Exactly where you're supposed to be.

Exactly where you're supposed to be.

I’ve been telling myself this a lot recently, ‘you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.’ It really started in November with that unbelievable Oregon sunset (this one here). It’s a notion that’s been continuing ever since, mostly signaling itself through natural events, like sunsets, sunrises and moonscapes that are so beautiful I can’t help but be anywhere but exactly there, exactly where I’m supposed to be.

I got laid off on Monday...

I got laid off on Monday...

I was laid off on Monday. I was laid with zero warning off after pouring some good old fashion nonprofit heart and soul into a job I’d been hired for four months prior, which followed a grueling 20-month job search. So, we’re gonna talk about that for a moment.

2013 Lessons Learned/Favorite Moments

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Yes, I know that it's a week into 2014 and I'm stuck in the past, but forgive me. It was an adventurous year, so I'd rather be a bit late in reflecting before properly moving on to anticipate whatever 2014 has to bring. So I'm taking a moment to reflect on some lessons learned and some of my favorite moments. I've never been a succinct blogger, so feel free to settle in and enjoy. My Biggest Lesson

Life can happen in a bazillion different ways. Seeing how people around the world live their lives, make a living, care for their families and loved ones helped me realize that I don't need to adhere to the 9-5, American, live-to-work model if I can make something else work that's fulfilling. With a little creativity, I can shape my life in the way that is most fulfilling. A simple lesson, but also one that can be hard to stick to.

Incha'allah

I learned this phrase while living in Senegal in 2003, but now it's really stuck with me. It's Arabic and basically means "god willing." It's customary in any situation where one is not certain of the outcome to say, 'incha'allah' at the end of a statement, because, really, how can you be certain, and god willing the thing you're speaking of will come to pass. Example: "Jon and I are flying to Belgium and then on to Mali." Really? Are we certain? Incha'allah all that happens. It also presents itself in smaller situations. "Tonight, I'm making soup, incha'allah." Because, simply, it's not up to you. God willing all goes well and you can make soup. I actually love this sentiment, not so much for the religious aspect, but for the purpose of surrender. To me, it says that we should never be totally certain, but rather keep ourselves open to the possibility of something else.

Our new friend Penda at Lac Rose

Know at least a bit of the language

As a travel tip, knowing something of the local language was hugely important. Not only is it a sign of respect and that you do actually have some reverence for the people that make up the country you're visiting, it can transform an experience. Example: Jon and I hired a car to visit Lac Rose outside of Dakar. Lac Rose is a pink lake that is no more than 3 meters deep, and is the center of an extremely robust salt industry. It's a pretty touristy place, and so one has to be prepared to get hassled - a lot. We were walking along the shore when sure enough a woman came up to us to hawk her trinkets. She said hello and bonjour, and I replied with, "Yo! Na nga def?" which is the wolof greeting for "hello! how are you?" She was delighted to say the least, and instantly went from someone trying to make a buck to a kind local who ended up giving us a complete history of the salt operations, as well as introduce us to her relatives who were standing by. It ended up being a really pleasant exchange, all with the help of a simple phrase. Case in point and lesson learned: be open to locals, don't just treat them as people trying to take advantage, and know a bit of the language.

Our beautiful blanket from Morocco!

You don't need souvenirs & travel light

I'm bad at both of these things, just to be honest. But with each of us having only one bag, it meant that anything acquired equated to something else being tossed or given away. Sure we bought a few things here and there, and the packable duffel bag was a good way to take home gifts when we returned to the States for the wedding. But all in all, not being prone to shopping meant we could enjoy our time doing other things. We spent a lot of time in the souks (markets) in Morocco, but they are so fabulous that we really didn't want to do anything else. Plus for people who weren't buying souvenirs, our best takeaway (in terms of material goods) is an incredible handwoven blanket from the local craftswomen in the Atlas Mountains that our friend, Ismail, sold to us from his hotel. And that deal came out of just spending time with Ismail and loving the area. I think other than that, our biggest souvenir is our memory, this blog, and our photos. The word souvenir is french, and it means to remember anyway, so that works out nicely.

Splurge every now and then

This is also a good one for the non-traveler who is on a budget (aren't we all?). When you are constantly watching the pennies (or dirham, or cfas or euros or whatevers), I highly recommend doing something nice or special every once in awhile. It takes the pressure off. I did this in the grocery store the other day. I'm still completely attuned to not spending money on anything. I wanted to buy jam and spent about 7 or 8 minutes looking at the whole shelf trying to decide which of the absolute cheapest ones might taste ok. And then there was the one I really wanted. It was a whole $1 more than the rest. I thought about it and said to myself, "It's really ok if I treat myself and get the thing I really want, this is not a normal occurrence, and yes, this delicious jam will make me happy." Back to our theme of buying experiences - I have a wonderful experience with my toast every day now, it was totally worth the "splurge" :)

Traveling with a partner is both amazing and challenging

Jon and I traveled together for 10 months. It's a long time. The best parts about traveling with someone you love is that you always have a sidekick, you are building wonderfully unique experiences together, and it's a lot easier to feel safe. On the other hand, you are less likely to do something completely spontaneous, may spend a bit more money, and well, like the good, unfortunately you always have a sidekick. The key is balance. We weren't very good at this, but taking a day or even half a day alone and coming back to share stories strengthens the experience. In the end, having the shared experience of something grand is pretty great.

My List

I tried to pair these down to a manageable 10 or 20, but whatever, these are some of the most memorable moments of my 2013. I would post photos for all of these, but instead I give you links to related posts. On to great things in 2014!!

FAVORITE MOMENTS (chronological order)

  1. New Year's Eve in Bruges - what's better than 15,000 people at a sing-a-long in a perfectly preserved yet totally classy Baroque city??
  2. Sunday tea with friends in Mali - all day music, sharing a meal out of a communal bowl, impromptu dancing and hot desert tea
  3. Beachy private sunset walks in the Casamance, and getting taken to a tiny remote village to see how palm wine is extracted + meeting the village chief aka our taxi driver's dad.
  4. Cap Skiring street party
  5. Being the recipient of true Senegalese taranga (hospitality) and having a stranger take us under his wing to guide us through the Mauritanian border crossing.
  6. Seeing camels in Mauritania
  7. Leaving Mauritania and entering Morocco
  8. Fresh orange juice from the man who looked like Aladdin in Dakhla
  9. Seeing the landscape change from 2400km of endless desert to the deep red earth and green trees of the Middle Atlas
  10. The freedom of having a car rental and driving through the Valley of 1000 Kasbahs
  11. Meeting our friend Ismail and staying in his riad.
  12. Buying fresh chickens, pigeons, spices and vegetables to make Tagine in the market in Essouira (and by fresh I mean, we picked out the live ones, went and bought our spices, and came back to pick them up).
  13. Endless hot water in our first Western shower upon arrival in France.
  14. Listening to French kids try to speak English - they say the funniest things.
  15. Counting the chateaux while bike riding in the French countryside - I counted 9 in 14km - that's a lot!
  16. The dance parties, or "Boom" we threw for our French campers - honestly I've never had as much fun in a real dance club...
  17. Our amazing apartment in Lyon and its proximity to some of the best Pho I've ever eaten plus the Asian grocery stores.
  18. Showing Jon around Paris.
  19. Getting to fly back to the US to see my brother get married.
  20. Getting to fly back to Europe to keep traveling, despite having no itinerary or clue of where we wanted to go.
  21. Afternoon tea in the garden with friends during our first day in England.
  22. The drive to Hadrian's Wall and seeing the plains of Northern England.
  23. An awesome CD release party in Newcastle where the power went out and the concert continued outside in the rain.
  24. Live folk music in Edinburgh
  25. Buying a huge whole sea trout and eating it in an astonishingly large variety of ways in Norway
  26. Alicante, Spain - all of it was a highlight
  27. Sunbathing in the buff in Spain - yep, it's real nice, and it helps that Spaniards are a beautiful beautiful people.
  28. Enjoying tapas and spanish nightlife
  29. Festival Cante de las Minas, La Union, Spain.
  30. Festival Gracia, Barcelona
  31. Hanging with my friend Olivier, playing board games, speaking nothing but French and drinking Rosé in the south of France.
  32. My first real panini in Italy - it was at a gas station cafe, and I'm not kidding, it was divine.
  33. Walking in Rome with Jon, eating unbelievable gelato, and well, being in Rome - it's ROME people.
  34. Freshly whipped mascarpone cheese topped with peaches preserved with bay leaf and pink peppercorns (our first dessert at the homestay in Italy).
  35. Truffle pasta
  36. Montefalco Wine Festival - Italy
  37. Daily sunbathing - I was TAN ok??!.
  38. Eating the best pizza in the world for less than $5 in Naples.
  39. Pompeii
  40. Istanbul - all of it

I hope you enjoyed taking this journey with us! Who knows what 2014 will bring, but my goal is to continue to pursue things that inspire. What are your goals?

Reconstructing Life After Travel

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I've learned a big lesson since returning to the US after 10 months of travel overseas: reconstructing your life after travel is a lot harder than deconstructing it before leaving. There's something liberating about grasping the idea and belief that if you're willing to take the risk and let go of your material stuff, your job and your home, which in most cases is replaceable, that it won't be that hard to put it all back together again. It's a freedom from the constraints we and our society put on ourselves that is desirable. You have to have a good job, you have to have things, and sometimes nice things, you have to look a certain way. It creates not only a deep-set sense of competition among one another, but also a sense that it's the only way we can be 'successful' in life (I'm referring primarily to American culture here, but it certainly exists elsewhere).

So letting that go and absorbing the belief that you can not only live your life in many many ways, but that you don't have to stick to one way of life is incredibly freeing. But let's say you want to go and create the life of home+things+career+stable relationships? After stepping outside of that world, I see now how each aspect of that web relies on the other. Not that I really know at all what it's like, but I have begun to have a glimpse of just how hard it is for people to lift themselves out of homelessness.

Take for starters the necessity of a mailing address. Don't have one? Well then how to do you get or renew a drivers license? Don't have a license? How do you get a cell phone? I'm sorry, but your amazingly stamped passport is not the sort of ID they want. Is your temporary mailing address in another state? Well then how do you establish residency? And let's just say that you wanted to apply for food benefits, because the time it takes to get a job is longer than you expected. If you don't have a mailing address that's in your state of 'residency' - well - let me just say it creates a total cluster-$&*! of a mess with Human Services.

Let's move on to the housing side of this equation. Don't have a job yet, but do have savings to pay for an apartment? Good luck - no one wants to rent to someone without proof on income. Even as a freelancer, renters are wary. They not only want proof of income - and a lot of proof, they are going to want a seriously large deposit. In our case, one that would have depleted all those savings and made it impossible for us to have the time to find gainful employment.

Speaking of gainful employment, how do you become successful at finding and getting a job, much less showing up to work in a presentable and professional way, if you don't have a home from which to base yourself. How do you show up ready to work, if you don't have a steady place to make breakfast, get dressed, and feel centered? And how do you reach out to people in your profession in order to learn what's happening on the ground when it's difficult to know when you're going to be in the same city?

Mush all that together with the strange phenomenon that is reverse culture shock (if you're traveling it's best to accept the fact now that this will occur) and you've got yourself full of some likely uncomfortable feelings. Not to worry, although the process of deconstruction was relatively quick, I have no doubt that the passage of time will take care of any roadblocks.

It's not all bad of course. The long transition time of finding home and reconstructing the web has made for some fun experiences.

Namely, our home of Portland, Oregon, feels new to us. 10 months didn't seem like that long, but stuff happened here. New restaurants opened, heck there are whole new city blocks of restaurants and shops to explore. There are new murals and public art pieces which I'm particularly excited about. There's even a new lightrail line that opened while we were gone, and I can now get bus tickets on my phone. It's just like being on a travel journey, except I don't get lost and I can read the signs!!

I think the best part about this reconstruction is connecting with friends. For us, 10 months was the perfect amount of time to go off and do our travel thing but not be forgotten by the people at home. Their lives haven't completely moved on without us. As many stories as we have to tell, there are equally as many to listen to. It's a wonderful opportunity to share and get to know one another again.

Given the challenges, would I change anything? Mmm, no. Would I do it again? Yes! I'm ready to go right now! There's no way that taking an opportunity to do something that sounds crazy outweighs the benefit of not doing it. It doesn't have to be travel - for some folks that's not their vice. For me, I would make the same choice again and again, no matter how hard it was to come back.

What are the crazy things you want to do but aren't sure you should/could/would?

Seeking Holiday Fireflies

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It’s Christmas Eve, and although I myself do not identify as Christian, my family has always celebrated Christmas (and Hannukah – both sides represent!) and so I wanted to extend my warmest wishes for a holiday season to all. Whatever holiday you celebrate (or don’t), often this time can be one of joy, warmth, inspiration and giving. We can also be distracted and focused on errands, finishing work, the stress of buying gifts. For me, this has been an anomaly of a holiday season. Jon and I returned to the States in early November, and have been in a transitory state of being ever since. So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the ‘fireflies’ or the things that give me inspiration, hope and happiness during the holidays, even if they are hard for me to see at this time of job and home seeking, this in-between time of a life on the road and a life in one place. I remind myself, that even though I’m not with my own family this Christmas, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me, and above all, that is the most important and inspiring place to be during the holidays. So here’s a short list of things this season that have peaked my heart and mind. And from my family to yours, best wishes for a happy holiday season and a joyous New Year. Mali Menorah

Lights. My favorite are the lights of the Menorah, which were lit during Thanksgiving this year, adding a special flare of gratefulness and contentment that we were with people we love. Last year we caught the end of the holiday season in Bruges, Belgium – it was incredible. Christmas markets, ancient buildings lit, stringed lights over cobblestoned streets – beautiful.

Jon's crafty 'wrapping' job. What's inside?!

Craftyness. I love that the holidays are a perfect time to create something either as a gift, decoration or just for the fun of it. I love seeing creations of all sorts. My favorite this year is Jon’s wrapping of my present – yes it’s an aluminum foil Mt. St. Helens. I wonder what’s inside!!! Hopefully not a pyroclastic cloud – unless it’s a pyroclastic cloud of love. I don’t know that that means….

Portland's Ugly Sweater 'Yarn Bomb' by Travel Portland. Photo c/o Sue Frause

Sillyness. Portland is a great place for this. Exhibit A – Ugly Sweaters on sculptures. What else is there to say?

Warm beverages. Mulled wine, hot cider and yummy teas. Pair that with a blanket, couch and your honey and you’ve got a recipe for comfy, snuggly success.

Giving. If you can make gift giving about seeing the joy on someone’s face when you know you really hit the nail on the head, it’s all worth it. Of course I also love giving to my favorite nonprofit organizations. It’s a slim year this year given our travel and subsequent lack of income, but normally, this is one of my favorite and fulfilling things to do. It reminds me that the world is so much bigger than whatever is going on in my life, yet at the same time I’m a part of that world.

What are your fireflies during the holidays? Warmest wishes to you all!

American Re-Entry

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For those of you who thought that just because we were stateside we'd stop writing, sorry but here I am. Plus, the return home after a long journey is generally a topic that is often overlooked I think - we're mostly focused on the leaving. I also have had several suggestions that I should just keep writing as though I'm traveling, so, who knows, maybe a not-so-distant future in fiction?? In any case, Jon and I are about 2 weeks into our American re-entry, and it's been... a lot of things. Time has passed slowly, and it's hard to believe that 2 weeks ago we were in Istanbul, and a few days before that we were going about our normal day-to-day in Italy. For those of you who might be wondering, are you experiencing culture shock? Yes. Here are some thoughts that run through my head more often than they probably should:

Enormous cappucino!

  • If I ask this person a question will they speak my language? I wonder if they speak French...
  • Wait, what time is it?
  • My coffee is HUGE
  • Everything is HUGE
  • I understand everything
  • How lovely that laundry takes less than 1-2 days, dryers are awesome and everything is soft and fluffy
  • Wow, that plate of food is HUGE
  • What's the exchange rate. Wait....
  • Oh, I can call you on the telephone, and I don't have to search all over for wifi???

It's an interesting thing to consider that I've spent the majority of my life in my home country, and really a small percentage outside of the country, that experiencing culture shock at home would happen, but it does. It's taught me that as people, we have an amazing ability to adapt quickly to new places and ways of living so much so that we have to re-adapt to what we've grown up with. And it's just as much of a challenge as going to a new place.

Luckily for Jon and I, our re-entry was somewhat staged, so getting back into a life in America just seemed like transitioning to a new place, one that we happen to be familiar with (and includes our friends and family). Here's how it happened:

Istanbul - Springfield

Conference on Otto Kerner

There's something about going from the crossroads of Europe and Asia to a center of Americana such as Springfield, Illinois. Not exactly glamorous as one might have it, but extremely interesting, and oh so American. No, we didn't choose Springfield randomly, we came back at this particular time to attend the Abraham Lincoln Library Governor's Conference on Otto Kerner, governor from 1961-1968; who also happens to be my grandfather. I've never really incorporated that bit of family history with how I identify myself in my day-to-day, primarily because I really didn't know much about his career. But I learned some fascinating things about him, including a sampling of his major accomplishments; which include:

  • Restructuring the entire mental health system in Illinois
  • Expanding the higher education system from 6 campuses to 33, effectively creating the nation's first community college system
  • Using political ingenuity to improve racial equality by making Illinois one of the first States to ensure equal housing rights to Black Americans
  • Securing Illinois as the site for the first permanent atomic accelerator lab in the country (Fermilab)
  • Serving as the chair of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission); with the basic conclusion that, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

Hearing from his contemporaries, learning of these accomplishments, visiting Springfield, and even getting a surprise visit of the State Mansion where mom grew up made for a really special weekend. A true cultural learning experience!

We took our day between conferencing and flying to Seattle to walk around Springfield, visit Abraham Lincoln's house, have a mediocre hamburger and enjoy our cozy hotel room. AMERICA!

Springfield - Seattle

Southern Illinois Fields

Apparently, it's cheaper to take a train to St. Louis and then fly to Seattle by way of Chicago, than it is to fly from Springfield to Chicago and then onto Seattle... Huh. Fine for us, we love taking trains, and are used to it! A great way of seeing any country, and America totally applies, is by train, and so the 2 hour ride from Springfield to St. Louis, through nothing but small mid-west towns and cornfields was lovely. Plus, crossing the Mississippi and seeing the Arch was very cool. Again, this felt just like a continuation of our adventure.

We didn't spend any time in St. Louis, but did appreciate that unlike so many American cities, but very common in Europe, the lightrail to the airport was just outside the main train and bus station. Here's to transportation hubs!

No More Airplanes

We arrived in Seattle in time for it to really hit us that we were done with airplanes. In fact, the idea of stopping for a while was becoming an ever present sensation. Yes we'd been in Italy for 2 months, but after awhile you just want a space that's yours. We haven't gotten there yet, but being with family and good friends has made this so much easier.

For our first few days we relaxed in Olympia, with family and are now visiting Portland, Oregon, the place from which we began this journey, and the place to which we will end. We had mixed feelings driving into Portland; thoughts of "is it really over?" and "you missed our exit, our house is that way... oh wait, we don't have a house..." But driving into Portland, where I have lived for 12 years and Jon 11, felt both familiar and new. Comfortable with new curiosity and interest. The city looks a bit brighter and intriguing. I don't know how much it's really changed in 10 months, but enough time passes where there are new restaurants, new people, new things happening. So suddenly your home feels like a whole new landscape to explore. That's nice for us. It really does feel like a kind of continuation - not a stop, or sidestep.

Reattaching Strings

Many people, in fact most people were really surprised when we said we were up and leaving. And most people also expressed that they could never do it. Bull honkey. Anyone can stop the phone service, give up the apartment (yeah this is harder if you own your house), quit the job and go. Of course it's not THAT easy, but it's also not that hard. What IS hard is reconnecting all those cords once you've cut them. It's really hard to rent an apartment without a job! I realize now I've never had to do that. We built in several months of living expenses for this ambiguous time of settling, but still, I definitely did not consider how complicated it is to completely create a new life that is not based in transition. No regrets, just an interesting challenge in this next phase of our life journey...

Reunion in Portland with Friends

So what's next? Jobs, house, friends, family, and all that goes with it. And maybe the occasional blog post and wanderlust. And for the record, it's really really really nice to be near people we care about. Travel is fabulous, but it doesn't replace relationships - ever.

Last night in Italy. Last nights overseas.

We haven't really spent much time thinking about our 'last night' in many places (except in Norway when we spent an exceptionally long time enjoying the sauna); but tonight is a special 'last night.' It's our last night in Europe. Our last day and night before we begin the multi-day journey back to the Pacific Northwest, our home. We've been in Europe for 4 months, plus an additional 2.5 before a brief interlude in the States for a wedding. Europe feels like home, normal, even all the things that annoy us just feel regular. And yet, we're about to start the journey home (it's taking extra time since we're spending a 2 day layover in Istanbul and a 3 day excursion with family in Illinois) with the feeling that another leg of our journey is about to begin.

You see, we don't have a place to live, we don't know what we'll be doing when we get there, we don't know how we'll get around. So really, things are just par for the course! We have lived with such uncertainty, such a transient, fluid life in these past 10 months that I feel very well prepared for whatever is to come in the next month or two back in America. Travel does that for you.

Sometimes I think that going home shouldn't be a big deal. In the grand scheme of my short 31 years, 10 months really isn't that long. But they have been formative months; months that have taught me many things about myself, my relationship with my husband, what I want out of life; possibility; limits. All important things.

Our last day in Italy was so very Italian and just as uncertain as our life is about to become. We came to Italy to work on a farm, and while Jon did that most of the time, I built a website (which looks great, check it out!). The endgame for me was to harvest olives, take them to the press and make olive oil. To taste freshly pressed olive oil seemed wonderful. And so that was the plan until 11am in the morning when we learned we would not harvest, nor press. So Jon and I decided to spend our last night in Rome. A quick turnaround, quick plan-making and, while there was quite a bit of annoyance, we chose an acceptance of new circumstances. I think that's a big lesson this trip has taught me - accept and move on.

Anyway, tonight we walked all over Rome, stumbling across sculpture, ancient ruins and modern amenities as one does in Rome. Tomorrow we fly to the true crossroads of East and West: Istanbul. We won't have time to nearly do justice to this great city. It's really just a layover but I'm thrilled to have a bit of adventure and exoticism before flying to a completely familiar country where I understand the language, the mannerisms, the cultural nuances. That's what travel is about isn't it - putting yourself in unfamiliar situations to learn, grow, be inspired, be challenged, have fun, be terrified, be ok with things?

In any case, the time has come to begin our journey home, which really just seems like part of the journey itself. Thank god I got a nice coppetta di gelato before leaving!

ciao.

Art Overseas: Part 1

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These two posts (this one and the one to follow) are long overdue for me, and as it is, they are completely inadequate as far as even beginning to skim the surface of the depth and breadth of cultural and creative expression we’ve experienced over the last 10 months. But just as at home, there is art overseas, art everywhere, in so many forms. So as a student of music, an arts administrator by profession and lover of all creative things by person, I offer a super truncated survey on the countries and places we’ve been and my (very) brief observations on the art we’ve experienced. We’ve been a lot of places so I’ve divided this into two posts – one for the first ‘leg’ of our trip – Belgium to West Africa and France; and then the second part after we returned from my brother’s wedding in May back to Europe. I love art and creative expression in all its forms (ok most all its forms, I’ll admit uber-modern conceptual dance isn’t really my thing..) and have kept an eye open for glimpses of how cultures in the 9 countries (10 if you include Vatican City! And 11 if you include our upcoming 2 day jaunt to Istanbul) we’ve visited express or the overarching things that struck me. So here we go: a brief review in chronological order of our travels of art overseas.

Belgium

Hellloooo gorgeous! Not only did we arrive in Bruges as our first stop on our trip – we arrived in one of the most visually stunning places I have ever seen. You may remember us blogging about it, but Belgium has loads of incredible art and expression oozing from all over. I think Belgium gets a bad rap for being boring (I’ve heard it several times), but I had completely the opposite experience.

Contemporary Installation in a Church

Contemporary Installation in a Church

Both Bruges and Ghent amazed me in the contrast of antiquity and modern right next to and on top of each other. In 12th century churches and cathedrals we saw modern photography, painting and even light installations. We saw modern sculpture in little open squares surrounded by gothic architecture. And in Ghent, an art and design student’s dream destination, we meandered down a world-famous street art alley. All this in the dead of winter – I can’t imagine what it’s like during festival season in the summer.

Beer is also something of an art – and if you are a beer lover like Jon and me you know that Belgium produces an unbelievable amount of excellent brews. And… every brewery needs a label so think of all the artists they’re employing on top of the creativity they offer by making fantastic beer!

Oh, and if you're in Brussels, you must go to the Instrument Museum  - the largest collection of unique instruments in the world - it's incredible!

Mali & Senegal

I generally feel wrong about lumping two countries together because the cultures really are different – not to mention that there are multiple ethnic groups in each of these countries - but there are a few similarities I want to point out here about creative expression. These two cultures, in my opinion, are built upon a very foundation of creativity. The line between performer and observer is much more obscure than in the West – and nearly everyone has some kind of craft or has an artisan in their family. Families themselves are artisanal – as in that family are all blacksmiths, and this family are all tailors. The tradition of craft is centuries old, as is storytelling and history told through music by dignified griots. Both Mali and Senegal are recognized internationally for the musical artists they produce, indeed the New York Times has quite the love affair with Senegal and Mali. It’s not only because of their rich traditional music, which is alive, but also because both countries produce incredible hip hop and rap artists that shake the international scene.

wedding celebration in Mali

wedding celebration in Mali

Being in Mali in January was a very interesting and difficult time. We arrived 4 days before fighting broke out between the French and Islamists who were threatening the security of southern Mali. Places like Timbuktu – the famous intellectual outpost and desert-trade crossroads – was under siege and these people who cared nothing for heritage but only for eternal glory (which I suppose is cultural it its own right – but so very horrible in the way it’s played out via religious zealots…. I digress) – burned and destroyed ancient manuscripts and cultural treasures within the libraries. As if this, and the fact that thousands of people became refugees, wasn’t enough, the very heartbeat of Mali’s expressiveness nearly came to a stop.

Public gatherings and celebrations were banned, simply for the fact that you didn’t know anymore who was friend and who was foe. Public gatherings include wedding celebrations, concerts, night clubs. Imagine Bamako in normal times. Sunday afternoon. The city is alive with multiple wedding celebrations, music, drums, dance, laughter make Bamako come alive. Then imagine Bamako with no gatherings. People got married, but musicians didn’t play, people didn’t dance. And in the North, which was completely held hostage under the most extreme view of Islam, some of the countries biggest rising musical stars couldn’t play a tune – for fear of awful retribution. This was a very different Mali. But what I will say is how unbelievably resilient Malians are. I think that if we went back now, Sundays, and every day, would be filled with expression.

In terms of visual art, and aside from sculpture and paintings made for tourists, I was very interested to see unbelievably large public art works in roundabouts on roadways. I didn’t really see any other signs of public art except these large installations. This is curious to me!

Mauritanian Singers

Mauritanian Singers

Mauritania

…has more camels than people. Need I say more about the lack of public art? This would probably be the place to make sandcastles – really big ones – cause… it’s the Sahara. The one look at traditional music was interesting though!

Morocco

Sweet Morocco. I’m in love with this place. The blending of cultures and traditions is truly amazing. Berber, Arab, Spanish, Ottoman, French – it’s incredible. Outwardly the architecture is pretty uninteresting. But that’s because Moroccans are family-focused and so the tilework, woodwork, painting, filagre and all of the intricacy you think of when you envision Morocco lives inside the home.

Morocco is a place to overload your senses, and in addition to the sights and smells, the people provide such a warm friendly welcome that you can’t help but feel overjoyed to be there.

We took a lot of bus rides in Morocco – it’s the easiest and cheapest way to get around. In addition to the music that was almost always playing for the bus driving (and therefore everyone else), every rest stop in every village as such a sight. Open stalls, butchers with the day’s goats and lamb for sale (yes hanging, for you to purchase), boutiques with tobacco and endless amounts of cookies and tea houses – all with a local radio playing. In the Atlas mountains this was even more interesting for me because all the radio stations were playing local Berber music. Again, the blend of influences of Islamic chant, Eastern rhythms and a special flavor – the native Berber sounds – was simply music to my ears.

I’d go back to Morocco any day – just to be filled with sensory overload. And… to eat amazing food.

France

Hmm, mon dieu what does one say in a few paragraphs about a country who produced some of the greatest painters, writers, thinkers and sculptures in the Western World (is that too bold?). What to say about the country that welcomed America’s black jazz musicians when we wouldn’t have them; nurtured their art and then let us have them back? The country that gave us French Chanson and Nadia Boulanger and Debussy among so many others. What to say about a country whose language, food, wine and fashion is art? Are you getting the point?

I will say that France, with its plethora of art, has really expensive, and expansive, art museums. It’s very costly to have a holiday in Paris in particular and even with 4 days we didn’t go to Louvre (I know.. I know!!). We did however purchase the Musee d’Orsay/Musee Rodin combo ticket, which was totally worth it, especially if you buy the ticket at the Rodin Museum because there’s never a line. Paris no doubt has some of the world's best art museums, but the gardens, sculptures and simply just the grandeur of the city feels like you're living in a piece of art. The rest of France, with its charming villages, perfectly landscaped countryside and all the wonderful french things that go with it make for a wonderful place to be. Why is it though that American nightclub music is SO popular though??!

To be continued... The UK, Norway, Spain and Italy...

Closing this Chapter

The-light-shines-on-Umbria.jpg

Well the time has come. We’ve made the decision to come back to the United States at the beginning of November and are closing this chapter for now. Our list of places to visit and experiences we want to have has only grown on this trip, not diminished. In the end, our dwindling funds make those experiences more and more truncated and therefore less what we want them to be. So we’ll spend the next 3 weeks doing as much as we can in Italy, maybe spending a bit more to have richer experiences, rather than trying to see more countries and having a superficial experience. Todi Basilica

Naturally, this is bittersweet for us, and the ending of a very interesting chapter in our lives. We would love to keep traveling (who wouldn’t). But the prospect of finding work is daunting enough, much less during the holiday season.

It's not all sad though. Jon and I are both homebodies in a way, and the 10 months we've been away from our friends and family has been a generous amount of time to explore and learn about the world. My general feeling from the long-term-traveler world is that going for as long as you can is the goal and that going back to the more 'normal' model of an 8-hour work day means you failed at something; like you failed to figure out how to live an alternative lifestyle.

But Jon and I have been and are very deliberate about our choices; and the choice to end this journey is not a matter of failure, it's a matter of knowing when we've hit a sweet spot, that our community of friends will still be there when we return, and that perhaps, just perhaps this isn't the last journey we'll ever take. As I read through our archives of this blog, I'm so proud that we accomplished one of our original goals: to find fulfillment, just to the point of 'enough.'

Umbria light

As I begin to apply for jobs I think about the life I left behind 10 months ago. There was a lot of stress. There was the whole process of being and acting 'professional,' like that was different from who I really was. I think a part of me wanted to prove on this trip that I was separate from that. But as I begin to envision new work opportunities, new colleagues, new ideas and of course, most importantly, being with the friends and people we care about, I realize that I'm not leaving anything behind in ending our travels. We are just beginning a new chapter - a new adventure. Perhaps it's one of a more generic sort, or one that's not always seen as an 'adventure.' But part of my goal will be to continue to 'seek fireflies' in the daily rhythm of work and life. Perhaps in the life I left behind 10 months ago I had just forgotten to look for bits of inspiration and the dolce vita which has been so easily handed to us during our trip (when things weren't really stressful or tiresome in and of themselves) made it seem like we couldn't have that at home. Or maybe I was just too distracted by what seemed important that I felt like I had to completely extricate myself and figure it out. Whatever it was I think it's worked.

About a month ago, and prior, I was terrified of ending this trip. Terrified that if I went home I'd lose a sense of freedom and get locked back into that work-to-live, live-to-work mentality. But now I'm enthusiastic. No it's not always going to be roses and puppies (god I hope not), but I look forward to putting on a little eye make-up, going to coffee meetings and visiting with a friend over cocktails. I have to admit I like that world and it can be just as fun as sharing a cup of sweet mint tea with a friendly Moroccan - it's just that the surprise factor isn't the same.

Anyway, our last remaining 3 weeks won't be without interest. We go to Naples on Wednesday (hellloooo Pompeii!) for three days. We'll visit Florence before we leave. And then, because it's us, we've extended our overnight layover in Istanbul to a two night visit to what should be a fabulous ending adventure. Then off to the bustling metropolis of Springfield, Illinois for a conference on my great grandfather, and then back to Seattle.

Jon's birthday wine and pork tasting!

So over the next couple of weeks (if I get my act together) I look forward to sharing more reflections about the trip, and the wonderful places and people we've met. And I think I'll continue to seek fireflies at home (maybe Jon will too!) since really, looking for things that inspire should never really stop.

By the way, I think it's more than just a coincidence that Italy, our last place to be (besides Istanbul) is the only place we've been that has actual fireflies during the summer. We missed them this year, but knowing they live here makes me really happy.

How do you find inspiration in your daily life?

PS: Happy birthday to my wonderful husband Jon.