Saturday, March 21, 2020

From Behind the Coffee Shop Counter

From behind the coffee shop counter, I watched you, London, as you went about your daily life. Commuters complained about train delays as they picked up their morning coffee, from a black filter to an extra hot strong skinny latte, but they forgave me for mixing up drinks sometimes. Construction workers came for Cokes and Toasties; I want to call toasted sandwiches "Toasties" for the rest of my life! Office staff stopped by for a drink and a porridge; I've never lived in a country that ate this much porridge.
From behind the coffee shop counter, I got to know your residents. The busy professionals who come in so often that we have their drinks memorized and notice when they miss a few days. The older man who offers me a shy smile as he buys his daily apple and banana. The girl who always gets an almond croissant, except the one day she bought a yogurt. (Don't worry; she went back to a croissant the next day.) The guy who brings his dog and the other guy who brings his bike. The skinny cappuccino lady with the sweet smile, the black americano man who always calls me "luv," the cappuccino-and-a-pain-auix-raisin gentleman, and the oat filter guy with the lilting Irish accent whose yawns make me yawn too - I don't know their names, but I enjoyed our daily two minute conversations.

From behind the coffee shop counter, I learned the quirks of your city. It took me ages, but I finally got better at counting out change in British pounds; nothing like a new currency to make you feel like you're in second grade math again! I learned that aubergines are eggplants, a serviette is a napkin, and carrot juice is a thing. I answered someone's question about my accent and origins at least once an hour, and inevitably, they asked if my hometown is near Las Vegas. My favorite comment by far came from a co-worker: "Your accent reminds me of Mickey Mouse," she said, and all of us behind the counter laughed so hard we couldn't breathe.

From behind the coffee shop counter, I've watched your bustle slow one day at a time as the coronavirus crept through the city. Business got a little slower last week as commuters and residents switched to working remotely, and by the middle of this week, the shop felt eerily empty. Our seating area closed (to avoid gatherings of more than ten people), and everyone who came in had a virus-related worry to discuss with hushed voices. I watched as your citizens' daily concerns were overwhelmed by the anxiety that is palpable everywhere I go now: what will tomorrow bring? We wish we knew.

From behind the coffee shop counter, I see NHS (healthcare) staff come in for a hot drink, tired looking but quick to smile back at me. I hear customer after customer express concern for the shop employees once restaurants are told to close; they remind us that we aren't forgotten. I watch as people physically distance themselves while waiting for coffee, but if anything, their hearts seem a little closer. They offer others a place in line, are quick to pick up dropped items, seem just a bit more patient than before. If fear and anxiety are a palpable constant on your streets right now, London, at least they get pushed aside for small moments of camaraderie, connection, and hope.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Indexing Big Macs

A few years ago, a friend introduced me to the Big Mac Index. This index measures the cost of a Big Mac hamburger in countries around the world as compared to the value of their currency. It's meant to be a fun way to look at currency parity - whether currencies equalize over time so that the cost of items (like a burger) is comparable across countries. Basically, it's meant to make economics a little more accessible for those of us who aren't economists, and if you've never checked it out, I recommend doing so here. It's pretty interesting to mess around with. 

The first time I heard about the Big Mac Index, it made perfect sense to me. Thinking back, I realized that I've been to a a McDonald's in a lot of the countries I've visited. Not because I particularly like their food (about the only menu item I'll eat is the ice cream!) but for a variety of other reasons. In Ecuador, a group of us would go to study / hang out after our weekly Bible study because McDonald's was the only place open that late. On various trips around Europe, we've stopped at McDonald's because we needed free WiFi or a safe and recognizable place to sit and wait for a train or give our tired feet a break. In Morocco, I went to McDonald's only a few times and mostly when I was homesick and wanted a McFlurry.

These accidental visits have added onto one another, though, and when I stopped to count them, I realized I've been to a McDonald's in nine countries across four continents, and I've noticed some interesting things.

In most of the places I've been, McDonald's offered similar menu items but with a few local twists. We tried the McRaclette and the quinoa burger in Switzerland, the green tea ice cream in China and the much sweeter green tea ice cream in Japan, and the Flake McFlurry in the UK. My husband bought a McChoconut in France and talked me into trying a bite...and a bite was enough! In a country of delicious pastries, I decided I'd rather eat fresh croissants than what was basically nuts and Nutella in a brioche!

In addition to the variety of flavors, I noticed the variety of prices, which got me thinking about the parallels to local societies. The prices mostly match what the Big Mac Index suggests - a value menu burger in Switzerland was the cost of a meal deal at home, but a McFlurry in the UK is about 3/4 the price of one in the US. (If you look at the Big Mac Index, these numbers come pretty close to the valuations for the Swiss franc and the British pound.)

In contrast, I hardly ate at McDonalds in Morocco because it was too expensive for the average person to afford; my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I jokingly refered to it as 'rich people food.' The actual, physical price for a McDonald's ice cream in Rabat (Morocco) wasn't significantly different than in the US, but any time I went there, it felt decadent and extravagant. I also felt a bit like I was betraying my local friends and co-workers by eating there, many of whom had never traveled that far from home and certainly wouldn't spend their money at expensive McDonald's. When a McFlurry cost about 1/20 my monthly rent for a one-bedroom little house, it was hard to justify.

Dealing with money when traveling brings plenty of stress and frustration, but I appreciate the discomfort and self-reflection of moments like these. It can be so easy to take for granted the financial ability to simply buy an ice cream, and I forget that plenty of people don't have that freedom. It reminds me to be grateful for what I have, to appreciate my "rich people" ice creams when I splurge on them, and to keep finding ways to make the world better. I don't think Big Macs are quite my calling, but I'll keep looking!

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.