“Anya, Anya!” She runs up as I emerge from a birch thicket.
“Can you show me how to go outside?” she asks, panting slightly. “I’m gonna piss my boxers.”
I try not to snicker — more difficult than you might think, as she keeps repeating herself in that skin-grating Michigan accent.
Don’t think I’m awful. I tut loudly when the red-nosed host fathers make ethnic jokes, slurring their speech during the seventh toast of the night. “Anya, listen, listen. An old Armenian is on his deathbed: ‘My children, remember to protect the Jews.’ – ‘Why Jews?’ -’ Because once they are dealt with, we will be next.’ When they ask “What’s like to have a black president?” — the play on words too vile to think about directly. I sit, stony-faced. I draw the dark-skinned ones aside once we’re airborne, hurtling from Columbus to Frankfurt, telling them, apologetic, “People will stare outright. Be prepared, okay?”
“Oh my gosh, seriously, Anya, I’m gonna piss my boxers. How come there’s no toilet out here?” she demands.
Some summers the kids aren’t so bad. They try to learn the language, verbs of motion, palatalization — soft l’s and r’s and t’s — imperceptible to the American ear. They go to the market in cautious groups of threes and fours, returning with berries, mushrooms, bunches of dill and parsley sold by ladies in kerchiefs to supplement their meager pensions. I’m proud of their openness, their curiosity — the best traits of my adopted nation.
“You have to show me how. There’s not even a port-a-potty!” she whines, tears welling up. Used to getting her way by sobbing: Mom, I want Juicy Couture jeans; Daddy, buy me a Jetta. She’s crying in earnest, and I’m seized with the urge to shake her, to shout: How have you never learned this, Jessica? You’ve never gone camping, been caught unaware on a hike through Clifton Gorge? Never pulled over on Route 29 to find the gas stations all closed and gone, desperate, behind a dumpster?
Look, I know. Being a woman, going outside, it’s tricky. Especially out here in the woods. What you’re wearing factors into it. A knee-length skirt, bare-legged, ratty Chucks on your feet, is best; whereas two-sizes-too-small stilettos and skintight jeans are guaranteed to end in failure. Most girls rotate whatever they’ve brought with them, tissue tees and cargo capris, battered in cold water washes for eight weeks straight. There’s usually one, though, eager to feather herself like Grus leucogeranus, a girl who starts dating a local by the third day of class. Smoking thin perfumed cigarettes, drinking warm beer every night. It always ends with cringe-inducing visits to the host family to apologize for her inconsiderate behavior.
“What’s wrong with this place?” she snots, “What’s wrong with this country?”
Petulant brats, raised by germaphobes in sterile, sealed McMansions, every surface dusted with lemony Lysol. They send me endless emails. “Helicopter parents,” the study abroad coordinator asked during my second interview, “What’s your experience dealing with them?” They complain to their parents: about the filth, the tiny, scratchy towels, the bland breakfast kasha and the gassy mineral water at lunch. They pick at meat cutlets in the cafeteria, consume nothing but chips and Coca-Cola on weekends. Bought from gleaming hypermarkets filled with variety, unthinkable, undreamt of twenty years ago. Israeli citrus! French cheese!
“Nothing is wrong with it,” I tell her, level as I can. “Go find a tree to prop yourself against, use a leaf when you’re done.” She shuffles off, snuffling.
I should’ve warned her about the nettles.