Archive for the 'Social Commentary' Category

*Itinerary Subject to Change: Temporarily Suspending a Trip Abroad

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Montmartre, Paris at nightfall.

A young American woman sits alone at a café, studying Sartre’s L’âge de raison in its original French.

In front of her sidewalk table the glorious Basilique du Sacré-Coeur glows like an angel that finally got his wings.  It’s spring, but the air is still cold.  The waiter, more homme than garçon, helps a middle-aged woman with the zipper of her fur coat.

Totally engrossed in existential philosophy, the young woman looks up only once and briefly, to acknowledge receipt of her café au lait and croissant aux amandes, and to ponder the meaning of life.

And scene.

That is an excerpt from Me in Paris, a screenplay I wrote nearly two years ago before my family’s one-week vacation to France.  Nevermind the impossibility of that fantasy – it was fall, I’m nowhere near that proficient in French, and coffee makes me jittery – even if it had come true, it would have represented just a few hours of one evening, not the entire trip.  Honestly, I probably would have spent the rest of the time worrying that the almond croissant would transform itself into a muffin top.

Daydreaming with wild abandon is as integral a part of any pre-overseas ritual as getting vaccinated and renewing your passport.  If I remember correctly, my visions for Argentina involved dulce de leche and tango dancers, while those for New Zealand featured bungy jumping and one of the guys from Flight of the Conchords.

Sadly, those snapshots tend to spontaneously combust upon arrival, when you realize that neither you nor your destination at all resembles the picture in your head.  You then construct a new image of yourself from the rubble, only to have it destroyed again.  This creation-destruction cycle continues until finally your idea of who you are in a given place matches reality.  In my case, I started out a peacock and arose from the ashes a hummingbird.

Faced with the promise of Australia, my imagination began painting the walls of my mind as if it were a hyperactive child with finger paints and an innate appreciation of the works of Jackson Pollock.  Prominent subjects of the fantastically colorful mural were surfing, koalas, and the stage of the Sydney Opera House.

However, at some point imagination gave way to realism.  In a flash of lucidity, I prophesized myself living in a backpacker’s hostel and temping at a telecommunications company, friendless, penniless, and with too much stuff.

Not two months ago, I was camping on the beach in New Zealand with my boyfriend.  Today, I am sitting on the couch of a close friend in Buenos Aires.  The idea that I traded all that for the opportunity to be lonely, frustrated, and uncomfortable in Australia made me queasy.  Of all the things I’m good at, bargaining is not one of them.

On two separate occasions, I have moved abroad alone, with no job or contacts, and minimal savings and language skills.  I did this for a reason – to free myself of familial, societal, and peer pressure, and to find out who I was when there was no one there to tell me who I was supposed to be.

The last five years were phenomenal, propitious, and absolutely necessary for my personal development; but now that I have a clear idea of who I am, what I want to do, and how I want to live my life, I can’t justify subjecting myself yet again to the solitude, insecurity and anxiety inherent in going overseas on your own.  It’s not that I no longer want to be abroad; it’s that I can’t stomach the thought of starting over from scratch a third time.

As with all good nervous breakdowns, this one turned out to be a revelation: after so many years of ego-tourism, I am done with journeys of self-discovery, for now. The next time I travel, it will be with one backpack and a budget, I will leave from and return to the same place, and I will not worry about working, making friends, or paying rent.  Unfortunately, I am broke and burnt out, and in desperate need of a break before I can manage such a trip.

When I called my parents from Buenos Aires to ask if I could stay with them for a few months (instead of through mid-May as originally planned) they were both shockingly sympathetic, supportive, and delighted.  I’m uneasy about the prospect of returning to Michigan, but excited to have two summers in a row.

Postponing my trip to Australia was not an insignificant, easy, or expected decision. But of all the lessons I’ve learned from my time abroad, perhaps the most important are: trust your instincts, drop your pride, and all itineraries are subject to change without prior notice.


Haciendo Ecología: Being Green in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

When I left New Zealand, I donated old clothes to the Salvation Army, threw away toiletries, and gifted my oil pastels and blue plastic bucket to my boyfriend.  One item that did make it into my suitcase was a bright green cloth grocery bag.  Available for $1.50 at most major supermarkets in New Zealand, the bag shamelessly implores you to “help us create a better environment”.   Girl scout cookies I can resist, but I never could deny the exigency in the eyes of the clip-art raindrop.

In Buenos Aires supermarkets, produce is weighed before you reach the cash register. Shoppers place fruits and vegetables into plastic bags and present them to a store employee, who affixes them with a price sticker.  The first time I went produce shopping after returning to Argentina, I selected my items, set them on the counter, and tried to explain in rusty Spanish that I didn’t want plastic bags.  The man behind the scale stared at me as if I were a talking orange cat.

“Because of the environment” I explained, brandishing my hideous, slightly self-righteous tote bag.

Ah. Ok,” he smiled after a brief pause, “estás haciendo ecología.”

“Yes, exactly, I’m doing ecology.”   After a few minutes of brainstorming, he agreed to weigh and sticker each item individually.  I walked out of the store with a clear conscience, albeit slightly self-conscious.

Unfortunately, the bags aren’t the only thing here made of plastic.  I recently invented a game called “spot the boob job.”  It’s easy – you just look for a tiny woman with a disproportionately large chest and no bra.  Ironically, women who get implants no longer want to appear as though they are wearing a corset, and so are requesting natural-looking fake breasts.  The result is girls with the body of an adolescent and the chest of a senior citizen.

In Buenos Aires, there is overwhelming pressure to conform to an ideal image of beauty.  According to a CNN article, an estimated 1 in 30 Argentines has gone under the knife.  OSDE, a leading health insurance provider, covers the entire cost of aesthetic plastic surgery if you hold their plan 410 or higher.  The concept of healthy is totally distorted. A popular brand of yogurt, known for promoting regularity, launched an ad campaign encouraging women to eat their yogurt because of its slimming effect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it contains a mild laxative.

The moral of the story is that it’s not easy being green in Buenos Aires, and the struggle extends beyond being a vegetarian in a carnivorous country.  Buenos Aires is a city obsessed with physical appearance but utterly negligent of the physical environment.  The other day, I encountered a group of young Argentines on the terrace, drinking mate, rubbing tanning oil on their skin, and flicking their cigarettes into the pool.

I’m no sociologist or psychotherapist, but I speculate that this combination of personal vanity and environmental apathy stems from a lack of control.  Inflation and corruption are rampant, university classes are cancelled due to protests, public transportation is interrupted by strikes, and noise and air pollution are palpable.  I can hardly blame porteños for preferring to invest in their looks rather than their city.  Their bodies are one thing they can still take ownership and pride in.  Perhaps it’s unfair to expect people to care for a city that doesn’t take care of them.  Still, even if individuals can’t fix the broken sidewalks, would it hurt them to clean up after their dogs?

When I moved to Buenos Aires over four years ago, I didn’t care about or notice these things.  Instead, I was enthralled by the city’s sense of urgency, arrogance, and glamour.  But live in New Zealand (and date someone doing a master’s thesis on water conservation) long enough, and you start sprouting your own lentils and growing your own herbs.  I used to make fun of people for shopping at Whole Foods.  Now, I say things like, “I’ll just carry my tofu and flaxseed.  Why do I need a bag when I have two hands?”

Leading a healthy and natural life in Buenos Aires is not impossible.  There are vegetarian restaurants and organic cafes, gorgeous yoga studios, meditative breathing courses, and lovely parks and plazas.  However, even if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals and create a micro-community, fighting against the zeitgeist is like driving the wrong way on 9 de Julio.

Obviously, there are many things I adore about Buenos Aires; I wouldn’t have made a pilgrimage back here otherwise.  Unfortunately, the pervasive culture is not one of them. If you move to a new city or country where neither you nor the native residents hold you to the local standards, you can observe your surroundings without being personally impacted by them.  But if you and the local culture take each other on, as was my case in Buenos Aires, the prevailing atmosphere directly affects you, making it harder to accept.

Luckily, as a traveler, I have the freedom to move on if the lifestyle doesn’t suit.  As of now, I am a voluntary and temporary guest in Buenos Aires.  For the short time I’m here, I can overlook the city’s shortcomings and focus on the great things it has to offer.

On my next visit to the supermarket, the staff member in charge of the produce section informed me that plastic bags were an obligatory store policy.

“Why?” I challenged.

“To prevent theft.  We seal your bags so you don’t take more items between here and the register.”  I considered proposing another solution – to weigh fruits and vegetables at checkout, but that would result in slower lines, and put him out of work.

“If it’s one item, fine,” he continued, “but if you’ve got multiple items, like your bananas, I have to bag them.”

“But it’s one bunch of bananas,” I argued. “I can’t possibly add another banana to the bunch.”

“Look,” he said, agitated and annoyed, “I’m just trying to do my job.”

I realized then that he didn’t make the rules, nor was he in a position to challenge or break them.  Neither of us can change this city; but unlike him, I have the luxury of leaving in a few weeks for a place where the grass (and the people) are greener.

“Ok.  Bag them,” I conceded.  At that moment, his job seemed more important than my convictions.

Bring a Culture to Pass: Confronting Cultural Stereotypes Abroad

Auckland, New Zealand

My team is the poster child for workplace diversity.  We have staff members from Australia, England, Ireland, France, India, Japan, the United States, and yes, even New Zealand.  In fact, the only institutionalized discrimination I’ve noticed at the office is towards contractors.  Sure, I’ve heard a few people complain about how difficult it is to understand some of the foreign customer service representatives; but this is often followed by the recognition that international employees are a reality of international business.

Personally, I find the broken English comforting.  When I worked in Argentina, I was hyper-aware of my accent and self-conscious of my Spanish.  I lived in constant fear that someone would make me answer the phone. Now that I work for a large, multinational corporation with a large, multicultural staff, I realize that for some people and in some parts of the world, living and working in a second language is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the best part of working with such a heterogeneous staff is that I get to learn about other cultures. Did you know that “pom” is a nickname for a Brit or that a Pimms No 1 Cup is a classy English cocktail served during the summer at garden parties, croquet matches, and tennis tournaments? How about that in India, pregnant women are warned to stay in bed and avoid holding sharp objects during a solar eclipse or else her baby will be born with dark spots on its body?

In Japan, you can hire actors to pretend to be your family, friends, or colleagues. Special visitors to my company are greeted with a powhiri, a formal Maori ceremony of welcome. As far as I can tell, New Zealanders love outdoor music festivals and respect work-life balance (either that, or a striking number of Kiwis get sick when the weather turns warm).  And if you want to know anything about Ireland, from the speed of the Internet to the cost of electricity, just ask the girl who sits next to me.

Another great place for cultural observation is a hostel.  Most backpackers I’ve met are happy to explain their practices and rituals, as long as you are open to and accepting of the new and different.  Of course, you have to be careful not to generalize. One example is not a trend, and a trend is not a truth.  If I formed stereotypes based on the limited exposure I’ve had to members of certain nationalities, I’d believe that all Germans are chatty, all French people are cliquey, and all Dutch people are rational. I even have to be careful not to extrapolate from Aucklanders to New Zealanders, as Auckland is to New Zealand what New York City is to the United States.

Still, I must admit that I love it when someone turns out to be a walking cultural cliché, unless that person is an American.  One of the most interesting things for me about living abroad has been discovering what non-Americans believe about the United States.

What you’re about to hear will shock and appall you.

It represents one of the greatest threats to freedom and democracy.

Finally, the secret will be revealed: Americans send their children away to summer camp!

The question is what are YOU going to do about it?

See what I did there?  I “Americanized” my blog.  Apparently we are suckers for sensationalism and guilt.  Also, to the horror of one local radio announce, American parents ship their kids off to overnight camp in the summer against their will, scarring them for life and giving them abandonment issues that only years of therapy will resolve.  That a Kiwi would find the concept of summer camp distressing is particularly odd, as New Zealanders are known for flying the nest.  The New Zealand Government’s Population and Sustainable Development website states that approximately 600,000 Kiwis live overseas.  The total population of New Zealand is only 4.2 million people.

The Titanic Awards, a website that celebrates the “dubious achievements of travel”, features polls on topics of interest to travelers.   Categories include world’s rudest, worst dressed, most easily fooled, and cheapest tourists.  Americans rank among the top three in all categories.

Those results don’t necessarily strike me as suspect.  But when I saw that the United States was also voted as one of the places where you’ll find the worst tasting drinking water (behind India and Mexico), I began to question the validity of the poll.  I’m fairly certain that there are numerous countries whose drinking water is worse than that of the United States, both going down and coming back out.  This leads me to believe that the people surveyed either travel in a very narrow circle or are voting based on prejudice rather than direct experience.

If I ran the website, I would add another category: “Most Likely To Talk Badly About Their Own Country”.  No doubt, American tourists would top the list.  Gone are the days when American travelers affixed a Canadian flag to their backpacks in an attempt to disguise their identity.  Nowadays, those wishing to distance themselves from the ugly, arrogant masses do so by openly bad mouthing America.  In a roomful of backpackers, the most emphatic critic of the United States is likely to be an American.

Not long ago, I met a young African-American man from upstate New York, on holiday in New Zealand before returning to his graduate studies in veterinary medicine.  His primary conflict was trying to decide if he should specialize in horses or dogs.  When I told him I had been living abroad for four years and had no plans to move back to the States, he remarked that I must be, “as disenchanted and disillusioned as he is.”

“Not exactly.  American does a lot of things really well; but there are other ways of doing things that are just as good. I’m just exploring the alternatives,” I explained.

“That’s very wise of you.”

“Thanks.  By the way, I love your t-shirt.”  He grinned and puffed out his chest, where “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” was scrawled in large capital letters.

I’m no nationalist nor would I ever advocate defending America’s honor at all costs.  Certainly, the United States can stand up for itself (which is why everyone hates us in the first place).  American citizens should be honest about the mistakes and shortcomings of our country of origin.  However, in mixed company, maybe we could try to downplay our defects and emphasis our strengths. That American citizens are able to publicly denounce their country without fear of imprisonment for treason may be one of the highlights of American society; but it seems to me that we’re abusing that right.

You may think that by trashing the United States, you’re improving your own reputation, but really, you’re just reinforcing negative stereotypes that will later be used to judge you.  In my experience, many foreigners ask about the United States in the hopes that you will confirm what they already believe.  When you don’t, they grow bored and impatient and move on in search of someone who will.  Besides, someone who sees you as a nationality before they see you as an individual is not worth your time.

Recently, I listened to a group of travelers discussing the movie Bruno. “I’m so embarrassed by how many stupid Americans there are,” sighed the lone American in the pack of Europeans.  “Hey,” I interrupted, “if there’s one thing I’m certain of it’s this – all countries have stupid people.”

For more tales of cultural quirks, traditions, customs, and clichés, check out Glimpse, which features real stories from real travelers from all over the globe.

Can You Spell That, Please?: Speaking the Kiwi’s English


A woman walks into a bookstore in Wellington.  She is well dressed and well mannered, probably an executive assistant for the CEO of a dairy company, or some such profession.  She approaches the information desk and asks the salesgirl, an American, for help finding a particular title. The salesgirl begins to enter the customer’s request into the computer’s search engine, but hesitates:

“I’m sorry ma’am, but can you please repeat the title of the book?”
Sick and Violent,” says the woman, a hint of annoyance in her voice. Trying not to judge, the salesgirl assumes her position at the keyboard.
“S-I-C…” She stops, and again asks, “Um, can you repeat that one more time?”
Sick and Violent,” snaps the customer.
“Yea, ok, can you spell that for me, please?”
“Oh, second!” exclaims the salesgirl with a sigh of relief. She pauses. “And the last word?”
Second Violin! I thought you said ‘Sick and Violent.’”  As the woman looks mortified, the salesgirl tries to alleviate the tension with a joke, “I swear we speak the same language.”
“It must be my accent.  I’ll go home and practice my English,” replies the customer, with not a hint of a sense of humor. Sadly, this type of misunderstanding happens all the time.

I understand how pathetic this is; but one of the reasons why I finally decided to leave Argentina was that I missed English.  Or maybe it was that my English had gone missing.  I had already been living in Buenos Aires for nearly two years when my friend came to visit.  After a few minutes of conversation, she remarked, “I’m so happy that you don’t sound like a Neanderthal.” She was right: thanks to my job as a customer service manager for a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, as well as my American friends and co-workers, my English was still standing; but it was also starting to deteriorate.

Between living in Spanish and studying French, my total vocabulary had no doubt increased considerably.  However, the quantity of English words under my command had decreased markedly (a fact which I successfully disguised with the help of  I no longer noticed when I Espanglishized my speech: “Sure, I’d love to meet you there.  What’s the direction?” (Dirección being the Spanish word for address.)  And don’t get me started on prepositions – do you arrive at, in, or to a city? Honestly, I’m still not sure.  Yet, it wasn’t until the following conversation with my mother about her upcoming dinner party that I realized just how bad things had gotten:

“So, what time are people going to your house for dinner?” I asked.  My mother giggled, somewhat condescendingly, like she was watching an episode of Kids Say The Darndest Things.
“Oh, Amy.  In English, we say what time are people coming to your house for dinner.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I protested, “I’m not at your house and neither are the guests.  Logically, it should be going not coming.”
“I appreciate your argument, but it’s still coming.”
En serio?
“Yes, Amy, en serio.”

With the decision to dedicate myself to becoming a writer, I concluded that it would be beneficial to immerse myself once again in English.  My father was quick to point out, repeatedly, that in New Zealand, I would have to learn a whole new dialect.  As much as I hate to admit it, he was right.  Differences in punctuation, pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary abound.  For example, Kiwis seem to have an adverse reaction to the Oxford Comma (such as the one used before “and vocabulary” in the previous sentence), apostrophes, and periods at the end of abbreviations (as in Mr).  Harbor becomes harbour, theater becomes theatre, organize becomes organise, and so on.  I am often accused of being Irish because, as it turns out, only Irish and Americans pronounce their “R’s”. Just what are togs, jandals and singlets, you ask?  You’ll just have to go clothes shopping in NZed to find out.

Perhaps my favorite part of Kiwi speak is its “as” (not ass, as).  “Sweet as” is probably one of the most common phrases you will hear in New Zealand (and see printed on t-shirts in tourist shops).  Basically, it’s just the first half of a simile, and means “cool” or “awesome.”  The “as” format can be used with just about any adjective –  “It’s cold as outside”, “I’m tired as” – and saves you from having to come up with a clever comparison to describe the situation.  Sure, it sounds like people are speaking in incomplete Mad Libs; but while some may call this lazy, I call it genius.

My least favorite part, in case you were wondering, is how excessively polite people are:
“Your total comes to $100.”
“That’s lovely.  Eftpos [debit card], please.”
“Your card was declined.”
“Cheers.  I’ll use a different card.”
“You entered the wrong pin.”
“That’s lovely.”
“Is that your baby?  I ask only because it’s hideous.  Seriously, get it out of my face.”
“Thanks. You have a wonderful day. Taa.”

They also have a penchant for shortening words and adding a “y” or “ie” to the end of them – brekkie for breakfast, cardy for cardigan – making it sound like the language was invented by two ten-year old girls named Tiffany and Brittany while playing with their Barbies.  Then again, if you’ve ever heard a rugby player ask if you’ve seen his sunnies, you might find the practice more charming than juvenile.

What really gets me into trouble is Maori, especially in place names.  When a customer returns an item, we have to ask for their address, which often goes something like this:
“Can I ask for your city/suburb?”
“Sure, it’s Paraparaumu.”
“Your papa raises emus?”
“Para-para-umu.  How could you miss that?”  At least most cities are spelled exactly how they sound.

The other day, one of my coworkers came up to me with a giant grin on her face,
“When it’s time for your break, there are Shrewsburies, Squiggles, and Tim Tams in the staff room!”
“I want you to know you just sounded like a passage from Harry Potter to me.  What are all those things?”
“You’re so cute,” she laughed.

Most people find such barriers to communication amusing, and are eager to explain to me the meaning of Kiwi words, phrases, and product names.  Unfortunately, when I can’t understand their accent, most people seem to find that offensive.  When we learn a different language, we tend to ignore the accent, concentrating on memorizing vocabulary and mastering grammar (this is likely due to embarrassment, as no one wants to speak French like the chef from The Little Mermaid).  However, this is a huge mistake.  It doesn’t matter how complex are your sentence structures if people can’t understand a damn word you say.
Trust me, there is nothing more frustrating than asking the cashier at the supermarket if you can pay with a tarjeta de crédito while waving your credit card in front of her face, and having her spit at you, “no te entiendo.”  On more than one occasion while living in Argentina, I had someone stop me mid-conversation to ask, “what language are you speaking – English or Spanish?”  And then there were the infamous “I don’t hear the difference” exchanges:
Dónde está el libro?
El qué?
El libro.
El qué?
El libro.”
Ah, el liiiiibro!”
“I don’t hear the difference.”
Eventually, I resigned myself to the importance of the accent, and set about relearning how to pronounce Spanish words.  By that point, it was too late for perfection, but at least I wasn’t humiliated every time I spoke.

Just as Argentine Spanish (Castellano) sounds radically different from Spanish, Mexican, or Chilean Spanish, Kiwi English sounds radically different from English, American, and yes, even Australian English.  In “Eh?”, a recent article featured in Your Weekend (the Saturday supplement of Wellington’s Dominion Post), David Killick explains, “Want to talk like a Kiwi?  Easy.  Put a peg on your nose. Now, change the vowel sounds: A to E; E to I; I to U. Talk in a monotone, and finish each sentence with an upward inflexion, like a question.”  So, for all you Flight of the Conchords fans out there, the answer is yis! Kiwis really do talk like that, sort of.  According to the article, many New Zealanders themselves struggle with New Zealand English, deeming it ugly and incomprehensible.  Even Prime Minister John Key has come under attack for his strong Kiwi accent; although the article is careful to emphasize that clarity, not accent, is the real problem.

In fact, the New Zealand accent may be a solution.  I have read elsewhere that New Zealand’s departure from the Queen’s English mimics the country’s attempt to distance itself culturally and politically from its former colonial ruler.  Following this line of argument, New Zealand, a young country just now entering its rebellious teenage years, is using speech to establish and assert its unique identity.   Personally, I support and empathize with New Zealand’s attempt to create (or find, whichever you prefer) itself, even if I can’t always understand what its saying.

I’ve long since believed that the way you speak says as much about you as your actual words.  I finally came to embrace my accent in Spanish because it perfectly expressed my experience in Argentina: I lived there long enough to insert myself into the local community and adopt many local customs and colloquialisms, but not long enough to abandon my native tongue or disassociate from country of origin.   Already, I have versions of my CV and cover letter in Kiwi English, and the words “reckon” and “meant to” have been sneaking into my speech more than I would care for them to (as in “What do you reckon the Prime Minister meant to say?”) There’s no telling how much worse it will get.  Just do me a favor: if you ever hear me say “cheers” in place of “thanks”, smack me. Taa.

There’s a Good Chance That Today Will Suck: Dealing With Depression Abroad

In the Doldrums, Wellington, New ZealandInstallation Piece in Downtown Wellingotn

You know how I know I’m depressed?  It’s 9:30pm on Saturday night and I’m lying in bed, lights on, fully clothed, listening to Radiohead.  Given that my musical tastes tend to be more bubblegum than bittersweet, when my personal soundtrack features angst-filled alt-rock, you know things are bad.  The only thing missing was a rain-streaked bay window for me to look out while running my fingers through my tousled hair.

In my defense, I was nursing a wicked hangover and had just returned home from a day of arguing with customers over the injustice of being charged 10 cents for a plastic bag (‘all proceeds go to charity’) and helping middle-aged women locate science fiction-romance novels written by # 1 New York Times bestselling authors (a distinction I used to cling to like the ‘verified’ status on Internet auction sites, until I realized that earning that title is a lot like being crowned Prom Queen: some writers are better than others at printing buttons and baking muffins).  Although, I must confess that when the store is exceptionally ‘quiet’, I pass the time reading summaries of these books in our catalog:

When Luci, a beautiful archeology student, decided to spend her Spring Break in the Arabian Desert, she had no idea of the      treasure awaiting her.   Trapped in a terrible sandstorm, Luci is rescued by a mysterious stranger on horseback.  Who is this handsome but guarded to whom she owes her life?  Slowly, Luci digs away at his layers, and uncovers two shocking secrets: he is a Sheikh, and a werewolf.  The next full moon is fast approaching.  Will their undeniable sexual chemistry be strong enough to overcome their differences in class and biology?

To make matters worse, the owners of the house were I had been staying were due back the following morning; the place was a mess and my personal belongings were everywhere.  Still, on the eve of the big move into my new flat I should have been elated, not stewing in a pot of my own purple funk.

There is a widespread misconception that when you go abroad, it’s all sunshine and roses.  Allow me to clarify: it’s not.  I’m not being negative or pessimistic.  Just think about it: can you remember a six-month period of your adolescent/adult life when you were happy every single day?  Probably not, because bad days happen, even to the best of us, regardless of where we are living.

Yet, most of us, myself included, naively believe that when you leave home, you leave your troubles behind.  Unfortunately, many of your problems sneak into your suitcase while you’re not looking.  Your support system and comfort zone, on the other hand, see you off at the airport.  Even worse, once you land, you pick up new issues that you’ve never seen and for which you have no remedy, like mutant strands of psycho-emotional swine flu.

The stigma attached to being depressed at home is nothing compared to the shame associated with being down in a different country.  We all secretly hope that going abroad will be the best time of our life. Consequently, when you feel lonely, homesick, frustrated, or confused, you also feel like a failure.

In an effort not to disappoint or worry, you write a lot of emails that sound eerily like the letters you used to send your grandmother from summer camp: “Everyone here is really nice. I’m having a lot of fun and the food is better than I expected.  I miss you.”  No one, especially your mother, wants to hear about being defeated by the subway; getting ripped off by the laundry mat, which dry-cleaned all of your clothes, including your socks; or eating meals at McDonald’s because you’re too intimidated to sample the local cuisine.  They want to hear about the different accents you’ve slept with; the nights you’ve spent partying until dawn; the spontaneous weekend getaways; and the sophisticated dinner parties hosted by foreigners that you’ve attended.  They want to picture you in paradise, with a spare bedroom for visitors.

Now, I’ve had plenty of great trips that have played out like a montage of best moments.  However, sometimes things just don’t work out in your favor.  You choose a destination based on the best information available to you at the time.  But there are things that you can’t know about yourself or the place you are going until you get there; and there are factors that will influence your experience that are simply beyond your control.

Transitions are hard. Period.  Some days, you will feel like you’re recovering from a head injury: you have to relearn how to talk, getting dressed is a challenge, and feeding yourself is a notable accomplishment.  An expat friend living in Auckland told me that during her first few weeks in New Zealand, she began each day by telling herself, “there’s a good chance that today will suck.”  Then, she got out of bed and forced herself to do something – sign up with a temp agency, take a class, go for a walk – even if it felt like a lost cause.   Earlier this week, I decided to take advantage of my part-time unemployment: I visited a museum, treated myself to lunch at a café, and spent the afternoon reading and writing.  Normally, I would describe such a day as my version of Christmas morning; but given my current state, it felt more like a white elephant gift exchange.  Still, it certainly didn’t suck.

Depending on circumstances and personal characteristics, some people adjust, adapt and settle more quickly than others.  Often, it’s just a matter of stamina, like one of those “last man standing” competitions where you can win a new car simply by touching the vehicle for long enough.  The trick is not to lift your hand too soon; and not to let your sense of proportion cloud your sense of perspective.  When you only plan on being somewhere for a short while, a few difficult weeks represent a significant percentage of your total stay.  Taking a broader view, your overseas experience, whether you consider it a vacation, gap year, or working-holiday, is just another chapter of your life; and what are a few bad months over the course of a lifetime?

Try not to judge the city, or your connection to it, until you’ve managed to crack the surface and throw down some roots.  Be patient, be resilient, and most importantly, relax.  Moving abroad is an inherently stressful situation; seasoning it with your own special blend of neurosis is a bit like squeezing lemon on a grapefruit.  Once you’ve done your part, and while you’re waiting for the Universe to meet you half way, try to have fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Universe stands you up, leaving you sitting alone on the curb like a total chump.  In which case, unless you’re an actor, putting on a non-stop one-man show does you no favors.  You can’t fix a problem until you admit that you have one. I know this because I recently took that first step: “Hi, my name is Amy and I’m not happy in Wellington.”

The truth is that so far, not so good.  The possible reasons why are endless: simple incompatibility, unrealistic expectations, bad timing, global economic crisis, wrong approach, and the list goes on.  (Remarkably, everyone with whom I’ve shared my predicament has been amazingly supportive and managed to say the right things.) All I know is that my present situation is untenable, financially, emotionally, and psychologically.  Rather than invest more time, energy, and savings to maintain the status quo, it’s time to explore other options.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a thin line between quitting and hubris.  Walking away from something that isn’t good for you; isn’t actually what you want; or can’t offer you what you need, is not admitting defeat; it’s taking care of yourself and moving on with your life. There’s no shame in trying something new.  Once you hit your wall, don’t torture yourself with “maybe if I stay longer, things will get better” or “maybe there is more that I could be doing”.  All you can ever do is your best; give it a fair chance, and then come up with a plan B.

No final decisions have been made, but I am currently contemplating ideas for my immediate and short-term future – moving to a different city (other than the one in which I was born and raised) where I have friends and there are things to do other than drink coffee, applying to master’s programs in creative writing – some of which I had never before considered.  When I was living in Buenos Aires, I rode the bus everywhere.  On certain occasions, when made to wait an unreasonable amount of time, I would change my mind and decide to take a taxi or walk.  Without fail, the bus would pull up an instant before I turned away.  Now that I’ve genuinely committed to looking elsewhere, one of two things will happen: Wellington will show up at the last minute; or it won’t, and I’ll go through with my exit strategy.  Either way, I no longer feel stuck.

You know how I know that I’m going to be okay?  It’s Sunday evening, a week after moving into my new flat, and I’m finally unpacking my suitcases.  In the middle of hanging up my clothes, a Justin Timberlake song comes on and I stop organizing my belongings to stage an impromptu fashion show/music video in front of the mirror.  As long as there is choreography, lip-synching, and catwalking in my life, all is not lost.

Good While It Lasted: Managing Transience

Wellington, New Zealand

I may be a fan of The Power of Now and a proponent of living in the moment, but if I’m being honest, I don’t and can’t always practice what I preach.  We live in a fearful, future-focused society that encourages us to help our children plan for retirement rather than talk to them about safe sex.  Delayed gratification is a virtue, while instant gratification is seen as hedonistic, frivolous, self-indulgent, and worse, irresponsible. But I believe in the short-term.  I believe that we should allow ourselves to do the things that make us happy now, even if they won’t do anything for us later.  Call me a utilitarian (actually, please don’t), but I believe in the intrinsic value of pleasure.   Yet lately, I’ve been plagued by the question what’s the point?

Considering that I’ve only been in Wellington permanently (and given the nature of the current discussion, I use that term reluctantly) for a few weeks, things are going well.  I live alone and rent-free in a beautiful house, and I have a fun part-time job, friends whose company I enjoy, and a good-looking English guy to give me something to think about.  In other words, there are a lot of things to be happy about.

But happy is not exactly how I’ve been feeling lately.  And trust me, there is nothing more frustrating, obnoxious, or unattractive than being able to count your blessings but not being able to appreciate them.  It’s a little like finding out that your boss, who has a wife and twin girls, is having an affair with the young man who works in the mailroom, and not being able to tell anyone about it.  At first, hormones were my only explanation for this unwarranted and irrational display of indifference.  Until I realized that rationality was actually to blame for my bad mood.

Yesterday, after dance class, I met a friend for coffee.  She had spent the weekend in the mountains, interviewing for seasonal work at a ski lodge.  A lot had happened since we had last spoke, just a week before.  We sat for hours talking psychology, dating, and the hardships of being an expat.  It was one of those great conversations that graduate the relationship to the next level of friendship.  However, when we said goodbye, I didn’t feel satisfied.  I felt empty.  During the evening, my friend had revealed that whether she gets the job or not, she will likely leave Wellington within the next month. And it hit me just how temporary my life is at the moment.

The pleasure we derive from doing certain things, like buying treasury bonds, lifting weights, or shaving our legs is based on the promise that our actions in the present will pay off in the future.  Sure, the more masochistic among us may find such activities amusing (I, for one, do genuinely like going to the gym), but for the most part, we suffer these tasks in silence because we understand that they are part of the creative process.  All of these actions, and the subsequent sore muscles and nicked knees, are necessary in order to reach our objectives.  And it is the knowledge that we are building a foundation or nearing our goal that makes these steps not just bearable, but rewarding.

So, it’s a little disheartening and disappointing knowing with certainty that I will soon have to say good-bye to many of the wonderful things in my life, like the house, my job at the bookstore, and my friend.  And it’s discouraging sensing that the energy I am currently expending will not be compensated.  I just can’t help but feel burdened by the expiration date.  Which brings us back to the age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost or to have never loved at all? When I think about my time in Argentina, this blog, or the recent coffee date with my friend and how comforting it was to share stories, worries, and plans with another person, I would definitely place my vote on the former.

Besides, as my friend pointed out, as much as I need a certain amount of stability and control, I also need to explore, experiment, and evolve.  If everything were sorted and settled, eventually I would get bored and crave change.  Rather than resist or resent the transient nature of my existence, perhaps I should try to accept and embrace it, as it gives me the opportunity to constantly refresh and do-over.  The problem is when something ends before you’re ready to give it up.

It’s exhausting to think about starting anew, again. Especially for a girl who may or may not be writing this at 1pm from her bed because she can’t be bothered to get dressed.  I had been hoping to put on cruise control and just coast for a while.  However, in the immortal words of Bryan Adams, “Ain’t no use in complaining when you got a job to do.”  And there’s also no use in staying at home on a Saturday night, even if it is raining, just because your partner in crime won’t be around the following weekend.  So, I guess I’m going to get up, brush my teeth, and make dinner plans with a friend who is leaving for Asia next week.  I might as well enjoy what I’ve got before it’s gone.

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.

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