Thursday, August 26, 2010

(My) White World Problems

When knee-deep in the bush, we are grateful for 'white world problems'. In Northern Uganda, deciding which of two shirts to wear to one of three food establishment choices is a lovely diversion from other nighttime thoughts, sights and sounds. In Colombia, worrying about whether to go to flamenco night or salsa night is better than worrying about whether someone will tail you there. In the white world, 'white world problems' make us want to go straight back to the bush.

There are some things I have found out you do not do. Looking for a bathing suit in Greece on the last day of the sales is one of them. They have all hopped off the hangers and onto the patriots who are pumping cash into the recession tourist economy. Now, one would think that if you are Greece, and the sun paints tourists a lovely lobster shade just for walking up the Acropolis in mid-November, you would still sell bikinis, not coats, in mid-August. But again, there are some things that, as Greece, you do not do.

Another one: you do not dare forget about the economic crisis. You try to buy a lighter? "No, ask for a free one at the bar in the corner. There is an economic crisis, haven't you heard?" You even so much as look at something advertised in a magazine? "There is a recession, honey." A subsection of the Greek universe believes that while I was digging out mud in Guatemala, I simply did not hear that the economy collapsed. Worry not, family. Every German with whom I ever crossed paths this year reminded me that his country is bailing out my homeland- 'hehe' - usually followed by a joke about how I should  be working there now - 'hehe' again. Germans. Famous for their senses of humor.

But I digress. Because "there is a recession, honey", we cannot possibly entertain paying for metered parking closer to the shops in the 40-degree weather. Celsius. Recession-hit people walk. They sweat off debt.

Then there are those habits that are recession-proof. One of them is the Greek relative exposing your half-clothed but fully mortified self to the unsuspecting shopping public because she wanted to see how those pants fit you, sweetie. Stand in a dressing room in Greece and you will hear almost an almost synchronized "Mu-uum! Get out of heeere!", with a second wave of "Aunt Elenaaaa, I'm not dressed yeeet."

Apparently, there is now another voice to the chorus. It is that of the shopping assistant who deems it acceptable to inform you that your hips are too large for the country. I was told throughout college in the United States that people imagine Greek women as 'curvaceous,' which I did not even know was a word at the time. False. Young Greek women are those for whom jeggings were made. [And what are jeggings, you may ask? Jeans that fit like leggings. Because skinny jeans were not skinny enough.]

These hips are not made for jeggings. They are also not made for lycra string bikini bottoms that barely cover 1/4 of my rear. And if bikini tops would fit a prepubescent girl, I do not want to even see their leopard prints coming towards me. It would also be nice to have a minute to wipe up the sweat that is pooling without hearing other women discuss how I am 'unnaturally-made' for a person of this land.

The fact that I am a physical misfit for my country at the end of summer (and summer sales) is not the driving point for tonight's heat wave of frustration. My disappointment is primarily fueled by the lack of female courtesy I experienced today. I spent a year among communities of strangers. My work meant that many hours were often spent among communities of women. What impressed me the most about the groups as collectives was the women's unyielding commitment to looking out for each other. The badmouthing was kept to a minimum, and so was the gratuitous picking on other women's flaws. I know that women picking on other women is not particular to Greece, the same way that kindness and solidarity are not particular to Colombia. There are fiercely loyal women walking this land and, as the use of a restaurant bathroom in Bogota will demonstrate, there are some catty ladies out there in Colombia too. But there is a reason Madeline Albright said that "there is a special place in hell for women who do not help out other women." If I practiced no professional conflict management this week, I at least learned this: Be kind to other women's hips, loved ones, and suggestions.

Today I experienced the pinnacle of white world problems in my quest to finally dip my whole body into the Mediterranean for the first time since Alexandria, Egypt. White world problems are refreshingly frustrating - if for no other reason, they highlight a dire need for something else, something weighty, with which to occupy our minds...or for some sea breeze and beach sunrises with which to fully clear them.

We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real? -Ray Bradbury

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Up in the Air

There is a scene in Up in the Air in which George Clooney's character identifies the skies as his habitat and airports as his home. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros define home as "wherever I am with you." As I spend 38 hours in 5 different airports and 3 different continents on my own journey to a home of sorts, I share my observations on departing, arriving, airport coffees and altitude-induced cankles.

Hour 1: Wake up to a cloud of fog so dense that I cannot see my own luggage at the back of the pick-up truck...from the passenger seat. In Thessaloniki, Greece, fog means airport closures, protests and virtually a national holiday. In northern Kentucky, it only means a 15-minute flight delay (and that the Thessaloniki-born traveler gets mocked for the inferred primitiveness of her home country). The next forty-five minutes are spent praying that we do not hit a deer, squirrel, or tractor en route to the airport and that the books at the top layer of said luggage survive said blanket of fog without their pages turning into a humidity-induced accordion.

Hour 2: Chicago O'Hare calls this area the Kiss'n'Fly. Athens International goes for the more formal "The Farewell Lounge." In Kentucky, it is a nameless curb. If I had a dollar for all the curbs at which I have kissed and cried, for every curbside check-in porter who has seen me clutching hands and reiterating love, I could actually afford to buy a ticket for a seat that does not neighbor with the bathroom, reclines, and is not part of an aircraft that departs at hours only suitable for coyotes and insomniacs. Wipe tears, lift bags, commence pangs of missing and nostalgia.

Hour 5: I wake up as the plane is taxiing at La Guardia, a family is making plans to visit the Statue of Liberty, everyone around me is checking an iPhone (also apparently known as an instrument with which to flirt while airborne, per a dear fellow traveler), and when I open the overhead bin "using caution because objects may have shifted during the flight", I get hit with an origami flower that says "make the world a better place" on its stem, edged into my carry-on by a loved one's little sister.

Hour 5.5: I await the LaGuardia-JFK shuttle next to a man who looks like Kofi Annan. I am pretty confident that a retired United Nations Secretary-General does not fly Delta Connection or attempt to close deals sounding an awful lot like the Mafia while smoking profusely outside Domestic Arrivals, but I continue to stare regardless.

Hour 6ish: Stieg Larsson has thrown up all over JFK. [Not literally, though while we are on the subject, I am 90% confident that my port of wireless connectivity of choice is conveniently located right next to a little boy with a case of the runs.] Everyone around me, feces-perfumed little boy notwithstanding, is reading the orange and green books on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the Leopard Earring or something -- those books which, much like Justin Bieber and the show ' The Jersey Shore', became popular while I was blissfully tucked away in communities of conflict without's daily round-up blaring at me from the back of a NYC taxi.

Hour 7: I have a front row seat to the lounge of tears. Lovers reach over the TSA rope before the passport and boarding pass cross-check to kiss, grandparents remind the youngsters to wear a sweater on the plane because it's chilly and mothers bug college-bound students to not eat pizza past security. There is a sense of both interruption and possibility about the security line. Behind it lies the world everyone is leaving behind - regardless of whether they are propelled forward by anticipation, dread, or routine. Past it lies the world of expectations: a backpacking trip around the world, a weekly business trip, a return home, or the first time leaving it. The opening sequence of Love Actually, filming actual reunions of loved ones at airports, captured the joy of arrivals halls. At the departure line, the joy of the road is mixed with a latent sadness at what and whom we leave behind. In the face of every goodbye at JFK, I see a loved one I too have left behind.

Hour 9: Eat Everything You Cannot Find in Greece Extravaganza.

My dinner: Fried rice, bubble tea, a slice of carrot cake. And I am not even hungry. I am either hit by some sort of Perpetual Immigrant anxiety at leaving and not experiencing America again for a while, or by a deeply American need to eat it all because it's on sale.

Hour 13: Finally aboard the transatlantic flight. Armed with an eye mask and determined to make sleep my crusade, I put away my book, close the window blinds and start to count sheep.

Hour 13 and 15 minutes: Up to 1,000 sheep and no sleep to be seen.

Hour 27: Plane touches down, knees are unfolded from the fetal position, and feet push up against the boundaries of my shoes. My ankles are the size of an elephant's.

Hour 28: At the Istanbul airport, having cracked into a cafe wireless network whose password was - predictably - 'Istanbul'. Ramadan is observed here and it is the time before the prayer that ends the day's fast. There is a deeply festive sense lingering at the airport. Next to an Asian girl brushing her teeth and me attempting to splash some water on my tired face, there is a woman seeking to perform her ablutions. Call to prayer sounds from the mosques inside the airport, dates and other fruit are handed to those ending their fast, and the Duty Free shopping public and tan tourists returning from vacation mix with those steeped in their faith. Girls in barely-there shorts and tank tops zoom past women in hijabs, reminding me of Turkey's unique and complex place at the crossroads of faith, secularism and diversity.  I remember the Egypt days of last year, with the iftar dinners and the Friday prayers. A year ago, I could not bear my shoulders to the public in the way I am now - but a year ago, I felt alive and jarred and prodded to think and reflect. I watch a flight to Cairo board, and I wish I were on it.

Hour 36: I have yet to have a cup of coffee. Either Colombia taught me poorly, or I am taking the 'flying healthily' mantras to heart. Minus the Eating Extravaganza of, oh, fifteen or so hours ago.

Hour 38: Greek taxi-drivers. They love me. It is very much a mutual appreciation. Conversations with them reliably cycle through the following milestones:
"This country is going to hell." "Coming from vacation? What do you mean 'conflict zones'? What do Mum and Dad say about that?" "Mind if I smoke, sweetheart? Would you like one? Good. Don't smoke. It kills." "My son/nephew/third grandchild five times removed also studied History/Literature/something vaguely related to what you studied. Not in America though. Here. We do not want them to leave home." "This country is going to hell, have I mentioned?" 
It is past midnight when I enter this taxi, having arrived into an almost empty arrivals hall and a closed Metro at Athens International. We talk about what the driver considers the inevitability of war and how nobody deserves to witness the cruelty of conflict. My brother spots the decelerating vehicle from the balcony, grunts as he carries luggage up the stairs, we both nearly trip over the dog shaking her butt with joy, and I collapse into bed.

The road is delightfully infectious in the thoughts it triggers. Even when the possibility of such joy is only experienced through airport newsstands, gift shops with stuffed pandas and Manicure Express lounges, it becomes hard to forget what set us on the road in the first place. Exhausted and with an aching back, I find myself unable to sleep.

The sun rises over Athens, 42 hours after my journey began. I vow to get on the road again, as soon as possible.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Kentucky Vignettes

It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet,
has to be ironed, the sea in its whiteness;
and the hands keep on moving [...]
-In Praise of Ironing - Pablo Neruda

Scene I

We are lying on the upwardly-inclined driveway, blood rushing to our heads. I try not to think about the mosquitoes or the red velvet ant I squashed earlier. At the end of The Year of Bites, it cannot be a Kentucky driveway that makes me preemptively itch and scratch. The concrete is hot. The whole setup looks like that scene from The Notebook in which Ryan Gosling makes Rachel McAdams slow down her ways by lying down in the middle of a Seabrook street in the middle of the night. Except where Rachel McAdams wore a polka-dotted frock that only sweethearts would wear, I looked like a thug in an oversized hooded sweatshirt and yoga pants, as my own escort forewent the 1940's street waltzing in favor of a nap. And where the two movie characters nearly got run over by a Cadillac, I was on the look-out for tractors.

We did not lie on the street just so I can contract my next dirt-carried disease of the year. This is the week of the Perseids Meteor Shower and it is one of the most opportune years for its observation in the Northern Hemisphere. I have never seen a meteor shower, but have always wanted to. Eyes pinned to the sky, hands pinned to the pavement, hood pinned to the ears to prevent the mosquito invasion, we were waiting for our moment.

The Kentucky sky on a foggy, muggy day is no Western Sahara star-studded wonder, but even if all the stars stay where they are supposed to, it is still an impressive sight. My sleepy companion was determined to see shooting stars for us both. Fond of razing expectations to the ground, I keep reassuring him that the sky is beautiful as is, that the clouds are no bother, that the meteor shower will still go on for a week, that the fog may clear tomorrow or the day after that.

I heard rustling behind us. "Are there bears in rural Kentucky?" I tilted my head back. There were still no shooting stars, but on that night, I made eye contact with a goat.

Scene II 

A bucket of Budweiser set us back 8 dollars. When a beer is advertised based on its "superior drinkability," you know it will not be delicious or any kind of special. There are six women in the entire establishment and two of them are under 12 years old. The men are sporting baseball and football jerseys, cheering on one Cincinnati team or another. What brought the Addams Family portrait to Mokka Bar on a Wednesday night? E's 9-year-old sister is entering a KidsBop competition and needs a recording of her singing abilities. Karaoke night, here we come.

A 14-year-old sibling is setting up the school's professional video camera on a tripod like a proud father, making the site of bucketed Budweisers feel like Radio City Music Hall. An older man is crooning "Can't stop loving you." This man will later wink at me - never mind that he is at least 40 years my senior and someone closer to my age has his arm around me. This is Kentucky. One beer follows another, as the 12-year-old sister utters her desire to see me drunk. "We will carry you home!", she says, sounding more like a doe-eyed college freshman than a girl who spent her afternoon watching Hannah Montana on DVR.

It is the 9-year-old sibling's turn at the microphone. She walks up with a confidence that dwarfs women my age. Her curls are bouncing, her matching bead earrings and necklace are jingling, the first few notes of a Kelly Clarkson song that was the soundtrack to my first Harvard-Yale football game booms from the karaoke machine and she belts out "I'm so moving on, yeah, yeah" as though she fully understands break-ups, heartbreak, and the bitter resolve of a female leaving behind the man who temporarily wrecked her.

When she is done, she and her sister try to get me to sing The Hanukkah Song with them, while their brother chuckles at the thought of my rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. "Do you even know the words?" Both would be incongruous choices for me to sing; I was raised with The Little Drummer Boy and the 158 verses of the Greek national anthem. Neither of those fits in with the curls, ice buckets, Miley Cyrus, Elvis Costello, Cincinatti Reds and hand sanitizer of a Kentucky bar in mid-August.

Scene III

A different bar. The kind of bar in which waiters wear white collared shirts and thin black ties. "There is no middle bar in Kentucky," I am told. "There is borderline seedy bar with a jukebox and Coors Light and then there is this." This being hotel/restaurant/mall bar with tablecloths and chilled white wine. Or, during another recession summer, the same establishment but with $2.95 steak bruschetta and shrimp cocktails.

I ask the two men next to us to borrow their appetizer menu in my too formal voice. They launch themselves into a playful spiel of "well, John, do you think this young lady can borrow our menu?" "well, that should be ok, shouldn't it?" that immediately highlights how estranging my tone must have been. We borrow the menu and soon realize that the two men will be our bar stool dinner companions for the evening. My own dinner companion volunteers that I am not American, perhaps to explain the accent I am told I have these days or to offer a veiled apology for my formality. I am fairly convinced that the men think I am an illegal immigrant. After all, I do not see many Greek tourists choosing rural Kentucky for their recession vacation. In addition to my immigration status, we establish that one of the men has not had a sober day in six years and one of his daughters is roughly my age. She went to school in Boston - "oh, you did too? Harvard? Huh! Really! I was just joking, but she really went to Harvard?", he asks my dinner companion. "She must be smart." All-around blushing and awkwardness, washed down with Blue Moons and bruschetta.

As all such conversations do, whether they take place at Cafe No Se or Newport-on-the-Levee, this one too turned to love. "Do you love him?", the man asks me, and when he suspects I might, his whole face lights up. "Well, isn't that beautiful." At first, I think he is being sarcastic because I am still wired to think everyone is being sarcastic, especially about love. This is a man who has not had a sober day in six years and previously informed us that "life is not meant to be easy." He is now firmly part of the Love Makes The World Go Round club, whose members have accosted me all year. As we hurry to make it to our movie, he essentially gives us his blessing and watches us walk away hand-in-hand with that dreamy "I hope they make it" look that belongs in a Jack Nicholson film with a Garden State-esque soundtrack.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Escalator moments, and the questions they invite

I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train your for that - but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don't hate anything.
-Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I had an Escalator Moment.

In the movies, it involves the protagonist, usually young and with perfectly tousled hair, red Converses and iPod headphones in her ears, emerging out of the New York City subway looking clean, perfect, and perfectly amazed by the splendor of New York. The Chrysler building is almost certainly in the next shot, followed by Macy's on 6th Avenue, an aerial shot of Central Park and the Empire State Building lit up at night.

In real life, it involves the protagonist, young, with messy hair and bleary eyes, blisters on her feet, an ear that had yet to pop from a 13-hour-flight and was not conducive to iPod headphones, emerging out of the New York City subway on 34th Street, looking sweaty and perfectly amazed by the splendor of New York. I had never had one of those moments before - the moments when one steps out of the subway and instead of being trampled, running into a free-press stand touting the latest political scandal, or wheeling over a cockroach with a suitcase, one actually sees blue skies and the Empire State building.

It turns out that for New York City, not even the Empire State Building is 'enough.'

I woke up a week ago to an email from a former supervisor. An excerpt:
People have been and will continue to ask me what you'll be doing over the next year. I'm embarrassed I don't really know. Can you tell me?
New York, too, is full of questions. In which part of town do you live? Ah, you are from Greece. Is your house in Greece? Is that where you live now? Wait - how does this work. You work in conflict zones, but live in Greece? No, DC. No, Boston. No, no, Bogota, maybe? Who pays you? Do you decide in which countries to work or does someone send you there? When are you finding a real job? Why can't you just go back to school - whatever school. Law school. Isn't what you do dangerous?  And your boyfriend - how do you know he does not cheat on you while you are away? What is malaria like?

A few of my own questions:

Why does the main room in the Harvard Club of New York City have a giant elephant head in it, meaning I am finishing my drink as a trunk is hanging over me?
And whatever happened to uncertainty?

In an address to graduates in 2010, Drew Faust said the following about uncertainty, the missing answers to the ubiquitous questions, and the game of expectations:
Embrace risk — it is inevitable. You worry, I know, about the burden of Harvard, about “the pressure to be extraordinary,” within a narrow definition of success, as one of you told me. You feel the urgency, as one ex-Wall Street alumnus put it recently, of “check[ing] the job box.” He admitted that for him the job was less about the money or the nature of the work than, as he said, “about squelching anxiety in general.” You wonder, “What will I say at my 5th reunion?” What is “extraordinary enough?”
Of all the places in which I have lived and worked, of all the conflict zones through which I have passed, New York has been the hardest for a lifestyle without ties or anchors: without the apartment, the two-year job contract, the plans set in stone. It is unsettling to have the questions, but not the answers. Yet, when I ducked back into the subway, with the Empire State Building on my back, suitcase in tow, ready to head 'home' to Boston, I paused in awe of the NYC architecture. For those who are shamelessly tourists--or nomads, or travelers, or whatever one's preferred term of choice for wanderers is-- the beauty of New York can cloud out the anxiety that ambiguity can trigger.

When I returned to New York a week later, I was still in awe of much - and finally had some answers to offer to its many questions. My next step in life will take me to Israel, where I will continue my work in conflict management and will build a life anew, for the fifth time within a year.  The questions persist, New York still causes waves of mild agoraphobia, awe and anxiety, and 'nomadic life' continues.

Never in my life have I craved anchors less.