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A couple of weeks ago, I received a new ATM card in the mail. Normally that is not an earthshaking event, but this new card served to remind me that three years have passed since I received the old one. And, since this was the ATM card for the joint account we started just after getting married, it came as a very physical reminder that our third anniversary is coming up this week.

Many people at last week’s conference asked me how married life is going, since the last time most of them saw me was just after we’d gotten engaged. I said, “Well it’s working out so far, but since it’s only been three years, perhaps I’ll wait until at least five or ten to give my final verdict.” They were without exception shocked to hear that so much time had passed since our happy day, and somewhat abashed, as if they were supposed to keep track of such things for someone they barely know.

I have to admit, I myself am somewhat shocked when thinking of it. So much has happened in that short time, it’s almost hard to believe it hasn’t been far longer. In fact, since our third year began with Gabe’s kidney stone and continued shortly thereafter with a fantastic trip to Venice, let’s just say I very much hope that the fourth one will start out a little more quietly.

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Today I returned to my hairdresser here, which was largely unremarkable except in that it was so unremarkable. All I did was get in my car, drive for 15 minutes, sit in the chair for a couple hours, chat with the hairdresser, read some trashy magazines, then drive to the grocery store and go home for lunch.

Really? No linguistic hazards, no trying to guess how to say what I want done and ending up with a buzz cut? No 45 minute bus rides, or tube rides plus 20 minute walks over railroad bridges and through winding side streets? No buzzing the doorbell of a tiny apartment and being surrounded by batty old Portuguese women who coo at me while I smile and nod through their ministrations? How very boring.

More than anything, my return to a normal American hairdressing experience sums up the differences between living here and living in Lisbon. There, even the most mundane of tasks was an adventure requiring the utmost mental and physical agility. Here, all it takes is a short drive, and I get a relaxing morning spent in the chair.

What difference does a hairdo make? Turns out, a lot.

Um, wow. It’s October. I am not exactly sure where this year has gone. Oh that’s right, it went all over Portugal, Morocco, Israel, Sweden, and England. Not to mention home. As you’ve seen, it’s been a busy one, and I for one am glad that we’re heading into fall. I love these crisp, cold days (or will once this past week’s heat wave has gone, which it seems to have done today), and I especially love the holidays. More than anything, I love being home with our families for the holidays. As much fun as we had last fall, exploring Lisbon and Venice, it just wasn’t the same.

And of course we can’t forget the newest addition to our lives this fall, Bola the wonder cat. This week he has gone from sweet cuddly kitten who has been deprived of human contact all his life, to testy adolescent cat intent on pushing all the boundaries we set for him. Oh, I can’t play with the marbles on that fancy chinese checkers set that was a wedding present from a dear friend? That’s what you think! After not using the squirt bottle on him for the first ten days he was with us, we’ve now squirted him at least 4 or 5 times in the past two days (and every single time was for playing with those dang marbles.)

We also have some moments that make it all worth it, such as last night, when he was leaping two feet in the air after a new toy we bought him last weekend. Such are the joys of kittenhood.

On a wholly different note: back in the spring, I submitted one of my many many Morocco photos to an online photo contest. Voting for the People’s Choice Award opens today, so please, gentle readers (all ten of you!) head on over and cast your vote (here’s how.) My photo is on list #2, photo 16.  Many thanks!

And now, to start October.

I have to admit something to you: I am an American.

I have spent so many years traveling and living in other countries that I’d almost convinced myself I was some half-breed, falling somewhere between Europe and America. On a good day, I might have even have imagined that I embodied all the positive aspects of each culture without any of the negatives: I’m friendly without being loud, but also reserved without being snobbish. Etcetera.

However, after being back in the States for a month, I have to admit — somewhat sheepishly — that I am far more American than I would have admitted before our year abroad. Why? Not because I eat only hamburgers — I don’t — or drive a big car. But rather because I have that most basic of American tells, the fundamental difference in temperament that sets us apart from just about every other country in the world: I strike up personal conversations with random strangers.

I hadn’t given any of this much thought til I read the endpiece in this month’s Smithsonian magazine, “So Where Are You From?” Initially, I sympathized with the fish out of water scrutiny she describes, which can only come from living in a foreign country, where just opening your mouth immediately sets you apart. But as I read on, I realized that I am not the foreigner in this piece. No, I am one of those Americans.

For us, it’s normal to make personal conversation, to ask questions of total strangers that might conceivably make them uncomfortable. Living here, it’s easy to forget that what we take as mere curiosity and friendliness can be misconstrued by people who didn’t grow up in a culture of idle small talk. My dad, for one, never did get used to it, despite having lived in the States for more than forty years. He always used to make fun of the people at stores or restaurants who would give a cheesy grin and say “CanIhelpyou?” He’d always pronounce it all as one word, said with an exaggerated American accent (or his version of one.)

Reading this piece brought something home to me that had been dancing around the edges of my consciousness all weekend. When we’re in Santa Cruz, I assume that I will talk to people, because I’m comfortable there and recognize a lot of people, even if I don’t know them personally. But even while traveling outside of my comfort zone into the strange reality that is LA (see my last post), I still managed to strike up a conversation with just about everyone I came into contact with. The Aussie couple walking the cliffs outside our hotel, our waitress at dinner, the weird long-haired hippie dude who came in to get breakfast in his bathrobe, the woman selling jewelry at a street fair, the crew members of the ship we were on, the people behind us in line to board said ship. I spoke with every single one of them, not just a polite “hello how are you,” but long enough to actually learn something about each one of them, to make them laugh or at least smile.

I continued to notice this disturbing habit of mine yesterday, when I came away from the grocery store having made two new friends. First was the grocery guy, who by the end of my shop was running back and forth to hand-select my fruit and veg for me. And next, the cashier, who told me all about the tulip and daffodil bulbs she got at Costco last year, and how pretty they were in the spring. As I left, I told her how different an experience it was from grocery shopping in Europe. After going to our local grocery store in Lisbon every week for nearly a year, I finally managed to get a faint smile of recognition out of a couple of the cashiers. Sometimes. After 45 minutes in Safeway, I knew more about these two people than just about any of the Portuguese I met in Lisbon.

Throughout all this, it’s been dawning on me: I actually enjoy talking to people. I’ve said it before, but I’ve always considered myself an introvert, a quiet wallflower who would rather sit back and watch a party than be the life of it. This self-concept of mine prevailed until we moved to Portugal, when the language and cultural barriers meant that I literally couldn’t make small talk any more.

Even if I had spoken Portuguese fluently, I don’t think it would’ve been the same as it is here. Their communities are much more tightly-knit than ours, so their intimacies are patterned differently. They know fewer people much more deeply, down to what they had for lunch and where they go for holiday every August. That’s all very well and good of course, but only if you’ve had years to become a part of the community. As a foreigner, well, a year just doesn’t cut it.

Bottom line is, as strange as it may seem to people from other countries, I enjoy our culture of small talk. I like making connections with people, no matter how brief or superficial they may be. In Portugal, the little old men sit around in cafes every afternoon, year after year, and the women chatter to each other as they clean and cook and raise their children. Here, we exchange pleasantries with strangers, be it “CanIhelpyou?” or “Where are you from?” To others, those questions might seem invasive or artificially friendly. But to me, they are the basis of our life here, and something we take entirely for granted until we can’t do it any more.

So today, be an American and go out and strike up a conversation with someone random. Just because you can. Seriously. It feels better than you might think.

I’m in LA this weekend, helping one of my clients do very important research (yes, life is tough.)

We decided to drive down, as these days it’s a wash between flying and driving to SoCal. It took seven hours to reach our destination today, seven hours of flat, straight, boring driving. When we drove for that long in Britain, we reached a different country. When you drive for seven hours in California, well, technically you’re still in the same state, but in reality, it feels like a wholly different country. Maybe even universe. I’ve been to a lot of very foreign places this year, but LAsia might be one of the most different.

When we went to dinner tonight, it was all I could do to wrench my attention away from our fellow diners long enough to appreciate our incredible view of the sunset. At one long table was a birthday party for a teenage girl, which kept expanding as new people arrived and asked to add chairs. It was a laid-back, casual family affair, with multiple generations partaking in the huge salad bar with equal enthusiasm.

About half way through our meal, a tall, skinny woman with long black hair and black clothing tottered in on chunky heels, her husband also dressed all in black. They were early, so sat down at the second huge table in the room and ordered tall drinks, talking on their phones while they waited.

When the rest of their party arrived, I didn’t know who to look at first. It was mostly men, all of them wearing skinnier jeans than I would ever rock, carefully messy hairstyles, and that aggressively nonchalant swagger that screams “hipster.” Their girlfriends were wearing outfits worth more than I’ve spent on clothing in the past year, and spent time telling each other about how law school is so hard they have to start drinking at 2:30 PM, or how they only gained 27 pounds during pregnancy and here’s how to lose the weight, etc.

Half of the party had Australian accents, two were pregnant, and every one was painfully, beautifully hip. We just don’t see creatures like that in Santa Cruz, and we never saw them in Portugal, so I was captivated. Luckily, the dinner was equally good, so my staring wasn’t too obvious.

Tomorrow, more adventures in LAsia, but first: I’m officially a published writer. Tada! (Click on the link for Summer/Fall 2010 on the right side of the page to download the PDF.)

Yesterday I went up to San Francisco to catch the tail end of the Birth of Impressionism exhibit at the new and improved De Young museum. It was a great exhibit, though very crowded, and even better, it gave me an excuse to spend a rare clear, warm day in Golden Gate Park with one of my favorite people.

It’s still such a novelty to be able to actually do things on a whim with the people I love, to be able to call up friends or family and say, “Hey, wanna get together?” Of course that is wreaking havoc on what little work ethic I have left after the past six months of traveling and moving, but that is entirely beside the point. I can work when I’m dead. Or not.

On the way home, however, I was struck once again by the American culture of the car. We left San Francisco at 4 PM, just at the start of traffic, but once we hit the carpool lanes, it wasn’t too bad. As we raced by at the incredible pace of 50 miles an hour, hundreds and hundreds of single-passenger cars crawled next to us, making their slow way home through the winding warren that is San Jose during rush hour. I marveled as they stretched on and on for miles, knowing that most of these people do this same thing every day of their lives, morning and night, five days a week, all year long.

I realize that there is traffic in all of the places we went to this year, Lisbon and London especially. Since I didn’t drive though, I was much less exposed to it, even while living in a crowded capital city. So last night, I looked at all this traffic with new eyes, and was painfully aware that every single one of those people not in the carpool lane could have been driving with someone else, or taking the bus, if there were such a thing. (We didn’t see a single bus on the freeway, mind you. Not one.)

This reaction told me that I’m not accustomed to being back yet. That and the fact that I keep writing the date backwards, i.e. 1/9/10, which I wrote on my to do list this morning. Whoops.

You can take the girl out of Europe, apparently, but you can’t take Europe out of the girl just yet.

A large part of our homecoming has involved catching up with friends and family, which is a beloved task indeed. Many dinners, lunches, coffees, drinks, and afternoon strolls have occurred in the past three weeks, and every reunion has naturally involved us telling tales about our year abroad. As we’ve done so, I’ve seen some themes emerging, connections being forged through the natural evolution of conversation.

I made one such connection on Friday night over drinks at our friends’ house. During the course of the evening, we told them in turn about our trip to Venice at the beginning of our year abroad, and later on, about our trip to Fez in the spring. It was Gabe who made the comparison between the two, which I found to be particularly astute.

Both are worlds unto their own, microcosms that remain utterly incomprehensible in theory until you witness how they work in real life. A city built on water, passable only by boat? Sounds bizarre and almost impossible — that is, until you go there. By the time you leave, it’s the most natural thing in the world to see a concrete truck riding on a barge, or people lining up to receive their grocery delivery by boat.

In hindsight, this alternate world was very similar to the Fez medina, a city built of tiny streets, wide enough only to hold heavily laden donkeys and a never-ending, fast-running current of humanity. Until we went there, it was hard to imagine the sheer scale of the medina, much less the fact that none of it was actually accessible by car. I can’t say we knew our way around by the time we left, but we definitely had the full experience.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the medina did indeed have a very similar feel to the tiny streets and canals of Venice that we’d explored six months before. Despite their logic-defying nature, both cities had been getting along just fine for centuries longer than California has been a state.

In the weeks to come, I’m sure I’ll be thinking further about the similarities between the places we visited this year: Israel and Sweden? Portugal and the UK? Hmm. Stay tuned.

Last day of sabbatical. Heading home. Can’t believe it. The next time I wake up in a proper bed, eat breakfast and have a quiet cup of coffee in the morning, it will be in California, that legendary place of all my dreams for the past year.

Somehow though, despite having looked forward to this day for so long, now that it’s here, I seem to have mixed feelings. I am of course excited to go back, and very ready. But I’m also sad to give up this year of fun and freedom, rest and travel, tiles and graffiti, food and drink and museums and tiny winding streets and trams and boats and buses of all sorts… the list goes on. It has been an incredible ride, and I thank you all for sticking around to hear about it.

And now, for home. Wherever that may be.

We’re having a great time here in England, lots of family, friends, and food, a much needed reintroduction back into our real lives. A few photos as evidence…

First, our last night in Lisbon and goodbye to our flat:

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Then we get to England, where we’re staying in a lovely little village in the Cotswolds in a holiday home that’s a converted chapel. Our family all visited for a weekend of punting and a trip to the local farm park to see the animals:

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A trip to Bristol to see friends of the family and the SS Great Britain, the world’s first iron steamship:

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And last but not least, today we did a long ramble through the countryside with a delicious pub lunch in the middle and a cream tea at the end:

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Which brings us to tonight, when we are sitting inside reading, working, and feeling grateful that the rain that’s now pouring down did not do so while we were walking earlier today.

Tomorrow, another Oxford day, and then Friday off to Edinburgh early in the morning.

Turned out that a weekend of mental health was not enough for me. I needed just one more day. I’m starting to suspect that this sudden need for R&R had a lot to do with the book I was reading, which I have mentioned once already: The Passage, by Justin Cronin. It’s definitely not for everyone, but for someone who loves post-apocalyptic fiction, a la Stephen King’s The Stand or McCormac’s The Road, this was pure dystopian heaven, deliciously horrifying and at the same time uplifting.

Plus it’s really long (800 pages, or so I’m told by those who don’t have a Kindle), which makes it even better. I’m a fast reader — Gabe says I don’t just read books, I inhale them — so good books tend to go by far too quickly. It’s rare that I find a book that can both hold my rapt attention and also withstand it for longer than a few days.

When I do find such a book, it’s almost like I’m having an affair. It disrupts all of my routines: sleep, gym, work. When I’m not reading the book, I’m thinking about it, and desperately want to finish whatever it is I’m doing so that I read some more. I leave social engagements early so that I can go home and read. I sneak in quick trysts on my lunch break, justifying them to myself by saying, “Oh, I’ll work more later.” Or tomorrow, or whenever I’m finally done with this book that is draining my life force just like one of the scary as hell vampires it so chillingly describes.

All week, I’ve been frantically trying to get my work and preparations for our visitors done so that I could carve out a chunk of time to read in the afternoon before Gabe gets home, or in the evening while he’s watching TV. I knew that if I didn’t finish it before our company starts arriving, I would be sneaking off while we were visiting castles in Sintra, catching a few lines here, a few lines there. And that would not do. There’s nothing I hate more than breaking up the end of a really good book. No, I would not adulterate my reading experience in that way. (Not to mention my family experience, of course…!)

Yesterday, I cleaned our flat in the morning, so I did accomplish something with the day. Afterward, as I was getting ready to go to the gym, I realized that I had no desire whatsoever to go lift weights. As usual, all I wanted to do was read my book, especially because  I knew I could finish it that afternoon and finally resume my normal life again.

Now, you have to understand: my workouts are sacrosanct. I hardly ever miss a gym day, if only because it gives me an excuse to get out of the house. Normally, this would have been a pretty big deal. But yesterday, without giving it a second thought, I happily curled back up in my chair and hit power on my Kindle. I was finally able to read through til the end, blissfully uninterrupted.

When I finished, I felt the inevitable sadness that comes when leaving a good book behind, but also an immense relief. Finally, this tome would relinquish its hold on me! Or so I thought. I went to meet Gabe for dinner and a movie, but I found myself thinking about the book and its characters throughout what turned out to be a terrible film experience. When I got home, I realized all over again that I was done, I had nothing waiting for me on my Kindle, and oh, I was sad. It was all I could do to keep myself from starting the book all over again.

I don’t think I’ve been like that with a book since I was a teenager, when I read and reread Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series over and over again. Or perhaps (yes I admit it) Diana Gabaldon’s epic works when I was in grad school. What can I say, I needed pure escapism then more than ever.

Throughout my life, I’ve always been happiest when I was lost in a book — sometimes to my socially inept chagrin. Ever since my mom read us the Lord of the Rings trilogy before I turned ten, books have been my favorite form of entertainment and escape. Whenever adolescence proved too much for me, I turned to McCaffrey’s world of dragons, which was always much more exciting and glamorous than my own. Later, in college and even in grad school, I continued to read as much as I could, including yes, Diana Gabaldon. Whenever I came home on vacation, I immediately ensconced myself on a couch with a book for the entire time allotted to me.

While I read, I heal. By looking away from that which has been weighing on me, I give my mind the space it needs to process. When I emerge at last, bleary-eyed and fuzzy, the real world always seems more manageable, if slightly more mundane.

So were my mental health days this week an excuse to read my book? Or was the book an excuse for me to take mental health days? Perhaps both. Lately I have really begun to feel the strain of a year’s travel, of ten months spent outside my comfort zone, of solitude and foreign language and strange food. I have enjoyed every minute of it, and have grown in ways I wouldn’t have imagined a year ago.

The truth is though, I am tired. I am ready to go home, where I don’t have to constantly reinforce my boundaries, where I know the unspoken patterns of society, where the rules and the people and the language all make sense because they are my own.

I am becoming increasingly aware of my travel weariness as we enter the homestretch: a little over five weeks til we leave Lisbon, and seven til home. Thirty-seven days left in our adopted city. That’s it! Luckily, I think my fictional retreat this week has now prepared me to better enjoy the real world for the time that remains to us abroad. Good thing, too, as I know that time is going to fly. I will turn the page, and boom — we’ll be on to the next chapter. Funny how that happens.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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