Friday, February 12, 2016

Where I've Been, Where I'm Going

On June 16th, 2015 I left my home and my job in Laos to start Stray Cat Summer, so named because I didn’t really think I would be rambling, unemployed and aimless, much further past the summer. It ended up stretching all the way through fall and into the winter, and didn’t come to an end until the next year, on Jan 3rd, 2016, when I rolled into Stockholm (literally, on yet another train).

As I'm sure surprises no one, I kept notes and maps and journeys listed along the way. I just went back to look them over, now that I have had a spare moment to write, and these are the final numbers.

In 202 days I covered 5,750 plane miles and 8,448 miles overland. Those numbers encompass two planes, five ferries, fourteen car trips, seventeen trains, and seventeen buses. I was in 14 countries and visited 37 cities. 

Poor Thailand- it wouldn't fit on this map, but I was there for one last wonderful hurrah

Most of the writing I did during my travels was fairly self reflective (navel gazing, let's be real) and I realized that so many of the notes and stories of what I was actually doing never made it here on the blog, because I was so immersed in what I was thinking (this is also probably no surprise to anyone who knows me well- I live in my head). I'm hoping, now that I have a bit more time, that I can go back and fill in the blanks with stories and adventures and anecdotes, if only so that I don't forget them as they go slipping out the backdoor of my brain.

I have been here in Sweden six weeks already, and even to type it out shocks me a bit. To say that it has been an abrupt and jolting transition to go from Stray Cat Summer/Fall/Winter into a respectable job at an academically prestigious and rigorous school would be a gross understatement. I have taken over mid-year, and not just for the previous teacher. He left in October, and the classes were tended to by in-school subs who took on the work in addition to their already full schedules. Due to the hectic nature of the transition, every week since I have been at school has been an adventure in What Do I Have to Do that I Don't Know I Have to Do? This has been a frustrating situation of really being the fault of no one in particular- it's just an unfortunate convergence of bad timing, making do with in-house subs, and each well meaning person thinking the other well meaning person had taken care of __________ or communicated _____________ or followed up on _____________, which resulted in a lot of things not being taken care of, communicated, or followed up on.

And so I transitioned back into my profession in the most challenging of ways- mid-year, with no previous experience in the curriculum, setting up a new life and a home and a career in yet another new country. And here, dear reader, is where I made the fatal error.

I let Sweden trick me with how Swedish I assumed it would be.

What I mean is that, when I headed off to Japan at the ripe old age of 22, having never been anywhere outside of the U.S. save Mexico, I had a healthy respect for what I was doing. I was prepared for it to be insanely different, I was freaking out about the job, I knew zero Japanese, hell, I was foolishly in love with a Mormon and was worried about maintaining our long distance relationship, the list goes on. When I moved to Albania, I was a new teacher, heading off to start my career. My sister has just passed away, things were rough, and Albania was a small country no one had ever heard of (but the U.S. State Department had a lot to say about healthcare which I am thankful I did not read before I moved there). And finally, we have Laos, which is an absolute gem but also absolutely a difficult country in which to live, from infrastructure to healthcare.

So, to be honest, after tucking three countries under my belt, and after roaming wild and free for almost seven full months, I accepted this job in Sweden and thought it would be easy peasy to just roll into town and set up shop. It ticked all the boring boxes- first world, great social safety net, Stockholm is a well run and neatly organized Scandinavian city, I would have things like fire alarms and regulated traffic and public transpo and free healthcare. It would be so smooth. Neat. Easy. Clean and safe and simple.

Which is why, when I found myself wandering the streets with a check worth my first three weeks of pay, crying in the snow in the dark at 4:00 p.m. thanks to bank bureaucracy, I was shocked. Sweden had made me cry, in less than a full month? What the hell? How did this happen? 

I suppose this is, in some ways, a good thing. I had been worried that Sweden would be too safe, normal, similar, and, if I may say so, a bit boring compared to Japan or Laos or Albania. What has happened, however, is that I have been hit in the face with the biggest challenge of my teaching career, on top of what has turned out to be a country transition that has been, while much easier than any other country, still challenging in ways I didn't expect. Sure, the basics are much easier- the public transpo, the healthcare, my lovely and fully furnished apartment which I was so lucky to get my co-workers told me I could never, ever mention again how I got the place, because it was too infuriating. I'm taking aerial silks lessons again, I can drink the tap water freely, the traffic follows consistent rules. 

But the culture is still very specifically different, in subtle but frequent ways. My check cashing adventure was one example; my experience in public places with mores of social interactions is another. The darkness, y'all, the darkness- the cold was not nearly as bad as I expected, but I have to say, when the sun deuces out at 3:30 p.m. it definitely is hard to keep it together. Living in the suburbs again, after being in the nucleus of the thriving hub of the community of Vientiane, has been the biggest transition. I went from a lively expat community to an endless parade of hostels and couchsurfing with friends to land in a wonderful little apartment in a very beautiful but very quiet (and dark, did I mention dark) suburb. I have loads of excellent friends here- it's just that we have to actually plan get togethers, instead of just bumping into each other on the riverside. The pace of life in SE Asia, and life on the road, is what I find myself missing the most I suppose.

That is not to say that I am not enjoying Sweden. I have, as I said, great friends here. I have had some dumb adventures already. My students are absolute gems. The studio where I take aerial silks is fantastic. I am reveling, and I mean REVELING, in the glory that is having my own apartment again. I can be alone, for hours, and have privacy and peace and quiet. I have a real kitchen again for the first time in two years, and every Sunday I have cooked and roasted and meal prepped. Being in cold weather has been excellent for my legs. Healthcare, y'all. Healthcare. And even this trial by fire of learning IB will all be worth it.

I wrote in my journal, as I was on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, that this January to June I was going to devote myself to radical self care and self improvement. After months and months of erratic sleeping schedules, terrible eating, stressful times of uncertainty, and the fear of having no health insurance, Sweden, with all its predictability and stability and safety, could not have come at a better time. It's good to push oneself, but past a certain point it's just self flagellation. In the past six weeks I have been clocking eight to nine hours of sleep a night; I've been eating more vegetables in a day than I was getting in a week; I'm working out again, between belly dancing and yoga and aerial silks and strength training; I'm studying Swedish; I'm reading books and journaling; I'm learning so much at work and taming my ego about needing to know everything; I'm hanging out in libraries again; I meditate every day. Things are really good, even though they are so vastly different from where I was six weeks ago that I sometimes cannot even believe I am the same person, and this is the same life.

When I look back on how exhausted, confused, and scared I was the day before my first day of work, and I think of how I feel now, I can only be amazed at how resilient and capable humans can be when thrown into strange situations. In its own way, taking over this position, in the middle of the year, was just as much a leap of faith as it was for me to leave Laos in June with no plans or goals. I find it interesting that I traveled for a little more than half a year, and now I will have about half a year here in Sweden as I learn the ropes of this new job. That will add up to an entire YEAR where I have thrown myself, again and again, into personally challenging, scary, and daunting situations. And up to this point, I haven't failed. I see no reason to think I would start now.

I look forward to seeing where I'll be come June, when I will have come up on a full year of confronting my fears over and over, and pushing myself into uncomfortable spaces to see how I'll feel there. And I look forward to seeing so many of you then, because I am coming home to Texas this summer. And, um, it will be Stray Cat Summer Part Two, so, if you have a couch...