I’ve missed the sunset and it’s quickly getting dark, twisted oak silhouettes against the dusk-gradient sky. I can hardly make out the path, just feel the air currents shift, cool dips and warm hills. As I’m walking to the park gate, I see that my faint shadow is walking ahead of me. I turn to see the rising harvest moon, a bright heavy disk just cresting the hills, and I wonder why I don’t hike at night more often.
My first disappointment in Transdnistria comes right at the border, when the border guard does not stamp my passport. In the currency of world traveling, a stamp from a non-quite-real country would offer top dollar bragging rights. But since it is a not-quite-real country, it seems they are not allowed to stamp passports willy nilly, so I meekly accept my returned passport and a flimsy paper visa and resist asking the fatigue-clad border patrol for a photo.
Transdnistria’s main appeal, for a tourist, is its gray zone status, essentially independent yet not recognized, a pseudo-Soviet enclave with its own government, police, flag, currency and stamps. It’s a short minibus ride from Kishinev, Moldova, where I am visiting family, and where no one is particularly excited about visiting this upstart republic, but my cousins decide to humor their Americanized sibling with this trip.
My passport-related disappointment evaporates as we get into central Tiraspol, Transdnistria’s capital. For one thing, in front of a staid government building, there is a high pedestal topped with Lenin in a cape. A cape! For another, I spot a Soviet tank. The tank is part of a war memorial and is covered with small children holding balloons while their mother snaps photos. I wait for the children to disembark and then I, too, take a photo next to the tank, gleefully, like the tourist I am. Then we take a photo next to a billboard with the Transdnistrian coat of arms, for good measure. It’s been 10 years since the war of independence and the town is adorned with festive billboards featuring an emblem of wholesome-looking wheat, grapes and corn surrounding a hammer and sickle (Moldova’s old crest, in fact, with some editing – it no longer proclaims, “Workers of all countries, unite!” but is replaced with the succinct “PMR,” for “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”).
Tiraspol is tidy and not especially bustling, but every step feels loaded with meaning – we’re in Transdnistria, and it doesn’t even exist! I have an urge to send out postcards from the twilight zone, so we walk up the main drag to the post office. I write a few cards with great enthusiasm only to be deflated after I’m told that they need Moldovan stamps. Transdnistrian stamps apparently turn into pumpkins upon crossing the border. In typical post-Soviet fashion, I am also told that sticking decorative Transdnistrian stamps onto my cards might result in them being returned to sender, even though technically I’d be adding postage. You win round 2, Transdnistria.
To console ourselves, we spend our monopoly-money bills on some local beers and sit across from the Parliament, Lenin’s bust serenely staring out at us, then meander over to the train station past buildings decorated with old Soviet reliefs and mosaics. Then, anonymous apartment blocks, leafy courtyards, overgrown sidewalks – Transdnistria is much like Moldova, but with more Lenins. What a difference a border makes, charming this city into something much more exotic than the sum of its buildings and streets. Existent or not, I am still counting Transdnistria towards my visited-countries list – even if I’ll have to accept the photos, not the passport stamp, as proof.
Fiona Apple does not write happy songs. Her songs range from quietly melancholy to rip-your-heart out painful. They are confessional and raw and not pretty. A couple days ago, I heard her live for the first time at the Mesa Arts Center near Phoenix with my best guy friend. We’ve had our share of late nights with gin and tonics, discussing our latest romantic woes and looping Fiona songs. We were long overdue for this concert.
Hearing Fiona Apple live takes gut-wrenching to a whole new level. She does not so much sing the songs as channel them, like malevolent spirits. She moves jerkily, swaying, or tapping her feet, or swinging her hips rhythmically, as if possessed by the lyrics and by the raw emotion they conjure. Even in the recordings, the rawness can’t be completely polished away, but live, the music comes out with growls, shrieks, a not-always-tonal force of pure feeling.
The concert is emotionally draining for me not only because of Fiona’s delivery, and her lyrics, but also because of my long history with her music. I caught on late, by the time her album “When the pawn…” had already been out over a year. I first heard “Fast As You Can” – which happened to be the concert’s dramatic, backlit and strobe-accented opening number – and fell for her completely. Her music got me through some painful breakups and heartache, and I constantly return to and reinterpret her lyrics as my life experience shifts. It’s hard sometimes to identify with Fiona – some of her songs are so tortured that you want no part of them, you look at them from a distance and feel relief at the smallness of your grief by comparison. Other times, her lines summarize your experience so accurately it’s jarring. Take “Used to Love Him”, which she also performed that night as I mouthed along with all the lyrics:
So why did I kiss him so hard
Late last Friday night
And keep on letting him change all my plans
I’m either so sick in the head
I need to be bled dry to quit
Or I just really used to love him
I sure hope that’s it
Late at night, listening to a song like that on repeat, there is no need to say anything else.
I don’t believe in the mystical but I do want to believe in the magical. “Magic” has a broad definition for me – it can be anything unusual, beautiful, inspiring. I want to be awed, to think about the world in a new way. I did not look at guidebooks before driving out to Sedona; I craved that pure feeling of surprise. And when I came around a bend and had my first view of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, I could feel it. The landscape was flat, the sky clear and blue, and in between were these two alien-looking red formations, so dramatic, my breath caught – just as I’d hoped.
Speaking of the occult, Sedona has a reputation as a new age hippie haven, with its crystals and palm readings and vortexes. The tourist rat maze of Uptown was chock-a-block with offers of palm readings and aura photography in addition to the usual t-shirt-and-magnet stores. I can handle some level of kitsch, and was there long enough to buy a beautiful smoky quartz pendant. It came with a descriptive card – I just so happened to pick a stone that is not only a “super antidote to stress” (much needed), but that also “gently dissolves negative emotions,” “neutralizes fear of failure” and “absorbs electromagnetic smog” among others. I’d certainly like to believe it.
My real spiritual moment in Sedona came about, coincidentally, near a vortex. I’d hiked up the Boynton Canyon Vista Trail, and was standing between the Kachina Woman formation – a sort of tall knobby spire – and a rounder knoll which marked the site of the vortex (as I learned only later). The view opened up over the flat forested landscape with a minimalist skyline of red cliffs and mesas. Light from the waning sun angled sharply between the cliffs behind me. I felt myself breathing a little deeper, whether guided by the swirling energy or by the view, I cannot say. As I made my way down the path, red dust reddening further in the angled sunlight, a stranger hiking up smiled at me – 60ish, tan, white haired, a disarmingly open expression on his face. Just a simple greeting, and then he held out a stone to me, a red rock heart that fit in my palm.
Magic is something unexpected. It’s been a tough year for romance, high in angst and low in resolutions. I can’t help waiting for some measure of internal balance, and I wanted badly to take this as a small sign that things, really, were pretty good. As I walked down the path, I kept spotting stones more-or-less heart-shaped propped in tree branches. I held my small perfect sandstone heart and listened as my friendly stranger played a flute melody at the top of the outcrop. It was a little mystical and a little magical and very, very peaceful.