Photos & words that don't suck

Why This American Wants to Be an Expat

Posted on January 27, 2014

When abroad in a major city in the westernized world, you may never see anything out of the ordinary other than the language: Starbucks, McDonald’s, souvenir shops, Toyotas, fanny packs – some things are always the same.

But you always know that you’re not at home when you see the toilet.

The WC.
damen-wc

It is the one thing that, without fail, makes you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Whether there’s a big button, little button, wide rim, tiny rim, back shelf, front shelf, little water, no water, squat hole, dirt hole, or you can see the train tracks flying underneath you, it’s all the same — the realization that when answering nature you’re on a very, very long-distance call.

After being immersed in der Vaterland, I realize just how extremely different our two cultures are. Women, for example, do not pinkeln all over the seats. A detail that 49% of the American population never, ever thinks about, but it means the world to the other 51%. As a scientifically-trained person with a small bladder, having to pee at a bar or restaurant has always been a source of extreme psychological trauma. A potential gateway to disease. And an extra 45-60 seconds of bladder-ific agony while you dance around on one foot trying to extract the flimsy Neat Seat from the cardboard holder, inevitably ripping it right down the middle so you have to start all over.

… only to find out that your Neat Seat is “eco friendly,” which means that it does absolutely nothing as your butte hits that soaked rim the last stranger has hovered over, your bare skin baptized by that wet, cold and potentially disease-laden kiss.


Wouldn’t it just be nice to be somewhere where people mutually respect each other, where our compatriots are considerate about shared space? While in Deutschland I’ve discovered time and time again (roughly once every 4 hours) that that there are places in the world where people hold themselves accountable for their actions, and respect the person who inevitably comes next.

The act of travel expands your horizons and introduces you to new words, new people, new routines and the nuances of things that you never before realized you considered normal. And sometimes it awakens you to certain normalities of home that you can live without.

Respect. Somehow, that seems a little too much to ask.

A Fast Track Out of Jet Lag

Posted on November 24, 2013

The inevitable question after 12-24 hours of traveling when you finally show your face to your friends: “How’s the jet lag?”

The truth is that I haven’t suffered from jet lag ever since I discovered the fasting trick, and even though I get asked to explain it all the time, I haven’t really been able to find anyone else whose done it. Which makes no sense! Why would you want to spend so much time, effort and money to fly yourself around the planet only to sacrifice a grueling, miserable week (usually more) struggling to adjust? Wouldn’t you rather be ready to go that first morning and enjoy every blissful second of your adventure?

I’d love for the world to realize that time is precious, and to take advantage of it. Plus, this isn’t some miracle drug for sale – fasting is free. So I’m putting this info out here in hopes that more people can try this, spread the word and have happier travels. :)

Does it really work? I’m sure anyone reading this will ask this. All I can say is that I’ve done this for trips to Europe as well as to Asia, and I live in California, if that helps (e.g. 9- to 16-hour time zone change). Each time I’ve had minimal, if any, effects of jet lag for all trips. Round trip.

So, all I ask is that if this sounds good to you, try it. And tell me how it turned out!

The 16-Hour Fast

It’s been known for decades that living beings will naturally adjust their circadian rhythms so that they are awake when food is available. Here’s the study that demonstrates this principle in mice, with big words. It’s probably way more info than most of us need to know, but there ya go.

A 16-hour fast is short enough to get your body’s attention. So stop eating, then reset your clock by breakfasting at your destination time.

In 4 steps:

1. Decide what time you’d like to have breakfast in your destination time zone.
2. Count back 16 hours from that, and calculate what time that is in your departure/current time zone.
3. Eat your last local meal at that time, the day before your flight.
4. Fast until 8 AM destination time, at which time you eat again.

Boom. Done! Does that sound hard?

Practical Tips

Set a 16-hour timer on your smartphone to tell you when your fast is up. This way you don’t have to worry about checking your watch and/or forgetting to set it to the new time zone.

You can grab a short nap on the flight if your last meal doesn’t already fall before your last full night of sleep. I’ve found that sleeping for a portion of the fast made the trip a lot more pleasant for myself (and my husband) than being awake and hangry. But we’ve both noticed that the more we napped, the less effective this was.

Drink LOTS of water. It’s great for staving off hunger pangs. Plus, it’s hydrating and that’s the #1 thing you need an airplane, anyway.

Most people don’t want to skip out on the in-flight meal. A couple of times I’ve just accepted the food and had it sit in front of me until my 16-hour timer went off. But flight attendants will want to clear that away, plus it takes willpower to have that piping hot little package sit in front of you screaming, “Eat me!” So it’s just easier to decline the in-flight meal altogether and pack a much more delicious meal in your carry-on bag to eat when you’re ready. Hey, might as well make it worth the wait.

If you go the above route, hit the bathrooms as soon as the meal is served. Everyone’s busy chowing down so there’s never a line. Plus, you’ll probably need to reset anyway from all that water you’re drinking. (Hint, hint)

Personal Notes

It’s probably fair that I indicate a few more details about how I felt. After all, fasting isn’t a magic bullet but it’s the simplest, most effective thing I’ve ever tried. And it doesn’t cost anything, so what’s there to lose?

  • I do get very tired on the actual travel day. Even if I  napped, it’s tough to stay awake until 9 or 10 PM the day you land, which is just something I try to do in general. Giving in and going to bed early is a surefire way to ruin all your hard work! So it’s really important to stay moving until bedtime.
  • For the first couple of days I’d fall asleep easily at the normal local time, but I’d sleep more lightly than usual or wake up a smidge earlier than usual, like 6 AM instead of 8 AM. There are existing theories saying that we instinctively sleep lightly in new locations anyway, so who knows?
  • I also experienced a touch of minor indigestion for a day or two. But definitely not enough to prevent me from diving headfirst into the local cuisine! Potential possibilities: residual effects of the time change, travel stress, or the change in diet that comes with being in exotic foreign locations.

So, that’s all from me. I hope you find this info helpful (or at least amusing) and that no matter what tricks you choose, you’ll find a way to squeeze more fun into your next journey.

Safe travels!*

Sand, Sea, Stars

Posted on September 10, 2013

Two hours into the desert lies a dead lake surrounded by snow-white beaches of salty bone.

Surrounding the stink of the Sea is a vast, desolate wasteland where the sun is bright, so bright, drenching and beating and bleaching everything to a uniform color. All living things run – or die – so that there is nothing left but burning hot sand.

It is here where the Wall snakes along the horizon, sinister and dark and deceptively small. The Wall is the only straight line in an endlessly curved landscape, straight as an arrow between the boulders, rocks and knolls. Clean and sharp and dark, it sits diminutively in the dry brown landscape, pretending to be train tracks except that there are no rails this close to the southern border. The Wall that seems so small stands over 20 feet high, taller than any man. Built to tower over the tallest head. Built to strangle dreams.

The border police, omnipresent in their badge-covered trucks, cruise without lights in the empty desert night. They’re always on the hunt, but hungry for conversation . Tonight they are eager to help us find the perfect place for a photograph. I feel a gush of warmth in our camaraderie in this deep, silent night… despite the unspoken reason why they lie in wait.

But I don’t think about that. Tonight, we play nice.

When I’m standing alone on that beach of bone I look up into the huge expanse of stars and see the horizon tinged yellow by distant village lights. I think about my “old” digital camera, my little car, my shallow desire for a faster lens, and how I’m here right now because of my pursuit of some senseless first-world adventure.

Down the street, across the border, there are so many people who have never known such a life, and they never will because of the Walls we build, the patrols we pay.

Beneath the glowing cleft of the Milky Way and under the slowly-spinning silent blades, the universe stretches beyond tiny human comprehension. The piddling problems of our politicians, our absurd beliefs that history will never repeat itself, it doesn’t seem like it should matter.

And yet it does.*


See the full journey in the gallery.

Between the Lines

Posted on July 15, 2013

Few people really know my secret: that I was born and bred with the New York skyline just out of sight, a prickling crown sitting just so on the horizon. Yet this suburban empire has never felt right; it’s a den of ghosts, of half-remembered memories, like cuttings on the editor’s floor.

Being there again I feel sick inside, haunted. I have no books, few photos, and no ties left to the people that still live here. Like the creeping green vines in humid high summer, the person I once was is slowly being covered, condemned, fading at the side of the road.

It’s not my home anymore.


But drive south where the summers are pinker, the vowels get longer and history rolls from the bounty of the sea. It is here that I feel closer than virtually any place else.

Stone gates of Baltimore Cemetery

The sun beat down like a hammer from hell, scorching the eyes and searing the skin. It bounced from the sidewalk in shimmering waves, and I counted down the seconds before I would burst into flames. Inside the black box I envisioned the film curling into useless, melted goo. Luckily, my imagination is wilder than I think.

It’s been so long since this city has had its heyday, I wonder if anybody here still remembers that there ever was one. Storefronts once clean and closed are but faded husks 40 years later. Houses watch over the street, not with deep black eyes but yellow plywood stares. They gawp, shocked, as if their crumbling walls were some ghastly surprise.

Time is measured in deaths, in hate, in crime.

What is it about these fringes that fascinates me so much? It’s partly the danger, partly the gristly spectator sport of seeing of Baltimore in its most hopeless, raw underbelly. But most of all, it’s the slow free-fall of these neighborhoods that both quickens the blood and makes you want to cry.

Abandoned Victorian apartments in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill

A quick Google Search for a West Baltimore street address turns up a few historic images, gruesomely optimistic real estate photos and meeting minutes from community boards, including a vast spreadsheet of all known vacant homes. I open the last and am astounded at the disorder and length of this list. But I scroll, and keep scrolling, and keep scrolling still. So many empty shells (over 16,000 ), so many holes in our history. There is still so much to this city that can’t be fixed.

Old Baptist Church and street portrait in East Baltimore

There are ghosts on the streets. Some are faded smiles and dead promises painted high on the brick. Some are the shuttered houses that line the streets, a thousand empty coffins of time. And the rest are in the people, as real in flesh and blood as you and me, but living in an untouchable world, an unknowable life. I felt their gazes and their presence at my back, measured and watching.

Vintage painted brick advertisement in Federal Hill Baltimore Old painted advertisement on abandoned storefront on N. Carrollton in West Baltimore Formstone, marble steps on row homes in East Baltimore Baltimore arabber and fruit cart in West Baltimore The Sellers Mansion on Lafayette Square, West Baltimore The gate on Madison at Druid Hill Park and Reservoir Hill, Baltimore Stone castle gates of Baltimore Cemetery on North Ave Old red gas pump, gravestones and radio tower in the Baltimore Cemetery Baltimore row houses in Pigtown

It is uplifting then, to see so much change less than two miles away. New storefronts, shiny bars, tourists packing in the shops like there’s no tomorrow (or like there’s no heat). The heart of this city beats lounder than ever before and I’m caught in the whirlwind of new life. New money. I take a seat at a new old bar, next to all the clean, drunk people. I feel like I’ve know them all before from raucous nights in White Marsh or Towson, from lacross games, campuses and concerts. There’s a familiarity here that helps me settle in and fall headfirst into memory’s embrace.

Inside the Admiral's Cup bar in Fells Point, Baltimore

From ashes to rebirth in a single day, I’m comforted knowing that Baltimore will never be truly defeated. It is a city I would one day be honored to call home again because of this testament to its progress and enduring spirit.

Wait for it, World – this place I knew has one more heyday still yet to come.*


Read the full history in the gallery.

New Orleans, New View

Posted on April 25, 2013

When you travel, you expect a certain amount of abuse.

I used to think it was because I’m American. Like, Parisians have some sort of cheese-induced Spidey sense that magically makes them be nicer to my Canadian comrades, no explanations why.

But I digress. I’ve been stepped on, pushed aside, ignored and stared down in lots of cities around the world. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve also been welcomed into homes and hearts, shocked and astounded at the level of generosity some cultures show total strangers.

But I’ve never been treated with the kind of camaraderie as I have in New Orleans.

New Orleans is a great place. From the rich history, the sordid Bourbon Street reputation to the heart-wringing stories of hurricane recovery, New Orleans sports many faces. But it’s also New Orleans, the big city down there, not at all like anything else in the deep south.

Its extreme tourism could be a shame: “Authentic” cajun hot sauce, po-boys, fleur-de-lis oven mitts, voodoo dolls. Yes, because all the locals sit around their altars slurping gumbo and popping pralines. Mais oui, time has not changed in three hundred years, except the libations have grown larger, colder, and are available in your favorite day-glo colors.

I considered scoffing at the tourism industry, all pre-packaged, marketed up the wazoo and soaked in butter and alcohol. Oh, I thought I might rave for hours about the lack of soul, the loss of respect for the history and how it’s all been reduced to ghost tours in the park.

Instead, New Orleans blindsided me with a shocking warmth. (More than the late spring heat!) I don’t know or care whether those friendly faces were locals or not, but every smile, every question, every curious inquiry and comment was extended with the most honest feeling. What a beautiful city! The food is good. The music is great. And how about this weather?

Uniquely, I felt truly welcomed. From French to Jamaican to Swedish, from curator to painter to punk, they all had the ability to disarm my defenses and show me a great… no, a fabulous time.

Despite the reputation of New Orleans being rough around the edges, despite the constant mantra of “tourists are targets,” every little thing was gonna be just fine. Welcome to this city, shoot what you like, smile at anyone, come in, have a drink, share a laugh! A veritable Disneyland of Louisiana, the French Quarter exists as a fantasy environment hand crafted for tourists, where every need for food, drink and entertainment is provided.

It is a safe haven for any and all, protected from the dangerous outside world. A special place where we all know that reality waits for us, but never in here.

It’s OK. We’re in this together.

See them all in the gallery.

In Berlin

Posted on October 23, 2012

“It’s not a kid anymore. Berlin has grown up,” she said as she passed through the gate.

I’ll never know her name, the girl at Tegel, but she summed up in one go what I couldn’t think for weeks.

Like most places, Berlin was not at all what I imagined. Photos on the internet reveal very little about this city and what makes it tick. Say “Berlin” to someone, and they’ll get a dreamy look in their eyes, then try to describe in vague shorthand terms just what about this city spoke to them twenty years ago. But whatever it is remains invariably amorphous, tainted with their own secret experiences.

The Berlin of today remains a black hole of mystery. The Brandenburg Gate. The TV tower. Currywurst. This trifecta dominates tour guides and Google, but is there more to this story? I landed armed with little else but a mission to dive deep into the heart and get some answers.

Berlin is no longer a smoking explosion of self-expression. Everywhere is fresh paint, fresh concrete, city workers cleaning and fixing. Yellow construction cranes soar at break-neck heights, coaxing new buildings to life. Homeowners carefully paint around their graffiti-covered doors, leaving a reminder to the emotion that once spread over every surface. Evidence of Berlin’s past lies quietly in the shadow of the new, invisible unless you look.

The city holds its breath, ready for its grand entrance.

History floats close to the surface in its people, too: Beautiful Norse ink scrawled along the arms of a tired carpenter. Businessmen with facial piercings. Lurid hair colors embellish heads of the mundane. Even the punks are old. Everyone has just a little edge to their normalcy, evidence of a past life they can’t just let go.

Meanwhile, on the streets it’s business as usual. Modern. Fresh. New. For some, this is OK. For others, this means something inherently vital is missing, that the soul of former Berlin has been scrubbed clean away. Ironic, then, that the tourist shops capitalize on this very thing, selling photos of the old, rebellious city for 20 euros a pop.

That alone signifies that I’ve come to another place, yet again, too late. I’m not seeking a peaceful vacation with all the conveniences of home.

I’ve come for something else.

See it all in the gallery.

Done?

Posted on July 26, 2012

The Cult of Done. Have you heard of it?

I hadn’t. That is, until recently.

Its not in my nature to bash other people’s philosophies. But the Cult of Done’s 13 rules are, while intriguing, so against the core of my being that I couldn’t believe such a thing was possible. Pushing out sloppy work? I gotta be missing something here.

But it’s not all bad, I guess: Reading the Cult’s manifesto has helped me realize that achieving ultimate perfection, creating mountains of work for yourself with endless rounds of editing has its issues, too. Maybe there’s something to this “Done is the engine of more” thing to temper the Masterpiece Mission that blocks me from doing things like picking up my camera, posting to my blog, or actually cooking something for dinner.

So in honor of that, my daily self-portraits are back. The Daily Delmar: Painfully candid. Ridiculously prolific. Utterly pointless. But every day it’s “done.”

It’s a work-in-progress.

(True to form, I spent 35 minutes writing this post and three days editing it.)

Over Us

Posted on June 15, 2012

My living room seems strangely empty. For such a small room it sure has a big hole in the middle, with the two suitcases tucked behind the couch. This was a cozy guest room just days before, and now it’s just a sterile parlor.

It’s empty because it shouldn’t be. My parents are here from out east, the first time in the five years I’ve lived in California. They were excited as I was about spending ten days exploring the golden hills, coveting the painted ladies and eating the best food in the world.

But California had other plans. They drove away to see the mountains, found it too nice to leave, and literally left me holding the bag(s).

The irony of this is certainly not lost on me. I was a terrible teenager, chafing under their carefully measured life in suburbia, wanting to be free in the world. Now the tables are turned and I’m scratching my head wondering when my parents — my conservative, retired parents who scarcely set foot outside of their tour bus groups, mind you — became the road-tripping kind of folks who find hotels on the fly.

Apparently, I am not the only kid out there who feels cheated, like this empty nest stuff is supposed to go the other way around. We grow up thinking they’ll leave the light on, that we can always go home to our childhood rooms and sleep in our beds.

In reality, our parents are over us. They’re so, so over us.

Bitter

Posted on April 4, 2012

She lay the heart gently into the box. It beat once, twice more, sighing itself to sleep.

They’d been so good together, a partnership better than anything she’d ever dreamed. She smiled, remembering how it used to sing within her, driving the bland, bleary world into a kaleidoscope of brilliant lights.

Nothing would be as joyful as those days. Never would she feel that way again.

She closed the box and turned to the window. Steel gray clouds covered the sky, dotting her skin with rain.

Her hand passed before her face, first left, then right, wiping everything away.

Time to go.

Cold Night

Posted on February 26, 2012

I gave her everything I had.

She didn’t ask for much, but when she asked it, I took a look myself. I thought about my life, my situation, where I was going, and how – for once – I had handful of coins in my pocket that, for 6 months I had intended to put into the cup holder in my car but kept forgetting.

My memory. My awkwardness. My self-perception. My inability to meet expectations, to feel satisfied with what I say and do to others.

She looked at me with a friendly smile, and it was all I needed.

I’ll give her everything, because it’s worth much more than 47 cents to me to feel – for a moment – that I am not alone.

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