

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By takomabibelot/ Flickr

By Jim Krosschell

The rocks we perched on still show at high tide. The rising sea has not yet taken them—as a refuge, or a memory, they may last our lifetimes. They peek out above the waves like a little archipelago, dry and safe.

When my daughters, Kate and Emma, were young, we ventured out almost daily, especially in the first blush of vacation. It was an exercise in re-bonding suburban lives fractured by schedules and performances. We could get to the rocks only at low tide, and we would not stay long, for the tide rises quickly on these shores, and the surf is unpredictable, and it would have been a little too adventurous, having to disembark—or embark for that matter—in the wet. No, we climbed up our battlements when the only barrier to access was the slippery rockweed littering our path. The tops of the rocks themselves were weed-free, un-colonized, suitable for timid people from cities south, exciting for two young girls, nine and seven, who liked to pretend they perched on unassailable islands, perfect for their father who knew better but hoped for a different future anyway.

The rockweed presented a problem, though. It looked irredeemably slimy. We stepped around it, in a crooked, almost drunken way, not brave enough to touch by foot and certainly never by hand. “Ewww!”, that totem word of childhood, afflicted my family too. I even warned my girls when we set off down the shore about less obvious dangers: the barnacles that would scrape your skin raw and those black or green mold-like patches on the boulders we negotiated. “Don’t step there,” I said, “especially if it looks wet. It’s very slippery.” Naturally then, I warned them off the rockweed, whose piles appeared bottomless and would suck them in—we were not to test it in our nice sneakers certainly, no matter what live treasures of crab and baby lobster lay all goggle-eyed underneath. In our early pilgrimages we avoided most things organic, which die and rot and stink; our special rocks were dry, clear of processes unknown, safe above the tide.

A few years later, we discovered tidal pools. The three of us had been progressing farther and farther away from home, and about a quarter mile down the shore, past the houses on the bluff and a long stretch of jumbled beach, we found classic Maine pink-granite ledge, smooth and worry-free. The pools were hidden, flooded at high tide, barely accessible at low. But we persisted, older now, less squeamish, contorting our bodies to peer into crevices, where the rewards were hundreds of snails and a score of exotic starfish. I even started combing through the rockweed a bit, lifting it up like great hanks of hair to show Kate and Emma the cute little green crabs hiding in the fronds. I didn’t know at the time that some of those crabs were invasives from the south, pleased to enter the warming waters of the Gulf of Maine and feast on lobster like the rest of us tourists.

We’ve progressed far in fifteen years. The world is hotter, and seems more violent, or at least more instantly connectible to disaster. Maine is now more than a refuge for me, now that my daughters are grown and gone, Kate still on the Atlantic but the wrong side, in Denmark, and Emma just moved to California, an hour from the ocean but the wrong one. Maine is an ark on the floods. This week after Thanksgiving, I sit in the house, staring at water, staring east in fact but both east and west in spirit. The solitude of the shore seems tinged with loneliness today, a place halfway between, and although I give thanks for new lives and exciting independence, I miss my children terribly.


Seaweed is the icon of Maine least likely to star on a blog or a brochure. If you look closely, you might see a frond peeping out at the base of Thunder Hole in Acadia, or a strand or two on the great expanse of Old Orchard Beach, or a discreet pile artfully arranged around a lobster about to be boiled. The photographer or dreamer operates generally at high tide, when seaweed hides, when the lines between surf and stone are clean. Mess doesn’t sell.

But the stuff is everywhere, especially the farther north you go, where the shores wear it thick as an ill-fitting wig, not entirely useless but almost. It is harvested, to be sure, as fertilizer and thickener, and it has achieved a little notoriety as “sea vegetables”—the various kelps, for example, which have long been eaten around the world (the nori of sushi rolls in Japan, dulse as a cocktail party snack in Ireland)—but seaweed is down at the bottom of the roster of marine exploitables. Most Americans like their food familiar, bland, processed by Big Ag; seaweed has a strong taste, and smells of low tide even after drying and processing. The number of evangelists for seaweed, even in Maine with its riches, approaches zero.

When all the fish are gone, perhaps only then we’ll turn to Gouldsboro Bay, where I’ve read of a seventy-year-old man, probably crazy by modern definitions, who cuts kelp by hand, standing in a wetsuit on offshore ledges, buffeted by heavy surf. We’ll believe him when he praises kelp’s effect on his immune system, and we too will pray for the enlightenment of humankind: eat kelp, live long, for it will restore the seawaters whence we came and heal our guts and blood. We’ll believe the research and the analysis, the richness of kelp’s minerals, trace elements, vitamins, enzymes, high-quality proteins, and the ever-sexy phytochemicals, the claims of tumor inhibition and reduction of cholesterol and conquering of viruses. But not until we’re desperate, in the coming dystopia.

Rockweed, however, the most plentiful seaweed, is not very edible, not even by New Age humans, and has been harvested but minimally for fertilizers, advertising no sex appeal whatsoever. Until recently.

It’s one thing to see a man in a skiff scraping rockweed off ledges with a long-handled rake. It’s quite another to see a huge mechanical harvester in your cove. In the new age of peak oil, natural fertilizers look pretty good after all.

Rockweed dominates the intertidal zone of many northern shores. It grows slowly; after a normal life span of ten to fifteen years, its fronds may have reached eight feet long. It survives all but the heaviest of surfs by attaching to rock with sucker-like holdfasts. It sports air-filled bladders along the fronds, to lift it to sunlight at high tide. Scientists say that as many as one hundred fifty species of animals—birds and shellfish and minnows hiding out—rely on rockweed for survival. Thus, Maine’s fishing industry may depend on it. And rockweed protects not only commerce, but the whole shore. Not for nothing is it commonly called knotted wrack, as if to cushion the intertidal zone from the ruin of ocean storms.

I wish that, at the beginning of my years here, those very years while my daughters were growing into their own lights, I had focused us more, found one baby rockweed plant, say, marked its holdfast, and every week crouched at the shore, in the wet, in our old sneakers, to observe its progress to adulthood. That bit of shore would have become precious in an entirely different way.

Stepping back now from that edge, I can at least suggest that “knotted wrack” is a wonderful description of our current dilemmas.

Predictably, every living thing, even weeds, will be exploited eventually. Predictably, environmentalists find a bully pulpit only when the big machines arrive. It’s inevitable that the Rockweed Coalition (“no-cut zones”) will battle the Maine Seaweed Council (“the sustainable use of seaweed”). Our ecological problems are as local as ownership of the intertidal zone in Maine (nobody quite knows who can do what, the law is ancient and not clear); as knotty as livelihoods versus legacies; as intractable as feeding the stomachs and aspirations of seven billion people.

A few years ago in our cove, we could expect to see a moored boat or two almost every summer day. Rakers scoured the sea bottom for sea urchins to satisfy the craze in Japan, and in two years the urchins were wiped out. This past spring the price of elvers, baby eels highly prized in Asia, reached two thousand dollars a pound. I give the fishery maybe five years before it’s gone. An invasive red seaweed from Asia via Europe threatens our New England shores; it suffocates all life in its path, stinks when it dies, and ironically enough, might be controlled by sea urchins. Every day of every year, the U.S. loses five thousand acres of land to development. I listen to my daughters talk about climate change. There’s despair in their voices, a resignation to the inevitable.

The idyll in Maine may last longer than in most places; but we lucky ones have equipped only ourselves to survive, have equipped no descendants to adapt, and we survive mostly by dreaming, sitting on our rocks above the tides.


Rachel Carson, in The Edge of the Sea, called it the underwater forest: “The trees of the forest are the large sea weeds, known as rockweed, or sea wracks, stout of form and rubbery of texture. Here all other life exists within their shelter—a shelter so hospitable to small things needing protection from drying air, from rain, and from the surge of the running tides and the waves, that the life of these shores is incredibly abundant.”

“Small things”: the plainness of prose can sometimes be devastating. The shore still calls out thrillingly, here in Maine especially, but Carson’s simple joy from just sixty years ago echoes today with the terrible probability of its loss. Even the simplest shore will be stripped. I look at it as if some kind of sympathetic pain, some horrible probe from the future is invading our days and fracturing our DNA and our children’s DNA, leaving but a moment or two, here and there, of fullness.

We know we’re failing the forests, yet we continue on raking, year by inevitable year. Which means that the human essence is now failing, which means that I, too, am failing to protect these smallest of things, a minnow, or a weed, or a girl’s touch. It’s so easy to sit by, stunned and timid, just because I can still find a primeval sense of life in Maine, because Maine can offer to my family and to anybody who believes in these words some kind of sanctuary, the way life used to be, a place where blood is still seawater. I respond to the seashore too often just for its beauty, or in fear of its slime, and do little about its exploitation besides manipulate words. And if that’s the legacy I’ve given my daughters….well, I haven’t shown them how to muck, how to see like an animal. We’ve gotten far too used to our lavish city comforts, to our ability to escape in our cars from the cars.

The very nature of our bodies is being altered—that essence of salt water in our veins, those proteins in our brains designed over millions of years to treasure sunshine and open space and the creatures, even the slimiest, of the shore. I wish now that I had taken Kate and Emma squishing and laughing into the forest. I wish we had gone a little crazy in the surf. It might have made these passages a little easier.


JIM KROSSCHELL divides his life into three parts: growing up for twenty-nine years, working in science publishing for twenty-nine years, and now writing in Massachusetts and Maine. His essays are widely published (see his website).