Posts Tagged 'Travel'

*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.

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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.

Pedestrians Do Not Have the Right of Way: Returning Home After An Overseas Experience

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Near-hit, Traffic in Buenos Aires

Crossing the street in Rome could be the final exam for a 500-level course on “How to Avoid Getting Hit By a Car.”  It requires advanced preparation and specialized knowledge.  While studying abroad in Barcelona, I traveled with a friend to Rome.  We took a bus into town from the airport, hoisted on our backpacks, and began walking to our pensione.  At the edge of the grassy median separating the bus station from the main road we stopped abruptly, paralyzed by fear.  A group of travelers stood cowering like a family of pioneers about to ford a river.  In terror-stricken silence, we watched as multiple lanes of Italian sports cars raced past.  It wasn’t oncoming traffic; it was the Running of the Bulls.

Frantically, we searched for an intersection, crosswalk, or animal whisperer.  With none in sight, we resigned ourselves to spending the afternoon on the curb.  Suddenly, I remembered an obscure fact I had read in a guidebook: the key to crossing the street in Rome is eye contact.  I waited for a lull in the traffic, took a deep breath, stepped into the road, and with feigned confidence shot the Italian drivers an intense look that said, “Hey! I’m walking here.”  Magically, the vehicles slowed, kneeling graciously as we sauntered to the other side.

Fortunately, in New Zealand you don’t need wits to cross the street, just patience. You simply congregate on the corner and wait for the neon crossing guard to give you the green light.  It’s all very civilized, albeit boring.  The biggest risk is that it might be ten minutes before the light changes.  (Jaywalking was completely out of the question for me since I never could work out which direction the traffic was coming from.)  However, when pedestrians are finally given their turn, they have the opportunity to cross diagonally, thus getting two crossings in one.

The best part about being a pedestrian in New Zealand is the zebra crossings.  Alternating dark and light patches of pavement, and black and white poles indicate places where pedestrians always have the right of way.  Because the friendly, law-abiding Kiwis actually respect the road code, you can walk into the street while reading a book without fearing for your safety.

When I finally landed in Buenos Aires after a seventeen-hour delay, an eleven-hour flight, and traveling backwards in time, all I wanted to do was shower.  Before I could so, I had to walk a few blocks to the store to buy toiletries.  At the first intersection, I spotted the familiar black and white bands of paint, and mindlessly continued into the street. A gang of taxis fought each other for the chance to commit vehicular manslaughter.  I jumped back onto the sidewalk, barely avoiding an accident. Between the pharmacy and my friend’s apartment, I had three near-hits.  It seems I was a little unclear about what city I was in.

There are no pedestrian walkways in Buenos Aires; there is only target practice. Although Argentines are essentially displaced Italians, you can forget about the eye-contact strategy.  Staring at an Argentine motorist only helps him perfect his aim. Even where there are pedestrian lights, turning traffic has the self-appointed right of way. The best strategy for crossing the street in Buenos Aires is to run for your life.

Other than a few close calls at the beginning, the transition back into life in Buenos Aires has been relatively smooth.   The weirdest part is that it’s hardly weird at all. There are no suggestions of my time in New Zealand, save a few photos on Facebook, and many remnants of my former life in Argentina remain.  Most of my close friends are still around, I have an active social life, and I know where things are. It’s comfortable.  It’s home.

With everything so deceptively normal, I predicted that I would only need a few days to recover and establish a daily routine involving cooking, meditating, exercising, reading and writing.  After ten days, my biggest accomplishment was watching an entire season of America’s Next Top Model in one afternoon.  Apparently, you don’t get over an abroad experience overnight.

For more than a week, I did little more than sleep and sit on the couch in my pajamas. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel sent to the coast to convalesce.  Except that instead of taking a carriage to the seaside to breath in the salty air, I rode the elevator to the rooftop terrace to lie by the pool. At first, I was confused by my exhaustion and frustrated by my apathy.  After a difficult year abroad, I had been looking forward to going somewhere easy.  Now, I appreciate that reentry is harder than I expected, especially because I am so hard on myself.

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

Returning to a city where you’ve already lived is certainly less challenging than, say, starting anew in Lithuania.  But, it’s still a process and it definitely takes longer than a long weekend. Even if mentally it’s as though I never left Argentina, emotionally, I’m still tied to Auckland.  I may not need to meet new people, but I do have to catch up with old friends and make sure no damage was done to the foundation of our relationship in my absence.  There is the work of creating and adhering to a new schedule, acclimating to local sounds and smells, and seeking out the raw materials needed to facilitate my lifestyle and hobbies, both of which have changed considerably since I last lived here. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about a job or a place to live.

Rather than reprimand myself for being lazy (or blame Argentine drivers for my reluctance to leave the apartment), I lowered my ambitions.  I set smaller, attainable goals for myself, such as getting dressed before noon or reading in the Recoleta Cemetery instead of on the couch.  Slowly and naturally, life is regaining a sense of order and purpose, and I am becoming more active and motivated.  More importantly, given that I am only in Buenos Aires for six weeks, I have reassessed my priorities.  I didn’t come here to be responsible; I came here to spend time with friends and decompress before starting a new adventure. Staying out until 6am on a Wednesday may decrease my productivity, but I am supposed to be on sabbatical. With no one to answer to but myself, maybe, for a little while anyway, I can stop being so demanding and unreasonable.

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.

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.

Three Soybeans in a Pod: Matching Your Home Life to Your Lifestyle

Auckland, New Zealand

Venus Fly Trap

When is flat hunting not flat hunting?  When it’s an identity crisis.  Once I decided to move out of the hostel, I began looking for a room to rent. More than just a place to store my stuff, I wanted a home and a home life that would contribute to and facilitate my experience in Auckland.  Since I wasn’t unhappy at the backpacker’s per se, I had the luxury of time. I was prepared to be picky.

When selecting a flat, there are four key elements to consider: price, location, physical space, and flatmates, in no particular order.  I’ve lived in spectacular neighborhoods, but paid such a high premium for that privilege that I couldn’t afford to leave my bedroom.  I’ve lived in an apartment where I had my own bathroom and balcony, but so despised my flatmate I couldn’t stand to be there when she was home. In her presence, the house wilted like a flower deprived of sunlight and water.

Since I had already been living in Auckland for a few weeks, I held the advantage of having a sense of the personality and highlights of the various neighborhoods. I narrowed my search down to two: Parnell, the self-proclaimed “Creative Quarter” and Grey Lynn.  Both are young, affordable, and accessible, and boast an assortment of bars, cafes, shops, restaurants and parks.
Although they are equidistant from my office, Parnell and Grey Lynn are on opposite sides of the map. Parnell has a French market, Grey Lynn a Woolworths.   Parnell is trendy, Grey Lynn bohemian.  Parnell has hipsters, Grey Lynn feral hippies.  Parnell has a website, Grey Lynn does not. I could see myself living happily in either.

Through Trademe, I found candidates in both neighborhoods.  The house in Grey Lynn was cozy; and by cozy, I mean small.  However, it possessed that lovely broken in feeling of your favorite pair of jeans.  The flat occupied the back half of a split house, and was tidy, quiet, and warm, decorated in deep reds, dark woods, and creamy whites. The front door opened onto a luscious garden with fruit trees, fresh herbs, and wild flowers.  The house may have been crowded, but thanks to an abundance of windows, it was neither dark nor stuffy.

On the other hand, the house in Parnell was multi-storied, with a huge garage-cum-man-cave in the basement, a spacious common room with a large, flat-screen TV, an ample kitchen, and two full-baths.  The available bedroom was no bigger than the one in the Grey Lynn flat, but it came furnished.   The price was slightly higher, but still safely within my budget.  So far, cat’s game.

The final round was between the flatmates.  The Grey Lynn flat was shared by two thirty-something Kiwis, Jane and Alex. Jane was a buyer for a well-known New Zealand mid-range clothing line.  This struck me as odd, as Jane was dressed from top to bottom in black, including her hair, which was dyed black, and the clips in her hair.  Alex, who reminded me vaguely of a tattooed Buddy Holly, worked the overnight shift at an airline.  As Jane was rushing off to meet friends for dinner, Alex emerged from his room to prepare himself breakfast.   “This is Alex,” said Jane, “he’s somewhat of a vampire.”  “A corporate vampire,” clarified Alex.  A Goth and a vampire: I worried the brightness of my wardrobe might turn them to dust.

Yet for as apparently different as we were, we shared a great deal in common.  We were all vegetarians, with an interest in healthy living and spirituality. Jane and I discovered that we had been in the same yoga class the night before. After she left, Alex and I became engrossed in an intense conversation about religion and philosophy.  Even if we don’t live together, I thought, I hope we can be friends.

In the Parnell flat were one American and two Kiwis, who were all, well, normal: just your average beer loving, meat-eating, pub-crawling, social twenty-something young professionals.  There was nothing offensive or special about them, except that the girl had the most obnoxious laugh I had ever heard.  Even though I didn’t particularly identify with them, they were comfortingly mainstream and familiar.

The two flats were so unalike that on a Venn diagram of their interests, you would need a magnifying glass to see the overlapping part.  In high school, the Parnell flat would have mocked the Grey Lynn flat, and the Grey Lynn flat would have judged the Parnell flat.  I felt like the new girl in school trying to decide where to sit at lunch. I thought about a poster I bought as a kid that said, “What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular.”  More importantly, I thought about what having that poster said about me as a person.  With that in mind, I made my decision: I wanted the flat in Parnell.

I pictured myself in Parnell on the weekends, perusing art galleries and stationery stores, and taking my MacBook to the Chocolate Boutique Café, where I would write witty blog entries while sipping frothy cappuccinos served by surly waiters.  My flatmates and I would stumble home together after a night out on the piss, and join each other for brunch the following morning. Now I imagine myself there, feeling relatively deprived, out of place, and incurably hung over.  I am just not that girl. Fortunately, the cool kids had the good sense to send me where I belong.  They gave the room to someone else, and I moved into the flat in Grey Lynn.

Perhaps I had been hasty in leaving the hostel.  My first paycheck went to three-week’s bond and two-week’s rent; I couldn’t afford a bed, bedding, or bedroom furniture.  I borrowed an air mattress, which I inflated nightly as if it were a pair of Reebok Pumps.  I didn’t sleep for weeks.  Eventually, I was able to buy a bed and a couple of sets of plastic drawers, and Jane gave me her old desk.  By some miracle, all of my worldly possessions fit into my tiny room.  Better still, I fit perfectly into the flat.

Just as you should buy clothes suited to the life you have, you should choose a flat suited to the lifestyle you lead.  One of the reasons I wanted to live with locals was to benefit from their insider knowledge.  The question was, knowledge of what?  Thanks to Jane and Alex, I know where to find the best vegetarian restaurants, organic markets, and bulk food shops.  We exchange books, ideas, recipes, and discuss our ambitions for the future. For the first time, I feel encouraged and enabled in my choices.

The other day, we had a flat meeting to discuss what to do about the plague of flies that has descended upon our house.  This is the environmentalist’s dilemma: chemical pesticide or carnivorous plant?  There is now a Venus Fly Trap on our kitchen window sill. I might wish that the flat weren’t so cramped, damp, or moldy, but I am so glad the other one turned me away.
Recently, I faced a similar conflict when trying to decide what to do for New Year’s Eve.  At first, I agreed to volunteer with two friends at Rhythm and Vines (a three-day music festival on a vineyard in Gisborne).  No sooner had we received confirmation from the volunteer coordinator than the emails began to fly.  “I can’t believe how much they are charging for camping!!!” “Check out this other festival!!! “Let’s just go to the beach?!?” Suddenly, I remembered how much I hate New Year’s Eve, crowds, electronic music, and exclamation marks.

In the diversion created by my friends, I snuck off and made alternative plans.  I signed up for a ten-day silent meditation retreat that I’d been interested in attending for over a year.  While my friends will be working in the VIP tent, I’ll be learning to practice Vipassana.  When I told my mother, she rolled her eyes.  When I told my coworkers, they averted their eyes.  When I told my flatmates, they didn’t bat an eye – they’ve both completed the same course.


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