Female Camaraderie

Before boarding the train to Munich, Shaun and I spotted a group of polished German women in their 40s standing on the train platform with glasses of white wine. I mean real wine glasses. Shaun and I pondered how their travel glassware was nicer than our wine glasses at home. They seemed to be going on a fun girls trip and I could not stop staring, telling Shaun they were my idols. I have enjoyed watching German women of different ages, they seem to have a specific style and glamour.

When Shaun left Germany I was anxious about traveling around on my own for the professional commitments which brought me here in the first place. My most nervous moment was preparing to take the subway or U-Bahn by myself. I took a deep breath and held my map tightly. The machines to buy a ticket are so complicated I had printed out instructions with pictures just to buy the ticket. I stood at the ticket counter reading my little instruction sheet and a woman came over speaking German and smiling at me. She may have been laughing at me, but I decided she was trying to help me. She said something that indicated “Hurry, the train is coming.” I smiled at her and stood near her on the train feeling oddly comforted by her presence. When I switched trains I sat near some older German ladies feeling for some reason safer as I concentrated on my map following the announcement of each stop confirming I was going in the right direction.

When you are in a foreign country (especially one where you don’t speak the language) a smile from a stranger means a lot. It makes me feel bad at all the times I plowed past tourists in Time Square on my way to work. Traveling can make you feel vulnerable, especially traveling alone, and I often look at others just searching for comfort in a smile or warm demeanor. I am especially comforted by women who seem like they could be my friend, my mentor, my grandmother, and who I have convinced myself would take care of me. This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t matter because just their presence can helpfully bring my blood pressure down a bit.

I had the most memorable female bonding at a dinner a few nights ago. I was visiting this small city in Germany to conduct some interviews for my research on gender and conflict and when someone who I was interviewing told her friend about my visit and research, her friend decided to put together a dinner while I was in town with other smart women she knew. Most people there only knew the organizer so I didn’t feel at all like I was out of place. It felt like my book club, one of my proudest accomplishments in Boston, where I brought together a group of women who didn’t know each other who have now become friends.

Everything about the dinner made me happy. The restaurant was called something along the lines of “little things” in German. It was adorable with its all white interior, purple tables, and bold paintings (of penguins) hanging on the wall. The organizer of the event knew the owner and chef who greeted me upon arrival. As people started arriving I followed the lead of the other two women I was seated near and order an Aperol Spritz a fun orange colored Italian cocktail with prosecco.

The cast of characters at dinner was interesting in their different lifestyle choices. All were American although one was married to a German man. There was me – the married researcher thinking about what was next in my professional life and family life (aka the baby question), the woman with the boyfriend who was moving to Germany soon to join her, the “stay at home mom” with two children who was taking German and violin lessons, the lesbian with a Southern drawl who swore off children, and the married woman who proudly told me her husband got a vasectomy on their anniversary so they could have as many adventurous experiences as possible (including she would later tell me swimming with sharks).

As soon as everyone arrived there was no gap in conversation. The “social organizer” translated the menu for me and having been a regular of the restaurant made every dish sound delicious. Luckily, I went “splitsy” with the other woman I knew and tried the salad with pumpkin and some delicious cheese, truffle butter spaghetti, and these little pocket type ravioli things with ricotta and pear.

Once we ordered we dove deeper into getting to know each other. A few minutes later the owner of the restaurant came by to scold us for being too loud as we had just recently all been laughing loudly. She explained in a whisper that the older German women dining a few tables over were not happy with the noise level. (This was one of the few “this would never happen in America” moments).

The conversations flowed to the people next to me on both sides, the woman across from me, and even me shouting to the woman diagonal from me. The topics ranged from having kids (did we believe in the phenomenon of using a leash with children?), pregnancy, swimming with sharks and marine life, home décor, and finally a conversation about the balance between having a professional life you are passionate about and having a professional life that consumes you entirely. All of these women were thoughtful and ambitious yet all had extremely different models for how they were living their life and what happiness meant to them. I made jokes, but listened – leading one woman there to inaccurately describe me as more of the “sweet quite type.”

Mostly I just smiled the whole time. I felt lucky to be a part of this group of woman coming together who at the end of the night decided that they would have this type of get together regularly. I enjoyed imagining my life in this town in Germany and whether it would be like theirs. Would I be happy? Would I socialize with them? Do the interesting activities they were talking about? Go for hikes in the Alps? It also was a welcome break from the loneliness I had been feeling after hanging around my creepy hotel all day (the hotel seemed like one in Vegas complete with a casino, bad smelling cologne filling the lobby, and lights in the rooms that changed color). Relief from loneliness is underrated.

I am not delusional and know that not every woman I see in my travels is going to be welcoming and warm and that would be an unfair expectation. However, maybe there is some connection in knowing that we are all living in this world with some of the same questions, fears, and are all lonely at times.

Travel Greed?

Many of the people I come in contact with in my professional life are fanatic travelers. They have been everywhere – from war zones, to rural villages in Asia, to all of the cities in Europe. These individuals are from all age groups and backgrounds – from a single mom with her two kids, to a forty-year-old member of the military father of three, to younger PeaceCorps returnees, or former UN consultants. When I talk to them I usually am the one who feels I am not an experienced traveler. Once I step outside of my bubble and share just a few of my recent trips or upcoming plans with people I realize that although there are lots of places I haven’t been and experiences I haven’t had to most people I look like a travel pro. And I mean I did get tuberculosis so I think that really helps my street cred.

I went on some wonderful trips when I was younger to beautiful places – mostly exploring the U.S., but there was an amazing cruise on the Mediterranean and a big family trip to Ireland (we are not Irish it was just somewhere my parents thought would be beautiful, which of course it was). However, my parents were not diplomats, missionaries, or in the military so it is not as if I grew up traveling frequently to far flung locations. However, travel was always something I loved and that was valued in my family. I remember being thirteen and reading A Year in Provence at summer camp. I tried to re-read it recently and just couldn’t imagine what my thirteen your old self was thinking while reading that in my cabin. Recently someone asked me what made me get a PhD in International Relations and I didn’t have a neat soundbite answer. I always had a huge imagination (I wrote before about how I always tested to see if I could get to Narnia from my closet) and grew up taking mini adventures with my mom exploring beautiful places close to where we lived and I loved my summer outdoorsy trips that I did when I was a teenager. It is hard to say when the moment was that I decided maybe this thirst to see new places and have experienced that scared me could be something more than a hobby.

Some people see travel as a luxury and of course it is in some sense. But the more travel blogs you read and the more my generation has redefined what it means to be an adult (aka not buying houses or having kids as early) people are finding ways to travel. I think that for those people who it is a priority or a key value in their life, they will make it work. Whether that means selling all of your belongings or waitressing for months full-time to save money to leave, it seems that people who want to travel find a way to travel. I guess if it is your passion and life value system you make it happen no matter what.

I went to Uganda this summer and it was a fantastic trip. I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I was to be there. A few weeks after I got back from Uganda I got invited to a conference in Germany in which the conference organizer would pay my way there. Shaun decided to join for this trip. I have always wanted to go to Germany to visit the concentration camps, but as a whole the country was probably not one on my bucket list. But do people turn down an all expense paid trip? There are not many places I would say no to going with expenses paid (when I can’t sleep tonight I will walk through those potential scenarios).

The other pieces of my appetite for travel right now has to do with the fact that I know my days of being able to have last minute international trips will not last forever. As we start to plan our future and talk about having kids I realize I can’t just accept every opportunity that comes my way. I have talked about this endlessly with people and I know there is a way to travel with kids, but I still feel scared that as soon as I have a child I will never go anywhere again.

I put this blog aside for a month or so, not sure if I was ready to put it out there, but I have now revisited it while on a train in Germany with Shaun. I keep thinking about the things I wrote here and maybe have resolved them in my head. Before this trip I got a lot of comments from people insinuating (in the kindest of ways) that I am a bit spoiled in my travel when I told them I was going to Germany. They replied, “Didn’t you just get back from somewhere?” I understand their comments (probably stemming a bit from jealousy) and probably would be the same way to someone else, but recently my response was something along the lines of, “Yes this is my profession.” I don’t describe my travels as “traveling for work” but really it is. If you are getting a PhD in International Relations then traveling to international places is inherently part of your profession. So yes I am unbelievably lucky to get to travel, but as I slog through this program and think about the sacrifices I have made to do it I think I can accept being a little “spoiled” in this way.

The Accidental Tour Guide

I arrived at the second hotel I am staying at in Entebbe yesterday feeling exhausted, but still feeling like an accomplished confident traveler. I really wanted to rest, but yesterday was the only free afternoon I had to be a tourist. Without thinking about it I decided to go to the botanical gardens by myself because I heard they were something not to miss in Entebbe. I had the hotel call me a cab without overthinking it.

The cab driver took me to the gardens and I asked him to please be sure to come back for me in an hour. He left me at the gate to a huge park. I paid the entrance fee and asked if there was a path or any sort of map and suddenly I had a man who was showing me around. I had heard there were guides at the entrance to the park, but since I never quite asked for one I was a bit confused. However, a few minutes into my impromptu tour I was so glad they decided I should have a guide.

The gardens are 47 acres of greenery. I had a nightmare of getting lost and trying to use google maps in the middle of the garden (“I swear I already walked past this tree”). I also scolded myself for not wearing sneakers because we were walking through the dense grass in sandals. My tour guide plowed ahead of me at a fast pace climbing over rocks and little streams. I forgot to tell him I am clumsy and he seemed confident I would be fine following behind. He picked flowers off each tree for me to smell and had key sites to show me. As we navigated through the garden there was an easy silence as I trailed behind his steady pace.

Apparently the gardens are where they filmed the original Tarzan. Parts of the garden feel like a park with open spaces, but then there is the “Tarzan section” with the long branches that the actor in the original Tarzan swung from. My guide told me that kids still climb them today to get certain fruits at the top of the trees.

I have been pretty into flowers after reading The Language of Flowers  but these gardens were more than just flowers. I saw a tree that they use the sap from for latex; bougainvillea in every color (I learned the leaves are what make them different colors and the flowers inside the leaves are all the same color); orchid-like plants in all sorts of shapes (one is called a pipe flower because of its shape); a flower that looked like a sea urchin; flowers that were so fragrant I stuck them in my bag to smell later (of course I ended up throwing them out discretely in the cab); fruit trees; a Ugandan Christmas tree; leaves that are so rough women in Uganda use them as nail files; and that was just the flora!

My guide ripped into what seemed to be a mound of dirt to show me what termites looked like and explained if you are ever in the wilderness and need stitches you can take a bunch of termites on your wound. He put one on his shirt to illustrate how they bind to the cloth. I kept my distance from the termite pile and nodded feigning interest. If I am in the wilderness and develop a big cut and turn to termites I have probably been kidnapped and have way bigger problems. We saw all sorts of birds and anyone who knows me knows I am not the biggest fan of birds, but these ones kept their distance and so I was okay with looking at them from a distance.

As we were walking through one section of trees the guide told me that these trees are eaten by Colobus monkeys and asked me if I knew what monkeys he was talking about. I lied and said yes. We walk a short bit and then my guide tells me to look up and I see one of those monkeys staring down at us. They are the black and white monkeys who have the white beards that make them look wise and earnest. We stare at the monkey for awhile. I can’t tell if my guide thought I was crazy when I waved at the monkey and said hello, but I felt a connection there. Then we hear a quiet rustling across the way and see a tree filled with more of these monkeys including a baby one which is all white. If I had not been with a guide and known to look up I would have completely missed the fact that these monkeys were just watching me from above. It was spectacular.

We moved next to the spider area. I do not consider myself someone who is scared of spiders, but without warning we walked into a little area in which I was surrounded by spider webs and rather large spiders. I take a few pictures, but try to get a move on. The tour guide throws something at the spider web he says so I can get a better picture. I jump out of the way and reassure him my pictures are not that important. Once I convince him to leave the spider area I ask him if the spider bites. He nodes. I follow-up with tentatively, “is the spider poisonous?” He responds, “not very.” I laugh and he explains that basically one would not die from a spider bite by this spider, but just would get very sick. I definitely do not need to deal with that adventure.

There were no other tourists in the gardens which made the experience feel even more special. As we were leaving a school bus comes in with students who had a class party in the gardens. It was nice to be in a place that was enjoyed by both tourists and locals.

I awkwardly tell my tour guide that I need to meet my driver back at the entrance and he takes a short cut as we hike up a few grassy hills back to the front entrance. I felt a bit nervous about how to deal with the fact that I had inadvertently hired a guide and had no idea what he cost and if I had enough Ugandan shillings. I ask him what I can give him and he immediately says $10 to use for school books. I wonder if that is what he tells tourists, but I was more than happy to do it. I pay him in a mix of US dollars and Ugandan shillings to ensure I have enough to pay for a cab home. As I pay my accidental tour guide I ask him his name and it is Rafiki – which is my favorite out word out of the five Swahili words I know – it means friend.


My First Date with Uganda

A couple weeks ago I caught a smell in the air of burning wood and had this weird visceral memory and turned to Shaun and said, “This is what I remember Kenya smelling like.” After three years it was weird that that smell could suddenly link me back to a place. When I left the airport in Uganda I breathed that smell in again and felt comforted at the familiarity.

One of my favorite parts of travel is the cab ride from the airport. It is the first date with a new place. You are forming your early impressions and noticing all of the places’ quirks. Last night when I arrived I was immediately charmed by Uganda. I cannot explain why. I think one of the reasons was the ease of the travel experience. Customs was easy and comfortable, I spotted my luggage on the carousel right away, and when I exited the airport the hotel driver Esra was waiting for me outside. He was friendly and immediately made me feel calm. There was a sense of quiet around the airport not like the hussle and bussle of the Nairobi airport. On the cab ride to the hotel Esra opened all the windows and I inhaled the smell I remembered. I looked out and saw an election poster sign and far off lights, but mostly it was dark and there was not much to see. I struggle with whether in academia I am what we call an “Africanist” and I realized regardless of that label there is certainly something about the countries I have been in Africa that enthralls me.

When I got to the hotel (which has a motto based on making their guests feel like a friend) they told me they offered each guest a complimentary drink. When I had wine in Kenya it was never very good, but this woman assured me it was a nice dry South African red. Obviously being me I immediately spilled it on the floor of my room and had to call the front desk to help me clean it up, but that is not the point. I slept that night in my mosquito net canopy bed and didn’t feel the anxiety I expected. I felt cozy and excited.

I went down to breakfast this morning and realized I had never traveled by myself before internationally. Everyone else was paired off at breakfast and I was there with my book and eating my beloved African mangos. Being by myself gave me this new sense of confidence. After breakfast I walked to the hotel’s “beach” saying hello to everyone and snapping a few pictures.

The scenery feels more like a jungle than a beach lake type town. It is overcast today which adds to this mystical feeling. It is either overcast or the smoke from things burning. I am sitting on my hotel room balcony watching people bike and walk by on the dirt roads. It is peaceful here and I enjoy listening to the sounds of birds chirping and people starting their days. I am excited to see how this relationship progresses.


Into Africa

I started this blog almost exactly three years ago when I was traveling to Nairobi for a research project. I wanted to use it to write about what I was experiencing and had no idea what kind of blog it would turn out to be. I didn’t I realize that it would mostly be me laughing at myself like when I broke the shower and almost flooded our Nairobi apartment or when I cried my eyes out on 4th of July.

I am writing this before I leave for Uganda and I feel a lot different than I did three years ago. I am tempted to even say maybe I have grown and the more adventurous things I do the less anxious I feel about them. I shudder to even think about how I felt before I left for Kenya. I can still feel that paralyzing anxiety in my gut.

I made some rookie mistakes that I do not think I will make this time. I completely over-packed and planned as if I was going to a remote village instead of the city of Nairobi. I did not realize that I would be living right next door to what is basically a target and became one of my favorite places while living in Nairobi. Also, I failed to think about the fact that a lot of places do not have elevators and so I would be dragging two huge suitcases upstairs (or more accurately asking a cab driver or hotel employee to haul them up the stairs as they laughed at me).

More importantly I have now realized I can’t really imagine what the trip is going to be like and that might be the best part about it. I do not have to control or predict every aspect of the trip and to be honest I can’t. I can deal with things as they happen and the most challenging experiences always make the best stories.

Here are a few things that have kept me much calmer this pre-trip time when I am usually the most anxious version of myself:

  1. Read travel memoirs of people doing much more adventurous things. I am currently reading Love with a Chance of Drowning about a woman who decides to sail across the pacific with her new boyfriend despite the fact that she had 1) never sailed before, 2) suffered from seasickness, and 3) was afraid of the ocean.
  2. Goodbyes do not have to be dramatic. Shaun suggested this one to me as I find the pre-goodbye usually puts me in quite a tizzy. They can be loving and warm, but do not need to be blown out of proportion.
  3. Don’t get nervous about being nervous, there is a chance I am not even going to be that nervous. Before I left for Nairobi I was an anxious wreck for weeks. Granted, that trip was almost two months and this one isn’t even quite two weeks, but in hindsight was it really worth the wasted energy in advance? I think my strategy is to put off being nervous for as long as possible and then embrace the nerves if/when they arrive. This time I got pretty anxious a few days before and then had one small crying meltdown while finishing packing and preparing to leave for the airport. I can deal with that!
  4. Exercise hard– now that I am a “crossfitter” (which is really a whole separate blog post) pre-trip I put all of my energy into getting through crossfit classes and that left me with less energy to use being anxious.
  5. Break down the travel into steps of things that might be challenging. For example, on the way to the airport just focusing on getting to the airport, do not think ahead to checking-in, boarding the plane, the plane ride, etc. Then once I get to the airport I can go to the next step – checking-in and so on. I even made a list this time of the different steps so that I could remain focused on each one.

Finally, if I wasn’t at all nervous then it wouldn’t be an adventure would it? Stay tuned for more posts from Uganda! And please feel free to include some “Uganda be kidding me” jokes.

*Editor’s note: I wrote this before I left, but I am posting this from Uganda (made it here!). I will have a post about the trip and Uganda up soon!

Doggy Mindfulness Practice

We have had Bucky our dog for two months now and if it wasn’t for me being busy worrying about my PhD program this blog quickly would have become the blog version of Marley and me. Bucky is now all we talk about and my parents will call to ask about or facetime with their granddog.

Before I got a dog I knew all of the research about how dogs are helpful for people with anxiety. My psychiatrist even jokingly wrote me a prescription that said, “get a dog,” about a year before we got Bucky. What I didn’t realize was the ways in which having a dog would make me connect with the world in a way that was far and above the mindfulness practice I attempted to do.

When you have a dog (unless you are an ass) you do not look at or talk on your phone when you walk your dog. Therefore, walking a dog is like a mindfulness walk where you actually notice your surroundings (especially when your dog poops on them). If your dog is afraid of a lot of things like Bucky, you notice the noises that your neighborhood makes and recognize where the fire hydrants and mailboxes are located (because your dog crosses the street to avoid them), as well as where the garbage barrels are because you are always looking for places to throw out poop bags.

As a dog owner you are part of a whole new culture and community. Before I had a dog I never knew there were dog groups where people met every week to take their dogs to play. Shaun and I have “shopped around” the dog spots in our neighborhood. We eased into dog park culture by meeting our friends and their dog there. We met the crazy lady who knows the ropes of the park and talked our ears off. We learned that you should always stand with your knees bent or you will fall flat on your butt in the middle a group of dogs like I did last week. The next week we tried a dog park in a fancier neighborhood and were shunned by the older dog owners. We learned there was a “popular dog” that everyone (dogs and people included) loved, but who we decided we hated as soon as he picked on Bucky. Finally, the next week we found our group at the Saturday morning meeting spot at a field near our house. We luckily drove by one day and were welcomed immediately. The group of people we see once a week is not the people we would normally be hanging out with regularly on the weekends as they range in ages and backgrounds. However, every Saturday for the past four weeks we bring Bucky there and he catches up with his friends while the parents make small talk. We have learned about each others lives and the dogs’ personalities. They have seen Bucky come out of his shell every week and get over his fear of tennis balls. It is comforting to have the routine and familiarity and Bucky seems pretty thrilled too.

It is not only the regular groups that form a sense of community. When your dog is as excited about seeing other dogs as Bucky it forces you to talk to strangers with dogs. I have already written about the power of talking to strangers, but it is even more powerful when you have dogs to aid that interaction. You watch the dogs interact and comment on their quirks. This week we even started our own dog party because we saw our neighbor (who we have barely talked to) out on a walk with her dog and encouraged her to join us at a nearby field. Before we knew it people passing by joined with their dogs and there were six dogs frolicking on the first spring night. We got to know our neighbor and her dog and made plans for summer barbeques in our adjacent backyards.

It has not all been smooth sailing transitioning to life with Bucky. Just this evening Bucky pooped in the middle of the kitchen floor while Shaun and I were in there preparing dinner. As a clean freak Bucky has challenged me to let go of obsessing about whether everything is always clean and neat. When I was worrying out loud to Shaun about whether our house smelled like poop despite my cleaning and I explained to him that this was hard for me as a clean freak he responded in his straight forward manner with a smile, “Well why did you get a dog then?” Recently, Bucky’s new habit of tearing apart toys and dispersing the stuffing around our living room leaves me to spend every morning picking up toy guts.

Before we got Bucky people loved to tell us how much hard work it is to have a dog with some people even telling us not to get one. I always found it strange because it was often people with dogs. You never hear people warn you about this with kids. I guess I didn’t quite believe the warnings. But the thing is even with the frustrating moments of picking up poop in the middle of the kitchen or from our living room rug (maybe he has IBS like his mom) I have realized that having a puppy is like any other loving committed relationship. It has enormous highs and has certainly changed our lives for the better, but just like with any relationship you have to accept the person (or animal) you love even with their flaws. No one said unconditional love is always easy.

Bucky day 1

Our first day with Bucky – lots of smiles and nerves (him too)

Do Men Get Coffee?

I don’t usually write about my research or political issues on this blog which could be an act of avoidance because it certainly is a big part of my daily life (as it is for most women who are aware of and experience sexism in our society). I think there are important questions of how certain situations in daily life are different for men and women and men and women of different positions.

Part of my problem is that I notice I put myself in subservient positions because of several reasons. One, I am a people pleaser and care about customer service after spending my late teens and 20s working in a make-up store and on a political campaign trying to get people to donate money. I also think I still feel like I am in a lower position or still see myself in that first job as a paralegal in New York City when I thought I would get ahead by being helpful and friendly (but really there was no getting ahead in that job). I look back now on my performance review and a male attorney praised me because he noted that even when I was making copies I did it with a smile. Now I am not saying a good attitude shouldn’t matter, but can you imagine this ever being part of a young man’s performance review? Why should it matter if I smile while making copies as long as you get your organized copies? Is it to make the people asking me to do these menial tasks until 10pm at night feel better?

Finally, I think I have been trained differently than my male peers. In order to get ahead I have always been taught to work hard and go above and beyond, but this looks different for young men versus young women. When I have been given this advice by well-intentioned people I don’t think they have the same image of a hard working woman versus a hard working man. A hard working man does not have to be always smiling or pleasant or subservient. He asserts his role, intelligence, and position, which is not related to being friendly or accommodating? If it is, terrific, but it is not what he is judged against.

This thinking all started because of a frustrating situation I was in today where I organized an event with a speaker. I am a PhD candidate and was with two professors in a room full of younger masters’ students who are at this event because I invited them. For some reason I let my role becoming giving people food and make everyone comfortable. The professor speaking at this event is someone who I think does not particularly like me or my research and in my nervousness instead of trying to demonstrate what a bright researcher I am and competent individual, I got up immediately to get him a water and as a side note asked if he wanted coffee. I guess I stupidly thought it wouldn’t feel like I was a waitress and that he would turn down the offer for coffee, but he took me up on my offer and asked for water and coffee. I did not receive a hello, or eye contact, and felt I had to make myself invisible as a person to get this coffee and water and deliver it quietly so as not to disturb the men having small talk. Then he asked for food and instead of someone sitting near the food helping pass it along I had to quietly walk across the room as the designated female caretaker to get it for him. I was not acknowledged when the event started except to ask questions about the food I ordered for everyone.

I am not trying to blame this one individual, but instead to reflect on myself. I internally scolded myself for acting this way, but was it really my fault? I don’t know another way of being that does not involve trying to be polite and friendly, but when does this become more than just being friendly, but becomes minimizing myself as an academic or professional. Maybe this is just me being sensitive and maybe the option is to not care whether I get coffee, but whether I am still getting ahead at the end of the day as an academic. In the meantime, I will be getting coffee for myself so I can keep working my butt off to produce the work that will help me advance.