Thursday, 25 February 2010

9 more reasons to love New Zealand, not that I needed any more

Last weekend we got our road trip on again – this time it was a three day mini-tour of the North Island.

There were glow worm caves (!), surfing escapades, vats of iced coffee and a day at a geo-thermal spa in Rotorua that so infused us with healing sulphuric properties that we are struggling to stop reeking of eggs five days on.

I have to admit that I love New Zealand. And I don't just love places willy nilly.

So what's so great about New Zealand? Here's a short countdown.

  • NZ reminds me of a Seattle meets Hawaii (Sea'waii - talk about a power couple) with it's green, hilly, rugged, coffee culture vibe and it's surprisingly tropical beachiness.
  • The food and service culture here is top notch. Last week I was in a cafe for three hours working away and, instead of glaring at me for overstaying my welcome, the manager popped out with a free latte. This is service. 

  • Beetroot! Beetroot is a great all-rounder condiment and the Kiwi's have nailed this, they put it on everything. I just can't get enough of the beetroot.
  • Space and the land:people ratio. I never realized how much I love wide open spaces until I moved to urban Britain. Even NZ's largest city Auckland is brimming with space.
  • Nothing phases Kiwis. Everything is going to be OK.

  • The country is so small that their media can get away with a lot. During the official Olympic coverage the anchor man started making fun of a Canadian curling player. They were pretty much mocking the games the whole time actually.
  • The pioneer spirit. I've heard lots of British people say that if they moved to NZ or Australia or the US or Canada they would miss the history, which is fair enough, because England's got some serious history going on. But I have now come to the conclusion that I feel the opposite. Even though I respect tradition and find history interesting (sometimes, let's be honest), on the tradition and pioneering spectrum, I definitely swing to the latter. I love being somewhere that feels new and innovative and being surround by the people who left the old world, because I'm a leaver too.
  • No expectations. I had never really given NZ much thought before we came here, so never built up unrealistic expectations.  So all of the above is a pleasant surprise.
Have you noticed how none of my answers revolved around Lord of the Rings?

Probably the biggest reason I love NZ is that we're in a season of rest. It's one of those seasons where everything is just going very well for some reason. I'm not working but doing what I love all day: writing. Things just feel easy and beautiful right now.

I've said this before, how important it is to remember that seasons like this do come. After seasons of roadblocks and endurance training, I'm so thankful that this Kiwi season is doing wonders to renew hope in me and just let me chill out.

Anyway, don't worry, I'm not moving here and we do have a flight booked back to the US in June. (We didn't work that hard to get a US green card for nothing!). I'll just have to enjoy every day of these last 14 weeks here until I can start to fall in love with Seattle all over again.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Piles of books

The accusation that I am a girl who likes piles I will happily accept. I do like piles and especially piles of books.

Here's what is currently in my book pile (bottoms up):

  • Lonely Planet's The USA Book - This lonely planet series is amazing. In England we had three other books in this series: The Travel Book, The Asia Book and The Cities Book. They are perfect coffee table books for dreaming of the next place and, since for us it's America, we snatched this one from the library last week.
  • Vogue Australia - Also from the library, the Aussie Vogue gives the UK and US versions a run for their money. I love how pro-Australia it is and it's getting me in the mood for our upcoming Sydney raid. 
  • The Poisonwood Bible -  This has been on my to-read list for so long so I finally checked it out. I'm still debating whether now is the time to read it though. Any thoughts?
  • Writing Down the Bones - I love this book almost as much as The Artist's Way, which says a lot. It's the perfect resource to dip in and out of when you need to charge through writer's block.
  • Among Flowers by Jamaica Kincaid - Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, tipped me on to this author who, apparently, will revolutionize the way I view non-fiction. Already I'm a bit of a non-fiction fiend so it's I'm expecting to be blown away.
  • Vagabonding -  My friend Jess gave me this book the week before we left London and it's the perfect read if you want to do some long-term traveling, not that I need it (the kick in the pants that is). It's in the Four Hour Work Week vein which is fine with me.
  • Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell - I scooped this beauty up at the second hand bookstore when I first got to Auckland.  I also recommend the book whose name it inspired, Inside the Whale. I heard the author speak at a literature festival in London and was impressed. Plus, she's my age so it inspires me.
  • Bird by Bird - I'm re-reading Anne Lamott's guide to writing and life and it's still great.
  • Fodor's China - Because China's really moving up in the world...
  • Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner - I'm re-reading this one too. It's a memoir of an Orthodox Jew who converts to Christianity but misses some of the traditions of Judaism. It's probably one of the best books I read in 2009.
  • May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald - I checked this out because the library didn't have The Great Gatsby. Not sure if I'll read it. I liked the pink colored cover though.
That really is a pile! What's in your (literal or figurative) reading pile at the moment? Any hot recommendations welcome.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Plan Q: Living with parents at 29

Never in a million years, when I was 18 and moving out of the house for college, would I have imagined that at 29 I would be living with parents. In-laws actually. In New Zealand no less.

Even last June when Dan and I turned the ignition on the green card process, moving in with his parents was nowhere on the radar. Our plan A was to scoop up that sweet little green card by September, sort out some jobs and be in Los Angeles by Thanksgiving. Job done.

Plan A morphed into plan B morphed into plan C. We knew we wanted to be out of England by Christmas (please God, not another winter!), but it was hard to make solid plans around a green card that was taking much longer to manifest than anticipated.

One day in October Dan's mum threw out the idea that we spend a few weeks with them in NZ before heading to the States. Dan said no, we really need to get to Los Angeles as soon as possible. We had to be responsible. The next evening though, riding a bus home in the dark, realizing we were desperate for a holiday, we thought that NZ wasn't such a bad idea. Actually, it was just what we needed.

A few weeks turned into six months and here we are. This temporary stint in Auckland is what I like to call plan Q, because it's so far from where we originally thought we'd be when we started our England exit strategy.

Just because plan Q isn't what we had in mind originally doesn't mean it's not exactly where we need to be. It was just too hard to comprehend back then.

Plan Q is ideal because we're able to spend a lot of time with Dan's parents. As nomads we have to batch our family time – Dan hadn't seen his parents for three years. Living rent-free is also not bad. It's even given me the time I need to write the book that's been in the back of my mind for a year.

I like that I'm comfortable with plan Q in general. At 18 I wouldn't have been. I would've needed control and to have my plan A work. But now, with this process that has taken my plans and thrown them to the other side of the earth, I can just laugh. As a person of faith, I feel like I can honestly say, OK God, whatever, I give up long as I have Dan by my side, a roof over my head and a coffee in reach, I'm fine.

Even plan Q is evolving. The last few months in NZ have made us realize that maybe LA isn't the best next step for us. So we're headed to Seattle in June to live with my parents (thanks mom and dad!) until we get sorted and plan X, Y, or Z takes shape.

I know that life not going to plan doesn't always look as lavish as a rent-free summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Sometimes it's much, much harder. (Cue moving to England.) But by now, after so long on this faith journey, I know that something will work out. It has to. It always does, even if it's a plan Q.

(By the way, see that volcano in the photo. I climbed that today.)

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Taking the good with the bad: 4 countries in 8 years

In June, when Dan and I move back to America, I will have been 'abroad' for eight years. How did this happen?! I only planned to move to Japan for a year to teach English, but foreign countries have this way of luring me in and redirecting my course.

There was Japan for two years (where I met my husband), vagabonding another year (ie living out of a suitcase in various locations planning my wedding), England four  (with the man I married) and now New Zealand six months (with said husband's parents). The vagabonding year did include six fantastic months back in Seattle, but I was sleeping on a blow-up mattress in my parents' living room, so I was hardly settled in America.

 The wedding

Since that day we started Dan's green card process from London last summer, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the move back home. I've become so used to being a foreigner that the thought of living somewhere that I'll be a native daughter sounds amazing, but also strange. I've become used to being asked where I'm from, having an accent and always feeling, ever so slightly, out of my comfort zone.

On the whole I cannot wait to go home – I think I made that clear to everyone I came into contact with my last few months in England. But I also recognize that there's something amazing about being a foreigner in a foreign land that I will miss. To fully process this – and I like processing – I started a list of the good and not-so-good points of living overseas.

Here it is...

Ridin' the tube in London

The not-so-good news first...
  • It's hard to be away from the amazing people in my life who live in the States. Especially when they start having cute little babies I can't be there to cuddle with. I hate how hard it is to be in touch by phone because of a difficult time difference; calling twice a year and facebook updates just isn't enough.
  • It's humbling to be foreign and have different instincts to everyone around me. This was a particular challenge in England where we speak the same language, but sometimes just have completely different mindsets and understandings of what is 'normal'. It's hard when what you've learned is right your whole life is challenged, such as the American philosophy that it's good to be bold, confident, direct and friendly with people you don't know. This is what I had learned anyway, so eight years in subtle, self-deprecating and private cultures was a steep learning curve.
  • It's exciting to move to a new city effectively every two years, but it also prevents you from ever letting your roots grow deep. I make friends easily and that's fun, but sometimes I miss spending time with friends who have stories from ten years ago or who even know my maiden name.
  • And of course, anti-Americanism, the final frontier of politically correct snobbery. This is so, so tiring yet is the plight of any American who chooses to live overseas. If I hear one more snide comment about how awful the US is and how amazing Canada is in the same breath...God give me grace. (I like Canada by the way, it's the American stereotypes that I don't.)

 A cheeky pint at The Fighting Cocks

And the good news is...

  • I believe in stretching and challenging myself, even when it's uncomfortable. I like the risk involved with plopping myself (with my husband) into a completely new place and thinking, now what. It's an adventure.
  • I'm naturally curious and different cultures fascinate me. I've always been obsessed with how other people live and I like people watching to figure it out. Japan and England have taught me so much about learning to be quiet, calm and patient. And of course to chop wood...

Wood chopping at the North Umbria monastery - who would've thought?

  • Overseas I've met some amazing new friends I would never had the chance to otherwise. My husband being the prime example.
  • Sometimes its nice to be an outsider, to have an excuse for not knowing what's going on and for asking questions. I've asked lots of questions.
  • I appreciate my country more than ever now. To be honest, when I left at age 22 for Japan I thought America was pretty boring. As I return, just shy of 30, I see that it's a fantastic place to live. I know all it's flaw (they've been pointed out ad nauseum), but I also know that every place has flaws and that enjoying a place is about focusing on the good rather than driving yourself crazy with the not-so-good.
Ahh... the final stretch of a long awaited homecoming...

Friday, 12 February 2010

Give up your carbon for Lent?

Back in the days of gainful employment, I worked for four years at international development NGOs in the UK. One of my jobs was as Climate Change Campaigns Officer, a role that allowed me to accumulate more info on climate policy and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change than any normal person would ever want or need. (This role culminated in a 17-hour train journey to Poland for a conference – because you can't fly to an event that's trying to tackle climate change.)

Aside from learning UN protocol, I was privy to stories of people in the developing world who were working so hard to climb out of poverty, but an increasingly unpredictable climate was pushing them back down.
Photo: Tearfund

My job was to tell these people's stories, to put a human face to climate change and remind compassionate people in the UK that climate issues aren't just making polar bears vulnerable, but people too. Especially people who live hand to mouth off the land.

Since I was surrounded by global poverty and justice issues at work (and was being paid to communicate about them), I didn't ever feel overly compelled to blog about them. I needed an escape so blogged about things like the cupcake competitions (yum!), the search for decent coffee in London (arduous) and ticking off our London list once we'd planned to leave (fun!).

As it turns out, removed from my job and the incentive of a salary, I am still passionate about talking about global justice issues and encouraging people to take action. And without an outlet like a job, I thought I'd bring it to the blog.

With this preface, I'd like to throw it out there for people to think about giving up carbon this year for Lent (it starts next Wednesday by the way!). Giving up carbon is definitely better than giving up chocolate in my books. And if you are interested, my colleagues at Tearfund have rustled up a helpful Carbon Fast to jump-start that low-carbon diet. It wont force you to live in a yurt or anything, just give some helpful reminders of easy things you can do.

You can download the 46 daily actions or sign-up to receive daily emails here.

Some of the actions are specifically British, like cleaning the limescale off of your electric kettle to increase efficiency. But most are pretty universal.

My favorite action to save energy is eating by candlelight – save the earth and create great atmosphere at the same time, sweet deal.

Anyway, please have a look at the Carbon Fast and see if you're interested. My plan is to focus on one action for the whole of Lent, but I haven't decided which one. Perhaps eating by candlelight every night.  I'll have to check that one with Dan first...

How successful have you been with Lent in the past? Are you planning on giving anything up for Lent? Carbon anyone?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The allure of the sleepy beach town

If, like an American dream, a British dream exists, I think it revolves around one day moving to the countryside. A romanticism with the countryside runs deep within many people I know in England and, though I don't fully share this desire to live in an isolated village, I like that people have it.

Dan and I have always thought of ourselves as city mice, as opposed to country mice. There's something about the buzz of places like Tokyo, Hong Kong, NYC and London we find so chaotically soothing. We like feeling like we're in the centre/ center* of everything rather than miles removed. (*Btw, it had to happen sometime and I'm now officially switching back to American English, though remnants of British English may creep in from time to time.)

This weekend however we laid our city prejudices aside and ventured south of Auckland on a mini-road trip. One of the places we stopped was a tiny coastal town famous for surfing: Raglan.

Raglan has only one main road, but with about 5 perfect coffeeshops on that road, I easily categorize it as a writer's paradise. It has this '70's beach vibe I love and once a month holds a creative market for local mums-come-designers to flog their wares. Suddenly I was fantasizing about moving to Raglan and walking around barefoot., craft in one hand, moleskin in the other...

It was confusing, this infatuation with such a rural place with only one road. But once we processed our reaction, we realized that Raglan was in a whole other category that transcends city and country: the sleepy beach town!

So there we have it, thanks to Raglan I've established that I am not only a cosmopolitan city mouse, but also a small town beach mouse. I've also reconfirmed that I love this beautiful country of New Zealand. What a revelatory weekend!

What about you? Where would your dream place to live be?

Friday, 5 February 2010

The train accident

We all have experiences that define us and make us who we are. I have several, but this is definitely up there.
This is the train accident that happened ten years ago today.

I was 19, studying in Europe, and taking a night train home from Amsterdam to Florence. Around midnight the train derailed and jack-knifed, my friends and I were thrown from our seats (the far left carriage was ours) and nine people died. Fortunately, we climbed out and were OK.

The train wreck is an awful thing to reminisce about and something that doesn't come up lightly in conversation. But ten years on, it's still a part of my story.

Looking back I find truth in the adage 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'. My faith, though definitely and thoroughly shaken, was rebuilt on a more solid foundation. This encounter with death made me appreciate life more and forced me to confront personal issues I could have easily kept swept under the carpet for years. Like many people who've experienced difficult things I can say in hindsight, though I wouldn't want to go through it again, I am a better person for it.

But... though I am a better person, I think that what all this 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' business leaves out is that often what doesn't kill you (but comes close) leaves you with the unfortunate souvenir of anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear didn't make me stronger, but made me weaker and proceeded to shrink my world.

Suddenly, everything was out of my control. I mean, if a train can come off a track, what else can derail? My life became a constant risk assessment, complemented with breathing issues bordering on hyperventilation and irrational terrors. Very exhausting. But unless you're Woody Allen, anxiety is also difficult to talk about.

The more I've been honest about anxiety, the more I've found that lots of people suffer from it to varying degrees too. I've found that being open about my fears and things that may embarrass me allow other people to open up and know they're not alone.

I could say tons about the train accident and the journey I've been on since then. I'm very thankful that I've worked through most of the difficulty, and the train accident remains just a little scar that, though I know it's there, doesn't cause me pain anymore. I'm also extremely thankful that, unlike nine of the other people on the train, my life didn't end that night and that I've been given so much in the past ten years. I know that I'm lucky/ blessed.

But really what I want to do is mark the day and say this happened. Things like this happen and, with grace, we move on and it's OK.

Monday, 1 February 2010

I graciously disagree

I remember once seeing a course called 'Assertiveness Training' on offer at work and thinking, I need the opposite of that. My weaknesses have never revolved around boldness and letting people know what I think, but in having tact and knowing how to be gracious in disagreement.

Sure, it's easy to offer grace and compassion to someone who's down and out or who I pity. Where I stumble is when I feel patronised or when the other person seems just a bit too smug. That's when my defenses go way up, and almost in a daze, I feel the need to put that person in their place.

I hate to admit it, but there's something in me that thrives (in an unhelpful way) on being right and getting the last word. I tell myself that the harnessing of this fire is what makes me a good activist. But there are also times when this same fire isn't always appropriate to unleash.

Recently, I've been getting to know someone I'll call Sharon. She's a lovely gal and I really like her. But as we've gone past shallow introductions, I've started to realise that she actually has some strong political views very contrary to my own on issues I care deeply about. As she started going off the other day, in her lovely way, about immigration (one of my pet issues), inside I was whirling. I was thinking indignantly, 'You've got to be kidding me!'. But, for some reason I felt that instead of telling her how wrong she was I should practice graciousness.

As Sharon continued to tell me her views, instead of thinking of my sparkling rebuttal, I was thinking how often, people don't really want a fair debate, they just want to be heard. Often, people's views betray their fears and experiences.

I don't want to tune out people like Sharon, who I (even vehemently) disagree with, I still want to engage. But instead of being right, I want to practise listening and finding common ground. Practise giving her motives the benefit of the doubt. Practice choosing my battles and my words.

I'm in a season where I feel like I'm swimming in grace, so I want to practice spreading that graciousness about, though I freely admit it's hard and doesn't come naturally. But when I think about it, when I'm old and look back, I'd rather have cultivated a reputation for offering grace than being smart, witty and articulate any day.

Is it just me that graciousness doesn't always come naturally to? How do you balance speaking your mind with offering people grace?
Related Posts with Thumbnails