August 2008


It takes over an hour to cross Moscow by car, and a bus of American students sit quietly in traffic.  They come from the airport and they had trouble with customs and they are very tired.  It is almost silent.  Outside, the long, red wall of the Kremlin abuts the river.  The students find it very beautiful, or are dissapointed, or are asleep.  On the street a woman, tall and Russian, hails a taxi.  Next to her an old lady, with a scarf over her hair, is waiting to cross.  There are many cars; somtimes the bus does not move for a long time, but the students simply wait and watch.  Eventually they reach the dormotory.

Later, upstairs three of them lie on their beds.  The room is very small: there is only space for two parallel beds and a third at their foot.  The Americans lie flat, with their limbs spread out and hanging over the side.  The window is open, and from the street there is the sound of metal and spitting and slavic words.

Inside the room though, it is very silent, and this quietude is mysterious for these Americans who have only just met and who have talked all their lives.  They are very careful to be quiet when they move.

Some black birds fly by, and one student understands what was said on the street, and the room is filled with joy and wonder.  A great splash of hope rises form the belly and is spewed in magnificient, radiant sploches of neon rainbow all about the drab and soviet walls.

Land of the dark forest! Land of Empire, of the great flat steppe, of their black horsemen, nomads with daggers, of tundra and, in the far east, volcanoes.  Land of literature and vodka, of Blok and Pasternak, of Tolstoi andDostoevski; of romance, of Aleksandr Sergeivitch Pushkin.  Mysterious, hopeless land of gulag and orthodoxy and spiritual exstasy.  I come to you , my love, moya lyubov!  I burrow into you, to understand you, to know you, and deep in the cold of your Siberian winter to find myself in loneliness and poverty.  The room beats victorious Russian verse the student learned by heart.

Next door, a light turns off and a Russian curses, and the second American, who lies beside the first, moans silently in agony.  What blight of all that is beautiful and intelligent and cultural has reached this sad land? The drab and Soviet walls are silent.  What promise and hope was there?  God is mighty and terrible.  Who is to blame, What is to be done? Was it vodka?  Curse the vodka, slayer of hopes, curse the empty words, the ruined, decaying infrastructure, the polluted lakes.  Curse the new russians and their money.  Why have I come to you, desperate land? Why have I entered a sacred covenant with you: to learn you, to understand your words, you who hold nothing sacred? And years of my life! Gone, to be wasted away in this provincialism, bored and comical as a Chekhov character.  The student moans again, but the walls do not answer.

And the third American sits very still, and hears nothing and sees nothing, and is only filled with an empty, endless sorrow and knows that nowadays you can travel anywhere you like.

Thursday night, I took a trip halfway around the world to Scotland. In a wonderful and over-the-top event known as the Bannockburn community awards dinner, I and about 100 of my college-mates were transported to a world of kilts, haggis and Scottish tunes sung in a slightly-drunken euphoria.

Let me rewind: a week ago, signs went up around my residential college for a free dinner known as the Bannockburn. I thought nothing of it at the time because I knew I wasn’t getting any awards, I didn’t know anyone that was getting awards and I didn’t need to sit through a *boring* long dinner. After talking to friends throughout the week it became apparent that heaps of people go to this dinner and I ought to attend, so I logged onto Emmnet and signed up for my free dinner.

Let the festivities begin: we arrived at 6:30pm. Cocktail dresses and suits were the fashion, though a few boys were sporting traditional kilts. Aussie boys in kilts do look quite dashing, I must admit. Dinner began with haggis, a sausage-like treat filled with brains, entrails and other various parts of meat that most people would never choose to eat. Apparently in Scotland of yore, the haggis was created to use up all of the lesser parts of a pig so none was wasted. Best of all, an entire chant, performed in old English speech, was performed to the crowd to “introduce” the haggis. Despite my queasiness, after all the hype, I did manage to try some. It tasted much like liver pate, and much like liver pate, I didn’t really like it. One bite was enough for me, but I had to give it a go.

After the haggis, the food steadily improved. Roast beef and veggies were followed by a cake with bananas and cream. Awards were handed out to many of the college students (turns out I knew awards recipients after all!!) and we finished off the evening singing 3 Scottish songs, including Auld Lang Syne, which ended in everyone holding hands and swinging arms. Once we began singing and everyone readily joined in, singing as loud as possible, it was no wonder the dinner had included free wine. 

After that, in a slightly less Scottish fashion, the students, after the adults had left, sang a lovely song together while encircling the dining hall with our arms around one another’s shoulders… I can’t even pronounce the name, but us Americans were a little confused at first. It was like a mix of “Singing in the Rain” and a chant. Good times had by all.

I had no idea that in my trip down under, I’d also be getting a trip to the Scottish highlands. And for the record, my apologies for having not posted in over two weeks. I don’t know if it’s because I’m upside-down on the bottom of the planet, but somehow time goes by really quickly here. I just can’t explain it. Cheers!

Elijah disclosed to us the secret of why Inuit eat raw seal meat.  Apparently it digests slower … your stomach essentially has to cook it before it can break it down.  Tasty!

I have, not surprisingly, been neglecting my blogging duties.  In a week, I leave for Woods Hole, where I’ll be taking classes on oceanography and maritime history and celestial navigation, and SCUBA diving my tail off. (Or my tail on? I strive for mermaidhood.) From there, it’s off to the Pacific Ocean, to bob peacefully up and down on a ship for a few weeks.

For now, here is a snippet on one of my favorite memories from the Arctic:  the toilet.

The toilet on Axel Heiberg Island is a rusting old fuel barrel with a plastic seat stuck on top, giving new, literal meaning to the phrase “sitting on the can.” You think your toilet seat at home is chilly sometimes? Try sitting on a metal cask in the Arctic.

Yet the view from this toilet made it all worthwhile. The chance to sit and stare at glaciers and mountains was my number one motivation for staying well-hydrated during my stay on Axel Heiberg Island.

Rob shared my sentiments, and made a short video on the subject. Watch it:

In December there will be a long sleep
to wash away these dreams.
I’ve spent three months half-awake, far from home, and lost in thought.
Four days ago I was conscious,
Hurtling down familiar roads in the dead of night with an even rhythm –
smoke in my eyes, a teenage riot on the radio, and thumbing the steering wheel
like a rosary.

But then I parked, and I waited, and you came.
In December there will be a long sleep,
to quell this anemia
and draw a deeper breath,
and wake up
and be home.

A week ago, I arrived back in Durham haggard after 30 hours of travel, unshaven and exhausted. My luggage was lost and my eyes were nearly closed. I’ve had this week in Durham, in that place that I have for months been referring to vaguely as “my city.” This has been the longest week of my life – there have been hours that have seemed like months, in the best possible sense, and between them I feel like I have been in perpetual motion, barely stopping to sleep. In about half an hour I’ll get in the car and drive back to the airport. RDU – Newark – Madrid. I’ll be in Madrid for the next four months. And in December I’ll be home.

I’m extremely serious about becoming as fluent in Spanish as possible and to become as Ecuadorian as I can during the next four months. In terms of accomplishing these goals, my attitude and actions of the past week have not cut it. I’ve spent too much time speaking English to fellow exchange students and too much time connected to email and English websites (damn you, Facebook). I know how much better my Spanish became after two months in Guatemala, but know how much better it would have been had I not spent the majority of each day speaking to American DukeEngage partners about projects in our mother tongue. I’m proficient in Spanish, but I need to start thinking in Español, dreaming in it. Most importantly, I need to shun English and embrace every opportunity to connect with this country and its people.

So I’ve set some concrete rules for myself, aimed to wring the most out of this whole abroad “experience”, with the highest priorities being cultural and lingual immersion. Because let’s face it, far too many American students study abroad and come back with nothing more than stories about crazy parties with other Americans. Many lose out on an incredible amount by remaining within their comfort zones, electing to hang out with a closed group of countrymen who speak the same language. I’ve felt myself come perilously close to falling down this slippery slope since I got here. It’s so much easier to not try, to assume that no Ecuadorian would want to spend time with someone who’s Spanish falters with every other thought. But what a damn shame – with that kind of thinking, I don’t deserve to be here, and I should just book a ticket back to Duke.

Here’s to forgetting English and leaning into discomfort: my personal list of rules for successful immersion in everything Ecuador, to start tomorrow. Any other thoughts on how best to attempt this would be greatly appreciated.

  • I will speak English one day a week, for as little time as possible: Monday-Saturday, everything will be done in Spanish, including cursing, texting and dreaming. This means attempting the awkward and unthinkable: speaking to other Americans in English. This also means holding out on all telephone calls, emails, G-chats, facebooking and blog posts until Sunday. Sorry Mom.
  • I will to try to make sure that at least one Ecuadorian is present at every social event I attend, or at the very least aim every social event begun with only Americans at meeting more Ecuadorians.
  • For the next four months, I will not eat at an American fast-food chain. Thursday night was bad.
  • I will watch only Spanish-language TV, news, and movies, and will read only Spanish literature.
  • I will take every possible moment to get to know locals, including during taxi and bus rides, dog-walks, and the moments during and after class.
  • I will have a notebook with me at all times in order to jot down new words and phrases, and will look them over before going to sleep.
  • I will try not to stress about work, and if excess studying is extremely necessary, it will be done with an Ecuadorian classmate.
  • I will join 1-3 clubs at the university, will regularly attend them, and will learn to Salsa and use it to my advantage.

Just two more weeks and then it will finally be my turn.

Two weeks from today will be my first day as a student in Paris. Well, “student” may be a bit too optimistic of a term considering that, for at least the first few days, I won’t be studying much of anything except a map in furious hope that I don’t get too terribly lost.

“But why would you be nervous?” My friends ask. “You’ve been to Paris before.”

Yes, that’s true. My first visit to Paris was at age 11, when my appreciation for the culture of the place was about what you would expect. My fondest memories are of eating ice cream and of running rampant in the backyard of a chateau with the other fifth graders.

My second trip to Paris was at age 17, when I began to better appreciate just what was so special about the city. But even then I was just a visitor passing through: sleeping in a hotel, hitting the tourist hot-spots, not particularly aware of how it would have felt to actually live there.

This time it’s going to be different. Paris is going to be my home for almost four months, a thought which both excites and terrifies me.

What if, after 21 years of living in the American South, I’m not suited for Parisian life? What if my French really sucks and my host family thinks I’m stupid?

I’ve got two more weeks until I fly across the Atlantic and find out.

Until then, I’ll be sitting at home, waiting for Paris.

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