“If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses me, what pains me – everything that makes me react, in short – I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words

Music in the Mountains

Hitchhiking is easy when you have a friend with a broken arm and you can play the sympathy card. If you are not in the mood to talk, it is also convenient if your travel partner is fluent in French, German, Italian, and English with a knack for telling stories. Honestly, Will, my hitchhiking companion, was born to faire la pousse. We made it effortlessly from St. Andre to Col de Boeuf as quickly as anyone could have without their own car.

The road from the cirque of Salazie to Mafate winds sharply and steeply, back and forth and up and down the mountain, as if the road plans were drawn by a five-year-old given a crayon and a shot of bourbon. The views are breathtaking and always changing. Clouds, some like enormous dollops of whipped cream topped the distant peaks. Others were just wispy apparitions, there and then gone. New waterfalls sprung up where there had not been any before. I would just focus my eyes on a particular point and one would appear, as if through my own efforts they would materialize.

No matter how stressed you are when you go to the mountains, all mental chatter becomes muted. Your attention is diverted to views so astounding that your brain says, “Shut up and look!” And you catch yourself with your mouth agape, your eyes transfixed despite your own inhibitions, your own skepticism to being awestruck and how much of a cliché that can be. You find yourself staring blankly, all of your senses heightened, nothing else coming to mind but wow. 

As we began hiking from the parking lot, spirits were at an all-time high. Jokes were doled out like food at a Thanksgiving feast. Our laughter was raucous and drew attention. We were a loud, colorful posse of anglophones, scream-laughing our way down the scribble of dirt trail. Whether it was the thin mountain air or the anticipation of a music festival in the mountains, I could not say, but it was to be a full moon and our backpacks were weighted with as much beer and rum as camping equipment. Needless to say, we were feeling good.

***

Night had fallen and the soft glow of the moon traced the ridges of the mountains around us. Lines of little gold dots could be seen slowly zigzagging back and forth in the distance, the headlamps of hikers still arriving. As the moon rose, details of the mountain slowly came into view until you could see everything perfectly. We had plunged into a black and white horror movie where we, the unsuspecting youth having too good a time, would soon be ravaged by the werewolf.

I cannot remember who said it, but one aspect of being content in life involves surrounding yourself with people whom it is easy to be good to. I would say that they are in abundance here on the island. People I have known for six months I would consider friends, which is encouraging to realize that you can go to a place as remote as Reunion Island for such a fleeting amount of time and still surround yourself with a good community of people.

I crawled into my tent somewhere around midnight. It had gotten dark around 6:30pm, so it felt quite late. The pitch was so steep that I could not lie in my sleeping bag and on my sleeping pad without sliding down to the bottom of the tent near the door. I fell asleep feeling like a bag of soup that had been thawed and frozen too many times. A harmonica was playing like a broken record. I slept well nonetheless.

Three weeks left. See you soon, Minneapolis!

Koreanese

When I am being harassed for being Chinois or the way I look, it is hard to feel grateful for this experience, to want to be where I am. Despite everything that is positive about Reunion Island, it is difficult to embrace a culture that does not always seem to accept differences.

According to my professor, the fact that les Chinois are stereotyped as being rich, cheap, and accused of thievery could be to blame for certain treatment. Auchan, Carrefour, and some of the other major supermarket chains on the island are owned by ethnically-Chinese individuals. They are still Réunionais, still Créoles, but of Chinese descent, and from what I have gathered, less integrated than les Malbars (from southern India), les Malgaches (from Madagascar), and les Yabs (white Creoles). As for the origin of being thieves, when the system of buying on credit came to the island, there was constant mistrust between the customer and Chinese shop owner as to whether the amount to be repaid was higher than it should have been.

Although the reason is not quite clear, the harassment here is unrelenting and likely the product of being more than just Asian. The combination of also having tattoos, perhaps, and longish hair sets me apart from other Chinois – Asian, excluding Indians. In a nutshell, “[I] don’t fit their concept of being Chinese,” Jean-Mick, my contact here on the island, told me.

I want to be clear that being called Chinois is not necessarily upsetting. There are other Creole labels used to simplify and are not meant to be degrading towards ethnic groups. Rather, what is bothersome are those who who treat me as less than which seems, in part, to be connected to being Chinois as well as different.

Creole Ethnic Labels:

  • Gros Blanc – A descendant of slave-owning families
  • Petit Blanc – A descendant of poor white landowners during times of slavery
  • Cafre/Cafrine – Black, a descendant of slaves
  • Yab – White Creole
  • Malbar/Malbaraise – Indian
  • Malgache -From Madagascar
  • Z’oreilles – From mainland France
  • Chinois – Asian, excluding India
  • Mahorais – From Mauritius

When walking on the sidewalk, I get yelled at most days from car windows. Passing motorcyclists and those on suped-up scooters will do double-takes, and Reunionese men and women, young and old, stare unwaveringly. I am not a spectacle! I want to yell. One day when I was running near my apartment, a student lobbed a half-empty can of pop through a bus window that hit me square in the chest. In my experience, when you look different here, you are treated as such, and part of this has to do with how you conform to what is stylé.

Some of what is stylé for men at the moment on Reunion Island:

  • Track pants and Nike Air Max kicks
  • Leopard and flower print everything
  • Anything emblazoned with NYC
  • Technical sunglasses
  • Blaring, external music players, often mounted to one’s mountain bike handlebars
  • Mountain bikes (and being able to do a wheelie)
  • Spiky, gelled-up hair and designs shaved into the sides of one’s head
  • Really loud, suped-up, 50cc scooters

I really like some of these trends – the retro Nike sneakers, androgynous flower/leopard print, and the fact that there are a fair number of people who commute by bike. However, this list is also a delineation of what is required to be cool and considered manly. Thus, it is hard not to view these aspects of Reunionese culture in a negative light – as one uniform, leopard-printed social box of masculinity to force oneself into. The pervasiveness of what is stylé is also representative of France’s collectivist society and the social pressure of looking and acting like everyone else.

What frustrates me most about being different here, apart from the “Jackie Chans,” “Bruce Lees,” the assumption I do combat, and the subsequent provocations to fight is that I thought it was a part of a past I had moved far away from – the chingchong-ese and other racial slurs of adolescence when being mean won you the attention of your peers. More often than not, thankfully, the intent has not been malicious. Regardless, I am having a difficult time accepting the name calling and stereotyping as some sort of icebreaker. In the States I have had much fewer problems, if any, but I have always been reminded of my race.

The first person to point out that I was different was a boy from church who made Asian eyes at me when I was six. There were the stupid, recycled Family Guy jokes during high school about being good at math and poked like the buttons of a calculator. At one of the restaurants I worked at this past summer, the cooks called me over to the kitchen within the first week so that I could open their newest special, the Fortune Burger. Infused with traditional Asian flavors, it was a bun with a folded slip of paper inside. My fortune read “Fuck You!” and they all burst out laughing. To this day I still do not get the joke. One of the cooks happened to be the sous chef at the restaurant, which was even more appalling.

When you are young, it is hard to understand why someone would make a racial joke at your expense. You shrug it off because you do not want to be the sensitive one, or the one that makes a big deal out of things that everyone else seems to find funny. As you grow older, you become more aware of the underlying arrogance, the injustice, and better-than hidden within the words.

Even now in my 20’s I am still being reminded in the same narrow-minded ways that I am Asian. I am beginning to accept that the difficulties of being Korean outside Korea are as much a part of my life as is being assumed a terrorist for many practicing Muslims, or as threatening if you are black in the US, or objectified and catcalled if you are a woman. On the other hand, the silver lining of this whole experience is a heightened awareness of my ethnicity that has forced me to reflect on my own identity as an adopted Korean American.

My roommate from freshman year was Chinese, not a fob, but he spoke Mandarin and his parents owned a Chinese restaurant in St. Paul, MN. He was the first Asian friend that I ever had apart from my biologically, older, half-sister, Lauren. I have never eaten Korean food, although I did do Taekwondo for a month. As you can see, my experience of Korean culture as an adopted Asian American is as limited as any other American.

Until this point, I never really cared, honestly. I was content where I was. Adopted at three months old into a white, middle class family, I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and had great friends who were all white. My roommate told me that I am one of the whitest people he has ever known. Personally, being told you are adopted, that your biological parents reside thousands of miles away renders itself as an abstract story that cannot be fully grasped. Thus, you brush it away and stick to your reality, what is currently in front of you.

Being here has made me care, though – to want to better understand my experience and those of other Asian Americans and adopted Korean Americans. How do they feel about being adopted? Do they feel a strong pull to go back to Korea? What would it feel like to be surrounded by people whose facial characteristics mirror your own? What would it be like to meet the person who birthed you but did not raise you? Do you share a small pen-dot mole on your left eyelid? Do you have any brothers or sisters that you do not know about?

Culture is difficult to define without oversimplifying. There is a fine line where talk of culture starts and stereotyping begins. Not everyone conforms to what is stylé, and given my four-and-a-half-month experience thus far, confined to mainly the west coast (St. Paul, Plateau Caillou, and St. Gilles-les-Bains – Z’oreilles Land), it is possible that I do not have a fully accurate picture of Reunion Island, nor the degree to which ethnic groups and social classes mix.

For all the uncertainties concerning this experience on Reunion Island – the gray area between culture and stereotyping and what it means to be Asian American, there are two things that are certain: for every negative experience here, I have had ten positive ones, and if you are not sure, it is safe to assume that no one wants to be called Jackie Chan over their real name.

GR R2: Days 3 and 4

Day 3: Bourg-Murat (BOG-MAN-RAT)

More rocky terrain on day three, the soil was reddish this time as we followed the white and red trail signs passed cloud-covered mountaintops and bucolic fields of cattle fit for a postcard. My legs still were still working somehow and, despite the rain, I felt at peace moving one wet boot in front of the other.

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I walked mainly by myself for the majority of the third day. Sometimes you need that, which is the beauty of hiking for hours on end in a group because you always have the choice of getting really philosophical by yourself (What am I going to do with my life?!) or allowing yourself to be pulled along by the spirit of the group, and poo banter.

As we reached the road to take us into Bourg-Murat, a 45-minute detour from our path, to resupply our food stocks and say goodbye to the three, three-day hikers, we noticed that Alex (small sleeper, tall otherwise), who was in front of us, had not arrived with everyone else. He had missed the partially concealed right turn towards Bourg-Murat, instead going left.

I selflessly volunteered to go back for him, setting my fears and concerns for personal safety aside. Fueled by paternal adrenaline, like that mother from that one urban legend who lifted up a car to free her pegged son, I ran and thought of nothing but his potential tears and confusion. Alex, I’m coming!

“ALEEEEEX!” I yelled periodically along the trail. After 20 minutes of running, I heard a reply.

“MAAAATTTT?!” he cried.

“ALLLLEEEEEXXXX!” I screamed louder this time.

“MAAAATTTT?!”

“ALEEEXX! HEEEEEY! YOU TOOK A WRONG TURN!”

“WHAT?!”

“TURN AROUND!”

As he limped towards me in his makeshift garbage bag rain jacket, I began to make out defeat written in the hard lines of his face. As many who know him would agree, Alex is a shining 60-year-old man in a 23-year-olds body. He is paternal, well-read, and interested in getting to know everyone, that sweet old man you’ll move in next door to someday that’ll bring you tomatoes from his garden every week. For the first time since meeting him, his physical appearance matched his internal age, 60. Taking his pack, we made our way back to find the others who had taken shelter from the rain in an unoccupied cattle barn.

Leaving the cattle barn, we walked towards town waving our thumbs enthusiastically as the rain poured. Can you not see by the energy with which we’re waving our thumbs in the pouring rain that we have entertainment value! At least take pity on us! I thought. In the end, two of our companions caught a ride, Alex being one of them.

The three, three-day hikers of our group caught buses back home while the five of us, Marta, Will, Cora, Sam, and I, continued on to our final destination, St. Denis, the end of the GR R2 trail.

We set up camp an hour or two outside of Bourg-Murat in an open space along the trail, laying out garbage bags beneath our tents to prevent rain from coming in the bottom. Huddled in our sleeping bags, we ate a dinner of cold canned food, did our best to massage the tension out of one anothers’ shoulders, and fell asleep.

Camp
Camp

Day 4: Xmas Eve

Cilaos. Destroyed knees. Rain. Rain. Rain. Thermal baths. Magic gîte!

After a long day of hiking, we made our final descent into our first cirque, Cilaos. It was the first day I truly considered giving up. My knees felt wrecked, a sharp pain stabbing both kneecaps with each footfall. By the end, I was taking each step sideways, gently lowering myself down as if I were landing on the fragile surface of a crême brulée.

Cilaos
Cilaos

We had a delicious lunch of gourmet canned food at a picnic area, cursing the happy French family nearby for no apparent reason other than wanting to blow off some steam.

“Fuck the French!” we said happily to ourselves, cursing their motorized transportation and decadent picnic meal. I bet they even have wine! The nerve! Was our manner of dealing with our personal problems healthy? Probably not, but it worked.

After hitchhiking into the main part of Cilaos, we stopped into the thermal spa for a sauna and massage bath. The interior of the sauna was bizarre. Rounded white plastic seats that became slippery beneath our sweaty bums extended through to the ceiling, giving one the impression that the florescent red numbers indicating temperature and remaining time were actually coordinates for a day in the past. The bath was a single tub with brown stains and a bar across the top to help you get out. The room was bare. I attribute the questionable bottom rash that persisted for three days to that bathtub. Other than that, I was warm. Victory!

Stench is one of the realities of backpacking/travel that gets pushed out by the stunning views and freedom from the day-to-day grind. It should be given it’s due credit, as it truly plays a large role in any hiking story. It walked with us along the GR R2, sat with me while I ate tuna, and slept in our tents. A greedy and stubborn bastard, it wore all of my clothes, even. Thankfully, we never allowed it to come between us, and for the first time in four days, it left us for a time. The gîte, La Roche Marveilleuse, gave us a chance to wash all of our clothes, hang out wet sleeping bags, tents, and properly clean the trail off our bodies.

Gîte Roche Marveilleuse
Gîte Roche Marveilleuse

Later, we celebrated in town with a 20 euro meal and experienced the forgotten joys of hot fresh food prepared by someone else and served to us without any effort on our part. I had a salade exotique, a rougaille with potatoes, sweet potato cake drizzled in caramel, a rum and coke, a rum punch, and another shot of rum that accompanied the dessert. It was the best 20 euros I have spent since coming to the island. It was as merry a meal as merry can be. It was Christmas Eve, and all was right in the world.

Marta and I
Marta and I
Sam and Cora
Sam and Cora
Will and Marta
Will and Marta
Cilaos by night
Cilaos by night

GR R2: Days 1 and 2

Day 1

We found ourselves trekking uphill for five straight hours from Basse Vallé where it all began to the flattest spot we could find as the sun fell from view. Over a thousand feet up, surrounded by winding moss-covered trees with vines hanging from them and clouds seemingly close enough to touch, we stripped pine branches from the nearby shrubbery, laying them down to lessen the impact of unforgiving stones on our tired backs.

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(Top left to right: Alex, Will, Eva, Marta; Bottom left to right: myself, Sam, Cora, Jasmine)

Sleep came fitfully. The large amounts of quick-burning sugars throughout the day – spoonfuls of nutella and bites of tortillas, handfuls of peanuts, granola bars, and gulps of letchi juice – that kept my unconditioned legs from collapsing beneath the ten-day home on my back successively strung my eyes wide open to the point of vacating my tent for need of a different view. Fetching my headlamp from a bottomless bag, the same one that lit every sundowned moment during the motorcycle trip a year and a half prior, I walked to a nearby rock, opened my journal, and scribbled down the words that follow:

“Incredibly tiring but amazing first day. Five hours of ascending. Felt so tired I was beginning to stumble. Had trouble staying upright. Had to recall worse, more painful experiences to keep going on. . . . can barely remember the last time I went camping. Feels amazing to be back out in nature.”

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Leaning against that rock and looking upwards, I thought about how different the stars look beyond the reach of the City’s light and that first full view you get when you’re seeing them again as if for the first time.

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For me, I was with my best friends from high school in Arches and Canyonlands National Park. I remember climbing to the rim of one of the canyons at night, a stone’s throw from our campsite, and feeling weightless, shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends, completely pulled in by the night sky like floating in a body of water. That’s how I felt at the end of Day 1, 1,000 feet up, 6 years, and 10,000 miles from that first experience of the stars.

Taking one last look at the summit before climbing into my tent, we still had a ways till the top. My head hit the inflatable pillow, and as my eyelids began to droop, there was nothing but the soft snores of Alex and the thought of how incredibly small, at 6’2”, he could make himself.

Alex
(Alex)

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Day 2

The terrain changed dramatically from the steep muddy incline and rainforest-like surroundings we experienced the day before as we came closer to Piton de la Fournaise. Trees disappeared and gray volcanic rock replaced a lot of the greenery from the first day.

We had only room to pack three to four liters of water each, if that, an amount that can be comfortably drank at home let alone walking up a mountainside with weight for hours on end. Around five hours into the next day, I was rationing a liter of water. We crossed a stream, and I dipped an empty bottle in, taking a large gulp. I was fairly sure that it would be alright, no large animals to contaminate the water, but I wasn’t certain. Eva, a German assistant whose dad runs an outdoor shop, told me that I’d know within the first 30 minutes whether the water was good to drink or not. Thankfully it was.

We’d finally reached the top where everything was flat as we made our way to the Gîte du Volcan. The signs that would pop up at trail junctions few and far between directed us with an arrow, nothing more. It’s the not knowing that made it the most difficult. As the rain continued coming down and the wind ran unchecked across the flat terrain, the knowledge that we had no idea when we would arrive at the gîte sunk in with the cold, compounding the soreness in my legs and feet, the emptiness in my stomach. Retreating as far into my rain jacket and wet shirt as possible, I fantasized of thick wool hats.

After another hour, we came to a sign that read .4km to the gîte. It was the 400m dash from high school, and with that, I took off, wet boots squelching, oversized backpack flopping around awkwardly, a manic, desperate look in my eyes like a crazed kindergartner racing for the bus on his first day of school. I most likely set a personal record.

Upon arriving, I stripped off everything wet, and fell overjoyed in a heap on top of the couch next to Marta, Will, and Jasmine. I ordered two coffees, sipping them carefully and touching the warm ceramic cups to my cheeks. Nothing beats a warm drink after coming in from the cold.

We stayed for over an hour before pulling our wet clothes back on, filling up our bottles, and heading back out into the rain towards our final destination for the day.

My watch read 10 hours by the time we had arrived at our campsite. A vacationing couple from Massif Central, France invited us over to their fire where we warmed up cans of ravioli and cassoulet in metal camp bowls and coffee cups. We strung up our boots to dry and roasted steaming wool socks over the fire. Afterwards, five or six of us crammed into a single tent for shoulder rubs and a small amount of Haribo candy gifted to Alex for his birthday.

Thinking only of Maslow’s first tier of needs, and grateful for every one of them, I fell into a deep sleep until the sun rose.

“Sanksgeeving” in Réunion

I spent the week before Thanksgiving, or “Sanksgeeving” as my French kids say, teaching a lesson on the holiday – it’s ties to the Battle of Gettysburg, American football, the Macy’s Day Parade, and the horrors of Black Friday. I showed them videos of the latter via YouTube that bewildered and terrified, apocalyptic-like scenes of consumer-hungry Americans forcing their way into stores, tearing through metal gates, and trampling one another for 50% off.

They were most interested in the food. When you’re so habituated to something, like baked sweet potatoes and marshmallows or pumpkin pie for that matter, it’s strange to see someone try and wrap their head around it for the first time. Seeing It from their perspective makes you think, Yeah, slicing a can-shaped, gelatinous wad of cranberries to eat with my turkey is a bit weird. What is also quite amazing is how you can spend a full hour dissecting the components of pie, green bean casserole, and gravy.

“It’s like a tarte, but not…” I can’t really tell you why, so I’m just going to say it confidently. “It’s pie, and it’s different… and green bean casserole, you take french-fried onions…” How do you explain what french-fried onions are to a French person? The situation felt so ironically convoluted I just trailed off when explaining. Before arriving, I was hoping to live the French version of Dead Poet’s Society. A bit ambitious in hindsight.

What else I find strange is being left to one’s own devices for the holidays. The most I have ever been asked to do to help out with Thanksgiving is to eat more food so that less would have to come home. Christmas has entailed buying gifts, helping set up the tree, and holding the ladder for my dad while he strung all the lights given that I was home. Seeing as I was away for college for four years, my actions were to come home, open presents and enjoy the delicious food that my family made. Don’t worry about gifts; “You’re a poor college student and your company is the present!”

So, when some of the assistants put together an American Thanksgiving event, the concept of organizing a holiday was weird, especially being away from home on a tiny French-speaking island that nobody has ever heard of. What does this mean? I thought. Am I becoming more of an actual adult, contributing to Thanksgiving and not just benefiting? Here I am, looking up recipes to bring food to a holiday get-together, and I still can’t grow facial hair to save my life, I’ve sold basically everything to come to the island, and my dad still files my taxes every year.

Plans to make sweet potatoes and marshmallows fell through as the only ones I could find were blue and smurf-themed and no sweet potatoes. Thus, Will, Alex and myself came with breakfast-y things – Nutella, jam, bread, juice, and oatmeal – to set out in the morning.

I had my doubts about whether or not it would actually feel like Thanksgiving, and they were proven wrong. There was a moment when people were walking in with grocery bags of Thanksgiving dishes they had made, bottles of wine and rum punch, greeting everyone with a hug or the bise, and I thought, this is quite amazing what we’ve succeeded in creating. The atmosphere was warm and jovial. We shared what we were most thankful for. Wine flowed. There were five different pies to follow an enormous meal that somehow all fit on Julia, Isabella, and Tim’s single table of their minimalist apartment. Little rotisserie chickens purchased from street vendors, casseroles, mashed potatoes, gravy and more made up the menu.

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We went for a midnight swim at the beach in St. Pierre after waistlines had somewhat receded. 12 or so of us retired to Tim’s room at the end of the night, furnished with only a double mattress on the floor and air-conditioning. It was so crowded the only open space was to allow the door to swing open fully. Most of the couch from downstairs had been disassembled to sleep on, a cushion for everyone to assuage the effects of bare tile. In keeping with the strangeness of Thanksgiving in-general, it was one of the weirdest places I have fallen asleep, yet one of the best I have ever experienced.

***

T-minus 20 hours before our 10-day trek across the island. We’ll spend Christmas in tents in the most isolated the cirques. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year, and a belated Happy Sanksgeeving!

Culture Shock, A Meteor Shower Birthday

Culture shock can be shitty, simply put. There are a few different models that map out the emotional roller coaster, but they all begin with the honeymoon stage. Then there is a fallout as differences turn into irritations and irritations turn into homesickness, sometimes depression. After that one learns to cope, and by the end, hopefully, accept. A week ago, I woke up truly happy for no apparent reason. Without warning, I realized I was coping. All of it, the depression included, is a beautiful reminder that I’m truly immersed in a different culture.

Two, three weeks ago, I would have given anything to be heading back home. This is too much for me, I thought. I miss my friends and family, the pace of Minneapolis, autumn, winter, ordering a full 12oz cup of coffee, the speed of MetroTransit! Yes, it is extremely fast and efficient in comparison to Car Jeune. I missed wearing sweaters so bad I was turning up my a/c full blast just to do so. Slowly, but surely, I had nothing to write about other than I had finally arrived at the final season of Breaking Bad and that I felt closer to the dark, meth-entangled plight of Walter and Jessie. What a waste, right?

Thankfully, a week ago was Marta’s birthday, and every year, wherever she is, she “drags her friends someplace in the wilderness to watch the meteor shower,” she told me. This year happened to be a beach just outside of St. Joseph in the south of the island called La Grande Anse. We pitched our tents and strung hammocks like rebels next to a camping interdit (no camping) sign.

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The day we arrived there were at least six different weddings taking pictures. “We’re by the green one,” our friends texted us (there were two we found out). Once everyone had arrived, we feasted on a picnic banquet of chicken and brie sandwiches, Pringles, cookies and cake, a can of sweet corn, Julia’s couscous concoction, red wine, and, of course, rum punch (my water bottle still smells of it). As night fell, so did our clothes in tiny piles by the water’s edge as we stepped nudey into the ocean.

With every movement that disturbed the water, bioluminescent organisms swirled around us as stars fell overhead in a shower of meteors. It was something out of a movie. We lied in a pile like Max and his friends from Where the Wild Things are atop a blanket on the beach and stared up at the night sky trying to name constellations. There were elbows in faces and heads resting on stomachs like a human funnel cake. We swam some more, doggy-paddling as close to the surface as possible to avoid the minefield of sea urchins lurking below. Scavenging wood, we made a fire in the pit next to our tents, passed around a bit of Reunionese Zamal, and fell asleep somewhere around 3am.

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Five of us crammed into Marta’s car mid-afternoon the next day and drove to Bassin Langevin where we jumped from cliffs, ate several kilos of letchis, and practiced pulling each other up from the sides of large rocks (au cas où…). If the situation arose, Marta and I would most likely have to let each other plummet to our deaths or go together. Either way, now we know, so maybe it wouldn’t be as bad. I asked Will to pull me up, and he did it in two seconds. Thus, our survival depends on Will if ever we find ourselves dangling over the edge. A detour at Piton de la Fournaise led to us picking up a stray kitten we named “Volcano” so we could find him a home. What a moral dilemma! It was Marta who took on the responsibility of not leaving him behind to starve despite the impossible problem of stray animals left to their own wits on the island.

Samoussas at another waterfall for dinner, Marta and I drove back to her apartment in St. Denis after dropping off the others near St. Andre. We bathed Volcano twice, doing our best to rid all the flees from it’s dirt-encrusted white coat. Around 10pm, I borrowed a motorcycle from another assistant and drove the 30km back to St. Gilles.

I arrived home exhausted but content. It was an amazing, full weekend that dragged me from the cold dark confines of the cave that I had created. Standing with the bioluminescence swirling around me, looking in awe at Piton de la Fournaise, the motorcycle ride along the ocean-hugging-cliff-hugging road so amazing I was crying out, I could go on about the multitude of experiences that balance Reunion’s slow buses and impossibly small coffees. I would have loved to have come home, but I know that staying here will bring a lot of good as well.

A group of us is leaving Saturday for a 3-day/10-day hike from the south of the island to the north. We’ll pass by the three cirques, Mafate, Salazie, and Cilaos and hopefully Piton de Neige, the other volcano. It took time, is taking time, to adjust, but I am beginning to really enjoy this island experience.

Full Moon Party: Where am I?

In college, you have your favorite places to study that you can undoubtedly be found at at particular moments of certain days. Maybe it’s a tiny nook hidden deep within the library’s bookshelves of pages published before your parents’ parents’ parents were born, that you emerge from after countless hours have passed indicated to you by the stiffness in your ass and, when you finally emerge, by the remembrance that other people existence, an aversion to light, and what fresh air feels like in your lungs.

In my case, there was a rounded table for three that I would sit at before classes to study and observe the herds of students going by. One of those students was a girl named Casey who transferred in with me to Concordia College. We got along well from the beginning, and as the year went by and that rounded table became a place of frequency, so did our meetings. I was an English and French major, she, involved in the sciences. Our inability to fathom the work the other one did was something that drew us to one another.

Her science classes were awful, she would tell me, and she was often unsure of whether she would pass them and, if not, have to retake them at one of the other two colleges in the Fargo-Moorhead area. I remember trying to discuss anything interesting I was learning in literature, Stephen Dedalus in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for example, or some concept in American Philosophy that, to this day, I’ve never really grasped. We also had some really good life talks, you know, where you get all deep and stuff.

More than a year after graduating, we’ve just begun to rekindle our conversations and what she recently said to me is the point of this seemingly directionless tangent: ”18-year-old me would have laughed at the thought of me now,” she wrote. Currently living in Nova Scotia, on her way to grad school in a year’s time, and involved in a good relationship, it goes to show what can transpire in say, four years.

This is the thought that I had last night at a full moon party dancing to music in French and English from the 80s and 90s played by my physics professor who’s also a DJ, talking to a French girl with an Australian accent because she “fucking loves Australians and they don’t give a shit about anything!” and drinking glass after glass of wine and champagne from a jovial, floral-shirted Frenchman’s wine cave who bore an uncanny resemblance to Austin Powers.

It all went down in a town called Saline les Hauts way up in the mountains. “Have you got any food?” Anne asked me. “Could you just bring a pizza or something?”

“Well, yes I have food, but no pizza. I have a pineapple…” I replied uncertainly. Party, pineapple, pineapple, party? Pineapple party?

“Okay, sure sure, fine! No problem!” she said. “So, you’ll cut the pineapple or something and then we’ll pick you up at your place!”

She honked twice. I ran down the staircase with my pineapple and a bar of high-quality dark chocolate from U Express that came in a packet of three, and hopped in the car. Anne, iPod (Isabel Podzinsky), two of my English professors from the collège (middle school) and Anne’s daughter, Rosalie, holding a Royale pizza (white sauce and ham), were waiting for me in the car.

As I said before, a bunch of people (professors, students’ parents, people from the community) get together to make party every 29.5 days beneath the full moon.

“Monsieur Basil (his name isn’t actually basil, but it sounds like Basil which makes me like him more) is the best DJ. He’s really fun! Whenever I have a party and I want someone good, I always call him,” Anne said.

Basil’s table was old school, equipped with what looked like the world’s first turntable, stacks of CDs, and one of those revolving, multi-colored disco balls. His body was pulsing to the music, his eyes closed with one hand on his headphones. As I was admiring his table, particularly the disco ball, the floral-printed, French wine shop owner strutted out of his cave to faire la bise, the traditional French greeting of kissing on each cheek, with everyone. All of it was so weird, but in the best of ways.

Where am I? This must be a dream…

The place quickly filled, bottles of wine and champagne flowing as if the full moon was a benevolent god whose presence we were honoring. The small circles of conversation eventually disbanded giving way to an energetic mass on the dance floor, my professor, Anne, easily the best dancer and the most fun of the bunch.

That early stage when no one’s dancing you always have that one fearless soul who understands what the night will eventually progress to when everyone’s assez bourré (drunk enough). They’re the one to make things happen. I admire these people. They’re living manifestations of the phrase let’s skip the pleasantries/formalities and cut to the chase, you know? They have their cake first, aren’t afraid to break with convention, and make fools of themselves with grace.

“I need to find someone who can dance rock n’ roll!” she told me with an urgent look in her eyes.

I watched her search through the crowd until Monsieur Basil vacated his post and heeded the call. When I was in Tours I came to the conclusion that French people are awful dancers because at the clubs I would go to no one would be dancing, or if they were, they were just monotonously swinging their hips from side to side with their arms bent at 90-degree angles. When I went to Cubana Club with some other assistants on Réunion, I noticed the same thing happening and the addition of some creepy dudes eyeing the female assistants as they revolved around our circle. I felt like a sheep surrounded by teenage-boy wolves. If you’re looking for a good time, I found out, go to a full moon party.

“So do you like this, Matthew? This is really an example of French community!” Anne said embracing me in a hug.

“Yeah, this is isn’t it?” I replied.

It’s the sort of thing I read about in the culture books for our pre-study abroad course before Tours, but indescribably better because it was the real thing.

I talked to a 6-foot tall bearded man who took off his shirt and showed me the tattoos he’d gotten all over the world. He told me about his job renting out vans, where he wanted to travel to next, places that he’s surfed at, and also made sure my glass was never empty.

Apart from him, I listened to a French girl speak with an Australian accent which left me completely speechless. I wish I could program my car’s GPS to her voice or have a program to convert audiobooks to a French girl with an Australian accent. Perhaps it was all the fucking’s that she threw in, or the way she said just shit in a punk-anarchist way that made everything she said so fucking cool! I don’t know what she does for a living, but she should consider doing voice work.

Where am I? I thought to myself as the wine continued to flow, surprised that I found myself air-bassing and tossing my head to French rock songs. And then Where am I? changed from being all deep and stuff to “Where the hell am I?!” as I woke up pants-less this morning on a beach with Voulez-vous coucher aver moi? inked onto my forehead.

Just kidding. But honestly, Reunion. Where am I? It all felt like a dream, Mr. Basil, Anne, iPod, the bearded dude, floral-shirt guy, and that cool Fraustralian representing different aspects of my subconscious.

18-year-old me would certainly be laughing right now as well. He thought he would be a doctor or something.

Two Weeks Vacation: Magic Waterfall, Bob Dylan, Wine Expert, Small Animal in My Bathroom

Quick Update:

Back at school after two lazy weeks of vacation. It feels quite good to be getting back into the swing of things. Vacation was great, don’t get me wrong. We went to a couple different waterfalls, befriended the driver of an ice cream van who offered us all free ice cream because his wife was not present to make the crêpes. I ate an enormous sandwich called a lord au bouchon for the first time, an enormous circular sandwich larger than the surface area of my face with lettuce, tomato, little bouchons (sort of like dumplings) and french fries inside the sandwich. I also found a type of Dodo beer that is really good, la blanche (white) with a bit of citrus added. The other day I cracked open a rotten coconut and drank (spit up) it’s chunky filmy contents…

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Cascade (Waterfall) de Langevin
A group of us drove to St. Joseph in the southern part of the island to a waterfall called Langevin. A short walk from the side of the road, we found ourselves alone romping through the ravine to uncover the most surreal waterfall basin with water so clear you can see every detail of the stones lining the bottom. There was a small chamber with dark, rectangular rocks forming a rough staircase that made it possible for us to climb to the top and jump 20 feet into the pool below. It was so beautiful, none of it seemed real. We explored all three basins, and as it began to drizzle, we made our way down to the city of St. Pierre while listening to the words Bob Dylan, the cliché bohemian feel of it all enhanced by the enormous dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror. After a lazy dinner set against the seaside and a setting sun (romantic, right?), we stumbled upon a dear old ice cream man who, after apologizing for not having crêpes (his wife makes the crêpes but she was out) or hot chocolate, gifted us all free italian ice cream.

Back to the Present
Vacation went by paradoxically slow and fast. We went to the beach nearly everyday, on a fait la fête (made some party), and hung out on each others’ terraces. Every day was blissfully slow, mostly (aside from moments of being harassed by locals at bus stops), but by the end of the two weeks I was definitely ready for something more.

I received my professors bike a couple days before school restarted, and I have taken it twice from St. Gilles where I’m living to Collège Plateau Caillou, roughly 10km and an enormous hill away. The base of the hill begins near the city center of St. Paul and continues climbing until Zeus’ feet which you’ll gladly kiss if you ever reach the top. It’s extremely steep with switchbacks that have taken ten minutes to climb and three minutes to descend which could be faster if it weren’t for the congestion cars and buses. As with the waterfall, I can’t help but remark on my commute to and from school. The road I take hugs cliffsides and the coast. Although I miss the most bike-friendly city in the States, the biking here is not half bad.

At home, I cook mostly with vegetables from a really nice woman at a market stall in St. Gilles and serve them with couscous, jasmine rice, or pasta. I see the woman from the market every few days to replenish my stock of carrots, eggplant, kiwis, bananas, etc. and often see her just slipping items back into my bag without ringing them up. In the evenings and at midday I’ll run to Ermitage beach via the coastline or the road, or I’ll hang a left at the end of our driveway and head straight up the hillside which leads to an incredible overlook of the St. Gilles.

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Teaching
My kids are learning about Bob Dylan. Honestly, I had never listened to him before nor had read anything about him. So inspired by his music in the car on the way to St. Jo, I printed off his wiki page to learn that he went to Hibbing HS, was a gopher for a year before dropping out (it’s rumored that he used to live above the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown), and won countless awards including a Pullitzer Prize Citation in 2008 for the “poetic power” of his lyrics, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 for his influence on the Civil Rights Movement and American culture as a whole. Thus, my students and I have all been listening to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Like a Rollin’ Stone”. In hindsight, I probably could have picked an artist easier for my kids to understand, but hey, it’s Bob Dylan, right? said one of the few Minnesotans to previously know nothing about him.

In addition to planning lessons on anything of interest, I get to drink wine during my classes at the vocational school for bartenders, servers, cooks, pastry chefs, and restaurant/hotel managers, Lycée Hôtelier La Renaissance. Thus, today’s lesson was about wine service, and seeing as I have a full 4-months of experience serving wine, who better to educate an entire class of budding service-industry professionals than myself?

Monsieur Cassard: “And you smell the cork and consult your sommelier to verify that the wine is good?”

Me: “But of course!”

Monsieur Cassard: “Okay then. Now show us how you would taste the wine, please.”

Me: (Confidently): “Well, you need to swirl the contents of the glass and hold it up to the light to verify that the color is good, that there aren’t any sediments from the bottom of the bottle floating around. Then, when you taste the wine, you need to pull it through your teeth to aerate the wine and better release the grape’s flavors.”

In actuality, I cracked the lip of the first bottle of wine I ever attempted to open in front of a guest and had to go back to the bar and fetch a new bottle. I have never worked in fine dining. At the restaurants where I’ve worked, we set out wine glasses on our tables, rolled our silverware in black linens, and dimmed the lights. But fine dining? No. There was no time to verify with a non-existing sommelier nor wipe the lip of the bottle between each pour. 90% of the time you’re precariously run-walking with 9 wine glasses in your right hand, a bottle of wine in the other, and 12 tasks that need to be done written in the creases of your stress-induced, visibly-aging face.

Nonetheless, I’ve been assigned to the best lycée and collège on the island. As I was writing this, a student popped into the teachers lounge to inform me that I could come by the restaurant d’application, the student restaurant where they can apply what they’re learning to a real restaurant setting, and have a cocktail, a glass of wine, a cup of coffee whenever I want. Not to overemphasize this detail, as great as it may be, the main takeaway is that my students are great – eager to learn more about the US, speak in English, and make sure that as the language assistant, I’m feeling welcomed here on Reunion Island. I receive on average 27, sing-songy, French “helloooos!” everyday.

Next week I will give the vocational school students a lesson on the local, niche coffee shops of Minneapolis and the concept of latté art, barista battles, and coffee shop culture in the US versus cafés in France.

Additionally, I caught the end of Le Grand Raid (a 100-mile race through the mountains that traverses the island), gave practice balls, water, and a towel to an internationally-ranked Dutch tennis player by the name of Robin Haase, went sailing for the first time on a catamaran, and found this guy last night by the toilet.

Cheers!

1-Month Recap: Jumping in Waterfall Basins and Eating Dakatine

How do you summarize what happens in a month? There is a line from the film Frances Ha where Frances, an aspiring dancer whose closest friend moves to Japan, says to her best friend, Sophie, “It’s just that if something funny happens on the way to the deli, you’ll only tell one person about it and that’ll be Patch and I’ll never hear about it.” I love this line for its honesty, and that it illuminates how many small things worth telling someone are often said only once. For the sake of this post, “On my way to the deli…”

Birds fly fearlessly through our open doors and windows to eat the crumbs left on the countertops and floor that hordes of well-organized ants haven’t already carried away. There is also a family of small yellow lizards I often see hidden amongst the chocolate-squares-cereal boxes. If you let your eyes unfocus and your mind drift into a daydreamy state, the pile of breakfast fare in the corner begins to look like Tokyo, all the more natural to see if you’ve been reading anything by Haruki Murakami for 2 weeks.

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The mail persons on Réunion come by bike, scooter, motorcycle, van, and air, and by air I mean flight. They float around the city, dropping packages attached to small blue, white, and red parachutes. I have this recurring flying dream where I’ll be sprinting, often through the halls of Ridgedale mall in Wayzata, Minnesota, and jump into the air and glide for a while. I can only do it for a few seconds before coming down hard on my elbows and kneecaps. The people who deliver mail here don’t have that problem.

Our mail arrives more or less between 9:00 and 9:30 by a postman on a dijon-colored motorcycle who is undoubtedly getting to know me by name because I’m almost always there when he comes. Our Internet is unstable which has forced me to stabilize myself on the railing of my landlord’s terrace, right near the router. Before leaving my apartment to camp in front of Jacque’s, sometimes leaning off our second-story balcony and waving my laptop around will get a signal.

The best place to be at night is the beach. Seven of us went there two nights ago around 10pm with delicious island rum and played mafia atop a large, Indian blanket. If you’re not familiar with the game mafia, I’ll explain it quickly:

Mafia:

There is one narrator, the mafia, a doctor, an investigator, and the townspeople. The narrator hands out cards privately designating to everyone their role. After everyone (the town) sleeps (closes their eyes), the narrator asks the mafia to wake (open their eyes) and point at whom they would like to kill. After the mafia goes to sleep, the doctor wakes and soundlessly indicates to the narrator whom amongst the town they would like to save. After they sleep, it is then the investigator who wakes and chooses someone to investigate. The narrator indicates to the investigator if the person the investigator pointed to is mafia or not. The narrator tells everyone to open their eyes informs the town who died, that is, if the doctor didn’t save them. The town then proceeds to discuss amongst themselves who they believe is mafia and subsequently hang them with a majority vote. If all the mafia are still alive, the narrator tells everyone to go to sleep and the process repeats itself.

Long story short, it’s a game of deception where the mafia’s goal is to kill off everyone in the town and the town tries to root out the mafia and hang them. Alex’s body was found at the glacier (ice cream shop) after hours lying in a pool of strawberry and chocolate. While Henry was narrating, everyone died by bombing. Others were found buried up to their necks in sand, ghost crabs having picked at their eyeballs and nestled in their sockets. So many tragedies, but more often than not, the townspeople triumphed. We stayed till midnight playing categories, my favorite being characters from Harry Potter. Even alone, the beach is still nice. I wandered there last night and sat watching whitecaps elongate, shrink, and collapse from view. The ocean and sky were melded together seamlessly the color of a faded black-grey-more-black-than-grey crewneck.

This morning I opened up the first of what will be many Dakatines, half-thinking Eisenhower was going to pop out of the can to mess my hair while I ate it with teeth that hadn’t yet fallen out. Lo and behold Dakatine is delicious and saves one an hour of making artisinal stoneground peanut butter.

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I live within walking distance of Les Trois Bassins, three waterfall basins each with their own advantages. The bottommost is hardest to reach and therefore less populated. There are enormous tree roots hugging the side of the cliff that are fun to climb up and jump from. The middle basin is the most beautiful. See for yourself.

Finally, the uppermost basin has a really amazing cliff jumping spot. Also within walking distance are a handful of fresh fruit and vegetable vendors, snack bars that serve cheap, delicious Créole food, and amazing boulangeries with fresh bread that you can sprint home with.

Jumping

One month in, so far so good. Lots of not teaching (apparently we’re contracted for 30 weeks and, due to unbearably hot summers [by French standards], only work during 20 of them), running, reading, passing out in the sand next to large HELP! signs with empty bottles of rum in-hand. My hair is now long enough to secure myself from falling while gathering coconuts high up in the palm trees and I’ve become adept at starting matchless fires to flail-dance sinewy, tanned, bare-handed-fish-catching limbs around naked.

The Man With Flowers

Today I chose to go to St. Denis, the capitol of Reunion Island, to go to a giant department store called Carrefour to buy a pair of flip flops, a garbage can, and other essentials you feel guilty spending your euros on when converting that number to pain au chocolat or some other delicious French pastry. “That’ll be 12 pain aux raisins, please.” Carrefours are everywhere in France, as ubiquitous as Walmart in the United States. To my knowledge there’s only one here, in St. Denis, and as I found out, a two-hour bus ride (on Sundays) from St. Gilles-les-Bains where I’m staying.

What I learned from living in France is that you don’t necessarily need to know exactly where you’re going before setting out. The world is your Siri. If there is one stereotype I have found to be very true about the French, it’s that when it comes to giving directions, the moment you ask is the moment you become family. Unless the person you’re asking flat out doesn’t know or is in a rush, they will walk you there or give you more precise directions than Google Maps, making sure you understand. It’s a lot easier than memorizing directions, bus transfers, and store hours.

Not knowing where in St. Denis Carrefour was located, I asked the bus driver who directed me towards the bus stop I needed to catch the 5 from. I walked from the bus terminal along the ocean (where I took the photo at the header of this website), beneath a bridge and up the street. After arriving in general proximity of the stop, I approached a man walking towards me to confirm that I was in the right place.

“I’m not exactly sure which bus, but Carrefour is quite a ways away” he said. If I wanted to accompany him to the market so that he could pick up some roses, he told me that he would drive me there. “Sure,” I said. “That’d be very nice.”

I accompanied him to the market and ate a banana while he picked out his flowers. As we sat down in the car, I asked if they were for his spouse, and he said yes. I presumed that it was his anniversary or he was engaged, marrying later in life.

“Félicitations!” I congratulated him, hearing only the words “13th of July.” That must be the date he asked her to marry him, and he buys her roses from the market on a regular basis. His response was emotionless, and as he continued talking, I recognized another word, tombe, and finally pieced together what had actually happened: his wife had passed away three months ago. The roses he bought were to be placed at her headstone.

I didn’t know what to say. Overcome with embarrassment and ashamed at my mistake, “I’m sorry,” came out unnaturally. Nonetheless, he accepted my apology, and we continued talking. I asked how he was doing, if he was still grieving. “Yes, he said. “Forever.”

In fifteen minutes, a stranger told me the hardest thing he has ever had to deal with. Imagine though, walking around with so much grief everyday and not having someone to talk to. Sometimes, the easiest people to open up to are those whom you only meet once. Sometimes the best ear is a stranger you meet on the street, someone sitting next to you at the bar.

He was 60-years-old with four kids, born on Reunion Island, a widower, on his way to drop roses off at his wife’s grave. Myself, 24, unmarried, childless, oblivious to many things, in search of a beach towel and yeast. We didn’t meet at a bar, but somehow we found ourselves in the same car on the way to a giant department store.

When I left him in the parking lot, I thanked him and told him that he would find his way onto this blog. We shook hands as he held my gaze. I could see it in his eyes. Something. Appreciation, maybe.

 

 

Little Victories

The challenges of moving to a foreign country leave one feeling like a child. Your tongue fumbles over the simplest words, “C’est Jean-Mick qui va m’amener au lycée aujourd’hui!” (Jean-Mick is bringing me to the high school today). Carless and without so much as a bike, you do your best to familiarize yourself with public transportation, learning quickly that there are actually two bus companies, national and local, for an island only 30 miles at its widest point, and that the man giving applause next to you isn’t senile but wants to get off at the next stop. Your body takes a while to adjust to the time difference causing you to wake up at 3am every night to use the bathroom and to fall asleep around 9:30pm (like a child) and wake up at 6am. Eventually, however, you become smart from the challenges, you adjust, and slowly but surely, reclaim your adulthood.

So far, the little victories have included learning to sew a button on the waistline of my pants, finding the cheapest 1L container of lait soja (soy milk) in town, coming to understand the values of a rice cooker with a streaming tray, and finally, making peanut butter for the first time.

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I had one hour of cours (class) yesterday at 4:30pm, after which I came home and removed my sheets from the balcony I left to dry. I went running to a beach called Ermitage a little more than a mile away, afterwards washing myself in our tub equipped with a tiny, trickling hose that you just get yourself wet with before running soap over your body and rinsing yourself off; it’s essentially the same as washing in a big sink. I prepared steamed vegetables with rice for dinner accompanied by half a baguette muliticéréales for 1,20 euros from the boulangerie on the corner.

After dinner, I huddled over a large glass bowl shelling an enormous bag of peanuts for half an hour. I could feel the skin on my thumbs and forefingers becoming raw as I fished out the tiny jewels from their hard little cases. After finishing, I dumped the bowl into a blender, added a little bit of salt, sugar, and oil. Done. Peanut butter! Thank you, wikipages. Making peanut butter was much easier than I would have imagined, but it left me feeling empowered nonetheless, if only to a small degree.

At the end of the day, I’m finding that the quickest way to adjust is to keep those small accomplishments in mind – getting “va m’amener” (vah-mah-muh-nay) down, catching the bus on time (and getting off where I need to), finally learning how hard it is to sew on a button. I’ll keep you posted when I make my first successful loaf of bread using the ingredients here. Everything is different by the way: the flour is milled differently and the yeast is a mystery. Fifth time’s the charm, right? I have enough flour bricks at the moment to stop every door in our apartment.

Finally, a very happy birthday to the most interesting guy I know, Matt “Hairball” Harrison. You should all message him “Happy Birthday” for the hell of it and then become friends or something :)

Cheers!

I’m a Bailer

I’ve been asking myself often why I’m here, on Reunion Island of all places. In fact, the reason I chose to come to this island instead of the others, or France for that matter, was because of 2 pages in my 2nd year of French classes at Concordia College. One of those two pages was occupied entirely by a picture of a typical surfer, tanned with long golden hair and the name of the island emblazoned in the wave: La Réunion. The second page was a 1-page description of what one can do on the island. It was a number of years ago, but I remember well that the passage spoke of the beautiful hiking trails, that it was a paradise for rock climbers, runners, and mountain biking enthusiasts. So, when I was writing down my top three choices of where to be sent, I chose Réunion as my first.

Beforehand, I memorized only the basic facts on Wikipedia to answer the questions that people would ask me about the island: Where is it located? What is the population? Which religions are practiced? How many people are there and of what ethnicity? As excited as I was to go to the island, I was just as reluctant to leave Minneapolis.

Before today, my first day of class, I had heard so many friends talk about their experience with TAPIF and teaching that I put the idea of actually teaching up on a shelf, not to be considered until last night at 10pm as I was planning my first lesson plan. And as easy as my assignment was – making a presentation for my classes to explain who I am, where I come from, what I like to do, etc. I sat in my apartment hating every minute of planning that presentation.

Perhaps it was because it wasn’t challenging, because it felt like busy work, because it was a shock to even consider that I would actually be teaching something to someone else, but I felt so low. Enfermé, coincé, like there were brick walls closing in on both sides and the situation felt inconceivably hopeful. After I finished preparing a presentation to last an hour or so, I took out the journal from my nightstand and wrote every concern that I had to better fall asleep.

Why am I here? Can I really do this, be a good teacher that is? Why didn’t I stay in Minneapolis where my friends are, where I can continue to do something I know how to do and occupy the space that feels most secure. I miss the coffee shops, hell, I miss the cold even!… And on it went until both my hand and head were tired.

***

I woke at 6:30am to catch a ride with one of the English professors. He dropped me off at the middle school 40 minutes before I was to go to class and present. I redid my slides, overlooked my notes, and met some of the other professors in the teachers lounge. Anne found me, the professor I would be with, and we walked together to her first class, my first class.

She had me stand in front of the class as they asked me questions from the sheet that they were given. They were extremely friendly and sweet, great at listening, overall good students. I felt completely at ease the moment I began talking. In eighth grade I distinctly remember winging a presentation on a book called Running With the Buffaloes and received an A. It all felt completely natural, and that’s how my first class went. At the end, after asking me what I like to listen to, I played a song by Girl Talk from Feed the Animals, an album that I have been listening to since leaving Minneapolis. They loved it.

My second class went exactly the same way, easy, natural. The final two were no different.

***

Even at the airport I was still considering bailing. The thought had popped into my head multiple times a day until last week when I finally handed over the majority of my savings to my landlord for first months rent and a security deposit. The little remaining money I had went into a bank account, somewhere around 230 euros. Even if I wanted to leave I couldn’t afford the plane ticket home.

Honestly, I strongly feel that that is why I am here, to quit the habit of bailing. I’m a great bailer. It comes so naturally to me to quit something, a relationship even, when things aren’t easy anymore. I don’t know why, but that’s how I have been since my first year of college. Perhaps its because of all the responsibilities in high school I felt I had to take on: AP classes, working a part-time job, doing three sports a year. Perhaps it’s because I was always pretty carré, square, never drinking in high school or experimenting with drugs, etc.  When I entered college I had so much liberty to act as I pleased, I ended up skipping a lot of classes, getting poor grades adopting a lot of unhealthy habits.

I have gotten better in a lot of areas, but still, bailer. I bailed a week before I said I would stay when I worked on a ranch in Montana a few years ago. I nearly left French camp after two weeks because I felt uncomfortable trying to be a teacher. If it weren’t for a good friend of mine, there is no way I would have stayed. I have bailed on relationships early on because I tend to overthink them, I often bail on pursuing things with my life that might be a little difficult: graduate school for example, pursuing a career in writing. There was a video from Vimeo I posted on here once entitled The Scared is Scared, the message continues to say, … of all the things you like. Why is it that we’re often scared to pursue what we want?

I am not saying that being here is necessarily something that I really want, nor am I someone who always looks for a reason to explain why something happens. I do however believe that I am here, on Reunion Island for these next seven months, to quit my habit of bailing. I have no choice but to stick with this program and see where I find myself at the end.

Cheers.

End of Day 4 – Le Port et une coucher du soleil

A Go Pro camera would have been nice today. I took Nathalie’s mountain bike for a ride through the ravine that they had shown me this morning. There are mango trees all around in a park near the end of the descent, and as you make your way among the fallen, green and yellow mangoes, there are dirt jumps that people have created to go off of.

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The little one was nice to warm up on. Not necessarily ready, however, mentally or physically on Nathalie’s  unstable VTT (vélo tout terrain, bike all-terrain), I decided to go off the larger one, perhaps two-feet tall. The front fork has shocks making it fit for more forgiving landings on uneven surfaces. The disadvantage however is that you waste more energy pedaling. As I approached the jump, fear regulated my speed. I was pedaling faster than a run but slower than a sprint. I flew off the jump, hitting my ass hard on the seat as I came down, forcing the seat post to collapse. Ha! I thought. Somehow I didn’t fall and still have the ability to have a child, apparently just above natural selection’s cutoff point.

In Réunion they actually have painted bike lanes, which came as a large surprise to me. The upside, however, is that their bike lanes sometimes shrink to nothing, and they also run parallel on the sides of their highways. After descending from la ravine, I took the bike lane running parallel to l’Océan Indien and biked to the next city, Le Port, meaning what it looks like in English. It’s named after the one of the island’s big harbors, maybe it’s largest. I’m not sure. Le Port is also the island’s industrialized area where they manufacture Danone yaourt (Danon yogurt). It turns out that Le Port is also home to the island’s most impoverished.

There is poverty in the US, without a doubt, but I have never before seen it in the form of shacks with tin roofs. The farther I biked away from the highway, the more impoverished the area became. My comment last night about segregation not being a thing here isn’t true, apparently. I was told later by Nathalie that immigrants from Madagascar, Les Malgaches, do not often succeed à La Réunion.  The same was the case for the Sudanese population living in Fargo, ND. I was told by a Sudanese priest in the area, Jacob, a while back that the parents of Sudanese students are unable to help their children with their homework nor learn English. The result is that Sudanese children then grow up less educated and subsequently qualify for jobs lowest on the economic ladder. The cycle repeats itself. I imagine the same is for most, if not all, immigrant situations.

***

I stand out on the island, somehow. I’m not sure exactly why that is because there are plenty of Asian immigrants as well. The clothes I’m wearing aren’t imprinted with a flying eagle emblazoned by an American flag. As I made my way through Le Port, I got quite a few looks from people, some curious, others challenging. I turned around after that happened at the nearest roundabout and made my way back to La Possession where I found my way to the beach.

The beach is composed of rocks rounded by the waves. There is a tunnel that goes under the main highway, a tube that gets so dark in the middle passing through that you can’t see anything directly in front of you, but you’re still able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As such, you feel as if you’re floating towards the light.

I stood there at the shore’s edge, touching the ocean for the first time, letting the waves crash upon the rocks and climb up my legs, again and again. It’s so easy to lose yourself in something natural and changing. Everything became quiet, and I took note of the salt drying on my shins. I looked out across the ocean and began to think about one’s perception of distance.

As far as I could see there was nothing but open water. Less than 100 miles surely was all I was seeing. Looking north there would be nothing for thousands of miles until Les Seychelles. Nine hours in the future, my friends back home would be seeing the same sunset that I was watching. What happened over the past three days can be equated to the same game that everyone plays when you’re younger. Someone fetches a cardboard box, everyone climbs inside, and when you get out,  you’ve traveled through time to another world.

I entered a plane. Closed my eyes, and before I knew it, I was walking around Iceland where the language sounds made-up, and my experience of Iceland was extraordinary while people were going about their daily lives, everything ordinary for them. I was ecstatic to be riding the bus to Reykjavik, to drink a coffee in a coffee shop called Kaffitar, to be skateboarding around the city and taking pictures of buildings completely banal to people who live there.

There was a shovel near the sauna next to the hot tub at the A-10 Deluxe Bed and Breakfast. I noticed that the metal part of the shovel that connects to the wooden shaft is made up of two pieces bolted together. When I think of a shovel in the United States, there is only one piece of metal that attaches to the shaft. The mugs for hot liquids were maybe 3/4 the size of those in the United States.

When I went to France, the light switches are square-shaped. Additionally, I have never seen a lamp in France where you switch it off near the lightbulb. There is always a tiny, finger-sized switch somewhere along the cord that plugs into a wall plug with two, perfectly circular holes.

In Réunion, after cutting my foot, I was given a sheet of bandaids the size of 10 regular-sized US bandaids sewn together. You take a scissors and cut the size bandaid that you need. It saves on packaging. Nathalie doesn’t use an electric tea kettle, not because electricity is too expensive or because she’s more partial to stove kettles, but because it wastes less energy. Composting and recycling are mandatory on Réunion. People who work from the city check your compost and recycling to make sure that you’re doing it properly.

Tiny differences. Tiny differences between places that make you feel so happy and excited it barely makes sense. But at the same time it does, too.

Last year in Minneapolis was a great year for many reasons, I met a lot of exceptional people, ate delicious food, explored Minneapolis. I’m more than happy to be here, however. What an eye-opening experience so far.

Day 4 – Ma famille d’accueil

By the hour, I’m falling more in-love with my professor’s family and the island. This morning, after a relaxing breakfast on their porch of ananas (pineapple), brioche, and yaourt (yogurt), Nathalie, Acadie, Anton (with the skate) and I left for la ravine. I told them that I was interested in running, and they informed me that trail running is very popular here. I nearly followed Acadie’s lead and pooped on the sidewalk when they told me!

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They took me to an entrance to la ravine near their house, and we walked straight into les montagnes. As we made our way up the mountain, we saw all sorts of runners, even those sporting Ultimate Direction hydration packs, an American ultra-distance running company famous for theirs. What a small world. Too bad I had to leave mine at home!

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Anton et Acadie au Chemin Latinier

 

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Anton et le skate
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Nathalie et Anton
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Un lézard

They taught me the names of plants and wildlife, random words today like poteau électronique (telephone pole), cue de sac or une impasse (a dead-end), bouilloire (kettle), and boire un coup (have a drink, slang). I quizzed Anton for his English test tomorrow on the days of the week during lunch. Everytime I asked Nathalie or Anton on how to say something in English, they would turn the question around on me.

2 boules de glace (chocolat-menthe, café)

After our hike through the ravine, where we could see the entire city of La Possession and l’Océan Indien, we drove to St. Gilles-les-Bains, just past St. Paul where I will be teaching at Collège Plateau Caillou et Lycée Hôtelier La Renaissance. Three Spaniards, one male, two female, as well as a french girl will be sharing the flat with me if I decide to live there. It’s a minute walk to the ocean, and according to Jean-Mick, another English professor at Lycée Hôtelier La Renaissance (LHR), St. Gille is “the most happening part of the island.”

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La route à St. Gilles-les-Bains de la Possession (The road to St. Gilles from La Possession)

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My potential flatmates were very nice, but I worry that they would only want to speak English and refer to me in terms of cultural stereotypes. The Spanish guy kept telling me that we would be making “a lot of party.” I have some options, though. Nathalie offered to let me rent out her studio and to live with the family for a small price, and another couple living in St. Paul has offered to let me live with them for free in exchange for English lessons.

I love this family a lot, and I could commute to school with Nathalie everyday. St. Gilles is full of other assistants which could also be fun. In my complex alone there must be at least 8 or so living there. A few other assistants from the US have also written on our group page that they’ll be living there as well.

Right now I’m watching the Ryder Cup, a US golf tournament I had no idea existed. I’m learning about my own country 10,0005 miles away from home! Go figure. Tomorrow I’ll be going for a run in the mountains. There is a 175km race that traverses the island diagonally called Le Grand Raid – Diagonale des Fous in octobre that passes right by Nathalie’s residence.

À tout à l’heure! (see ya later!)

La Réunion: Made It!

September 28 – 2:34am @ La Possession

She told me that while she was waiting for me in the crowd, she was playing a game with those around her of Guess the Head of an American. As she was thinking in her head, no, no, not that one, no, is when I approached her and took her by surprise. It became a story that she told all of the people from her quartier (neighborhood) all night.

That scenario tells you a lot about her personality already – involving, vibrant. Her name is Nathalie, and she is one of the English professors at Lycée Hotelier La Renaissance. When you meet her, she’ll make you think that it’s an island of 800.000 inhabitants where everyone knows everyone. “He is a very good golfer,” she told me after bumping into another person that she knew at the airport.

As we continued towards her car, Nathalie asked me if I liked golfing. Her family – her husband Pierrot and her 11-year-old son Anton – are  avid golf players. Tomorrow, Pierrot is going to play in a tournament. Aside from golf, she loves to play tennis and do a form of dance that involves stretching. Anton loves golf, swimming, and tennis as well. He was very interested as well by my skate.

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The drive to their house from St. Denis, the capital, made me say, “Oh my god,” three or four times. It was raining which, I was told, is a rare occurrence on the western half of the island. Fog shrouded the green mountaintops a mere mile away from view. As we drove west on the main road, we hugged the base of enormous vertical cliffs with massive sheets of chain-link preventing the rocks from disrupting traffic. Completely vertical cliffside to our left, the Indian Ocean to our right.

As we went through the gate to their residence, I was attacked by their dog Acadie who is quite serious about being pet, clawing your arms if you stop. There, I met Anton who could easily have had a modeling career for a clothing line – tan skinned, black-haired, beautiful smile. Nathalie’s husband, Pierrot, was very fit, walking around later that day shirtless, a bit quieter, but just as nice.

Their house is a small paradise with a small swimming pool, a lawn fit to putt on, palm trees and exotic flowers, and more flowers and cacti hugging the rim of their patio. The house has an open floor plan, the main entertainment room through the front door. All rooms branch off from their. Anton has a side entrance to his bedroom that is a 4-foot-tall, and cave-like, cut straight into the concrete with little doors on wheels that slide over the entrance.

Water from the pool is pumped to small tubes in the roof to heat the water and then is cycled back into the pool.

A small green gecko disappeared behind a dresser as I walked into the studio apartment on the second floor. I’ll be staying with them until I move into an apartment on the 1st of octobre in St. Gilles-les-Bains. It is fully-equipped with a kitchen, dining area, full-size bed, and bathroom with a waterfall shower head. The windows remain open all the time. At night you stick a prise (preez) in an outlet to keep mosquitoes away from you.

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Nathalie took Anton to an open tennis day at a dirt court just down the road while I unpacked my things, took a shower, and napped for a couple more hours.

For dinner, I attended a neighborhood gathering at the community building just near the tennis courts. 20 people or so showed up for the potluck they had planned earlier that day during open tennis. A mixture of z’oreilles (zor-ay) and des créoles showed up. Z’oreilles is a slang term meaning ears for French inhabitants of the island. “They’re called les oreilles because when the French first came here, they couldn’t understand a word of creole. They were always pointing to their ears and asking the natives to repeat what they were saying,” Nathalie informed me.

What’s fascinating about the island as well as our gathering is that races are completely mixed on the island. Their is no segregation among skin colors like there often is in the US. People come from all over the world to live on this island, mainly immigrants from Africa, India, and China. The food is reflective of all the cultures.

For dinner, two women had prepared for everyone an array of differences salsas, one mild with finally chopped green mango and onions, another the same but with peppers added, and also a fresh tomato salsa. There was steamed rice, sausages and some of the most amazing chicken I have ever tasted. I drank two glasses of red wine, aloe vera juice, and coca (coca-cola). “Tout le monde aime le coca (Everybody likes coke)” said one of the neighbors while pouring himself a glass.

I could already tell after a couple of hours that the overall personality of the island was much more laid-back than France. It could be from being exposed to so much sunlight all year round. It could be the fact that they were all living in paradise and a small part of the world where race meant only one’s cultural offerings.

Everything is so beautiful and perfect here that it honestly scares me. It feels like the setting of a dystopian novel where the main character becomes slowly aware of all the imperfections in the vase. I don’t think this is one of those situations, though. It’s just really really good.

Day 3 – En route to La Réunion – 4:40am

The screen in front of me says that our plane is flying straight over open ocean between Kenya and Reunion island. Before I fell asleep we were passing over Cairo, and as we ate dinner, I watched the plane fly the length of Italy straight to the heel. Looking down out my window, I watched the eastern edge of tItaly pass by, the coastline outlined by city lights.

This is the farthest away from Minneapolis I’ve ever been since leaving Seoul, South Korea three months after being born. I keep thinking of Samwise Gamgee when he stops in the middle of a cornfield and says, “If I take one more step, Mr. Frodo, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” The gravity of leaving The Shire, his home, meant uprooting his sense of place.

My junior year I was fortunate enough to be able to visit eastern Kentucky to learn more about their attachment to a land being destroyed by mountain top removal. Aside from the environmental impacts of dynamiting mountains thousands of years old, we were able to learn about the effect it had on the communities within close proximity of the explosions. Many are not leaving the area despite the associated health risks from contaminated drinking water and air and noise pollution. Spending a couple of hours in Appalachian country will make you understand. Even the most stalwart of city-lovers would feel an attachment to its ecologically-rich mountains.

My sense of place is constantly changing with every experience away from home. For me it began small. First there was freshman year at the University of Minnesota, a mere 30 miles from the spot on Lake Minnetonka where I grew up. Then there was the move to Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, a 4-hour drive northwest to the border where the Red River separates Minnesota and North Dakota. The following summer there was a short three-week stint in Ashland, WI at Northland College. There, I learned how to build a matchless fire and sanitize water while living outside for ten days. The summer of 2012 I got to live in a small cabin in Montana, working on a ranch with my good friend, John. After that I had my first taste of Europe during a semester in Tours, France and holidays in Germany. Most recently I took a month-long road trip on my motorcycle from Minneapolis to Seattle and back.

Overtime your ability to be comfortable away from home gets honed. You learn simple things first, like how to grocery shop for yourself and navigate the city’s buses. That evolves into learning how to pack for a big trip, how to budget your money while traveling, and navigating in places where English isn’t the first language. Specific things I learned in France are to use a bathroom whenever there is a free one available, how to find a hostel, to be unafraid to ask for directions. You also learn what you need to do to keep yourself grounded while everything around you is foreign. Running and the ability to remove myself from situations through writing help to keep my feet planted, and as I’ve said a many times, coffee does wonders for my spirits.

Overtime, I feel as if I have gotten better at traveling and figuring out what gives me the strongest sense of place. You mentally sort through what it is for yourself, paring it down until so it’s travel-sized. Despite all of what I have just said, about feeling better about all of this, looking at the monitor in front of me telling me where I am has reverted me back 4 years to when I was moving out for the first time.

Looking out my window, I sit transfixed with excitement, fear, and a strong sense of wonder. I watch the stars slowly being pushed out and up by the rising sun like a play about to start. An ominous layering of shades of orange, purple and blue move up while a field of clouds below comes into focus.

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I can’t help but question whether or not I’ll like living here, if I’ll make a mistake and catch malaria, what my students will be like, what Minneapolis will be like when I come back. That may be one of the most loaded aspects of travel, accepting that things will be different when you get back – your street, your home, your friends and family, yourself.

Day 3 – The first breath of Paris…

Came as I emerged from the M4 line at the Simplon stop an hour or so after collecting my bags. I felt like a pregnant mole traveling in the metro, 70lbs of luggage weighing me down, blind to the morning light as I emerged on the sidewalk. I’m back, I thought taking in a deep breath of the city. I stood at the top of the steps feeling dreamy-eyed and nostalgic while people hurried past. Le bon pain, le vin, tout ça m’a beaucoup manqué… 

I was there to meet my friend Andrew from Georgia and his girlfriend Maria from Italy. We had all met two years ago while studying abroad in Tours, France, and since then, Andrew has remained in the country, teaching in La Rochelle the year before through the same program that I am enrolled in, TAPIF (Teaching Abroad Program in France). Currently, the two of them share a quaint apartment together while attending La Sorbonne and working odd jobs around the city.

As Andrew said, I must have come up the stairs while he was heading down towards the metro because we completely missed one another. I made my way to their apartment at 41 Boulevard Ornano and set my belongings just outside the door. After borrowing a kind woman’s phone coming out of the complex and involving another at the market who offered her pen to us, I saw Maria making her way towards me from the other end of the sidewalk.

“Je suis très très contente de te voir!” Maria said while embracing me in a hug. She was radiating a happiness and exuding an energy paralleling how it felt to be back in France. Wow, how strange it is to see someone you haven’t seen in two years, to revisit a place that feels exactly the way you left it.

I placed my things in their apartment, its walls lined with pictures in crayon that her younger brother had drawn for her. Aside from the main room where their bed was, their was a tiny, two-burner stove, a small table with an electric kettle, and a beautiful balcony overlooking the street.

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As we met Andrew on the sidewalk, I embraced him in a hug. It felt so nice to see him again, one of the closest friends that I made during our semester abroad. We walked to a café where I was able to hear Maria negotiate with the bartender to allow us to bring in food from outside, his selection of baked goods thin.

We walked to a boulangerie next door where I ordered a pain aux raisins and took it back to the café for a café au lait while Andrew drank an espresso. I had never spent a lot of time talking to the two of them together in-person before, and two years ago their relationship was just beginning. My interaction with them as a couple of two years was quite a bit different than anything I had before experienced. It was cute to hear Maria tell Andrew to go grocery shopping so that he could make me lunch when I woke up from my nap, and to be sure to eat something for breakfast.

Maria, reluctant to have to go to work, voiced frequently during our conversation how much she would like stay, that we should come visit her during work, and that she would get off early if she could. Andrew gently pulled her hair in to her face telling her that she needed to be sick today so that she could stay with us.

After a kiss on the cheek from Andrew and Maria and I did la bise, she left reluctantly for work, waving goodbye through the window until she was out of sight. Andrew and I talked about our lives since we last spoke, reminiscing about our time in Tours, if we had heard anything from our other friends from Germany. After my eyes couldn’t focus any longer from exhaustion, we retreated to the apartment where I passed out for a few hours.

When I awoke, Andrew came back having purchased some chicken after I commented on the smell on our way back to his apartment. He prepared a simple but delicious meal of rice, lettuce, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and grape juice that we shared before we left for the train station.

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Maria got off work and made her way immediately to La Gare du Nord, right before my train pulled up to take me to Orly Sud for my flight. One last hug from the two of them, she handed me a bag containing a container of pasta and an orange drink before I boarded the overcrowded train.

The space I occupied was the smallest anyone could have taken up with the luggage I had. I piled the two bags on top of one another in the corner using the handrail next to the door to keep them in place while I stood as small as possible, elbow-to-elbow with all the Parisians. It was so crowded people nearly fought their way in and out of the train during the brief time that the doors were open.

Having missed the first train due to an extended goodbye, I had two hours from the time I left the platform at La Gare du Nord before my plane took off for La Réunion. Oh my god! I’m going to miss my flight! As I stood in my space near the door, I began to panic. I couldn’t miss that flight! It was $900 and it would bankrupt me to have to buy another one-way ticket from Paris to the island.

Parisians fit their stereotypes. They’re polite but rude, everyone parenting each other and informing everyone else how to behave. Most are extremely well-dressed, neat, composed, and soft-spoken in public settings. They look good doing just about anything, except dancing. As I stood in that train I had to say to myself, do what you gotta do to make that flight.

As the doors opened for the Antony stop, I threw myself and my bags out the door, heaved the large backpack onto my shoulders, and moved as quickly as I could to the train leaving for Orly. Shit! My ticket! It was in my back pocket. I awkwardly pulled out my wallet, grabbed the tiny ticket to allow myself through the gate, dropped it on the ground, bent over nearly tipping, and squeezed myself through to the edge of another completely full train. As I paced back and forth nervously from one stuffed doorway to another, I asked desperately if there was any more room.

“I am sorry, but it is impossible to pass,” a woman told me. Luckily another pulled up two minutes after, but I looked down at my watch as it read 4:30pm. Flight registration closed at 5.

Looking at the map of the terminals, Orly Ouest et Orly Sud, I pulled out the sleeve containing my flight information within my laptop case within the laptop sleeve in my backpack beneath a cardigan and a pair of shoes in my backpack. Orly Sud it read.

Again, as I saw the platform approaching from a distance, I put my backpack on and prepared myself the same way I did waiting in the starting blocks for the 400m event. I ran to the escalators awkwardly like a 5-year-old running with an oversized backpack taking the steps as fast as I could, nearly falling down the escalator. Rounding the corner, my eyes searched frantically for Corsair. All of the dividers were up, so I zigzagged ten times back and forth to cover the length of a hallway to get my boarding pass and check my bag.

“Another two minutes, Monsieur, and you would have missed your flight! . . . Okay, here is your boarding pass, you must run!” 45lbs lighter, I felt like I was flying. I stood in line for 10 minutes through security as families of French people somehow more pressed for time than myself cut to the front. I’m fine at this point, I thought to myself. I drank the Orangina that I had shoved in my bag, thinking sadly at the container of pasta that got left behind on the train, not because I was that hungry, but because it was so thoughtful of Maria to bring it for me.

As I walked towards my gate, I stopped in a bathroom to get stumped by the hand drying system they had going on. It was a weird stall with a vent above, but for the life of me, I could not figure out where the sensors were to detect my wet hands. Confounded, they dried in the time it took before I gave up.

“B, B, B.” I walked the length of the hallway looking for A12, but there were no A gates to be found. “Excusez-moi, Monsieur, mais je cherche A12,”  I said to a man with a badge. He looked at my ticket and laughed, not in a polite way, but in a what-a-complete-idiot sort of way. “Come wis me,” he told me. If the words had been “Your backpack is really dumb,” the tone would have been exactly the same.

We walked back through security and to hallway A (Voilà!), but not before stopping to tell his friend about my mistake. He literally stopped to make fun of me to his friend, and then another time as we reached hall A. I’m going to be fucking late! I wanted to scream in frustration. I was clearly the best part of his day.

Long story short, I was late because that Frenchman was evil and I ended up missing my flight. I’ve bought a one-way ticket to Minneapolis, and I’m writing to you from Charles de Gaulle.

The End

Just kidding. I made my flight. All is well! I’m in the best of spirits sitting here a row behind the nose of the plane, eating a complimentary 3-course meal with white wine.

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Goodbye, Paris! So long asshole security guy! See you soon, Andrew and Maria. I’m sorry about the pasta. There was no time!

Next stop: Reunion Island

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Day 3 – Currently en route to Charles de Gaulle, Paris

Lost in writing the blog post for day 2, I looked up from my computer to find that it was already 10pm. Worried that I would somehow miss my 1:00am flight to Charles de Gaulle, I quickly gathered my things, did a quick check of the room to see if I had left anything behind, and made my way to the front desk to meet Magnus.

The first thing that Magnus said to me was, “I like your skateboard,” after his mother greeted me at the door of the A-10 Deluxe Bed and Breakfast. After returning from the day’s excursion to Reykjavik, I talked to Magnus more at length and found out that he has spent quite a bit of time living abroad, not only in the US, but Denmark as well. Only 30, he has lived in New York for four years and Denver for a few months.

“There are so many temptations,” referring to New York. “You’re always worrying about money. It’s very expensive living there. I had some relationships as well, but it’s NY and nothing lasts long. Furthermore, there are also a lot of homeless people that you become indifferent to in order to function. Overtime, the stress and the subsequent numbing of your emotions changes you as a person. I like the mountains of Denver more.”

Made sense. He told me that he owned a small travel business, a website that he had set up for people to go on tours in Iceland. “It’s very low-maintenance. When someone books a tour, a portion of that money goes to me. It’s really nice when I’m traveling and running low on money and I check my bank account and realize that someone has booked a tour.” That is a good deal, I thought to myself.

After we talked, he offered to turn on the hot tub for me which I greatly appreciated later. I hadn’t expected Iceland to be as cold as it was, nor did I plan on it raining as much as it had. It has been nice for reading and writing. You can’t really have the same peace of mind staying inside and relaxing when it’s really nice out.

He offered to drive me back to the airport later that night, but when I rang the bell at the front desk around 10pm, he, nor anyone else working at the hotel was anywhere to be found. Worried, I left my room key in the door as I had seen others do and stepped out into the night.

Slightly worried that I would be late for my flight, I stuck out my thumb and continued to make my way down Adalgata St. The glow-and-the-dark penny board beneath my feet shown brilliantly. I couldn’t tell if having a skateboard made me look more like a bum, so I did my best to look put together and conceal it when cars approached.

Less than ten minutes after starting, a car coming from the opposite direction that I had pegged as a no-go stopped half a block down the road and reversed quickly towards. His name was Alexis, and he worked at the airport 15 days a month making, more than people who work full-time for minimum wage. It turns out that we were the same age, and it surprised me when he said that he had two kids, a boy and a girl both less than a year-old each. They also had different mothers. How opposite our lives were, I thought.

I thanked him as he pulled into the drop-off area at Keflavik. “I wasn’t going to let you walk, he said to me.” Before the car door closed, I told him that I had this blog and I would be writing about him. “I’ll be writing about everyone I meet, you too for giving me a lift!” He smiled and said, “Do you know about tripadvisor? You should write about me on there!”

A red eatery and a blue one faced each other in Keflavik’s waiting area with all of it’s tax-free shops and food establishments. I went for the red one because it reminded me of The Matrix (I later found out that the blue one was actually an expensive restaurant with a full bar). The last things I had consumed were those two cups of tea and bowl of dried corn flakes.

The two employees at the checkout must have thought I was delirious from the amount of time it took me to decide on what to eat. In my defense they had at least 20 different kinds of pre-made sandwiches. I spent $14 on one with egg, lettuce, and red peppers and a pre-packaged container of veggies and dip. I am sure that I would get used to the currency in Iceland if I were to spend a couple more days there, but it still freaks me out when I hear a number in the thousands for something as small as a coffee.

Something totally primal took over as the sandwich wrapper came off. I caught a whiff of egg (of all things) and felt greedy and indulgent, even though there was no one near me who would have cared even a little. I even felt myself feeling nervous as I left my small bounty on the table to go back through the line to get a glass of water. Oh my God is sleep crucial! I blame my thoughts and actions all on that. My moment with food reminded me of the finger-licking-Lays woman from before.

Weird things happen when you’re sleep deprived. I woke up fitfully after 20 minutes of deep sleep, jolting back to reality, my heart racing and face hot. Even now I can’t seem to catch my breath, like my body is both shutting down and going into high alert mode. How is that possible? This must be the end. And how is it that I haven’t missed a flight or lost one of the many important, extremely-hard-to-replace documents on my person? If I don’t get any sleep in the next few hours, I’ll most likely turn up on French news evading the police on foot, naked, and yelling that I’m Walter Mitty.

Iceland – Day 2

A group of middle school students visiting the cave near the A-10 Deluxe Bed and Breakfast where I was staying rapped the glass with their knuckles as I rode by. There were three or four of them looking down from the coach bus as I moved past clumsily, shifting uneasily over cracks in the pavement and small rocks. Expecting to be given the middle finger by the cool kids, instead I looked up to find them saluting me and giving me a thumbs up.

I rode on, stopping near the harbor to take a few pictures and admire the large boat on shore. Making my way aboard, I put down my penny board and jumped on top of the main cabin, climbing hand over hand to the crow’s nest. The submarine yellow rungs were ice cold from the frigid wind blowing off the northwest coast of Iceland. Up there, I could see Keflavik International 3.7km away and most of Reykjanesbaer.

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“How far away is Reykjavik?” I asked a man pumping gas. “Oh, maybe 50km or so.” “Oh my god!” I thought, planning on just walking there. Instead, he pointed me in the direction of the bank where he thought they might be able to help. A woman in her late 30’s called up the bus company for me, found the schedule, and exchanged my $20 for the exact fare. “Here,” she told me, handing me a pair of bills and a coin for my right hand and another pile for my left. “The price of the ticket can be paid for with your right. The rest is for you. The bus should be here any minute. I hope you make it.” I thanked her and made my way out just in-time to flag down the bus driver as I was rolling up to the bus stop.

Aboard were four people including the bus driver. I sat right behind him as a confused  foreigner needing some extra guidance. Across the aisle sat an older, weathered looking gentleman wearing a black trench coat, black pants, and black socks with his black sandals. “Where do you want to go in Reykjavik?” he asked me. “Anywhere, really. I don’t have any plans.” “Well you’ll want to go to the city center then. I’ll take you there.”

I listened to them talk the entire way as I looked out upon the rocky, green landscape that spanned until mountains on the southern horizon. They talked as if they knew one another, pleasantly, with few pauses and laughing at each others’ jokes. Having studied Spanish and French, I have never listened to a conversation where I couldn’t decipher a single word. Even German has enough similar sounding words to give you a vague idea of what’s being said. Icelandic is like nothing I’ve ever heard.

An hour later I was following that older man off the bus. It was raining, as it had been off and on, with intermittent periods of intensely beautiful sunlight breaking up a depressing grey. He left me near the tourist information building where I learned when I could catch a bus going back to Keflavik. A younger guy around my age with long brown hair greeted me at the tourist info desk. He recommended a hot dog stand around the corner when I asked where I could find some cheap food. “World famous! Bill Clinton ate two of them recently.” He had a a very good sense of humor. He exchanged my pocketful of coins just shy of 500 ISK for a single bill, telling me he would do so because he was in a good mood. When I asked where I could find a cup of coffee, he was sure to point out that I would then have to miss out on a hotdog.

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Nearly catatonic, I huddled over a small cup of coffee in the shop he recommended, Kaffitar. It reminded me a lot of coffee scenes in the US. They even had soy milk. Having slept from 3am-6am (US time), I was in that weird, jet-lagged, auto-pilot state, my brain slightly more awake than sleepwalking. I bought, wrote, and mailed a postcard, skated around town some more, and boarded a bus heading back to Keflavik International.

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Once at the airport, I cruised the 3.7km along down 41 back to the hotel for a glorious hot tub experience. It was outside, lightly raining, and around 50 degrees. Dinner, and food thus far, has been less than glorious – 2 cups of tea and a bowl of dried cereal. Tant pis! Can’t complain. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes that he would just go to the gardens when he was hungry and didn’t have any money for a visual feast. Iceland has more or less been doing the same for me.

Leaving for Paris in 5 hours!

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Last Moments Stateside

I woke up around 8 this morning and packed up everything strewn about the Corradis’ dining room, everything that would be accompanying me for the next seven months while living abroad. Last time I went abroad I packed as if France were the next frontier. I basically filled up a backpack with a few articles of clothing and a bunch of knives and camping gear. Naturally, living in Tours, a city an hour outside of Paris, was hardly roughing it, and I ended up purchasing a ridiculous amount of things that most people would have thought to pack. I like to think I’ve gotten better at packing to be comfortable without overdoing it. I even managed to find room for a couple bags of good coffee and an 8-cup french press. If I ever begin to miss home or feel uncomfortable, I’m sure that’ll do the job.

Luckily, I also had time to purchase a glow-in-the-dark penny board at the Mall of America before meeting my parents at Humphrey International. My flight’s inclusion of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in their movie selection is a clear indication from a higher being of what I need to do during my 19-hour layover.

While at the mall, Mary and I wandered to the restaurants on the third floor and decided upon Noodles and Company. “Hah,” she said to me after we had sat down at our table. “Last date.” Go figure! At least there was wine!

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At 5:30pm, we met my parents near the check-in area for Icelandair. The previous night they had driven to Uptown so we could have dinner together one last time. I took them down the street to Muddy Waters. Despite an array of unique entrees, it came as no surprise that my mom ordered a pepperoni pizza and my dad, the pork sandwich. “Nothing weird,” is often the only restriction on where we go to eat when they allow me to choose. Tofu is weird, I guess. That used to bug me a lot when I was younger. I think it’s funny now.

Last night as we walked from Muddy Waters to French Meadow for dessert, I watched strangers that we passed on the sidewalk smiling back at my mom. I realized that she was smiling at them as she passed, cheery to be walking outside on a perfectly cool night to get dessert with my dad and I. People really don’t smile to each other in passing in Minneapolis, so it was cute to see my mom bringing that out in the people we passed. When I was younger, I never noticed those qualities about them. I would be more focused on how annoying it was that my mom ate so slow or that they always went to the same two restaurants. Those characteristics that drove me to the point of sadistic actions directed at my pillow in frustration have become endearing.

After realizing my toothpaste couldn’t be taken in my carry-on, they immediately took me to the convenience store and bought toothpaste for me and asked multiple times if there was anything else I needed. Their eagerness to help, from purchasing toothpaste to insisting on taking $40 for “peace-of-mind” are just reminders of how much they care. I’m sure they would have bought one of everything had I asked.

Mary and had a drawn out goodbye the last fifteen or so minutes before I finally went all the way through security. An older woman with a family-size bag of barbecued Lays was sitting a couple seats down from us, eyeing Mary and I while we hugged. She was mechanically licking all of her fingers. It was much the same way I have experienced walking upon an unsuspecting squirrel eating in the park. Shifty, territorial glances, quick rapid movements. It was in such disharmony with what we were doing that I laughed to myself. I guess we were both having moments, though, and for all I know, we were disrupting her.

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22 minutes until we land in Reykjavik, and my ears are popping as we descend. If you’re reading this, that’s really great, and it is appreciated. More to come – I’ll stay busy writing as everything unfolds. Cheers from somewhere over the Atlantic!

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Impossible Bottle (2014)

Impossible Bottle (2014)

By Matt Barrett

Darling, my darling,

We’ve been stranded on air for quite some time.

A pair of steady, patient hands put us here to

Forever look on the world without taking part.

Darling, my darling,

Our lifeboat can get us nowhere,

But put on your vest for safe measure because we’re

Setting sail.

Darling, my darling,

Take the wheel while I swing the jib.

We’ll hoist the mainsail; that’ll do the trick,

Melville, Homer, this is goodbye.

By the way, you’ve both got some dust on your sleeves.

Darling, my darling,

You and I were meant for more.

We were meant to see the world,

And so we shall.

Darling, my darling,

Have you packed your things?

Your favorite oversized black shirt?

To wear as we reinvent ourselves over

Tiny French coffees and fresh bread?

Darling, my darling,

Are you ready

To dance it out on Spanish cobble?

For goat cheese and grapes?

And moonlit strolls as we explore all the crannies

At 2.

Darling, my darling,

Things will work out,

Exactly as you had imagined.

Darling, my darling,

We’re getting off this shelf.

Fences (2014)

Fences (2014)

By Matt Barrett

 

Broken fences tend to fall when energetic youth hop them for balls

That have sailed far beyond the green of their green.

 

“I’ll get it!” he yells as he plants his foot on the bottom board.

It snaps like the crack of the bat that sent the ball sailing.

And he looks at me, unsure of whether or not he’s in for it now.

 

The crowd falls silent as his pride cowers in the dugout.

But it’s not your fault.

It’s no one’s fault.

Fences tend to fall.

 

Broken fences tend to fall when neglect moves in.

He pays room and board with a beating heart that he

Swiped off the counter in plain sight,

Right in front of the previous tenants,

A young couple with their lives before them.

 

She’s never coming back, they’re told.

You can use the crib if you’d like to fix that broken fence.

 

Broken fences tend to fall as the paint does.

Rust-red paint that flakes away in the rain.

A storm-strewn twig brings down another,

And it falls in the green of their green.

 

No baseball today.

All fences fall someday.

My Grandfather (2010)

My Grandfather (2010)

By Matt Barrett

My Grandfather whose cheeks are orange sandstone canyon walls,

Whose hair is glass splinters and cedar chips.

My Grandfather whose eyes sting like smoke,

Whose gaze is a chess master, a surgeon

My Grandfather whose voice is a crackling fire,

Whose lap is a lost island.

My Grandfather whose shoes are large grey stones that have been wrestled smooth by the tide

Whose thick socks he stole off a sleeping black bear.

My Grandfather who smells like timelessness and the backcountry,

Whose warmth is the sun-warmed rock you press your cheek on while lying down.

Roses in Hand (2009)

Roses in Hand (2009)

By Matt Barrett

He sat on the bare metal chair in the public square, black diamonds composing the seat and back. Its blackness stood in contrast to the grayish cement. Aside from the color, they were both undomesticated things; cold, hard, and bare save the superfluous diamond-pattern someone had worked the metal into to make it more appealing, as if anyone really wanted to sit outside on a day like today in this cushion-less, life-less, piece of scrap metal posing as a chair. The brown saddening flaps of his coat drooping over the seat of his chair looked like dead plant leaves that have lost their lush color, their movements stiff in the wind. In his pale-white hand he held onto a bouquet. The scarlet petals fell at an unnaturally slow rate, landing in an emaciated pile at the tips of his once shiny shoes, reflecting the distorted face of a man defeated back up at him. One hand hung limply at his side while the other, full of life, was bleeding from clutching the thorns too tightly, the blood from his hand mixing in with the color of the flower petals. He hung in place on the chair, his back resting and his feet falling into the ground. He was gravity’s masterpiece, a great, but sad portrait, a time capsule… In his face you would see no emotion, no spark, no proof that there was a person inside of him. He was an empty shell of a man, waiting for one more thing in life, roses in hand.

Old Man (2009)

Old Man (2009)

By Matt Barrett

Sometimes I wish I was an old man. I wish to be an old man with deep lines etching the edges of my mouth, fanning out like little hands. That way, I’ll know that I have put my smile to good use.  I would embrace creaky joints, as long as I can remember the morning walks down at the lake with my wife, the sun’s eyes as open as mine, and the candle-lit dances in our living room. I hope my hands will be weathered from holding those of my kids’, of making them dinosaur-shaped, chocolate chip pancakes, and tying their shoelaces before they race to the bus. I hope my hair falls out from endless windswept car rides across the country, and when I can barely prop my grandchildren on my lap, I hope to find pictures and possessions that’ll bring back my black lab Britney, 9th grade dance cologne, pine needles from Pelican Lake, and the scent of smoke from roasting marshmallows in the backyard. I hope that my eyes go at the hands of a thousand splendid sunsets and sunrises, and my ears by the reckless concerts of my college years. Like my dad’s ratty pair of boots, I hope to get my use.

Something About Whales

I’d write to you about whales if I could, but the paint has run dry, and there’s no more left to color anyone’s pages. If we grab the tin watering can along with the tiny blue shovel, we can go and dig a hole to China behind the old stone fireplace next to the left of the crab apple tree. That way, if it’s time to go in and we’re still on the other side of the world, no one will be able to find us. I here that’s where all the color has gone.

But before we do that, I need to talk to you about whales. I need to tell you what I was going to draw for you before I looked into the paint can and saw that there was nothing left. Whales, well, they’re big, I know, but you shouldn’t be afraid of them. If you’re ever swimming in the middle of the ocean and you don’t know what to do, if you find a whale and look directly into one of its eyes with yours, then it’ll sing to you. How do I know? Because I did it last summer after I followed an owl back to the crabapple tree at 12:34 in the morning. The clock faces that come with illustrations to tell you what time it is should tell you what to do at certain times of the day. 12:34: follow the owl, then stare a blue whale in the eye.

Do you want to get an ice cream first before we do all of this? Take the blue, lime green, and pink-that’s-supposed-to-be-red sidewalk chalk and grip them all in your hand together until you have a big wad of color. Lean your body off the back of the wagon while I pull you and then leave the trail. Don’t worry. I won’t go too fast.

Last time you pulled me a bee came out of the wagon handle. Remember? The handle hit the driveway with a loud pang and you cradled your swollen finger in the palm of your unstung one. You cried a lot because it hurt, but remember how I took the daisies and dandelions and covered you until you couldn’t feel it anymore? By that time, the driveway was colored-in so that mom and dad knew where to find us at the end of the day, which, by the way, came too fast. We’d only just started to dig.

Magers & Quinn

The gentle brushing sound of pages being carefully turned,

The creak of a newly-glued spine being opened,

The nearly-silent padding of perusing feet on old grey carpet new ten years ago,

Geometric patterns in shades of grey that could just as easily be found on an old sweater in your dad’s closet,

The clicking of a desktop keyboard and the ringing of an old beige telephone with a spiral chord the color of senior citizen, padded Velcro shoes,

Theatre and Plays to my right,

Travel to my left,

Food and Cooking in front of me,

Literature at my back.

“Hey Gina, do we have a copy of . . .” inquired a tall bespectacled man.

“Yes, we have two editions available at the moment . . .” responded a kind-faced woman.

The back and forth telephone exchange between two workers at opposite ends of the bookstore,

The sound of mice being run over in photography,

“Spray some WD-40 on those wheels!”

—If my dad were here.

The shy, polite bookstore worker who always excuses herself before walking in your line of sight.

It’s barely audible,

The uncertain “Excuse me” tagging onto the end of her breath.

This place is an ever-changing time capsule.

A 12 Vol. British Encyclopedia set for $1500 lies untouched behind the counter.

Books tripping over one another up the staircase leading to the offices,

A grand, polished wood ladder reigns supreme over the chaos.

It smells like knowledge in here,

Like mystery

Desire,

An overcast day and a window seat in November,

Like fat sweaters that could eat a child.

A grand intersection of the Universe,

Diggory Kirke and Polly Plummer know.

Choose a world,

The life of any character and a thread in time you can’t even imagine.

Through the bookstore’s windows lies the present.

Dust has settled on the windowsill,

Fingerprints and splotches on the glass,

It’s the Uptown Exhibit.

The interior of this bookshop is the all-access hub.

Run your fingers along those spines.

You’re a chiropractor now,

An explorer,

A time traveler,

A historian.

A binger reader,

A verbumivore,

Welcome to Magers & Quinn.

A Year in Perspective

One year ago, nearly down to the date, I was packing up my small Ford Focus for the biggest succession of adventures I had yet to experience. From June through the middle of July, I worked as a camp counselor and lifeguard at Lac du Bois, a French-immersion summer camp tucked away in the northern woods of Minnesota. A day or so after that ended, I was chewing up highway once again headed west, destination: Brusett, Montana, to work on a ranch with a close friend for a rough and raspy-voiced ex-cowboy by the name of Dave Solberg. Endless fencing and tractor driving, a small run-in with a mountain lion, a kitten named Audrey, and many quiet mornings of infinite sunrises are a small glimpse of that experience. Finally, on the 19th of August, 2012, I found myself waiting in the terminal to board my first flight out of the country. Full of excitement and big plans, I was to spend a little over four months living among the French, meeting people from all over the world, trying new things like rock climbing and surfing, and getting lost.

LDB; Ranch; Paris

 

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Boom. boom. boom – the three successive events that had satiated, for a time, a hunger for adventure that had been progressively building throughout my final years of high school and the few years of college preceding the trip. What a wild ride.

I’m back in the great state of Minnesota with all of its 10,000 lakes, its excessively nice and overly apologetic, flannel-wearing, potluck throwing and hot dish consuming Scandinavian, Irish, German, Native American, and Polish folk. For the first time in long time, things have slowed down quite a bit.

Sitting in bed for the past two days healing up from having my wisdom teeth taken out and a broken heart from having had my wedding proposal turned down by the nurse, I can think of nothing better than to write about what inspired this blog one year ago.

Allons-y!

You Are the Yeast That Gives Rise to My Spirits

It was 6:57 pm, three minutes before the bakery closed, when a well-dressed looking couple walked in. Without a hello, the first words out of their mouths were, “one pain au chocolat, a chai latte, a coffee . . .” and then a long pause before they began inquiring about the bruschetta that we offered, none of which were already pre-made.

“We close at 7 pm, just so you both know,” said my colleague.

“Well, can’t we eat it here?” they asked with an air of impatience, ignoring our willingness to put together their detailed order 3 minutes before close.

Milan, the girl with whom I was working, told them that they could eat at the bakery if they wanted to, and we would essentially mop around them and wipe their table last. It would have been one thing had they acknowledged the favor that we were doing for them, but like many of our wealthiest customers, they just expected it. They ended up scraping the toppings off one of the bruschetta, and the man got mad when we didn’t have any fake sugars for his coffee.

I don’t get it.

How is it that one could treat another so poorly, as if they had no value as a human being?

Stand on the other side of the counter, and somehow you’re worth less than the food you’re serving. Some customers don’t even have the decency to say hello to you and have forgotten how to say “please” and “thank you.” It’s the way that they look at you and don’t look at you that is so remarkable. You’d think that what you were experiencing was fictional.

“You fit the snooty, rude, rich person archetype well,” I must say.

How is it that one can rationalize such actions? What is going on inside their heads that allows them to sleep well at night knowing they treat others so poorly? Do they just look at you and think, “Ugh, another poor person. You take the time to cook your meals? Did you even go to college? If not, it doesn’t matter because I’m sitting down being served expensive pastries by you, drinking a little coffee that I take little sips from with permanently pursed lips. I have the financial means to waste expensive food if it displeases me when others are starving. I’m better than you which is why you don’t deserve to be acknowledged.”

The only way to retain my faith in humanity is to fool myself into believing that the people with whom I interacted with today are not in fact people, but bodies controlled by evil, little martians without souls. That, and remembering that for every rich and obnoxious snob out there with plutocratic values, I can find at least ten good people.

***

After getting off work with two, large bags of expired pastries and other foods, quiche, salads, and sandwiches, I made my way over to a friend’s house, L.  She happens to be living with family friends who were hosted by L’s parents when they were in college. Now they are returning the favor by hosting my friend.

When I arrived, it was L, her mother and another family friend who had driven up from Rapid City, South Dakota, and then L’s host family, the two parents, two kids, and their dog, Dakota. As soon as she had heard what I was bringing, she told me that tonight was going to be a party. A bottle of white wine was opened and the goods laid out on the table. In exchange for my goods, L’s host father, a pastor and an experienced dumpster diver, jokingly told me that he could find me a mattress if I wanted. He had found one for my friend, though, so perhaps he wasn’t joking!

***

I wish that I could convey to you how angry I felt today at work, not necessarily because of the customers’ actions towards my coworker and I, but because of the disproportionate distribution of wealth in this world and the effect it has on the way that people treat one another, making others believe themselves to be worth more than others.

When will people understand how little value money has and begin to see the bigger picture?

There is so much talk of ambition and determination in American culture when defining what success means: “So-and-so grew up poor, but through his/her hard work and perseverance, they became extremely wealthy.” It is the overused, unadventurous, pick-your-own-adventure template that has been liked, shared, and adopted by too many.

Why does no one ever talk about kindness, honesty, loyalty, gentleness, and selflessness? How much credit does our society give to the work of educators, counselors, community organizers, volunteers, assisted living residents and caregivers?

***

To those who say hello when they come into the bakery, thank you. My soul would be dead if it were not for you, like a scrappy piece of burnt bread that never rose. You are the yeast that gives rise to my spirits. 

To my close friends, I “love you fiercely,” to borrow from the words of another friend. It is because of you that this world is not overrun by those centered on greed and the attainment of wealth and self-gain. It is because of you that I am grateful to be alive, so that I can come over with expensive French pastries redirected from the trash bin to listen to your Dad read from Bon Appetit! in a funny voice and make bread with you, share a glass of wine, learn how to make pasta by hand, plan adventures on motorcycles that we do not yet own, longboard for hours at night, and stare at frumpy-faced men on buses.

We Can’t All Be Dean Moriarty

The Real World. No, I am not referring to the reality TV show that ran on MTV but rather the idea that people often convey with quotations using their fingers or emphatically with a slight hesitation before the words come off their tongue. Let’s skip the niceties and say first and foremost that the transition from the college bubble to the real world is quite the change.

I’ve begun to realize through living at home how ideal the college setting is for forming the communities that one wants to immerse oneself in. Have a passion for the anime, yoga, foam weapon fighting, or German? Go to your school’s webpage and look under the section on student life to locate a list of your school’s groups. Contact the organization’s president and you’re connected. I realize that the last two sentences probably sound a lot like the dialogue given to campus tour guides for prospective students. It is very true though, and one is bound to find their group of friends through the clubs that they join.

So what now, after leaving the bubble? I have been running inside of one all my life, K-12, freshman through senior year of undergrad, viewing the world through a perforated plastic sheen, bits of the real world having accidentally found their way into my space , a blade of grass, a speck of dirt. I am here now, standing barefoot in the field of grass where I used to roll around, dirt between my toes and under my toe nails, fresh air in my lungs, and my diploma in hand. I’ve graduated from college.

It’s exciting, truly, the prospect of being able to go wherever one wants. I’ll go to Hawaii where a lei will be a mandatory article of the work attire. Then, I’ll spend my hours off sitting on top of a surfboard, saltwater drying to sunny skin, and I’ll let my hair grow long and wild. Or, if that doesn’t work out, there is always Colorado, and not only will I make the move, I’ll do it all by motorbike, sell my car, buy a small trailer, minimize all of my belongings to fit into a small metal cubicle. Then, I’ll work at a cool coffee shop that plays jazz every Thursday and insert my hands into enough cracks to bleed them dry. But the view, I’m picturing it now from atop that rock face, well worth it. Finally, if none of these plans come to fruition, then there is always teaching abroad, traveling to a different country, learning a different language, and hopefully do some good.

As cool and realistic as it is to pursue such endeavors, what I am slowly learning is that the process is slow going. Everything has the capability of moving so fast in your head, wonderful images of what could be, but when you hear the dryer buzzing, the honk of an impatient driver, a knock at the door, you’re reminded of where you are and the actual pace of life. Things need to be planned out to a certain degree. We can’t all be Dean Moriarty, divorcing Mary Lou on Tuesday and marrying Camille on Wednesday, or Sal Paradise, making for Denver beneath a tarpaulin on the back of an open-bed pickup. Well, I guess you could if you really wanted to.

What I have learned so far is to take advantage of resources on the web and in one’s community to find events that can be engaging, imbue a sense of connectedness, and help one save a little money to use towards college loans. Although I have only been to one French conversation group so far, meetup.com seems to be a great online resource for finding various groups of interest within any city. Colleges, such as the U of M, have also been a valuable source of entertainment and events with book talks by notable authors, workshops on health and wellness, and other music and drama performances available to the public. There is also the public library full of good books and resources for job hunting, and it is, of course, free.

By the end of these posts, I always feel that what I had set out to write changes. It was my intention to talk about the transition of college to the post-grad life and the difficulties and unexpectedness of it all. This is still how I feel, but at the same time, many of these changes are exciting. Instead of fulfilling credits and sacrificing time cooking to finish up an assignment, it is much easier now to be more intentional with how my time is being used. So, whether its moving to Hawaii or Colorado, doing the Peace Corps, starting your own basket-weaving business, or designing your own wedding gowns, it is all doable, it just takes a bit more time, focus, and planning than all of your daydreaming during Music 101.

Longboarding Along the Mississippi

It was near midnight, and I was with two other guys from my floor freshman year at the University of Minnesota, Joe and Christian. Nice guys. They had the sort of smooth, easy-going demeanor that made everyone feel comfortable and breathe a little easier. They wore a lot of plaid, Joe’s shirts always a bit too large for his body. Christian usually had a fantastic beard going, the kind of beard that most anyone could become a fan of.

They both had longboards, and another friend across the hall by the name of Petrie allowed me to use his that night. He had a nice bamboo Arbor board, a more classic board with no flex that stood higher up above the ground than a drop deck. It was stiff enough to get going fast, yet stood high enough above the ground to weave easily back and forth. We set out that night around midnight for the steep black hills paralleling the roaring Mississippi.

The night air was cool against my face, the exposed V-shape below my neck, my forearms and hands from where my rolled shirt stopped. It was the pushing and the gliding and the coasting, the floating, that made it feel as if you were formless, as if your body was nonexistent that Minneapolis night. In fact, you felt a part of the city.

It was the sound of the wheels spinning and the ease of turning your board. It was the quietness of it all. In a city of 400,000 and a student body of 50,000 that easily made one feel alone on many days, we were met with a different type of aloneness, the sort that one should embrace.

The most exhilarating moments were those in which we couldn’t make out how steep the hills were, where the lighting was sparse, and the road’s surface full of secrets. And as we began moving faster, so fast that turning felt risky, all it would have taken was a patch of sand, a pebble too large, a moment’s hesitation and a slight nervous adjustment to have sent us home bleeding with rough skid marks on our ass cheeks, rocks embedded in our arms that would have to be pulled out with a tweezers, a scraped face. Luckily we didn’t fall riding that night.

There are very few moments in which I felt as free.

 

The Most Exciting Time of Your Life

“Well kids, it was, perhaps, the most exciting time in my life.”

That’s what I hope to be saying 40 years from now at the not-so-old age of 62 to a pair of entranced grand kids perched upon each one of my knees. Despite living at home at the moment, back in the same twin bed that I have slept in since I was twelve, in the same 10 x 10 ft creme-colored room with the old turquoise carpet that a smaller version of my sister had once thought was the best color to carpet a room, life could not be more open or more inviting than it is presently.

Free of children, of significant debt, and of any crippling or debilitating diseases that may come with old age, I would say that there is nothing really to worry about. In fact, there is everything to be excited for. Are your legs strong enough for a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail or around Europe? If not, you can still look out at the Grand Canyon and marvel at how something so vast had formed. Do you have the ability to learn a new language, French, German, Italian, and experience another culture? What about all of the great books that you could read, the knowledge that you could absorb, the paintings that you could create, the walks that you could take, the nights that you could spend mastering a new recipe and sharing a meal with parents and friends. What about all of these things?

Yes. You can do it, all of it. As overwhelming as college debt and the prospect of finding a job may feel, one that will be fulfilling, rewarding, and satisfying, it is important to remember the degree of control we possess over the lives that we choose to live. You can always go back to school; you can always change your career path; you can find a way to move somewhere more interesting than where you’re living; you can become a great writer, painter, oboist, spelunker. If someone tells you that you can’t do those things, that you shouldn’t change careers because it’s too late, listen to what you want rather than letting your life be ruled by obligations, the shoulds.

So, plan accordingly. Want to move to Colorado? Then figure out how much it will cost you to get out there and utilize all of your connections and resources to see if you can’t find a job. Set goals, and smaller goals within those goals. Make lists. Create a vision board. Frame the cutout from National Geographic that stirs something in you, if only slightly. The feeling will grow the more attention you give it. For all of the soon-to-be college graduates and graduates out there, or anyone who seems as if their life has stopped moving, that they have stopped growing, this is the most exciting time in your life! Whether you’re married or single, debt-free or bursting with repayment, young, old, whatever, this is it. I realize as I am writing this that the focus of this entry has changed.

The most exciting time in your life could be now if you choose to make it so.

The Prexy’s Pond Tradition

For all of you underclass Cobbers curious about the tradition of Prexy’s Pond, now is your chance to learn a little bit more about the graduation night ritual.

Yes, to answer your first question. It smells as bad as the rumors let on. I am not sure about mysterious-skin-rash bad (that is what I was told as a sophomore on my campus tour), nor did my feet touch the spokes of any ghost-ridden bikes. However, the smell… yes! It is fair to say that it lives up to its reputation. Considering that Prexy’s is the primary recipient of all of the lawn chemical runoff, it is no surprise that I have never seen any wildlife near the pond, except maybe the die-hard frolfers…

Mick’s Office. It wasn’t until my junior year that I first learned that the bar was spelled Mick’s, not Mix. Every college has its go-to student bar, and Micks’ is where most Cobbers choose to wet their kernels every Thursday night.

It is a black-suit-and-tie-bar with expensive cocktails and mixed drinks that will run one a pretty penny. Don’t even think about showing up without shining your shoes nor gripping your glass with all of your fingers. Pinkie out–the most important rule observed.

The bar is complete with a few pool and beer pong tables and some chewed-up booths and other well-worn seating. Flash an Abraham and you can forever leave your mark on one of the removable ceiling tiles. Finally, the infamous Mick’s mugs are worth mentioning. Pay a certain amount (I’ve never bought one) and you can fill it for less than buying a beer at full price. They’re a big deal, so I’ve been told.

So what happens is this: Nearly all members of the graduating class, and some free-spirited parents, find their way to the bar around 10 pm, and you dance, drink, sweat, cry, hug, and pose the question: “What are you going to do with your life?” and end the conversation with: “Okay, well have a good rest of your life.”

The sheer quantity of people shoved into the establishment is enough to turn the bar into a sauna, although arguably not as healthy for one’s skin as actual steam. Step down the stairs to reach the other half of the bar where all of the action is (beer pong and dancing) and you’ll literally feel the temperature rise 10 degrees F.

And after 4 hours of mingling, the bar closes, and there is a mass exodus. Don’t try and walk your dog on graduation night at 2 am. The sidewalks flood as stumbling graduates make a pit stop at Taco Bell and Mickey D’s before peeling off their bar clothes for a nice dip in a chemical-infested pond on a 50 degree night because Fargo has a hard time saying goodbye to winter.

One-by-one… actually, often many at once, people jumped into the pond screaming upon entering and gasping upon feeling the cold sting of a pond only recently thawed. Stripping down to briefs, underwear, and bras for many, the plunge can be quite a spectacle for those who have come by and the nearby police on standby to ensure that no one dies.

If you’re not convinced what a gay old time Prexy’s is, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. All sarcasm aside, it was worth every moment. It was nice to see what people were doing, as much as I wish there were other ways of asking the question, and it was nice to say some goodbyes. There was something about doing something crazy immediately upon receiving a 4-year degree, and having the entire class there, or a large portion of them, was also, in a way, significant. I was tackled, mentally and physically unprepared, by a friend, and we both fell in at the same time. I ran in with my roommate, K., and it was where I said my last goodbye to a close friend.

The Scared is Scared

This may be possibly one of my most favorite videos that I have come across.

Makes me think a lot about graduation. Despite the mixed bag of responses, that post-grad life still holds the best yet to come is undoubtedly true. How could it not be with so many great things that have happened so far.

When I was five, I remember mastering how to ride a bike. It was painful. We had this great big mailbox at the end of our driveway on the left corner if you’re facing the street. The post was stained the color of rust and constructed of cut pieces of 2 x 4 that my dad had put together. It is what I would always manage to hit when going back and forth along the street in front of my house. I kid you not, every time. Smack! and down on the ground. I am sure that it made my dad laugh quite a bit watching his five-year-old continually crash into the mailbox.

I turned ten the year 2000. I had my birthday party at Pizza Hut with my friends, and we had contests to see who could eat more of the red pepper flakes. I put down $5 in quarters playing  Marvel vs. Capcom and bought a large “2000” sticker from a machine that I slapped onto the front of my helmet. Everytime I went biking again around my neighborhood, people would know what year it was. It was a public service thing. That year was also my first year of middle school. Fifth grade. I remember winning a big hat like Dr. Seuss for having been so successful at selling magazines to my neighbors. I was ten, but looked like I was still five, and lived in an affluent area. It wasn’t that hard.

At fifteen, I still hadn’t gotten my permit (that came at 18), but, I had the world’s coolest bike, I can guarantee you that. The mark was called Myata; I called her Emma, and she was a beautiful, tan road bike from the 90’s that I bought red handlebar tape for and a new, official road bike seat from Gear West that was more than painful to sit on, in particular the gooch region. That is the technical term, I believe, but forgive my spelling. I will fetch my medical dictionary to verify later. I remember going on a lot of good rides at fifteen, out in the country, at night, around Lake Minnetonka.

Twenty, my first year at Concordia. One of the best years of my life. In love with a beautiful, curly-haired girl, had a pair of really good friends with whom I went on random adventures with, going to Perkins at 1am to stuff our faces with buy-three-get-three cinnamon rolls, caramel rolls, and muffins, spending $2 every now and then at the Safari cheap theater to watch older-released movies. If you ever do go there, pay attention to the sticky floors, and the sticky plastic cup holders, and the scuffed seat backings. I’m not pointing this out because I am some pretentious movie-goer, but because I love those sticky floors and worn chairs. The place has character.

Twenty-one, trying to think of something clever to say about my first legal drink, O yeah, I went on a one-on-one date with one of my friend’s mom. As funny as this may sound, I enjoyed it very much, and am grateful to have gotten so close to my friend and her family. That is also the year that I learned my dad has been misleading me all these years by drinking White Zinfandel as if it a completely normal thing to do. Ordered a glass of White Zin in an Irish pub with some friends. “That’s an old lady drink,” they told me, in good humor of course. I have since grown out of the pink stuff, but man, many a great night with a glass of White Zinfandel in hand. I also used to blow-dry my hair until fifth grade and sponge-clean my delicate 4.5 ft figure with my mom’s purple luffa. Makes you think about gender norms and conditioning. As my friend Eddie says that scents, such as perfume, are neither feminine nor masculine, there is no such thing as a masculine or feminine hairdryer and luffa either.

Twenty-two. I’m here, sitting on my couch on a Sunday night, the eve of my Student Scholarship presentation on a paper that I have written on the role of food in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood as well as a rather poorly developed paper on feminism for my French course. C’est la vie. There are beans cooking on the stove top, and I have made some fresh bread today with green tea and  sunflower seeds. Thanks J. Hermerding for the idea. So many good things have happened this year, working at Lac du Bois, spending three weeks on a ranch in Montana with one of my good friends, J, and spending four incredible months in France. And now, graduation. Excited and scared, to be honest.

“The scared is scared of things you like.”

I am afraid of change. I am excited for change. An unrealistic fear that what I like will not be accessible after graduation, my family, my friends, time to sit down like this and write knowing that I am moving toward graduation, that I have a strong community of support here at Concordia.

“Yeah, that’s good advice. That’s why I need to just think of things I like when I am scared.”

Okay.

Twenty-five?

Now.

My Liberal Arts Education

The following excerpt is from an assignment that I wrote for my literature capstone course in which the goal was to reflect on our time spent at Concordia College and the liberal arts education. There is much more that needs to be said concerning some of the experiences that I was fortunate enough to have and the many, amazing individuals whom I was able to meet and befriend, but that will be saved for a later post. 

William Deresiewicz poses the question in an essay he wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “…it becomes increasingly difficult to remember who you once were?” Reflecting upon this question has incited fond memories of a childhood of carefree and uninfluenced exploration, and also the question: Where has the boy who used to draw houses run off to, who used to spend hours in the woods climbing trees and having stick fights? Many things have changed since I was five, ten, even eighteen-years-old, right before heading off to college, but in essence, a desire for creative liberty and a curiosity for exploration are characteristics that have lasted over the years. What has changed, however, is the medium through which these characteristics have been channeled and honed, and new traits have been adopted along the way. The liberal arts education has helped to facilitate that process and foster a deeper understanding and respect for that which I am passionate about.

Often when I meet someone new at Concordia, I ask them what other schools that they had considered going to. St. Olaf is almost always among the other places that they were considering going to. It is where I wanted to study as well, but after not receiving enough money, I chose to go to the University of Minnesota to study biology. Like 95% of all science majors in their first semester of undergrad, I had my sights set on medical school and becoming a doctor. Those plans disintegrated quickly after my first semester of college-level chemistry. The placement exam should have been enough to convince me that a science career was not the right fit, having been placed in an introduction class to Chemistry I, but I was pretty attached to the idea. After a rough semester of the lowest grades that I had ever received, I decided that holding onto such unrealistic goals was a waste of time. When the time to pick spring semester classes came around, I decided to start living more intentionally by choosing only classes that interested me, in essence returning to the childhood of carefree and uninfluenced exploration.

It was the right move. Among the courses that I took were creative writing and French, two areas of study that I am proud to call my current major and minor. It was a relief of sorts. There was no more worrying about getting into medical school, fewer, what I like to call, mid-day crises, and I can describe the feeling of studying what I wanted to be studying as contentment, for the most part. The intentionality was taken a step further when I realized that I was not locked into studying at the University of Minnesota. This realization came during the summer of 2010. I was looking for a small private college, not necessarily a liberal arts college, but one with an English program, a French program, and a cross country team that I could be a part of.

Sustainability became an interest of mine at Concordia. Because the chemistry course I took at the U of M did not have a lab component, I was required to still fulfill 1 course in science with a lab practicum. Environmental science was one of the few courses that would fit with my schedule, so I chose it. Through this science class I was able to visit the BioHaus situated on Waldsee’s grounds, the German-immersion summer camp of Concordia Language Villages. There we learned about sustainable architecture, and I was introduced to a former student at Concordia who greatly impacted my thinking. At the time, he was the current Student Environmental Alliance co-president, and as we talked on the 3 hour van-ride home and became closer the weeks following the trip to the BioHaus, I got to learn more about becoming involved on campus, being a part of and engaging with it.

Soon after, I joined the Student Environmental Alliance, found myself one of two garden interns during the summer, on my way to Washington D.C. to attend a convention called Power Shift, centered around greening college campuses, and standing atop a mountain in Kentucky, looking across at another mountain that had been leveled for coal extraction. Aside from the environmental experiences, I also took on a writing position for the Concordian and became heavily involved in the French Club, leading as Vice President the spring of my junior year before going to study in France in the fall. It is impossible to recount all the ways in which I have benefited from such a diverse 3 years spent at Concordia. Among these benefits, however, is a stronger sense of self and confidence in my abilities as a leader and motivator, an ability to communicate well, both written and orally, in English and French, and a curiosity that I never had before. This curiosity is not only attributed to the diverse array of classes that I had taken, it is also the byproduct of being able to live off-campus with individuals majoring in biology to religion, to political science and sociology. Get-togethers at our house not only involved endless amounts of homemade Italian pasta and good wine, but outstanding, dynamic conversation in which those whom I was with would critique Concordia’s administration, challenge one another, and discuss issues concerning the world at large. It is by being surrounded by individuals from all areas of academia, constantly dialoging with one another, that I have been able to come across more issues of interest and a venue through which to discuss them.

After graduating from Concordia, I plan to do a summer internship, June through August, with a program called Summer of Solutions. I will be working in South Minneapolis with low-income neighborhoods to help them develop various environmental projects, a bike-share program, the development of an urban garden, canvassing for the promotion of an environmental shift in Minneapolis’ manufacturing, etc. After that, I would like to continue practicing French, learning other languages, and writing. Uncertain about where all of these interests will take me, the mid-day crises from my first year at the University of Minnesota are not an issue. I feel confident through the education that I have received, the skills, and the support network, that everything will work itself out. In essence, I have relocated the boy who used to climb trees and smear mud on his face, who would spend hours drawing houses and wanted nothing more than to be given permission to bike a little farther from home. I would never have predicted the past four years to be what they have been. Thus, I have learned it is best to remain open and flexible to what is to come.

Passing Some Things Along

My friend has this dance teacher at St. Olaf College. He told me that he has some nice dance clothes, an iPhone, and yet a really old car from the 80s that he’s driving. It works, though. Maybe he doesn’t have satellite radio, heated seats, even power windows, but does that really matter? We were discussing the other day about utilizing our resources intentionally, and talked about what it is that we truly wanted. What matters? “You can’t afford to have all nice things,” C. told me, and he’s right. First of all, we should be grateful for anything that we have because there are many out there with very little. Secondly, I think that it is important to be mindful of where one’s resources are going, your time and your money.

That being said, I’m looking to pass some things along for others who could get better use out of them than I could, and to acquire some more resources to spend them on what is most important in my life at the moment. Here are some of the things that I would like to do and learn:

-Learn how to cook well, in particular vegetarian and vegan cuisine, and work in a kitchen

-Learn more about sustainable design and maybe attend some workshops.

-Visit an ecovillage and learn more about tiny home construction

There you have it. Some goals. Here is what I am hoping to pass along:

-Books – a mixed bag of fiction, nonfiction, classics and contemporary, as well as some free poetry ($4 each unless specified)

Fiction:

  • -Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (hardcover) – $6
  • -“” and the Chamber of Secrets (hardcover) – $6
  • -“” and the Prisoner of Azkaban (hardcover) – $6
  • -This Side of Paradise, The Last Tycoon, Tender is the Night (hardcover, set) by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
  • -The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi – $6
  • -The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • -Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
  • -Under Enemy Colors by S. Thomas Russell
  • -The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • -The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • -One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • -A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
  • -The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • -The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Nonfiction:

  • -127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
  • -Collapse by Jared Diamond
  • -Six Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow – $5
  • -Culture Smart: France
  • -We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed by Our Families by Phillip Gourevitch
  • -Life is Like a Sailboat: Selected Writings on Life and Living from the Philadelphia Inquirer by John Grogan

Poetry:

  • -Towards the Forest (book of poems) by Holaday Mason — free
  • -The Stand-Up Tragedy Club (book of poems) by Jim Crenner — free

-A Hohner guitar (model HW 03), Baxstage case, and black capo (all for $50). It’s rather small, but nice for someone with small fingers or looking for a smaller guitar to start out on.

-A winter coat from Eddie Bauer, hunter green, medium, 650 fill goose down ($30)

If you’re interested in making a purchase, send me a message on facebook.

Thanks,

Matt

Meditation at The Spirit Room

I walked up the decorative red carpet that led up the flight of stairs. There were beautiful paintings staring back cast in a soft light when I reached the top, and unexpected hallways and side rooms that ducked off into other parts of the creative space. I was at The Spirit Room in downtown Fargo, North Dakota to attend a meditation session for my class, religions of India.

Peeled off my dad’s boots, the ones that my mom would slip on for 2 minutes every Sunday to retrieve the ads in her nightgown at the end of our driveway, and followed an older woman to retrieve some meditation cushions as if she were giving me a tour of her house. I looked through a door on my right and found a polished wood desk covered in a combination of neat and disordered stacks of papers and letters that made the room look like another piece of art. Through a door on my left was a kitchen with big wash tub sinks. Everything was red.

I was given one of those big square cushions, also red, one might see featured in an LL Bean catalog, you know, next to a roaring fire on Christmas Eve with a chocolate lab on top, and a matching red cushion, spherical, and followed the meditation teacher back to where I left my dad’s boots. We entered a large ballroom-esque space with red walls, hung with more artwork, large, elegant circular lights hanging from a decorative cream-colored ceiling with artistic impressions that looked like snaking vines and cubes. The floors were wooden and polished.

The ball was placed on top in the center of the cushion, and my butt on top of the ball. I crossed my legs, right over left, always, and placed my palms on top of my knees. That was comfortable for the first five minutes, perhaps. The meditation session lasted for thirty minutes. There were many other positions as well, comfortable for five minutes.

Across from me, not directly but a little too the left, sat the meditation leader. She would be a black-rimmed glasses and mouth kind of caricature. Small eyes and a thin smile that rested comfortably across her face, she wore an overly-large denim-colored top with horizontal stripes and buttons. She is the sort of person one might always remember but not understand why their mind chose to do so.

She sounded the gong after a brief introduction, and we went into focused meditation for the next thirty minutes.  breathe iiiiinnnnn 1, 2, 3, 4… breathe ouuutttt 1, 2, 3, 4…, and so on and so forth. I could hear the wheezy breathing of the boy to my left, and I could not hear my religion professor breathing next to me, which was equally as distracting. A girl at my 2 o’clock kept coughing, and I was still thinking about the fact that she had brought hard candies with her to meditation. At my midnight was a girl who had been hit by a car, and was somehow making it around with a torn something-something ligament in her right leg and a broken clavicle.

My left flank itches. Don’t move. There’s a spot on the right side of my face that itches near my hairline. Don’t move. My back hurts. Okay, time to move. But stay focused.

I opened my eyes. I had to. It was not that I was uncomfortable readjusting my body with eyes closed, just curious to see how the meditation teacher was getting in the zone, and also the serious looking shaved-head guy sitting next to her with a blanket over his lap. The teacher had her hands near her navel in the shape of an O, and the bald guy did not have his eyes entirely closed, but three-quarters closed staring at, what looked like, a spot on the floor before him. I shut my eyes and imagined my breath coming through my nose and nestling comfortably in my lower abdomen.

Towards the end, something strange and unexpected happened. Breathing became more natural, deeper, and there was a pleasant sensation accumulating somewhere on my forehead between my eyes. I forgot about the raspy breath to my left, hard candy girl at 2 o’clock, even the meditation teacher and the guy with partly-open eyes. An image of a close friend came into my head instead, and our time in France together began replaying itself in my head.

With each breath came a new, vivid memory—moments when we were on the bus together on our way to class, studying our notes before a castles test, the last night we were together in France, going out to the bars with a mixture of Italian, German, and American friends. I remembered Rue Nationale so well. Every night, the sky looked so dark if you just looked up, darker than a sky here in the United States has ever looked to me. And with all of this came an overwhelming urge to smile, so I did. A yoga teacher at the University of Minnesota once told me that ours souls, in their natural states, are happy.

The gong sounded, and then it was over. I wanted to continue breathing the way that I was, and it was nice. When I looked at the meditation teacher, it was if everything in the room had softened, the entire place had taken on a new mood that felt like you were dreaming without being asleep. The difference, I guess, is that you were acute to everything at the same time.

We had a debriefing session at the end, and it turns out that there were a number of Buddhists present with us, living in Fargo, ND, the last place I would imagine having even a small community of Buddhists. A meditation professor from North Dakota State University shared with the group that she considered meditation to be like a microcosm for the discomforts of life. If your left flank itches, or that spot on the right side of your face near your hairline is bothering you, try not moving. Just sit with it, be aware of it while at the same time not paying attention to it. She said that this has helped her get through the day-to-day. Instead of becoming absorbed in discomfort, wasting our energy by focusing on it, meditation can help you to more easily manage those situations by allowing you to acknowledge their existence and continue on with what you were doing.

Sending merit your way,

Matt

Spin Me Presents a Matthew Barrett Production: “Vegan Cookies” Starring Matthew Hansen

 

Directed & Produced by Matthew Barrett

Starring Matthew Hansen

Music “All This Beauty” by The Weepies

Vegan Chocolate Chip Pistachio Cookies

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(Adapted from food.com’s recipe Vegan Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Nut Cookies)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 12 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup soymilk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup non-dairy chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup pistachios

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F Oil a large baking sheet; set aside.
  2. Whisk together first five ingredients until very smooth. Add remaining ingredients, and stir to combine (be sure to mix in thoroughly the baking soda and salt–you may want to stir these into the flour first).
  3. Drop batter by large spoonfuls onto prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 12 minutes, or until tops just begin to crack. Remove sheet from oven, and wait 10 minutes before transferring cookies to a plate or wire rack.

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Kale Like a Mofo, a Vegan Dish

I was sitting with my roommate from Tennessee in our kitchen one morning, he in his blue and green, plaid bathrobe and slippers fixing a cup of french press coffee and I making my way through a bowl of For Dad, Oatmeal, as I heard him use the words “kale” and “mofo” in the same sentence. The tone of his voice was a mixture of passion, pride, persuasion, and certitude as he said to me, “O, I ate kale like a mofo,” with enlarged eyes while describing the wonders of Portland’s finest vegetarian and vegan establishments he was able to experience. Like a beautiful photograph, one in which lighting, angle, and subject all come together, so too can one encapsulate beauty in 7 words. Since that moment, I have fully given my heart to this delicious, inexpensive, super food. By the time your eyes alight on the period at the end of this sentence, I hope those seven words will have left an impression where only your strongest convictions lie.

Kale Like a Mofo, a Vegan Dish 

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Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 35-40 minutes

Ingredients

  • Kale
  • Large, raw carrots
  • Zucchini
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Basil
  • Couscous

Directions

  1. Bring 2.5 cups of water, 1/4 t salt, and a little bit of olive oil to a boil and add 1 cup of couscous. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover with lid, letting cook until all the water is absorbed (30-35 minutes).
  2. Rinse, and remove kale leaves from stem. Steam until cooked. Volume of kale will reduce to roughly 1/2 its original size from steaming. The ratio of kale and sauteed vegetables to couscous will be 1:1.
  3. Saute 1/2 cup of diced onions, sliced carrots and zucchini, and 1 clove of minced garlic in olive oil on medium heat until carrot slices are cooked (roughly 20 min). If oil begins to burn before the vegetables are fully cooked, add a little bit of water to pan or more olive oil.
  4. While vegetables are cooking, season with salt, pepper, and basil to taste.
  5. Plate a helping of couscous and cover with sauteed vegetables and top with kale. Add salt and pepper to kale if desired. Soy sauce is also good.

As you can see, the recipe is quite simple, involving only steamed kale, sauteed vegetables, couscous and a bit of seasoning. Its flexibility will allow you to use whatever vegetables you may have on hand. Experiment with other forms of seasoning as you like (curry powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, garlic seasoning, etc.).

Kale Like a Mofo Burritos

Only have 40 minutes to eat? Wrap it up in a tortilla shell!

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For Dad, Oatmeal

Of the 166 Things that I possess, one of them is a stainless steel pot in which I cook oatmeal, and although I sit here, writing to you as a proficient maker of oatmeal, I too had a beginning.

It all began with my father who, when my mother was unavailable to prepare food for my sister and I, would do his best to produce edible things for us. Of the many things that he set before us, I distinctly remember a bowl of oatmeal he had made. Somehow, he had managed to burn the milk and under cook the oats. Go figure. And as I was cutting through the burnt matter, he slowly put down his fork and knife, removed his glasses, and told me, “Son, I would love to see you become a doctor, a nuclear physicist, or a college professor. But, if I had one wish for you, I would wish for you to, some day, be able to make great oatmeal, hone your writing skills and start a blog, and then show the world what you have learned.”

This one is for you, Dad.

For Dad, Oatmeal

Ingredients:

  • Thick, rolled oats
  • Milk (I use soy milk, being lactose intolerant)
  • Salt
  • 1/8 tsp. cinnamon
  • Brown sugar/honey
  • 1 medium-sized banana
  • optional: ground flax seed, crushed walnut, yogurt, peanut butter

Utensils:

  • 1 pot
  • Rubber spatula/wooden spoon
  • 1/3 C measuring cup
  • Liquid measuring cup

Directions:

  • Add 1/3 C of oats, 3/4 C of milk, and a dash of salt to pot
  • Set stove temperature to just below medium heat
  • Cook oats, stirring occasionally (to prevent milk from burning), until milk begins to thicken to desired consistency (roughly 10 min.)
  • Add cinammon
  • Remove from heat and add in cut up banana, brown sugar/honey to taste, and 1/2 T ground flax (opt.)
  • Enjoy!

My 166 Things

I did it. I counted everything that I own down to the last screwdriver in the tool kit that my dad gave me to the inhaler resting idly in my closet that I never use, but keep for the possibility that my asthma will come back and I find myself gasping for air on the carpet.

Why would anyone count all of their items, though?

The idea of minimalism has caught my attention. In a nutshell, minimalism can be defined as a simpler way of living through one’s detachment  from their possessions as well as the excess in life, thus freeing up more time, energy, and resources to concentrate on what one would consider the most essential to their health, happiness, and overall well-being. When referring to excess, The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, propose a re-prioritization, a reorientation of our values.

This idea of simplification is seen in the five areas of life identified as needing our most attention–health, relationships, passions, growth, and contributions. Focusing on the chapter on relationships, for example, they are organized into three tiers: primary, secondary, and periphery. The primary tier consists of our most intimate relationships (life partners, immediate family, and our closest friends), the second tier–still close relationships, but those that “should only receive your time and attention once your commitment to your primary relationships is filled” (60). Finally, your periphery relationships include those whom “you care about, people you wish great things for, but they are also those who consume the majority of your precious commodity–your time” (58).

Perhaps I have not set up a convincing argument yet for adopting a lifestyle of minimalism, but in support of Millburn and Nicodemus’ advice on relationships, think about the people in your life whom you always tell yourself you should be spending more time with, whom you find yourself wishing you could make a bigger part of your life. The idea of organizing our relationships into categories is not to place labels on friends, acquaintances, family members, and lovers, but merely to examine and identify which people in our lives deserve more of our attention. Perhaps there are negative relationships in your periphery preventing you from building a stronger relationship with someone whose time you really value.

Minimalism, from what I have come to understand, is concerned with the idea of living intentionally–intentionally dedicating more time to the pursuit of a personal interest, more time to the relationships in our life that matter most, and less time on the superfluous and restricting things in our lives, such as our possessions.

Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet (1971), one of the first and most prominent books to examine the American Diet and its effect on the environment, wrote: “Freedom is ‘elbow room’: our capacity for self-defense, our success in fending off the intrusion of others. And what better defense than material accumulation? After all, the more we have, the freer we are from dependence upon others” (xxi). In these lines, Lappé refers to our “atomistic nature . . . [a] moral universe ruled by the laws of interest” (xxi). One could say that our obsession with our possessions is irrationally-bound to our concept of freedom, and that by losing our material possessions, our freedom becomes severely restricted. It is this misguided fear, however, and the undeserved attention we give to things, that rob us of our precious time, energy, and resources.

Minimalism aims to shed these restrictions, both the materialistic and non-materialistic. It is, at its core, a reorientation of our values, freeing us to what is truly the most essential to live a meaningful life.

Thus, I have counted my things, thanks to Lina Menard and her 203 Things List. Menard runs the This is the Little Life blog, as well as designs and constructs homes for PAD (Portland Alternative Dwellings), a tiny house building company based out of Portland, OR. Her blog is fantastic by the way, and I highly recommend following the link if you are at all interested in great writing and learning more about the Tiny House Movement.

Here are My 166 Things (google docs as the edges are cut off):

Qty Item Category Description/Details/Accessories/Parts True Qty
1 backpack accessories blue Mountain Hardwear school backpack 1
1 electronics box accessories contents: laptop/phone/iPod/camera battery chargers; cell phone, iPod mini, Canon digital camera and SD card; My Passport back-up drive, headphones 11
1 handkerchief accessories blue handkerchief with paisley design 1
1 hanna’s bowl accessories clay, wood-fired, amber and grey bowl 1
1 hp laptop accessories hp laptop 1
1 lamp accessories lamp 1
1 laptop case accessories grey laptop sleeve 1
1 scarf accessories black H & M scarf from France 1
1 tool bag accessories screwdrivers, pliers, renches, flashlight, measuring tape 17
1 toiletry kit bathing contents: electric razor w/charger, deodorant, aftershave, cologne, hand lotion, nail clipper, tweezer, chapstick, toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, comb, coffee cup, soap, soap dispenser, shampoo, shampoo dispenser 18
3 towel bathing brwn towel, blk. and grey towel, REI orange camping towel 3
1 washcloth bathing REI bl. quick-dry towel 1
1 bicycle bicycle road bike (pannier, rack, lock, helmet, car rack, pump, horns) 8
7 athletic clothing clothing running shorts (5), reg. shorts, socks (7), cold weather wear (craft top & bottom, sugoi top, 3 pairs SmartWool socks), swimming (bottoms, goggles, 2 caps), 5 tops 28
3 boots clothing Dad’s leather pull-ons, winter boots, work boots 3
6 formal dress clothing pants (2), shoes, belt, shirts (2), socks (1), suit and pants 9
3 gloves clothing leather, winter, H & M 3
1 hat clothing cream-colored, knitted winter hat 1
1 heavy flannel clothing blue and white 1
3 jackets clothing LL Bean, Mountain Hardwear, Kirra 3
4 pants clothing cords, jeans, pants 4
1 rain gear clothing rain coat 1
7 shoes clothing LL Bean, Tevas, Salamon, Saucony (2) 7
1 slippers clothing plaid slippers 1
3 sweaters clothing sweaters 3
14 tops clothing t-shirts (6), long sleeve shirts (8) 14
1 undies clothing 1 week’s worth boxers and socks 20
1 pot cooking cuisinart stainless steel 1
2 reusable grocery bags cooking 1 Trader Joe’s bag, 1 chico bag 2
6 tupperware cooking 3 leftover containers, 1 cereal box, 2 ingredient containers 6
1 eating utensils eating 3 bowls, 2 spoons, 2 forks, 2 knives 9
1 travel mug eating travel mug 1
2 water bottle eating Nalgene, biking bottle 1
1 camping box camping contents: 1 bowl w/lid, meal kit, swiss army knife, head lamp, travel pillow 6
1 compression sack camping REI stuff sack 1
1 pack camping 75 liter Gregory Baltoro 1
2 sleeping bags camping Lafuma 40*, Lafuma 50* 2
1 sleeping pad camping Thermarest 1
1 tent camping tent (collapsable poles, stakes, rain flap) 1
22 books entertainment leisure, french (3), reference books (span/fren/eng dictionaries, fren textbook citation manual, french grammar books (2)) 22
1 CD/DVD case entertainment cds and dvds 20
4 craft box entertainment hemp, colored pencils, packaging tape, thumb tacks, 4
3 cross country equipment entertainment skis, poles, boots 3
9 decorations entertainment Tibetan prayer flags, star from Germany, framed picture from UT, Hanna’s painting, cork board, Eiffel Tower photo, Typhoon music poster, Hanna’s letter, Pam’s box 9
3 journals entertainment moleskin, blank, India pocket journal 3
7 letter box entertainment letters, postcards, a cd, keepsakes, etiquettes (3) 7
1 paint box entertainment box, brushes, paints, mixing wheel 4
1 sketch book entertainment sketch book 1
1 book shelf unit organization black book shelf unit 1
1 chair organization computer chair 1
1 clothes hamper organization pink clothes crate 1
1 coffee table organization circular, red table 1
1 couch organization 2-person couch 1
1 desk organization desk 1
2 desk cups organization black and white, Hersbruck cup 2
1 door hanger organization door hanger 1
1 drying rack organization drying rack 1
1 letter sorter organization letter sorter 1
1 plastic bin organization 1 lg. rubbermaid bin (storage) w/lid 1
1 waste basket organization waste basket 1
1 inhaler medical inhaler 1
7 school supplies school folders (4), notebooks (5), 3-ring binders (3), set of pens/pencils, scissors, ruler 7
1 bed sleeping mattress, box spring 2
1 bed sheets sleeping set of twin bed sheets 1
1 blanket sleeping green wool blanket 1
1 pillow sleeping pillow and case 1
166 294

Counting was a bit difficult, I found out. At times, I was not sure whether to group certain items together, or whether to count each separately, such as every pack of dental floss, or each sheet composing my bed set. The number found on the left (166) tends to group those items together as being one thing, and the number on the right (294) is a more exact count, tallying each item individually. Another thing to keep in mind is that my cooking items consist mainly of my one pot because I can afford to only have one pot sharing a kitchen with three other housemates. This list would be much larger if I were living alone, like Lina.

I encourage you to think about what you have, if not take the time to do a little inventory. You’d be surprised at how much of your things go unused, things that could be donated and passed along to someone who could make good use out of them :)

Cheers!

Bibliography

Lappé, Frances Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971. Print.

Millburn, Ryan Fields, and Ryan Nicodemus. minimalism: live a meaningful lifeColumbia: Asymmetrical Press, 2011. Print.

…,” said the college student.

“Plans. They never really go how you envision them to,” or something like that. I cannot put my finger on whatever movie(s) wrap up the moral of their story with these voiced-over lines, but whatever. Regardless of who has said them–the gregarious, affable, and handsome star of a popular medical series or the teenage boy or girl summing up her coming-of-age story after finding truth through her befriending of Mr. Jones, the neglected elderly, blind man at the end of the street that know one ever noticed until he/she came along –[inhale] these lines are important.

Dr. Craft, the President of Concordia College posted an interesting article the other day in our school newspaper about these lines. I don’t have the paper in front of me to quote, but he said something like, “You don’t know what you are going to do, so stop worrying about it.” Two days ago I was sitting strong with the conviction that I would be doing trail work for AmeriCorps this summer in the beautiful forests of California, and of course, for this blog post to be somewhat interesting, I did not get the position.

I was surprised when I received the email:

Thank you [Matthew Barrett], for applying to our Backcountry Program. We are sorry to inform you… It was an extremely tough decision this year due to the volume of applicants…

And you know how the rest goes.

I was so sure that I was going to get offered the position that I have been sitting comfortably for the past month since I handed in my application, casually telling others when they would ask me about graduation plans that I would be going to California for five months of intensive trail construction. That overconfidence is one of the reasons why I am sort of happy that I was not selected; it was pretty humbling, and as my wise roommate Kristi reiterated from a professor of hers, “We need to recognize our failures just as much as our successes.”

There is a better fit out there, I’m sure. When I was 16 I watched The Guardian and attached myself to the idea of being in the Coast Guard, and when I applied to their summer interest program, I was denied. I was so disheartened, so shocked in fact that I had been denied something for the first time in my life that I gave up on the idea and did not bother applying to the Coast Guard Academy the following year when looking at schools. Perhaps the idea should not have been dropped so easily, or perhaps it was so easy to let go of because there was no strong, sincere desire to be a part of their program. Regardless, I am thankful that after four blurring, disconcerting years, I have wound up here, in Moorhead, MN.

And I guess I am thankful to be given the opportunity to look for something new. Additionally, now I can graduate and walk with my classmates as scheduled, jump into Prexy’s Pond the night of graduation and catch an unidentified skin rash, and find something else to do after graduation. Maybe I can find work at a whole foods co-op? Perhaps I will see firsthand the wonders of Portland’s bike ways, farmers markets, selection of vegan and vegetarian restaurants. If nothing else, I’ll run away and join the circus.

“Plans. They never really go how you envision them to,” said the slightly disillusioned, yet undeterred college senior 2 months from graduation, owner of a blog that he hopes some day might miraculously land him a job.

Our Beautiful Earth.

–A lot of gems on vimeo.com. If you have a few minutes, give this video a watch. The music is catchy, and the illustrations are comical, and profoundly disheartening.

Yesterday was the Occupy Lorentzen event that has been in-motion for the past three months. A video, created and edited by Steph Barnhart ’13, and a petition to “adhere to the college’s vision of sustainability” created by Empowered Students has been circulating throughout the Concordia College campus. The petition received 319 signatures from students and faculty, as well as, Bill McKibben–founder of 350.org, an environmental organization aimed at reducing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. The fact that this petition for a more sustainable Concordia found him is pretty incredible.

The demands outlined in this position are as followed:

1) Decrease carbon emissions by 30% over the next 10 years

2) Make energy use transparent to the campus community

3) Do feasible sustainability projects now (turn off lights, reduce heat, replace windows)

4) Include sustainability in the Offutt School of Business curriculum

Many students showed up in the student center to march over to Lorentzen, the administration building. All dressed in green and carrying handmade signs with slogans such as, “For Us To Gain We Must Sustain,” and “Integrate Sustainability Into The Offutt School of Business,” to “Sustainability Here Is A Broken Promise,” we made our way over to Lorentzen, filling the interior of the building with the sounds of our chants. Finally, various students who are part of the Empowered Students group outlined to our school’s President, Bill Craft, the four demands of the petition.

It felt really empowering to be a part of the movement. In the past three years that I have been a part of the Concordia community, I cannot recall another time that I have witnessed any other protest on campus, and I am proud to have been a part of it. It is encouraging to see how many of the Concordia community care. I hope that President Craft responds appropriately to our desires for the campus’ sustainability efforts. As Steph’s video outlines, “we must change our behavior if we want to stand out as a progressive, sustainable campus.”

 

Story of an Egg–a catalyst for thoughtfulness in our purchases and overall mindfulness in how we live our lives

Notes

This PBS 6 minute, short film sheds light on the truth behind terms such as “cage free” and “free range” for describing the conditions under which eggs are produced. Corporations have hijacked these terms, misleading consumers into believing that the chickens are being treated ethically.

“Cage free simply means, not raised in a cage. It doesn’t say anything about the environment they are in; it just says something about the environment they are now not in.”–David Evans, Marin Sun Farm

“Cage free” became “free range” and has now become “pasture raised”. Farmers are continually redefining and coming up with new terms “for understanding and transparency so that customers can better support the type of food production models that they want to, and that comes with the information.”–David Evans, Marin Sun Farm

“We’re small farmers in a new world where we don’t just farm, but we’re also educators and we’re also learning to be marketers so that we can hold onto the authenticity of words, and take it back from the big corporations.”–Alexis Koefed, Soul Food Farm

Reaction

My roommates and I buy cage free eggs from Hornbachers grocery store in Moorhead, MN. There is a brand that we usually buy called Baer Family Farm, and sometimes we splurge on the more expensive, organic brand–Natural Harvest. The “Cage Free,” label and the affordability of Baer Family Farm eggs is why I have always bought them, but stumbling upon PBS’s video was surprising in that I never thought of “Cage Free” as being a misguided marketing tool. I assumed that, much like the speaker in the video, Alexis Koefed, that the term automatically implied that the chickens were being treated ethically. As the video points out, animals can still be subject to awful living conditions without being put in a cage. “Range Free” is not seen very often on the shelves of Moorhead’s grocery stores, and like “Cage Free,” I had tucked the term “Range Free” as being automatic grounds for an ethical purchase. Offering 5,000 chickens a small door in which to access an outside yard perhaps 1/20 the size of their indoor holding space hardly qualifies as being given the option of going outside, however.

It has made me think twice about my purchases. You might be thinking to yourself that, as many critics of the Slow Food Movement and buying organically point out, it is a movement of the affluent. This is not true. I believe in eating well and buying in such a way that will do the most good for the planet, and doing so is possible because I have placed the purchase of organic, local, and fresh foods high up on my priority list. And why wouldn’t you? Putting the environmental and the benefits for your local community aside, it is an investment in your health and living a life of quality, not just quality food, but a mentality directed towards quality. When you invest yourself in your purchases, in the research, the planning, the budgeting, and the preparation and consumption, one can derive so much more satisfaction from food than passively and mindlessly going through the drive-thru or throwing something pre-made into the microwave. By investing yourself in the things that you are doing, you come to appreciate them in new ways. This idea of quality is not just limited to our treatment of food. It can be applied to everything in life from our relationships to our education to motorcycle maintenance (just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, a powerful introduction to philosophy as well as the idea of quality).

Invest yourself in what you are eating, and inform yourself of what it means for a product to be natural, organic, free-range, pasture raised, etc by familiarizing yourself with the discourse of sustainable practices.

Change: A video outlining the sustainability demands of student activists at Concordia College

This video was created to accompany a petition written by Concordia College students who are concerned with the pace at which their campus is making changes towards a more sustainable community. They have outlined four goals and call their administration to action.–Steph Barnhart ’13

Dee Williams and the Tiny House Movement

Another video by PBS with commentary:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/culture/living-large-a-look-inside-the-tiny-house-movement/2522/

An article by Yes! Magazine:

http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/sustainable-happiness/living-large-in-a-tiny-house

 

An Encounter with One of the Enlightened, Maybe…

Working to strengthen my online presence the other day (say that in your best affluent, Southern, 19th century accent), I was flipping through others’ profiles to see how it is that they were displaying themselves–the length of their descriptions under their Experiences section, the vocabulary that they were using to communicate such-and-such position, what awards they thought were worth listing, etc.

Wow! National Merit Scholar, recipient of X award and Y award. “Geez!” I thought to myself, comparing my nonexistent awards section to theirs. “And business proficient in three languages and at an intermediate level in two others.” Upon reading these things, I became a bit discouraged. What do I have to offer that employers are looking for?

Over break, I was at a whole foods store with multiple locations around the Twin Cities area–Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN. I was coming back from Northfield, and decided to stop in to look for toothpaste and some hand lotion (I had just finished up the little expensive tube that I had purchased in Paris at the tail end of my semester abroad, and MN winters can be pretty harsh). When I got to the checkout counters, a woman one over from the line I was standing in enthusiastically told me that she was free to help me. She vacated the area behind the counter to come greet me and personally take my items before I had even gotten to her station.

She greeted me with one of the warmest smiles that I have ever received from a stranger and saw that I was buying Trader Joe’s lotion. She started telling me about how much she loved it, and that I should try some from the sample bottle that was conveniently placed at her station. Sleep-deprived, having driven for the past hour, I was slow to process a lot of what she was saying. Despite this, I could not stop smiling, and tried the lotion, not because I wanted to, but because her happiness was so contagious, and I just had to because of how much she seemed to love it.

“Have a great day!” she said, and I started walking back to my car.

“What just happened?” I thought to myself.

I left feeling so good from that interaction that my brain was not comprehending whether or not it really did happen.

I am not sure if you are able to picture this exchange yourself, but what I was thinking to myself walking back to my car was that I had just met one of the enlightened ones whom we are studying in our Buddhist readings for my religion course. She, without a doubt, has discovered all the secrets to life and is basking in the pure joy of this knowledge. My second thought was to go back and ask for a job application.

The point of this anecdote is that accomplishments and success are such ambiguous terms, but happiness–although no one can define it, but everyone can recognize it–is not.

I am not sure whether the worker at Trader Joe’s who convinced me to put on hand lotion was a part-time worker, a full-time worker, or truly one of the enlightened, but she was definitely happy. Yes, establishing an online presence can be a useful tool to connect career-seekers with employers, but it is not the most important thing in the world, and neither is being the recipient of award X and award Y.

By the way, Trader Joe’s does have really good hand lotion.

 

Skills to Pay the Bills

I have readers in Germany. Go figure? Thank you for continuing to read this blog, even though it has been neglected. This post is dedicated to you.

It has been nearly a month, I believe, since I last posted–not good. I remember when I had first come back from France, I had written an entry about the obligation that we owe to our own health and happiness to find time to go for walks, cook, explore something that we are curious about, and I have not been following my own advice!

I had also stated that “Can you repeat that please,” would become a different sort of travel blog that would highlight the beauties of living in Fargo, which, contrary to many beliefs, does have a lot to offer, perhaps not much more than pain when winter is at its worst, but yes. It is worth visiting, and perhaps even inhabiting for some time. I have not regretted my experience here.

Post grad plans. Post grad plans. Post grad plans. Repeat that back to yourself with different voices in different ways. I find that it diminishes the seriousness of these words. I do not know about you, reader from Germany, or anyone else who has stumbled upon this blog, but less serious is what I need at the moment.

Listening to MPR–Minnesota Public Radio–on my drive back from the cities, there was an interesting segment on finding jobs. Apparently companies are using programs that review electronic applications, and if your application is not worded properly, then it is discarded from the pile. For example, if you use the word “accountant” instead of “CP accountant,” you might run the risk of being overlooked. A woman from Fargo voiced that her husband, who has applied for over 100 jobs, and has received 1 interview, or something obnoxious like that, has not been able to find work. Scary, right?

Their advice was to hit the pavement and hand your resume to someone in-person, but even then, the counter argument is that it is often very difficult to even hand your resume to a physical person anymore. Others suggested vamping up and utilizing LinkedIn and other online sources to their full extent, attending networking conferences, and even talking to your local priest who interacts with everyone in the community, and those people might know people, who might know someone who could give you a job. What about those who read your blog? Can I consider you part of a community who could connect with an employer?

“Wow,” I thought to myself. I have been working minimum-wage jobs since I was fifteen, and the process has always been pretty straightforward. Go to the establishment, ask for an application (which has usually been in the form of hard copy up until a year ago), fill out the application and return it, and then give the establishment a call back after a week if nothing has happened. Interviews are no more than a few questions, and a suit was never required. Good thing too because suits are uncomfortable.

How does one apply for a job-job? That is my question? And interview skills? “Skills” in general? What an abstract word. When I went to the career center at my school, they gave me a packet containing buzz words that would catch employers’ eyes. “Foster, cultivate, encourage, develop…” I have disregarded all of it up until now because it all seemed so silly to me.

I can just imagine myself going to an interview and utilizing the packet I had been given from the career center.

“Yes, I have many skills–organizational skills, um… social skills? Writing skills, people skills, reading skills, analyzing skills, eating skills, ranching skills, Frenching skills…”

This all may seem a bit cynical, but I don’t mean to be. The career center has helped me out a lot with writing resumes and cover letters. I have not gone in for more information regarding interview technique/strategy, but I expect to tap into that resource pretty soon here. The point that I am trying to make is that part of me feels as if finding a job, and representing oneself well is sort of this weird, strategic game of representation using the “right” words–catchy words–that do not do an adequate job of describing who I am as a human being.

Maybe all interviews are not like that. Maybe the job market is not like that. I don’t know. You tell me though. I would really like your feedback, if you are reading this. What do you think of the current job market? Is it as hard to get a job and make a living as people say? For a college graduate with a degree in English living in the Midwest? And if you want to comment on any aspect of the job market, navigating your own post-graduate experience, etc. that would be very much appreciated.

Matt