Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Year of Travels

As the year ends, I, like almost everyone else, am reflecting on what I have done during 2013. There's no way I can deny that it has been an incredible year for me. But it has also been the most unsettled year of my life and changed me in ways I never dreamed possible. I've lived in four in cities in three different countries: Chicago, Illinois; Turate, Italy; Manhattan, KS; and Auckland, New Zealand, and each one has shaped me in a very unique way.

Collage of some of my favorite places in Europe.

I have seen so much of the word, but it still feels like I have seen so little of it. I feel like I have both become wiser to the "ways of the world" and simultaneously realized how little I know about all but a few things. I think I could travel and study forever and still feel the same way.

I think what I have really gained is the ability to understand how complex, rich and utterly different a culture can be while realizing that people are very similar. I think my Italian host dad said it best, "Cultures are different. People are the same." Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing from life. They want to take care of the people they love and want to be happy. Everybody faces that same crap: politics, religion, traffic, drama with friends and family--the details may change, but in the end, it's all the same thing. After living with four different families this year, one being my own, one in Manhattan, one in Italy and one in New Zealand, I feel certain that I could live with a "normal" (if such a thing actually exists) family from any country on Earth, and after adapting to different cultural standards, feel perfectly comfortable.

Knowing the goodness of people takes the world from being a scary, foreboding place, to a place where people want to help you and genuinely want to know you. I'm not saying you don't have to be wary while getting out, but it has cemented my belief that the world is inherently a good place, and people are kind. If I ever was, I am no longer scared of places that are different from what I know because I know that most people, at worst, will ignore me, or at best, will go out of their way to help me.

For example, I have been lost in almost every single city I have visited. Sometimes it was on purpose... a lot of times it was not. From the back alleys of Venice (on purpose) to the slums of Naples and Genoa (on accident), I have found people willing to go out of their way to help me find my way even when I was wary of them.

Realizing the depth of goodness in people has also led me to greater awareness of myself. I feel challenged to become one of the selfless people I have encountered. And even though I continually fail to do that, I have learned so much about who I am as a person. However, this knowledge, instead of making everything in my life  more clear, has made my sense of self murkier because I realized I am capable of more than I ever thought.

Reading back through my blogs, I remember meandering through Saronno (I didn't realize until I left that this is the same Saronno as where amaretto was invented. How cool is that?)  from one train stop to the other. I felt so incredibly competent. Now, I am not trying to suggest that finding my way through a random city in Italy where I don't really speak the language and don't have a map isn't an impressive thing, it's just that I did it so many times after that, it seems common place now.

I've gotten lost in so many random cities that the whole idea seems more thrilling to me than scary (After all, safe travel is only a cab ride away.) I forget that before I went to Paris, was handed a map and literally forced to figure out how to navigate, ("well you took us a really long way, but I guess we got there eventually") I had never done such a thing in my life.  Reflecting on the year has made me realize just how far I've come and makes me wonder just how far I have yet to go.

And I have to wonder what I would do differently if I could do it all again. My instinct is to say that I would get lost a lot less. And on the surface, that seems like it might be a good thing. But those times when got off the train unsure even of such basic facts as what city I was in, got taken advantage of by scam artists, and talked to a man with red teeth are what really made me grow. Seeing museums and eating authentic food certainly makes for good stories, but if I hadn't struggled my through living in two countries (especially Italy), I'm not sure if I would be the same person.

Before I traveled, I used to know that I am good at X,Y and Z, and I am not good at all these other things. But since I have been almost reduced to tears in Milan, pulled muscles walking through Venice and been yelled at in Germany (and Italy several time, but I attribute that more to the Italians' love for yelling than any particular transgression of mine), I have learned that I can do and survive so much more than I ever imagined I could.

This knowledge may have muddled my ideas of what I want to do with my life and where I want to live (spoiler: I have NO clue), but it has given me a much richer sense of myself. I have found so much more strength and self respect. My journeys this year, good and bad, have profoundly changed me. So, if you'll allow me to be cliche and (mis)quote one of my favorites songs, "who can say if I've been changed for the better? I do believe I have changed for the better... but I have been changed for good."

So, as friends, family or random internet go-ers, I thank you for your support through my travels, and I sincerely hope you have had a fantastic 2013 and that 2014 is even better. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Healthy Kiwis

The first time I tasted potato chips here ("crisps"), I thought they tasted really strange. Being curious, I wanted to know why, so I flipped over the package and read the ingredients. It said, "Potato, Olive Oil, Salt."
That's it. Nothing else. On potato chips. I was shocked and excited at the same time. I almost didn't feel guilty about eating them. I can't even pronounce the myriad of ingredients on chips in the U.S.

This one example is indicative of a larger trend in the healthier nature of food here. In the U.S, I have to specifically search out uncured bacon to avoid the preservatives in it. In New Zealand, all bacon is naturally cured.

Same with beef—I have to seek out grass-feed beef in the U.S. In New Zealand, there's no other choice. Nearly everything just seems to be made without being heavily processed and preserved. With all of my weird stomach problems, I appreciate this so much.

The naturally healthier approach to food coincides with a huge emphasis on outdoors activities.
Think back on gym class in the U.S. I remember playing tag, basketball, volleyball, floor hockey and the like. In high school, I took my mandatory one P.E. elective where we "learned" to play the basic sports. I basically remember having to run around for an hour 3 days a week.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, they learn water safety—things like sailing, surfing, swimming, kayaking—as well as taking outdoors trips camping and hiking ("tramping") and so many cool, practical, engaging things that would never happen in the U.S. with the emphasis on testing.

And it seems like this activity just carries on into adulthood. All the Kiwis I've meet seem to have at least one or two sports/activities. Rock climbing, surfing, paddle boarding, hiking, running. Whatever, there's just something to keep them active. 
Kayaking to the island in the distance. It took just under an hour each way!
Obviously, I climb trees. 
Rock Climbing!!
It's really rare that there's a day I don't do something semi-active. Sometimes, it's as basic as taking the kids swimming or for a long walk with the dogs. (I usually end up carrying one or more of them—dog or child—so it turns into a real workout.) Other times, it's something really challenging, like kayaking for two (non-consecutive) hours. And whenever I can, I make it to the gym to work out and boulder so that I can be physically fit enough to do everything else.

I have noticed a huge increase in my strength in the past month. All the activity is doing wonders for my upper body strength. (I can finally do a pull up!!)

One of the things I enjoy about living in different countries is learning the things from other cultures I want to adopt. I picked up some things in Italy, and I've picked up some things here. I know now that I definitely want to settle somewhere that affords me "heaps" of opportunities for outside adventures. I have always valued being physically active and now that I live somewhere it is so easy to be so active, I don't want to give that up.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Heaps Easy As, Bro

Heaps easy as, bro.

This phrase was the name of one of the routes at a climbing gym, and while it may sound like unintelligible gibberish, it is actually a logical, if slightly exaggerated, Kiwi phrase.

Now, I wrote a post about trying to understand Italian, and Kiwi, obviously, is much easier, but for something that is actually English, there are surprising number of moments when I don't understand what someone is saying.

Kiwi bird approves these translations.
I'll throw out a few examples**

"Bring your togs and jandals this weekend."

Togs is the generic term for a swimming suit. Jandals=Sandals.

"Be careful driving on the loose metal"

I was genuinely terrified the first time someone told me this. I imagined scrap metal flying all around me, but fortunately, it just means gravel.

"Oh yeah the water there is mean."

Mean and Mint are all alternates to cool. Mean gets used the same way "wicked" gets used. And mint seems to be more like "awesome."

That's not to say that they don't use "cool" or "awesome;" they just also use these other things

"He lives in this posh as house."

In Kiwi, for whatever reason, they add "as" on to a lot of their descriptions. So really, this quote just means he lives in a posh house. Sweet as means cool and/or sweet.

So back to the title of the blog, heaps is what they use instead of "a lot" or "a ton." easy as just means easy. And bro is a way less douchier thing to say here. So basically it means "really easy, man."

One thing that was a bit startling to me was that the "n" word is not really as taboo as it is in the US. It's not exactly a polite word, but you also aren't the worst sort of person if you're white and you say it. But it's still not something I like to hear. I think given the lack of historical context and black people in general, it doesn't matter as much. (That's not to say that NZ isn't diverse. It is. The diversity is just more Maori, Asians, Brits and Pacific Islanders)

On the flip side, "granola" isn't a word here. I've said it a few times and people have NO CLUE what I'm talking about. They call it muesli. There actually is a slight difference between the two, muesli tends to be a lot healthier than granola (as is almost everything... I'll save that for a later blog though.)

So that is a few examples of the slang here. And even though I know or can use context clues to figure out most of it, I still have to contend with a very different accent.

If you want to hear what Kiwi sounds like, listen to this:

80 percent of the time I don't have any issues understand anything. But if the environment is loud or I'm distracted, I might have to ask someone to repeat what they're saying.

As an example:
Last night at dinner, I was so mentally exhausted that I couldn't understand anything my soft spoken waitress was saying. At one point she came over and said... I have no clue what. I just stared at her, trying to make sense of the sounds. Nothing. I asked her to repeat it. My brain couldn't even process it as a language. I felt like an idiot. And my friend across the table looked like he was concerned about my sanity. "What?" I asked again, this time to him. "Do you want dessert?"

It was embarrassing.

Now obviously this same concept holds true when I talk, but I find that native English speakers are a lot more familiar with American slang than we are of theirs. It's because books and movies will actually change or re-edit movies for American audiences and British or Kiwi slang gets changed into more recognizable forms.

So the fact that they are more well versed with the slang I use and the fact my accent lends itself to fully enunciating words and the kiwi accent definitely doesn't generally means I am slightly better understood than I understand people. Or at least that's my impression... I could be wrong.

**All translations were approved by a real, live Kiwi.