by Elias Tezapsidis
The healthiest way to have dealt with being rejected (or “not having received”) the Erasmus Mundus scholarship from the European Commission is something close to my current plan: get stubborn, develop certain skills, try again. During the year that I will have to wait prior to reattempting this, I am on a somewhat tight budget. While I love the idea of doing another demi-educational trip like I had done last year, when I met A, my fiscal allocation for such a thing cannot be on a similar level. Therefore, I decided to look into other Erasmus+ opportunities. The name of the Erasmus+ program was “TRAIN YOUR DISCONNECTION” and it qualified as a training course/youth exchange. I think that the training course part indicates we were to learn something and the youth exchange element implies there are people from various places in the European region. Diversity!
How this experience unfolded can be discussed in two ways: in terms of what we, the participants, were supposed to take from the program as a result of planned activities by the hosting organization, and (in retrospect, more importantly) from each other, through interactions, frictions, tensions.
The program was going to take place in Bergolo, Italy. This, I had to first learn myself, then answer multiple times, is not Bergamo. It is a village of 60 permanent inhabitants in the North-East of Italy. The way I imagined it prior to arriving was: picturesque, architecturally impressive, rural. The way it turned out to be: all the aforementioned, but also somewhat empty. Not just in the sense of lacking in citizen numbers, but more so in the sense of having been created to be beautiful as a destination for such initiatives. In my opinion, to be an “Artists’ Village” there need to be artists living there, and in the case of Bergolo, despite its unquestionable natural beauty and immaculate preservation, the Artists were… outsourcing their work there for prize money.
But before I get hypercritical, perhaps I ought to start before the program’s start.
The selected group was to meet outside the Porta Susa train station. There were two participants of each ethnicity for the countries taking part, and having texted the other Greek participant, I was nervous to meet her. T was abysmal in the preparation of the one assignment, and we had to prepare together, a simple “icebreaker” possibly assigned to us as a means to make us come closer to the other person from our country prior to the actual program. T, in her frumpy attire and annoying phony alternativeness was absolutely the way I had anticipated her to be. Sporting a large beach hat, and continuing marking her existence as the antithesis of punctual, she complained about the high temperature. She had childish blue eyes and the healthy skin of a vegetarian, a fact about her which she would proceed to remind anyone who would listen for the forthcoming weeks. I greeted her, hating myself for pretending to be nice, but I knew that we had to work together and there was no point in letting her know I disliked her.
The way she presented herself before actually meeting me in person was: a student of speech therapy living in Athens who is extremely passionate about music, specifically the flute, and interested in figuring out a way to combine these two interests. All I had said about myself was that I was a writer, editor and fact-checker who had mostly worked in New York City. I guess that sounded equally awful and pretentious, if not worse. What should I have said, that I am in between identities? She would not have even appreciated the confusing humorous truth. I am transitioning towards a sustainable adulthood.
Eventually, all 20 of us had gathered together, and got on a perfectly air-conditioned bus—think successful American mall temperature—for a four-hour ride that turned out to be six, due to our driver’s distaste for google maps and the mountainous adventure of an unpopular destination. I always envy those who have no trouble sleeping on buses. I, unfortunately, do not identify as such an individual. Usually I watch three to five movies on any transatlantic flight. Instead, I spoke to X and E, the two UK participants. They were funny and witty and I was relieved; not everyone on the program would be like T. X was from Turkey, E from Iran, and they both currently resided in London. They both looked a bit sad, and that was an emotion I could easily relate to, find myself in during this time. It seemed that this would ultimately be the sort of trip I dreamed of: mentally challenging but intellectually stimulating.
One of the funniest things about Real Housewives Of New York is the way in which Ramona Singer hunts the best rooms when the NY franchise goes on a trip. That Ramona is the absolute worst is a well-known verified truth, but this awfulness makes her a persona grata of the show. People tune in to see her callousness, self-absorption, lack of perspective, her Edgar-Allan-Poe googly eyes. Sometimes when we see bad behaviors, either as a child witnessing a parent, or in this case as a watcher of RHONY disgusted by Ramona, we decide we want to be different from what we see. In this instance, I knew I would not be one of the people who upon arrival would hunt down the best room, with the better view, bigger bathroom. I was, intentionally, the last one to settle in, and this worked to my advantage. It turned out that one room was unoccupied, meaning I would have what I needed most: my own space. As extroverted as I can be, I need alone time to be happy, and this setup enabled my reflective introvert to thrive. Better yet, my room connected to the room taken by X and E, however briefly, as it turned out E would jump ship within the following 48 hours.
On the first day, we watched a TED talk on social media and its impact on mental health. I found it to be a monolog of idiotic, self-involved questions about body image, self-awareness and the idea of “GOING DARK,” as in not using technology to present a version of our lives.
Later in the day, we divided ourselves in additional “Reflection Groups” with which we were to discuss all the activities moving forward. My group included a German who lives in Denmark, a Romanian with Hungarian roots, a Polish person who came from Lithuania and a Bulgarian who lives in Germany. I believe I played the role of the conversant frequently, often filling in pauses or silences, perhaps at times needing to laugh or be less serious. We would spend about an hour each day with this group, and I think this was a structure that ultimately played an important role in making this a memorable experience.
Prior to turning in all technological devices, we were asked to set goals for ourselves, and mine fell under two categories, emotional and intellectual. My emotional obligation to myself was to stop obsessing over J, who was probably in rehab and not allowed to communicate with me. My intellectual obligations varied, but they included taking notes of what occurred (which evidently I did truly do) but also revising my now “old” manuscript (still lying untouched).
I really did not like the primary instructor of the course. His name was L, and he was very Italian in a villagey way. He was buff-ish, with blue eyes, blunt skin and the annoying Brooklyn man-bun I thought had died and been buried somewhere in East Bushwick in 2014. He was very controlling already, and I thought it necessary to elucidate my dislike of this fauxthoritativeness. The mention of a girlfriend in the following days shocked me among others, I just thought he was a mean gay, but honestly I am relieved by his straightness. Don’t wanna be claiming that! He rolled his rs, his English was not bad but unintentionally funny and the mispronouncing of “fact” as “fucked” is one I will never let go of, as a fucked-checker.
L talked to us in self-helpy vernacular which my brain detested but my psyche welcomed. I had learned by now that resisting doing what you are told takes more energy, consumes more of your being. I was there, and I would play along. So, do you know, accowding to L what makes a goal smawt?
So, on my emotional goal of ceasing my longing and waiting for J, the program would be a grand aid. No phone means no contact, means no bad news, no sociopathic family members fucking with my Zen state. This was, immediately, a huge relief. I suppressed my yearning for ten days. In the grand scheme of what is now three and a half years, this seemed a fair break to give myself from worrying about someone else.
On the intellectual side, I wrote down romantic things such as
“Go through FICTION in its ENTIRETY (caps from the notes, direct copy):
→Read as a reader
→Read as editor
In their measurability, I am comfortable disclosing I met 0/3 of these. But I also jotted down: “Re-realize how to introduce healthy online presence,” and this, banal as it may sound is something I did get a sense of how to return.
A crucial part of the course was to exclude the use of all technology. In ceremonial fashion, sometime before heading to bed on the first day, we each collected our phones, laptops and any other technological device in a large wooden box. This was to be taken away by the organizers, in a symbolic way demonstrating the real start of the program: to interact more organically with each other, to pay attention to smaller cues, to be less absorbed by all of our constructed microcosms and their numerous digital manifestations. Using a large wooden chest felt a tad hyperbolic, but it is important to recognize that as a possible selling point in the presenting of the project: it looks cool to have 20 millennials put their tech-devices in a chest in the ascetic intention of “disconnection.”
It was during this process that E, the girl from the UK who was actually from Iran, began exhibiting discomfort. I had started spending the limited time we were there for around her because she understood, or appreciated—though isn’t that the organic consequence?—my acerbic humor. She was visibly upset. In tears, she hesitated to submit her tech. The organizer of the entire program, D, who I also learned upon arrival was NOT L, chatted with her after the ceremony. Giving away the tech was an unequivocal part of the process, even the title of the project implied so.
E was also (maybe?) a journalist, and she humble bragged about being banned from visiting Iran, working for a vocally anti-government broadcast journalism institution. But this pride obviously came at a price: she was unable to visit her family. Consequently, her phone was her only means of maintaining a rapport with them. Being asked to turn in her device triggered an intense reaction from her. All of us were well aware that we would need to do so, and most of us were exceptionally excited to log off, sign off and be unavailable. For E, it was different.
When I was younger, I cared more for being funny, even if that made me a bit mean or edging on cruel. Over time, and because of having been deeply hurt unexpectedly, it has become to me clearer that being thoughtful and nice to people when they are down is something that I enjoy doing. It is, too, in a sense selfish: it makes me feel better about myself to help someone in pain. Partially, this quality, my mini-Messiah complex, is what has kept me in a dysfunctional (at best) romance for what may soon become four years.
E’s eyes were sad. Her sadness was the exhausting kind: the one that keeps you up at night, with your brain going over scenarios, questioning: “Did I make a mistake?” I could tell she had hoped that partaking in this Erasmus+ project would have enabled her to let go of some anxiety and stress. But not every band-aid should be snapped off the epidermis forcibly. Some wounds get stuck on the band-aid, need a different sort of care. The next day, E left. Prior to leaving she gave us a forced message, which she attempted to deliver with a straight face, but her grimace broke into a couple of tears: “Guys… I am so glad to have met you all. It has already been a great experience. Unfortunately, for personal reasons, I cannot continue with the Disconnect phase, and therefore I have to go.”
Then she received a series of hugs from strangers who either believed this simplistic perilipsis or were too new as acquaintances to push her further. And that was that.
It was interesting to see D, the organizer, be a little more aggressive when it came to this. Friendly and sweet, with a genuine cordial attitude, he still had to wear the ‘organizer’ hat when it came down to the primary premise of the training. Upon our arrival, he had given us a brief and funny introduction of himself, functioning again as a pawn for relief on my end: he was very likable, in his singing pace of speaking any language. While the details of his background are insignificant, two qualities of his deserve mention. First, the way he performed himself in front of a group of strangers. He was open and honest, but without being redundantly intimate, he had a clear grasp of what is appropriate and what unnecessary. Second, he never put up a wall between himself and his “audience,” there were always jabs at each of us. Linguistic questions would end with a head nod towards my direction, while vegan and gluten-free specifications would be directed to the individuals who claimed those identities.
Everything becomes lighter when it becomes a dialogue that is thoughtful, even if the discourse is simple and pure. When a writer wants to be understood, that is also a move towards the right direction, right? Of course, the reverse feels cheap: when the person speaking shifts all the power to the audience. What do you want, think, believe? A symbiosis of performing and noticing your audience makes one seem aware.
Activities such as aromatherapy, music and meditation were featured in the schedule, but I was most excited about the “Nature” aspect of the program. Both aromatherapy and music were just fine, quite literally. Meditation, as you might have guessed, is not my cup of organic, grass-fed, lactose-free matcha ginger tea latte. Still learning how to breathe, and L’s guiding hit a little too close to a can of aphorisms. Plus, he sometimes forgot to instruct us to breathe!! A hazardous approach to guided meditation.
In aromatherapy I found out a bit about why it is that certain smells appeal to us at specific moments in our lives. I withheld my many obnoxious jokes, because in this context nobody cares about the time I told someone I loved Arquiste’s l’etrog, a ridiculously expensive perfume sold exclusively at Barney’s, to surprisingly receive it the next day at a corporate office, to the chagrin of all other interns. (For the record, it IS worth it.) The aromatherapy session here was, again, more general. Though, to be fair, in my opinion it was effective: on my Ryanair flight back home a week later, I would purchase “this works!” aromatic stick and spray packaged as sleeping aids. And, well, it works! Or at least, I convinced myself so. The placebo effect notion is always well regarded by me. Once I met a junkie who claimed that as long as a junkie get a needle in a vein, even with just water, they feel a high. I believed him, and so was open to listening to this very skinny lady explain to us, in Italian, because nobody in that country manages to speak English comfortable enough to maneuver our way out of sitting through the added time necessary by the requirement of translation.
The very skinny aromatherapy lady began by asking us if we knew what idrolato meant, or whatever D translated that as, to us. (D functioned as her translator, though she talked way too much, so after a certain point he began editing for brevity’s sake.) I resisted immediately responding, but following a pause, I decided to use my Grecian roots to say that it probably means water-solved. Indeed, the scents we would discuss and “experience” were boiled in water, in a process that somewhat changed our idea of what the scents would be like.
After 12 or 16 bottles of idrolatos were passed around, we were all to choose which one “spoke to us” the most. Following this, she gave us a broad sense of what each represents. It felt like a zodiac sign description, in that the way it was phrased, it was more likely than not to appease everyone’s idea of how they wanted to see themselves. Yet when it came to the one I had chosen in my head, I actively disliked the descriptive summary. “NOT ME!” I thought. So, when we went around announcing the scent that is what we needed at that time, I switched to another one, once again proving to myself that it is I who will define me, even via chicanery.
The scent I needed was J’s ass, sitting on my face. How about that? Is there an idrolato for that, very skinny aromatherapy lady? That is what I thought as we headed to lunch, where she gently, but definitely, attempted to sell us the bottles for 12 euros.
The music workshop was scripted to be without words. We were only to communicate through musical means. It felt indigenous at the beginning, we were repeating screams and shouts, and it was awkward but good fun. The instructor was built like a construction worker and through pointing and visual cues put all of us in a circle, engaging in a variety of interactive games. Through repetition, creative addition to the previous scheme and ultimately by picking up a random musical instrument and creating a cacophonous symphony, we laughed.
It is always good to be given the space to be without words, though I like them, and you probably do, too. In the narrower spectrum of the Disconnection project, this was a smart parallel to our freedom from the Internet, where we constantly verbalize the world and our place within it. Maybe less words could mean more, when we took our time to reflect on them more.
That is also why I was most excited about spending time in nature? People always assume that because I am a brat, I cannot enjoy nature, but that is false. I love being contrarian and give those assumptions a finger, but beyond that, I was hoping to grasp a sense of physical freedom from walking outdoors and hiking.
I am a bit harsh on the meditation segment of the project, but I do consider that to be more my limitation than anyone else’s fault. An exercise I liked that we engaged in demanded our subdivision in groups of three, in which we had a talker, a listener and an observer. The variation would keep going until we had all served once in each position. We had a few minutes to prepare to talk for three minutes on any subject of our desire without any interruption nor exchange. Whenever I am given a broad subject, I choose to go with my instinct and respond the way my brain answers in the first couple of seconds.
I was already bonding with my “listener” in this exercise, X, from Turkey. She was a recent graduate who worked as a therapist in the UK. This project appealed to her because it dealt with topics of body image, self-perception and the way individuals perform themselves online. She actually conducted an informal lecture, entitled “My Sense of Selfie,” which posed questions about how we perceive ourselves, how we define the qualities that make the modern experience both relatable/ alike and unique/ extraordinary. X looked Turkish, with her almond-shaped eyes, long brown hair. Ironic as it may be, as she was adamant about neglecting physicality to define others, her butt was the sort of butt rap songs are written about.
When X was speaking, I was the listener. She talked about extreme transference with her sibling, and about how when he cries, so does she. There were two huge parallels to my life: my sister, who had picked me up as a gigantic mess from my Harlem sublet in 2016, and J’s identical twin brother, W, who used to say he loved me because J did. I focused on the part that was socially acceptable to share, neglecting the complexity of W. How could I do W justice? I had promised him I would write my next fiction project on him, as my villainous protagonist. With this exercise, and the additional comfort provided by having a shared bathroom and connecting (now that E was gone) single rooms, I knew I had made a new friend.
Being fully honest with myself, what I wanted to get out of partaking in this program was certainly different, if not directly opposite, from what I assume the ideal candidate was: to learn how to reuse social media and create an online outlet of my real life that is healthy, “normal” and sustainable. After half a decade of being “observed” and having decided to go silent in response, this seemed like a healthy challenge for myself. I used to mock locked Twitter accounts, yet mine had been locked for a year and longer now. I used to criticize people whose personal websites went dead, mine had died a while ago, awaiting its revival once I felt more confident in presenting myself.
A good writer friend who played a motherly role here and there (when I would listen) had told me that I had rejected my low-ball book offer because I was afraid of success. I don’t think that I agree with that, still. I put a year of my life into my previous manuscript, with a provocative title that changed from “NIGGA HEAVEN” to “HARDCORE OSKAR,” and after learning someone was interested in it, I was not immediately interested in letting go. I am proud of that, my stubbornness. It is a literary mien.
This Italian trip was in line with my desire to go back to digesting my life as a reader and writer, not just in distancing me from the instant gratification reality of an Internet I had slowly become a less active member of, but also in the idea of observing nature. I enjoyed walking for eight hours in the company of people, some athletic others less so, with the actual goal of spending the forthcoming night in the woods, arranging an overnight stay together as a group.
A Daddy-looking Adventurer, who of course refused to provide instructions directly in English, thus demanding D once again doubles our listening time through translation which decreased in volume and quality the longer the Daddy-looking Adventurer spoke, arrived at the hostel. I call him Daddy-looking Adventurer not so much because of how attractive he was but because that is what my Reflection group voted as his nickname. He spoke for too long, which is always dull when you witness it in another language. Part of me wished he had forced himself to do it in English, merely for brevity’s sake. He spoke about the perfect hiking backpack, the absolute necessity of having a knife tailor-made and also about his organization.
Here is how the organization self-describes itself:
The ecological, spiritual community… is a platform for a profound voyage into healing, self-acceptance and expansion of consciousness. It is also an intentional and alternative off-grid village where people live their normal lives in harmony with nature. There is no belief system practiced rather, a safe space is created for each fellow traveler to shed old layers, transcend limitations and discover wholeness. The Six Pillars that hold this alternative way of life are Meditation, Emotional Healing, Yoga & Physical Rejuvenation, Native Ceremonies, Ecological Living and Mystical Musical Journeys.
If this sounds like both a lot and also basic, let me verify that I was happy with both. The overtheorizing segment, where a Lacanian notion of inclusivity comes forth was unexpected and welcome. So this was that the surrealist trait of the organisation, but it came with a side of “do something” energy, which I also valued.
“Does anyone know how to light a fire?”
Daddy-looking Adventurer taught us how to do that, warning us it needed to be done without a lighter and before sunset. He used rocks (bought, not found) and put sticks and flammable things on layers. It was not groundbreaking, but I like pretending that I now know how to start a fire, even if I recognize that is false-ish.
“Does anyone know how to build a remote hut for overnight stay?”
Daddy-looking Adventurer divided us in groups and challenged us to find pieces of wood in various sizes, then stocking them up in what looked like a humble attempt to build a single-cover for one to two people sleeping. Here, some other workers also chimed in, showing some of us the correct way to build such a remote construction.
Meanwhile, we were to start discussing with each other about who would do what when and act as if we were becoming, even temporarily, members of a commune or an idea that we did not exactly sign up for consciously. As an academic capitalist who has been disappointed by a series of economic systems and their consequences, I have learned not to lead in community events and incidents in which I am not passionate to be heard. Still, I appreciated that this was an exercise in self-delegating and being a member of various groups, allocating numerous responsibilities, such as: strengthening the fire, collecting wood, preparing the remote hut. I delegated myself for the last one, wishing that maybe I could fake another competency (beyond fire-starting) by the end of the day. Frictions began arising by the time we had an hour of sun left. With no tech and limited sources of light, it was essential to collaborate together to do what made sense, even if it was an antithesis to the proper remote hut. So we piled loads of wood and leaves above a strong fire and the group gathered around the fire.
Daddy-looking Adventurer then posed some questions about how we felt, what we learned and complimenting Y, a beautiful Bulgarian girl with a peculiar behavioral reaction pattern, for bringing a hammock to set up for sleep. She smiled, basking in the praise. Then he further discussed what his community mentality is, touching (briefly, surface-level) on how gendered even the idea of nature is: why is it a she in most linguistic terms? Is the totality of female identity one to be wary of? Feared? What does Mother Nature mean? Does she take after us?
I did not like this line of thought, because I do like thinking of nature in female terms. I like thinking of femininity as threatening AND nurturing. To dissect it differently means to me to eliminate the prowess of femininity. I like to think of nature as a nicer Clytemnestra: you fuck with her, she avenges you. You humiliate her or hurt her, she will put you in your place.
I stayed quiet, because this was not an idea that would benefit this group. It would instigate a redundant contrarian debate on why I like that or why this notion of femininity is more representative of totality. But I was not here to defend a dissertation, and I also knew, the closer we got to midnight, I would need to distance myself from the group. I did not want to hear L’s need to be a leader even outside the set framework where he was one, but more than that, I wanted to allow everyone partaking in the trip to enjoy themselves sans dumb tension. This was, after all, the first time I would be surrounded by others through the night, and if I had a say in it, I would rather not. I moved up the hill, and slept until German Q woke me up.
“Everyone MUST look after the fire. We take turns through the night and now is your turn.”
German Q had a token German accent and an equally polite way of insisting. I knew I could easily maneuver my way out of such a duty, but because he was nice, I wanted to help him out. He sounded desperate for someone else to take over the fire so he could sleep a bit more. I had already been awoken a few times by group members attempting to create a restroom away from the fire, and I knew I would not be able to fall asleep again, so I descended down.
There, I found O, who I really enjoyed being around. She did not talk a lot, but was witty. She also kept pinching me, definitely as a way to demonstrate affection. I was getting it; I am the sort of person who calls his friends “bitch” and “whore.” This, I was learning in Bergolo, was not a European pattern. My sarcasm did not translate well overseas, but this was not even sarcasm. To assume that I feel comfortable enough to call you a bitch or a whore means that I like you, first. But typing this out is a trip, too. Why is it easier to pinch me instead of hug me? Why do I have an easier time calling a friend “bitch?”
The way in which we understand what happens around us is ALWAYS subjective and personal. Our own experiences and traumas shape how we navigate the world. I think that I really made a couple of new friends through the random way in which I ended up in my Reflection Group. I was vocally critical about how sometimes the Youth Leader’s approach was not one I understood, when asking the questions mechanically and sometimes hesitating to digest her own experiences and thoughts. I also found immense value in the strength I have in framing the world in thoughts and words around me in a way that is indicative of how I feel. Simultaneously, the opposite is also important to add: that I learned to be more silent and less humorous out of discomfort. Not everyone understands irony, nor do they have to appreciate it, but I do have to respect others’ boundaries too, and function within the system of order they perceive as respectful.
This essay is part two of a series of personal essays. Read part one.
 I wrote down as much as I could to give someone the ultimate Renata Adler life summary. I described her as a figure of immense importance in new journalism. I talked about her journalism, criticism and polemic, but I focused on her fiction. I talked about her Wallace Shawn paean, and very neurotic sensibility.
A few months ago, I was asked to take the IELTS by a dumb Journalism Master’s program. So, that is how I found myself in the speaking segment answering the question: “When was the last time you encountered beauty?” It was briefly after the time J had once again vanished without an explanation. But I could not help myself. I just spoke about him for 10 minutes, perhaps more. It was lyrical, it was honest. The IELTS interviewer was visibly touched. I had curated this to be a PG version, where SCRUFF was not the initial meeting point, but “common friends in NY.” Know your audience.
About the Author:
Elias Tezapsidis is a generalist writer (currently) in Berlin. His work can be found in 3:AM Magazine, The Awl, Berfrois, BOMB, Harper’s, HTMLGiant, Salt Artists, Thought Catalog, The Millions, Publishers Weekly, The Toast, Vol1 Brooklyn, V Magazine and others.