I’d rather be here…

Institutional malarkey be damned… memories of Venice soothe my nerves. How long before a plane takes me far from here?

Venice, curved building
Venice, Cannaregio, Alps in the distance
Venice, Vegetable market
Venice, Canal

preparing to cross an ocean

Can I get away with just one carry-on? This is the first question I asked myself as I finally began to prepare for an extended stay overseas that begins next week. Extended as in 3 months. Extended as including traversing various terrains, climates, situations all requiring slightly different clothing, accoutrements and gadgetry. But the sheer hassle of international travel and my bad luck with checked luggage pushes me to consider this option. Which, as predicted, was quickly dismissed not only for its non-viability but also for the inevitable moments of “Oh [insert appropriate expletive and/or harsh sounding word of choice]!” up realizing I had forgotten something essential and the potential gentle jeering from my dear friends who are already singing a chorus of “One bag, are you crazy?” They are, of course, right. (Right?)

One correction before I go on: it would be inaccurate to say that I am just now preparing for this sojourn. Indeed I began planning the logistics well in advance: confirming housing and research contacts and making a plan for what it is that I would do while spending this time away from either homebase in the States. And in actuality, the nuggets of this idea took root a few years before as relationships began to be cultivated and the realization that, save my initial four years on this lovely earth, I had not yet lived outside of these contiguous states. This was an epiphany born of more than mere wanderlust (which is really never mere at all); this was more so a long-occurring, deep-seated curiosity that had not made the leap from the wishlist to the cart for checkout.

So what does one take? What are the essentials? How does on prepare to live and walk along the same streetsonce traveled by Darwin, Yeats, and Woolf? Extra socks and comfy shoes? I’ve perused repeatedly several websites the offer advice on how to pack as well as what to pack. A couple of favorites:

Packing for a year abroad (via Academichic)

Packing smart and traveling light (via Rick Steves) — perhaps not for the extended stay, but definitely good advice (if somewhat paranoid) for the shorter trips.

But these are mainly helpful in thinking through what I’ll need to wear or have access to on a regular basis — which reminds me that I’ve run out of contact lens cleaning solution. And shampoo. Why is there always such nervousness about hair care and travel? Nevermind, I just answered my own question — I am laughing as I recall a recent trip to New Orleans whereupon landing I experienced a state of awkward hair frizz unlike any I had been victim of til then. So traumatized was I that when a colleague from a different institution whom I don’t know too well inquired politely, rhetorically, “How’s it going?”, I responded without filter and with reckless abandon, “I’m in search of hair product! I’ll be better when I find some.” Oh my… (And, in case you’re interested, after some consultation with myself and my occasional travel companion, I’ve opted to take basic toiletries with the plan to replenish items I don’t already own while on terra noveau as another aspect of visiting like a local.)

Where does one pack sense of familiarity? Comfort? How does one make space in a suitcase, backpack, or laptop bag for peace of mind and easy access to people, places, and things. No, this is not pending homesickness – a concept with which I have never been familiar, much to the chagrin, I suspect, of my parents. These are, in fact, the indicators of rootedness in a context, communities, and networks that have been formed and nurtured over time. In seven years one is bound to put down roots, and those roots become intertwined with one’s sense of self, work, and purpose, even with one’s way of being. Sure I’ve been “away” on sabbatical, but I’ve had the great luxury of being able to enter and leave the Apple as the occasion demanded — for meetings, for fieldwork, doctors appointments, and of course to commune with friends.

For the next few months, however, there will be an ocean between us. Such a phrasing is unintentionally sentimental, yet the sentiment feels oddly correct for the occasion. An uneasy acceptance of impending events, measured excitement, cautious enthusiasm — all euphemisms for feeling anxious. (Has someone written Zen and the art of traveling abroadThe Sabbatical Edition yet?) My anxieties rest primarily on the hope that I’m not leave people flat-footed, specifically those for whom I feel a sense of responsibility — students, my research teams, the young people with whom we work. And thus with responsibility exists… well, no sense in repeating myself.

This post may have gone on longer, but the throbbing pain pulsating throughout my left arm as a result of vaccinations (in prep for a few side excursions that are on the agenda) is begging me to stop. So I will.

the moving chronicles, part 2: home disrepair

I moved back home — and for the past eighteen years, Philadelphia really has been home — a little more than 12 weeks ago. With me came a small percentage of my book collection, boxes of data (artifacts, drawings, CDs, DVDs, transcripts that have been hand coded, and more), and an inordinate amount of clothing and accessories. Apparently, despite hours, days, and weeks of purging, what appears to me to be an excessive amount of items still exists. And thus the purging continues, transformed now into paring and making decisions driven not by sentimentality — aw, remember when so-and-so who I haven’t talked to in years gave me this? — but instead by an adherence to practicality and minimalism: does it fit (in this house, on my person, within this newly cultivated sense of being?) and if not, out it goes. Brutal, yes. Necessary, oh yes.

In the 3 month period since journeying home, I have also been traveling or otherwise away from home for a little over half of that time. While this schedule certainly fulfills the wanderlust inclinations with which I began this sabbatical adventure, Purging and Decluttering have sat and waited patiently for me to return my attention them. “We thought we were making some progress,” they imply with longing as I walk into my bedroom and see the still-unpacked green suitcase. “Don’t forget about us,” they implore; “If you ignore us, it’ll only get worse,” they threaten.

In the midst of this indoor dust settling and unsettling, the outside of our house has begun to whine in the only ways it knows how: leaky windows, a rusted through gutter seam, and paint that bubbles and peels down the front of the house like crocodile tears. More than a decade of little things has grown into a laundry list of Todos — that reminds me: clean laundry area.

Today the painters have come to resolve at least one of these issues. And I type these thoughts on my laptop in my living room, I am unable to enjoy any repose that may come with lounging on a sofa as unyielding tensions has settled into my shoulders in response to the scraping, Scraping, SCRAPING of paint just outside. The hairs on my neck are at attention, unaware as to how exactly to react as the cacophonous rhythm of metal against stucco is infused with intermittent comments made by the three men working on this relatively small job, that do little to assuage an already-nervous homeowner’s nerves:

  • “We’re gonna have a problem with that.”
  • “Just use a crowbar and hammer.”
  • “I have no idea — just see what you can do with that.”

To provide a small amount of context, allow me to describe this house which is called a trinity. According to the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual, there are only a relative handful  in a few neighborhoods in Philadelphia and we live in section of town that is bestowed with the less than useful designation of being included in the historic register. Built in the 1870s, this is one of twelve trinities in this block of homes and I had to explain this a few times to various people on the phone who wanted to know which of the exterior walls I wanted to painted or which windows I needed replaced. There is only one exterior wall and no, we don’t have an outdoor water supply. A trinity, in brief, is a home with three floors above ground that are built in as one room stacked on top of one another, all connected by a spiral staircase in one corner of the house. In most, the basement is where the kitchen is located. These elements — multiple floors, spiral stairs, working fireplace — were romantic to the kids who bought this place eleven years ago. The adults who inhabit the structure now are wondering where that youthful enthusiasm and fearless went…!

The comedy of the situation is begging to be realized, but at the moment I am near-paralyzed as ladders, dropcloths, hoses, and sandpaper consume the entirety of the narrow walkway space between our house and the brick wall that separates us from the courtyard and parking area of the houses across from us. We have become the people blocking the walkway, another designation I’d rather live without.

“Are you gonna be here all day?” Mike the painter asked me earlier today without the usual rise in voice that accompanies a question and more akin to an instruction a teacher gives her class. I nodded, but he already knew that I was going nowhere. The clouds that make up the overcast skies seem to be standing still, as if to taunt while taking in the humorous scene unfolding below: gal on sabbatical held hostage inside the very home she is trying to rejuvenate, while it torments her with noises that she must sit through in order for the disrepair to lift. The paint color? I think I just agreed to a muted blue. Paralysis.

Oh daytime TV, you may be my only solace. Thank goodness for Ugly Betty repeats…

the sabbatical bubble

  • what time it is at any given moment during the day
  • the day of the week
  • that the rest of the world is ensconced in meetings/classes/deadlines*
  • proper procedures for various bureaucratic measures that students may email you about**
  • talking animatedly about planning a fifth or sixth excursion as you’re packing for the third can cause frustration in even the most patient of listeners (see earlier bullet about other people’s deadlines)
  • that your spouse has a schedule and deadlines
  • the world does not know, nor does it likely care, that you are on sabbatical, and therefore yes, you do have to pay bills, pull weeds, fix that pesky leak, endure awful music from the neighbors who insist on being home during *your* hours
  • what the rest of your wardrobe looks like outside of three t-shirts, 2 pairs of jeans, and zumba-appropriate workout gear
  • you have time to do all of the french homework, plus pages of unassigned exercises and no, you should not remind the french teacher that she forgot to assign more
  • that just because you blog, doesn’t mean you don’t still have to call your mother

these are some of the things one forgets when one is firmly planted in — or as planted as one could be in the floatiness of — the sabbatical bubble. i think k for giving me this image, so apt in both its ethereal structure — because we know the year will speed by — and for what it suggests about the capacity of bubbles to expand allow in new and strange and unexpected elements.

the danger, of course, is twofold: a) annoying your friends with talk that is overly floaty, philosophical, and on the order of endless ruminations and musings — although truth be told, i am afflicted with this trait even outside of the bubble, leading me to believe this is where i truly want to dwell…; and b) in embodying this sabbatical way of being, that you do not also develop a way of retaining and sustaining certain sabbatical practices beyond the scope of this precious time. in other words, how to make time for play, wonder, musings, and the like on a regular basis without the feelings of guilt (your own or those brought by the “oh my, you have time for that?” comments of others.)

for now, i am loving the bubble and my promise will be to keep the enthusiasm contained and expressed in appropriate forms. perhaps my retreat into silence over the next near-fortnight (for vipassana meditation, not punishment or anything so salacious) will help to quiet the nervous energy and help channel it into the kind that can be helpful and not just be seen as “that nut over there.”

*you can’t fully escape deadlines, no matter how hard you try to keep a low profile. darn those prior commitments!
** ok, i never know what these are, so this is less a factor of the bubble and more just a character flaw…

one day in sydney

in total, i spent 3 nights and parts of 4 days in sydney on my way back from tasmania en route back to the states. what follows is a brief listing of where the wind took me on one of those days, with some images from the day included below (a more complete collection of pics from oz here. note: the pics are at best ok and at worst terrible. why? because i realized too late that my camera battery was dead and therefore i had to resort to a blackberry-ipad camera combo to document my trip. not terrible, but definitely not great!)

Early to Mid-Morning

Walk north on York after leaving my hotel. The air is cooler than yesterday, clouds blanket the sky and a light mist and steady breezes make me thankful for the scarf around my neck and the umbrella in my bag.

Coffee, blueberry muffin from window cafe on York St. As I walked up, I inadvertently interrupted what looked like a familiar flirtation between a thirsty male customer and a friendly female barista.

Walk across the Harbor Bridge, on the lower, commuter side. I walk briskly like the Aussies around me, each moving with a purposeful stride. The non-residents are easy to spot; they/we pause to look at the brilliant views of the opera house, the central business district (CBD), the Circular Quay (pronounced “key”).

Follow foot traffic over bridge and into North Sydney. Descending the stairs, I am struck by the almost carnivalesque colors in this part of the city.

Admire the wood stain work on a series of benches. After snapping a couple of pics, I get the attention of a thin man who looks to be in his late 50s who is busy sanding the surface of a picnic table. He wears a construction vest with neon yellow stickers over his grey sweatshirt. When I ask if I take a photo of one bench, he blushes and nods; his face becomes redder when I make an appreciative remark about the craftsmanship of his stain work. He points to the collection of benches and tables in the small area where he is working and tells me he worked on each one. He is smiling even as I walk away.

Luna Park. Full of artful and unexpected views of the familiar Sydney skyline, a giant moonface entrances, ferris wheel and other artifacts reminiscent of boardwalk topography: games, prizes, and rides. All empty, likely awaiting the blossoming of spring into summer where visitors will be plentiful.

Back across bridge. Collect a few more pics for my “Benches” photo essay.

Late morning to early afternoon:

Set out across town toward Paddington. As I walked through the city center, across Hyde Park, and in search of a café I had read about, I stumbled onto a large protest going on held by public workers in opposition to the wage caps and job cuts being imposed by the New South Wales state government. Teachers wearing red tees bearing the slogan “public education for our future” and correction officers in light blue with the slogan “we face what you fear.”

Walk in search of and in the direction of At Perry Lane. I meandered through town with a vague sense of my destination, which was a café I had read about as a much touted must-visit spot in the Sydney café scene. On the way, I found Ampersand Book Store and Café. I stopped in, fell in love, started reading a biography of Wittgenstein that was poking out of one of the many full bookshelves. I was getting hungry, so I decided to head to At Perry Lane (APL) and stop back at Ampersand on the way back.

APL closed. Apparently under new ownership, not yet re-opened. And yes, it was really good – according to the two employees working in the adjoining clothing shop. A part of me is bummed, but after snapping a couple of pics, I happily headed back to Ampersand for lunch and more time in the magnificient, cozy basement, shelf-lined room.

Lunch at Ampersand. Mine was a “Vegie Brekky” – that’s vegetarian breakfast sandwich to you and me – an earl grey tea, and a trail mix cookie. I was served my lunch in the magical room and I spent the next hour catching up on a few emails (courtesy of Ampersand’s free wifi) and reading most of the first chapter of the Wittgenstein biography. I also had delightful chat with a man who initially engaged me to ask about my iPad – did I like it? Was it useful? What did I use it for? – and we ended up talking about his son, a musician who is currently finishing up a three-month stay in Brooklyn; about a play he was writing based on his time living in Rome – he has called many parts of this world home at some point or another, including Tokyo, London, and New York; and he explained that he was here dropping off some books given to him by his daughter for which he had received a $30 credit from Ampersand. While we chatted, my new colleague from Scotland, who was also part of the Tasmania conference, let me know he was in Sydney so we decided to meet up at another café near the Circular Quay. I finished my lunch and came to a good stopping point in the story of young Ludwig, and, after purchasing a ticket from the convenience store next to the bookstore, hopped on a bus (the 380) back to the city center.

Afternoon to Evening:

Police and Justice Museum. I had a couple of hours before meeting B for coffee so I wandered a bit then saw on my google map that I was near the Police and Justice Museum. Given the complicated history of Australia’s origins, it seemed like an interesting option. The featured exhibit was on the uses of various forms of surveillance to identify and pursue “persons of interest.”  This quote by Oscar Wilde, emblazoned in one of the exhibit rooms, seems to say it all: “One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted.” A part of me did not want to document this visit as I had the rest of my travels through this country. But there were a few images and visuals that compelled me click and capture, if only to ponder further as time passes.

Coffee, flat white. Le Quays, where my Scottish friend and I were scheduled to meet, was closed for the day so we wandered a few steps away to another coffee shop and each ordered a flat, white coffee. We sat outside, taking in the chilly air that was refreshing after the day of walking that each of us had experienced. Another option worth an afternoon’s exploration that I learned about was the Botanical Gardens just steps away from where we met.

Dusk walk thru CQ. My coffee companion and I walked in the direction of the Circular Quay where the ferry terminals were located, and paused to take in the city at dusk on a cloudy day in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House.

The opera house. After bidding my colleague goodbye, I rushed back to the hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes and rushed back out again in hopes of securing tickets for that evening’s showing of La Boheme. My colleagues had encouraged me to ask for the “concession” fare, so when I approached the box office – in record speed, if I may say so! And whizzing right past scores of people all heading in the direction of the opera house for one of a variety of happenings taking place there that night, in addition to the opera itself. – I inquired about available tickets and concessions. The ticket agent asked to see a university ID, which I readily produced, and she handed me a considerably reduced ticket. I walked away elated that I had secured a seat (and feeling the slightest bit funny that she may have mistaken me for a student). I was early, so I took in the scene around me and from various vantage points in and around SOH before finally taking my seat.

La Boheme. I have always loved the music of this Puccini creation, but until this viewing I did not pay close attention, I think, to how the Italian had been translated into English. I admit, the stilted translation bothered me. But only momentarily after which time I got swept up in the performances, the story, the emotions, and the stunning voices of the performers. It was a special treat to discover wifi inside the opera theater, which I took advantage of during the intermission to quietly exclaim to my sister a few others that “I was watching La Boheme inside the Sydney Opera House.” While I’m easily delighted by life, I find that I’m not easily impressed by the usual, iconic world attractions that are foregrounded in travel books and tourist guides. SOH was an excellent exception to this rule.

Veggie Udon, a hotel room, reflecting on the day. If it hadn’t been raining, I might have followed the advice I found online to go up to the 36th floor of the Shangri La Hotel and get a drink while taking in the city view. But I left SOH feeling quite full in many ways, so I opted instead for a quiet end to a busy day. The restaurant next door to my hotel prepared a fantastic veggie udon soup which I consumed while relaxing in my hotel room. It was my last night in Sydney, in Australia. I was already thinking of what I would do on my trip…

living each day like a stranger in a strange land*

The asterisk is important (in the blog post title, which is a bit of advice to myself) because if I really lived like I was a stranger or traveling out of town then I would be missing the chance to indulge in kitchen experimentation that I love so much. But as I was taking yet another walk around Launceston (pronounced lawn-cess-ton, with the emphasis on the first syllable), the extent to which I was aware of how and what I was seeing struck me in a profound way. Most notably, I have been going to sleep quite early – well, early for me.  And perhaps as a (happy) consequence, I routinely awaken by 5 or 5:30, even after the residual effects of jet lag. Or perhaps I never got over jet lag. Either way, the sensation of not wanting to waste any time, to take in as much as possible – either via foot-bound traversals of city streets or pursuing conversations during interactions that could easily occur without a spoken word – is appealing. What happens, I wonder, when we’re at home or just when we feel at home? Can we feel or be at home and not become complacent? Perhaps this is what is meant by purposeful living, much like what is espoused as part of the vipassana meditation tradition, namely learning to pay attention, even to the point where acts such as walking or breathing are not taken for granted but are attended to consciously. I wonder, also, whether this heightened awareness of this heightened awareness (how’s that for meta?!) is due in part to my impending return to the vipassana meditation retreat in a few short weeks.

The first time I really felt at home in a full and broad sense (other than my time spent working on the literary magazine in high school) was when I first started living in Philadelphia as an undergraduate student. The context and topography of a city felt as natural to me as [insert fantastic simile here]. The ability to walk wherever you need to go, the multiple paths that can all lead to a single place or to as many different places, the confluence of sounds – languages, the whirrs of motors, varying pitch of all manner of modes of transportation, water seeping into sewers – and smells

So for a long time I thought I could never be as happy as I am living in the middle of a loud, occasionally rowdy, bright-lighted, café rich, four season, urban village. And while I still think that’s mostly true, there is something uniquely appealing about not very populated, verdant, flora-filled pockets of the world.

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One almost couldn’t help but slow down: no one jaywalks, and waiting for the chirping green “walk” symbol is the norm; internet (in the form of free wifi) is not plentiful, thereby calling for more measured uses of communication; breaking bread with others; when flights are delayed, the common response is “no worries” — this is infectious. No worries indeed.

On our last full afternoon in town, a few of my fellow non-Tassie colleagues and I visited the Mole Creek Sanctuary where met kangaroo, a cuddly wombat named Maggie and her looked-like-she-be-her-sister Lily, a sleeping koala who couldn’t be bothered to come of out her slumber to acknowledge our presence (and who could blame her?), and a dozen of the nearly 50 Tasmanian devils being raised on the too-small-to-be-called-a-preserve sanctuary including: Neville, Melody, Maury, Malachi, Midas, Munchkin, and Kitana.

We listened to Paul, the multiply-pierced, skinny jean wearing “tour” guide who kept his hair tucked into a green knit cap, tell us about how the animals found their way to his place of business, which has been in operation for over thirty years. He let us cuddle with Maggie, rub the surprisingly soft and not at all coarse fur of the kangaroos and invited us to make nice with Kitana, the devil who he cradled for our look-up-close benefit; there were no takers for the latter.

And as he told us about the well catered and cared for life of the koala bear, who wants for nothing and whose steady diet of eucalyptus leaves and gum tree bark is delivered practically on a silver platter, and who sleeps upwards of 18-20 hours a day, I got to thinking (again) about the question we allow ourselves to ask of ourselves and each other less and less as we grow older: why are we here? Or, we might phrase it as: how will we choose to live the time we have from birth to death, from entry to exit, on ramp to off?