Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Danger of Reminiscing Too Much

The other night, I came home from spending the holidays with my family to find the heat not working. The thermostat said 45ºF (7ºC), and the vents were blowing cold air. On the third day of Christmas, my old house gave to more heat!

What a fun post-holiday surprise.

Oh, and did I mention that the temperature outside was a balmy 19ºF (-7ºC)?

It was about 10 pm, and after a quick phone call with my dad to try to check some of the easier possible solutions, it was surmised that nothing would get fixed until morning when the gas company would be open.

Facing the possibility of the indoor temperature dropping to that of the outside, and feeling distinctly averse to the idea of dying of hypothermia, I began to layer up like a tried-and-true northerner. Leggings under sweatpants, two pairs of fuzzy socks, two sweaters, gloves, a hat, etc.

After getting all that on and putting some extra comforters and blankets on my bed, I cuddled up under the covers and waited to feel warm. My poor shivering cat lay down right on my neck as we tried to share body heat between us.

Laying there attempting to ignore how cold I was, I started thinking about how this freezing cold sleeping situation, while uncomfortable, was not entirely unfamiliar to me. In fact, it was an experience I had almost on a daily basis during my five winters in Europe.

 Most of my memories of living in Europe are pleasant ones, ones that I think fondly of quite often lately: long walks on the beach in the sunshine, having a caña or two on an outdoor terrace with friends, taking weekend getaways to new countries. What I tend not to remember during my trips down memory lane are the bad parts of living there. The truth is, I spent the majority of my time in Europe freezing my ass off. I never bothered to take any pictures of the ridiculousness of layering up like a downhill skier to go to bed every night, possibly because I didn't want other people to know how miserable that situation really was. How I was too poor to afford a comforter until halfway through winter, how I didn't have enough money to live in a newer apartment with central heating, how I was unable to figure out how to change my bombona (gas container) to take a warm shower, how my only option for warmth was a decades-old space heater that I was told might explode if left on all night.

My sleepwear of choice the other night--and pretty much what it would have looked like if I would have ever bothered to photograph my Euro sleepwear as well!

Humans are amazingly adaptable and can make any situation feel normal eventually, which is why after awhile I became pretty accustomed to simply being freezing most of the time. I started showering at the gym in their hot water, I spent long hours in cafés soaking in their heating, and it all started to seem quite natural.

And then visiting family in the States, it was a shock when I stepped out of the plane and immediately started sweating my ass off in the overheated airport.

 I am aware now, though I may not have been at the time, of the privileged life I had led up to that point. As an American, I was raised with the expectation of never having to deal with the actual temperature outside. Instead, in this country, we exist in a permanent bubble of 75ºF (23ºC) inside our gigantic homes and offices. I know now that my country's dependence on central heating and air conditioning is one of the many factors contributing to climate change. I know that in many other first-world countries, living with the actual temperature outside is not a matter of wealth, but rather a positive choice to consume less energy for the betterment of the planet. And in most non-first-world countries, there is no choice in the matter at all—you go about your business, regardless of the temperature outside OR inside.

 But at that time, it seemed like a marker of poverty that I was living an existence where one of my main sources of heat all winter long was a gas oven and stovetop (both of which I had to light by hand with a match). And that was something I was far too insecure to share with my friends back home who were starting their careers, getting married, buying homes and having babies while I was “gallivanting on a permanent vacation” (in my dad's words). I wanted them to feel jealous of me, not pity for me!

So now that I am back in the States and completely re-accustomed to being cozy inside all winter long, the question is: would I really want to go back to that? I daydream constantly these days about Europe, thinking about how much better life was there, but in doing so I never remember the bad with the good. There were wonderful things about my life there, but it was also kind of difficult. Living life in another language, another culture, when you're making below minimum wage and have no one there to help you is HARD.

Having no indoor heating when you're used to its dependability isn't impossible, but it isn't super fun, either. It makes you want to cuddle up in your bed more than is probably healthy... Although it was a good motivator to go to the gym when that was the only place I could consistently get hot showers, and my carbon footprint was way smaller then. Hmm.

I guess what I'm saying is I need to count the blessings I have due to living in America—I have the ability to be warm the vast majority of the time here, no more lighting ovens by hand. And I actually have extra blankets here to put on myself when the heat breaks and people to help me solve these kinds of problems in a timely manner IN ENGLISH. Whoa.

(Because yes, while I did spend an uncomfortable night all bundled up, the gas man was here by 8 am the next day and it was fixed immediately.)

But at the same time as I am counting these blessings, I can still be aware of the lessons I learned while living in other countries—that it is possible to turn your heat down and still survive, that there is nothing wrong with sharing benefits with other people, that sometimes maintaining the planet is more important than your own personal comfort.

What I was reminded of by the experience of having my heat unexpectedly turned off midwinter is that it's all about balance. Winter warmth versus energy use, personal satisfaction versus planetary salvation. One of my goals for the coming year is to try to stay more towards the middle of these two extremes, rather than allowing myself to be swept away by the selfishness that is normal in American culture.

 And you? Do you have any goals for 2017, dear reader?

Friday, December 2, 2016

November 2016 in Review

I think the thing I miss most about blogging more regularly (other than writing itself, which I love dearly) is getting to share my photos with the world. This past year, I finally got my first DSLR camera and have been enjoying playing with it all the time and learning about photography, so naturally it makes sense that I would keep all of those fun photos to myself...NOT.

All this photography has been one of my main sources of joy this year, and I'd like to show off a little. So this month I'm doing a review post so other people can share in my happiness at learning to take interesting photos!

In November 2016...
I spent two full weekends in the city this month. I try to get to Chicago as often as I can, but two weekends in the same month is a rarity for me. I love every minute of it, other than how ridiculously expensive everything seems. But there are so many fun things to do there, how can I resist spending money?!

Early in November, I went to my first ever rugby game in Chicago! I was supporting New Zealand's All Blacks, who were highly favored to win. 

However, there was a slight Irish bias in the audience due to the numerous Irish immigrants in Chicago. The Irish team even said they felt like it was a home game, despite being all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from home. I guess it was a significant win for Ireland, who hadn't beat the All Blacks in some shockingly large amount of years. Regardless of who won, I had fun trying to figure out the rules of rugby and yelling at players to "GO GO GO!!" And I may or may not have stolen one of those green rugby league flags...

In other sports-related news, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and the city went INSANE about it. I can't profess to being a baseball fan (too slow for me). However, if I had to pick a favorite team it would definitely be the Cubbies, since they have a cool history and mythology surrounding them. And after over a hundred years' drought, I think they deserved the win. 

I took one of my nephews on his first Chicago tour, so I spent some time with the more touristy monuments, like the Bean. I've taken a rather silly number of photos of this thing over the years! 

This is another of my favorite spots in the city. I'm obsessed with the different flags on this bridge. The first is the American flag, followed by the Chicago city flag, then the flag of the state of Illinois, and then several repetitions of these same three. "Fun with Flags!" as Sheldon Cooper would say. What? I like flags. #sorrynotsorry 

A few years ago, Marilyn Monroe was in this spot by the Chicago Tribune holding down her skirt over an imaginary giant New York City subway grate. Now the Land of Lincoln's favorite president has taken over the spot. Much more appropriate, if you ask me!

Om nom deep dish pizza in its original location. Enough said.

I had fun explaining some Chicago history to my young nephew, and he was shocked to learn that the water tower was one of the few buildings left standing after the great fire. "But what about the Loop?" he asked. Not there, sorry kid!

This is my favorite tourist trick in Chicago. It costs almost $20 per person to go up the Sears Tower or to the 360º observatory in the Hancock Building, but you can go up to the Signature Room in the Hancock for the price of a drink, and the views are totally great!

And if you're a girl, don't forget to visit the ladies' room for the best view from the Hancock!

Next up on my personalized child-friendly Chicago tour, the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier. In all the times I've been in the city, I'd never done this before. Was it overrated and overexpensive? A little. But the views up there WERE pretty spectacular. 

After two jam-packed weekends in the city, I appreciated the quiet beauty of moments like a prairie sunrise on my work commute. 

At the end of November, I spent Thanksgiving week in wild and wonderful West Virginia. Here in the north, the autumn colors are long gone, but not down south!

Winter's chill has yet to set in really down south, and so the rolling hills of the Appalachians were covered in both mist and bright reds and oranges. I don't know what it is about mountains, but the second I laid eyes on those hills a yearning to live in them called out loudly inside my heart. Suddenly, the wide-open plains of Illinois seemed immeasurably boring compared with mountains for me to scale. And all I can say to myself is "Be quiet, wanderlust! I'm trying to figure out this whole stability thing here!"

Our little cabin out in the woods at ACE Adventure Resort was the perfect cozy retreat from my hectic life. 

My question for myself as the madness of December falls upon me is: Can I get a cozy mountain retreat from real life once a month, EVERY month?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Ghosts of June Present: 2016 Edition

It seems there's always something to worry about, isn't there? Worrying is one of those very human traits that we just can't seem to get rid of.

At about this time a year ago, I wrote a post about the random worries I'd been plagued with in the past, and how insignificant they seemed from where I was standing in June 2015.

Well, now that another year has gone by and June 2016 is over and done with, I feel like it might be nice to continue the trend of laughing at my silly past self. She wasted so much time worrying about such insignificant things that turned out just fine!  I'd also like to provide fodder for my future self to do much the same. I'll always have worries, but knowing that future me will be here laughing at them at this time next year (or in five years, or ten...) makes them seem less scary in the present, and it's always nice to be reminded of that.

So, Future!Alisa and Past!Alisa, this one's for you.

At this time last year, I was just about to leave Europe for the last time and make the big move back to the United States, for good. Understandably, I was rather nervous about this. I had no job lined up and no idea where I really wanted to live. I also had next to no money, and I was craving the stability that I'd been without since I'd moved away from home eight years before. These last two things, in particular, set the stage for where I find myself now, in June 2016. So did my worries about being jobless and homeless come true?

I have just finished my first year as a Spanish teacher in my hometown in the States, and I'm currently on summer break. I'm spending my time planning a big trip to a new area of the world for me--Oceania! I'm very excited to finally be traveling abroad again after almost a full year of not leaving the USA. If I were to tell my teenage self that not quite ten years after making my great escape into the big wide world, I would find myself living not only in the town where I was born but also in the very house where I grew up, she would probably cry out in disbelief. Yet here I am. While it's never where I'd have pictured myself in a million years, I have to admit that it's not all that bad. A year ago I was craving stability, and it turns out that stability DOES feel really good. Having a steady job and not having to constantly stress about money is nice! Am I rich? No. Do I want to live in my parents' house forever? No way. But this year of being able to see my family and old friends whenever I want and not having to worry about moving halfway across the world or searching for a job was good for me, I think. This is the first summer in ten years that I haven't had to move myself and all my belongings between 2100km and 6700km (1300 and 4100 miles) across land and sea. Not having that kind of stress in my life has been really calming. While I'm still bursting at the seams with wanderlust, knowing that I have a steady home and job to come back to makes the idea of traveling seem more like fun and less like work!

Struggles: Trying to plan a long vacation in some of the more expensive countries in the world without spending ALL my savings, making new lesson plans for next year that improve upon those from this year (and they say that teachers have the whole summer off, pfft)

Fears: That I will crash into another car while trying to drive on the WRONG side of the road in Australia or New Zealand and kill someone à la Matthew Broderick except that I am NOT Ferris Bueller and will most certainly go to jail for my crimes (paranoid much?), that I will never meet an interesting gentleman caller in my tiny hometown where most people my age are married and/or do not share my main passions in life (namely, travel and foreign cultures)

Hopes for the next year: To find a way to move out on my own again, to join clubs and activities where I will meet interesting people in my town and make some new friends, to practice my foreign language skills more so they don't atrophy

So there we have it, the ghosts of June Present: 2016 Edition. I'm just as much of a worrywart as ever, but I also feel more equipped than ever to handle my problems with aplomb. For most of these issues, I know the solutions, I just have to find the right time and place to employ them. It's certainly easier than facing the great wide unknown. What a relief!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Roll Out Those Hazy Lazy Crazy Days of Summer!

After what felt like the longest winter ever (I was still wearing my winter coat at the end of May), I was really REALLY ready for summer this year. The absence of real spring plus the fact that the long winter was my first one in 5 years meant that I was super anxious for the sun and warmth to just get here already.

In other words, I was craving those hazy lazy crazy days of summer. And now, they're here with a vengeance, with muggy 35ºC/95ºF weather sin fin. So I'm trying to enjoy them (or at least make the best of them...I whine for winter to be over from the end of February until the moment it gets hot, and then I remember that I actually truly dislike warm weather). But this year, I was smart and I planned a trip down to the Southern Hemisphere for their winter that will coincide nicely with some of the Midwest's worst sultry days. 

I have bested you this year, summer, I swear I have! *cue maniacal laughter*


Still, as I said, I'm working on appreciating the lazy days of summer before I leave (soon, very soon), so I've compiled a list of the things I love most about this sweaty season to help me remember to enjoy it!

 To me, summer means...

While I no longer live walking distance from beautiful beaches like this one in Brittany, France, there are some lovely beaches here on Lake Michigan that I should take better advantage of. And when I'm down in Australia, I'll get to enjoy the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, yay!

Some vacations (like to the crystalline waters of Croatia's Plitvice Lakes) are hard to beat, but hopefully my upcoming visit to the stunning beauty of New Zealand will come close!

 Grilling Out
Grilling hot dogs and hamburgers luckily is something that has always been pretty easy for me to do in both Europe AND America, and I'm certain I'll get my fair share in during Fourth of July weekend. Looking forward to it!

There are great hikes all over the world, and even though some of my favorite ones are back in Galicia, there are beautiful places in America as well, like the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Except when it's being flooded by torrential rain like it is right now. I really hope that the local raft guides (from my sister's company, ACE) are still out there doing their part. #wvstrong

 Sidewalk Cafés
Unfortunately, this year I don't get to watch the Eurocup from adorable sidewalk cafés in Saint-Malo (France) in like I did with the World Cup two years ago. So now as I watch someone win (hopefully, Les Bleus...or I'd also be happy if Iceland won), I just have to pretend that I'm still overseas. ...And not feel guilty for having a beer at 11am--it's totally 6pm back in Europe, don't judge me! 

Going to a Bastille Day celebration in Chicago's Daley Plaza in July 2014 was just what I needed to assuage my broken heart after having left France extremely unwillingly only a few weeks before. While I no longer need healing from my breakup with France (or with Spain, for that matter), a nice celebration does me good no matter what mood I'm in!

If you follow me on Instagram (@alisabroad), you have probably realized that in the months since I've moved back to the States, I've become even more of a nature lover than I was when I took this photo while hiking in Madrid last year. I didn't even know that was possible! I guess that's what happens when nature is so easy to access. Anyway, almost all of the photos I've taken recently have been of flowers. As I said, it's muggy out there, and that dampness is exactly what Midwestern wildflowers need to thrive. So even though I'm not the most comfortable in the wet heat, I'm grateful for the color it brings into my life. 

 Ice Cream
Last year at this time, I was trying beer-flavored ice cream on a food tour of Krakow, Poland. While that particular ice cream wasn't my favorite, I have a few special local spots by my house that DO make some of the best ice cream in the world (IMHO). But they're only open in the summertime (duh).

 Towering Cornfields
You know you were raised by a farming family when the refrain "knee-high by the Fourth of July" means something to you. Yes, for all you non-farmers out there, us Midwesterners know that it's going to be a good year for the corn when it reaches the height of our knees by July 4th. A small rural secret, direct from me to you. 

Picking Wild Berries
OK, OK, the raspberries in the picture aren't wild at all. But just yesterday I sweated through an entire morning of picking four pints of wild black raspberries in an undisclosed location. And I have the scratches all up and down my arms and legs to prove it! My late grandfather would be so proud. 

The best part of gardening, in my opinion, is fresh-picked sugar snap peas. When I was a kid, I used to eat a whole big bowl of them for lunch, with nothing else! Heaven.

What is it about eating outside that's so much more appealing than doing it inside? I don't know what it is, but taking my meal outside automatically makes it about 1000x more enjoyable. But due to weather, this is really only possible in (you guessed it) summer!

 The Fourth of July
Ah, the quintessential American holiday, when it's almost considered an act of treason to wear any color other than red, white and blue. I truly detest the song "Proud to Be An American" by Lee Greenwood (which is inevitably played at the celebration every year, and which just as inevitably causes me to start ranting about privilege and misuse of the words "freedom" and "American"). However, as the cursed song plays, I usually try to close my ears and just enjoy the beautiful fireworks lighting up the sky while thinking about all the things I DO love about my homeland. Good cookies are one of them!

Just another thing I miss about Europe. God, what I wouldn't do for a nice glass of tinto de verano on a Spanish balcony right about now. Of course, even if I had a balcony here, it would be completely useless 9 months out of the year, and which is the real winner between a tiny balcony and a gigantic backyard, anyway?

 Visiting Friends
Last summer, I spent a few weeks visiting one of my very best friends down in Mexico. She showed me all her favorite spots, and I was reminded what a good time summer is for visiting friends that are scattered all around the world! I'll have to remember that for NEXT summer when I'm planning my vacation.

 The Renaissance Faire
Nerd alert! Yes, one of my favorite parts of summer is going to a historical festival full of people dressed up in period costume pretending like it's the Year of our Lord 1574. And yes, sometimes when it's not too hot, I go in costume as well. Because I am a nerd. And proud of it!

 Farmer's Markets
Though nothing could beat selling sweet corn out of the back of my grandpa's van when I was a little girl, going to farmer's markets as an adult reminds me of days gone by. At this one last year in Madison, they even had pementos de Padrón, those little green Galician peppers that are sometimes spicy and sometimes non. But as I found out (much to the disappointment of my tastebuds), when they're grown in America, Padrón peppers are ALWAYS spicy, and not just a little bit. Ew. No me gusta. 

We don't have as many saint days in America as they do in Spain. (Scratch that, we don't have ANY saint days in America...even though I tried to celebrate San Juan last week with a gigantic bonfire in my backyard.) We don't celebrate Corpus Cristi by filling the streets with flower petals and salt crystals in intricately beautiful patterns like they do in A Guarda, Galicia. But we do have local festivals, carnivals, and county fairs. While these aren't as culturally interesting to me personally as Spanish festivals, they ARE the place to go if you want to eat any-food-you-can-think-of-fried-and-put-on-a-stick. 

Sunshine and Laughter
Finally, I come to truly the best part of summer. No matter where I'm spending those long hot days, this is what I want to be doing. I want to be out in the sunshine with friends, laughing until my sides hurt. Is there any better way to pass the time?

How do YOU love spending the lazy hazy crazy days of summer? 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Paris, Je Te...

Last night, as I was getting ready to go to bed, I was suddenly struck by the urge to have une infusion and some Speculoos to dip in it. As the smell of the hot tea's steam mixed with spicy cookie crumbs wafted toward my nose, a Proustian involuntary memory suddenly leaped into my mind, one of many evenings spent in a similar manner huddling in the kitchen of my 18th-century French apartment, trying to shut out the cold damp winds of a rainy Brittany winter. 

As I was remembering things past in France, my mind wandered and I got to thinking about how at precisely this time three years ago I was there, gaining a new perspective, not on Brittany (which I dearly love), but on one of my least favorite parts of the country.

It was Valentine's weekend. Because Spain is amazing and people there work to live rather than vice versa, I had a couple of days off for Carnaval, and I was very excited. Being that I was a weary singleton, I wanted to escape the lovey-dovey couples all around me and go on an "I love you, self" getaway. So since I am a masochist I had a burning desire to see the timbered houses of Strasbourg, I of course booked a budget flight to the most romantic of all cities--Paris. 

After arriving in Paris late on a Friday evening and basically just crashing, the next day I used my brand-new first-ever douze vingt-cinq SNCF train card to get over to Strasbourg for much less money than anticipated. But freezing my bum off for an unexpectedly snowy two days in the timbered city pushed me to decide to cut my trip short. 

Strasbourg's Petite France looked like something out of Harry Potter, but wet frozen feet combined with happy couples everywhere had me feeling pretty crummy! 

So I soon found myself back in Paris again with a few days to kill before my flight back to Vigo, knowing no one and having no real plans. For many people and most francophiles in particular, an unexpected couple of days in Paris sounds like a dream come true. 

Not me, though. Ever the aberrant, I have to admit: I've never really liked Paris


Sure, as a kid before I'd ever been there I used to dream of café au lait in bohemian cafés along the Seine, strolling the Champs-Élysées in chic outfits, having a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower. 

And then at sixteen, I went and I got rudely bumped on the sidewalk, saw a fire in the street, and told that my accent in French was horrible et incompréhensible. (This was probably true, at least when I was in high school and had never actually spoken to a real live French person before). I went again several years later and was given counterfeit Euros, slept in a hostel with bedbugs, narrowly avoided being pickpocketed, and witnessed a scary accident in front of l'Arc de Triomphe. Just last year, I got caught in terribly stressful rush hour traffic with my parents, then was propositioned marriage in a gas station by a clerk who still refused to take my American non-chip credit card. (How rude, amirite!?)

In fact, my second-scariest moment as a single female traveler happened in Paris (a story I'd tell, if it didn't make me queasy just thinking about what could have happened to me--thank god nothing did). 

My plethora of icky memories of dirty smelly rude old Paris is only vindicated by the overabundance of non-parisien French people I've met who share my opinions (including nearly all my breton students)!

But still, on this particular Valentine's weekend, I tried to give Paris another chance to charm me, at the very least because I was stuck there for a couple of days and had nothing better to do. So I booked a room at a cute little Montmartre hostel whose name I don't remember and set out on a walk. 

I was in great luck, because just as I was gravitating towards the Moulin Rouge, the Baz Luhrmann film about which first inspired me to study French back in 2001, I saw a group of people congregating by a young man holding up an orange sign that said "Free Montmartre Tour!" 

Intrigued, broke, and bored, I moved closer and hastily decided to join them just as they were about to leave. 

The guide, it turns out, was an American with a French mother who had recently decided to rediscover his roots and had come to study at the American University of Paris. As he took us around the most interesting spots of Montmartre, he regaled us with stories of feeling strange in Paris because the French he spoke was only suitable for talking to little old ladies, and how he felt lost amongst his peers, who used verlan and peppered their speech with Arabic words and SMS abbreviations. I could relate, having learned formal French from textbooks and teachers who had studied abroad there decades ago. 

Not only were the guy's stories interesting, he took us to places in Montmartre that I hadn't come across in my previous visits and told us about the history of the village, which I'd never heard before. As we moved from the market behind the Sacré-Cœur to the original pre-19th-century mills that gave the Moulin Rouge nightclub its name, from Van Gogh's old apartment to the café where Amélie worked, I began to remember what it was about Paris that had attracted me in the first place.

Actually, it wasn't "Paris" at all, but that little village nearby on la butte that was once the center of la vie bohème, and still houses the best view I've ever had of all of the city (even if the locals do think that the Sacré-Cœur is an eyesore). 

I ended up meeting some fellow travelers on that Montmartre tour who took me first to an art show in a warehouse, then to some of their favorite Parisian spots for dinner later in the evening. The whole night was such a positive experience that, eager to compound it, I decided to join the full Paris tour with the same company the next day, which ended up being private because no one else showed up! 

That Valentine's weekend is, to date, the only time I've ever felt anything approaching love for Paris. It's amazing what one tiny good experience can do to your feelings! 

Still, you'll have to excuse me for not jumping to proclaim ‹‹Paris, je t'aime!›› That one weekend helped my opinions change from ‹‹Paris, je te déteste›› to ‹‹Paris je te...(je ne sais pas.)›› I feel apathetic about the city now more than anything else, and it's still probably my least favorite part of France in general. It's better than outright hate, but I don't see Paris ever being on my favorite worldwide cities list.

However, in the spirit of verité, beauté, liberté et amour, I have no qualms whatsoever about shouting over the rooftops ‹‹Montmartre, je t'aime!››

...And hey, since it IS on a hill, it shouldn't be too hard to get myself back there one day to do exactly that! 


But Montmartre, my love, I'm certain that we will meet again one day. You're worth the effort, even if I do have to brave yucky old Paris to get to you.

Mon valentin, Montmartre

By the way, in case you all were wondering, the orange-signed tour company's name is Culturefish, and I'd highly recommend their free tours of both Montmartre and central Paris. And no, they have no idea that I'm writing this...I just took their tours three years ago and have been meaning to promote them to people ever since! Timely, I know. ;-)