Archive for the 'Thoughts' Category

Writer-In-Residence: Risking Failure

Ann Arbor, MI USA

Chess in Christchurch

On Wednesday, May 12, I didn’t fly to Sydney.  Instead, I had an informational interview with the owners of a local publishing company and went to a yoga class.  In between the two, I scraped the side of my mother’s newly leased car against a cement pillar in a parking structure.  Spatial visualization is not my forte; that’s why I don’t play chess.

“What kind of mood are you in?” I asked my mother when I picked her up from work that afternoon.

“Why, what did you do?”  How do they always know when you’ve messed up? Amazingly, she took the news like a champ.  I, on the other hand, took it like a complete loser.

That scratch was a sign from the universe – I had made a mistake; I had missed my plane.   Except that I no longer believe in a universe that conspires against you or sends you messages disguised as minor car accidents that are clearly your fault.  I do, however, believe in irrational fears.

The incident was an indication of one thing only: I am not a very good driver.  (In my defense, it’s been five years since I owned a car.)  My reaction to it was an indication that I’m still afraid of the same thing: failing.

To most people, my proposal to live in Australia seemed brave.  Truthfully, it wasn’t.  It was gutless, because there was no risk involved.  I could have lain in the grass in a park for a year, staring at the sky through the leaves of the trees and I would have accomplished that goal.  It was a guaranteed win, bought for the price of a one-way airline ticket and an electronic work-holiday visa.

Coming home is the truly risky endeavor, because it means that I am finally going to try to realize my life dreams; and inherent in trying is the possibility of failure.   Many people want to write, very few actually become writers.  In Australia, I may have been lonely, unfulfilled, and bankrupt, but my fantasies would have remained safely enshrined in my mind.

My homecoming was supposed to have been strategic, to have set a plan in motion. But things haven’t fallen neatly into place and I seem to be in a state of stasis.  There have been some steps in the right direction – that meeting with the publishers, an all-day writer’s conference, and an interview for the position of Editorial Assistant for an academic journal.  I even wrote a short fiction story, coincidentally about a plane crash.

However, every step seemed to bring with it a warning to turn back.  The publishers reminded me that most writers don’t earn their living writing; at the conference, successful authors revealed that every day is a struggle against literary agents, book critics, and their own insecurities; and “Editorial Assistant” turned out to be a fancy title for Receptionist.  Compounding my frustration, disappointment, and regret was the fact that I miss New Zealand and Argentina far more than I anticipated, and that after six weeks, I still don’t feel adjusted to life in the States.

A few years ago, while I was still living in Argentina, I visited a friend in New York during a trip to the States.  When I finished moaning about how hard life was abroad, she smiled and asked, “Is having an easy life something you truly aspire to?”

“No, of course not,” I replied.  I lied.  My secret fantasy is that someday life will be ridiculously easy.  Oh, and that there will be world peace.

I thought the path ahead would be paved with gold.  Now I realize that I’ll have to bushwhack my way through a dense forest of stiff competition and self-doubt if I’m to get what I want. Faced with the truth – the overwhelming odds against me, and the undeniably hard work ahead – I didn’t recalibrate my game plan and strengthen my resolve.  I lost faith.  I lost the plot.

What if I don’t have what it takes?  What if I’m not good enough?  What if I can’t be it just because I dream it?  What if anything is not possible?  These questions, whether valid or absurd, made me question the point of even trying.

Fortunately, my parents don’t share these concerns, or at least they don’t state them aloud.  Instead, my parents, those perennial patrons of the arts, have agreed to sponsor a summer fellowship – they will cover my living expenses so that I can dedicate the majority of my time and energy to writing.  Being selected as the recipient of this generous award is an honor, but I’ve been having trouble rising to the challenge.

Frightened as I am that following my dreams will lead me to vocational school, a condo in the suburbs, and a mini-van, I am more concerned that my parents will evict me if I don’t get my act together.  Apparently, I’m no longer allowed to whine or cry or remain in my pajamas until bedtime.  Either I go for it or I get out of their house, hence this long overdue blog entry.  Thus, I am happy to announce that I, along with all the obnoxious, self-defeating voices in my head, am the new Writer-in-Residence at my parents’ house in Michigan.

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Quit Messin’ With Me, Texas: Ending the Odyssey, For Now

Dallas, Texas/Ann Arbor, Michigan

Fall Colors, Michigan

On April 12, my grandmother turned ninety-five. I have no scientific evidence to corroborate this theory, but I suspect her longevity is positively correlated to the distance she has traveled.  She has visited all seven continents. She was the one who took me to Greece when I was thirteen.  Granted, I spent most of the cruise through the Greek Isles plotting to throw her overboard; but my grandmother remains a major source of inspiration and encouragement for my globetrotting.

She is one of the most worldly, independent, and intelligent women I know; yet she insists on living in Dallas.  A few weeks ago, my liberal, Yankee family descended upon my grandmother’s retirement home in Texas to celebrate the momentous occasion with an ice cream social.  On our first day in Dallas, which also happened to be my first day back in the United States in over a year and a half, we went for lunch at a popular Tex-Mex restaurant.

As soon as we stepped inside, we were enveloped in a din as thick as the hot, humid Texan air.  Cacti and lizards decorated the walls; a black and white, life-size, cardboard replica of the owners stood above the fireplace.  Christmas lights twinkled while frenzied waiters served refills of salsa from oversized syrup jars.  The stimuli so deadened my senses that I couldn’t read the menu, let alone order or eat anything.  While my family ate chips and salsas, I had a giant helping of culture shock.

Of course, Michigan is quite different from Texas, and I assumed I would feel more at ease in Ann Arbor.  However, all alone in the house, I am shocked by the silence.  Birds chirping and the low rumble of a train in the distance are the only noises I hear.  Occasionally, I clear my throat to confirm that I have not lost my hearing.

Like aspic, everything appears suspended in a transparent gelatin.  The only thing that moves, other than me, is the sun.  I drift from room to room, staring at objects as if they were artifacts in an American Suburbia Museum.  I wonder if, when no one is home, the household objects come to life, make themselves a sandwich and have a smoke on the patio.  Maybe that’s why I find them in such ungainly positions – they froze mid-movement to avoid being caught.  They’re probably all waiting for me to leave.

When the phone rings, I am startled, as if the curator caught me mishandling a priceless relic or the homeowners walked in on me rifling through their medicine cabinet.  I hear a woman’s voice, but I can’t discern where it’s coming from or what it’s saying.  Fearing for my sanity, I run upstairs and search for flights to Malaysia.

I gave up the idea of moving abroad again, but not the idea of backpacking long-term.  I could travel between October and May, escaping the winter and returning in time for my brother’s wedding.  Perfect, right?  Except for one nagging question: then what?  In all likelihood, I would come back from traveling to and with absolutely nothing, other than a stack of notebooks full of anecdotes, and no one to publish or read them.

When I look at an atlas, I feel like a contestant on Temptation Island.  I want to be loyal to my literary aspirations, but it’s hard with all those countries trying to seduce me. At this point, going abroad seems more like a diversion than a step in the right direction. That is why I’ve decided to return to the States, work on my portfolio, and apply to MFA programs.  Unfortunately, this means renouncing one of the most valuable things to me: my identity as an expat.

I don’t know who I am without my passport.  Now that I am just another American living in America, I am nobody special. Maybe I wasn’t anything special in Argentina or New Zealand, but in those places I belonged to something – the expat community.  Fellow travelers are my true countrymen; can I achieve that same sense of belonging at home? Until I do, my mind and spirit will continue to roam the globe.  With all my strength, I am resisting the urge to chase after them, because staying here is for the best.

Does this mean the odyssey is over? Not entirely.  I’m not under house arrest or anything, and if I do become a student, I plan on writing lots of essays about “what I did on my summer vacation.” But effectively, the answer is yes.  I’m back in the States indefinitely.

So, old friends, great opportunities and cute boys, please take note – I have a cell phone and a permanent address and expect to hear from you all very soon.  Oh, and that voice I heard?  It wasn’t coming from inside my head.  It was the call waiting.

*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.

Geographically Polyamorous: Having Multiple Countries At One Time

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’m in an open relationship with four countries.  I guess you could say I practice geographical free love.  I entered New Zealand on a one-year Working Holiday Visa.  My first few months were an absolute tragedy, and I had no more intention of extending my stay than of coordinating my five-year college reunion. Weeks were wasted in Wellington wrapped in fleece blankets, listening to depressing music, and devising schemes to get deported.

Then I moved to Auckland, where my quality of life and mental health improved significantly.  By month twelve, I was infatuated with New Zealand’s majestic beauty, in love with my boyfriend, contended with my lifestyle, and reluctant to leave. I was also receiving weekly emails from Immigration New Zealand reminding me that my visa was due to expire.

Protecting your privacy on Facebook is more challenging than obtaining a New Zealand Working Holiday Visa.  For U.S. citizens, the application is free of charge and lodge

d online.  All that is required is that you are between the ages of 18-30 and willing to lie about having health insurance and being financially solvent.  Once you’re hooked on life in New Zealand, the government starts making demands.

To be fair, it is not impossible to extend your stay in New Zealand.  If you have a short-listed skill, are in a long-term, committed relationship with a Kiwi or someone with residency, or can convince your boss that you are indispensable and irreplaceable, you have a good chance of getting another work permit.  However, the process takes months, costs thousands of dollars, and involves medical exams, joint bank accounts, letters of recommendation, and winning a spelling bee.  More to the point, I didn’t fall into any of the aforementioned categories.  My only option was a tourist visa, which would have been tantamount to paying $700 to drain my savings and delay the inevitable.

The best I could do was to take out the atlas and decide where to go next. The obvious choice was Australia.  Ever since arriving in New Zealand, I had heard nothing but rave reviews of Oz from fellow travelers and certain Kiwis whose names have been changed to protect the innocent.  In December, I successfully applied for a Work and Holiday Visa and booked a one-way ticket to Sydney on V Australia.  The flight from Auckland takes about four hours.  My trip will take two and half months, thanks to a couple of extended layovers.

I flew to New Zealand directly from Argentina on a roundtrip ticket.  I never intended on using the second leg, but it was the cheapest option at the time.  However, when I began to contemplate life after New Zealand, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for Argentina. The energy radiating from the city on a warm summer night, the buttery smell of fresh medialunas, the euphonical sound of Castellano: these sensations rose to the surface of my memory like bubbles in a bottle of aqua con gas.  More importantly, I missed my friends.  Returning to Buenos Aires for a few weeks made the most sense emotionally, if not logistically.

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires

Even though my bedroom is now the guest room, my mother insists on taking offense when I tell her that Ann Arbor, a city I haven’t lived in for nine years, no longer feels like home.  Nevertheless, before I booked my flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney, I called to inform her of my plans. A few days later, she made me an offer she hoped I wouldn’t refuse.

“We’d like to bring you up to the States from Argentina.  You can always fly to Sydney from L.A.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I yelled. “How many times do I have to tell you, I’ve no interest in going to the States? What possible reason could I have for coming home in April?”

“Well, Amy,” my mother sighed, “your grandmother is turning 95, your father 65, and your brother 30.  And we were going to surprise you with your own private jet.”

“Oh, you could have mentioned that sooner.” No matter when I talk to my mother, it seems to be that time of the month.

Following our conversation, I apologized for losing my temper and graciously accepted the free ticket home.  I even agreed to stay for an entire month to be there for Mother’s Day as well.  I didn’t want to go to the States at that time or for that long for a number of reasons – genuine disinterest, impatience and anxiety about moving to Australia, lingering teenage angst, fear of getting sucked into the black hole of satellite TV – but I simply cannot skip my grandmother’s ice cream social. What is the furthest distance between two points?  My trip from Auckland to Sydney.

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor

No longer do I worry about baggage allowances, long-haul flights, or lengthy transitions.  My only fear is that I’ll never find a compound big enough to house all of the pieces of my life. No matter where I am, I’m always missing someone or something. While I had a wonderful boyfriend in New Zealand, most of my best friends were in Argentina, and all of my family was in the States. Four friends will get married while I’m in Australia, and who knows how many breakups, engagements, births, deaths or really amazing dinner parties will occur in my absence?

Of course, if I were willing to stay in one place, life would be a lot less complicated.  But it would also be a lot less exciting and fulfilling. The irony is that the thinner I spread myself, the more complete I become.  For a long time, I didn’t know who I was, where I belonged, what my purpose was, or what kind of life I wanted to lead.  These last few years have been like an epic scavenger hunt, where I travel the globe collecting clues to these riddles.  In the process, I’ve overcome fears, gained wisdom, met amazing people, and done and seen strange and wondrous things. I’ve learned to be independent, open, confident, composed, and most of all, happy.

For me, traveling is equal parts compulsion, education, and mission.  Sure, my life can be frustrating, uncertain, and lonely at times, but then again, whose life isn’t? I’ve finally come to terms with my insatiable curiosity, hunger for new experiences, and wanderlust.  Maybe someday I’ll be ready for monogamy; until then, I will continue to be geographically polyamorous.

(Let’s) Go Hike a Mountain: Making and Keeping Friends While Traveling Abroad

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Mt. Ngauruhoe, Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I hadn’t seen Kate, one of my dearest friends, in over four months.  She only lives two hours away by car.  You can imagine what this implies for friends who live two days away by plane.

As you may recall, Kate is the British girl who accompanied me on my sojourn from Wellington to Auckland. After over a month of fruitless job searching in Auckland, she relocated to the Coromandel Peninsula in October, where people are generally more accepting of her nose ring, Florence Henderson haircut, and second-hand clothes.

While Kate was working and dating in the beach town of Tairua, I was doing the same in Auckland.  However, unlike Kate, I had wireless Internet, Facebook, and cell phone reception.  We stayed in touch as much as possible, but we never managed to actually see each other.  Clearly, only a special event could bring us together, and that event was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Considered to be one of New Zealand’s best one-day walks, the Crossing is a nineteen-kilometer trek over the steep volcanic terrain of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro.  Kate and I first learned of the hike in July, when we went snowboarding at Mt. Ruapehu.  Both activities are located in Tongariro National Park, but the idea of climbing an active volcano in the snow was about as compelling as the idea of skiing on gravel.  We vowed that when the weather warmed, we would return to complete the Crossing.

Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen. I finished working at the end of January, leaving me almost four weeks to travel before leaving New Zealand.  However, my boyfriend offered to take me surfing for the last two weeks, and I doubted that Kate and I could coordinate a trip in so little time. Thankfully, we both perform better under pressure.  A few days after I finished my contract, I met Kate in National Park village.

Kate was already a few days into another reunion.  Roger, one of her best mates from England who she hadn’t seen in over two years, had made New Zealand a quick stop on his six-month journey around the world.  Given that the Crossing is a quintessential North Island activity, we invited him along for the hike.

Unlike many activities popular with the masses, the Crossing actually lives up to its hype. Emerald Lakes glitter in the blazing

Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Alpine Crossing

summer sun, cloud shadows dance upon the rocky slopes of conical Mt. Ngauruhoe, and steam escapes from vents like a sulfur-scented air freshener.  We clamored past painted rock formations and colorful craters, breathed the moist air of a lush podocarp forest, and reapplied sunscreen, often.

The only low point occurred when we stopped for lunch and Roger announced he didn’t have the room key, even though he had been the one to shut the door.   Fortunately, when we returned to the hostel after a day of perfect weather, beautiful scenery, and strenuous activity, we found the key dangling from the outside lock and all of our stuff still inside the room.

The next day, Roger went to jump out of a plane in Taupo (for fun, not as punishment), while Kate and I am ambitiously hitchhiked nearly 350 kilometers from National Park to Tairua in the Coromandel. (Note to my mother: it’s still safe to hitch in most parts of New Zealand.) We made the journey in just five rides and six hours, and only one driver showed any indication of being a total nutter.

I learned many valuable lessons along the way, such as hitchhiking greatly resembles speed dating, only you don’t want to date the people you meet so much as write novels about them.  Or that on long car rides, strangers will tell you all manner of things that neither of you want you to know.  Also, never get in if you don’t trust the driver, allow the driver to make an unplanned stop or detour, or put your bags in the trunk.  Most of all, I determined that friendships, unlike romantic relationships, don’t require constant contact or close proximity for survival.

In fact, after observing Kate and Roger, I would argue that distance might be beneficial in certain cases. The incident with the keys was only one of many complaints Kate lodged against Roger once he was out of earshot.  Mostly, she griped that he was selfish, lazy, and clueless.  “He’s a twenty-eight year old male who still lives with his ridiculously wealthy parents, what did you expect?” I reasoned.  “Traveling will be good for him.  Give him a chance to change before you write him off.”  That’s when Kate confessed that she wasn’t disappointed in Roger; she was scared that she no longer had anything in common with her friends from England.

Many long-term travelers share the fear that after a long stint abroad, they will find themselves irreconcilably distant from close friends.  In my experience, this is an irrational fear. Becoming an expat does change you; but you probably became an expat because you were different to begin with.  If your friends got you before you left, they’re likely to still get you when you return home.  Besides, traveling is not the only thing that changes people.  Love, marriage, children, mortgages, careers, graduate school, and ageing all impact personal development and personal relationships and don’t require a passport.  It’s possible that while you were evolving overseas, your friends from home were evolving in exactly the same way.

Don’t do your friends the injustice of presuming they can’t understand you simply because they’ve never left home (and for everyone’s sake, please have something to talk about other than your own travels). And don’t naively assume that if you lived next door to your best friend you will still be as close now as you ever were. As we mature, pursue romance, follow our life’s dream, and inherit responsibilities once delegated to our parents (cooking, cleaning, paying the bills), we have less time for our friends, and our friendships progress or plateau, persevere or vanish. No doubt you will miss your friends while you are gone.  However, so long as your friendships are based on genuine affinity rather than history or convenience, you won’t lose them.

Of course, part of my connection with Kate comes from the fact that we are both restless souls.  I wish I could drop by Kate’s place unannounced because I happened to be in the neighborhood, seek her advice rather than report on the results, or actually do stuff with her instead of tell her the story later.  Our lifestyle just doesn’t allow for it.  But, there is something magical about our marathon gossip sessions; Kate’s epic, stream of consciousness, punctuation- and paragraph-free emails; and our girl-bonding vacations.  Three days probably provided us with enough inside jokes and unforgettable memories to last us until next time – June 2010, Melbourne, to celebrate our birthdays.

The Most Superlative Road Trip Ever!: Traveling Abroad With Your Parents

South Island, New Zealand

Kaikoura, New Zealand

It’s my parents’ fault that I’m an expat.  Not because they traumatized me as a child, but because they encouraged me to go abroad from a very young age.  When I was nine, they let me live with a French family for three weeks in Paris. By the time I graduated from college, I had backpacked through Europe, gone on Spring Break to Central America, and exploited my Jewish heritage for a free trip to Israel. My parents also led by example, having themselves been to places like Brazil, Russia, China, and Finland.

Interestingly, even though I always traveled with my parents’ blessing and often on their dime, I almost never traveled with them.  When I was a kid, family vacations involved a van large enough for my brother and I to each have our own row of seats, books on tape, and a national monument.  Admittedly, those trips were a lot of fun, but you don’t get a stamp in your passport when you enter Disneyland. The problem was my brother, whose comfort zone doesn’t extend past North America.  He even suffered culture shock during a business trip to Montreal.

However, during my semester abroad in Barcelona, my parents and I spent a long weekend together in England.  Then, while I was living in Argentina, the three of us met in the middle in Colombia; and my mother came to Buenos Aires three times. Most recently, my parents joined me for two weeks in New Zealand.

Having your parents visit you abroad is stressful, the way high school reunions and annual performance reviews are stressful.  There’s pressure to look your best, demonstrate that you’ve accomplished your goals, and prove that you’ve made something of your life.  Because long-haul flights are expensive and unpleasant, you feel personally accountable for everything from the weather to their health to how much things cost.

In the past, I had alleviated my sense of duty by convincing myself that I was an excuse to travel to exotic locales.  This time, I knew that New Zealand was only on my parents’ radar because I live here.  I worried they would grow bored of New Zealand, fast.  My parents aren’t exactly nature lovers; they would rather analyze paintings of landscapes than actually go outside. Entertaining my parents without the aid of art museums, architectural masterpieces, and historical sites is like throwing a children’s birthday party with no cake, games, or presents.

I wanted to show my parents what makes New Zealand special, so I decided to take them to the South Island. Our first destination was Kaikoura, a stunning beach town north of Christchurch, where an abundance of marine wildlife feeds in the nearby waters.  We booked a whale-watching tour, and had the good fortune to spot a number of albatross, six Sperm Whales, a pod of Dusky Dolphins, and an Orca Whale.  Sadly, thanks to an unfortunate combination of rolling waves, the lamb pie she ate for lunch, and my dad’s driving, my mother spent most of the trip vomiting off the side of the boat.

We spent the next day in Christchurch, where my parents finally got their culture fix – the impressive art gallery, the lovely Botanic Gardens, a production of “Anything Goes”, and dinner at a Greek restaurant owned by an actual Greek couple (and their mothers).

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

The following morning, we drove through Arthur’s Pass to Franz Josef Village.  With the help of a pair of crampons and a young Kiwi wielding a pickax, we climbed part way up the face of the Franz Josef Glacier, a mountain of moving ice that resembles a Baked Alaska filled with windshield washer fluid.

Murchison Lookout Point, New Zealand

On the way to Nelson, we stopped to see the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki, and the seal colony at the aptly named Cape Foulwind.  Near Murchison, we hiked to a lookout point and contemplated the verdant, pastoral landscape.  “I would love to see what the impressionists would do with this,” remarked my father.

We dedicated a day to sampling Sauvignon Blanc in the Marlborough wine region. Astoundingly, my father was sober enough to

Abel Tasman National Park, Coast Track

drive us back via Queen Charlotte’s Drive, a short, curvy stretch of highway with incredible views of the haunting Marlborough Sounds.  In New Zealand, driving between destinations is a noteworthy activity due to the majestic scenery. The next morning, we walked a few hours of the famous Abel Tasman National Park Coast Track.  In the afternoon, we called in at the Ngaru Caves, situated under the summit of Takaka Hill, before watching the sunset over Golden Bay.

Then, we returned to Auckland, where my parents left me while they went to Rotorua to see the geothermal parks, soak in the hot mineral baths, and eat grass-fed New Zealand beef behind my back.  At the weekend, we scoped out the art galleries in Parnell, and took the ferry to Waiheke Island, where we had a fabulous lunch at Stonyridge Vineyard, and made one final pilgrimage to the beach.

To everyone’s surprise, my parents loved New Zealand.  Before they left for the airport, my parents lamented, “I can’t believe

Sheep, New Zealand

we’re leaving already; it feels like we’re just getting started.” During the drives, my mother would hang out the back window and take pictures of sheep, and my father interrupted every conversation with an involuntary, “Wow!  Look at how pretty that is.”  Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the road signs, which espoused such indispensable driving tips as, “Too close?  Back off.” “Too fast?  Slow down.” “Have to pee? Pull over.”  My parents were charmed by the Kiwi hospitality, and I was amused by the ubiquitous use of superlatives.  Everywhere is the best, biggest, first, or highest something or other. The New Zealand tourism department must have a team dedicated to handing out paper plate awards.

Yet, of all the must-see, can’t-miss things we did, what I enjoyed most was the novelty of being in the same city as my parents.  I used to reason that if I didn’t live abroad, I wouldn’t be in touch with my parents much more than I am now, because I wouldn’t live in my home state of Michigan.  Of course, that’s not true.  You can’t use free nights and weekends to call New Zealand, not least of all because we don’t have the same nights or weekends. There’s no rationalizing my way out of it: homesickness is one of the unavoidable costs of living abroad.

If it’s hard for me, I can only imagine what it’s like being the parent of an expat.  My mom, bless her heart, still can’t work out the time difference.  She has to confront subtle attacks on her parenting, like, “How could you let your daughter live in South America?” (As if moving to Argentina was equivalent to getting pregnant and dropping out of high school or as if my parents could do anything about it.)  And it can be a challenge for her to trust that my choice to live abroad is nothing personal.

Parents always have an image of what their children’s lives will be like. My parents certainly never fantasized about me living permanently in the Southern Hemisphere and earning money as a temp.  Even though they raised me to be independent, they didn’t intend for me to be so distant.  I used to get annoyed when my parents tried to guilt-trip me into a trip home or talk me out of my next crazy move.  Now, I appreciate that they miss me, worry about me, and want me closer.

I’m lucky.  My parents might have different plans for my life, but they both defer to my wishes.  Not only do my parents support my lifestyle, they also make a concerted effort to be a part of my life. Even though I wish I could see them more frequently, and for fewer hours at a time, I’m grateful we get together at least once a year.  We have a new tradition and amazing memories to hold us over.  I’m not sure how interested my parents will be in a trip to Sydney next year, but I wonder if I could sell them on Bali?


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