Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Year on the Road

Ok so it has not quite been a year and "road" is a loose term.  More like, spending the majority of the past year living in "not my home."  I figured this was as good a time as any to reflect on my mad journey.  There have been plenty of tears along the way and it's probably the loneliest I have been since I first graduated from college.  I left my favorite boys behind and pursued my own selfish impulses, but they've been more understanding than I ever could have hoped for or deserved.  Well...the biped has been, the fluffy quadruped, not so much.

Nonetheless, this past year I have done been plenty of amazing things that I never thought I would do.  I rode horses in Mestia, floated over Cappadocia in a balloon, hopped on a camel, accepted rides from strangers, had a picnic in the clouds, scaled castle walls, built an entire house in just a week, wandered through caves, dined with strangers, danced like a fool, ate mysterious foods, made frenzied dashes through airports, slept in strange places, and chased farm animals even though there was no farm to be found.

Now that I have settled into graduate school I find myself reading until I pass out from exhaustion, spending too much time contemplating modernization theory and experimental design, and constructing nerdy jokes that only a very few will appreciate.  I have not grown to love London yet, but I do love my nuts as it is sometimes.  It's comforting to know that after a year of not quite fitting in anywhere or with anyone that there is a cozy niche at LSE where I can indulge in being myself and not worry so much for a bit.

I didn't meet all my goals for this past year.  I did not make it to Azerbaijan or Belgium.  But I am already dreaming of 2012 with ideas of Morocco, Loch Ness, Belgium, and the Siberian railroad.  I realize that most of my time will actually be spent on my dissertation and the inevitable job hunt, but this girl will dream all the same.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Across the Pond

It's been a while since I've written.  That's due to a few reasons, one being that I didn't have internet in my flat until last week, the other being that I am busily trying to keep up with my grad program which is trying to fit the most amount of learning possible into a one-year program.  So as I sat pondering a 90 page article comparing U.S. and EU amnesty programs I decided I would rather provide a brief update. 

The first question I get from people from home is "Oh my god, do you love London?"  I can be helpful and just say yes or I can tell the truth.  When it comes to making this decision, it really depends on the time of day and how much energy I have.  The first few weeks were terrible.  I hated it.  I wanted to go home.  But then I remembered, a) I don't have a "home" anymore, and b) I have no job prospects without a graduate degree.  I was helpfully reminded the other day that I did not join the army, this is actually a temporary situation, so I should just buck up and get through it.  This in mind, I decided to make the best of this opportunity.

That being said, things have steadily improved.  I am making some friends, I do manage to do some fun things from time to time, I sometimes even smile.  I really do love my program and the professors I am working with.  I am thrilled by the amount of opportunities my school provides for augmenting my program through conferences or public lectures.  I also enjoy the people in my program, we have different motivations for choosing this path and that diversity has been a huge benefit in the classroom.

I am optimistic that at the end of all this I will have partaken at least a bit in London life and seen a few interesting places.  Perhaps there is even a possibility for a long-term life in Europe.  But for now it's nose in the books.

I will say this: stop commenting to me about the London rain.  It doesn't rain that much.  In fact, the weather is gorgeous.  I have admired plenty of beautiful sunny days...from my couch as I read about the fundamental theories of nationalism. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I moved Washington, DC ten years ago.  I was a freshman in college, all bright-eyed and eager to make my mark in Washington and eventually the world at large.  I had only been here for less than a month when it happened.  I remember a lot of details from that day.  I remember getting up after my roommate left for her 8:30am class and turning on CNN, as was my routine by that point, and seeing the two burning towers. I remember walking into the still dark hallway of the dorms and hoping to see someone else awake that I could talk to.  I saw the girl who lived across the hall and told her what I saw.  I do not remember what she said, but I remember the look on her face.  I went to class, because I did not know what else to do.  Of course everyone was in shock and did not want to discuss Justice 104.  So instead we talked about terrorism.  In the middle of class I remember that one of the deans came in and said classes were canceled, the Pentagon had been hit and the towers had collapsed.  He told us to go back to the dorms and not to go downtown.  I walked back to the dorm in a daze.  I remember I couldn't call out because all the phone lines were going haywire.  So I emailed one of the only people I knew who would be sitting at the computer and had him call my dad, who I knew instinctively had left work and was waiting at home for my call.  My friend who did this for me, does not remember this. 

I remember everyone from my floor sitting in the common room and watching the television.  For some reason I couldn't bring myself to be with them.  So I sat in my room with my roommate and two of my friends.  Later I went to work at the campus bookstore.  I remember this was one of the only days when someone didn't yell at me for not having their book in stock.  They came in, they asked, then they looked like they wanted to get upset, but couldn't bring themselves to, so they just turned around and left.  I remember the rest of the staff sitting in the manager's office watching television, they were seeing images of people celebrating in a middle eastern country over what had happened as well as footage of people jumping from the buildings.  To this day I have never watched any of the footage.

I remember Congress singing on the steps of the capitol building.  I remember writing an email to my high school teachers and friends at home.  I remember emailing back and forth with my long distance boyfriend.

A year later I remember sitting in a different room in the same building, on the same floor, and watching the President give his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and waiting for us to go to war.  It was really quiet that night as we all watched and waited.

I remember a year after that waking up on a cold December morning and turning on the television to see that Saddam Hussein had been found hiding in a hole.  I later remember seeing pictures of his hanging body.

I remember seeing young men and women in uniform every time I went to an airport. I remember my sister calling me in tears because she would also see these young men and women and all I remember her saying was "they are so young, they're just babies."

I remember waking up in Gori and turning on my computer and seeing that Osama Bin Laden had been found, killed and buried at sea.  I remember seeing the images of people celebrating and feeling numb.  I only now realize that it was because it reminded me of the people celebrating 10 years ago. 

I do not remember crying that day.  I am sure that I didn't.  Many people I know shrug it off, say they've never felt scared or nervous, that security screenings are annoying or useless.  Being searched and screened and patted down has become second nature to me.  And really I don't mind it, because I remember.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

House Hunting / House Building Part 2

This is going to be a long one.  Just a word of warning.

When I last wrote I was about to head off to London/ Budapest/ Beius for some "flat" hunting and house building.  My first stop was London.  However, I arrived a full day late due to the sheer incompetence of my former-favorite airline.  I flew out of national airport, was supposed to spend three hours in the Atlanta airport (3 hours is 3 hours too long in that god forsaken place) and then jet off to England.  However, due to a ground stop and an agent who lacked basic cognitive skills this did not happen quite as planned.

Here is a portion of my conversation with customer service:

Agent: There is no reason to rebook you, your flight will take off at 7:30pm.
Me: Ma'am, it's 7:30pm now.  We deboarded the place at 7pm.  There is no sign of reboarding.  My next flight is at 10:50pm.  I do not want to be stuck in Atlanta overnight.
Agent: No, it's 7:23pm now.

I bet you can guess what happened.  Yup, I got stuck in Atlanta.  We did reboard in time to make the connecting flight, however, standing on the runway for nearly 2 hours changed that outlook.  After standing in line for over 2 hours to get a hotel voucher for a night in a Motel 6, I returned to the airport the next day to fly to Boston where I would catch their 10:50pm flight to London.  Why not just take the 10:50pm flight out of Atlanta and skip the connection drama?  Good question.  The answer is twofold: 1) I really hate Atlanta; 2) that's how the brilliant airline rebooked me, reassuring me that my 40 minute connection would be "no problem at all."

Can you guess what happened next?  Yes, the plane did board late!  After successfully narrowing everybody's connection time to almost nothing, the plane was then in need of maintenance.  Yay, we get to deboard!  What followed was a series of visits to gate counters, customer service counters, and courtesy phones.  An hour later I was rebooked on the same flight that I had missed by 20 minutes the night before.  Oh joy, 5 more hours in the Atlanta airport.  I consoled myself with airport nachos, my inexplicable go-to food in airports that always manages to be frozen or in some other way completely disgusting.  And yet I always come back for more.  Not unlike my relationship with this airline. (These were actually in fact the best airport nachos I have ever had.)  Much later that evening, even later than expected because -surprise!- that flight took off late, I finally boarded my flight to London.  When I eventually arrived in London, I searched frantically for my luggage which I was convinced would not make the hop across the pond, only to discover, that somehow it came via Boston.  Really?  How? Oh well, at least it was there.
My next blog will be called "Airport Nachos" and will consist of belligerent rants against this airline.  

At some point during the nearly 3 weeks of travel that followed I got a "'How did we do?" email.  I let them know.  However, for some reason the airline's survey only let me complete half of my rant.  A carefully worded email of complaint was due to follow when I arrived back stateside.  But after barely making it through the crush of humanity at Heathrow airport I boarded my plane back to DC only to discover that somebody had upgraded me to Business Elite.  Yeah, that's right, the part of the plane with the yummy three course meals and seats that recline into beds and fluffy blankets.  What a treat for this hungover gal, you sly airline lackeys.  That email was never sent.

So, the house hunting portion of the trip began during the 36 hour period I had before flying out of London into Budapest.  This was a discouraging series of hours during which I called landlords who refused to rent to students, refused to hold any apartments until the first of September, or refused to call me back.  I also talked to a series of agencies (a popular option for London dwellers) who said I needed a UK-based guarantor (i.e. a British person willing to pay my rent in the case that I cannot -- not an F-ing likely find now is it?), 500 pounds in finder fees in addition to 6 weeks rent and 6 weeks deposit, and 6 months rent up front.  Sigh. 

During that one day I had to look I was able to only see few places in a posher part of town that I did not want to live in.  It was not promising.  This is what I saw, no seriously this happened: washers and driers outside under the stairs to the basement level apartment (do they know what London is like in the winter? I do.), a shower inside the living/ bedroom room complete with clear glass doors, and a place that looked like immigration had come through and ransacked the place.  I spent the next two weeks in Romania stressing about my future living quarters and pondering whether I should give in and do a flatshare with strangers who I probably wouldn't like.  When I got back to London things looked up.  I saw a few more places that, while not perfect, were much better than the other places and I could picture myself living in.  I eventually met a very straightforward landlord who I had spoken to during those first two days and said that no he wouldn't hold the apartment that I called about, but that when I returned on the 17th he did have a similar one that would be almost ready for the market.  Upon arrival in said apartment the words of Brigham Young came to me: This Is The Place.  (You can take the girl out of Utah, but can't rid her of that mormon humor).  So now I have keys and a lease and hope that when I arrive back in London on Wednesday that something horrible hasn't happened to the apartment. 
My new neighborhood on game day.  Go arsenal! That's soccer right?
I did get to do a few fun and semi-relaxing things in London.  I met some awesome solo-traveling girls at the hostel I stayed in, wandered around Camden market, drank cider, had a picnic in Hyde Park, took in some live music, and met up with some friends from Georgia.  I've already done the touristy things in London and figure I can revisit everything during the downtime I have in between my arrival and the beginning of orientation.  I have also planned out a few concerts for myself and researched local boxing gyms. 

Camden Lochs.  No I don't really know those are.

Budapest and Beius
The other not stressful, extremely fulfilling and barrels of fun portion of my trip was building a house with my Habitat for Humanity team.  I flew into Budapest a day early and had dinner with my friends Katie and Miranda.  The next day Miranda and I wandered through Budapest, one of my favorite cities, and had a relaxing day of shopping and lounging in the famous thermal bathes.  Later that night we met the rest of our team.  Just like last year, we had an amazing group of people who were at once hard workers and a lot of fun. The following day we drove the 5 hours from Budapest into Romania. 

This was a special year because my friend Katie, who I met last year when I built for her team, was leading her 10th trip to Beius.  She has been involved with Habitat since her college days and has built homes in Latin America and the U.S.  But Beius has a special place in her heart, so she has returned nearly every summer for the past 10 years.  It's hard to explain why a small village in the heart of Transylvania is so special.  But it is.  Romania, even after my intensive travel this past year, is still one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  Being able to do something like provide a house to family is my ideal way to travel.  We get to work with the families building the house, bond with the local construction crew, and immerse ourselves in a way that your standard Dracula tour would prohibit.  I have a long list of places where I want to build houses with Habitat (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, South Africa, Columbia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand....) and as much as I want to go back to Beius (I know I will at some point) my goal is to do a build every year somewhere new.  Katie also spent some time talking me in the the idea of leading my own team.  Which if I really want to build in Central Asia, I might need to organize my own team since it does not appear to be the most popular choice for leaders.  I spent the 2 weeks visualizing my team and imagining how everything would flow.  This will probably happen.  Though, next summer I will be writing my dissertation and job hunting and maybe applying to a few long-term programs that would keep me busy for a few years.  But the way I see it, there is always time to take a vacation, travel to a new place, and build a new home.
Me and Nelu.
Part of the family.

Me, Miranda, and Katie.
Me and a stud.

Up on the scaffolding.

Our team, local crew, family, and Habitat big bosses on they day we dedicated the house to the family.

Our hometowns. 
Me and the Romanian handball team.  I don't know how this happened.  Actually I do, but it's another story.
After driving back to Budapest we had a final team dinner on our very own boat that floated down the Danube allowing us to take in Budapest at night.  Have I told you how much I love this city? Yes?  Well I love it even more at night.  The next day Katie and I took a train to the Hungarian city of Szentendre.  We spent the day wandering around this cute little town and tasting the local wine at a series of cafes.  At the end of the day we met up with a few of the remaining team members, had a final dinner, and said so long and see you soon. 

Budapest castle district.


Szentendre.  The sign says "My life with marzipan."  Sounds like a must-read, no?
So now I am sitting here wondering how on earth I am going to get my life into these two large suitcases, survive graduate school, and make new friends in a new city.  I am sure that my adventures in London will be numerous and hopefully go beyond reading Edward Said.  I hope to travel throughout the UK and even hop over the continent a few times.  Christmas time in Brussels anyone?  No seriously, anyone? 

Luckily, this time around I opted for a direct flight to Heathrow...

Monday, August 1, 2011

House Hunting/ House Building

Tomorrow I am crossing the pond with the feeble hopes of securing a place to live for my upcoming year in London.  Over the years I have spent much of my time analyzing housing costs in numerous cities, and have basically had my hopes crushed in all instances.  Finding a place to call homes feels nearly impossible sometimes.  However, like the good little researcher I am, I have been logging numerous hours on websites and responding to ads for tiny, one room "flats" that may or may not be in an area that guarantees a nightly stabbing.  My goal was to spend a week and a half  in London searching out the perfect place to spend my postgraduate hours, hopefully alone and with my own bathroom -- I dream big.  No flatmates need apply, I'm impossible to live with.  However, with less than 24 hours to go before boarding my flight, I have received minimal responses from landlords willing to show me what they have to offer.  I am nothing if not persistent, so upon landing and after downing a pint of scrumpy jack I will call each and every one of them and explain why I am indeed the perfect single, student they are wishing to let their flat to.  Even if I end my sentences with prepositions. Here goes nothing.

The more exciting piece of this journey is actually what I will be doing in the middle of my time in London.  After a few days of non-stop flat hunting, I will take a hiatus and head over to Budapest where I will meet up with some of my favorite people -- my Habitat for Humanity team!.  From there we will head over to a small village called Beius in Romania and build a house together.  A whole house.  In one week.  This is my second Habitat trip and I could  not be more excited to mix cement, build roof trellises, tie rebar, stucco walls, and drink cjuc.   My friend Mallory and I have been spending time thinking of our "Top 5s" with regard to travel.  And though we only tackled "Top 5 Cities," I have to put it out there that Romania is probably one of "Top 5" countries.  Everything about it is amazing, even the fried brains.  I look forward to working with old and new friends and celebrating our fearless leader's 10th build in Beius.  I hope some day that I can find the guts to lead my own build. 

After recovering in the Budapest baths, which happen to be built by Turks, I will return to London and spend the rest of my time finding a place to live, opening a bank account and scoping out the LSE campus.  Here's hoping that I have some good "home" karma stored somewhere.

Monday, July 11, 2011


The other day my mom asked how I was.  I said I was bored.  She responded, "well of course you're bored now."

It's been roughly one week since I returned to the U.S.  I suppose I could have taken the global nomad path that some of my fellow teachers are currently on and not have returned at all.  But alas, paperwork brings me back to DC.  I have to hang out here and wait for my student visa to be issued so I can attend school in the fall.  I have to specify DC and not say "home" because at the moment I am and without a home.  Sure I have inhabited DC for the past 10 years, but everything and everyone here is so transient that it never really became home.  Right when things get comfortable, everything changes.  Salt Lake is where I grew up, but having been away for so long, there are only a few people there I still know.  So suffice it to say, I have no place to call my home at the moment.  Maybe that will change at some point in the future, but who knows.  So for now I'm in DC hanging out for a bit until my visa comes.  I hope it comes soon -- I'm bored.

This is the tough part of what is called reverse culture shock.  Coming home is always much harder than people expect it to be primarily because traveling changes you.  Or at least it should.  If it doesn't then you're doing it wrong.  Coming home is assumed to be exciting -- you get to see everyone and everything you missed!  But the downside is that not only have you changed, but home has changed.  Everything continued to evolve -- without you.  In my case this is not only true, but it is exacerbated by the fact that, like I already said, "home" is a nonexistent concept for me right now.  So I'm back and it is still great to see to everyone and everything that I missed so much.  But knowing that another round of goodbyes is just around the corner compounded with general uncertainty about what happens next makes it all the much more gut wrenching.

Now to be more positive...

One of the many good things about being stateside, other than getting to spend time with my favorite boys (though one of them is shedding all his fur off in giant tumbleweed sized balls), is getting to enjoy everything my neighborhood has to offer.  I love Cleveland Park -- hate DC, but love Cleveland Park.  This little gemstone of a neighborhood has plenty of bars and restaurants to keep one entertained and yet manages to be personal and friendly, even in the midst of hoards of tourists waddling their way to the zoo.  I love my local dive bar, I love playing pool and board games at the other bar, I love getting food from the Vietnamese, Indian, Mediterranean and Thai restaurants, and I love my grocery store (all the stock boys love my tattoo) and my liquor store (the manager always picks out my wine for me).  I also love petting other people's dogs and saying hello to my favorite panhandlers.  Sure a few things have changed while I was gone.  There is no longer an empty McDonald's sitting around looking blighted, it has finally been replaced with a new seafood restaurant.  It joins the other addition, a new steak and frites joint.  Who can complain about such changes?

I have had the luck of living in the same apartment since I graduated from college several years ago.  While everyone and everything around me drifted in and out of my life, this place remained constant.  It is quite possibly what I will miss most about DC.  I'm currently passing my days by looking for a place to live in London.  There are many challenges, but the biggest (other than finding a place that doesn't have shower in the middle on the living room) is finding a neighborhood that I will fall in love with the way I fell in love with Cleveland Park.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


There are many tourist towns in Cappadocia, I blindly selected Goreme.  Don't ask me how it is pronounced, because everyone I met pronounced it different. I must admit that much of this portion of the trip was "blindly selected" as I didn't have my usual bookstore resources and abundant travel guides to assistant me in my decisions.  All I knew was that people go to Cappadocia and I had 4 or 5 days on my own to do whatever I wanted with, so why not?   

So now that that is out of the way...

After Istanbul I headed to Cappadocia, which is in eastern Anatlolia and about a 12 hour bus ride from Istanbul.  Luckily the Turks know a thing or two about traveling by bus.  Unlike the nightmarish Chinatown buses that us lucky folk living along the eastern seaboard get to utilize, Turkish buses are comfortable, clean, and have actual attendants that bring you tea and snacks.  So while I originally blanched at the thought of spending all night on a bus, alone and in a strange country, in the end I was thrilled with the experience.  Over the months I have cherished my somewhat frequent road trips and the time spent with my ipod.  This playlist took me back to the mid-2000s and included such hits as "international dateline," "finding out true love is blind," and "cloud."

Upon arrival in Cappadocia I found myself standing among about a half dozen other blurry-eyed travelers.  The dude at the info desk, conveniently located at the bus stop, kindly called each of our hotels to come fetch us.  I was eventually whisked away to my cave hotel where I was greeted by an extremely doting and friendly staff.  The nice American girl who was staffing the place directed me to the all the local sights and cafes.  After a shower and a nap I set off to a cafe followed by a journey to the "penis rocks."  Upon seeing a solo traveler the cafe staff joined me for lunch - it was me, Ali the owner, and a girl from Japan who came to Turkey and hadn't yet returned because she fell in love with Goreme.  We traded bits of our lunch along with our various travel stories. 

I took a detour from my appointment with the penis rocks and wandered around in the desert for a bit instead.  It looked a lot like southern Utah and blessedly felt just as dry.  I passed by a souvenir stand which had a few camels standing nearby.  I chuckled at first but when I circled back around on my way back to the hotel I spotted a baby camel.  This is where I got weak.  It was a baby camel!  Of course I needed a picture with it - I hadn't spotted the sign noting the cost for rides as well as pcitures.  No such thing as a free ride or a picture.  The situation snowballed after my cameo with the baby camel, suddenly a ladder was pulled out and I was ascending it with the intent to mount the big camel.  This is what happens to solo travelers, nobody is around to talk sense into them.  So there I was being paraded around the souvenir stand as the dimwitted tourist who just had to have the camel ride, which was just a big circle to the ice cream stand and back.  The  entrepreneur busily took several photos with my camera saying "Angelina Jolie" at every snap.  (No sir, I will not adopt your children and I will certainly not co-star in a movie with Nicolas Cage.)  After dismount they brought over the donkey.  Yeah, I really just wrote that.  So there I was riding the donkey.  Clearly they wanted to rack up quite the bill.  I just laughed and handed them what I thought was fair for making me laugh and went on my merry way.

I occupied my time in Goreme with hikes through the valleys, a Turkish bath, a day tour though southern Cappadocia with a bunch of happy couples, and of course drinking plenty of tea.
Pigeon Valley

Cave city/ monastery in southern Cappadocia
But the main thing I was pumped for was my sunrise balloon ride.  I was picked up from my hotel at 4:25am and taken to the balloon center which was brimming with people, seemingly from all over the world.  I was handed my safety instructions and told to wait until my pilot's name was called.  When they shouted out "Francesco" I and about a dozen Brazilians were loaded into a van.  We arrived at the sight as our balloon was being inflated.  A woman spotted me on my own and decided it was her duty to make sure that I got plenty of pictures of me floating up in the sky.  It was a fun group to be in the air with, especially as I can only understand one word of Portuguese, so I was basically alone with my own thoughts.  After little over an hour of dipping into valley's brushing the tops of trees, and floating high above the rocks we landed and toasted our journey with champagne.  Then it was time for me to go back to the hotel, eat breakfast with the two older couples staying at the hotel (who were thankfully NPR addicts like me) and take a nap.

Eventually the fun ended and it was time for me to head to Anakra where I would catch a flight back to Tbilisi.  Hands down, Goreme is the best place for a solo traveler.  I made plenty of friends and had many interesting conversations with strangers.  And now that I know a bit more, I will definitely return to Turkey and this time Izmir and Borum will be on the itinerary.