Welcome Back

I am writing this from the balcony of the apartment I am staying at taking in the sounds of Nairobi – the honking, the street sweeping, the yells in Swahili (I love the sing-songy language) and a rooster crowing (even though it is afternoon?).

As soon as I stepped off the plane I was immediately hit with the smell of burning which to me is the smell of Nairobi. The visceral reminder made me smile. The airport I was walking through was not familiar since a few days after I left in 2013 the airport burned down. This airport seemed new and modern.

When I walked out of the airport there was a swarm of men holding up signs for people they were picking up. I stood across the street staring and trying to find David. I couldn’t find him so kind of weaved through the crowd with my suitcase and quietly calling “David” like a little kid who lost her mom. I called him and then located him holding a big sign with my name on it.

We walked towards his car and I couldn’t be happier to see he has the same blue minivan. It immediately felt comfortable being back. David chatted with me a bit and I forgot that he has a strong accent so I yelled “what?” several times from the backseat. Or occasionally I was too tired to ask for clarification so I just laughed along. I love the accents here, but I am hoping to get used to David’s in the next few days so I don’t have to always be yelling what to him. He seemed happy to see me again and keeps asking me if Nairobi seems different. I can’t tell what seems different or what I just didn’t remember.

This morning I woke up to some exotic sounding bird squawking outside my window. I clawed out of the massive mosquito net I slept under and felt comfortable and happy waking up here.

I went out to do things I needed to do to get settled and tried to re-familiarize myself with the city. I went to get a SIM card at a mall type place and noticed the increased level of security with not only having our car searched upon entrance, but also walking through a metal detector and being searched again at the cell phone store. I felt uneasy being there, but then realized that people continue to live their lives and go to malls (because that’s where a lot of necessary stores are located). We didn’t stop going to the marathon in Boston just because of the Marathon Bombing. I kept calm while getting my phone reminding myself of the rational facts, but, I felt relieved walking out.

I then went to an outdoor strip mall type place and exchanged money and then sat down to lunch at a place advertising its “Artisan Pizza.” I was reminded again about Nairobi as a city of contrasts. People who have never been probably picture this remote or not modern city, but the city is extremely cosmopolitan and modern and continues to remind me that in all sorts of ways– like the fact that the girl I am staying with here goes to barre class, or the nice nail salon I passed on the way to the cafe, or the three men at the table next to me at lunch who look like they came from Nantucket. I have mixed feelings about seeing groups like that because I want to believe they can’t belong here (with what seemed like entitled attitudes and overly styled outfits), but at the same time it makes me laugh when people worry about me in an exotic place when there are these men occupying the same space. I ordered a chicken club and another sign with avocado aioli (yet another sign I am not roughing here).

After lunch I went to the grocery store which I think is always a fun cultural experience in another country. One grocery store in the complex was all produce and had a juice bar that looked like it could have been in whole foods. I navigated buying a few groceries, but was fading quickly. The challenge of trying to do everyday things and feeling awkward and unsure of how the simplest things work is tiring (Do I bag the groceries myself? Do I put them on the scale? Did I count out the money right?). It makes me feel compassion for people I see trying to run errands in the U.S. who I might be tempted to roll my eyes at for holding up lines, but who are trying to navigate these new spaces.

On the way home David pointed out that we were driving by the office I worked out of every day I was here last time. I was so excited to see it and it made me so happy to remember that experience. I am not sure if I love Nairobi or love remembering the experiences I have had here, but either way – I am happy to be back.

 

 

Nairobi Part 2: Coming Around Full Circle

I started this blog almost four years ago when I first traveled to Nairobi for six weeks to do research for an internship

Since that trip I have been to Africa one other time (and two solo research related trips to Europe) so I am slowly starting to build up these travel experiences and find familiarity in the unfamiliar.

I am currently sitting at the airport and reading past posts I wrote for Nairobi. The last I went I wrote about how my pre-trip anxiety wasn’t as bad as expected and I even gave tips on why I thought that was. In preparation for this trip I  didn’t even know the advice I needed to comfort myself was what I wrote years ago.

In advance of the trip I was getting upset at the confusing fact that I am both someone who chooses to take these adventures (and chose a career track that is conducive to it) and someone who has anxiety before adventures. At first I thought I was a masochist and constantly wanted to test myself. Part of that might be true – adventures are rewarding because you have to overcome something. More importantly I realized that these are two pieces of my personality. I do have the anxious side and while I can do therapy and read self-help books to cope with it that will always be part of me. I also have the adventurous side – the wanderlust side, the one who enjoys defying expectations, and who wants to live a more exciting life. For some people taking a trip to Nairobi would be no big deal and I wonder what that kind of freedom feels like. But this is who I am and it is not use wishing I was someone else. For others taking a trip to Nairobi might be too outside their comfort zone they wouldn’t be at all drawn to the option. I think sometimes I forget that extreme – I might be nervous before an adventure, but I am not so nervous to not go.

I had hoped that with each trip I am building up my repertoire and the leaving will become easier because I have gotten used to it. However this time a pre-trip freak out happened at an inconvenient moment in the J-Crew Factory Store dressing room (where all good breakdowns happen). Because yes in addition to being anxious and adventurous I am also the type of person who buys new clothes before a trip to Africa. I was trying on clothes and joked “what screams, don’t mug or kill me?” Shaun told me it wasn’t funny and I got some stares from the employee in charge of the dressing room. I have found more recently that to cope with my fear I say the thing I am scared of in a joking way, as if to show I am thinking about it nonchalantly when really it is anything but casual. I don’t know where this tool comes from, but I don’t think it helps me and my jokes aren’t funny and only scare my husband. As I was trying on clothes and trying to figure out what to wear I felt overwhelmed and scared. I couldn’t articulate it to Shaun because I think there was a part of me that knew it was irrational. I also decided that since I am making this choice to do this kind of work and go on these trips, I wanted to resist asking Shaun to comfort me. He didn’t make this choice and it would probably be easier on him if I wasn’t leaving. I needed to learn to comfort and soothe myself, but I couldn’t find the comforting side of me in that dressing room.

Since that breakdown I felt much better. That is not to say the leaving got easier, but I realized that I had a lot of fear of being afraid. In my mind I make such a big deal of the leaving and prepare myself for it to be this horrible anxiety-filled process, when it is possible that it doesn’t have to be. Maybe I can just let an emotion be an emotion and tolerate it without reading deeply into it. While the repertoire of past trips I am trying to build didn’t prevent the dressing room incident of 2017 it did later remind me of an amazing track record of past trips despite anxiety. I also have learned that the second I am on my way I am always fine. I find that comforting side of myself and the adventurous spirit kicks in once I am off and running.

I was tempted to end this blog post by saying that maybe I will get better at leaving, but maybe I won’t. I think the real challenge is going to be okay with emotions that happen either way and not being afraid of them. To trust my judgement and to remember that the two sides of me work together to plan smart trips and fun adventures. In the meantime will find adventurer Phoebe and be the most present I can in my current adventure.  I am excited to be back and sharing adventures from Nairobi again. I shared some of my happiest memories on this blog and I am so glad I have a record of my first experiences of Nairobi to relive and remember.

The Internet Pause Button

I am writing this at 4am on vacation thinking about an email that was better left unsent. After looking at the email three times there was nothing overly offensive about it, but here is the thing, my life would have been easier if I had just paused and waited it out. Waited for someone else to respond, waited for the situation to resolve itself, waited for someone else to encourage me to respond, just WAITED.

I have a feeling this problem is plaguing lots of people today. When we see that facebook post about politics that is offensive or inaccurate, instead of pausing to think about really the best way to address the person or accomplish our goals we hit the comment button immediately. Hence facebook thread fights that I have often read relishing in the entertainment and feeling all noble that I wouldn’t get involved in one of those. But of course I recently engaged and commented on an offensive post of an acquaintance. To be honest that one I didn’t regret and it never turned into the back and forth I have seen some of them get into (I like to think it is because I made such a powerful point and the person regretted their post, but most likely they learned the power of silence). There might still come a time when I run into this person and I realize that certain things are better left unsaid (or at least not said in facebook or email).

As I write this I wonder what the line is between things being better left unsaid and standing up to someone. In cases of political conversations my instinct would be to go ahead and engage (although again what is the difference between engaging immediately versus waiting an hour?) Politics are supposed to be discussed, although probably not on a back and forth chain, but ideally looking at each other and reading each other’s social cues.

In other situations, like the one I am in, I guess the question is what is a response going to get you that waiting can’t. Waiting leaves the door open for a response, but at least in a more thought out manner. I think my challenge with waiting is that I feel I can’t put an issue to bed or move on unless I have addressed it and responded. That sounds like how couples fight and probably isn’t the best way to handle professional situations.

The “wait and reflect” improvement path has been a journey for me. I have come a long way, thanks to my husband who is usually patient and thoughtful in his email replies and will often pick up the phone in tricky situations rather than respond to an email. He has encouraged me to pause in tense situations with landlords, neighbors, or family. I have never once regretted the waiting approach, but in the moment it can be hard to remember. It probably all comes back to the difficulty in sitting with someone uncomfortable. I want to do anything I think will resolve feelings of discomfort when really if I just sat with them for a moment they would probably subside and the situation would resolve itself. This thing is I pride myself on being a good emailer and know that other people struggle with managing their emails and maybe there is such a thing as waiting too long to reply. There could be a whole group of people out there who are beating themselves up for not replying to emails they get and letting their inbox fill up. They could be offending people in a whole different way who feel snubbed at the lack of response. We are all just looking for that middle ground response rate.

I wish I was better at the wait and reflect approach and I hope by writing this post it will set it out in the universe (or at least internet space) as a new intention that will be back in my mind every time I hit reply. Or maybe there is an intrepid silicon valley start-ups that can create an app that can tell when you are engaged in difficult email situations (heart rate monitoring?) and has a pop-up with the sign, “WAIT!” and will not let you respond for an hour. Maybe it is too niche of a market just to create an app for only me? Although hoping I am not alone in this character weakness and maybe there are whole support groups for the over reactive emailers out there.

I was about to post this, instead of waiting until later of course, just to get it off my chest, but then I had strange technical issues trying to post it. Was that a sign to wait? If so, I ignored it and posted. I have a graveyard full of “wait and see” posts that I never found the time and energy to come back to so maybe blogging can be the occasional chance to break my own rule. Only time will tell…

 

Lets Talk Politics

I remember the excitement of participating in my first political campaign so clearly. I was 17 and a few months into my freshmen year at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was already enthralled with college – my newfound independence, new friends, and beautiful new city. It wasn’t just any city, Madison is one of the most politically active college campuses in the nation – it was a hotbed for the Vietnam War protests and when I was there protesting was still a way of life. One especially cold day a bunch of kids even protested winter (a cause we could all get behind in Wisconsin).

It was the Kerry-Bush election and the election was taking place a week before my 18th birthday. I was excited to join “College Democrats,” but embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t vote yet (this was the time in your life when being young was uncool). I was out on election day encouraging people to vote and envisioned scenarios in which they would say, “When did you vote?” and I would have to admit that I couldn’t vote.

That night I watched the election results in someone’s dorm room with my new boyfriend and new friends. When the election was called later that night for Bush I remember feeling powerless and down. My newfound political activism was squashed and at 17 years old I was already adamantly against another 4 years of Bush.

Three years later in my Senior year I advocated passionately for Hillary Clinton –despite the fact that Obama was probably the cooler candidate for young people to support. I would ramble on to anyone about why I was supporting Hillary. I voted in my first primary.

My next election memories involve being in New York City and sitting in a quiet bar with a friend on the Upper East Side, staring at the TVs, when they announced Obama’s victory. That night I could hear people on the streets (28 floors down from my apartment) celebrating. It was my first taste of the excitement when your side wins. I also remember sitting in a huge conference room at the law firm during the inauguration and asking my new boyfriend (and future husband) when would be an appropriate time for me to leave the room to pee. Maybe it was excitement or maybe it was because I always have to pee, but I was so uncomfortable and squished in the front row making it impossible for me to get up and come back discretely. As a paralegal we never wanted to draw extra attention to ourselves in a room full of associates and partners so I sat through the moving inauguration ceremony trying not to pee my pants.

Two years after that I would work on my first election campaign for a Senator. It was one of the most exciting times in my life. I lived and breathed the election working 7 days a week and spending all my time with the rest of the staff. I had the exciting moments of meeting Presidents Obama and Clinton, but I also remember the sheer exhaustion I felt leading up to the election. We had a big glass wall in the office and I started the countdown to election day on it, crossing off a number each day we survived. I have never worked so hard in my life and never slept or ate less (anyone who knows me knows that if I am not on a regular meal schedule something is very wrong in my life). All of my energy went to the campaign. I felt such sheer excitement and giddiness that election day. As part of the finance/fundraising team our job was basically done so we got out of the office and on the streets. We did “viz” which basically means standing on the side of the road holding signs, wearing tshirts and hats with the candidates name on them, and getting people excited about voting. They called the election pretty early for the Senator that night, at about 8:30pm, and I remember it being an almost anti-climactic experience in the moment. Did that really just happen? Was that it? What now? Later that night we were like kids at a slumber party jumping back and forth on the beds in our hotel room.

This election I have followed the news, watched every debate with outrage (and then importantly every SNL skit mocking the debate), and tweeted my heart out, but it wasn’t the same. It was harder for me to volunteer alone without being in a dorm or on a staff where we all did it together. Tonight I stopped making excuses and made 30 campaign calls with only my dog as company. I felt better than I have felt in weeks because I remembered the thrill of being part of something important. Tomorrow I am going to New Hampshire to canvas. Canvassing isn’t the most fun and to be honest I am not even sure whether it makes a difference or not. But at the end of the day it makes a difference to me and to know that I still have the passion of that 17 year old freshmen who was so excited at the opportunity to volunteer and was truly devastated at not being able to vote yet. As I am a week away from my 30th birthday I finally get that chance to vote for Hillary Clinton (the first female candidate for President!) and am remembering the pure joy in volunteering for a cause and participating in the democratic process.

Why So Angry?

For the last two months I have been ANGRY. From the sexism in our current election, to the guy “manspreading” next to me, to the fact that I am being underpaid for hard work, my reaction has to been to be just plain pissed off.

This feeling is slightly familiar as I did live in NYC for two years. I remember walking around the street and being mad and taking out my anger on fellow New Yorkers. I pushed past people while walking or loudly sighed at the person on the subway who had no sense of my personal space or mumble under my breath at the tourist who stood in front of me taking a picture. I felt so angry all the time and knew I couldn’t sustain this feeling for long and that New York wasn’t the right place for me because it seemed like everyone else was just as pissed off as me. So I left New York and went to DC and Boston where sure people are angry, but it is less culturally appropriate to walk around with a scowl on your face and push people out of the way when you walk.

But here I am back and feeling like my old New York self. Anger brews in me and comes and goes in waves, but never quite seems to pass. Working out seems to be the only way to healthily channel my anger and make it subside. The other things I try are complaining to friends or sending passive aggressive (or just directly “aggressive”) emails, but the anger is still there no many how emails I send.

I ask myself if anger is more tolerable than sadness. In some sense it is more energizing because it doesn’t quite suck the energy out of you like when you wake up and just want to hide in bed all day.

What about the people who aren’t angry? They just “let things go.” Are they better off? Is it something in their nature that I am just missing? Or are they pushovers? Should we all get that feeling in our gut sometimes to show we are alive, thinking, feeling beings?

I know my anger isn’t serving me, but the more I think about that the angrier I get. I usually wrap up my blogs with a tidy conclusion, but as I was writing this I got in a confrontation with a student in the class I was a “substitute TA” for. After our little confrontation I realized that the nicer I acted with the other students after the confrontation the better I looked. An angry person does not garner much sympathy or make people want to connect with you. It could be that part of our anger is a search to connect with other people – we want them to know how we feel and feel less alone in our anger. When I used to angrily walk around Manhattan I would search people’s faces looking for something comforting or encouraging. I just finished this new book that is on the NYT bestseller list and is called The Universe Has Your Back. The message is that we need to “see the world through love” and stop letting ourselves be guided by fear. It sound hooey, but at the same time I would probably feel so much calmer if I “saw the world through love.” But what if me never being angry means I never stick up for myself and advocate for the fair pay I know I deserve? Or ask the “manspreading” student next to me to please give me more space?

These both might be true – I might be more at peace if I saw the world through love, but I might stand up for myself more when I am angry. Like all things in life I probably need a balance of the two and my over anger is not helping anything except my fitness routine. In the meantime, I will try to breathe deep and smile at one person I see who doesn’t piss me off…

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.