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living abroad

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San Miguel de Allende came to us like a wish come true. For a bit over a year, David and I had felt the swell of population, the pressurization of inflated prices, the unsettling political demise. My four year return to life in the United States confirmed a lot of things for me:

  1. The Bay Area had lost a bit of charm for me.
  2. Life didn’t have to be this hard.
  3. I thrive seeing the world from new places.

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“I think you just have to go through it. And I think that if rather than sort of squeeze your eyes shut, you decide that there’s something interesting about it, if only in the kind of spiritual life cycle sense of the word. But also, — you find out what you’re made of if you weren’t already sure you knew the answer to that.” -Jane Gross

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36 boxes stacked strategically in the dark, small, storage space. Black marker scribbled on the sides in large letters, Mrs. Christine. The men from the Vientiane packing company assumed our home’s possessions were all mine, that I was in charge, so they deemed the boxes mine as well. At the time, the logistics were simple. We were parting ways. I was taking the things.

To be fair, I had been the one to accumulate. The rugs from Tunisia, the framed mola from Colombia, the wooden Buddha from Cambodia, the antique console from Korea…each piece marked a time and place we had been and shared, and I treasure them all.

Inside taped up cardboard structures, that life was hushed in paper and bubble wrap. Standing in the hot Hayward sun, many, many months later, I wondered how I would reconcile ownership, what my present self would be able to release. I won’t lie. There was a part of me that wanted to drizzle gasoline over the whole thing and ignite it into the atmosphere. But, the sentimental girl who saved yearbooks and love letters, duplicate photographs (in case I wanted to mail the other to a friend) and tattered journals, felt more like sitting in the middle of a pool of them to conjure up a flood of memories.

Things like art I had no wall space for or lamps that operated on a different voltage…some of those things were easier to let go of. But, things like the photographs that adorned our walls for years or the cigar boxes that stored his coins, the bottles of the Saharan desert we kept as if it were powdered gold, the wedding albums we had tucked away on bookshelves, and the CDs we made with each other in mind…these, these things bore deep holes in my heart.

It’s crazy how quickly an object can send you into a spiral of thoughts:

Riding on the back of his motorcycle in the hills of Medellin. That kid who toured us on his father’s tobacco plantation in Cuba. Having summer backyard dinners eating Bill’s grilled salmon. Getting stuck in Miami before embarking on our Tunisia journey because I let my passport expire. India, visiting India. Sunday walks on along the river in Seoul for our seared tuna dinner. Creating a yoga studio in a Buddhist wat in Luang Prabang. Walking in la ciudad antigua on Cartagena evenings.

Overwhelming.
Could I really do this?
I hated and loved going through those boxes. But, they are me. The journeys, the joys, the changes. They are what I’m made of.

There was a moment when making a trip to the large garbage bin where a warm breeze blew much of the Saharan sand that had piled up at the bottom of a box. So fine, it moved like waves across the sweltering concrete until it totally dispersed.
In ways, this image felt like our story, rolling up and down, moving farther in distance until the grains land in other formations someplace else.

In this process of this separation, I’ve felt like crying my insides out, like I’ve been punched in the stomach, like I’ve been the source of a ruthless self-inquisition, like I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut and make it all go away.

But I could never shut my eyes for long. For one thing, it gets too dark. And for another, the curiosity for what life holds is far too great.

Girl-in-The-Rain-Autumn-Ann

in the middle of the morning, under the season’s first real rain, i stepped into a korean memory behind glass doors on San Pablo Avenue. paper lanterns of varying shapes dropped from an exposed ceiling and Asian furniture adorned the space creating small areas that catered to soft exchanges among tea drinkers.

an elevated bamboo platform encouraged us to remove our shoes and my legs folded with familiarity over each other on a colorful seat cushion. the smell of steeping herbs calmed the vigorous nature of hours before and my hands cupped a welcomed heat. this experience imported quick flashes of favorite spots discovered on strolls in the cobbled streets of Insadong nestled in the heart of Seoul.

there were, though, imperfections here.

for one thing, there was much too much open space-not enough hanging wooden bird cages nor small niches to hold a ceramic animal or bowl. the tea pots and cups lacked charm and delicacy. the classical music played was misplaced. the hostess smiled too openly.

yet, engaged in the exchange of stories from faraway places with a soulful stranger, i felt connected for the first time in a very long time to a reality of life that seemed to have vanished along with 2014.

[image by Autumn Ann]

IMG_0458dawn awakes before i do, as it does most days, as you do most days.

the stirring sounds of the day seep into dreams that slowly emerge to consciousness. i make out the click of the door behind you, an effort to contain your morning ritual, a way of honoring the marked differences in routines. faint kitchen noises permeate through thin Korean walls: glass touching wood, steel being laid on steel, water collected in aluminum. and shortly after, the aroma slithers in from under the door, familiar and comfortable…guess, years of drinking coffee will do that.

i turn to my right side, stretching slightly and releasing my muscles and bones once more to sink into some final minutes of rest. the warmth of the bedding envelops me, the thought of the snow laden city tucks under my pillow.

now, your om, your invocation rests in my ears, as you begin an ancient practice on an 11th floor sky rise.
and as you do, i leave you, once again searching for meaning in dreams of my own.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 8.52.11 PMWhere you come from now is much less important than where you’re going.
-Pico Iyer

It’s been three months since I’ve established “home” in Berkeley. People have kindly asked how the re-entry has been. The phases of cultural transition are still the same. I’ve felt all of this before. In America, it’s about getting used to the fact that there are an obscene numbers of cereal rows to consider, that having an app for practically everything really can simplify life, and that knowing what Miley Cyrus is up to is common knowledge.

I won’t lie. I kinda freaked out.

The idea of just sliding back into North American life proved silly. I thought I’d have that ah-ha moment; something like: finally, coming full circle to land in the place I’ve left loving and still love. Finally, home.

Yet, it has not been that simple. I was naive to think so. I’ve questioned over and wondered about and ached a bit for my overseas life. Twelve years is twelve years, after all.

The turning point, however, happened with this easy realization: no place is perfect.

From then on (which has been about four weeks now), I’ve embraced this place. Or, maybe it’s more than the place. Maybe I’ve come to embrace where I am in life and what’s ahead.

I watched this TED talk a little while back. With grace, charm, and introspection, Pico Iyer delves into the relevant question: What is home?

Is it the cul du sac you and your sister rode bicycles in? Is it the city your parents still live in? Is it the place you pay rent or the location with your fondest memories?

According to Iyer, it’s something much, much more.

 

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 8.59.25 PMIt’s been three months and life in Luang Prabang feels like a dream somehow.

At times, we can’t believe it happened at all. If we didn’t remind ourselves once in a while in Skype chats or via glimpses of FB updates from there, it’d seem unreal. This is because: 1. our time was significantly shorter there than our other overseas homes and 2. we so radically changed our lives that it feels strange now.

A couple of years ago while we planned our escape of life known, I created a Pinterest board called Laos Dream. Visually inclined, I pinned dreamy images of how I pictured our days there: tropical surroundings, yoga, colors, and calm. In many ways, that board materialized.

Now, in my North American existence where life is speedy and a bit pushy, the fact that I lived another way feels like a dream. I mean, did I really wake up to the sound of early morning drums from the monks at the nearby temple? Was a bicycle my main source of transportation to and from the morning market? Was sticky rice a staple food in our daily diet? Did I truly accept living with very large spiders as a norm? (um, no).

There is no way to completely capture the reality of those months, not in photos, not in words. I can’t ever pin down what it was like, the dichotomy of struggle and wonder, being adrift and very present, wanting less but craving more. The closest thing to capturing it all is this blog…and even it, falls short.

Because truly there’s no such thing as a dream catcher.

They may get tangled along the way, but dreams are really just meant to fly.

Last October marked a year for us in Laos. As with most big things in life, it feels like yesterday and forever ago, simultaneously. That’s the deceiving thing about time.

Without letting more of it pass, I want to document things that have made the most impression on me in this brief stay.

Craig and I have affectionately called this year “an experiment”. In truth, it was a coping mechanism when things felt really scary. It was our out. Our reminder that decisions are not marked in stone. A way to maintain some lightness, to remain curious of the outcome.

It’s not been easy (far from it) to come to this decision but, our experiment is coming to an end. By mid December, we will say good-bye to Luang Prabang and the illusions we created. There is no doubt, though, that several life lessons follow me out. Here are a few.

1. The outsider’s perspective lacks experience. Living in the place you’ve vacationed is a new reality. Dealing with visas, where to go when you suspect you have malaria, and scrubbing down mold on kitchen cupboards is far from charming. This is not what’s envisioned on a week’s vacation of elephant rides and cooking classes.

2. If you want to work on your marriage, changing everything at once is probably not the best platform. Moving to a new country is difficult; we’d experienced that before. But, the career shift in a new country; now that kicked our asses. And, to top it off, Laos is not an easy place to live. I’ve heard in the last week more times than ever: Oh yeah, this place can cause a marriage to strain. Somehow, that’s comforting.

3. Heed your basic needs. Craig’s is feeling security-health care, a salary you can count on. Mine is feeling connected. While I am capable of making friends wherever we live, I have found that my family/friend connections from home are tugging harder than ever. Meeting those things that make you feel more safe and whole will enable your capability of facing challenges.

4. Mixing your passion with business is not necessarily an equation for instant happiness. Do what you love…is a slogan I can get behind. But, what if doing what you love results in loving it a little less? I can understand now why people are protective of their hobbies or passions.

5. Small town-ness has it’s limits for a city girl. I remember wondering if I would go crazy in a small place like Luang Prabang. Turns out, I do. Having regular city fixes adds to part of my sanity.

6. Opportunity comes in unexpected forms. A chance to design a hotel, open a yoga space, assist in programming a film festival; these things were amazing. Life surprises you when you let it.

7.  Letting go allows for the arrival of what’s next. There were weeks where we sat on the fence. Familiar messages swarmed around. Are we giving up? Shouldn’t we stick this out longer? We just moved our stuff here and have settled in-wouldn’t it be nuts to go now? There was the notion that we had something to prove, even if it caused us unhappiness in the process. Once we decided that it was best for us both to go, the concerns softened and suddenly, there was space.

After a year of piling on, this space is a gorgeous welcome.

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