June 28, 2015

I See You.

Ten years ago, I met my first street poet.

I was on a 16-day adventure of philanthropy and self-discovery, a teenager on a crusade to save the world, one soup kitchen at a time.

I had just embarrassingly offered a fresh PB&J to a person who only appeared homeless, but was not at all, when a young man, not much older than myself, shouted, “Hey, I’ll take that.”

He was sitting on a bench, wearing unseasonably warm clothing with a stocking cap and piercings. He looked fidgety, but rather unassuming and safe. I offered him the sandwich, relieved for the distraction from my pubescent humiliation, and sat next to him. At last, I thought. Someone to save.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Jackal,” he replied around bites of PB&J.

“Is that your real name?” I inquired instinctively in surprise, and then felt stupid when he glanced at me in annoyance.

“I’m a street poet,” he answered instead, and I nodded in appreciation.

“I love poetry,” I said in all honesty, as I got the familiar tingle of discovery. “Are you willing to share some of your art?”

Jackal pulled out his notebook with surprising speed, as if he had been waiting for someone to ask, and started rapping his words, bobbing his head to a rhythm only he heard. The poetry wasn’t great, I remember thinking. The syntax is all wrong, and these words really make no sense. But trying to be supportive, I bobbed my head too.

Jackal continued, now moving his arm in emphasis, never looking up from his little notebook of poems.

A man walked by, and Jackal stopped mid-sentence.

Homeless men sit on Denver bench. Photo by Denver Post.

Homeless men sit on Denver bench. Photo by Denver Post.

“Hey, man!” he yelled at the passing guy, leaning forward in the bench. “Do you have a light?”

I am not sure what made Jackal ask this particular person at this particular time, right in the middle of a really moving, mediocre piece of street lit when there wasn’t a cigarette in sight, but the man didn’t respond. He just kept walking by.

Jackal fell back against the bench hard and slumped down, poetry forgotten. “They all act like they can’t hear us,” he mumbled in frustration. “They all pretend we are invisible.”

And that’s when I was punched in the stomach with a great fist of conviction. Here I was, smug as cherry pie that I gave this man a sandwich, and all he wants is someone to see him, to recognize him as a person. Or in my case, as a street poet.

Like the Zulu phrase sawubona, a greeting communicating fellow humanity and understanding, Jackal just wanted dignity and respect in the most basic form: recognition. The phrase comes from a culture of small villages, in which the greeting of the day as someone who doesn’t just observe their presence, but deeply engages with another.

Rick Steves is right when he says travel humanizes each other, and that everyone has their own dream, “their own struggles that we are clueless about and [travel] grows that appreciation for it” and lets us empathize with it. To Steves, travel is about exposure, and hopefully, advocacy in the face of new or marginalized narratives.

We envision homeless persons to be lost, vagrant, and often don't humanize them, but instead categorize them as a social issue.

We envision homeless persons to be lost, vagrant, and often don’t humanize them, but instead categorize them as a social issue that needs our saving.

We went into the park, armed with our socks and Gatorades and sandwiches, ready to save someone, but what really happened, is I was saved. In this engagement, Jackal humanized a social issue, and interjected a marginalized narrative  into my worldview. Jackal saved me from the presumption that I was important enough to change someone’s life with a sandwich. It took time and recognition and investment to perhaps make the small difference of recognition.

As David Spurr says, the consciousness of interest rejects the notion of disinterested, objective writers, and the honest examination of our own interest (in my case, interest to feel good about being a savior to a needy population) to do justice to the narrative of the Others, moving from confinement within Western ideals to wider understanding of people marginalized and excluded from society. As a privileged Caucasian teenager on a mission from God and church, I saw myself as someone who could improve someone’s world with a word of grace and food. Isn’t this imperialistic vision a bit…oppressive? Egocentric? It was about what I could gather from the experience, not what I could give to those within the experience. What ideals of mine I could force on others, for their own good.

Because what did Jackal really require?

He wanted someone to hear him. To see his story. To feel who he was.

When I recently visited my mother in the Midwest, she told me a couple World War II veterans had asked if I would visit them. She had told them of my military service, and they, the Greatest Generation, wanted to thank ME for it. I was extremely embarrassed that 90-somethings who served in a devastating war would want to talk to me, someone who had never deployed for more than three months. What did I have to offer?

Recognition.

B-29 Superfortress overview.

B-29 Superfortress overview.

Orlando. Ninety-three years old. Staff Sergeant in the United Army Air Corps (back before the Air Force was born). Top turret gunner in the B-29 Superfortress bomber in the Pacific theater during World War II. In this aircraft, you had a 33 percent chance of dying before the crew could reach thirty-five missions to rotate home. He was sprightly and talkative, and thoroughly questioned my uniform and training.

“You know,” he said, “We called lieutenants like you the thirty-day wonder…it only took thirty days to train and commission you before you were telling us what to do.”

Never mind the four years of training it took to get my commission; I humbly took his criticism for all past and future LTs who didn’t know what the hell they were doing. We are often stupidly arrogant about leadership and people, much like activist Jacquelyn Novogratz and writer Debbie Lisle suggest: don’t distance oneself in the seat of authority, but instead engage and be vulnerable to your experiences and audience.

Yet, in preparation for our meeting, he had drawn me a carefully lettered and colored stencil, despite his terminally shaky hands, with my name “Lt Katrina” on it. He used my first name instead of my last name in spite of military custom. He had never met me. He had only heard my parents’ praises of my minimal service. Yet this man, who served for years in the Pacific theater during World War II, wanted to give me a gift representing his time and sacrifice.

He wanted understanding and recognition. He wanted someone to hear his story. He wanted someone to see him.

Before I left, he pushed himself slowly up from his wheelchair, and shakily stood up. He straightened his bent body and saluted, World War II-style. I saluted back, blinking tears away.

WWII veteran salutes during playing of National Anthem on Veteran's Day. Photo not by me.

WWII veteran salutes during playing of National Anthem on Veteran’s Day. Photo not by me.

Of course, he corrected my salute, although the salute I presented was a modernized version of his, seventy years later.

But I didn’t argue. I just listened.

These narratives, of Jackal and Orlando, offer a broader concept than just moments of engagement; they remind me to engage, to be aware of my cultural and selfish interests, preconceived notions, and bias…so I can better effect change in what little ways I can.

Even if it is just saying, I see you. You are not alone. I hear your story, and I won’t let someone tell it differently than you.

I see you.

I see YOU.

And I won’t forget.

Sawubona.

Pushing Orlando back to his room after a nice chat about his service. Truly blessed to learn from him.

Pushing Orlando back to his room after discussing his service during WWII. Truly blessed to learn from him.

June 23, 2015

The Sniper in the Hill: The View from Far Away

World War Two was devastating to global communities around the world, both Axis and Allied powers and all the parts in between.

When Americans think about the war, then and now, we think about the Greatest Generation. Good versus evil. Bravery, honor and sacrifice in the face of potential utter devastation and defeat. It’s the classic good-guys-beats-insurmountable-baddies. It’s the definition of Just Cause war.

But as Americans, what is the story we tell for the Germans?

For the citizens, that they were weak and mindless. That few were brave enough to try to stop the horrors of the Holocaust, the crushing of democracy. For the military and political parties, that they let their greed and desire for power eliminate their souls. That their fear of failure, other world powers and need for an identity overwhelmed everything else.

America often  redefines other cultures “in terms of classically American ideals, so that this mode of interpretation became an unconscious act of self-reflected, a commentary on the real meaning of America,” says David Spurr, an explorer of travel writing in his own right. He argues that culture is not a simple construct of ideals and values, but instead a highly evolving complex engagement between dissimilar dominant and subordinate cultures. He proposes “idealization takes place in relation to the Western culture” and the viewer sees that perceived culture as both Other and a reflection of their cultural norms. Translation: Americans see Germans as what we want to see, a reflection of our values; for example, during the war, we ignored our own atrocities to idealize our soldiers and demonize the enemy. We saw an enemy to our righteous power. And why could we think this way?

They are the Others. They are the Not Us, the Never Us. We idealize our own culture, and see the values we want to see in others…even if they must be evil, so they can be a reflection of purely good. As David Spurr says in his essay about idealization, America redefines other cultures “in terms of classically American ideals, so that this mode of interpretation became an unconscious act of self-reflected, a commentary on the real meaning of America.”

One candlelit dinner, tucked away in the ancient hills of a quiet German home, my landlandy’s father told me a story.

To be perfectly clear, I did not take this photo...Kurt Oblak captured my small village of Malberg, with its lush hills and small palace, much better than I could have.

To be perfectly clear, I did not take this photo…Kurt Oblak captured my small village of Malberg, with its lush hills and small palace, much better than I could have.

It was after a couple of mandatory shots of schnapps, homemade liquor from the local weed called konigskerze, that he brought it up, suddenly.

“You know,” he said, his bright eyes moving from side to side under bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows, “There were Americans here during the war.”

When any German says “the war,” they mean, “World War Two.” I put the schnapps down, hoping Friedl wouldn’t make me take another one in exchange of the story.

“Yeah, here? In Malberg?”

It makes sense, if you look at a map. Little Malberg, a village so heniously hilly most Germans cluck their tongues at driving through it, is right by the borders of Luxembourg and Belgium…right where the lines of defense were. The stories you hear of Band of Brothers, at the Battle of the Bulge? Just a hop and a skip away from Friedl and me.

Malberg is less than 40 kilometers away from the Belgian border...only 53 kilometers from the famed grounds of the Battle of the Bulge.

Malberg is less than 40 kilometers away from the Belgian border…only 53 kilometers from the famed grounds of the Battle of the Bulge.

There’s even a small town down the road from Malberg with tank tracks of Patton’s 3rd Army, eternally scraped into the ancient stone gate entrance (look it up, if you don’t believe me!)

“So, what happened?” I asked, leaning forward. Germans, you see, are not usually afraid of telling their story. They are not afraid of talking about the past. But it is rather rude to bring it up without a decent segue, so I was not about to let this one slide.

Friedl grew up in the house I now rented from his daughter, and it was a lovely stone home, a place six times older than me. Friedl had been in the West German Army during the Cold War and Berlin Wall, and ran the small village as their bergermeister. He and his family, like most rural families, had lived and farmed and hunted the land for hundreds of years.

During the war, he told me, before he was born, there was a battle here in our very own castle. The Germans knew the Americans were coming, so some of the locals fixed the Jewish graves that the Nazi soldiers had desecrated.

When they arrived, the Americans asked the German locals if they were hiding soldiers in their homes. The Germans said no, of course, and the Americans made their way through the small village. But what the Germans from Malberg didn’t know, is that there were German snipers in the hills. The Americans decided to explore the small castle, or the schloss, when BAM!

Friedl slammed the table. I jumped.

The small palace of Malberg...again, photo from Kurt Oblak.

The small palace of Malberg…again, photo from Kurt Oblak.

An American, then two, were taken out. The sniper had struck from his hiding place in the hills.

The American commander was so incensed by this apparent betrayal, Friedl says, that he swore he would flatten the village with airstrikes. The local bergermeister and the priest went to the U.S. commander, begging him to understand they hadn’t known, they couldn’t have.

The commander [most likely understanding this course of action could make him a war criminal] decided not to kill innocent villagers, and the Americans moved through, on their way to crushing the evil of Hitler. But, as in all things inherently unfair like war, the ground they gained was lost in a three-day battle in the local area…and the Nazis came through Malberg again.

Here, in Malberg, they saw the graves of the Jews, no longer desecrated, tidied and clean for the Americans. Unacceptable, they said, that Germans would be trying to coddle the enemy’s sensitivities. They made the offending locals come out to the graves, and shot them on the spot.

I had seen the gravestones of the fallen soldiers, a proud memorial to the local German boys who went off to one world war, then another, and never came home. But what of the citizens of Germany? What of those stuck in between the geopolitical wars beyond their small rural village? They wanted peace. They wanted to farm and raise families and make konigkerze schnapps.

These are the stories we do not hear…we do not think of. In our arrogance of righteousness, we often create the narrative for all Germans in that era. This is the danger of the single story, as one very eloquent Adichie says.

But what would you have done, if you were just trying to survive? And is it possible to see the German narrative during World War II through the lens of their culture, not ours?

How do we challenge these narratives, if to “investigate forms of ‘otherness’ -both biological and culturally coded- that alternately confirm and question the position of the investigating subject”? The question is posed by Holland and Huggan in their article about travel writing in the contemporary, and it is truly one to consider. How do we re-discover what is already labeled as history?

A photo of German civilians, WWII era.

A photo of German civilians, WWII era.

As Adichie says, “power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

So often, we define all Germans of the past by their history, by their leader, by their war. But we forget that each person probably had a family, dreams and hopes for living their lives.

We forget about the citizens whose only crime perhaps was to be defined by someone else’s story.

June 17, 2015

Back-to-Back World Champs

The first thing I realized about Germany was how wrong Americans were about it.

Growing up, I always knew Germans were brilliant, logical beings with an eye for really fast cars. Einstein in a BMW, right? My best friend as a child was German; her family was on a work visa, and I spent many a day listening to “Das Blau”, eating the most amazing spaetzle and reading German comics, surrounded by the arguments of syntax in a family split between West and East German dialects.

Gorgeous wheat fields under a stormy sky in my small village in Malberg.

Gorgeous wheat fields under a stormy sky in my small village in Malberg.

To top it off, we still stay in touch with family in Baumberg, and we have letters tracing back to WWII between us. So when I got an assignment in the military to Germany, I couldn’t be more thrilled. It would be like going home, I thought.

When I shared the joyous news with an engineer buddy who worked in Germany as a civilian for a while, he sarcastically told me I was in for a treat.

“They just don’t do things the same way. I want to go from A to C if it makes sense, but they have to go from A to B to C, no matter what.”

Puzzled at his observation, so at odds with what I saw as German, I shrugged it off and tried to study the German umlaut.

[Okay, so not the best example of something UN-frustrating. Many a German has giggled at my attempt to say “müll” or trash.]

And then, once I landed and settled into a surprisingly verdant, Grimms-like landscape amongst the rural population of a small German village, I realized what everyone was trying to tell me: Germany is different. Germany is not America. And America’s perspective of Germany as a nation? So wrong.

A German gnome watches from the corner. My village Malberg was a battlefield between Americans and Germans during both wars.

A German gnome watches from the corner. My village Malberg was a battlefield between Americans and Germans during both wars. The Germans of modern day value their homes and property, and spend a lot of time decorating and maintaining their homes.

This loquacious writer named Homi Bhabha proposes the concept of a national narrative, one crafted by the dominant culture to represent the whole nation’s identity, and that sometimes contrasts with the individual narrative. In America, we see Germany as a super-efficient, hard-working country.

Part of the national narrative is one of productive, strict  people who economically support the European Union.

But in America, hard work means long hours. It means the customer is always right. It means Americans are right.

In Germany, especially in rural western Germany, stores close by 6 p.m. German employees on the U.S. military base go home exactly when they should, leaving the unfinished work for tomorrow. Waiters don’t come to your table but twice or thrice during the course of a three-hour dinner. Your landlord would effectively fulfill their contract by fixing your pipe when requested, but wouldn’t spend their Saturday planting your entire backyard. And you most definitely cannot put five chairs at a four-chair table…it is just “not possible.”

Oftentimes, I would be able to tell how Americans felt about Germans and Europeans by the words they chose to use. As David Spurr puts it, there is “power inherent in all discourse.” Through language and syntax, I heard the echoes of cultural dominance. I saw how how language shapes narrative, concept of self, concept of others and reality for many.

“Germans are lazy!” some of my American friends would complain. “They are so stingy and rude! They don’t value customer service!” In a way, these could be true. These were, if you didn’t translate their lack of “hard work” for their passion for family and community, or their “rudeness” for their bold genuine spirit, or their “lack of customer service” as a commitment to privacy. The American perspective of Germany varied, depending on the person, but largely, it was difficult not to notice a trend of bitterness and condescension of some sort, whether it be directed at America or Europe.

A Hellenistic statue in the Louvre, just the place a Number One has to go a thousand times, and then tell everyone the new pieces of art they discovered.

A Hellenistic statue in the Louvre, just the place a Number One has to go a thousand times, and then tell everyone the new pieces of art they discovered.

In my experience, there were often four kinds of Americans living in Germany, thanks to the military:

1) Those who loved Germany, and hated America

2) Those who hated Germany, and loved America

3) Those who didn’t even try

4) Those who embraced it, good and bad

I can’t say I didn’t understand where most of these people were coming from (except the Number Threes. No idea.), but what was most unique was why they saw what they saw.

For the Number Ones, Europe was it. The food, the wine, the pace of life, the focus on social support…that was how it should be. Americans, they would say with a shake of their lovely heads, are so pastiche. If they could, they would become expatriates. After all, see how thin everyone is. See how happy we all are. We slip from café to café along the cobble stoned streets of ancient towns, breathing in history and art and culture. What do you do, they ask Number Twos, watch television, speak only one language and drink bad beer?

Number Twos have a common phrase: back-to-back world champs, a rather casual reference to the devastation of two world wars, the remnants of these still evident in the narratives, faces and villages of Europe. Number Twos would long for the freedom of guns and cheap gas and open range of wildness. In America, there are no silly rules of noise pollution or environmental restrictions (“you mean, I have to sort my trash??”). The stores and restaurants are open at times that make sense, the roads are normal size for normal cars, and back home, your neighbor would never tell you to follow the rules about caging your dog. And all these rules! You’d think they would learn better from that last big war…blindly following stupid rules doesn’t end well for anyone.

The fairy-tale town of Brugge is bound to make even a Number Three excited about Europe....I think...

The fairy-tale town of Brugge is bound to make even a Number Three excited about Europe….I think…

Number Threes are quite beyond my comprehension, as those who don’t even try to enjoy themselves. Most of the time, it would be younger Airmen who were afraid to do anything by themselves off the base, and would fear the changes this new, unfamiliar place. Even the famous Autobahn would be beyond them. “It’s too fast,” they would grumble, and shift in their seat nervously.

Number Fours…well, we are the nerds. The ones who went through all the Numbers, to land here, the Lucky Fourth. We have gone through the stages of culture shock and made it out the other end. We don’t despair for America, although we desperately miss Chic-fil-a and hot summers. Oftentimes, as Susan Bassenett bring up in her article about females in travel, the Number Fours were defined by their society and not their internal personality, and so we used travel to redefine who we were, outside of the frame of reference. We discovered ourselves anew.

We find ourselves surprised by the Germans; they are incredibly dedicated to having a great time, no matter their age. They are generous of spirit, and will become fast friends with you once you open up to each other. They work hard, but they value more than an identity in your job. They value the community they are a part of…they value citizenship and rules, because it requires them to respect each other, no matter what. They are boisterous and engaging, smart and educated on your political system more than you could be. And they remind you, with a humility that moves you, that no one won the world wars…that there is no such thing as a champion in the face of such pain and devastation.

An American cemetery, the last resting place of thousands of U.S. military members who fought in World War II.

An American cemetery, the last resting place of thousands of U.S. military members who fought in World War II.

Even through the lens of a Number Four, oftentimes America’s aggressive, persistent cultural ideals impacted how I saw the world, and other cultures. Sometimes, I struggled to see the value of some of the differences. Sometimes, I was incredibly frustrated with my German colleagues for their pace of work or amazing habit of taking the most vacation possible (seriously, they have so many holidays!). But then I take a step back from myself, my beliefs and my perspective…and I think, perhaps there is value to what they value.

Back to art and culture, sighs the Number One with a chilled glass of Epernay’s finest champagne.

Back-to-back world champs, says the Number Two determinedly, crushing a beer on his forehead.

Back to America please, whines the long-suffering Number Three while playing the X-Box.

Back-to-back with the Germans, Number Four resolutely states, and a piece of her heart settles further into its home away from home.


Side note…here are the stages of culture shock, for those who have yet to experience the roller coaster that it is:

Step 1: The Honeymoon Stage- when everything is awesome.

Step 2: The Distress Stage- when differences aren’t so fun anymore.

Step 3: Re-integration Stage- when you hate everything new and compare it to the better homeland (aka, when you adjust and see what you value about your culture)

Step 4: Autonomy Stage- when you accept your new home and begin to appreciate where you are

Step 5: Independence Stage- when you are yourself again, and embrace the culture around you in a realistic light

Have you, dear readers, experienced any of these aspects of culture shock?

June 11, 2015

Map, Map in my hand…who is the fairest in the land?

This map charts part of our travels in Colorado. We navigated only using old school tools, and mostly orienteered our way through the wild.

This map charts part of our travels in Colorado. We navigated only using old school tools, and mostly orienteered our way through the wild.

This map records more than the wild territory in Colorado. It maps adventure in a wild land not yet ruined by civilization. It maps memories of sudden hail storms, unbelievable swarms of mosquitoes, and the the air that smelled like God’s breath. It reminds me of hardiness, of pain, of joy, and self-discovery. This map of the Weminuche Wilderness is a physical representation of my experience in nature, mountaineering alongside a group of strangers. There were no trails. There was only this map.

According to Casey Blanton, travel “is the interplay between observer and observed, between a traveler’s own philosophical biases and preconceptions and the tests those ideas and prejudices endure as a result of the journey” (pg. 5).

While this may often be applied to foreign cultures, I would venture to say that nature, in its vast depth of detail, is a culture of its own, and the people who venture into it, are observers of it. We view the land before us differently, and thus experience it differently, all due to our perspectives, our histories, our understanding of nature and humanity’s role in it. Some may see the wild through eyes of ownership. Some may see nature as something sacred to protect. Some may view the land as historically relevant or scientifically valuable.

Mountain in Wyoming from the top of mirroring mountain. With the changing weather and fast winds there, the clouds pass in front of the sun, the dark shadows dancing on the land below.

Mountain in Wyoming from the top of mirroring mountain. With the changing weather and fast winds there, the clouds pass in front of the sun, the dark shadows dancing on the land below.

When I first ventured out as a team leader on this particular trip, it was going to be my longest one yet. It was a part of a stewardship and leadership course for wilderness, and I was excited to learn about nature, and myself. Looking back at journals from that time, I can chart how my perspective of social norms and the environment was challenged by this experience. Like Blanton said, with engagements in new territory (and even old), our ideas’ and prejudices’ endurance are tested by our experiences.

So, let me clear: my ideas about myself, my teammates and Nature were challenged…and changed.

When I lived in the open spaces of Wyoming and Colorado for a month, with everything I needed on my back, I made my best efforts to not exploit nature for my own use. Leave No Trace, we preached. Bury your feces in a deep hole, mixing with dirt before covering. Carry out any trash you have. Don’t swim in water sources without washing off bug spray chemicals with your bandanna and water in a cooking pot. And no matter how miserable you are under your tarp, definitely no bright cheerful fires.

Fresh snow on a pine branch, with the rising sun promising to melt it away and make it feel more like July, dang it.

Fresh snow on a pine branch, with the rising sun promising to melt it away and make it feel more like July, dang it.

Nature, however, didn’t really care about us. Heat waves, hail storms, snow and torrential downpours were sudden and careless to the weary travelers below them.

“Lightening!” the team leader would shout, and we all jumped on our rubber sleeping mats, previously tied to our backpacks. I can’t imagine how silly we looked to the sky, laughing in a thunderous rumble at us cowering on the side of a rugged slope on little yellow mats.

To others, this map doesn’t look like much. It’s ragged and there’s a scant red line, trailing the curves of the shaded greens representing incline of a mountain. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. To me, this map is not just an actual navigational chart and a map of memories; it is a map of myself.

Without trails, we would traverse swamps and large boulders and rivers, oh my! It truly tested your perseverance, agility and patience.

Without trails, we would traverse swamps and large boulders and rivers, oh my! It truly tested your perseverance, agility and patience.

It charted my challenges, the physical and the emotional, because the map defined my journey, and that journey shaped who I am. This map also represents the place where my perspective of nature met Nature, and lost. It’s the place where my concept of teamwork and humor and social norms met my teammate’s cultural value, and lost.

Pratt, a very clever person who writes quite well, crafted this term “contact zone” to describe a “social spaces where cultures interact and wrestle with each other. Oftentimes, this term represents eras and areas of colonialism, exploitation and dominance of one culture over another.

I was different than the most of my team. I was sarcastic, they were sweet. They were mostly religiously conservative, sensitive individuals, and I was open-minded and a bit harsh around the edges. I would fit better in a group of military men who would joke around and punch each other’s shoulders, not so well with a group that cried when their hands were ice cold in the snowy mornings in July. Instead of morphing to their ways of kumbaiyah, I rejected their social norms while assimilating parts of the projected identity. I was the one known for off-the-wall defecation jokes and blunt responses, opinionated and lacking in compassion. The person they saw was not the person I thought I was, but I chose parts of their projected identity anyway.

My basic identity didn’t fit with the norm, and the dominant culture of the team defined who I was. To them, I was different, crude, harsh. To me, they were sensitive, narrow-minded and judgmental. I didn’t fit into their definition of what a ideal team member should be.

So, I accepted their definition in some ways, in a movement of transculturism, as Pratt would call it.

Why nicely ask my tarp mate to move his stinky boots from where my head is for the third time when I can directly tell him to move them? Why not make that rough joke about thunder chili on the trail when they expect it from me anyway?

There is nothing more beautiful than watching a torrential downpour that IS NOT on you.

There is nothing more beautiful than watching a torrential downpour that IS NOT on you.

I learned how grumpy a person can be when they haven’t had a lot of sleep or cleanliness. I learned how ugly you are inside when you are weak, when that point of exhaustion and pain shows you who are you. Compassion is hard to give when you are experiencing just as much pain as the other person, and they can’t do it. In this, I found a part of me I didn’t really care for, that didn’t match my prior narrative of self.

I went into the trip romanticizing not only people and self, but also Nature as an epic landscape of beauty and grandeur. While this is true, the wilderness isn’t mine to define and shape. It’s too big for that. I left realizing how little I actually knew about survival, and how I previously lacked a respect for Nature (I mean, hordes upon hordes of mosquitoes. Those suck. Literally). Nature is unfathomably beautiful. It moved me in the delicate strength of the bright pink Indian Paintbrush flower, thriving against all odds in the crook of a boulder. It humbled me in the face of its terrifying weather and craggy mountainsides, with slippery rocks and vertical slopes that led to skinned knees and sore backs. I thought my concept of nature was accurate until in engaged with it for an extended period, and I realized my preconceived notions of romance and freedom were accurate to a point, but did not endure the tests of the wild.

Before the trip, I treated nature like I had “the privilege of inspecting, of examining, of looking at” it which naturally excludes and elevates the viewer from the “reality constituted as the object of observation” as David Spurr says. Afterwards, I realized it was foolish and arrogant to see the earth as something I can own, observe and enjoy without a little bit of two-way engagement. Nature is not an object to observe. It is a beautiful, wild beast of a thing, and I can’t separate myself from it and thrive, only survive.

I changed in that month. My perspectives and ideas of who I was shifted (final: was not as cool and nice as I thought I was, but was tougher than I knew). The journey tested my preconceptions, and they did not endure. While my identity on that trip was defined by the dominant culture of my teammates, the experience changed how I viewed myself (more honestly), not how I behaved (more stubbornly). I saw myself through my teammates’ eyes, and I saw myself through Nature’s. I was humbled by this, although not particularly pleased that I didn’t meet the inflated ideal I held of myself before the journey.

With physical maps, I navigated and discovered Nature, people and self on that journey. I am not sure if I came out the other end a better person, but I certainly understand more about me as person. I also learned to love the goods and bads of Mother Nature…the goods were so incredibly moving, and the bads challenged me as a person. In the end, my understanding of myself, others and Nature shifted to a broader perspective than before I had gone.

When I returned from my trip, my boyfriend half-jokingly threatened to break up with me if I didn’t stop eating things off the ground (“yeah, it’s fine. Five minute rule.”) and forgetting to shave my legs (“what is this hygiene you speak of….?”). It’s true…Cultural expectations  were not met for a while, but I eventually put away my bandana and stopped being shocked by the sight of myself in mirrors.

So, here’s some food for thought (since we love eating here): What sort of person are you under duress, and how do you map yourself in the face of challenges?

June 6, 2015

Consider this my warning shot across the bow

Just a note to the few people who read this blog: I am currently taking a travel writing class (the fancy name is Contemporary Rhetoric of Travel Writing). So, if you notice a certain slant of focus, and an uptick in blog posts, you can blame higher education. However, there won’t be a change in my stumbling exploration for truth, slobbering focus on food and desire for diversity of experience and ideas.

My goal: analyze travel writing in the past and the 21st century, and figure out how to do it in a way that is honest, valuable and engaging.

Amen. May the Force be with us.

June 5, 2015

Five Really Good Reasons Not to Blog About Travel

Travel. It’s something Americans say we love to do. It’s on our Facebook Hobbies, Match.com profiles and job interview answers. Our dedication to travel can’t be better qualified than creating a travel blog, with our observations and experiences out in the wide world. In this day and age of 140 characters of constant self-proclamations and long-winded Travelocity reviews, it’s hard to figure out what travel writing should be. So, to play the devil’s advocate (because really, someone should side with the poor guy), here are five reasons not to blog about travel:

1) Everyone else does it.

Let’s be honest…the internet makes experts of us all. Pretty much anyone who knows how to make homemade bread has their own Laura Ingalls back-to-nature cooking blog, and anyone who has taken a few trips to Europe is the newest Rick Steves. So how many travel experts in the world can there be, and what’s the value of another one?

Here’s the hard truth: there is not much value if you won’t add value. What does that look like? It’s exploring the uncomfortable. It’s being aware of your surroundings, and conveying the emotions, the actions of your experience with honesty. It’s about avoiding being blinded by bias, and addressing it regardless.

This sort of travel writing also requires discomfort, because engaging with people isn’t always easy, and immersing oneself in a culture isn’t always fun.

But Wait, There’s More: We aren’t talking about TripAdvisor, that lovely pantheon of tourist deities spouting golden tips for an easy and awesome vacation. That’s tourism. Travel is dirty, hard, exhilarating, terrifying and different. Communicating that to the world…that’s what brings value to the world of travel writing. You don’t even need to be somewhere new. You can write about your hometown pie parlor or the local pig farm, because you are willing to open your eyes and experience the lifeblood of a community, the good and bad.

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2) Rick Steves already did it for us.

I’ll admit; I take good ol’ Ricky with me most large cities I visit. It means I don’t have to have a tour guide lead me around the Sistine Chapel, and I know exactly when NOT to stand in line at the Roman Baths. It’s an amazing book of tips, secrets and handy maps. So why on earth would anyone feel the need to travel write? Well, Rick Steves and his impressive staff are writing from a certain understanding of the world (to enjoy it as much as possible). This tends to create a certain perspective, or a framework of understanding that shapes their narrative and experience. And try as we might, sometimes this framework gets in the way of grasping and engaging with new cultures.

As a rather clever writer Joan Pau Rubies pointed out, the traveler and writer charting the world is also defining countries and cultures through their own perspective; thus their observations and application of study are limited to their own framework and sense of ethical morality.

But Wait, There’s More: Every individual presents a new perspective and set of observations, and that means your experience might just be worth taking the time to write it down.

3) We are ignorant. And we are just using others for entertainment.

Maybe we don’t know if kosher and halal meat are the same or not, or how to tell the difference between Irish and Scottish kilts. Well, you gotta at least know this: we are ignorant. We don’t know things, because we are busy people who don’t have time to sit around, reading about the entire world’s history, before we go out and travel (if we even have the time for that!). There are an overwhelming number of facts we don’t know about the world, and about the places we are exploring and writing about. Heck, we can barely experience it properly, because each new experience usually offers a tremendous amount of stimuli and action occurring in any new place…how is it possible to bring any level of honest observation and self-awareness?

Steve Clark points out in his book “Travel Writing and the Empire,” that the purpose of modern travel writing is to often divulge the secrets of that culture, and how to get the most out of it. According to Clark, travel writing, particularly focusing on Anglocentric colonialism language, creation and characteristics, is shaped heavily by the past of colonial and post-colonial engagement, often when exploration was connected to exploitation. So. Basically, we use other cultures to get what we want out of the experience. Sounds so very…imperial.

But Wait, There’s More: But think about this…travel writing isn’t about knowing everything. It’s about learning it, experiencing it, and hopefully walking away (and writing) with something true and valuable that adds to the scope of your understanding. In a purely selfish way, travel writing is a way to explore things beyond what you knew, and challenge the things you do know. In an altruistic way, it’s an opportunity to help shape someone else’s understanding of the world in an accurate light, with honest analysis of both interacting cultures (yours, and the one you are traveling in).

4) We can show off on Facebook and Instagram, so why start a blog? Travel is haaaaard.

Really, it’s just work. You can already impress all your friends with sepia selfies on the Seine River with the Notre Dame behind you. Ohlala! How fancy of you! #cultured, merci boucoup, am I right? Pics or it didn’t happen. Oftentimes, it seems our society depends on others to justify our experiences through likes, retweets and feedback. Until someone tells us how great our experience was, we don’t feel quite satisfied. So, why go through the trouble of writing about your experiences, when a photo or status will do just as well?

Also. It’s work. Just a lot of work to legitimately engage and travel. As James Clifford said in “Traveling Cultures”, traveling to the far reaches of the society (pg. 25) can far better engage with the organic populace than just hitting the main parts (saw the Eiffel Tower! Understand French people.), viewing both external and internal relationships and the woven influences of political and social influences throughout the engagement.

But Wait, There’s More: Travel writing takes too much work to just offer bragging rights. Modern travel writing seems to offer a variety of accounts: short notes of observations, helpful hints of practicality, pensive narratives of personal experiences. So, yes, you can write to show how well-traveled you are, and how exciting your life is. But if that’s the case, it might be better just to stick to short social media, where you can score the easy likes and jealous retweets. It seems that travel writing allows the traveler to engage with other culture’s stories…so often, we tell our own version of someone else’s story, crafting a single narrative for their culture. Travel writing invites us to open up the conversations about more than what we have seen on television.

These Romans are clearly cooler and more interesting than me. They should write a travel blog.

These Romans are clearly cooler and more interesting than me. They should write a travel blog.

5) Our background is not impressive. Or even cool.

We are not Anthony Bourdain. We are not tri-lingual. We are Americans, generally loud and uncertain and overly friendly in countries not our own. We often believe everyone deserves our version of democracy. We can see injustice where some see social norms. We like food that is tasty, but tasty by our standards. We are lucky America offers an awesome diversity in our country, and this allows a unique perspective. However, each individual’s background influences how we see our own community and other communities. We are limited in how we see the world, and this can damage how we write about it. I come from a right-winged Midwestern, middle-class family descended from Western European immigrants who made our way in America as farmers and doctors. This colors my perspective, and a lack of diverse traveling beyond Europe doesn’t help.

But Wait, There’s More: Self-awareness is the bane of bias. If I know I have a predisposition to think blondes are stupid (don’t worry; I can’t. I am one, and live in a family of them), I am more aware of how this influences my perspective, and how I engage with blondes, and thus l can address it while engaging with another ideal from different angles. If I can do this, perhaps I can at least understand another narrative, and maybe communicate an honest experience, true to the culture of blondes, while balancing my predisposition to judge blondes.

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So yes. I have tricked you.

This was not a list of reasons to not blog about travel. It is a list of reasons to be careful when writing about travel. To not slip into selfish, mega-tourism writing. To focus on what matters by learning about myself, others and the world I live in. Optimistic, but not idealistic. Now, who wants to pay for me to go to China to test all this out?

October 26, 2014

Some like it hot

Deutschland, these last two years together have been really great, but it’s time for me to move onto something hotter…like Florida. It’s not you, it’s me. Or the Air Force. Whoever is easier to blame.

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As with all moves, you leave behind what you know and enter the unknown. This time, I entered a world I was both familiar and unfamiliar with: back to America (familiar), into an American community as a working adult (unfamiliar).

It’s a strange feeling, not belonging to a place yet knowing you will have to. Even stranger to know that you eventually will, and feeling alone and separate will be a thing of your less-attractive past. So, before I forget what it is like to move from one country to another, here’s what I’ve learned thus far:

1) Europe is one giant hobby. Travel, eat, sing, drink and read. Repeat. Back in the good ol’ US of A, I’ve realized I need hobbies. You can’t just walk outside and BAM! You’re drinking in the rich, abundant experiences as they pass you. Here, with everything so large and isolated in its convenience, I have become like an adolescent with ADD, collecting all the trendy apps and games to play on my iPhone of life. Sometimes, I’ve only gotten to Level One and stopped playing, but leave it just in case I ever get bored enough. So far, it’s: salsa dancing, scuba diving, home buying, tutoring, graduate school, running, potting (plants), potting (pottery), woodworking, spear-fishing, and stovetop cooking (see #3).

2) It’s strange to understand everything that’s being said around me. It makes eavesdropping and people-watching simultaneously easier and less exciting. Foreign languages create a mystique to the activities of those around you.
Germany: Oh, that waitress must be the ex-girlfriend of her customer, by the way she’s glaring at the woman in the booth, who appears to be pregnant! Perhaps she’s a spy from the future pretending to be a waitress, and her target is the child who will become a mass murderer!
America: Oh. It’s just her sister.

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3) I am loathe to admit it, because the term conjures the concept of someone who shuns spontaneous adventure, but some say I may be am a homebody. I’m lucky enough to have two lopsided metal burners to craft a hot meal, and a desk that I can serve it on, with a cheap plastic tablecloth to create the illusion of a dinner table. But when that dinner table faces the large window, with the parking lot and garish energy-saving light slipping through worn plastic blinds, it erodes a sense of home. That, and I constantly stub my big toes on my partially hidden suitcases under the bed when I walk by. Thus, I have determined that I maybe…could be…a homebody, and I look forward to settling somewhere a little more “mine.” And, as shameful #5 will reveal, space is nice too.

4) There’s a lot of talking here. There’s an ease of connections; deep relationships are not the primary reason for striking up a conversation. Here, we casually learn about each other, asking questions perhaps we care to know the answer to, perhaps not. Then we go our separate ways when the encounter’s usefulness has ended. Perhaps we as Americans value friendliness and the immediate gratification of that friendliness more than communal, lasting connections. Whatever the reason is, it makes for easy socializing on outings, and difficult relationship-building.

5) I am space-spoiled. I have learned this by staying at an extended stay hotel that boasts its cleanliness in an almost defensive way (example: the decor along the walls are posters with Tripadvisor quotes about the squeaky-clean showers and impeccable laundry rooms).

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I’ve had kind offers from coworkers to live with them, but I know better. These friendships are too new, and I don’t like discovering that my toilet paper was stolen for someone else’s defecation needs (they probably don’t either). More than half my clothes hide in the suitcases that can’t for under the hard bed, and the others barely fit in the drawers. Two steps from the bed to the drawers, three steps to the double-burner, four to the fridge. If I go in a circuitous route, the longest way to the toilet is nine steps. I feel trapped, and I clearly have fallen a far way from my hardy grandfather, who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with four other siblings. #thatsreallife #iamspoiled

6) Hello, diversity! I forgot how much America fits the melting-pot stereotype. Even in this area, jokingly called the “Redneck Riveria,” there’s a menagerie of cultural diversity.

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Yes, there are a few Confederate flags riding around town on the back windows of lifted trucks (which to be fair is a sort of culture), but there’s also a potpourri of international influence, including Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Thai, Mexican, Filipino, Jewish, and Korean communities. While I certainly can’t find a respected opera house or century-old art museum nearby, I can’t discount the bright, myriad community I’m now a part of. Any butter-loving Swedes in the house?

7) Here’s a new thing: “thank you for your service.” In Germany, it is pretty unheard of, with the exception of the USO lounge in airports. I’ve yet to figure out how to respond appropriately beyond a smile and gratitude for their gratitude; I certainly don’t feel worthy of their appreciation. Recently, I was waiting for the elevator in my uniform with an armful of laundry. The doors clunked open and three children, apparently pressed against the doors like a cannonball waiting to explode, leapt out of it and ran into me. “Sorry!” they yelped, and darted past me. Then, as if recalling the manners their mom taught them, one turns back and says quickly, “Oh, and thank you for your service!” I was so taken aback, I think I managed a “my pleasure” before the elevator doors shut the red-faced boy from view. Still working on that response; I’ll get one eventually.

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October 8, 2012

Being a Butterbars…and other absurd activities

Welcome to the next two years of your life.

It’s been exactly a week since I last landed in a new country for a new job without an idea of what my duties would entail. So far, it’s been a heck of a ride.

Things I have learned since arriving in Germany as a new LT:

1) Creepy truckers are in every country.

If your ride happens to have a shredded engine belt, and the car happens to die on the side of the autobahn, and you just happen to be starving and in need of the restroom facilities, it’s okay to walk along the highway. Just expect the truckers to cheerfully honk their approval.

2) Jet lag makes you say and do stupid things.

Like turn down the opportunity to grab some grub before you are trapped in your hotel room, where you will slowly wither away to a husk before your first day of work. Oh, and you’ll probably make a stupid joke to your rating superior, and she will look at you with that oh-crap-my-new-LT-is-mentally-ill look in her eyes.

3) Most Germans speak English. But won’t tell you until you try to speak German.

Three important words for any new person in Germany: Sprechen sie Englisch? If “nein” is their response, you probably are picking on a sweet elderly person who has earned the right to do whatever they want, which probably isn’t going to be giving directions to you.

4) Senior Master Sergeants will scare the bejeezle juice out of you. And it’s okay.

Or at least, they should. Anyone who has twenty plus years in has the right to scare new officers into line. Such as: “LT, as the highest ranking member, you need to be walking on the other side of me. NOW.” Or, “I understand that this is new to you. And I understand that you understand I have high expectations for you. Any questions?”

5) Some Germans really hate the beautiful sound of an F-16 flying over their peaceful hamlets.

And they’ll call to tell you that. There’s one lady, nicknamed the Screamer, who calls the PA office, vents her little heart out in terrifyingly loud German, and then hangs up. We thought it was funny. Then she got the Wing Commander’s personal number. Not so funny anymore.

6) It is paramount to your safety and well-being that you wear a reflective belt over your uniform in times of darkness and inclement weather.

So, basically, all the time. And no, you don’t look stupid. Not at all.

7) Can’t see the rank? Watch for the hand twitch.

And if it doesn’t come, it means you are supposed to salute them. PRONTO. Another sub-lesson: Use the can’t-see-them-same-color-as-your-uniform pin-on ranks only when in a pinch. Sew the darker colored ranks on your blouse. Because if you don’t, no one will salute you, and it is necessary and so very awkward to correct a person fifteen years older than you that you are in fact an officer, not an Airman Basic. SEW THEM ON.

8) Bless the Lord God Baby Jesus for the loan you took out.

Because you need all that moneys you were hoarding. Savings? What’s that? Because that Gortex military jacket you just bought for the many drizzling, grey months ahead just cost you $200. Oh, and German landlords like a buttload of fat deposits. Thank you, loans, for your service.

9) Netflix and Hulu and Pandora are like Walt Disney.

Cyrogenically frozen and inaccessible. Yes, there are ways around the Big Brother of Evil European Internet Oppression, but you will only find this out after you’ve read all your books a billion times and eaten all the Deutsch joghurt in your mini-fridge during your nightly imprisonment in lodging. Because, yes, you could walk around base, but all the buildings look the same, and you get lost and then the rain starts and then an Airman 1C has to drive you back to your hotel, you big bad officer you.

10) Shut your mouth, and learn. Or, in your case, open your mouth, get stuff assigned, and figure it out the hard way.

No one expects anything great from you. Or even good, at that. If fact, sometimes it feels that no one trusts you to even hold open the door for them. But they also expect you to be an officer of the USAF. So, that leaves you to determine how to prove that you aren’t an idiot, and that yes, you can take down the German, NATO, and American flag in a downpour and do it correctly. And yes, you are told you won’t get any assignments for the next few weeks..but then you open your big fat mouth and say something impressive about NPR (your true love), and now you have a multimedia project to do on a fuel spill exercise that might be sent to the Wing Commander. Nbd.

September 25, 2012

The Absentee Ballad

Here lies before you the greatly anticipated attempt at a ballad, which includes, for those who do keep up on the modern times, four verses in each stanza, and two or more rhyming verses in each. Beware; it is literally the worst ballad likely ye have ever beheld.

Come all ye, comrades

Harken forth and listen to me

as I tell the tale of the absentee

and her long lost ballot.

 

Tis a tale between two men who fight

for the right to partaaay

and for vote of the military

who they be quick to use, slow to pay

Hear thee, hear thee: fight to the death!

Hear thee, hear thee: fight to the death!

Here we begin with a poor butterbars

Who must vote for the next White House guest

in order to be ignored just  like all the rest

First on this journey she must find the papers to sign

 

The office of the registration holds grumpy ladies

of whom a smile has not blessed the face

for years and years of many a election race

They confuse and they point and they furrow their hairy brows

 

But oh, friends, at last! At last!

The heroine has the right of the 19th Amendment,

slipped under the door for a say in the government,

it shines as the beacon of freedom and change.

 

But alas! A battle ravages the heart of the heroine,

once so pleased to be a successful absentee

Who to choose whilst she is overseas?

Who will fight for her when she fights for them?

 

The sad ballad of the absentee cannot end in peace.

The truth is that elephants are red, donkeys are blue,

and both smell of complete doo-doo.

Thus, she knows not which one to choose.

 

And now, ladies and gentlemen, for the best part of this ballad: the END.

 

September 13, 2012

Crazy World, Don’t You Know That I Love You

Protests at the US Embassy in Egypt escalate due to a video disgracing the Prophet Muhammed.

There’s a lot going on this week in the world. Media outlets are buzzing, cameras rolling, tweets twittering.

Violent protests at the US Embassies in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya that started on September 11th. Buzz Aldrin and Eugene Cernan speaking at Neil Armstrong’s memorial service. South African clamping down on miner’s strike. Nude photos of dear Kate Middleton published in a French magazine. A new species of monkey found in the Congo. Chicago Teacher Union protesting instead of teaching. What’s a girl to do?

And more specifically, how do we make a difference when it feels like the world is falling apart over our heads?

Should we focus on the US presence in the Middle East, and the rising concern of dangerous radicalism? Or perhaps the dismantling of NASA or the issue of funding in the American scientific community? Or should we concentrate on protecting our environmental assets in the biodiverse areas like the Congo? Or, in a subject closer to home, education’s place in breaking of the cycle-of-poverty?

I turn to WB Yeats in times like these. Poor Yeats was certain that the world could not get worse.

Let’s take a peek:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

[For the rest of the poem, you can find it here]

Sounds like something that Glenn Beck would say. To Yeats, it seemed that between the imperialism and advancing technology of weaponry in the 1920’s spelled disaster for the world. And in some ways, he was right. You know, that whole WWII bit did a number for all of us.

But the Second Coming didn’t come. Or maybe it’s just running a little behind on schedule. But this reminds me what a good friend said recently, “There have always been tragedies in this world, and there always will be.”

So what do we do? Sounds trite, but really, it comes down to how you treat the person next to you. Whether it’s the grumpy, pregnant cashier with bad hair, the homeless guy who is always begging for that bus ticket outta here, or the snobby stay-at-home mom who looks better than anyone who has three kids should: it’s the connections we make at home, one by one, that we can control. We can’t fix the Middle East (not that we haven’t tried…Thanks, Winston), we can’t save the national deficit, and no, we can’t build a home on Mars. Yet.
But we can love others around us, pick up that piece of litter on the ground, vote, create discussion rather than spout argument, fight for better education of our children, and then BAM. Your life has purpose, and suddenly you are changing things. Little things, but hey. It’s the little things that add up. It’s the tidbits that make life better, and it’s what you can control, right now and right here.

This new species of monkey was officially discovered in the Congo by visiting environmentalists. It is most often found in the villager’s cooking pots.

Of course, I could say that we should all fly over to Egypt and educate the protestors on free speech and the follies of radicalism, but that doesn’t seem feasible. But taking out the trash before your wife asks you to? Buying the lunch for the Vietnam veteran sitting alone in the corner? That’s what you can do. Some of us have higher callings (i.e., the President of the United States), but for the rest of us plebs?

Makes me feel a bit better knowing that maybe I can fix this falling roof, one crack at a time. And if we all put plaster in the cracks? Then, hey, maybe massive global change is possible. But for now, let’s channel our inner Oprah and Dr. Phil the heck out of our community.