We are Pilgrims

A friend from Oman calls on Facebook messenger to chat with Dave. He lives in Spain now, back in his flat in his homeland, after growing tired of the college we worked at and the Middle East in general. I love the fact that technology allows for face-to-face time. So immediate, and in some ways, authentic. We get to see each other as we are right now; me without makeup, he winding down his day, getting ready for a typical European late dinner (10pm!). Sharing the ordinary is simply extraordinary.

We get a tour of his flat, full of mementos of the lands he has traveled. One wall, decorated with masks from across Asia, serves as his background while we Skype. A continual reminder of lands and cultures he has experienced. I am making an effort these days to place more artifacts of my times across the globe – to turn my home into a better reflection of who I am and where I’ve been. Before I left, my home was pretty depersonalized; possibly because I shared it with someone who was more private. Possibly because, in an attempt to create a true shared space that represented both of us, the compromise resulted in a reflection of neither and no one. But now, four continents worth of memories are in my living room (for some reason, I didn’t grab anything from Australia); states across the US are represented as well. Textiles, artwork, and pottery: even a twenty-year-old pack of cigarettes and two bowling pins are all displayed to recall the past, enjoy today, and anticipate future journeys.

Our friend from Spain reflects on what’s next for him. “After a year, it will be time to move on. Things just get old after a while. I like different. We are pilgrims, where it is always time to try something new. To see new things. One year is a good time to rest, then something else. Life is interesting.”

I write this while sipping tea out of a mug depicting Snoopy exploring Canada; I bought it in Korea. While I know that sitting in the present is something that benefits me, I also know that I don’t want to become so wrapped up in what’s in front of me that I lose future goals. Goals of continued exploration, learning, and experiencing different.

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My Korean mug

Six month review

It’s been a little over six months since I’ve returned to American soil, yet it seems like forever ago. I find myself feeling as though I never left the US – as though all I learned from being away has simply vanished into a different reality. Was it only a year ago that I went out into the desert and rode a camel? Went snorkeling in an amazing sea? Seemed to have all the time in the world to contemplate both everything and nothing? That person who enjoyed those things doesn’t seem to exist anymore, yet here I am in (somewhat) the same body that I occupied there and then.

When I first got back, I wrote about what I had taken away from my travels in terms of shifting priorities and focus. Since I’m due for a six-month review in my job, I figured I would do one on these aspects of my life (original goal in italics):

  • More minimal living – I want less space and fewer possessions, especially when it comes to my wardrobe.
    I’ll give myself a passing grade here, but barely. I have enjoyed buying more than a few items since I’ve returned, but part of that is due to, ahem, a slightly “fluffier” body thanks to a bit of overindulgence of Mexican food and beer upon my return. I really missed a good ale and some tacos. I also find that I enjoy dresses and skirts more than slacks now, so I am letting my wardrobe shift in that direction. I’m late to the game, but am discovering the wonders of tights and leggings (this means they will be out of fashion in 3…2…1….).
  • Appreciation of food for its variety and simplicity.
    Yup. Doing this and happy about it. Cooking more vegetables at home and spending more time with friends in the kitchen. When I first got back there was too much dining out (see above), but I am enjoying a wide variety of foods and am still enjoying the not-too-fancy. And soon it will be roasted vegetable season! Hooray!
  • Friendship and the need to be present with those I love.
    I’ve seen most of my friends since I’ve been back with a few notable exceptions. I sense a couple of Happy Hours in my future, and I am hoping to revive a version of the Toddy Tour now that the weather is colder; this is where a group of women get together once a week at a different bar to sample the Hot Toddies across Portland. Yum! My brother and sister-in-law were just in town to help celebrate my birthday (of course there was karaoke). Many weekends are spent on my block, hanging out with neighbors who are also my dear friends. Going to their plays, cooking food, lazing about while enjoying Sunday morning bubbly. I’m also trying to see one of my closest friends as much as possible; she’s sick and every moment of being with her is precious. Texts about the mundane are enjoyable, wonderful moments. It would be nice if I thought of all my interactions that way.

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    Me and my amazing sister-in-law sipping tropical drinks at a karaoke bar. Magic!

  • The awareness that there is little I can control. Letting go is something I will continue to struggle with and I look forward to the challenge.
    Not sure how much I’ve been challenged here (knock on wood), but I think I’m getting better. My basement flooded this weekend and I didn’t have a complete meltdown. I consider that a victory!
  • Taking day trips/weekend getaways. Even one night somewhere else does so much to recharge my mind and soul.
    My knee-jerk reaction to this was that I haven’t been getting away much. Not sure what the ideal bar would be for me, but when I review what I’ve done since I’ve been back, I think I’ve been doing OK actually. I spent some very fun weekends with my father at the stock car races this summer, which then had me staying at my parents’ house overnight (they live about an hour away). While not exactly the stereotypical “getaway weekend,” going down there does recharge me. Also, I’ve been up to Seattle a couple of times to visit a friend and attend intellectual events (a talk, conference) – while Portland has tons of talks, for some reason I haven’t really gone to many. I don’t think about them here; I bet it’s a neat way to explore the city in a different light. I’ve gone to Sacramento to visit Dave and ride around in his Singer – ah, sun. Hmmm, why does it feel like I’m in Portland all the time?

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    The most enjoyable deathtrap ever.

  • Meditation practice. Haven’t revisited this yet, but planning on it! Really. Someone hold me accountable! Or perhaps it will naturally happen when I am ready.
    Fail in this department. Who’s the ass-kicker who will help me with this? I find it funny that I want someone to kick my butt about meditating more. Seems wonderfully inappropriate and paradoxical.
  • Tea breaks. Wherever I went, people actually stopped for tea. “To go” was rare. I want to take the time to sit and enjoy.
    So-so here. I sip tea at my desk constantly, and enjoy using the mug that I co-opted from the college (Lipton, the sign of good taste). When I work from home, I have morning tea while I answer emails. There I use a mug with Snoopy on it that says “Canada.” I bought it at Incheon airport in South Korea. But I am not actually taking breaks while I have tea. Still, the tea itself makes my work more relaxing. While I think it’s doing what I need it to do, I still could benefit from the occasional break from my desk.

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    Sipping tea from my liberated Omani mug.

  • Writing. Though no longer an expat, I hope to continue to write about things I did while overseas, and things I experience here as a result. If there’s anything you are interested in learning about, I welcome questions and inspiration.
    Thanks to NaBloPoMo (National Blog Post Month), I am planning on stepping up my game. Writing makes me feel better. Sharing it even more so. As I said six months ago, please send me your questions/ideas for writing! I have a full month to go of daily writing. It will be interesting to see what I end up posting.

Huh. Not too shabby if I do say so myself. I’ve maintained a lot more of these shifts than I feel on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this is something I can meditate on in the future.

 

 

Taking chances here and there

When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a truck driver. Out on the open road like BJ and the Bear, without a care in the world except my haul. Then, my career plans changed – I wanted to be a van painter, traveling around the US turning people’s vehicles into pure magic through scenes depicting wolves, cougars, stallions, and other majestic creatures. I remember seeing a magazine article that featured someone who actually lived in their van (yes, there were shag carpets and lots of colors inside) and I thought that was the best way to live (apparently I wasn’t too concerned about showering and using the toilet back then). Kudos to my parents who just smiled and nodded as I planned my future – if they ever panicked on the inside, they didn’t show it, nor did they shut down my dreams.

For whatever reason, I really didn’t see these two wishes as a part of me that remains – until I read a blog post from a friend who is currently traveling a good chunk of the world on a motorcycle. She opened her story with “As a kid I wanted to be a truck driver so that I could be always on the road…” And that was it. My early life plans, although different, were about wanting to live freely, not being tied to a particular place. Wanting to experience new places, people, moments. I can even throw in my 4th-grade goal of being an archaeologist into the mix (thank you King Tut exhibit) – a job with travel as a primary focus. Until today, I honestly saw all these ideas as simply trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and just figured those jobs were the coolest I could come up with at the time (read more on my thoughts on the career decisions and paths of youth, here). Turns out, truck driver, van painter, and archaeologist have more in common than I realized. And even though I am trying to settle back into the US, the open road keeps calling (photo credit).

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This could have been me.

A recent blog post from the Wall Street Journal helps me in my struggle to understand what draws me away: Away from security and loved ones. Away from establishing myself. Away from, what seems to be on some level, common sense. Here’s a quote from that blog explaining why expats are so drawn to their lives away from “home:” “Across all walks of expat life, many foreigners are united in their hesitation to “go back,” a description that often means more than just going home and implies returning to a previous state.”

Yes! That’s a huge part of it for me. There are many ways in which I’ve changed after traveling for two years. I like those changes. I don’t want to go back to the way I was before I left. But I feel myself slipping into that familiar role, into those same reactions to things I worked hard to shed. It’s all well and good to come back to my favorite cocktail at my favorite bar, or an Al Pastor taco – but coming back to certain aspects of my “previous state” is NOT something to savor. I accept the things that I did when I did them, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do them again. Yet, in some ways, that is exactly what I am doing. And I’m not sure what to do about it beyond being mindful, noticing, and trying to practice self-compassion.

Another point in this WSJ post is about how living as an expat allows more opportunities to take chances, fail, try something else, and learn from the experience. The environment of another country can be so different that somehow it can “soften fears of failure. Foreigners are sometimes granted unspoken permission to try things that might be discouraged in their home countries. The combination can lead expats to take more risks…the expat life always offers another chance to make it all different…you can make amends with the mistakes you’ve done or miscalculations and start anew.”

By no means did I live without fear when I was overseas; there were experiences I passed up because I was nervous. I didn’t eat ALL the foods (sorry boiled chicken feet, but I couldn’t get passed your clammy texture and doughy beige color), and I didn’t push hard to have a camping experience while overseas (then again, I barely camp in the US). And I found it difficult to travel alone, so I know there were things I didn’t do in New Zealand and Australia that I could have done had I been a little more brave. But there were a lot of things that I DID do that I wouldn’t have done before: I went skydiving. I ventured into – and used – toilets too scary to recount here. I figured out how to do day-to-day stuff that before I would be too nervous to try because I might have screwed it up. I tried anyway. And sometimes I did screw up. But, as the quote above implies, that’s OK to do. In fact, in many ways it’s sort of encouraged. Try, screw up, learn, rinse, repeat.

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Silly tiles distracted me from the icky toilet in Cheonan, Korea.

In theory and in practice, I could take that mindset and apply it in the US. But somehow it’s more difficult. I can’t explain why yet. Yet there are things I want to do and try, but for whatever reason I can’t. It seems weird to say I need the safety of living in a strange place to have the courage to take chances. Maybe it’s because every day there are so many little challenges when you live abroad – a trip to the grocery store is an adventure. Trying to get a key made becomes a story in and of itself. Taking these little chances as part of daily living builds up confidence to take bigger ones.

Now I am in back familiar territory, looking for the unknown in the everyday. The challenge here may just be the search for challenge. Or maybe I can take up van painting after all.

In search of my people

In some ways I’m having a hard time adjusting to back to Portland (have I said this before? It feels like I have, which means it was, and still is, true). It’s cold here, and today is one of those stereotypical/prototypical Pacific Northwest days where it’s grey but not quite rainy. Mother Nature is misting down upon us like spray from a tongue raspberry – mocking me for leaving the warmth of the sun behind. Dave and the others say it’s unbearably hot in Rustaq now – 30 degrees warmer than here. In the flat we once shared with the aircon running. Outside, their centigrade temperature of blazing heat almost matches the Fahrenheit number here in Oregon. But I don’t care; I would rather be there. I haven’t felt warm all day. At least if I’m going to feel cold, I should be able to enjoy the hockey playoffs. No point in being cold without hockey.

Even though I’m back in North America, I live in a city that could not care less about the NHL*. A sad mismatch in my relationship with the city I call home. In fact, I almost didn’t move here because of its lack of hockey culture, considering Phoenix a better option with its sun and Coyotes. Yet, when the time came, I pointed my loaded-down car north instead of south as I drove out of the Bay Area, California – home of the San Jose Sharks.

I caught a glimpse of the good life in the three-plus months I lived in Toronto. There, after dinner with family, I would walk down to the local bar to watch the rest of the game. The first period was watched in the condo, and during first intermission I would hurry down the street to my choice of three bars showing the game. If I walked during the middle of a period, I could tell when there was a change in score based on the cheers or groans coming from the apartments above. Everyone in the whole city was watching. Inside, I would find a spot at the bar, or accept standing room only. Almost all of the screens would be on the game (except for the occasional lone one in the corner that would be tuned into curling, or perhaps the World Series). This is what home feels like, even though I dare to admit I was usually rooting for whoever was playing the Leafs.

Here, where the closest NHL team is hundreds of miles away and not even from this country, basketball dominates sports bar screens – despite the fact that the Trail Blazers were knocked out of the first round. Only four teams left in hockey, and no one cares. I found one bar that shows games – sometimes with sound! – while another one treats it the way Canada treated the World Series, hiding it in the corner, embarrassed to admit it exists. The rest don’t even do that.

I did find a bar dedicated to hockey, but it’s in Seattle. The Angry Beaver is 100% hockey – no NBA playoffs or even a lone curling match. Just Molson on tap, poutine, and ice on the screens. I wish there was a bar like this in Portland, especially now that the finals are about to begin. While I don’t really care about either team playing for the Cup this year, I am going to make an effort to go down to the one bar there and pray for sound. I’m sure there will be others like me, who prefer a rink to a court any and every time. Perhaps there will be a small community that comes out of the woodwork. We shall find each other, cheering or groaning at a score change. Just like everyone in Canada – only our beers will taste better.

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Believe it or not, this is not Toronto. Unfortunately, it’s not Portland either. Welcome to the Angry Beaver in Seattle.

 

*Yes, I know Portland has the Winterhawks and they are very good, losing in the finals this season to the Kelowna Rockets. Not interested. I have been to a couple of games and I prefer a higher level of play when I watch hockey. Sorry.

The culture of sport

I first tried to understand cricket in the early 90s, after graduating from college. I was one of the managers of the intramural department at my alma mater, and a bunch of us who worked there decided to figure out how cricket worked. The World Cup was broadcast on ESPN2 at some ungodly hour when all other sports were off the air, so it gained our attention. Beers in hand, we would gather round a small screen in a dorm room (it took me a while to break free from my ties there) and watch. And wonder. We were all sports fans and also referees, familiar with the most obscure rules of soccer, flag football, basketball, and even baseball – cricket’s alleged relative – yet still we could not figure out what the hell was going on. It didn’t stop us from watching though. Every night, we would sit in front of the television for a few hours and excitedly share some theory as to why a player did or didn’t run, or hit the ball, or do something. We never figured out when it was another batter’s or the other team’s turn. Instead, we would watch every night until it was time to sleep. I don’t remember rooting or following specific teams. I don’t remember any specific matchups. That time was about getting together and trying to understand the game. We were determined, but unsuccessful.

Over twenty years later (ACK!), and I am touring New Zealand’s South Island. My time there was particularly lonely, only partially by design. I went there to reflect, but learned that there is only so long I can do that; I am simply not meant to travel alone. By the time I hit Dunedin, I was in need of company and superficial thought. Not knowing a soul, I did what I tend to do when alone on the road; I found a local bar and wandered in. When possible, I try to find a sports bar, because it seems acceptable to grab a beer and watch the game on one’s own. For some reason it seems a lot less pathetic than watching a sitcom rerun by yourself while drinking in a public place.

The sport of choice that night was cricket – The Black Caps were hosting Team India (the Men in Blue) and it was apparent that this was a big matchup. Perfect. I ordered a Kilkenny poured just right and settled in among the many glued to the screen. My understanding of the game had not miraculously improved through maturity, so I was just as lost as I had been in that dorm room. This time, however, I was in a room full of people who had the answers. During breaks I started to ask about the basic rules. My gender and accent pretty much pegged me as a novice and several men seemed to take not just joy, but pride in explaining what the hell was going on. I learned that runs happen when the two players made it from one wicket to the other. Over the barrier meant six runs; hitting it meant four. I knew that one team batted completely before the next team got their turn. I walked back to my hotel room buzzed and happy at watching a sport among sports fans. The game had ended in a tie, which seemed to please the crowd.

About a year later Oman becomes my next destination that includes cricket lessons. My new friends include a Kiwi and a Pakistani, and it’s another World Cup year, so cricket is in the air. I enthusiastically agree to watch matches with them whenever I can, which usually requires getting up at some horribly early hour and stumbling over to the Pakistani’s flat since he was the one who shelled out for a large-screen TV and paid the streaming fee for all the games. We set up camping chairs in his common room to accommodate the six of us (an Italian and two additional Americans make up the complete crew). Our host lessens the pain of the hour by making amazing omelets seasoned with masala and ginger, served with Nescafé’. Dave brings his mosquito racket, dubbed the Mosquito Killing Machine (or MKM-48), as the little bug bastards have a way of inviting themselves as well. On teaching days we stay as long as we can until it’s time for our first classes. On weekends, Dave and I bring bloody Mary fixings and we stay the full 6-8 hours of the match; the Kiwi brings beer. There are no ties in this tournament.

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Pakistani omelet and the Black Caps

 

I ask tons of questions in the beginning as I watch the matches. We witness India, South Africa, and West Indies fall to Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand. Then the Black Caps take out Pakistan and Oceania comprises the final; the fact that they are co-hosting this tournament adds to the drama. While watching the games I learn the strategies; I can differentiate between good and bad pitches; I begin to understand terms like angler, boundary, Yorker, bail, and over. I can even string the terms together, “He hit a Yorker over the boundary to end the over,” and actually know what I’m talking about. Australia ends up winning the Cup, much to the dismay of my Kiwi friend and the rest of us who cheered the Black Caps on unanimously, especially once Pakistan lost in the semis. Given that both teams lost to Oz during the tournament, I see Australia as the eleven to root against forever.

I am a sports fan. This part of me has provided the opportunity to connect with people in and from different places, and has introduced me to cultural aspects of a place that I wouldn’t have normally witnessed. Very little brings a group of people together the way a sporting event does. The beer helps, too.