My Asian Mom

I squeezed past a middle-aged woman, making my way to my seat on my flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok. Som toh, Khmer for “sorry” or “excuse me”, I said, and she quickly informed me that she was Thai and not, in fact Cambodian.

Damn. Strike one for still not being able to tell the two apart.

Strike two came when she told me that in fact, she was an American citizen now and not even Thai anymore.

Lucky for me, there was no strike three. By the end of the hour-long plane ride, she had invited me to stay with her in the hotel room she had booked — free of charge. Mind you, this woman could have been my mother; for all intents and purposes over the next three days, she was.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m fairly Caucasian. I’ve never had an Asian mother (go figure), nor are any of my relatives from “The East”, unless we’re talking east coast USA. I had no idea what to expect from this small, fierce woman who had decided it was her personal mission to welcome me to Bangkok.

Through Ubon (for that was the name of my adoptive mother) I quickly learned the hierarchical state of things in Thailand. She would give stern orders to waiters and taxi drivers who scurried to carry out her every demand. Her 5-foot frame somehow commanded an astounding amount of respect from anyone behind a counter. And for some unfathomable reason, everyone in the tourism/hotel/service industry seemed to think she was actually my mother, despite the (obvious) discrepancies in appearance.

(Not the Emerald Buddha)

That’s not to say that I didn’t do my usual gingery thing and go wandering off on my own. I highly recommend the Grand Palace and its Emerald Buddha (which is disappointingly made of jade and not emerald). The optical assault of colors, patterns, mirrors, and the tinkling of bells made for a surreal atmosphere that almost made up for the fact that the palace grounds were overrun with large groups of Russian tourists. A 5-hour afternoon bike and boat excursion with Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours was also well worth the short flirtation with death by hellish traffic before reaching quieter, lush suburbs of Bangkok.

Solo-Ginger day was followed by a mother-daughter day of intense shopping in the city — where you can buy literally everything and that in 50 different colors, styles, shapes, with googly eyes or polka dots — you name it, Bangkok has it. I escaped without a huge dent in my wallet, but learned an uncomfortable bit of cultural information. You see, whether in a hotel, a shop, or a restaurant, the Thai employees gave me the distinct feeling that they were serving us. Not just waiting on us or helping us, but serving, as in “thou art higher than I on the social ladder, oh noble one”.

I have no problem accepting generosity from warmhearted givers, or even being spoiled by people who care about me (or in Ubon’s case, by a complete stranger). It was, however, unsettling to be treated as if I were somehow better than they were. After consulting my Asian mom about this cultural difference, I realized Ubon was used to it. It was simply a question of money, again the issue of ‘have’ vs. ‘have-not’.

The discomfort was temporary, however, as I was looking forward to the tranquil atmosphere of Wat Prayong…the temple where I spent a week as a Buddhist nun. Keep an eye out for the next post on meditation, monks and “My Asian Dad”, for yes,  I managed to be adopted again…


Voilà, ça y est.

„Eets no problem, eets no problem“  said Turgot with a huge smile. He was our covoiturage (ride-share) driver from the chaos of Spain into the relative sanity that is France. Headed to Bordeaux, we were apologizing for our terrible French skills, having had them scrambled from our recent escapades with the Spanish language. Little more than 10 minutes into our drive, he asked us if we’d like to stay with him instead of paying for a hostel we had already booked. Making a gut decision, heavily based on his happy-go-lucky vibe and the fact that all my past experiences with Cameroonians have been wonderful, we decided to take his offer!

That night we initiated him into CouchSurfing by cooking him dinner before making a round of “the blonde city” by night. Bordeaux’s train station has a beautiful front, but behind it is where the prostitutes work, waiting in parking lots in vans, often with the lights on to read by. He told us he wanted to show us both sides of the city, and that was exactly what we got. The place de la bourse and the accompanying reflection pool was the perfect spot to sit by the riverside and share a bottle of Cava.

Bordeaux by day was aesthetically pleasing to be sure, but it didn’t seem like the city had much to offer besides photo opps and countless dégustations, which we decided to skip in favor of sipping a few local reds on our own time. Turgot surprised us by cooking a fantastic meal, and we spent more time frolicking in the water on the place.

Moving from one very hospitable host to another, we found ourselves in La Rochelle, the last stop on our journey together. (Michael will continue traveling until September, so if you’d like a slightly different perspective on a trip through Europe, take a minute to read his journey on Transnational Considerations).

You might remember Kyra, another Fulbrighter in Gießen? Her brother Alex took us in for a few wonderful days in the city that has been his hometown for the past eight years. A scathingly funny writer (author of The La Rochelle Times, a blog inspired by The Onion) I’m very grateful to have met Alex as he was not only a fabulous conversationalist, but as an expat who taught English for a year in France and never left, he also gave me hope for the future…

Bordeaux was the blonde city, La Rochelle was the white city. We didn’t run into any knights of Gondor, but the Knights Templar had left their own marks on the town. If I had to pick a favorite place from the trip, the decision would teeter between Valencia and La Rochelle. Coastal cities seem to have a hold on me…La Rochelle caught me with its ocean air, bike-friendly streets, fresh and inexpensive seafood and a quiet hum of people/sounds/smells that floated pleasantly in the background. The fact that Ryanair has a conveniently located airport there means I’ll be back someday soon. Perhaps my pictures can convince you to take a trip…


I’ve come to terms with the realization that if Germany and Spain were somehow geographically and culturally merged (besides the utter havoc it would create…can you imagine a well-oiled, workaholic machine of a society working well with the concept of siesta?), it might just create my ideal living conditions. Take the two climates, average them, stick a beach in there somewhere and I’ll call it home without hesitation.

Then again, I always seem to breathe a huge sigh of relief when I’m back in France…hmm.

Jaiak all summer long

Not to shortchange Bilbao, the city that we visited after Barcelona, but the two are simply incomparable.  Perhaps the extreme tourism of Barcelona had clouded my outlook on Spanish cities, but Bilbao’s thriving Basque culture and lack of tourists took me completely by surprise. The countryside alone was a drastic change from Barça’s seaside beauty; from first impressions, the fog trapped in valleys as the sun set behind rocky, forest-covered hills reminded me more of Virginia than anything. Cooler breezes from the Atlantic, a trip to the Guggenheim, a funky language isolate – Euskara – and a Peruvian CouchSurfing host with a penchant for partying colored my three-day weekend in Bilbao.

After getting past the sheer awesomeness of the building’s exterior,  the range of emotions the exhibitions induced was almost frightening. From a giant wall of scrolling, blinking red text about an artist’s reaction to an AIDS diagnosis to a case of jars containing formaldehyde-soaked cow organs (supposedly meant to represent two lovers), the exhibits assaulted the senses.

The nights passed in FIESTA party-mode, doing botellon in a few pueblos around Bilbao as part of the summer’s nonstop outdoor festival that rotates between towns each weekend.  We drank kalimotxo (red wine mixed with Coca Cola, better than it sounds, actually), danced in the streets, met the Bilbao CouchSurfing community and cooked for Adrian, our last host in Spain.

He was our tour guide and translator, taking pity on our lack of knowledge of Euskara, Basque country’s unique language. He clued us onto the difference between everyday tapas and the more refined pintxos of Basque country. After an endless dinner of fantastic food at a local restaurant, the owner — a friend of our host — even gave me a “Sopelako jaiak 2011” bandanna as a souvenir of the fiesta in Sopelana, one of the villages outside of Bilbao.

Though Bilbao was a spur-of-the-moment decision after rethinking our flexible itinerary, I’m really glad we ended up there. The intangible difference – a feeling brought on by the different language, weather, and food – and the tangible pride and separatist attitude surrounding the Basque people, a weekend with a fiesta-loving Peruvian…lovely reminders of why I adore traveling.

Seaside freedom

After Madrid’s fiasco I was ready for some sun & fun. Gandía Platja, a beach located just 45 minutes south of Valencia, was where we spent the next few days. A generous coworker had given me the keys to her beach side apartment – we could not have been closer to the sea unless we had camped out on the sand.

Fresh air and perfect weather greeted us along with Bill and Michael, a couple of crazy British/German expats who befriended us and drove us from the train station to a supermarket (some Serrano jamón was in order) and finally, to the seaside.

Gandía and Valencia were overrun with tourists, most of whom were Spanish, Russian or British. We heard no other Americans and very little English for the next few days. Our interactions with locals were limited to a few orientation questions scattered here and there, so I unfortunately didn’t practice Spanish at all. What struck me however was that it was the first time in years that I had simply taken a day and done nothing.

A day at the beach. What did I get? Slightly dehydrated, a sunburn (although I used copious amounts of sunscreen), salty skin, seawater-tousled mermaid hair. And lots of time to think.

But while all that thinking was going on, I realized that all I ever do is think, plan, figure out the next step. I’m incessantly making mental lists of things to do, calculating what I need or want to accomplish. Having to go for that long without scribbling down a thought, typing or researching something was difficult, and had it been for more than one day I would have gotten antsy. I wouldn’t say I’m a workaholic as that implies actually working, no, if anything I’m a planaholic or perhaps simply addicted to brainstorming. I guess it’s really possible to be “bad” at taking a vacation…

After having explored dozens of European cities, I tend to get into a rhythm when I arrive in a new one. Climb something tall to orient myself, learn about some old stuff relevant to the city’s background, eat and drink regional specialties, interact with locals whether through Couchsurfing or random pleasant encounters. I gain culinary, linguistic, and historical knowledge and if I’m lucky, a friend or two who wouldn’t mind having me back in town sometime.

Venturing into Valencia, we tried fideuá del pescado, a regional dish with macaroni noodles and various suction-cupped or fishy sea creatures. A lovely British expat let us keep our backpacks in her international bookstore the following morning as we climbed Valencia’s church tower, sampled Spanish pastries like cocas de mazapán con almendras y piñones, photographed monuments and back alleys, locals and tourists alike.

Maybe it was something about the air in Valencia combined with the Calatrava structures near the waterfront, but I felt at home (read: Milwaukee) in Valencia. For Spain, where up until then I had felt like a real tourist – at the mercy of chaotic train experiences, slogging along in endless lines, or sweltering in a fresh wave of heat – that sudden comfort was well worth noting. I didn’t want to leave Valencia, but Barcelona and Señor Gaudí were calling…

I met no barber.

I always find it sad saying good-bye to friends when I don’t have the slightest idea of when we’ll meet again. It does, however, help me keep thinking optimistically about the next time our paths might cross and automatically nixes the possibility of taking any of friends for granted. With that in mind, Michael and I left Brett, Don and the bustling heat of Madrid and exchanged them for Mauricio and the stifling heat of Sevilla.

Lucky for us, our Couchsurfing host Mauricio let us have free reign of his apartment and we came and went as we pleased. Twenty minutes into the center on Sevilla’s impeccably clean metro system, we soon found ourselves in the midst of Dia europeo de la música, and enjoyed a free outdoor concert of Moroccan-influenced Spanish music. We had a quick walk around to preview some of the sights we’d visit the next day and made our way to a flamenco show at Los Gallos. Despite the fact that it was clearly designed for tourists (30€ for the two-hour show, including one drink – we chose sangria), the actual quality of dancing – and live music, of course – was excellent. My mind wandered to fill in the female dancers’ inner monologues with tales of strife to match their passionate grimaces and wondered at the male dancers’ machismo.

After the show let out after midnight, the temperatures had finally dropped to a comfortable warmth and the city was still alive. A closed metro meant splitting an overpriced taxi ride home (the driver tried to charge us even more when he got lost, but I wasn’t about to let that happen). We slept in without thinking that we’d awake to the hottest part of the day; sunscreen slathered on, water bottles loaded, the day brought us to the heights of la Giralda, to the cool respite of Sevilla’s cathedral, and to the exquisite Moorish palace Real Alcázar. Having gone a little picture-crazy, I took a break with a Spanish newspaper and the freshest mojito I’ve ever had until I decided it was time to buy some stamps.

Up until this point, my Spanish had taken me as far as buying tickets and food (para llevar and para tomar – “to take out” and “to eat in” were the first verbs I learned in Madrid). But the hour had come. Postcards had to be sent. I didn’t really  know the word for stamps, though I had seen it before. I approached the tabac counter and confidently stated, “I need 1 chair for the United States and 2 chairs for Germany”. Whoops.

You see, sillas is the word my brain decided to use instead of the correct word sellos. Damn vowels. Tricksy little phonemes, they are. In any case, it was a nice reminder of the early days of learning a language when it’s still funny to make mistakes. I laughed it off, corrected myself and got what I needed.

Mauricio was at home that night, so Michael and I taught him the basics of salsa while he patiently listened to my Spanitalianglish mixed instructions. He was a quick learner and it was lovely to finally get to know the person whose casa had been our casa for the previous two days. (Side note: I’m always amused when I have the chance to introduce a person to something foreign to my own cultural upbringing – a very WASP-y one, albeit nowadays minus the P – and closer to theirs. Back in Gießen, for example, I cooked the first sweet potatoes that my language tandem partner from a pueblo near Puerta Vallarta had ever eaten. Funny how the world works).

Sevilla’s andalusian atmosphere of forced relaxation imposed by the sweltering heat dominated my impression of the city, and at first glance I liked it more than Madrid. Not a place I could live, but definitely good for a holiday or two, Sevilla’s vibrant arts scene and wealth of beautiful city scenery could have kept my attention for much longer than two days. Rolling on to the next destination – Valencia – we headed back to Madrid for a train connection that turned our rough itinerary thoroughly upside down. Look for some seriously useful travel advice in the next post on Madrid, otra vez!

Madrid: primera vez

I flew to Madrid on Sunday night to meet up with Michael, a fellow Madtown Ballroom dancer from university. We had a Couchsurfing host lined up, a chill ex-Marine named Brett who has seen 81 of these 100 Wonders of the World and was consequently infinitely better traveled than the both of us combined. He took us out for tapas at La sureña, a small place overflowing with Spaniards where you could barely hear yourself talk over the volume of rapid-fire conversation. The gambas (shrimp) and pulpo (octopus) were delicious, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the tiny beer bottles they accompanied…they were like fun-sized beers for training your ten-year-old. The bottles triggered a comparison of Germany to Spain which continued throughout the entire trip.

Lucky for us, another dancer friend of ours was living in Madrid for the semester and so we had a touristy day with Don, who led us around to the must-see spots – Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Parque del Retiro (we danced a bit by the pond), and the Reina Sofia to get up close and personal with Picasso and Dalí. A trip to the nearest heladería for some gelato ended up turning into a few hours of catch-up conversation as I hadn’t seen Don in six months. Little did we know that Michael and I would be back in Madrid and seeing Don again sooner than we thought…I’ll save that (un)fortunate adventure for after I write a bit about Sevilla though.

Another great Couchsurfing experience awaited us; Brett had grilled steaks and fresh asparagus in preparation for a grill-off competition he had signed up for, and we spent the evening enjoying the food and talking in the balmy night air on his balcony. I loved Madrid’s metro, but I only had a day and a half to get to know a small part of the city (which had been spent primarily with friendly Americans), so couldn’t decisively say if I liked the city itself or simply the experience of being there.

Spain’s high-speed trains impressed me even more than its fantastic metro system – Deutsche Bahn trains were comparable, but the Renfe AVE trains were more like taking a flight between cities, complete with “flight attendants”. Going through security and two checkpoints before boarding the train and the on-board comforts made the trip from Madrid to Sevilla a breeze! More on the Andalusian vibes in the next post…

¡Un beso!

(W)rapping up

I have to say, I absolutely love my coworkers at the Gesamtschule. I now have a sort of “Ode to Ginger” to remember forever, as they wrote and performed a song for me as a good-bye present at the last teachers’ conference of the semester. I’ll post the lyrics eventually as they’re really quite clever, but I’m in Madrid now with limited time to write — lots of things to do and see!

I’ve had a hard time processing the whole end of the Fulbright “experience”, simply because of how fast the end came. It helped that I took the time to write a brief speech in German which I presented to my coworkers as a heartfelt thank-you for their support. Last August I was definitely dreading being placed in such a small town, but I’m absolutely happy with the way things turned out. I’m so thankful for the cooperative and passionate teachers I’ve been able to learn from and work with, and for the lively, passionate, intelligent students I grew close to throughout the year.

Side note: I feel obligated to mention that my 9th grade students asked me to choreograph a hip hop routine for their graduation ceremony performance, which I somehow whipped up in an hour in the staff room. They were tough to teach, but I ended up getting them to look passably “gangsta” (well, as thug as 15-year-old Germans from a small country town can look, having been taught by a ballroom dancer from the suburbs) and had them rapping to The Black Eyed Peas’ “Time of Your Life – Dirty Bit” in front of their parents. It was a success.

The odd thing was that, aside from a day of doldrums when I finally realized all of the great stuff about to come to an end, I wasn’t sad at all during the whole process of saying good-bye to everyone. I’ll admit, I shed a few tears when I bid adieu to Elke, the effervescent bundle of energy who is our choir director, but for the most part I have it in my head that I’ll see all of the important people again soon…whether it’s during the summer in Frankfurt or after being in Asia for a bit. Honestly, it was the happiest round of good-byes I’ve ever experienced – I’m optimistic about keeping in contact with the fantastic connections I’ve made here.

I feel peculiar writing this post because I’m already sitting on the balcony of my CouchSurfing host’s apartment in Madrid. I barely had time to tie up loose ends in Gießen before I was boarding a cramped RyanAir flight to meet up with Michael, a close friend from my time at UW-Madison.  Life rolls on…

To wrap everything up — probably too quickly to do the program justice — I guess that more than anything, the experience as a Fulbright  ETA has allowed me to grow as a traveler and (as completely corny and cliché as it sounds) as a global citizen. Yes, I learned the useful lesson that I don’t want to be a teacher…at least not full time, nor with pubescent children…but the simple ability to sustain a life where I took so much time for myself and did whatever I wanted, when I wanted to…how many people ever get that chance!? Truly, in every sense, I’m so grateful for each experience of these last ten months.

Ahora, on to the proxima aventura!