Archive for April, 2009

All To Myself: House Sitting for Six Weeks

Newtown, Wellington, New Zealand

Due to my commitment issues and mood swings, I don’t typically plan in advance. But I knew exactly how I was going to spend last Friday night, long before it happened.  During my friend’s wedding, she and her husband introduced me to friends of theirs, a couple, who live in Wellington.  Not only are they stylish, intellectual, and gorgeous, they are also unnecessarily generous.  Just days after we met, they gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever received – they asked me to house sit for six weeks.  And we’re not talking just any house, but a newly renovated house from the 1900s with high ceilings, wood floors, natural light, and a garden. Did I mention they don’t have any pets?

Given that I’ve been living in hostels, sharing rooms with up to nine other people, and sleeping on air mattresses, pullout couches, and bunk beds for the past two months, if someone had offered me my own teepee it would have been too much.  The offer to live alone and rent-free in someone else’s spacious, modern home was like asking to borrow a cup of sugar and being handed an apple pie.   The day I moved into the house, I could barely concentrate on the homeowners’ last minute instructions. Luckily, I didn’t have to, as they had left me a note detailing phone numbers, security codes, and the location of the Tupperware and extra towels. It was like the first day of college, and I was waiting for my parents to leave and the fraternity party to begin. Except that binge drinking was not on my agenda for the evening.

As soon as the couple pulled out of the driveway, my night began.  I turned on the radio, dumped out the contents of all of my suitcases, stripped off my clothes, and did laundry naked, because I could.  Then I soaked in the claw-footed bathtub, made snow angels in the white sheets of my double bed, and fell asleep under the down comforter.  Oh, the joys of being a single girl in a new city where no one knows you.

This house performs miracles.  Lately, I’d been having a crisis of faith, uncertain if things were going to work out for me in Wellington or if I have what it takes to become a writer, here or anywhere.  The truth is that things are already going well, it just didn’t feel that way.  I’m impatient and anxious by nature – once I know what I want, I want it now, and the idea of “enjoying the process” is a little like trying to enjoy getting vaccinated before going on an African safari.  But this time, I wasn’t just talking about moving faster towards my goal.  I was talking about trading in my dream for another one.

I started to feel jealous of my roommates, with their nine-to-five office jobs and exam schedules (or maybe it was resentment over being woken up at 6:30am every morning).  They had somewhere to go and something to do each day, and something to show for it.  I began to covet my neighbor’s routine.  I wondered if being my own boss wasn’t a failed experiment, if I shouldn’t give up my desperate housewife lifestyle and literary aspirations and return to the office.  Or worse, return to school.  Luckily, before I could trade in my pen and paper for a business suit or textbook, I left the hostel.

One of the first things I did when I moved into the house (after cleaning up the mess I’d made and getting dressed) was go for a run.  There is a closed track around the corner, and I resigned myself to running around in a circle for 40 minutes while people in spandex mocked me openly.  But before I even finished my first lap, I saw a paved path in the distance, heading uphill.  Hmmm, I wonder where that goes? I thought, and I was off on an adventure. I discovered children playing soccer (on a field next door to a pistol range), numerous parks, the bus stop, post office, supermarket, and library.  As I ran, uncovering the secrets of my new neighborhood, I was like a pig in mud. I remembered how much I enjoy exploring, and how liberating it feels to be able to go with the flow because you have nowhere you have to be next.  I remembered how thrilling it could be to veer off the beaten path, as long as you have somewhere safe to return to.

Many people like living in hostels.  Because their only ambition is to finance their travels and have a good time while they’re in town, they happily trade privacy and freedom for constant companionship and zero responsibilities.  But I have other priorities and other needs, and I found the hostel tiring and oppressive. Hostels may seem like a community, but they are governed by the Law of the Jungle.  Everyone circles the two computers like vultures circling their prey, boxing out anyone who tries to cut in before their turn.  Food left on the counter for more than five minutes is consumed before it can be placed in the free food container. And then there’s the battle for the bottom bunk.

Personally, I waited two weeks for one of my roommates to vacate her bed.  When I returned to the room on the day of her departure, I found that a new girl had claimed it, even though I had already placed my belongings on the corresponding shelf.  I kindly corrected her error, moving her stuff off of my bed.  Later, I discovered that she had made the bed, placing her possessions on top.  Again, I was forced to remove her things and replace them with my own.  When I got home that night, she was fast asleep in the top bunk.  All’s fair in love and bed wars.

Used to setting my own schedule, I found conforming to the pace of the hostel difficult.  I didn’t understand why strangers should inform when I eat, sleep, read, or go to the bathroom, and I hated having to lock my suitcase every time I left the room. What it takes to reach your goal is stamina, but fighting for counter space, waking up early to take advantage of the free breakfast, and waiting in line for the shower left me exhausted.  I wasn’t starved for stability.  I was desperate to get out of the hostel.  I literally felt like I was being pushed out the door.  However, without a home base, I was much less willing to venture out into the great unknown.

When I moved into the house, the only thing that really changed was that I had heated floors in the bathroom.  But that changed everything.  With a comfortable place to call my own (even if just for six weeks), I can finally see that I’m in a great place in my life.  I no longer feel limited by other people’s stuff or agendas.  I signed up for classes and returned to my interests and activities because I have space to spread out and the resources that I need in order to stay organized.  Content with meandering towards my goal and easing into my new life, I no longer feel the need to rush anywhere.  Sure, I have to find another job (because the one I have won’t pay the bills) and a flat (because, unfortunately, I can’t stay here forever), but not this week.

The first phase of moving abroad is definitely the hardest, full of uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety. It’s easy to lose perspective, especially when you focus on what you gave up to come here rather than on what you already have or stand to gain.  But it can also be the most fun because everything is new and novel, and everyday is unpredictable and exciting.  For a while, I was so unsettled that it was upsetting, distracting, and demoralizing.  But now I’m ready to face the world because I know that at the end of the day I can come home and slam the door in its face.

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For This They Pay Me $30/hr? : Job Hunting in New Zealand

Wellington, New Zealand

Promoting $3 Parking

Promoting $3 Parking

When my savings dwindled and I could no longer justify or tolerate starting each day at 2pm, I began to look for a job in Buenos Aires.  At that time, I was willing to do whatever it took to stay in Argentina.  With the exception of pornography and prostitution.  All I needed was an income and a reason to get out of bed in the morning other than to go to the bathroom.  An equal opportunity job hunter, I didn’t care if the position was “black” (under the table) or “white” (on the books), stimulating or mind-numbingly boring, as long as it paid the bills.  I dropped off my CV everywhere, from toy stores to nightclubs.  But in the end, I decided to do the one thing I had vowed I would never do – teach English.

Don’t misunderstand. I have nothing but respect and appreciation for teachers.  But I’m not one, neither by training or disposition.  And just because you know how to do something, doesn’t mean that you know how to teach someone else to do it.  Most days, I felt more like an actress (or a con artist) than a professor.  Some days, I felt like a complete ass.  The way I explained phrasal verbs, prepositions, and idioms sounded a lot like the way the dad from Calvin & Hobbes explained science.

Calvin: “Why does [the sun] move from east to west?”
Calvin’s Dad: “Solar wind.”

Quite honestly, everything I know about English language and grammar, I learned from Schoolhouse Rock! Not surprisingly, my students, typically middle-aged businessmen, weren’t too keen on singing “Conjunction Junction.”  That is, assuming that they showed up for class.

I can’t recall the number of times that students simply failed to come to class with no warning.  Because their companies paid for the classes, there was no financial disincentive to playing hooky.  But even Ferris Bueller had the decency to call in sick.  And I’m fairly certain that none of my students ever used the extra hour to hijack a parade float and lip-synch “Danke Schoen” while driving down Avenida 9 de Julio. Sure, it was nice getting paid for taking a nap under my desk.  But while I was willing to do just about anything for money, I wasn’t interested in getting paid for doing nothing.

After nearly a year in Buenos Aires, I finally landed a real job (expat parlance for a stable, salaried position, typically executed in an office between the hours of 9am-5pm, for which a work visa is either required or provided).  The actual tasks I was expected to perform were dreadful.  If the infinite monkey theorem states that “a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare,” then a trained monkey certainly could have done my job, and probably would have complained less.  But it wasn’t teaching English, and fortunately, there were enough benefits, like amazing coworkers and great pay, to compensate for the boredom and soul sucking.  Not to mention the fact that it kept me in Buenos Aires.

After nearly two years, my brain had atrophied and my mood had defaulted to depressed. The real wake-up call came when I found myself awake at 2am, hovering over my computer in a darkened room, writing computer programs.  It was the most mental stimulation I had experienced in nearly two years, and it was addictive.  Fearful that I would eventually turn into a coder, I was compelled to quit my job. There was another reason for leaving – I had found my passion for writing.  And working all day as a customer service manager left me with no time or energy to explore my talent or pursue my new career objective of becoming a writer, in New Zealand.  (No, I didn’t really think that last part through too carefully.)

Unemployment has been stressful and uncertain, but I promised myself that I wouldn’t compromise my dream for a paycheck. I came to New Zealand with a specific goal – to find a job in publishing.  While I’m open to taking on any role where the principal activity is writing or editing, I’m not willing to do just any job.  So someone please explain to me how it is that I ended up spending Saturday night walking around windy, wet and cold Wellington in a two-piece leopard print outfit that resembled a “sexy Wilma Flintstones” Halloween costume, trying to convince drunken men to stop grabbing my butt long enough to sample a new deodorant body spray?  The answer’s easy, really – I got paid $30/hr.  Degrading?  Perhaps.  But let’s be honest, for $30/hr., you would do it too.

For nine glorious months, I haven’t had a boss, schedule, or professional responsibilities.   But I haven’t had a paycheck either. I’m committed to being an artist, just not of the starving variety.  And since arriving in New Zealand, it’s become clear to me that if I want to stay here long enough to make my dream come true, I need money. It’s also become painfully clear that, instead of setting up a trust fund for me and my brother, my parents have spent all of their hard-earned money on travels and expensive jars of mustard and jam.  So, when I got to Wellington, I signed up to work on a casual basis with a promotional staffing agency.  Besides, I’m the new kid in town, and having a job, any job, is a great way of getting integrated into the local community, meeting new people, and killing time.

Unfortunately, promotional work is unreliable, so I applied for a part-time job at a bookstore as well.  As far as menial jobs that pay minimum wage go, it’s my best-case scenario.  Not least of all because the manager is such a dandy that I half-expected him to pull a pair of gloves from his breast pocket, slap me across the face, and challenge me to a duel in place of an interview.  He also likes to compare retail to theater, which possibly explains the dramatic pauses he inserted into our conversation.  “Honestly, Amy,” *cocks head slightly to one side while pausing meaningfully* “the dress code here is ‘express yourself.’” I start on Friday, and something tells me that he and I are going to have great fun together.

The truth is that I’m looking forward to having an activity and income that I can count on.  I’ve even been practicing saying things like “Sorry, I can’t.  I have to work tomorrow.”  But I also keep telling myself that one day, these jobs will make great material for interviews, when people ask me to describe some of the things I did before I made it big as a writer.  (And of course, these characters and experiences will make great material for my memoirs).  I guess we all have to pay our dues.  Which seem to include a bad cold, sexual harassment, and a boss that uses jazz hands when explaining the store layout.  When it comes too quickly or too easily, you don’t trust it and you feel like you don’t deserve it.  So, if this is what I have to do in order to win a Pulitzer or become the Arts & Entertainment Editor of The New York Times, bring it on.  I’m not afraid of a little hard work.  Waking up at 7:30am on Friday morning, now that’s a different story…

Fast Cars and Fast Family: Spending Saturday Evening at the Gisborne Speedway

Gisborne, New Zealand

Gisborne Speedway

Gisborne Speedway

There’s nothing to do in Gisborne on a Saturday night. No, that’s being too generous. There’s not really anything to do in Gisborne ever. Famous for being the first city in the world to see the sunrise each day (as well as Captain Cook’s first New Zealand landing point in 1769), Gisborne (or Gizzy to abbreviation junkies) is handsome, clean, and seaside. Sandy beaches line Poverty Bay and boats fill a small marina. During the summer, vacationers flock to Gisborne to sunbathe, swim, surf, and sail. Gizzy is also home to Rhythm & Vines, a two-day music festival starting on New Years Eve, and a popular destination for people cruising the Pacific Coast Highway.

But even though it’s sunny, attractive, and relaxing, be forewarned: should you grow weary of the beach, Gisborne doesn’t offer much by way of entertainment. Sure, there are a few modest museums and even more modest botanical gardens, along with the requisite lookout point and monumental statues to explorers and government officials. But other than that, you’re stuck hanging out at the petrol station.  And  if you want to eat, drink, or be merry in the company of strangers after 10pm, good luck.

Thanks to bad timing on my part, I found myself in Gisborne over the weekend. Friday night was spent in the hostel watching all two hours of country music night on American Idol with a few other travelers. Fortunately, Norbert, a German knight in a shining rental car spared me from a Saturday night of Whale Rider on VHS and a six-pack of Canadian Club & Cola.

Apparently, there is one place where Gisborne picks up the pace and rebels against its otherwise puritanical demeanor: the speedway. Car racing is to Gisborne what dancing was to Kevin Bacon in Footloose. While driving past town, Norbert had spotted a sign advertising a Saturday night filled with stock cars, motorcycles, and sidecars and was lured into Gisborne by the idea of watching giant Matchbox cars drive in circles around a closed dirt track. Overwhelmed by curiosity and boredom, I agreed to be his date.

The whole town had turned out to see the races, which happened to be the season championships. Poor Andy was operating under the misguided belief that car racing in Gisborne would resemble car racing in Europe. In reality, between the oversized corndogs and the oversized people eating them and the teenagers making out under the bleachers, the Gisborne Motorway had more in common with the Michigan International Speedway than Formula 1. Except for one major difference: there was absolutely no alcohol allowed at the Gisborne Motorway.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the races was when cars crashed (no drivers were harmed, of course). The announcers weren’t shy about expressing their disappointment when a racer collided with a wall but remained upright. “Aw, man. I really thought he was going to flip over that time.” The only downside was that every time a car went belly up (which was at least once a race), all of the other drivers had to stop until it was confirmed that only the vehicle had been dented. Consequently, with its frequent pauses, watching the races was a lot like watching American football. In other words, boring, not to mention repetitive. And unlike American Idol, the races were due to last four hours.

After a couple of rounds, Norbert and I were both cold and ready to head home. But we were playing our own game of chicken – neither one wanted to give in first. I was on the verge of saying uncle when the woman sitting in front of us struck up a conversation. A grandmother by biology and nature, she quickly handed us each a feijoa (a fruit native to New Zealand that looks like an avocado and tastes like a star fruit and can be eaten by rubbing it in your hands, biting off the top, and sucking down the flesh) before sharing with us a corner of the blanket covering her five-year old granddaughter. Then she offered us her actual granddaughter.

An interesting and inspiring woman, she was clearly close to her family (all of whom were attending the races), but had spent six months traveling alone through Europe and Northern Africa. It seems that her husband, an award-winning sidecar driver, is afraid to fly. Somewhere between Marrakesh and Praque, her outgoing, indiscriminate, and trusting granddaughter found her way onto our laps. And her older sister and brother were not far behind. “We’ve got the whole family here,” Norbert said to me with a broad smile, delighting in the instant kinship. At that moment, he was the cool but distant older cousin and university student on one of his infrequent weekend trips home. I was his reluctant new girlfriend, secretly more enamored of his relatives than him, but careful not to get too attached to his family lest we break up before his next visit.

It was strange how easily we all adopted each other for the evening (and how willing and able I was to play with children). After a few hours of comparing travel stories with grandma, playing hide and seek with the kids, and hearing about pets and school, pregnancies and divorces, Norbert and I said good-bye and walked away. There were no tears and there was no talk of seeing each again soon because everyone understood that we were not actually family, and never would be.

I guess that night I was trying to fill a void that I didn’t even know existed. I was craving family. However, the sense of familiarity, while comforting and distracting, had also been surreal and the slightest bit disconcerting – I felt like I was cheating on my own family. And more importantly, for once, I actually didn’t want to be a part of someone else’s family. The Kiwis may have been delightful, but I didn’t want to be drinking tea with milk and two sugars at the Gisborne speedway, I wanted to be drinking beer at the Tiger’s opening game at Comerica Park. The whole experience was as unsatisfying as eating I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray, and it left the same bad artificial taste in my mouth.

People always ask me about the things that I miss while traveling – the products, flavors, brands, and styles. The answer is not much – I can normally find a suitable (and often better) replacement or alternative for just about everything. But, I just have to face it: there is no substitute for your own family.

Everyone Else Just Sits Here: Explaining Where You Come From

AbroadTable Setting

Perhaps the most inevitable question you face when you travel abroad is, where are you from? But regardless of how common, it is hardly straightforward. Especially when you confront its English-as-a-second-language cousin, where do you come from? The latter variant is particularly confusing when asked by a fellow backpacker, who could simply be inquiring into your travel itinerary.

Rarely do you meet a long-term overseas traveler whose current hometown is also their birth city. In my case, my last permanent residence wasn’t even my birth country. At the very least, most people move to a different city or region to work or study. Some people no longer have a mailing address, having spent months or years carrying their house on their back. Consequently, “I’m not really sure how to answer that,” and “What exactly do you mean?” are the two most popular answers.

Before arriving in New Zealand, I worried that as soon as I left Argentina, my experience in South America would be expunged from my record. People would hear my accent and incorrectly assume that I lived in – that I had come from – the United States. This misconception would only be encouraged by my own declaration that “I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan.” They would want to know my opinion on the latest season of Lost, the presidential elections, and childhood obesity. They would ask me about Michael Moore, student life at the University of Michigan, and why my city is named “Ann Harbor” if it is a city of wild grape trees and lush vegetation. And I would have no comment.

Luckily, my friend rescued me from awkward small talk. During her wedding festivities, she introduced me to other guests as “her friend from Argentina.” At dinner, the tables were named for the cities from which people had traveled to attend the wedding. “Amy Goldstein: Buenos Aires,” read my place card. My neighbor quipped, “This is your table. The rest of us just sit here.”

Even though I was grateful to not have to field questions that would be best answered with “N/A,” hearing my friend tell people that I was from Argentina made me slightly uncomfortable. While technically true (I did in fact come to New Zealand from Argentina), it felt dishonest. I was born and raised in America by American parents. Surely, three and a half years abroad was not enough to supplant twenty-two years in the United States. More importantly, it’s obvious that I am not actually Argentine. Or is it?

A few weeks ago, I walked into a store in Wellington, casually greeting the shop owner. “Argentina?” he fired back. I stopped dead in my tracks. “No,” I replied, slowly turning around, “but it’s funny that you should say that.” Apparently, his hypothesis was based on a combination of my accent and my looks. Once we established that I was an American with an odd way of speaking, he began to guess my ancestry. After correctly identifying my Russian heritage, he moved on to the other half. “Italian?” he ventured. I revealed that I was actually 100% Russian. “Well, there must have been a soldier or something along the way,” he said with a wink.

While I was staying at a hostel in Napier, a few local girls asked where I was from. When I told them the United States, they stared at me blankly, prompting me to add “of America,” for the sake of clarity. “Oh,” they replied, “you could be from Brazil or something.” When I stopped at a petrol station in Gisborne, the cashier, no doubt an acquaintance of the shop owner from Wellington, insisted on divining my origins before allowing me to pay for my Diet Coke. “Your eyes are French, but your skin is Spanish,” he declared after a thorough (and invasive) examination. I immediately started giggling, prompting another customer to join the game. His guess was Greek. “I wish I was Mediterranean,” I confessed. “You’re an Aussie!” the cashier exclaimed with an enthusiastic clap of the hands. Clearly they were not the best judges.

“No! I’m American,” I explained, now unable to control my laughter.

As I made my way to the door, I heard the other customer ask, “Do all Americans have long legs?”

“Oh. Thanks. And no,” I replied before getting the hell out of there.

Generous interpretation of my proportions aside (I’m 5’1″), what shocked me most about all of these exchanges is that everyone failed to recognize that I could be Argentine, Italian, Brazilian, Spanish, French, and Greek, and still be American. Remarkably, in today’s world of multinational states and stateless nations, we still associate citizenship with nationality. Myself included. When I lived in Argentina, I was constantly surprised at hearing someone evidently of Asian origin speak perfect Castellano. Interestingly, I never had this reaction when I lived in the United States. Maybe that’s why Americans never have any trouble identifying me as American. In the States, heterogeneity and diverse ancestry is not only accepted, it is expected and, in many places, celebrated.

Recently, while opening a bank account, I asked the woman assisting me if she was from Wellington. She hesitated. “Well, I guess I should say that I’m from China.” She went on to explain that she had lived the majority of her life, up to that point, in China and that all of her relatives still lived there. But she had been living in Wellington with her partner for over six years. So is she Chinese or is she a Kiwi?

What criteria should we use to determine where people are from and to which group they belong? What carries the most weight: where our parents are from, where we are born, where we are raised, or where we choose to live as adults? What counts more: nature or nurture, birth or free will? What about skin color (tanned or untanned?), lifestyle, religion, or adoption? And if our background and cultural identity are so relative and malleable, do they even matter?

Not long ago, my friend and I were discussing a similar topic. She mentioned the father of a mutual friend, who was born abroad and speaks English with an accent. She explained that when he talks, my friend does not hear an accent, she simply hears his voice. We tend to dissect people, breaking them down into their component pieces. We analyze and use this information to help us understand who they are and why they are that way. We paint them by numbers. But all of those colors combine to create the portrait of an individual who is so much more than the sum of his parts. In the end, when it comes to people, what truly matters is the big picture.

Still, I need a satisfactory answer to the unavoidable question. (“I don’t define myself based on unnatural, socially constructed ideas of identity” is just too wordy and annoying.) I think that I’m going to follow the example set by my newlywed friend and start telling people that I am from Argentina. After all, it is my last country of residence, both legally and sentimentally. And as soon as possible, my parents and I are going to have to have a chat about our family tree.


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