Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City

By Brian Solis (b_d_solis), via Creative Commons
The first time I went to New York City, I hated it.

Well, maybe that's a little strong: I was completely overwhelmed by it. I grew up in a laid-back beach suburb of Los Angeles where the surfers far outnumbered the taxis and the tallest building was the water tower. I'd been to Paris, Florence and Washington, DC but none of them had prepared me for the sheer energy of NYC. Whereas Washington carries a feeling that something's in the wind, that you shouldn't underestimate what you can accomplish, New York is in your face, electric and somehow determined. New York isn't hoping it can do something big; it knows it's going to.

I enjoyed parts of my first trip to New York - visits with my family in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the American Museum of Natural History, glimpses of Central Park - but the main reason I was there, as a rising high school senior, was to look at NYU. The information session was crowded and impersonal and, despite the school's impressive programs, nothing about it spoke to me. Thinking about the crush of people outside and the few school flags I'd seen flying from halfway up tall buildings, I didn't see how the students could connect with one another in such a maze. Did person-to-person interactions all take place nine stories above the sidewalk? I didn't stay for the campus tour.

My next trip to New York was five years later, after I'd gone to college in Washington, studied abroad and generally become much more comfortable with city life. That time, I couldn't drink in the atmosphere fast enough.

I strolled across the Upper West Side, people-watching and browsing street art. I explored the exhibits at the Met and wandered through Central Park. I stopped to watch rollerbladers put on a demonstration and made my way to H & H (after searching through half a dozen books in the Met's bookstore for the address) to sample a bagel.

In the past three years, I've spent more time in the Big Apple than 17-year-old me ever dreamed I'd want to - a week, a weekend, sometimes just a day - and every time I leave, I wish I had just a few more hours. I love the crush of Times Square, the sidewalks overflowing with people and stuff for sale in Chelsea and the fact that I can walk as fast as my legs will carry me throughout the city and no one will look at me like I'm crazy (which is not the case in the South Bay, where the California stroll is king). I've eaten enough New York pizza and pasta to feed a large Italian family for a month, wandered Rockefeller Center after dark, sipped frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity 3 and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan, eavesdropping on conversations in a myriad of languages.

Rather than overwhelm me and make me want nothing more than to crawl into bed, preferably in a dark, sound-proofed room, New York's hustle and bustle has become infectious, making me want to dive into the thick of things and fully experience all the city has to offer. It's a city where everyone jockeys for their piece of the action and diversity is celebrated, not seen as an oddity. In a world that all too often looks for homogeneity, New York is a bright flash of individualism, to the nth degree, that can capture anyone's imagination - you just have to find the right angle.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: Pathway to Somewhere

I've run casually off and on for much of my life but, in the past few years, running has become an integral part of who I am. I run when I'm traveling, I travel to races, I run when I'm feeling great and when I'm sulking. Running is my yoga (which I don't do, because I usually can't keep my mind quiet enough to properly appreciate it): it centers me, keeps my muscles in tune and makes me feel good, inside and out. And I like knowing that what happens on a run - where I go, how far I go, how fast I move - is up to me.

Today's photo is a pretty good representation of all of that: a path, pleasantly sunny but shaded by the trees overhead, curving off into the distance. It's empty, but comfortably so, and the curve ahead opens up endless possibilities of what lies beyond. It was taken south of Alexandria in Northern Virginia this May, just a few days before I moved to Arizona after six years in the Washington, DC area (with a year in France between years two and three).

The path is part of the Mt. Vernon Trail, which follows the Virginia side of the Potomac River from Theodore Roosevelt Island/Rosslyn all the way down to Mt. Vernon, George Washington's historic estate. I've run more than 1,000 miles on that trail, pounding out frustrations, heartache and fear or bounding along with happiness, peace or laughter in my thoughts, depending on the day. I know its turns, hills and bumps like the back of my hand, but the scenery is never quite the same from one day to the next. This particular day was beautiful - spring, just hinting at summer, with a warm wind blowing upriver.

I didn't go much further than the curve up ahead that day, but this photo perfectly captures the feel of the trail and running itself for me: a place I can go, a thing I can do, whatever my mood, that lets me clear my head and can take me somewhere familiar or somewhere new - it's up to me. Travel is like that, too. And when I get stressed out about what to pack or where to go or what I'm going to do once I get there, I can pull this image into my head and remember that whatever's around the bend, chances are, it's going to be beautiful.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Bug Called Bilingualism

By Man vyi, via Wikimedia Commons
It starts innocently enough: a desire to communicate, to be polite, that drives you to learn the basics of a language. As you spend time with the people who speak that language, it creeps a little further into your system: a longing to understand the whys and hows, the history - to know not just the words, but the nuance behind them. Then you find yourself stopping in the middle of a foreign street, uncertain of the words flowing through your own head, and it hits you: you're bilingual.

The symptoms of bilingualism manifest slowly, and often go completely unnoticed until you're living in another place, steeped in its language and the cultural patterns that come with it 24 hours a day. The progression, once you know the basics of a language and are immersed in it, goes something like this:
  1. You feel excited but overwhelmed by all of the new auditory and visual input flowing into your brain: at markets, in stores, in restaurants - anywhere you interact with locals. You make use of the basic vocabulary you've built up, occasionally stumbling or forgetting a word. You're exhausted by dinnertime every day from working so hard to keep up and communicate; you sleep a lot.
  2. Your bilingual dictionary is your new best friend. You rush to it when you get home to look up the half dozen words you really could have used on that coffee date, read the newspaper with it open on the table beside you and reach for it at random moments to look up a word you've just realized you might need. You battle occasional bouts of uncharacteristic shyness when speaking, terrified of choosing the wrong word or saying something that makes you sound ridiculous.
  3. Your speech becomes less stilted, you lose the excruciating self-consciousness that used to plague you when making casual conversation and you occasionally hear yourself using words you had no idea you knew. You cautiously expand your reading material and, though you still look up words for their precise definition, the context gives you the general idea and you rely less heavily on the dictionary. When traveling to nearby countries where you know just enough of the language to get around, you often find yourself tongue-tied, struggling to get the words of the third language past the second language that wants to be center-stage in your head and on your lips. You worry that the locals who speak the third language are going to think you're incapable of human speech.
  4. You start to make an occasional joke that the locals actually find funny for its content, not your pronunciation or word choice, and don't have trouble understanding common idioms, though the more obscure ones may still throw you off. You no longer have to concentrate so hard to catch every word that's spoken to you and it's been a while since you've had to ask someone to repeat what he said. When you talk to people at home, you pull literal translations of phrases you commonly use in the other language into your native speech patterns. This sometimes results in your friends asking why "bizarre" or "super" is suddenly your favorite word.
  5. You dream in the local language. This sometimes begins with a few sentences here and there in the dream and sometimes starts with a full-blown, detailed dream entirely in the second language. When the latter is the case, depending on how immersed in the language you've been, it may take a while for you to realize the dream wasn't in your native language. You're comfortable with the local language, and kind of smug about it.
  6. You fall into the linguistic "black hole." You're speaking normally and, all of a sudden, your mind goes completely blank and refuses to come up with the next word you want - in either language. This happens with alarming frequency for a while, making you wonder if trying to master another language has the side effect of slowly erasing your brain's capacity for rational thought and, if so, why no one told you.
  7. You're going about business as usual one day, thinking your thoughts, when you suddenly realize you don't know what language they're in. You stop in your tracks, wondering how it's possible you can't figure out what's going on inside your own head, when it hits you: who cares if there's something wrong with your brain? You're fluent in another language!
Bilingualism isn't something that goes away: variations on the later symptoms in the progression will continue to manifest throughout your life, punctuated by extreme excitement if you get to use your second language after not having had the opportunity for a while. With this comes a continuing interest in the society you lived in and a frustrated annoyance with other foreigners who discuss or write about it and "get it wrong." Occasional dreams in the language continue, sometimes seemingly out of the blue, and every now and then, when speaking your native language, all you can think of for the concept you're trying to talk about is the vocabulary for it in your second language.

Bilingualism is a bug you can live with. Some of the symptoms may be exhausting, disorienting and embarrassment inducing, but you learn to embrace them. They're merit badges - evidence that you look at the world and the life you live in it through multiple lenses, creating your own unique worldview that's informed and influenced by the cultures and the people you've spent time with and the languages that share space in your head. I'm bilingual, and I love every minute of it.

(WARNING: Contracting bilingualism may make you more susceptible to, or encourage a desire to experience, multilingualism. N.B. People whose native language is not English are often not nearly as excited by the idea of bilingualism as you think they should be, since many of them grew up with the idea that bilingualism was a necessary part of modern life, rather than an adventure to be savored. These people have also often mastered an intimidating number of languages and local dialects. It's perfectly acceptable to be in awe of them.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Saturday Snapshot: les remparts de Carcassonne


This is one of my favorite photos from my year in France, despite the fact that it was taken with my very first digital camera, a clunky, low-megapixel, high-battery consumption HP that some of my friends not-so-fondly dubbed "the brick." It was taken when my parents came to visit for my birthday and we drove around southwestern France playing tourist for a few days.

I'd been to Carcassonne several years before but on a gray, dreary day that did nothing to enliven the walled city's ubiquitous stone. This time, however, we had spectacular weather. It was mid-February, but the daytime temperatures hovered around 10 degrees (low 50s, Fahrenheit). And just look at that sky!

Inside the walls, Carcassonne is fairly kitschy, although the tours are excellent and give an interesting history, along with views like this one from the battlements. And despite the plethora of swords and other souvenirs you don't need, being able to walk through a fully restored, fortified medieval city is a neat experience, especially when you consider that the area has been continuously settled since 3500 B.C.E. That's a lot of history under your feet!

We enjoyed soaking up the rare February sun while walking the nearly two miles of battlements - and caved to some of the lovely Proven├žal fabrics in one of the many gift shops. All in all, a city (and cultural UNESCO World Heritage site) worth visiting, if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010: Blogging for Clean Water

Most travelers are used to conducting at least some parts of their lives non-traditionally. In exchange for giving up a permanent place of residence, taking a career break, living out of a suitcase or a backpack and being disoriented by rapid shifts in culture, we see things that other people don't. We interact with people whose lifestyles are 180 degrees from what our native cultures think of as "comfortable." And, depending on where we travel, we can bear witness to the devastation brought to a society by the lack of what most of the Western world considers basic necessities: education, transportation, plentiful food, adequate healthcare and ready access to clean water. It's the last of those that is often the most heartbreaking.

I don't know about you, but the first thing I reach for in the morning is water. If I'm on the road and don't know when I'm next going to have a chance to eat, I might get cranky, but it's not that big a deal. If I'm running low on drinking water and don't know where I'm going to be able to stock up, however, I get worried. But my worries pale in the face of global water statistics:
  • 109 million. That's the total number of hours walked by women and children in Africa every day in search of water to use for cooking, cleaning, washing and drinking. If they can find the water they need, it's often from muddy ponds or watering holes, polluted by animal and human waste. So in addition to keeping children out of school and women from working to establish a business, the perpetual search for water leads them to sources that often make them ill.
  • 42,000. That's the number of people who die each week from water-borne diseases or lack of access to water worldwide. That adds up to more in a year than all violent deaths worldwide combined, including those caused by war. And the worst part? 90% of those deaths, weekly, are children under the age of five.
  • $12.8 billion. That's the amount (USD) polluted coastal waters and the health problems they cause cost the global economy every year.
  • 1 in 8. That's the number of people, worldwide, who don't have access to clean water.
Water - access to clean sources, preservation, conservation and awareness of the issue - is a global problem, and it's going to take a global solution to set it right. The travel community, made up of people who have lived in the Western world, where water is taken for granted, many of whom have also lived in or visited parts of the world where water is scarce, can offer a unique perspective. Today, I challenge you use it. Here's what I hope we, as travelers - from round-the-world nomads to casual vactioners - can do:
  1. Raise awareness. Visiting a community that has to go to extreme lengths to get water, clean or otherwise? Take photos and share them with the people you know. Staying at a resort or couchsurfing at a home that has a unique way of conserving water? Blog about it. If you have a permanent place of residence, talk to your city council, homeowners' association or building management to see if any of the solutions you've seen are feasible for your area.
  2. Lend a hand. Helping local cultures directly can be tricky, especially for transitory visitors. What's easy is bringing the plight of a place you've been to the attention of people whose business it is to help. Groups like charity: water, Ryan's Well Foundation and Water.org work tirelessly to find clean water solutions for communities around the world, but they can't help if they don't know where there's a problem. A simple email could be the catalyst for setting a clean water project in motion for a community you've visited - so send it! And if you have a little cash you can spare, make a donation.
  3. Monitor your usage. Most long-term travelers are conservationists by nature of the way they live: they don't buy a lot of products that take exorbitant amounts of water to produce or run (clothing, electronics, kitchen appliances) and they're conscious of their water usage for bathing, washing clothes, etc. because they're usually sharing facilities with others. But the more traditional travel industry (chain hotels, luxury resorts, cruiseships, etc.) uses exorbitant amounts of water every day. Talk to your concierge to find out if it's possible to have your linens changed every three or four (or five...) days if you're going to be in the same place for a while, rather than every day. If you're visiting a place where the water is safe to drink, bring a reusable bottle with you for water, or buy a large bottle your first day and reuse it for several days.
Most of us take water for granted, even if we occasionally have to do without for longer than we'd like during our travels, or buy bottled water to do simple things like brush our teeth. Imagine living every day weighing how much water you have or can find against all of the things you need to do with it. Imagine cooking your dinner in a pot filled with brown water that you know is likely to make you sick. Imagine not being able to reach for a drink of water when you're thirsty. Imagine that, and join me in doing what you can to raise awareness and bring clean water to the people who need it most.

This post was written as part of Change.org's Blog Action Day 2010. There are more than 4,690 blogs in 135 countries participating right now - to add yours, click here. Blog Action Day 2010 is also taking place on Twitter, using hashtag #BAD10. To read a post about the water crisis geared more toward a U.S.-based audience than the travel community, visit There Is No Spoon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Profiles in Transit: Teaching Italian by Impatience

Courtesy of McLoy2008, Creative Commons
Italy, the second stop my parents and I made during my first trip out of North America at 15, was my first experience spending time in a country where my only knowledge of the language was whatever I could find in the phrasebook. I refuse to ever start a conversation by addressing someone in a language other than their own, no matter how pathetically, so I had learned the basics: Buon giorno ("Hello"), Parla inglese o francese, per favore? ("Do you speak English or French?"), Vorrei... ("I'd like..." - when in Italy, being able to order the amazing food is critical.) and some other basics, like counting to ten, please, thank you and the omnipresent scusi, for getting through crowds at least semi-politely (which, I realize, is completely un-Italian).

Throughout Florence and San Gimignano, my limited Italian worked beautifully. Someone always knew enough English or French to talk to me after I gave them my standard greeting, and my food vocabulary increased by leaps and bounds, supplemented with great words like cinghiale - wild boar. Fun to say, although my dad enjoyed the actual eating of it much more than I did.

On the train to Sorrento by way of Naples, however, I hit a linguistic wall in the form of a Trenitalia employee. I had wandered into the dining car in search of some water and approached the bored-looking woman behind the counter with a smile.

"Buon giorno!"
She nodded in return.
"Parla inglese, per favore?"
She gave a brief shake of her head and half arched a brow at me, as if to say "Why would I? And now what are you going to do, ragazza?"
"Parla francese...?"
Another head shake. Hm. Well, I'd seen enough ads for bottled water, maybe I could do this.
"Vorrei...una...um...una bottiglia di acqua? Per favore? Naturale, per favore? ("Can I have a...um...a bottle of water? Please? Still, please?")

The woman gave me a look that said, "If it didn't take so much effort, I would roll my eyes at you. Why did you ask me to speak two other languages?" and rang up the water before muttering the total at me. I paid, said "Grazie!" and sped back to my seat to tell my parents I'd spoken a whole non-pasta-related sentence in Italian.

That Trenitalia employee, sullen though she may have been, taught me a lesson that's come in handy many times over the years: it's when under pressure to communicate that you realize the full extent of what you know. That's the premise of language education by immersion: you subconsciously absorb the language you see and hear and, when given no option but to use that language to communicate, your subconscious shoves it into your conscious mind. Terrifying as it can be, it works. Even on Italian trains.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Wandering Student Tackles Packing, Part I

Confession: I'm a pack rat. I've gotten infinitely better about it in the past five years or so, but there was a time not so long ago when I wouldn't let my mom get rid of any of my old stuffed animals, even the ones I completely ignored as a kid. I'm much more practical than I used to be, but I'm still wildly sentimental and afraid of throwing out anything that might possibly be useful somewhere down the road.

My luggage for my first experience studying outside the U.S. was a picture-perfect example of how not to pack that still makes me cringe. For my first semester, I essentially threw every piece of clothing there was a remote possibility I might wear into the large duffel bag, large suitcase and carry-on suitcase I took with me, until I ran out of room. I came to my senses a little bit before winter break and brought half a suitcase of clothes it had become clear I was not going to wear back home with me, but the books, notebooks and souvenirs I accumulated by the end of the year more than made up the difference.

I've since learned how to pack for most travel situations with only carry-on luggage (although being a runner who hates to go more than a day or two without a run sometimes makes that difficult on longer trips), and that empty space in a suitcase won't kill me but is, in fact, a good thing.

Packing for two years in Australia, however, is going to be a challenge.

My first step toward making the process a smooth, efficient one was to buy a backpack, which will be a good way to get things to Australia that will easily convert to being a good way to travel during school breaks. I went to REI while I was in Southern California this past weekend, since I live nowhere near any outdoor stores and the REI a friend of mine works at was right around the corner from my hotel.

I've never bought a pack before, so I did my research before even thinking about actually buying one. I got measured and semi-fitted for a few I was considering months ago, then did some more research. I went into REI thinking I knew which pack I wanted (a women's Osprey Aura 65), but it didn't feel all that great once it was weighted. An incredibly helpful employee named Nelson (hooray for friends of friends!) who is much more knowledgeable about backpacks and how they should fit than I am loaded up four separate packs for me, tweaked the fit and told me what looked good and what didn't to his experienced eye. The Aura seemed to carry the weight too high, I loved the fit of the hip belt in the Gregory I tried on but the shoulder straps felt like they were grinding bone, the REI-brand pack was okay but nothing spectacular and I wasn't thrilled with the idea of a top-loading pack with just one pocket.

Please forgive my terrible photography
skills when it comes to large inanimate
objects that aren't scenery.
 The women's Deuter ACT Lite 60 + 10 SL surprised me. Since there's only one size that you adjust with a series of "rungs" built into the back, I expected it to fit poorly and be too big for my short torso. But once Nelson had adjusted it for my height and we had all of the straps dialed in, it felt great. Twenty pounds isn't a lot of weight, but it was enough to make me seriously uncomfortable with the packs that didn't fit properly; with the Deuter on, I felt like I could walk around all day. I wandered around the store for a while (looking ridiculous since I was wearing a sundress and sandals with no support at all thanks to having been at the local fair all day) and finally decided this was it. The yellow flower that comes with each of these packs is a fun bonus, but it'll be coming off before I head down under. It's pretty, cheerful and I love the color and the little bit of flair it adds, but it screams "I'm a woman - rob me!" just a little too much for comfort. (But good job, Deuter marketing department!) Maybe I'll toss it in to wear in my hair now and then.

Charming, but probably not a good idea for
actual backpacking.
Since I'm going to be living in Australia for two years and will have a semi-permanent base at school, my new pack isn't all I'll take, in the interest of not having to do laundry twice a week and being able to settle in a bit. I'm still debating whether a 60-liter pack qualifies as a carry-on. Largely empty and cinched down this weekend, it fit in the overhead bin just fine and the Southwest employee I asked about it said it was an acceptable carry-on size, but I'm not sure that will be the case when it's full (any opinions on or experiences with this, please let me know!). If I do end up carrying on my pack, I'll check a rolling duffel - maybe two - and carry on a shoulder bag to go under my seat. If not, I'll check my pack and a rolling duffel, and probably carry on a rollerbag and a daypack.

With three-and-a-half months to go before I leave, I'm still feeling pretty ahead of the game (except that now I want to take my pack everywhere with me so I get used to it - and because it's pretty). Next up on the packing checklist: figuring out what's going in the luggage!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Can you go home again?

The Manhattan Beach Pier

The concept of home is something I’ve thought about quite a bit in the past few years, first because I thought I’d lost mine and second because I started to travel more on my own and “What would it be like to live here?” became a common thread in my internal monologue.

I grew up in Manhattan Beach, a small town that sits about half an hour outside of downtown Los Angeles on the California coast. With a temperate climate, beautiful sunsets and some of the best public schools in the state, the South Bay, as the locals call it, is a pretty idyllic place to live. I knew I wanted to go “back east” for college (mostly, as a kid, because it was what my brother had done and I wanted to be just like him; in high school because I wanted to get out in the world and experience a place that changed – weather, politics, social tensions and all – the way Southern California never seemed to do), but I had never thought about a day when Manhattan Beach would no longer be home.

Three days after I left for my sophomore year at GW, in Washington, DC, my parents moved to Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. I’d known it was coming for years and had spent the summer avoiding doing anything helpful when it came to packing, so it wasn’t something that happened overnight, but as soon as the house was empty, I felt like part of my world had been yanked out from underneath my feet. Where is home? I thought, and couldn’t avoid the gloomy answer: I don’t have one.

I liked the house in Arizona more than I had expected. My mom was adamant that I have my own room, regardless of how often I would be there, so I was surrounded by familiar things when I came home for winter break. I spent the following summer in Washington, interning and baby-sitting, and wasn’t at my parents’ much before heading off to spend my junior year in France. It was there that my conception of home started to change.

I adapted quickly to Aix-en-Provence and soon felt as comfortable navigating its narrow streets as I had driving through Manhattan Beach. When I flew back to the States for Christmas and stopped for a few days in L.A., reverse culture shock made the South Bay feel full of annoying customs that confused me, rather than put me at ease. I wanted to go back to France. My parents’ house was comforting, if still unfamiliar: it was full of people I loved, and that made me feel more at home than visiting dozens of familiar spots in California had done.

When I returned to school in Washington after my second semester abroad, I expected the reverse culture shock that made the English buzzing in my ears sound foreign and bewildering, but anticipating it didn’t make it feel any less strange. I was happiest when I was with my friends, although the places we hung out had changed since the last time I’d seen them.

Gradually, I realized that the times I felt most at home had very little to do with where I was and everything to do with who was there with me.  In all the years I’d spent in Manhattan Beach, I had always assumed it was the place that put me at ease and defined my home when, in reality, it was the people.

It’s been several years since I’ve attached a place to the idea of home. I still consider Manhattan Beach my hometown, but home itself is easier to get to: the group of family and close friends that keeps me going. Some of them are from the South Bay, some I met in college and some I’ve met while wandering. They know me (and love me anyway), they support me and they know that I’m always just an email, a phone call or a letter away. They're what lets me wander at will, because – no matter where I am or where they are in the world – none of them is ever further than my next thought. With them to ground me, I can roam to my heart’s content, knowing they’ll always be there to reach out to.

Home really is where the heart is and it’s by looking inside your heart that you can be sure of finding home and all the comfort it brings. You can always go home again, and that's a revelation that lets me make mine wherever the wind blows me.