Monday, February 17, 2020

When It Rains

It's five a.m. and pouring rain when I step outside, strapping my bike helmet to my head. Raindrops soak my waterproof jacket and not-waterproof pants and very not-waterproof shoes, and by the time I reach the end of our street, my clothes are saturated. Water collects on the visor of my helmet, little drops clinging in a row at the very top of my vision; when I flick my head sideways to dislodge them, they're replaced almost immediately.

I'm alone, eerily so, as I bike through residential streets. It's that sensation of being all alone in the universe, something I've felt while swimming or solo backpacking but never in the middle of London. This isn't a city that knows solitude. Usually when I pass the cyclist counter, I'm number 50 or 60 for the day; today, I'm number 16. From 4 a.m. airport trips to biking home at midnight, I've never seen the streets so deserted.

As my wet clothes stick to my skin and wind slips through every crevice in my clothing, I envy everyone else who had the good sense to stay home.

It doesn't rain like this in London very often. It drizzles frequently, sometimes enough that I consider investing in actually waterproof pants. Then the drizzle slows, or stops, and we have overcast skies or fog or bits of sunshine. In the six months we've been here, this is only the second time I'll use the spare set of dry clothes I bring with me. 

The average temperature back home is colder and true inclement weather more common, so my worsening hatred of the cold has been a puzzle. Until now. As the wind nearly tips me over and as I bike through a puddle that sprays water in my face, I finally figure out the difference. I've never commuted by bike before. I've never spent an hour on my bike every day, even on the coldest, rainiest days. There's public transportation, of course, but the bike trip takes nearly half as long. I would have chosen the bus today, if I'd planned ahead, but I'd have had to wake up earlier than usual to catch the infrequent night bus that would get me to work on time.

The wind pushes against me as I turn the corner, so every pump of my pedal takes effort. When I reach the bridge over the Thames, gusts blow me sideways; it takes all my strength to stay upright. When it blows hard enough, it brings the rain with it, so I feel like I'm in the midst of a tiny hurricane. Water is pooling on the sides of the streets, and in the dim light, I can't avoid all the puddles. Good thing my socks and shoes are already soaked; what's a little more water?

And then, I'm there. The coffee shop where I work is warm and inviting, and it feels glorious to shed my wet layers. My co-workers laugh at my dripping helmet and jacket, and I laugh too, more from relief than humor. I watch the rain from inside the warm shop, and by the time I'm biking home from class in the late afternoon, the clouds have given way to a colorful sunset. That's one good thing about storms; they make you appreciate clear skies so much more.

Friday, January 31, 2020

An American on #BrexitEve

When I started writing this post, it was "Brexit-Eve," the night before the UK officially leaves the European Union. The phrase was trending on social media, with everything from humorous parodies of Christmas Eve to heartfelt statements of both relief and anguish.

It reminded me of when we first arrived in London, just weeks before the October deadline, when everyone was talking about Brexit and everyone had a strong opinion. Then, when the deadline wasn't met and a general election was called, everyone kept talking about Brexit. Then the election happened. Some people I know mourned and some celebrated, but still, Brexit was a major topic of discussion.

And then...people stopped talking about it. Maybe it's the bubble I live in, but it feels as though for the last six weeks, everyone's moved on. The topic has come up here or there, but for the most part, I get the feeling everyone is sick and tired of this process and ready to be done with it.

That's changed over the past few days, and Brexit seems to be all over the place again. Today, I was biking near Westminster while running errands, and I came across street after street of people gathering for Brexit. I'd find a square full of British flags and and pro-Brexit signs:
A block later, I'd find other people waving the EU flag in front of cars like this one:
Some of the signs people carried were constructive, but a lot were destructive. On social media and in person, people have a lot of negative things to say about the other side, and it's sad to see. 

Even sadder is that this feels like the norm anymore, not just in the UK but in countries across the world, including my own. I'm no stranger to division and disunity, and sadly, I doubt any of you are either. But the thing is, I don't think we can continue like this. I don't want to continue like this; do you? 

Maybe the solution starts with politicians, but I don't think so. I think it starts with us. With each of us, every time we acknowledge not just that someone else has a right to an opinion but that they have a valid reason for feeling that way, every time we try to understand someone's point of view instead of just telling them they're wrong, every time we refrain from mudslinging and name-calling those we disagree with. If we start, they will follow.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

No Phone? No Problem

My husband and I just returned from a quick vacation to Switzerland (which was lovely! One of my favorite countries so far; I highly recommend it! Pictures below.) Partway through our trip, I climbed off a bus and realized, as I watched its taillights disappear, that I'd left my cell phone on my seat.


In previous trips abroad, I went months without a smartphone, and it wasn't an issue. As someone who didn't get a cell phone until I was in college, didn't get a smartphone until I graduated from college, and didn't consistently use a smartphone until I moved back to the US a few years ago, I've always been okay without a phone. I never thought I was one of the people addicted to technology at my fingertips.

Turns out I was wrong.

Being on a trip without a cell phone now is hard. I didn't bring a camera, extra books, a GPS or map, study materials for my upcoming exams, a guidebook, an alarm clock, a pocket translator...the list goes on. Most of us don't pack these things anymore, because our phones accomplish all of that and more. It's not that I'm addicted to my phone; it's that my phone is useful. (Full disclosure - the hardest part was that I almost ran out of books to read. What good is a vacation without lots of books to read??)

As frustrating as the experience was, though, I actually started to enjoy it. We found ourselves talking to random strangers on the train or at tourist sites. I spent most of a boat ride just staring out at the water and reveling in the feel of the breeze on my face instead of trying to film the whole thing. And without access to a single messenger app or email, I basically had an excuse to ignore everybody who wasn't in the same room as me; it was oddly freeing and kind of nice!

Returning to school this year, I've found myself surrounded by technology, and I can't help but notice the ways technology at college has changed since I graduated nine years ago. Students are on their phones constantly, to a degree I would have thought was hyperbole if I wasn't seeing it firsthand. There seems to be no point trying to start a conversation; nobody will engage when they're already engaged on their device. Signs around campus extol students to look up from their screens, warning that there are stairs or a street crossing ahead.

I don't know why it's bothered me so much this year; technology was a part of my life before I came here. Perhaps it's the striking difference between interpersonal communication now and during my last college experience. Perhaps it's the struggle of being in a new city and trying to make friends. Perhaps I'm just old fashioned.

I wish I had more solutions, but I don't. Phones aren't going anywhere, and I doubt this technology-focused culture will change anytime soon. But can I make a suggestion? The next time you go on vacation, consider turning your phone off for a while. You might find that you like it.

Photo spam from our vacation, because I can't help it:

Sunset from the water taxi across Lake Lucerne (Photo credit goes to my husband!)
The top of Mt. Rigi, with the Alps in the distance (Photo credit goes to my husband!)
The view looking down from Mt. Rigi. (Photo credit goes to my husband!)
The backyard of our B&B, right on the water 
The Chapel Bridge

Monday, December 30, 2019

Context...but Usually Not?

I've spent a lot of the past two months putting together applications for Ph.D. programs (which is terrifying and exciting all at once!) The applications were as much work as applications usually are, but this time, one piece was different.


This is an issue for a few reasons. UK universities have a different grading scale than American schools do, and I'm still figuring out exactly how to interpret and translate that. More importantly, I don't actually have a GPA here yet. Our semester isn't over, and in my program (among others), our grades are 100% based on the final exam. We've had at most one assignment per class all semester, and while we got feedback to help us improve for the exam, they didn't count toward official grades. So I have no official grades and no official GPA...and a little box in the application that only accepts numbers between 0 and 4.0. What am I supposed to do? Try to input a paragraph explanation into a box that wants a single number?

Still, this isn't that important, right? It's a special case. Just one of the quirks of trying to navigate school systems in two different countries.

I was thinking about this as I sat down in the final lecture for my methodology course. That class was about research paradigms, about how we all bring something different to a research project because we all come from somewhere different. It's important, they explained, to be reflexive about our role: why did I ask the questions I asked? Why didn't I ask those other questions? What worldview has informed my research?

Once I started thinking about this, I couldn't stop seeing similar situations everywhere. I notice it in debate rounds, when nobody in the round questions the assumption that spreading Western values in developing nations is a laudable goal. I notice it in conversations, when I mention an example that seems universal to me but my friend from China has never heard of. I notice it in news articles, books, research articles, Facebook posts, and just about everywhere I look. Just like my GPA dilemma, most of these instances weren't accompanied by a paragraph-long explanation for context.

What's funny, though, is that just like in the GPA dilemma, these instances didn't have room for an explanation...but that's mostly because I didn't ask for one. Think about the last time a reference went over your head or an assumption didn't ring true; did you say something? Or did you smile and nod and pretend it all made sense?

The urge to keep quiet is understandable. It's embarrassing to admit that we don't know something; as an American who recently guessed that Spain was a founding member of the EU despite the fact that I know full well that Spain was a dictatorship until forty years ago...yup, I'm familiar with embarrassment. There's plenty of other reasons to keep quiet, too: not wanting to interrupt the conversation, figuring I can look it up on my own later, etc.

Since the GPA dilemma, though, I've started trying to silence the part of my brain that fears embarrassment and public shaming and instead just ask. Speak up. Admit what I don't know and ask for clarification. It's not easy; sometimes it's downright awkward. 

Most of the responses have been simple, quick explanations (gracefully conducted, nonetheless; imagine my surprise when I realized that most people don't spend their days looking for ways to laugh at me!) Sometimes, though, my requests for more information have led to fascinating conversations, far more in-depth than I could have anticipated. When I admit my ignorance, people answer my questions. When I acknowledge my lack of context, people are more than willing to share and tell me about the world through their eyes.

Gradually, as we pay more attention to the moments when we lack context, it becomes easier to notice when others are feeling the same way. When I've said something that makes sense to my worldview but not to everyone's or when I'm the one who should be adding a paragraph of explanation. My hope, though, is that by noticing these moments, by adding context or even just recognizing that context is needed, I'll learn something about myself and about the rest of the world. Not that I'm particularly good at this yet; it's a new endeavor for me. I'll let you know how it goes!

For now, I encourage you to give this endeavor a try with me. Sure, it's easier to stay silent and Google it later, but our world doesn't need more Googling or more quick context from an algorithm. We need more understanding, more communication, more connection on issues that aren't always easy. The more we ask, the better our conversations become. So let's ask, shall we?

Monday, December 23, 2019

Home For Christmas

I am not, technically, home for Christmas. Except that, technically, I kind of am. So where does that leave us?

We're spending this Christmas in London, which is our home for now. When we moved here, we decided that staying put for Christmas made sense, based on cost and time and a budget for vacation days and all the other things that come with being a sensible adult. 

In all the years I've spent traveling, this is only the second time I haven't made it back to my Nevada home for Christmas. Sensible and adult decision or not, I miss the holiday season with family as much now as I did then. And yet, this year has very little in common with that year. Christmas in Afghanistan was very different (which I wrote about in detail back then, so check out that post if you want to know more!); Christmas in London is a lot like Christmas in the States. The streets and shops are dressed out for the season, and the same Christmas carols play everywhere you turn. The seasonal aisles at the grocery store look about the same, and while the sales advertise prices in a different currency, the implicit pressure to buy the perfect gift seems universal.

There are little differences, of course. We learned this when we tried to find lemon jello to make a jello salad for a holiday party and when we bought cards that say 'Happy Christmas.' I'm learning how to substitute for ingredients that can't be bought here, and I can't tell you how many mince pies we've been served in the last month.

Building a home in a new place, though, isn't about buying toffee ingredients or splurging on a baby Christmas tree for the living room of your tiny apartment. Any newly married couple goes through the same process; how do we meld our traditions and our families and our expectations into one holiday to share? In that sense, we're lucky. This year, there's just us. Some gatherings with friends and classmates, but mostly just the two of us, building new traditions together.

Last month, we had a group of friends over to celebrate Thanksgiving. We cooked a turkey and all the fixings, and our traditional American dinner was enjoyed by friends from the UK, China, India, Poland, Brazil, and Denmark. We ate and talked and laughed and ate some more, and it was a wonderful holiday.  

This is the kind of tradition I'm so excited to be starting, and it's the kind that will last no matter where we call home. I've always loved the story of Christmas, not just because of the celebration of Jesus' birth but also because of those who were celebrating at that first Christmas. It wasn't just Jesus' family; it was also strangers and travelers who became family. Family is a huge part of Christmas for me, but even when we're far away, Skype and email and group chats mean we get to share their holiday. At the same time, we get to share our Christmas with friends here, with strangers or friends of friends that we don't know well, with travelers who also don't have a big family gathering to attend. That's the thing about being an expat; you learn to make a family of those around you, to make traditions wherever you are.

That feels like a lovely way to start our life as a newly married couple. Honoring our traditions with Christmas Mass and homemade toffee and stuffing each other's stockings, but also being open to new traditions. Celebrating with family from afar, but also opening our home to celebrate here with anyone and everyone who wants to come. Relishing our Nevada home even as we make London feel like home for now.

I am home for Christmas.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Please Tell Me You're Okay

It's been such a long time since I've posted; it feels very weird to be on here again. To be honest, there's lots of reasons I stopped writing and a few reasons I'm starting again, but the most important is this: I try to be a person who speaks when I have something to say and doesn't speak when I don't.

I started this blog the first time I moved away from the US, and since then, I generally found that when I lived overseas, I had things to say. Interesting things, I thought, and I hope some of you felt the same.

This year, I'm living overseas again, this time for education in London. It's a very different experience than any of my other international trips, but more on that another day.

I resurrected this blog today in part because a few days ago, there was a "terror-related" attack here in London. A man attacked others with a knife, and two people lost their lives too soon. I'm betting you already know this, so I won't cover more details, because that's not the point of this post anyway.

I heard about the attack when I got a text from a family member back in the US asking if I was okay. One text, then another, then more. Messages from worried family and friends, all with the same request: please tell me you're okay.

It was quick and easy to send back reassuring messages, but I couldn't stop myself from rolling my eyes a bit. What an overreaction. In a city of eight and a half million people, what were the odds that we were involved in the attack?

But then, on my way home, I started thinking about all those messages. About family and friends and people I count as friends but hadn't talked to in a few weeks or months, all of them waking up and seeing London on the news and thinking of us. Statistically likely or not, all of them worrying that something had happened to us.

It's pretty amazing to have that many people think about you, worry about you, love you that much. In many ways, those texts, and the outpouring of support across London for those involved in the attack, epitomize the best of humanity. We worry about each other, because we love each other, even from far away.

I'm very thankful to have so many people who love me enough to worry about me and to text me. It's a good reminder that it never hurts to check on someone - after a terrorist attack, after a busy week or semester or year, or maybe just because. These moments make us feel connected, and our world can always use a bit more of that.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Pie in the Sky, For Some of Us

Months ago, when I was still in Morocco, I had a "pie-in-the-sky" conversation with my friend Fatima. Or at least, I tried to.

"If you could change anything about our town, what would you change?" I asked her. (In hindsight, I'm rather proud of that sentence structure. It took me many moons to learn "if" statements in Darija!)

She gave me a blank look.

I tried to give her an example. "Me, I would build a library. A giant library, in our rural town where kids tell me they don't like reading because there's nothing good to read. I would put in comfy chairs and all my favorite books, and I'd have storytime every single week."

She gave me another blank look. "We can't build a library."

"Well, not right now, we can't," I agreed. "But if I didn't have to worry about time or money or anything else, I would build a library. What would you do?"

It took a while, but I finally coaxed an answer out of her. She didn't part with it lightly, as though she'd only barely let herself think this thought, as though she'd never expected to say it out loud. "I'd have a wedding salon," she said. She told me that she'd learn to do wedding henna and hair and maybe even sell fancy wedding dresses.

"That's a great idea!" I told her.

She shrugged. "It won't happen."

I started pressing her further: why not? Who says? What would it take? Have you heard of microloans for women?

She was already shaking her head, sadly. "You don't understand."

She was right. I grew up in a family, in a town, in a country, where I was taught to dream. I was taught that I should go after my dreams, and that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. If I wanted to start a wedding business, it'd take me a few months to figure out the logistics, but you can bet I would figure them out and I would have my business.

Fatima didn't grow up the way I did. Her family pulled her out of school in high school, because her brothers said she'd learned everything a girl needed to know. She is one of the quickest learners I've ever met, one of the first to recognize someone else's need and go meet it, and she's been raised to think her life begins and ends in the town in which she was born. I loved - I still love - that little town, but my heart grieves for Fatima, and for all the girls whose dreams are so buried that they don't even know how to access them.

This week, Fatima has been on my mind. Because of the attacks in Paris and Mali and Lebanon and elsewhere, because of my current students, because of Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the many people in my life who encouraged me to dream. I'm thankful for anyone, anywhere, who is using the events of the past few weeks to fuel not violence but passion. For those who see needs in the world and meet them, for those who fight for others' right to dream, for those who speak against the darkness that sometimes seems so all-encompassing.

Fatima told me a few weeks later that I was the first person to ever ask her something like that, and she told me shyly that she couldn't get my question out of her head. As far as I know, she hasn't started a wedding salon. For all I know, she never will. But I'd be willing to bet that when Fatima has a daughter, that daughter will graduate from high school. She might go to college. She might start a wedding salon, or go to med school, or go to the moon.

Whose dreams have you encouraged today?