Posts Tagged 'Moving Abroad'

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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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.

Home Sweet Hostel: Living Long-Term in Temporary Housing

Wellington, New Zealand

During my travels, I’ve stayed in an infinite number of hostels, pensiones, guesthouses, and any other synonym for budget accommodation.  Whether good, bad, or ugly they were, for the most part, predictable and forgettable.  But a few were downright memorable.

The summer that I backpacked through Europe, a Viennese friend of my travel companion was interning in Bratislava, Slovakia. Curious to know what Communism looked like, we agreed to spend a night there partying with him and his coworkers. After an evening of drinking Absinthe and dancing on a houseboat, we retired back to the cement block university dorms where they were staying.  We found an unlocked room, and even though the mattresses were bare and the doors were riddled with what looked like bullet holes, my friend and I immediately passed out in a drunken stupor.  The next morning, we heard the door creak open.  Terrified, we waited for members of the KGB to rush in and shoot us for being spies.  Instead, a four feet tall Russian maid in a fur rimmed jacket peeked in, turned around, and walked away without further incident.  We immediately dressed and treated ourselves to a McFlurry to calm our nerves.

When we arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, we accepted a strange mans offer to lead us to housing because there was no way we could navigate the subway without him. He left us at the home of an old, shrunken, dusty Czech woman who rented out spare bedrooms to travelers.  In her hand, she held an old, shrunken, dusty book.  She searched determinedly for a particular page and pointed to a specific passage: the English translation of the Czech word for “to pay.”  The other room was clearly inhabited, as evidenced by the cigarette smoke and the sound of the Crowded House song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” which wafted incessantly from under the door.  However, we saw our neighbors, two young German men, on only one occasion: when they emerged from their room accompanied by two scantily clad Czech women whose company had no doubt been included in the price of the room.

Because all of the hostels were booked in Florence, Italy, we followed an old, Italian man home from the train station.  He rented us a room adorned with a four-posted bed and decorated with cheap copies of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in his luminous, airy apartment.  In the morning, we were serenaded by the sounds of he and his wife screaming at each other. Tensely, we listened for one of them to throw the other down the stairs. Our money was on the wife.  Thanks to my Spanish, I understood enough Italian to eventually determine that they were discussing the weather.

On a trip to the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, two girlfriends and I stayed in a hostel owned by an expat from the Northeast, USA, who moved to Central America because he suffered from bad circulation.  My friend tactfully pointed out that he could have just bought gloves.  There were no beds available the first night, but the owner kindly offered to let us sleep in his room (while he would sleep on the couch).  There, we discovered his collection of Playboys from the 1970s, and the fourteen year-old Tica, with lips painted in the unmistakable hue of Wet & Wild watermelon lipstick, who lived in a room adjacent to where we were staying.  It suddenly occurred to us that the climate wasn’t the only reason why the owner had migrated south.

Finally, in Antigua, Guatemala, my friend and I stayed at a hostel that shared its diminutive space with a bar/restaurant.  Every morning at 10am, we opened the door of our room to find the 7-foot tall, dreadlocked bartender/cook from Belize preparing breakfast while the bar owner divided a substance that was not oregano into plastic bags.  Sitting at the table outside our window were a Spanish teacher and her student, conjugating verbs and getting high.

Some of these hostels were actually trip highlights.  But regardless of how comfortable the accommodations, how cool the other guests, or how hospitable the staff, I have never felt compelled to stay in one long-term. Personally, I got my fill of random roommates, communal bathrooms, no privacy, and crowded kitchens during college. I hate keeping my valuables locked away, worrying that someone will steal my groceries (whoever ate my last two granola bars, I’m after you), and listening to the incessant commentary of the elated Chilean who happened to be vacuuming the hallway when I returned to my room from the shower, dripping wet and in a towel.  And yet, I find myself going into my second week at a hostel in Wellington.

The hostel where I am staying has a large number of long-term occupants.  In fact, they offer discounts for longer stays and allow guests to work for housing.  It’s always a little awkward when the person you were drinking with last night is cleaning your bathroom in the morning.  I used to envy long-termers.  They were the ones who knew how to work the stove and turn on the hot water.  They had all of the insider information about the coolest cafes, bars, and restaurants.  And they controlled the remote control and took over the couches in the living room.  I used to look at them like they were part of an exclusive, invitation-only club.  Now, they seem a lot more like fifth-year seniors than members of a secret society.

Many of them suffer from failure to launch syndrome.  They came to Wellington with the idea of getting a flat and a job, and integrating into local life.  Instead they got comfortable staying at the hostel, taking advantage of the free dinners and 2×1 drink offers at the adjacent bar and living vicariously through the backpackers passing through, unable to let go of their travel glory days.

Still, in my current situation, living in a hostel is the best, if not only, option.  It is my halfway house, the place where I am staying while I’m transitioning into a new life.  Plus, in addition to temporary housing, the hostel provides me with temporary friends.   As much as I enjoy and need my alone time, spending all day talking to myself can get boring and lonely, not to mention that it’s a good way to develop a borderline personality disorder.  Even though I dread fighting for pots and pans and making small talk after a long day, I secretly love coming home to friendly faces that understand what I’m going through, even if we’re going through it separately.  So even though the search for a flat and friends outside the hostel is definitely still on, there’s no immediate rush.  Because, who doesn’t love going out on St. Patrick’s Day with Irish guys, playing cards with a Swedish couple, and watching Tango & Cash with a group of Dutch, Spanish, and French kids?

The Honeymoon’s Over: Going Back to Work on Monday

Wellington, from Mt. Victoria LookoutWellington, New Zealand

On Waiheke Island, we were innumerable.  In Queenstown, we were seven.  In Wellington, we were four.  And then there was one. I just said good-bye to my friend and her new husband (congratulations!), which means that the traveling portion of this program has now, sadly, come to an end.  Well, at least for now. (Yet, ironically, I am staying in a hostel for the first time since arriving in New Zealand.)

The last few weeks were a hit parade.  From playing Frisbee in Auckland to watching my friend get married on Waiheke Island, splashing around in the Pacific Ocean to cruising through the Milford Sound, sky diving in Queenstown to getting down at Boogie Wonderland in Wellington, this trip has definitely been a life high.

Now, I’m on my own in the capital.  Which isn’t a bad place to be, especially not on a good day like today.  Wellington has the style, class, culture, cuisine, and sophistication of a big city, but the size, youth, humility, and hospitality of a small college town.   It is environmentally friendly, health conscious, and socially aware.  Besides, it has a lovely harbor with sandy beaches (even if it’s almost never warm enough to take advantage of them) and rolling hills in the background.

The only problem, as many people, most of them Aucklanders, are quick to point out, is the weather.  Although many people, most of them Wellingtonians, insist that the city more than compensates for its poor climate.  But today, the sun was shining the way that it was meant to in the summer. And even though I really wanted to stay in the swanky hotel room and watch A Dog’s Show (a riveting half-hour sheep herding competition) on the flat screen TV, I decided to take advantage of what could very well be the last nice day for months. Oh, the pressure.

I rode the cable car up to the botanical gardens, a lovely, enormous, and rather confusing expanse of green space overlooking the lower portion of the city and the water.  After stopping to smell the roses and being serenaded in the bathroom by a little girl with a lisp singing “Jingle Bells” in a British accent, I sat down on a quiet park bench and began to freak out.

Maybe I’m not returning to the office on Monday, but I am about to begin a new job. Starting your life over is full time work.  Of course, I’m excited to explore a new city, meet new people, try new activities, and experiment with new foods, drinks, and fashions. (I am somewhat less pleased by the realization that I will also have to learn a new vocabulary.  Have you ever heard of a footpath or a capsicum?  I didn’t think so.)  But I am also overwhelmed by the logistics of finding a flat (apartment), making mates (friends), and uncovering pubs (bars).  Clearly, getting from point A to point B won’t be easy.  I’ve even considered taking a cue from A.J. Jacobs and outsourcing my life to India.  A “remote executive assistant” doesn’t sound so bad right now.

Complicating things further is that, even though I want to get settled in, I don’t want to settle.  I don’t want to apply for jobs with descriptions eerily similar to the position I quit eight months ago, or furnish the first flat that I find.  I came to New Zealand with a clear, albeit abstract, idea of what my life here will look like, and I don’t want to compromise.  Even if that means temporary housing and seasonal work in the meantime.

I guess that the price of admission to my new life includes a bit of anxiety, impatience, stress, and loneliness.  Not to mention a missing bag of groceries and two padlocks (apparently, regardless of how warm, generous, or wealthy they may be, Kiwis subscribe to the “if it’s not bolted down” philosophy of property law), an Internet card equivalent in value to a round of drinks, seven nights of interrupted sleep in a hostel, and a diet rich in granola bars.  But I’ve only been in the country for a few weeks and in Wellington for a few days.  Which, as I keep reminding myself, is far too soon to panic or make decisions out of desperation.

So, since I’m the one organizing the schedule and writing the checks, I’ve decided to work part time for now, spending half the day taking care of business (searching for jobs, flats, writing, etc.) and the other half having fun and enjoying the city.  Now, what does one do for a good time in New Zealand? Other than Bungy jump, that is.

Where Am I and What Day Is It?: Recovering and Readjusting in Auckland

Auckland City Bus Asks For ForgivenessAuckland, New Zealand

Traveling to New Zealand is like solving a word problem: If a plane leaves Buenos Aires on Wednesday at 2:30am and arrives in Auckland on Thursday at 7:10am, where did that day go, will I ever get it back, and more importantly, just how long will it take for me to get over the jet lag and culture shock?

Clearly, I’m not in Buenos Aires anymore.  The air here is so clean and clear and the clouds are so white and fluffy that I keep thinking that I’m feeling off due to altitude sickness.  And then I catch a view of the Tasman Sea and remember that Auckland has an elevation of about 12 feet.  Not to mention that I could walk around all day without shoes (as some Aucklanders are wont to do) and my feet still wouldn’t get dirty.

Yet it is all somehow strangely familiar.  Perhaps because Auckland, with its laid-back, environmentally friendly, pseudo-intellectual vibe and penchant for vintage shops, cheap ethnic restaurants, and houses with gardens, is eerily like my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It doesn’t help matters that I am currently crashing with a good friend from high school, who also recently moved to New Zealand.  My first night, it felt like we were having a sleepover at one of our parents’ houses – the only things missing were a Ouija board, a boy to prank call, and raw cookie dough.  But we’re not in Michigan anymore. We’re halfway around the world in New Zealand.

Readjusting to New Zealand means more than getting used to the fact that while people here are getting ready to go back to work, my friends and family are just finishing their Saturday night.  Aucklanders seem to be big fans of the adage “early to bed, early to rise,” with lights out by 11pm (the time that most Argentines are eating dinner) and alarms set for 6am (when most Argentines are leaving the nightclub).  My body, desperately craving a bit of structure and routine, eagerly latched on to this new schedule.  The other night, around 10pm, I fell asleep mid-sentence, like I had just been shot with a horse tranquilizer.  An hour later, my friend woke me up to send me to bed.  “Is it tomorrow yet?” I inquired earnestly.
“No, it’s 11pm.”
“Oh, I thought it was tomorrow.”  And the time change is the least of my troubles.

The first day here, I kept trying to speak Spanish to people.  This is partly because the language is so ingrained in my subconscious that in certain situations, it comes out without warning.  But it is also because despite the fact that everyone here speaks English, they still have an accent and we don’t always understand one another, causing “second language mode” to switch on automatically.

The other day, my friend and I returned home to find her roommate sitting on the couch watching sports.  Back in her room, she remarked, “In case you hadn’t noticed already, you’re going to hear cricket everywhere.”
“Yea,” I replied, “but I don’t even notice them.  It’s like white noise to me, they just blend into the background.”
“Cricket the sport, not the insect.  Besides, those are cicadas.”
When my friend’s roommate took me to the supermarket and I asked her if the store carried granola bars, she thought for a moment before replying,  “Hmm, granola bars, yea, that sounds familiar.” The next thing I knew, I was speaking to her like English was her second language, avoiding contractions and idioms so that nothing was lost in translation, and saying things like, “I cannot understand you, please.”

Even pronouncing street names is a challenge, probably because many of them are Maori.  Thankfully, even the locals have abbreviated Karangahape Road to K Road. And then there’s the fact that the streets curve and switch names without prior notice.  One moment you’re happily walking down busy Richmond Rd. and suddenly you realize that out of inertia you went straight when you should have veered, and now you’re standing in someone’s driveway in a residential neighborhood.  You retrace your steps back to civilization only to find that the street formerly known as Ponsonby Rd. is now referred to as St. Mary’s Rd.

For the purposes of “research,” and to ask for directions, I’ve been stopping in every store, library, market, and bakery I pass, and I’m still amazed (and pleased) by how healthy this city truly is.  Although, personally, I draw the line at butter, egg, and gluten free sugar cookies made with chickpea flour, applesauce, and soy milk.  It’s like being on the campus of a small, private, liberal arts college in Oregon, where everyone walks around barefoot and calls their professors by their first name.  I keep waiting for someone to pull a Hacky Sack out of his pocket or challenge everyone to a rousing game of Frisbee golf.

Auckland may have the perfect balance between urban jungle and the great outdoors, a paradise for nature lovers trapped in the body of a city dweller. Beautiful beaches where you can sail, surf, or sunbathe are just 30 minutes away, dormant volcanoes offer fantastic views, and parks hosting free events are scattered throughout the city. Plus everyone here is so friendly and polite, even the buses apologize profusely for being out of service. You get the sense that Auckland is a place where people live well, and slowly but surely the city is growing on me.  A girl could get comfortable here, too comfortable perhaps.  So, will Auckland become my new hometown?  It’s still too soon to tell.

Stuck in the Middle: Caught in Pre-Travel Purgatory

Somewhere between Buenos Aires, Argentina and Auckland, New ZealandMerry-Go-Round

There is a reason why I don’t make plans in advance: I can’t stand waiting for them to happen. There’s too much time for thinking, for raising expectations, and for talking myself out of it. There is too much time for daydreaming (or day-nightmaring).  And since things never work out the way you imagined, if you fantasize away all of the best outcomes, what are you left with?  Disappointment. Most people call this anticipation.  I call it purgatory.

Being noncommittal in my daily life is easy (especially when you have patient friends and family who love you, even if you RSVP or cancel at the last minute).  But there is a fine line between being relaxed and being flaky, and you can miss out on opportunities if you don’t move fast enough.  Sometimes, the circumstances require advanced planning.  Like when other people are involved, or you’re moving abroad.

The idea to move to New Zealand was inspired by a friend from high school.  She is marrying a Kiwi in March on an island outside of Auckland (the island’s name, which I can never remember, is Waiheke).  In a stroke of genius, I decided to go to the wedding and stay indefinitely.  (Or maybe it was a stroke of déjà vu considering that I ended up in Argentina for exactly the same reason.)

Even though the date was set and I was set on going, I dragged my feet on purchasing a ticket.  Because no matter how committed you are, until you spend $1,250USD on a nonrefundable plane ticket, you can always change you mind.  Trust me, I’ve done it before.  Like the time I told everyone that I was moving back to the States and then called my mother two weeks before to tell her, “Hey, remember when I said I was coming home?  Just kidding.  That was a terrible idea.” But prices were going up and availability was going down and I had to act early.  I booked my flight to New Zealand an impressive three months in advance.

With my ticket purchased, I had a new question to face: What the hell am I going to do with myself until I leave?  I quit my job a few months ago and decided not to look for work immediately.  I had been fairly miserable, and I wanted to give myself time to reclaim my soul, relax, and most importantly, think seriously about what I wanted to do with my life.  By the time I decided to move to New Zealand, there was no sense in looking for work in Argentina. Jobs, especially temporary, well-paying ones for foreigners, are hard to come by.

At first, I loved my stint as a desperate housewife.  I took meditation classes and breathing seminars.  I spent days running in the park, reading on the balcony, cooking, cleaning, and sunbathing. I took my time: no rushing, no obligations.  I became my own boss (and, it must be said, I am a phenomenal boss).  I discovered what kind of lifestyle suits me best.  I discovered my passion for writing.  And most importantly, I learned to enjoy life. (I highly recommend voluntary unemployment to everyone who is willing, able, and in the throes of an existential crisis.) And then the boredom set in.

One of the great ironies about being unemployed is that you finally have the time to do all of the things you were unable to do while working.   You just don’t have any money. And finding cheap, meaningful ways of entertaining yourself can be something of a challenge.  I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, or worse, like Pinky and the Brain. Every morning, I wake up and ask myself: “Gee Self, what do you want to do today?”
“Same thing we do every day, Self.”
“Try to take over the world?”
“No, go for a run, do a little writing, kill time stalking people on Facebook and checking my blog stats, prepare lunch, meditate, write a little more, cook dinner, watch America’s Next Top Model, and go to sleep.”
“Oh, right.  That.”

Yesterday afternoon, I went to a playground near my house.  I love to swing and was starting to take off when the most amazing thing appeared: a government worker who takes her job seriously.  Wearing a hall monitor’s vest with “Department of Open Spaces” stamped on the back, she informed me that the swings were not for adults.  She was like those teenagers who worked at the movie theater when I was growing up who actually kicked unaccompanied minors out of R-rated movies.  I think that one of the kids at the park had tattled on me.  That’s when it became clear that I am starting to overstay my welcome.

Now that I know what I want to do and where I want to do it, I am eager to move forward.  But I am trapped in the present.  The reality is that the next six weeks will fly by, even if every day feels like an eternity. And before I know it, I will have to admit that for all my talk about wanting to move on I am not ready to go.  Saying goodbye is going to be painful and getting settled in New Zealand is going to be stressful, and I just want to get it over with already.  It feels like waiting to get test results back from the doctor.  You are scared and anxious, and despite your best efforts, your fear and anxiety taint everything you do.  There is no point in fighting or resisting. I simply have to accept the fact that I will not be at ease until I leave.

In the meantime, I am in limbo, trying to take care of unfinished business so that I can cross over in peace.  I spend my days writing, working on my tan, and waiting for my friends to get off work so that we can spend time together.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a savings account for quality time. No reserve that you can draw on in the future when you feel lonely.  You just have to enjoy your friends while you’re all still around. And that kind of makes it worth being stuck here a little longer.

Three Years in Three Suitcases: Packing for New Zealand

LuggageBuenos Aires, Argentina

My mother just confirmed that she is coming to visit me for a week in February.  Her timing could not be more perfect: she arrives exactly 20 days before I leave for New Zealand.  At first I was reluctant to have a guest so close to my departure date, but then I welcomed the idea of something other than my own neuroses nagging me for a while.  Plus, a week living like a tourist in Buenos Aires is a wonderful going away present.  But more than anything, I’m excited that my mom will be here to help me pack.

I am terrible at packing, which is somewhat humiliating given the number of times that I have traveled and moved.  My mother, on the other hand, is the Mary Poppins of packing.  When it comes to deciding what to bring, she is a disaster.  But when it comes to fitting all of the wrong things into a suitcase, she is a magician.  (I think her secret involves a combination of airtight Ziploc bags and sitting on the luggage, but I can’t be sure.) This talent will certainly come in handy when I try to shove three years of my life into two suitcases and a carry-on.

Truthfully, other than a ridiculous amount of shoes, I don’t have that much stuff.  I haven’t exactly been backpacking for the last three years but I haven’t had a permanent address either (unless you count my parents’ house in Michigan).  Since arriving in Buenos Aires, I have lived in eight different apartments, always renting a furnished room in someone else’s home.  I never had to invest in furniture or electro-domestic appliances.   Any consumer impulse I may have has been reined in by my limited space.  My last bedroom didn’t even have a closet. (Though it did have one of those clothes racks that you find backstage at a fashion show.)  This means that I have more discretionary funds for traveling, but it also means that I can’t bring back many souvenirs.

The last time I moved, I was horrified by the fact that I could barely fit the contents of my room into my roommate’s SUV.  Subsequently, I conducted a massive possessions purge, donating bags of old clothes and already read books to charity.  At some point, I convinced myself that I would make a scrapbook of my “trip” to Argentina.  That was back when I still thought that, like a boomerang, I would someday soon return to my point of origin.  So, I held on to ticket stubs from concerts, recitals, planes, trains, and automobiles, brochures from hostels, and maps from cities.  In one day, I threw almost all of it away.  Then, I read every single one of the holiday cards, letters, and postcards sent to me by friends and family.  I considered mailing them back to their owners, as they documented their lives and times more than my own.  But I got rid of them instead. I have regretted it ever since. (Note: some things are worth hanging on to, even if you only look at them once every few years.  Especially virtually weightless pieces of paper containing the private thoughts, events, and insights of loved ones.)

I’ve never considered myself to be materialistic.  When you’re a nomad, it’s easier to travel light.  But I like pretty things and posterity, and sometimes it saddens me that I don’t have more to show for the past three years. Of course, it’s better to experience life than to accumulate stuff, to constantly make new memories rather than live vicariously through mementos.  But one day, I will have my own house (I hope), and nothing to fill it with. My tastes will likely have changed by then, but I would like to be able to pay homage to the person that I once was, and trace the path that led me home.

When I shared this sentiment with my mother, she offered to let me store treasures from my travels at their house.  “All your other crap is still here.  What difference does it make?” But I could picture myself ten years from now, excavating my parents’ basement and coming across an old, dust-covered box. Gently lifting the lid, I would peak inside with excitement and anticipation, and discover serving pieces painted with toucans purchased in Guatemala and a bright blue pillowcase embroidered with an Incan monkey from Peru.  I didn’t want to collect trinkets that I would never use, which is all I can afford right now anyway.

I will have to leave a lot of things behind when I move to New Zealand (or my mother will have to bring an empty suitcase). It pains me to think about it, but how much baggage can one person carry? Besides, the most important things that I will take with me are those that are intangible: relationships, lessons, stories, and experiences.  My time in Argentina has changed me in ways as yet immeasurable and unimaginable.  It has a left an indelible impression, visible in the way that I talk, dress, think, speak, and interact.  What really matters can’t be taken away.  Not even by the Transportation Security Administration.


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