The Culture of Eating: A Literal Interpretation of “Food For Thought”

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Scenario One:

It is a Monday morning, and I have not gotten enough sleep. Outside, a miserable sheet of rain is unleashing its wrath on the few students who have summoned enough courage to venture outside. I am not this brave. In fact, I doubt that I will drag myself out of bed for another hour or two. However, I suddenly remember that I can’t miss my 1 pm geology lab, making fruitless attempts to find my hairbrush and put together a normal outfit. Food is less that an afterthought; if I had to rank my daily priorities on a scale from one to ten, eating would be a negative number. Instead, I stop by the coffee cart outside of Paley Library, gulp down the last milky dregs, and rush to the lab.

 

Scenario Two: Dunedin

It is a Monday morning, and I have not gotten enough sleep. Outside, a miserable sheet of rain is unleashing its wrath on the few students who have summoned enough courage to venture outside. I do not have a morning class, but I should really mobilize and work on a few essays that will be due in the upcoming weeks. However, the constant grey-ness of Dunedin has really been bumming me out, so my motivation for work is low. I decide to have a treat-yo-self kind of morning to raise personal morale, throw on a sweater, and head to Good Earth, a really awesome local café by my flat. One thing that New Zealanders seem to have down is the art of egg-making; whereas Americans seem to be constantly scrambling theirs, Kiwis enjoy a wide range of fancy egg preparation, from frying to poaching to boiling. I decide to embrace fancy egg culture and order two poached eggs in Hollandaise sauce with a layered potato cake. As I wait for my breakfast to arrive at my table, I crack open “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens and sip a flat white. When my meal arrives, it is piping hot; everything tastes amazing and I spend more than an hour just relaxing, munching, and reading. With a full belly and caffeinated brain, I eventually depart, fueled and ready to work on essays at the central library.

 

Notice a difference? In terms of activities that are imperative to human existence, eating is one of the most significant. Eating culture varies from country to country, with each state, province, or territory exhibiting its own unique subset of foods or eating traditions. When I was younger, I was reminded of this constantly by my grandmother, a cooking enthusiast who understands that the process of eating is one to be celebrated. In the mornings at my grandmother’s apartment, I would always sit at the same spot at her dining room table, laden with a beautiful fabric placement, different glasses for juice and tea, perfectly arranged silverware, and my favorite plate- one that showed four chubby chefs preparing a meal. With unmatched grace and agility, my grandmother would lay out our breakfast bounty: crisp toast, eggs, fresh fruit and yogurt, and the occasional bacon. I think that when I am preparing to die and reflecting on my own human experience, these breakfasts with my grandmother will go down in the top-ten best memories from my existence, though they may seem inconsequential.  Nothing to think about but the complexity of the music accompanying our food, the process of eating, and the pleasure of one another’s company. My grandmother is the sole person that I credit with teaching me to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate a really good meal.

 

It makes me sad to think about, but eating culture in the United States is trash. This sounds harsh, but compared to many places around the world, it’s kind of true. America has been the ultimate proponent of worldwide fast food grab-and-go culture. Nothing says “I don’t have time to enjoy or care about what I’m putting into my body” like a $2 Whopper special from MacDonalds or an enormous, extra sugary Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to go. The purpose of FAST food is to spend as little time as possible savoring the food that one eats, enjoying the time spent eating, or reflecting on the physical act of consumption. As a result, the quality of prepared foods in the United States has fallen miserably to the point where we barely care if we’re putting wholesome ingredients or absolute garbage into our bodies. This has led to reduction in price of high-demand, terrible cheap foods and an exponentially expensive cost of eating well.

 

Living in New Zealand has given me a heightened respect for both the process of preparing foods, the origins of the food that I purchase, and the activities surrounding consumption. Almost the food that I eat comes from the local farmer’s market or Veggie Boys, a tiny shop that sells beautiful veggies for cheap. Instead of blindly walking into a supermarket and picking up items, I have started to contemplate various facets of production that occurred between development my food item and the incident of purchase. Did my kale from a farm that uses sustainable growing practices? Did this piece of salmon come for a large-scale fishery that doesn’t consider the ecological impact of irresponsible mass fishing? What type of lives do the goats that produce my cheese experience? New Zealanders are so big at sustainability, limited wastefulness, and conservation that these questions will now inevitably pop up as I grocery shop. Now, the process of cooking a meal has derived new meaning as well. After a stressful day, I like to turn on some peaceful music, carefully lay out all of my ingredients, and being lovingly arranging them into a meal. Cooking reminds me of the careful, precise techniques that I employ for research at my lab at home. The practiced motions of each activity bring me a kind of numbing, happy peace. To the subconscious mind, is there a difference between measuring out a graduated cylinder of 1M HCl and pouring vegetable oil into a measuring cup? For meditative purposes, I would argue that there is not. In New Zealand, I also have the pleasure of enjoying nightly flat meals with all of my flat mates, which is refreshing as I normally eat quickly and alone. Through these dinners, I have really bonded with the people that I live with, and have had the pleasure of trying typical Kiwi meals that my New Zealander flat mates prepare.

 

It would be ridiculous to say that I’ll never participate in “grab and go” food culture again in the United States. Let’s be honest: some fast foods (hello pizza) are amazing in their own greasy, delicious ways. To say that I won’t hit the Mexican burrito stand at least twice during my first week back in Philadelphia would be a lie. However, I want to extend my newfound appreciation food preparation and enjoyment to my friends and family back at home. Instead of munching on pasta in my room as I churn out my latest assignment, I will force my roommates to put down their work, sit down together, and eat some good food. Of all of the best relationships, moments, and memories of my life thus far, most of them revolve around consuming, preparing, or gathering around amazing meals.

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Exploring the Boundaries of my Seoul

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Two weeks have passed since I have arrived in South Korea and they have been contained some of the most extraordinary moments of my life! I quickly became close friends with my Austrian roommate, Arno, who in turn introduced me to friends that I am extremely grateful to have met. We have gone to some amazing places, including the beaches of Gangneung, the hills of Sinchon and the metropolis of Seoul. The sights have been incredible so far and I look forward to continuing my adventure!

As I mentioned at the end of my first blog post, upon my jet-lagged arrival to Seoul I checked into my dorm and fell asleep before even meeting my roommate. He came home later that night after exploring the city with some of my soon to be dear friends. After a groggy, but friendly first greeting I quickly went back to sleep. In the next few days Arno and I bonded over our many similarities and differences, we both were bassists, loved music of all genres and were thrown into a completely foreign environment. Though our backgrounds and reasons for coming to Korea were totally different (he wanted to explore a place far from home, whereas I wanted to explore a place intimately connected to my own) we quickly found ourselves exploring the many sights of Seoul together. Additionally, he had introduced me to a group of fellow exchange students that quickly became very close friends of mine.

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View of Seoul from North Seoul Tower

One of the first journeys our group, and many other Yonsei students, took was into the neighboring city of Sinchon. A short 10 minute walk takes you into the heart of the city, which is always busy with pedestrians walking into the many shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues that Sinchon has to offer. One of the things stressed to us during our orientation was the importance of mastering the public transportation in Seoul. Our group quickly acquainted ourselves with the subway and bus systems, which allowed us to venture into the nearby towns of Hongdae and Itaewon with ease. While each city is obviously different from each other, they are connected through their brightly-lit streets, hilly terrain and incredible nightlife. In my opinion, the most interesting and different thing about Korean cities that I have encountered is the fact that the buildings are built onto the landscape, which promotes the preservation of its many wooded hills and allows for some spectacular views. This contrasts with American cities, such as Philadelphia, where many times the landscape is flattened in order to allow for greater ease during construction. Of the many exciting activities we have done in these towns, my favorites include Korean barbecue, shopping and karaoke!

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Exploring Hongdae with Friends!

Not only have I had the pleasure of exploring the nearby surroundings of Yonsei University but I have also been able to venture far away from Seoul. Gangneung is a small city on the east coast of South Korea known for its rustic beauty and seafood. Myself and three friends took a 3 hour bus ride from Seoul station in order to stay at an Airbnb right on Gyeongpo beach. The beautiful countryside was much different from Seoul’s bright skyline, but allowed us to shoot fireworks on the beach, ride scooters along the coast and watch the sunrise over the Pacific. We even got to eat at a traditional family-owned restaurant after much confusion with the Korean-speaking chef and the help of some English-speaking customers!

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Sunrise over Gyeongpo Beach

While I had no expectations going into my study abroad semester, I can safely say it far exceeds anything I could have hoped for and I am so grateful to continue exploring my mother’s homeland. See you in the next blog where I talk about a trip to one of the most Southern areas of Korea and accidentally ordering pig stomach for dinner!

 

An Ode To Mom: Personal Values and Studying Abroad

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A few days ago, I was sitting at a cafe in Tongariro National Park in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. My friends Claire, Clara and I had just finished a massive, day-long hike to Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom to those Lord of the Rings fans reading this) and were sitting in silence, too tired to say much of anything. I decided to crack open a book that I recently bought from a really nice used book shop near my flat when I noticed a very tiny, fluffy-haired girl toddling around next to us. We made eye contact, so I smiled and waved. She cackled and waddled back over to her mom, who smiled and scooped her up into her lap. The girl continued to wriggle around and do lots of annoying little-kid things that parents hate (eat crayons, point out inappropriate things loudly, generally ignore the indoor voice/outdoor voice idea), but her mom continued to smooth her hair and pat her back. This immediately reminded me of another very tiny and energetic blond girl who, over 18 years ago, was probably annoying her adoring mother in the very same way.

This probably sounds lame, but my mom is one of my best friends in the entire world. She has always been my real-life Lorelai Gilmore. When I’m sick of my friends or the smell of North Philly or classwork, I take a 20-minute train ride to my mom’s apartment to be showered in gluten-free snacks, Keeping Up With The Kardashians references, and new succulent plants. My mom wears clogs non-ironically and can rock a mean pair of cat-eye sunglasses. She is probably the most patient person alive, and has been for the entirety of my life.  This is the first time in my entire life that I’ve established permanent residence more than 20 minutes away from where my mom lives, and let me tell ya, it is hard. I find myself frequently thinking about how lucky I am to have a parent that I miss so horribly. More recently, I’ve been having random flashbacks to things that my mom used to do for me when I was a little kid, like make hot chocolate on snowy days, or feed ducks bread with me in the park, or braid my hair in the mornings before elementary school.

In the United States, I take a lot of things for granted. My apartment building is automatically heated and cooled depending on the temperature outside. If I’m ever out too late somewhere in Philly, I can call Uber to get home almost immediately. My dad will reliably treat me to free Vietnamese food once or twice a month. If I run out of vitamins, deodorant, or almond butter, I can run to Trader Joe’s and reliably pick up the exact products that I want. And- given that time differences are irrelevant- I can call my mom whenever to say hello or pop by for a visit. In New Zealand, everything that I do is so much more calculated. Most foods here are prepared differently than in the US, so I always have to check menus thoroughly before ordering because of allergies. If I’m having a rough day, I have to wait until either late at night or early in the morning to call my friends or family because of the 16 hour time difference. I’m careful not to get sick or break any bones because of international health insurance hassles. I use my favorite Roses’ Lip Balm liberally because there is no Urban Outfitters to stop by in case I run out. A chronic victim of clumsiness, I try to avoid spilling things on the few clothing items that I have here in NZ because I know they’d be expensive to replace.

This might sound stupid, but I hate the string of apathy that follows mass consumerism in the United States. Things that you buy are cheap and disposable, and immediately available when their predecessors are used up or broken. This “buy/throw away/replace” culture makes it so much easier for Americans to devalue personal relationships and belongings. We’re constantly looking for the next best item to buy, or significant other to pursue, or friend to hang out with and we don’t appreciate the things that we already have. Being isolated in New Zealand, far from many of the people and things that I love, has made me truly value the people, things, and experiences that I do have here. I feel like I’m living a much fuller, more valuable existence because I appreciate my life more. My morning cup of coffee is not just a drink, it’s a delicious boost of caffeine that will enhance my mood, help me settle into my morning routine, and taste awesome! My boots are not just boots, they are warm, comfortable foot-hugs that help me to easily traverse the planet! My bag is not just a bag, but a beautiful, leather container that guards my passport and money from the world and keeps my beloved sunglasses safe! So meta, New Zealand!!

That last part may be a joke, but it’s kind of true- for the rest of my life, I want to own, become close with, and seriously value a select number of personal belongings and people. I think that it’s so important to get rid of bad relationships and unnecessary belongings in order to truly value the ones that you need or love. So long are the days of buying 10 pairs of moderately cute and cheap shoes from Buffalo Exchange- I want to own the pair of my dreams, cherish them forever, and wear them to my grave! Goodbye wastefulness and apathy! Hello appreciation and love!

 

 

 

 

A long way from Quito

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17th August: Quito, Ecuador

I am currently sitting in the auditorium of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito listening to an orientation the university has prepared for us. It has been such an intricate adventure getting here and I am still recovering from it all. When I finally arrived at the Quito airport, 24 hours after I was supposed to, Juan Carlos (one of the program coordinators) picked me up and we got on an $8 bus to make our way to the old airport. We drove for about 45 minutes during the sunset through the most beautiful and grand mountain ranges I had ever seen.

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over the river and through the mountains to Quito

“Maybe all the struggles of the last day and a half were worth it for this beautiful view,” I thought to myself as the bus pulled up to the half-abandoned building. That thought was cut short when I was quickly embraced and taken by the arm to an awaiting taxi by a flustered Ecuadorian woman, my host mother.

We arrived to her house and she gave me rice and chicken (a South American staple) while I explained the events that had unfolded over the course of the last two days.

14th August: Philadelphia, United States

It all began on Monday the 14th when I started my day in Philadelphia International Airport at 6 in the morning. I was supposed to have two flights that day, which I didn’t mind much because it was cheaper and I could spend the day mentally preparing for my time abroad.

From PHL I flew to Tampa, and from Tampa I flew to Miami. I arrived in Miami ready to board my flight to Quito, Ecuador and was happy to have an hour to relax before boarding at 2:50. Unfortunately, I would learn shortly that there were different plans for myself and the other ~130 passengers.

The first curve ball that got thrown at us was that there was to be maintenance done on our first plane, so they moved us to a new gate. However, since there were no planes ready to take us where we needed to go, we had to wait a couple hours. I understand that American Airlines doesn’t just have extra planes waiting around to take people to Ecuador on a moment’s notice, so I didn’t let it get to me.

We were supposed to board the flight at 2:50, but were not able to get on the plane until 4:50.  I sat down, ready for my third and final flight to begin when the pilot announced that two people decided to get off and that we would have to wait for their luggage to be removed. I didn’t want to be bothered just yet, so instead of focusing on the setbacks I let myself fall asleep.

I was woken up by screams and flight attendants running up and down the aisle. From the angle my seat was at, I could only see the people crowding around the emergency. At one point, a crew member lifted up a blanket to give the person privacy in whatever was happening, but in my sleepy state, I really thought someone had died and they had to cover a body. Luckily that was not the case, we found out after a short while that one of the crew members was having what appeared to be a seizure or a heart attack.

I had no idea where we were, but I knew we were going to have to land to get the flight attendant to a hospital as soon as possible. We landed around 8:30 pm and learned that the crew member had a heart attack and would be taken to the hospital. We also learned that we were now in Jamaica and, after an hour of decision making, the crew began handing out customs forms. The staff had been aboard that plane since 4 am and due to certain laws, they would not be able to work any longer. We were going to stay the night in Jamaica. We were taken to a hotel near the airport and had to wait in line to get a room. Another setback was that American Airlines did not send a representative with us to help us get our rooms and most of the passengers were Ecuadorian and did not speak English. I finally got a room around 2 am and I had never been as happy to rest in an unfamiliar bed as I did that night.

We got our flight to Quito around noon and I surprisingly felt more prepared to arrive than I did the day before. If I can handle all the setbacks, twists, and turns that my first day had to offer, I feel like I can handle anything. Taking the leap to study abroad is scary and full of surprises, but I am so grateful to be where I am now. All the uncertainty I carried with me seems so irrelevant because I am living, learning, and loving my time in a new culture.

waking up in Montejo Bay, Jamaica


informing my mom that I’m a long way from Quito

What to Expect: Getting in Touch with my Roots

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The weeks leading up to my departure to South Korea filled me with countless emotions. Excitement about living in an entirely different world, apprehension over navigating in a city with a drastically different native language, sadness about leaving the ones close to me, and gratefulness to be able to pursue such an amazing opportunity. Most of all though I felt shock, even though travelling to Seoul had been a long time dream of mine that was months in the making; it felt surreal to me that in a matter of hours I would be embarking on journey of over 6800 miles.

One of the main reasons why I wanted to partake on this journey was to get in touch with my heritage. My mother’s side of the family is originally from Seoul and I have been exposed to Korean culture ever since I was a child. I distinctly remember days spent at my grandparents house eating homemade dumplings, noodles and stews. I always loved spending time with my Korean side of the family, which was fundamentally different from my German/Syrian roots on my dad’s side of the equation. Yet another motivator for my trip was the fact that I never learned how to speak Korean while I was young and as such, could never fully communicate with my grandparents. Starting sophomore year at Temple I began to take the language courses with the hopes of one day being able to have full conversations with my grandparents. To further this goal I decided that fully immersing myself in Seoul would improve my speaking skills considerably.

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Checking in my Luggage at Newark Airport!

I thought that I would seize the opportunity to live abroad while I could and although I felt ill-prepared, before I knew it the planning process of my trip was over with and I was about to depart on the experience of a lifetime! I had only left the United States a few times in my life, once on a brief trip to Canada and once on an extended vacation with my family to the Philippines. Not only did I have limited exposure to foreign countries as a whole but I had also never taken an airplane by myself! I had a long journey ahead of me with two flights resulting in a cumulative 21 hours of flying time. My friends and family gave me the support and courage I needed to make the trip and my course schedule was finalized for my semester at Yonsei University. Suddenly I was at Newark airport with my two bags and checking into my connecting flight to San Francisco. Luckily for me, (and unluckily for my high school teachers) I have always been able to fall asleep quickly so the first six hours of my journey flew by in no time. After a short layover, I was on a significantly longer flight to Incheon National Airport. Even sitting on the plane it felt half like a dream that I was going to be living in an entirely different continent for four months. After watching a few movies and listening to a few albums the plane touched ground and I had made it to my mother’s homeland!

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Immigration at the Incheon International Airport!

Customs and immigration were the first challenges I faced in Korea and luckily for me they went swimmingly. Next, I had to navigate the bus system in order to get to my dorm at Yonsei University. After a long line and awe-inspiring ride to the university I was dropped off at the station next to the university. However, I still managed to get lost and wandered around the foreign environment for the better part of an hour until I found someone who directed me to my residence at SK Global House. Finally, after all the confusion and excitement from my travel I checked into my room. The jet-lag quickly caught up to me and I fell asleep before even meeting my roommate!

Thanks for reading my very first blog! In my next post I will address my first two weeks in Seoul, the friends I made, and the little things that make Korea so distinctly different from the US.

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First sight I saw after getting off the airport bus

What to Expect: Critical Friends

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A friend is someone who will be by your side no matter what; who will stick by you and share pivotal moments of your life with you. A critical friend, however, is one who will offer you their honest opinion and critique, with the goal of helping you grow as an individual. Our professors introduced this term to us during orientation, and encouraged us to remain critical friends to one another throughout this experience. This served as a running theme throughout the program. We were in tight quarters, in an unfamiliar country with a culture we weren’t used to. We’d make mistakes – we just had to trust someone would be there to challenge us to do better. To be better.

During our class, for example, we had to be critical friends. We were there to help each other grow, not to bring each other down. Sometimes people made problematic comments or said things that conflicted with the majority opinion. These unpopular opinions were definitely addressed during class, and conversations often became tense. Having these kinds of conversations about social issues and opposing ideologies can be tough, as there may not actually be a “right answer.” However, what I appreciated most about this program was that it forced us to talk about and think through our differences in ways some people may have otherwise never had the opportunity to.

I was often challenged to be a critical friend, myself. This summer was characterized by evolving dynamics, underlying themes, and layered issues. I found myself being a critical friend to my classmates who made decisions that totally disregarded the people of color in the group; my Jamaican comrades whose ideologies were rooted in gender and racial biases; and even my professors, who allowed their assumptions to dictate how they handled situations.

Sometimes being a critical friend came in group settings, but you’d be surprised how many people actually seek it. Watching some of my classmates truly humble themselves enough to admit they were wrong and seek guidance on how to move forward was one of my biggest takeaways from studying abroad. You see, in class, we talked about the “bystander effect” and how not acting in a situation can be just as bad as being the oppressor. And as difficult as it is to be strong, your actions, or lack thereof, could determine the course of a situation. I began to reflect on my own ability to admit when I was wrong, and realized that in order to be an effective critical friend to others, I had to  be critical of myself.

What to Expect: Lots of Reflecting

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Do you know what’s worse than writing a 15-page research paper while studying abroad in Jamaica? Writing a 15-page research paper while studying abroad in Jamaica with no wifi. The lack of internet stability added further frustrations to the academic aspect of this program. From the beginning, the routers were not always consistent, and coupled with the further complications the weather had provided, we had a very difficult time completing our assignments. Luckily, the other assignments we had were not research based, but rather, based on our personal observations at our service sites or during our time in Jamaica altogether.

The program itself consisted of two aspects: the class and our service sites. Class met Monday through Friday for 2 hours, with discussions based on our assigned readings. Conversations in class got pretty heated, especially considering we were all coming from so many different upbringings and academic disciplines. I noticed that Liberal Arts students had an easier time adapting to the discussions. Topics ranged from economics to politics to social issues. I didn’t expect conversations to get so intense, but opposing views were extremely common, as were passionate convictions about certain things.

I had never had an opportunity to really delve into certain issues with white people in my classes until this program. We were forced, or encouraged, to be open with one another, despite whatever opinions someone had. Whenever race is discussed in traditional classroom settings, white people tend to retreat. I’m not sure if it’s the fear of saying something wrong or being labeled as racist that typically steers them away, but many of the white people in this program were open about their thoughts.

It’s difficult to avoid talking about race or culture when you’re in a black country. Jamaica has so much history with slavery and colonialism that it’s almost impossible to avoid it. This was not Europe. This wasn’t Asia. And because of that, conversations got real.

Additionally, a lot of reflection was made in regards to our service sites. I was assigned to RADA, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, an organization in Jamaica with the goal of driving economic growth through agricultural development. I was so excited to finally have a field project within my discipline. However, because the organization had so many duties and not enough staff, my project and role there got overlooked. There were long periods of waiting and frustration that I had not been expecting and overall uncertainty about what I would be writing about for my final paper. Even the midterm, which we took upon two weeks of arrival, had to discuss what we were working on with our projects… It was hard. But in the end, I ended up having a project after all and was able to complete my papers.

Breathing Easy: Mental Health and the Kiwi Academic System

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For the entirety of my academic career, I have been a die-hard nerd. When I was little, I used to petition my dad to borrow extensive encyclopedias on animal biology for me from the library. In elementary and middle school, I took enrichment classes to plan my own independent research projects. Up until freshman year of high school, my interest in learning was just that – my own. Sadly, this changed drastically in high school when impending SAT exams and college applications began to loom. Suddenly, my interests were reduced to single items on resumes that could be cruelly analyzed by administrators; the devotion to academic toil limited to one deceivingly innocent GPA. During junior and senior year, I struggled with mental health issues and sleep deprivation, both of which were driven by the insane level of academic competitiveness of my peers and the ever-present terror of colleges that had yet to accept me. I wish that starting as a freshman at Temple helped to alleviate this ridiculous push to be a “perfect” student, but it really only worsened the situation. Immediately after accepting a position in Temple Honors, I began browsing the multitudes of courses available, challenging myself to cram a schedule with advanced material. The quest for “academic perfection” was (thankfully) thwarted spring semester of my sophomore year after suffering for weeks from study-induced anxiety attacks.

Prior to moving to New Zealand, I assumed that this crippling need for academic perfection was just the way of life for all hardworking college students. Most of my American friends at home are also guilty of over-pressuring themselves academically, so my study-induced mental health issues seemed like the norm. After two months of being a student at the University of Otago, I can confidently say that I was completely wrong. The method of study in New Zealand universities is completely different than in the United States. Rather than spending my entire day in class, rushing to extracurricular activities, and then drowning myself in studies at the library, my average day at Otago consists of one or two classes with the occasional evening or weekend extracurricular excursion. I am not expected to produce a constant supply of essays, assignments, or homeworks; my final grades for my classes are based on one or two major essays and a final exam. Instead of freaking out about what marks I’m getting on assignments, I actually enjoy the material that is presented in class and can engage in discussion. In fact, the limited length and frequency of classes encourage me to pursue course topics on my own outside of class and start essays/assignments way ahead of their due dates. Apart from attending courses and completing independent work, I have copious amounts of time for developing the types of interests that I had as a child – ones cultivated purely for the sake of enjoying something new. So far, I have taken up painting (pointilist-style, and inspired by photos from incredible hikes I’ve done on the South Island) and bikram yoga, two things that I’ve always wanted to improve at but never had the time. This relaxed schedule has essentially eliminated the mental health issues that I struggle with in the United States, as well as produced a sub-conscious motivation for me to stabilize my new found sense of inner peace and good health. Rather than scarfing down quick lunches from food trucks (no matter how tasty they are), I cook all of my own meals and spend at least a half hour eating with my flatmates. Although I ran regularly in the United States, I could never exceed past a certain level physically due to time constraints or stress. Now, I’ve been able to improve my running times and conquer farther distances.

In New Zealand, the pace of life is much slower. The “city” where I live, Dunedin, is much smaller than Philadelphia. The entire “city center” of Dunners could probably fit within Rittenhouse Square. People aren’t breaking their necks to walk to their next appointments. Shops close by 4 or 5 at the latest, and there is no threat of danger for a young person walking around alone at night. Most oddly, there is a sense of quiet throughout Dunedin – not a literal absence of sound, but lack of chaos – the type that permeates North Philadelphia so intensely. New Zealanders value mental health, personal wellbeing, and leisure time. I am a city-lover at heart, and in the United States, this seems to require a certain degree of neuroticism that is not present in New Zealand. I miss jay-walking in Center City with a piping hot La Colombe coffee in tow. I miss stuffing my face with Halal before hopping on the subway to show up mid-opener to a concert at the TLA. I oddly miss opening my windows to honking horns, shouting, and chattering neighbors- I miss the ever-pulsing heartbeat of huge East Coast cities that refuse to sleep. What I don’t miss is crying in my bedroom at 3 am because I still have a French paper to write, or hyperventilating to my mom on the phone because my anxiety is out of control. Or sleep deprivation. Or feeling like my life is completely out of control because I have stretched myself too thin.

When I leave New Zealand, I am determined to carry this newfound peace and mental stability back to the United States. Now that I am living the Kiwi lifestyle – one of increased attention to happiness, health, and peace – I refuse to let my own fixations on academic perfection and overcommitment take over my life. My new mantra is as follows: breathe deeply, sleep well, do what you love, and stay happy.

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Thursday nights, fall semester, sophomore year: stressful late-night organic chemistry study sessions

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Thursday nights in Dunedin: more free time in the evenings to do the things I love most, including Lord of the Rings movie nights with my pals.

Flowers in an Aching Void

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I had a nightmare the other night.  There were no specific images, no specific sequences, no specific fears.  Only a feeling.  I shattered back into the waking world out of breath, my heart in an ice cold knot, trembling; my eyes were wet with the stinging salt of tears.  The nightmare hasn’t come true, but I know it will.

I’m not ready to leave London.  I’ve seen a lot of things and done a lot of things, but there’s always more.  There’s all of England outside of London, all of Scotland, all of Wales, and half of Ireland.  And then in the rest of the world, there’s the other half of Ireland, there’s continental Europe.  There are Asia and Africa and Antarctica.  There are places that would change my world if only I could find them.  If only I had time to find them.

In Wales there’s a mountain in Snowdonia National Park called Cadair Idris.  Ages ago, according to the local lore, the giant Idris made his throne there, and the lakes surrounding Cadair Idris are said to be bottomless.  There is magic there, in legend, and if you spend the night on the mountain, you’re likely not to wake up at all.  If you do, you’ll either wake up a madman or a poet.  If I wasn’t a student, I would spend the night, but I am busy with classes, finishing up final exams and papers.  If my budget was more generous, I would find a way to get there, but traveling can be expensive.

I had a nightmare the other night, and I woke up with a knife in my heart—a knife of regret.  I don’t regret not having done more in the time I’ve been here; I don’t regret not filling my remaining time with more adventures despite my classwork.  I regret not having more time, and I regret not yet having the means to see more of the world.  I know I’m privileged to be having these regrets, but the privilege does nothing to ease the ache of the emptiness the knife has torn into my heart.

In my dream I was home, and everything was over.

In Celtic folklore, there is a race of immortal beings called the Aos Si (the Fair Folk), and it is claimed that they can be found in the proximity of earthen mounds called Sidhe, which are located all over Ireland, Scotland, and Northern England.  The Sidhe are sometimes thought to be portals into the fairy world, but I don’t have the means to find them.  I can’t rent a car, and, unless I care to fail my classes, I can’t take a weekend-long hike.

City life in London didn’t bring me any closer to the rich mythologies of the United Kingdom.  It showed me the world—influences of every culture can be found in London—but it did not let me understand it.  The city is a city, and in a city, everything gets diluted by commerce.  Everyone wants to experience everything, but few people care to understand even a single thing.

I had a nightmare the other night, and it’ll soon come true.  I worry about the elusiveness of understanding and my inability to catch it without having more time to experience this new world.  I’m afraid I might not have another opportunity to travel.

Fear in dreams is strongest when you know it’s more than just a dream.

What happens to the memories when you’re finished making them?  And what about the memories you never had time to make?  They are nothing you can touch, nothing you can relive, nothing except your imagination.  They are only a feeling—a flower blooming from the knife wound in your chest that will wither and die come winter, and all you can hope is that it will blossom into a garden come spring.

Even the photographs will fade with time, but at least I had the opportunity to take them:

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Tower Bridge:  My Final Affair with the Temptress Tourism

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Shakespeare’s Globe

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and finally some comic relief:  “Spot the Hazards.”  Thank you England for a wonderfully dark sense of humour

No Time to Think: Home

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I wish I could sit down for a week and think about everything I experienced in London.  I wish I could write about it and learn from it.  But when my plane landed, I jumped right back into doing stuff.  It’s marching band stuff, so it’s my choice and I enjoy it, but marching band stuff is nonstop all day every day from barely after dawn to just before midnight, and my brain exhausts itself before each day is halfway through.  All I can think about is water, what drill is up next, and how long it’s been since the last cloud rolled by.  Sometimes, when I get the chance to close my eyes to the white light of day, I can see the yellow eye of Big Ben peering at me across the River Thames.  The last kiss of the Temptress Tourism lingers on my lips.

I can still smell the streets of London—nothing bad, just the indescribable scent that characterizes the city.  It sneaks up on me and reminds me of where I’ve been before leaving me grasping for more.  Sometimes I wake up convinced that I’m in Palace Court, that I’ll leave for class in an hour, jammed onto the tube with thousands of other people heading to work, and that, if I’m hungry enough to make an unwise decision (given a college budget), I might stop somewhere for some tasty English food after class.  American accents sound out of place now, not because they’re unfamiliar after weeks in London, but because I miss hearing the English accent.

In marching band, I am around the same people every day, just as in London, I was always around the other students in the program, and I am unsettled by how one group of people you spend so much time with can so suddenly be replaced by another.  It’s easy to fall out of touch after there’s no program to keep you together, but I was fortunate enough to forge a few friendships.  In my new friends, I will always have a reminder of London.  In my memories of London, I will always have a reminder of home.

The world is all around us, and London taught me that I don’t have to travel to experience the world.  I think about all the people living in London who don’t care that they’re living in London.  When I boarded my plane from Philly to London, there was a group of English people who vacationed in Philadelphia.  There are people who come from all over the world to see America, and yet I, like the people who don’t care that they live in London, never cared that I live in America.  Everything here is so familiar that I forget to look around me and experience my homeland.  What life changing experiences can I have in America?  In Pennsylvania?  On my own street?  I miss London, but the experience of living in a foreign city for six weeks, trying to make as much out of my time as was comfortable, and staring in awe at everything I passed, made me wonder what awe-worthy things are hidden just beneath my nose in America.

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aliens invade Macbeth

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huh?