I departed Boston Wednesday morning for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference, held this year in Chicago. The trip was a test, of sorts: I was traveling alone, staying in a hotel alone, would be attending panels alone, and doing two back to back readings in bars, where I knew no one. I was alone. Did I say that already?
Why was I so nervous? I live in a big city, I do solo things everyday, but somehow being newly single highlighted my solitary conundrum. I was determined not to be lonely traveling to this city I’d never been, and while there were some highs, there were some definite lows, for sure. Let me take you through my trip.
I stayed at the Inn of Chicago, which was modern and lovely.
I rested for a few hours on Wednesday afternoon and took a long shower before prepping for that night’s reading at The Empty Bottle. Got a tip from my Chicago-based Emerson pal, Johnny Auer, to visit Rick Bayless’ Xoco, and beelined a few blocks for Mexican food. You don’t need to tell me twice.
I ordered a smoky, slightly tart cochinita pibil torta, with a fiery habanero salsa that nearly burned my face off — and I like it hot. Thankfully my cucumber-mint agua fresca hit the spot. For dessert, I indulged myself with a single churro and a dipping pot of oozy warm chocolate.
I grabbed a taxi to the reading across town. It had started to rain and the wind was coming in, and felt like Boston. Jjittery, I headed straight for the Miller High Life — One. After. The. Other. Luckily, I met Barry Graham, one of the event’s organizer who I’d gotten to know after he’d taught my essay, “Tell Me If You’re Lying,” for a few years in his writing classes. He confirmed that I’d be partaking in an arm wrestling match later that night, which I’d signed up for but secretly hoped wasn’t really going to happen, even if I was my 7th grade summer camp’s arm wrestling champ. (A lot of muscle atrophy has happened since then!) With this in mind, I ambled into the dark bar to drink a lot and hear a few readings before being introduced myself by Chicago-based entertainer Harold Ray, who had some interesting things to say about my last name.
I read, and it went well, but not great. When I stepped down from the stage I got a few encouraging words from some audience members, which felt good. Then I went back to being alone, huddling against the wall, clutching my beer for dear life, wishing someone from Boston would magically appear and save me from this lonesome state. It was nerve-wracking, and to my shame, I even considered canceling Thursday night’s reading. But then I’d just be a coward. I’d come to Chicago to embrace being alone, not crumble from it.
I pressed on.
I beat my first opponent in arm wrestling. I met some new writers. I snapped some photos with Barry in the bar’s photo booth, before skipping back to the hotel without telling anyone. I remain undefeated in arm wrestling because of it — but I really was utterly exhausted from that day’s travel.
Sleep was welcome in my all-white bed with its 900 pillows.
Thursday I took in some panels at AWP, including a nonfiction panel about “selling out” the ones you love; a reading of Carnegie Mellon young authors; and a late afternoon info session on applying for the Fulbright. We’ll see about that one!
I had a few hours to kill in between and I wandered around the city in search of lunch. Block after block I rambled, my feet aching and blistering, but found nothing. I was craving a hamburger, to make matters worse, and everywhere I looked there loomed a McDonald’s, tempting me. I haven’t eaten at one of those since high school, and even that was a reluctant meal. Seriously, Chicago, what’s with you guys and McDonald’s? Desperate, starved, blood sugar dropping, I considered passing through those double arches — but thank god a side-street falafel place materialized. That was a close one.
I headed back to the hotel and readied for the reading later at Brando’s Speakeasy. OPEN BAR, which comforted me in my ongoing nervousness. When it comes to fast food, there is only one Sweeney sanctioned option: Chick-fil-A, a breezy walk from my hotel. Spicy chicken sandwich meal #3, with a Diet Coke. You can take the Sween outta the South, but you can’t take the South outta the Sween.
Brando’s was dark but warmly enveloping with leather seating and big windows and I loved it immediately. I spotted Tom, who edited “Before Adrian Grenier Got Famous” for Barrelhouse, and he gladly made a spot for me at his table, right near the stage. This time, my reading went excellent. And Barry was there too, and the crowd was less drunk, a bit quieter, and more receptive. I got kind words all around, and it was definitely the highlight of my trip. Afterward, Barry and I wandered aimlessly through town looking for strawberry shortcake to no avail. As he entertained some of Chicago’s fine homeless people in front of the Palmer House Hilton, I grabbed the nearest cab and ran a hot bath in the hotel tub to wash away a dozen vodka-sodas and the cold, Chicago night.
I woke up Friday morning and dealt with another kind of business: my upcoming Mexico trip. I’d been searching for condos for months, and had my eye on a few good deals, but those were taken in the interim period where my Harvard bosses were approving my proposal. Some nights before, I’d emailed a couple about their condo, which was a bit more out of my price range, asking them to lower the price for me. And they did! Friday morning I accepted their offer and had booked my two-month stay on Cozumel.
What else was there to do but head back to Xoco? An Americano and huevos rancheros, por favor! Spanish music blasting overhead. I had no idea what they were singing about, but it sounded good. I was in heaven.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. I met with my friend Alicia for a glass of wine and some soup at The Gage, then took in a reading of our former teacher Gail Mazur at the Hilton. I missed seeing the Art Institute due to time limitations, and ran back to the hotel for my bags and hopped on the L to the airport.
It was good practice, but I’m not sure if I overcame my fears of doing things alone. I have three short months to Mexico, where I’ll be living alone for two months, writing and learning about a new country, speaking a language I am certainly nowhere near comfortable speaking. But I’ll do it.
Chicago, the city, was magical, and I hope to return. I felt watched over; everyone really is that friendly. I was coerced into conversation by a young man on the train one morning who said he needed a distraction as he was about to take his Air Force physical test. I wished him luck and wondered if he was serious. Am I that jaded of a Bostonian now? And every cab driver told me to be careful. Who knew they had such fatherly instincts?
Despite the fear factor, traveling alone was exhilarating in a lot of ways. Waiting for my flight out of O’Hare, I ordered a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and a glass of malbec at my concourse’s Italian restaurant du jour. I ate alone, savoring every morsel of my final moments in Chicago. Being away from your creature comforts takes an interesting toll on one’s psyche. I began to think of myself as a famous writer in a soap opera who had to make do in a new city after fleeing her jealous lover. It was melodramatic, but it made me feel glamorous as I downed the last gulp of wine and strolled back to my terminal, armed with the latest Us magazine and the knowledge that, one day, I’d look back on this sojourn to Chicago as the turning point in my journey to Mexico, to being independent, to arriving at someplace new and different within myself.
This time of year last year, I was planning my first trip to Mexico. I had no idea at the time that a simple six nights would change my life, forever.
At last year’s Superbowl, I randomly won $1,200 through a silly gambling game illegally run out of my then-boyfriend’s bar (I’ll call him Paul, for future reference). We’d been talking about taking a trip, and this unexpected windfall solidified that the trip was no longer a pipe dream, but actually going to happen.
Where would we go?
A few years before, Paul and I had visited Lahaina, Maui, for a wedding. I fell in love with the pace of life there, the culture (we’d even picked up two teenage hitchhikers on the Road to Hana, who offered us weed!), and the immense ocean life that broadcast itself in National Geographic wonder just five feet out from shore — beautiful reefs and fish, straight out of the pages of a magazine. Growing up, I’d toyed with the idea of going into marine biology — and acting, and opera singing, and interior design — but my love of the ocean was unshakeable. Every vacation I’ve ever planned, or dreamed of planning, involves the sea.
So I knew I wanted to relive the tropical experience in the Caribbean. I researched Aruba, St. John, Turks and Caicos, every island possible. But everything was decidedly too expensive. With time running out, or so it felt, at a family gathering with Paul’s family, his sister recommended Cozumel. I don’t even think I’d heard of the island until then, and going to Mexico certainly hadn’t crossed my mind. An avid diver, she wooed me with stories of the marine life there — rays, and giant sea turtles! — and suddenly it was clear that I had to get to Mexico.
A voyage to Latin America had always been a dream. Paul, on the other hand, was skeptical. He wasn’t as good of a traveler as I. He’d been to the Bahamas, and enjoyed himself, and saw no reason why we couldn’t choose a well-worn destination a little closer to home. The Bahamas, I told him, was like going to Florida. We were not going to Florida.
When we landed in Cozumel of June of 2011, I was immediately in love. In love with the Mexican man stamping my passport, in love with the smell, the Spanish language ATM, the shared van to our resort, and the crabs dancing through the open air lobby. This wasn’t just tropical, but exotic. Another culture. Another language. I was in rapture speaking Spanish with hotel employees and people we encountered in town and drinking tequila on the roof each evening as the sun melted into the ocean like sherbet.
Paul was nonplussed. Throughout our days he’d pointedly say that he was having fun, but that we should’ve gone to the Bahamas. I didn’t understand what the island was missing. I wanted to explore more, but Paul preferred to stay behind, armed with his iPod and anthology books of New York Times crossword puzzles. I wanted to spearfish, to talk to strangers, to buy churros from the downtown vendors, to be submerged in that glorious water the entire time. With that, I booked a snorkeling trip, but Paul didn’t want to go.
“Are you sure?” I asked him, at least a dozen times.
“Yeah, I’m working on a new puzzle,” he’d say, flashing his pen.
It was our last full day on the island.
The boat arrived at the hotel dock, and off I went, alone, perturbed that my partner couldn’t sacrifice a few hours to snorkel with me, but I wanted to enjoy myself, not make a fuss. Was I nervous about being alone, surrounded by strangers? Yes. But this was what I wanted, right?
We visited three reefs over the course of about four hours. I drank a few Tecate and yukked it up with a married couple we’d gotten to know from the resort, and a pair of big-boobed sisters from Louisiana who proudly proclaimed they “loved flirting with the Mexicans.”
On the water, a bit alienated and tipsy, having witnessed the marvel of the ocean by my lonesome, and even after getting stung by a few jellyfish, I suddenly felt … different. Stronger. Clearer. I looked out at the water, at the palms waving as we sped past, and I knew for the first time in a long while what I wanted out of life. Adventure. Excitement. I wanted to be on boats with strangers. This was living.
When we got back to Boston, Paul and I broke up for an hour. I wasn’t emotionally ready though, and we got back together. But I still felt short-changed by our vacation and by Paul’s lack of wanting to explore, so I booked another trip to Cozumel with a girlfriend for November, for my 29th birthday. And it was amazing. And I knew there then that I’d changed the first time in Mexico, and there was no going back.
This year, on the day after the Superbowl, after six and a half years together, Paul and I broke up for good. I’m in love with someone else, and his name is Adventure.
Imagine, at 17, I had dreams of becoming an interpreter.
I was infatuated with the Spanish language then. I was a pretty turbulent high schooler, to say the least, more interested in harassing older men, making out with losers, and smoking cigarettes behind the mobile units that doubled for classrooms in our school’s parking lot. I was smart, but school was boring, and it certainly wasn’t a priority. I wasn’t challenged or engaged until Spanish entered my life junior year.
Señora Freiberg was skeptical at first. I failed my first few tests. I’d joined the class late after fighting and fighting our curriculum’s foreign language requirement until I realized without two years of language, I wouldn’t graduate. Even the simple, present tense confounded me. One night I went home, opened my frayed copy of Bienvenidos, and absorbed it for the first time. As a poet and writer, I love language, so Spanish immediately became something I enjoyed, and even came naturally to me. Even when I got the words wrong (often), it sounded so right.
My hometown, Greensboro, N.C., holds an ever-expanding immigrant population. One of my favorite memories is of the Hispanic workers building houses in my friend Nathan’s new neighborhood. Everywhere there were people to speak to, to boldly test this new language. “Yo bebo la leche!” (I drink the milk) I’d holler. “Yo quiero la vaca!” (I want the cow). Who cares about a vexed look!? They understood me, and that was thrilling. The sounds of Spanish words and the new-found ability to say something in another format appealed to my poetic sensibilities. After all, that’s what poetry is—using language to reinvent experience into something new, unexpected.
Señora Freiberg was impressed by my dedication. My F’s turned into A’s, and with my enthusiasm for the language, I was unabashedly her prized student. I was also a little obsessed with her, too. She was a Jewish Brooklynite, teaching Spanish in the South. She made us sing songs in Spanish, sparking my lifelong obsession with the song “La Bamba.” And who could forget Simón Dice—the all-Spanish version of Simon Says. When she learned I wasn’t buying the yearbook senior year, Señora Freiberg purchased one for me anyway; it was a present, she said, for being such a good student.
After two years under her tutelage, Señora Freiberg had a serious discussion with me about becoming an interpreter; she said it was the job of the future. I did like the idea, and I considered it, but college laziness sunk in; so I stuck with English and literature, again enrolling myself into a few Spanish classes to meet graduation requirements, but that was it.
Until now. I’m currently enrolled in a Spanish class at Harvard Extension School. It’s pretty rudimentary—I’d forgotten a lot, but not as much as I’d thought. I’m having a blast honing my skills everyday, practicing with my Spanish-speaking friends, and preparing myself for my upcoming Mexican adventure.
And I love that I get to trill my R’s on a regular basis. Qué rrrrrico!
[This is from my Nov. trip to Cozumel. These mariachis were at La Choza, and are singing “La Bamba!” That’s me screaming at the end.]
I’m a Boston-based poet and writer who fell in love with Mexico, so I moved here. At least for two months. These are my adventures.
I'm Sarah Sweeney. I started Loose Gringa in the summer of 2012 when I dumped my shitty boyfriend and uprooted my life to the island of Cozumel on a tour of the Yucatan for two months. I almost stayed forever — I fell in love with a man and got offered a job. Neither of those worked out. But I learned unforgettable lessons about life, love, and about me — and now I can’t stop traveling.