Distance Traveled: 6,407 mi/10,311 km
Hola! La bandera está comiendo paella con Lydia en la bella Salamanca, España. Or that is how I picture it, at least.
The notion of traveling with a flag was not a new one when I met Lydia for pizza and beer, her first week in Cheongju, South Korea. But seeing hers hang from the corner of her wardrobe, did reinforce the sense of expatriate pride that I felt there. Every European seemed to have one with them. I can’t tell you whether the Irish color the top of their flag orange, or green at the bottom (or is it the left or right), but I can tell you that the Welsh put a f*cking dragon on theirs.
I remember it being a taxi-confused pain, finding her apartment. But I felt like I owed it to her on account of Ramy, who she somehow had the misfortune of meeting first.
We were introduced over the phone, some otherwise unremarkable night. Piles of friends who were well past comfortable with each other at this point, all gathered around a coffee table in Alicia’s studio; four people scooted to the edge of her bed, most everyone else, circled-round on the floor, one at the desk chair, and the rest parked on the futon. It was apparent that we were missing someone. Then someone else, drunkenly incapable of explaining directions, handed me their purple phone. Only slightly less sauced, I expected that I was to give the address in Korean, probably to a delivery rider, that many Korean kitchens employ to cater to their customers, ingeniously via Vespas.
But it was Lydia on the other end of the line. I couldn’t place her accent, and until then, she couldn’t really place herself, after a long night of wrong turns, stand-ups, and don’t-ever-trust-Ramy. She had made it home and was just going to call it a night. It was loud with people spilling drinks and laughing, probably at Ramy’s attempt to triumph over one self-afflicted adversity or another, so I remember thinking how insincere I must have sounded, trying to convince the new, new girl to come meet our sorry lot after all, and that I was in no way associated with my friend, Ramy, who meant well, but just couldn’t keep to a plan to save his life.
A week later, we were standing at the counter of a pizza joint, looking on at the overhead menu, avoiding the eyes of the third foreigner in the room, who had breached our burgeoning conversation, in that way overzealous stalkers do. As if to win us over, he mocked his way through recounting all the petty tribulations of life in Korea (The toppings were too exotic, they couldn’t get the crust right, the sauce was too spicy…), without checking his ethnocentric tone. He was show-griping to the wrong girls. We liked Korea, and traveling, and more importantly, pizza, any kind of pizza, and he was spoiling the mood.
His came out first, boxed and tied up with a piece of thin, green, plastic string. The owner handed it to him with a curt nod, but he continued to stand there, small-talking all of us into creeper-oblivion.
When we had finally gotten our own box-and-twine, he strategically placed himself between us and the door. He said he would walk with us. I didn’t want him to figure out where Lydia lived, so instead of flipping his pizza on to his face, I decided I had changed my mind, and we sat down at a table like eating there had been the plan all along. Because with as lovely as Lydia was, I didn’t want to come off and be rude to the scumbag in plain sight.
She did me one better and raked him across the coals before he was out the door. We walked back to her place when the hair on the backs of our necks had settled, and I didn’t worry about any future run-ins that she might have in the neighborhood, because she could clearly handle herself. Of course, it helped that, like Alicia and Carly, she had lived before in China (and even survived an attempted kidnapping), making Korea a regular cake-walk.
Today, Lydia is teaching in Salamanca, Spain, a town about two and a half hours Northwest of Madrid. She is the only friend I know teaching ESL in continental Europe, which I’ve read is slightly more difficult to get into than teaching in Asia. I thought maybe there are higher qualifications, but Lydia, who managed to earn herself a CELTA during the month she was home from Korea, before diving right back into teaching, says it gave her more confidence as a teacher, but the certification is not necessary in finding opportunities there. Like anywhere else, it has its dodgy schools, not all unlike the Korean hagwon (private school) system. Lydia reports that while her American co-workers love Spain, and she likes having family and friends close enough to visit, she misses Korea and is wanting to return to Asia.
Somehow it took until it reached Spain, for me to realize that the same one flag is reaching each of these friends and they really are passing it on to one another. It started to sink in with Jade’s close-up shot from last week, when I could first make out little patches of ink against the stark white background of Taegukgi (The Korean Flag). Some of the legibles are satisfyingly long, I’ll admit; haphazard smudges that say God-knows-what, but for me, make tangible the collection of shared memories and a common bond. Now that I see it in Spain, just a few days before I will be in Spain, it has finally hit me that this thing is crossing borders, gathering the fingerprints and scribbles from felt-tips, of the people I love most in the world.
Will the flag make it to the APO address of the Air Force Base in Italy? No experts seem to know! Fingers crossed. Join us for the next episode to find out!