Friday, September 18, 2015

When Are You Coming Home?

It's been three months since my last day of work in Laos. On Saturday morning I woke up in Czech Republic. Saturday afternoon I arrived in Munich to make my final stop in Germany. Monday afternoon I said farewell to the friend I met in Berlin and traveled with in Prague; we missed each other in Vienna and after Munich he was heading to (still undecided at the time of this writing) and I was on the way back to Switzerland. Tuesday morning I got on the bus from Munich to Zurich, and now, Wednesday morning, I am on the train bound for Milan. Five days, four countries- not my usual style, but it sounds more hectic than it really was.

Home sweet home on my back

Even as I sit here on this train and type that paragraph, and even though I have been doing this for three years now, it still seems totally surreal. I never dreamed of doing this when I was growing up. I can’t say that, as a high school student in Brookesmith, Texas, I had these plans of working overseas and backpacking and conscious homelessness and owning only what I could carry and taking whatever jobs came my way in whichever country happened to offer them. I had no idea that this kind of thing was even possible. Even when I went to Japan, 22 years old, just graduated, wanting a bit of adventure after not being able to study abroad during university, I saw it as My Year Abroad- that one time I did that one thing. Sure, I sold or gave away all my things except keepsakes and clothes, I had no car or pans or sofa to return to, but I knew I was going to return. The year in Japan I collected souvenirs so I could decorate the apartment I would get when I was finished with Japan. Everything I did held the importance of being the first and last time I would have that kind of experience. Or at least that’s how it started.

Up in the air, about an hour from my apartment in Toyama

As the months racked up, I started thinking, somewhere in the back of my brain, that I wanted to stay. Not in Japan, necessarily, but I wanted to stay out. I wanted to keep traveling. I had bumped into backpackers that year here and there, had met people in hostels, had talked to co-workers who were saving up to travel Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia after our contract. I really liked teaching; maybe I would keep doing it? My best girl, Jess, was living in Tokyo and had already started her side business of private tutoring. She had an apartment, and did I want to come at the end of my contract and live with her? Yes, yes I did. My last two months in Japan I was tortured with two conflicting desires: the wish to see my family, to go home, to reunite, to not be gone so long and be so guilty for it, and the wish to move to Tokyo with Jess, work, save, and travel. I applied to programs in Thailand and was accepted. I researched volunteering in India and had more than enough money to do it. South Korea looked nice, Singapore maybe? I applied for a job in Tokyo and the next day it was offered to me- $45 an hour, 25 hours a week. I was 23 years old, no kids/mortgage/marriage, nothing to keep me from saying yes, I wanted to say yes, and instead, I said no to all of it and came home.

Goodbye, land of udon and print club photo booths

The reason? I had this idea that Japan wasn’t my Real Life. And I had the expectation that I needed to start my Real Life, and staying in Japan would somehow be cheating, deferring, stepping out. After years and years of working to get things like school clothes and cheerleading uniforms and my first car and to pay my way through college, working full time and going to school full time, keeping scholarships and three jobs, things in Japan felt too easy. I was only working full time- nothing else. I was making more money than I knew what to do with, even servicing debt back home and saving while traveling. I had never planned on being a teacher, I just happened to become one, and I liked it- and something about how easy, how unplanned, how smooth it all was felt so foreign to me that I didn’t know how to just accept it. The guilt I felt at living overseas, so far away from my family, was another factor. And finally, I had no template for the reality that it was actually a viable life plan to live and work overseas just because you could and you wanted to, so you should. So instead I came home.

I know I wasn’t the best person to be around when I returned home from Japan. My family and friends graciously put up with my reverse culture shock and what I am sure might have seemed like ridiculous homesickness for a place I had only lived for one year, but they seemed to understand that it was more than Japan, it was about wanting to get back out and do more traveling like that. I was unemployed, living with my father, living off of the bonus I got at the end of my contract, feeling simultaneously ecstatic to reunite with family and friends and miserable every time I talked to Jess and heard stories about Tokyo. I knew as soon as I got home that I should have stayed, but at that point I was also stubborn- I was going to make this work.

I made a plan to pay off my debt, get my master’s degree, save up some money, and leave in 2-3 years. I ended up staying double that before I left again, and I have no regrets at all looking back on the 6 years I spent in America before going back overseas. I would never have reconciled with my sister, or spent as much time with my Great Granny, before both of them died. I know that a part of me would have been irrevocably damaged had I not had that time with my sister- the conversations and experiences we shared after I came home were sometimes the only thing that could get me through those first few months without her. Thinking of going through that without the peace of our understanding is something I can’t imagine. I met some of my best friends in those 6 years, and reinforced my relationships with people I had known in college and high school. I met Bobby, who was there for me through the hardest times I’ve ever had and who also supported me in achieving so much, and who is still a great friend to me to this day. I volunteered on political campaigns, served as an elected official, and was a delegate to the state convention. I picked up yoga and became a much healthier person. I started writing much more. I earned two master’s degrees, I became a licensed teacher and discovered a career I love. I traveled all over the U.S., and I made countless memories and connections with my family and with friends.

No complaints about stateside travel here

But the fact still remains that when I came home from Japan I was absolutely, not in any way, finished with working and living overseas. It felt cut short, because it was. The break gave me so much, and I wouldn’t change it. It does mean, however, that I do still have all of this in me that wants to, and needs to, keep going. So that’s why I am where I am at the moment. I spent a summer backpacking to get to Albania, lived a year there, spent a summer backpacking to get to Laos, lived two years there, and now I’m spending a very long summer (I mean, it’s not even summer anymore, let’s be real) backpacking to get to somewhere I don’t know I’m going. I don’t know how long I’ll be there when I get there. I just know, for sure, I’m not finished yet.

I for sure need to make a return trip to Mongolia...

And Estonian islands desperately need more exploring

As a child, a teenager, and even a young adult, I didn’t have the imagination to know that living and working and traveling this way was even possible- I didn’t know anyone who had done it. American culture doesn’t have gap years like European countries, we have loads of student loan debt and very little vacation and a huge country bordered by only two other countries and two enormous oceans. Traveling and working overseas the last three years I have met people between 18-65 who are doing outrageous things on very little money, simply because they saved up, they wanted it, and they are doing it. Growing up in America we have so little contact with this kind of travel, and we don’t know that it’s possible- we aren’t aware of just how cheap it is, how heartbreakingly cheap it can be, to pack a bag and go. If we do want to travel, still, we get locked into our student loans, and then jobs right after college, or car payments, or mortgages, or any other manner of other things. I keep wishing that the gap year culture would take root in America. I can’t think of anything better than telling a teenager to save up during high school so that he or she can spend awhile wandering, exploring, backpacking, maybe working odd jobs, and just seeing the world without having to cram it into the two weeks of vacation we are lucky to get if that.

This little Cortney could have benefited from a year or two of wandering before college

If anyone is reading this and they take nothing else from it, I hope they take this- it’s never too late to do this if you want to do it, people are doing it at every age, and you can do it for as long or as short as you want. It’s also understandable if the thought of living out of a backpack for three months sounds like a really shitty plan and you’d prefer to have your house and garden and family nearby.
In the end you have to choose. I am choosing, for the moment, to be transient. I feel secure in this choice, however, because I built such strong connections and roots back home in the states. I have my family in Texas, the place where I lived almost all of the first 29 years of my life. I have friends I have had since my childhood still living in Texas. There is a whole new crop of kids coming up around me, the babies of loved ones, with whom I am working on keeping a relationship by sending home postcards and visiting when I can. I keep this blog, I keep a google voice number, I write e-mails and FB messages and post pictures and stalk my family members on social media- I spend a lot of my free time and energy committed to maintaining these relationships, even while working and going to school and traveling and doing whatever else I’m doing. I think of people doing this back in the day when all they had was letters or telegraphs, and here I am with FB and blogs and free internet phones and Skype and international mail that takes a mere week- I can’t complain. Nowadays staying in contact is as easy as just deciding that you are going to do it, and I make that decision as often as I possibly can.

Writing postcards in a freezing ger in Mongolia

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my family and friends back home and around the world. I want to return home eventually, but I want to return home happy and fulfilled, not wistfully thinking of how I wished I had done _______ or gone _________ or seen__________. 

I’m an hour away from Milan, and who knows how many weeks or months from my next home, but I know I have more homes than I can count all over this world with family and friends who would welcome me back the instant I called or messaged or Skyped them. I really can’t emphasize enough how much that helps me to know when I’m roaming. For all of you who have opened up your homes and hearts to me over the years, for everyone who wrote me at the beginning of this stray cat summer with enthusiastic invitations and possible plans and suggestions for travel or meeting up, for every message and voice mail and Skype call, I’m reminded that being rootless doesn’t have to mean being without connection, love, support, understanding, and help. I appreciate you all for putting up with me, and for understanding why I have to keep leaving, for now. 

The train is winding through some staggering mountains at the moment, with green at the base and the hillsides as far as I can see and tiny cottages dotting the valleys. A woman is making an announcement in Italian… now French… English will be next. I have the row to myself, a laptop to bang out what’s in my brain, and a good friend to meet up with in Italy. I miss you all, and I hope you know how much, even as I make my plans to head to the next place. I will be home, eventually. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Prague, or, Things Were Stolen and Things Were Found

I’m on a bus, leaving Prague, heading to Munich, where I will wrap up my north to south Eastern Germany tour (that makes more sense in my head/geographically than it does typed out like that). I thought I would spend five nights in Prague, but really I should have learned by now that I always end up wanting more time in a city, and in the end I stayed for a solid week.

I'll take door number one.

Prague was damned near perfect for me in terms of what I like in a destination. For starters, it’s gorgeous, with effortlessly stunning buildings serving mundane purposes like being banks or exchange offices or shopping centers. You can pretty much stop anywhere, look around, and be impressed. Statues that are beautiful and detailed enough to be in a museum are just hanging out on the tops of these buildings, and underneath your feet are endless cobblestones (I tripped, a lot). 

All of this can be enjoyed for very, very cheap prices, from food to metro to hostels. Speaking of hostels, Prague gave me one of the best in which I have ever stayed, and that’s related to another travel bonus- the hostel was recommended by a friend I met in Berlin, with whom I met up in Prague. And since this is me, and y’all know what I like, yes, the nightlife was fantastic. The music, the venues, the bar hopping, staying open until sunrise- it was all there.

A sculpture suspended above the entrance to my hostel

I hate to be the one to say it, but clearly they were sleeping on the guardian job that night...

My first day in town I stayed out all night dancing with my friend and the girls I met in my hostel, my phone and a good chunk of money plus all my keys were stolen, and I ended the night the next morning catching the sunrise on Charles Bridge. I came home and slept about 45 minutes before joining the morning walking tour, where I powered through three deliriously informative sleep deprived hours. The guide grabbed some tea with me afterwards and filled me in on Czech politics and culture and anything else that came up, from Russian and American relations to freedom of speech to good clubs to check out in the area. We parted ways and I spent some time wandering the streets until I came back to my hostel the wrong way and in so doing found what would end up being my daily coffeeshop.

60 euro poorer, phoneless, lockless, freezing, tired, and super happy to see that sunrise.

Portraits of Exhaustion: Reflections on Prague

I ended up back at my hostel for much needed sleep, which I didn’t get. Eight Welsh guys joined the group and they may have embodied the most concentrated versions of asshatted drunken male traveler behavior I have ever encountered in any hostel anywhere in the world. The good thing is they were so outrageously inconsiderate they gave us all lots of good stories which were recounted a few times and worked into shorthand inside jokes mocking them relentlessly, so for that, thanks Welsh 8, you were great. I am still haunted by the sad fact that they ordered themselves into a Lord of the Flies-esque hierarchy that included a leader called Golden Boy and a bottom called number seven, but the peculiarities of hyper-masculine backpacker groups are not something I care to get all Jane Goodall about, so I’m going to let it go. I saw them the last morning, backpacks akimbo, hair devoid of Pretty Boy Grease, bleary eyes all ‘round, and asked if they were leaving. To their “Yes” I simply said “GREAT!” with over the top enthusiasm and a tight smile that communicated I just could not anymore with this. They looked at each other, confused that I was immune to what their mothers had probably always assured them was their boundless charm, went silent (a rarity for them, since they generally preferred drunken singing and loud banter at all hours of the morning), and left. Dear reader, I promise you this- after sunrise on Charles Bridge their departure was definitely my favorite morning in Prague.

Other than the Welsh Invasion of 2015, the hostel was a constant stream of interesting, social people who were down to explore and party together, with many of us staying 4 to 5 days together. We had a kitchen that became the hub of the house for comings and goings and cake sharings and whiskey drinking, as well as salsa dancing and party planning. On the other end of the spectrum I spent almost a full day wandering the streets alone, and I had a couple of lazy late breakfast mornings to catch up on writing and e-mails and job searching. It’s nice to just be alone in a new place, without always having to do something.

Blurry late nights, working hard on the club circuit

Cross cultural sharing- the joy of breakfast burritos has been spread to two more people.

It was also shockingly cold, so I broke down and finally purchased some Winter Clothes. I capitalized that because, for the amount of space they take up and the amount of money they required, I feel it’s necessary to communicate their importance. I haven’t had clothes this thick in over two years, and I already resent them for not being flimsy little things I can buy for $3 on a riverbank in Laos and roll up into something about the size of a deck of cards. Of course, after shivering through five days in Prague, the day after I bought my Winter Clothes the sun popped out, perhaps just to reinforce my trepidation that maybe I was jumping the gun on buying them at all. Thanks, weather, for making me doubt myself and my life decisions…

Probably time to work on winterizing the lower half, but the Converse will serve for now.

When I hit Munich I’ll be there for three days (and I mean it this time, because I have a train to catch and a date to make) before returning to Zurich to regroup, repack, hopefully get rid of half of my things again (whittle whittle whittle) and then hop that train to head to Italy for 10 days. This will be my third reunion of the summer so far, and I have two more planned for certain and a few others I am trying my best to work in. It’s been nice to balance out new places and faces and hostels with catching up at friends’ houses and seeing where they live and work. Having a reunion tour of the people I met while living in SE Asia brings a bit of my Laos life back into the mix periodically, and it feels like a little piece of home is here in Europe.

I still have good daily doses of fear about what I’m doing (I’ve been turning down jobs left and right, medical bills are something I’m just telling myself I’ll pay off when I do get a job, and I need to figure out where the hell I’ll be come Christmas) but I’m still happy to be doing exactly what I am doing. I posted this on my FB right before I headed to Prague, and it still sums up best exactly where I am at the moment:

I've never been one for image crafting, so just to be crystal clear: there truly has not been since I left Laos where I did not have at least one all consuming and fairly terrifying moment of "WHAT THE F**K AM I DOING?" I am 32, with no home, no job, no health insurance, fairly laughable savings, and I am gallivanting around Europe for no other reason than I saved up and planned on doing it this summer and I refused to let medical curveballs get in my way. I absolutely know that plowing ahead was not the most *responsible* decision, especially financially in light of my medical bills, but I am also sure that it was the best decision for me, given the circumstances. I wanted to give up and go home, and I am so glad I did not.
I'm definitely not sure where I'll end up, but right now I know that I need to be walking through the terror moments of "Oh, man, am I really screwing up by doing this?" because I am trying to move into a place where I am radically opposed to making any decisions based on fear. Even before the medical complications, I wanted to do this as an exercise in breaking my super type A, planning obsessed, security blanket ways.
So yeah, real talk, I absolutely have anxiety, fear, and stress about what I am doing and how I am living now (it's been almost 3 months of being on the road with no place of my own), but that is only about 15% of the time. The rest of the time I am having profoundly happy and satisfying experiences and thinking of how unbelievably grateful I am that I refused to let anxiety, fear and stress make my decisions for me.
So with that, I will say Czech Republic, you're up next.”

There is no shame in fear- fear is normal- it’s what you do with the fear that matters. 

Train station walls are pretty philosophical in Prague, as it turns out.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Part Three, Three Years Later

Here is Saranda Part I 
And here is Saranda Part II

Welcome to off season

We came down out of the mountains to find Saranda flatly deserted. That a beach town would be tranquil in late October is no surprise, but it was more than that- it felt vacated.

After passing the end of the short boardwalk we found ourselves in the land of forgotten real estate dreams- a boulevard of multi-story buildings in various stages of construction. Some had been abandoned as soon as the frame had been raised, naked concrete skeletons showing the general idea of what was meant to be, complete with staircases dutifully zig-zagging between the floors filled with nothing but bright sky. Half painted walls and gravel- littered first floors merged into impossibly steep dirt driveways jutting up towards yet another level of interrupted construction. Power lines wove in and out of the open floors before sliding down the outer walls, ending anti-climatically in frazzled ends swinging in the breeze, pointless and empty. This went on for a stretch of about 3 miles- a silent parade of potential businesses, homes, and hotels, all of which seemed to have been left in a fit of collective regret that the projects had ever been started. There was no traffic, and we saw perhaps three people walking down the sidewalk or standing in front of shops.

Ksamil, where we were told to look for the best beach in Saranda, was easily found on the edge of town; the seaside paradise we were expecting was not. There was one sign that pointed to the direction of water and hinted at access, but it was misleading. After driving back and forth a few times we finally just took the first turn that went in the direction of the beach. This led us down a narrow strip lined with muted off season night clubs and darkened restaurants, until the road stopped abruptly for no reason and without any warning in a grassy field.

It seemed like as good a place as any to park the car so we got out and started our way along a stone promenade which, like the road, abruptly ended in the field. The promenade was pock marked by broken tiles and pot holes. Weeds cropped up along the cracks, and ornate lamp posts suffered from chipped paint and broken lights. Despite this, it was still beautiful in an end of the world kind of way. We were alone with the coast and the sky, with no plan other than “keep heading towards the water”.  That in itself made it special for a traveler.

Soon enough we found ourselves in a little cove, the coastline dotted inconspicuously with one or two wooden restaurants perched right on the water’s edge. And it was here, in that moment, that we received what had been promised- this was why we had come to Saranda. Everything slid into focus, sharpened, slowed down. Yes. This was it. We all felt it at the same time, turning and grinning, standing in one spot and making slow circles to take it all in.

 I’m absolutely certain that there are more beautiful beaches, or more isolated beaches, or more peculiar and exotic beaches, but Ksamili is gorgeous and on top of that, it was absolutely empty of tourists. We were alone save two other people- a man working further downshore, watching over a little boy playing with a boat. When we asked the man if we could swim, he just shrugged his shoulders as if to say “Why are you even asking?” and then promptly ignored us.

All of the creature comforts of vacation spots were there, but just barely- there were no over the top, gleaming beach chairs, or swanky docks, just a simple wooden platform with thatched umbrellas and a few tables. A pebbly beach gave way to a cove ringed by rocks on one side, with water so clear you could walk out to the end of the dock and look far down and still make out the landscape on the bottom. It was like a playground for adults, and that turned us into giddy children.  

There are moments in my life that  make me think that when I’m an old woman, I’m going to look back on them and remember being young and healthy, feeling an experience go through my body and knit itself into permanent pieces of me,  parts that age and time don’t touch. That afternoon was a moment knit, created for nostalgia. We piled our things on the dock and leapt off the end over and over. When we had our fill of swimming we floated to another dock down shore and pulled up onto the warm wood to stretch and talk. Sun on our bellies and faces, we took naps and pictures and long moments to sit in silence or wander off by ourselves. It was decadent that we should have so much all to ourselves to enjoy, and it was doubly enjoyable because we weren’t expecting it- we just stumbled upon it, looked around, and made it ours for the day. So it was.

As the sun wound itself down I slid into the sea to have one last slice of that isolated afternoon before we left. I could feel, as I so often did in those days, the persistence of guilt I had when I was somewhere enjoying myself, when I would forget, for a moment, the sorrow of my sister, who had so recently left us. I went into the water to be alone with her.

I stretched out on my back, the entire world replaced by nothing but sky and the sound of my heartbeat as the water rushed into my ears. The air, my blood, the sea -three fine lines of being- and my body the intersection of the whole of it. I was enmeshed, held in the salt, washed in the last flickers of the day. I thought of my sister there with me. I imagined her as the water, in my blood, falling on me as a beam of light, coursing through my lungs. It was yet another place where I slowly unraveled a length of tangled grief and let it fall away. I left a part of that pain on the bottom of the sea in Saranda, and when I pulled myself out, I had a new space inside of me. The memory of my sister and I in the water together rushed in to fill it. I experienced again, as I had many times before, and as I have many times since, the peculiar grafting of emotion that is the patchwork process of mourning.

I moved to Albania only a month after my sister died, and I cannot even count all the times I mourned her, physically, to the point where I could feel that grafting, the pain of it, and the release and the replacement. The ashes of my grief for my sister are scattered all over that country, and it took them, over and over again, in the most beautiful and unlikely of places. I said goodbye to her there so I could receive all the joy of our shared memories, our sisterhood, our lives together. I had a year of laying my sister to rest, and I had a year of rediscovering all the things about her that would never leave me. I was startled to find that in remembering her in those places we made new memories together. It took that year to show me, in a way I could never deny, that I take her with me wherever I go. 

maggie and milly and molly and may
E. E. Cummings, 1894 - 1962

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Right Now in Dresden: Silks and Marmalade, or, How to Avoid the Bathroom Lines and Make Friends

I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room in Dresden, Germany. I came here to visit my friend Maike, but today she is hitch hiking all the way across Germany (an 8 hour trip, which doesn’t even get me out of Texas) to Aachen, her home town, in order to spend her birthday with her family. I had initially decided that I would hitch hike with her as well, since I had never hitch hiked, it was her birthday, a road trip with strangers sounded fun, and it would be nice to meet her people. Instead I went to bed last night with a sore throat, and, upon further inspection, saw that it was covered in white spots- strep, almost assuredly (updated post doctor’s visit- yes, yes it is).

I first met Maike in Vientiane, during a particularly frigid cold season, at a live music dive bar. She was backpacking and had come along with some other travelers to check out the event. We were standing in the unreasonably long line for the bathroom when I told her to come with me, we’d pee outside. From there, the rest is history. She ended up staying in Laos to train the performers at the national circus in aerial silk, and she generously let me tag along and fumble through the fabric with her. We would meet up at coffee shops, both of us dressed conspicuously in two layers of bright leggings topped with booty shorts, and walk to the circus to train. 

She might not look like much during the day...

But she cleans up pretty nice under the lights

Maike patiently coached me, although I did tell her that I thought being yelled at in German was more terrifyingly motivating so she gave me that, too. The atmosphere of the circus was a bit otherwordly, and totally different from the rest of Vientiane. The Lao family of performers lived in rows of low buildings huddled around the big top, dogs roamed freely (along with, at times, a very depressed looking monkey dressed in a tattered suit), and a group of tiny children practiced every day in the small gym, throwing their bodies around the room, ropes, and bars with reckless abandon. 

Next generation

Truly cannot even count how many times I saw them drop each other, and they got right back up and did it again.

Maike and I would train on frayed ropes slung haphazardly from rafters, rings on creaky chains, and silk hung from the very center of the ceiling of the big top, attached by a single, rusted, metal cord, run countless times through a pulley system that looked older than the current communist regime. 

My life in one of Maike's hands

Old school

Cold season long gone, we climbed and rolled and wrapped through the thick fabric in the hot season air, leaving every time drenched in sweat, covered in the fine grime of dust that lived everywhere, rushing off to a place to sit and eat and drink as much water as we could while talking for hours. At the end of her time in Laos Maike performed with the circus, and I showed up to do her hair and make-up and generally gush over how beautiful she looked in the handsewn, sequin encrusted costume the circus folk had lent her. 

Being with Maike at the circus was a singularly strange and decidedly Laos experience- from getting to know her, to spending time in the subculture of circus families and their day to day lives, to learning some fundamentals in an art form I’ve come to love (and wish I could do more of). It reminds me that having zero filter, and doing things like offering to take a stranger to pee in the bushes, often results in connections that might otherwise be missed.

My first day in Dresden Maike picked me up on her bike from the bus stop and we walked along the river, taking in the quintessential Dresden old town skyline while catching up on the last year and a half. It was hot, my pack was heavy, and I was starving, but it was perfect to be reunited again. Her friend, Tim, was at the apartment, cooking ahead of our arrival, so when we showed up to her place the kitchen was filled with food in various stages of preparation. His brother joined us and we all sat down to a traditional German dinner, talking for hours about language and politics and circus and everything in between. I was exhausted so I went to bed while they went out to a festival. Maike’s roommate was out of town so I had a little sun filled, wooden floored room to myself, and stretching out on that full bed after the last week in hostel bunks was amazing.

Maike leading the way

First view Dresden

The next morning I woke up to Maike and Tim in the kitchen with a sack full of freshly baked bread and a table laden with an assortment of spreads, butter, and marmalade. The counters were covered in more jars of marmalade; Maike told me she and Tim had made them. I asked when, fully expecting something like “last weekend” or “a few days ago”, but instead I got “Oh, last night- we went dumpster diving after the festival and found a lot of fruit, so when we got home we made it at about one a.m. We thought we would wake you up and you would think all Germans were strange people who make marmalade in the middle of the night.” Dear reader, the marmalade, spooned out of a re-used pickle jar, was delicious.

I’m finishing up this post in a Starbucks, my first dose of antibiotics under my belt, and right about now Maike is hopefully hitching a successful ride straight to Aachen. Maybe not all Germans make marmalade in the middle of the night from trash fruit, or let strangers take them to pee in bushes, or decide to present themselves as trainers for circus performers in SE Asia, but this German girl I dearly love certainly does and that’s pretty much perfect to me. Happiest of birthdays, Maike. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Fresh off the train in Laos, totally unprepared
There are so many things about living in a place that you never notice until you leave. I don’t mean being grateful for ____________ or appreciating ____________. I mean fundamental, daily aspects of the culture that you don’t notice because they are so intrinsic they simply are. You can't really see them until you are in another place, and you notice something missing.

First day in Laos- seeing things like a tourist

That one should feel this way about one’s home culture should go without saying, but the strange thing is that when you move to another country and adopt it as your home, the same thing happens. I took Laos wholesale; I had to accept it fully in order to thrive and live there. When I first moved to Vientiane I felt uncomfortable every day, assaulted by the grind of motors and vendors and construction.  I was overwhelmed with the way streets and stores and even my school were organized. Motorbikes were a terrifying, absolute no I will not ever answer to the question of owning or driving one, tuk tuks made me clench my fingers in anticipation of a wreck, and I diligently applied mosquito repellent and crawled under a net every night. I was afraid of the dogs and the traffic, I wanted a smoke alarm, and I often felt tired just from the ordeal of walking down a sidewalk and dodging open fires, potholes, or motorbikes laden with long sharp objects.

My neighborhood street, which was basically an angry dog gauntlet

Purely for decoration

Inevitably, because it was simply too much work and effort to worry about, those things fell off of my radar as things that bothered me into the category of things that just were.  It became normal, and so it became my home. It’s incredible how quickly humans can adapt to such wildly different situations. I found myself owning, and loving, a motorbike. I can’t remember the last time I was worried about a dog bite (getting a rabies vaccination definitely helped). I got lazy with mosquito repellent. Even after a fire broke out in my neighborhood and I found myself in the street with hundreds of others, deciding if it was safe to go back home and sleep, I never returned to anything anywhere near the initial anxiety I had about fires. I had medical mishaps and I still stayed. I got to the point where I didn’t even notice the noise, so much so that I could sleep through weddings and karaoke and various animals mating and fighting outside of my window. All of these things that had been so hard, and foreign, and uncomfortable were a part of my life.

There's no place like home 

I landed in Moscow after two years in Laos and the first thing I noticed was how empty being in public felt. Street life in Laos is chaotic and complex, up close and intimate; it’s puzzle pieces of activity, multi-leveled and layered and spilling out over the edges. The sidewalks don’t contain it, the streets hold some of it, traffic flows in between all of it. It’s the constant human hum of eating and laughing, talking and drinking, music blaring and children crying and dogs whining and cats yowling, the tuk tuks screeching a high wailing brakes failing refrain, motors pounding down an erratic drumming, the sizzle of electric wires and hot oil, the soft sounds of food being sliced and pounded, dropped and stirred, ice and steam and strong coffee smells, insane looking fruit heaped in candy colors next to rows of shiny fish smoking over a fire tended by a child, incessant cell phone conversations punctuating sales pitches and interrupting tuk tuk drivers calling out over and over, a never ending plea for you to let them take you somewhere. You’re weaving and stopping and starting and flowing through it all within a month or two, and it turns into a familiar neighborhood rhythm.

On top of all the sensory overload that Laos can be is how unpredictable things are, from big to small matters. I truly never knew what was going to happen in any random day- what to expect out of drivers on the way to work, or the police on the side of the road, or service at a frequented restaurant, or how much I would be charged for the same repair job at the same motorbike repair shop from week to week. Schedules, timelines, opening and closing hours: these things don’t mean much. Everything was subject to change, to the point where I stopped viewing it through the lens of change at all- it just was what it was that day, or that week, and then you didn’t worry about looking for reasons why.

Waiting outside the bank, 30 minutes after it was supposed to open. Patience is a virtue.

In Zurich, I find myself overwhelmed for different reasons. Things feel immovable, stable, set down in a very permanent way that is relaxing in its predictability but also so very quiet and simple compared to where I’ve been. I go for a walk and wait on the side of the street to cross and the cars stop, waiting for me. Public life, street life, feels full of holes where fruit stands and food trucks and various people and animals should be. I am alone in public, surrounded by people, and I never realized how different it feels until I compared it to Laos, and SE Asia in general. Everything is painfully clean, to a level that makes me feel out of place, like a bull in a china cabinet, as though I would break something or upset something or offend someone. I went for a walk on one of the first mornings, and as I followed an immaculate trail through a perfectly manicured field and looked out at a lake ringed by regulation built houses, all I could think was that it looked like a movie set.

Not a tuk tuk for miles

These things aren’t better or worse, good or bad, and I want to be clear that I’m not comparing Laos to Zurich or anywhere else for the sake of weighing, evaluating, and judging. I’m just trying to work out the strange sensation I get of feeling foreign in Western countries. I’m also painfully aware that this sounds trite, a white girl pondering her experiences in Asia. But at the end of the day, it’s true. I feel out of place, in some strange fundamental way that I can’t describe or explain. I miss Laos. I miss Laos for what would objectively be called the “good” things, and I also miss it for what some might feel are the bad things. Other than sophomore and junior year of college, I cannot think of another time  when I’ve had so much stability on every major life level- I had the same job, in the same country, in the same town, and I lived in the same apartment, for two years. I was deeply immersed in my school community, the social life of Vientiane, and I lived in a wonderful neighborhood. 

Sunsets on the Mekong never get old

I also hold a soft spot for Laos because I feel like that is where I fully became a teacher, completing the process I started in Colorado- I had two years of working with the same students in the same school, as I slogged through grad school, and I had time to really hone the fundamentals of my craft to better serve me in the future.

It's definitely not terrible to be expected to engage in an all day water fight holiday with your students every year

There is also a deeper, more fundamental aspect of missing Laos, and I recognize it from when I left Japan and Albania- I miss the person I was there. That’s not to say that I change who I am wherever I go. It’s just that different places, like different people, bring out different things in you. From simple things like being a person who rides a motorcycle and washes my clothes in a bucket, to big things like being the teacher of my wonderful students, there are daily rituals, habits, actions, interactions, responsibilities, and social communities that bring out things in me that were unique to my living in Laos. I built up an entirely new aspect of myself in response to the needs, challenges, opportunities, and requirements of living and working and thriving in a new place, just as I did in Japan and Albania. Most of those new parts of me are unnecessary outside of that context, so I say goodbye to them, too.  

Laos was not ever part of The Plans. Even after Laos became part of them, I fought it. But once I stopped fighting I gave Laos another year of my life and switched it from an incidental detour to a purposeful decision. I left in a whirlwind of packing and planning and medical misadventures, and I don’t feel like I really had the time or perspective to understand that I was leaving, for good, and saying goodbye to all of that. It was time for me to leave, and leaving was the best and right choice for me. There isn’t an ounce of regret or vacillating in any of this- I’m just in awe of how much Laos gave me, and now I have the distance to see more. I continue to discover new things about myself that I learned, or discarded, or refined, or improved thanks to my time there.