Thursday, September 30, 2010

My favorite Palestinian beer (and it's not just because it's the only Palestinian beer)

It's that time of year again. The time of year where everyone is Facebook-ing and Twitter-ing: "HURRAY! OKTOBERFEST!" and then "Meh....hungover...." Or maybe that's just my friends...

I suppose that since I lived in Germany it would be reasonable for me to now write about the time that I went to the Oktoberfest in Munich. I could. Because that night involved a variety of fun incidents. And by fun I mean not fun. At all. We were a bunch of broke exchange students who thought that we could save a few dollars by staying up all night instead of staying at a hotel like not students  adults  normal people who prefer to spend their money on a hotel rather than beer. Or those very fortunate people who can afford both beer and a hotel. Lucky bastards. It ended up being a disaster. The individual responsible for holding onto our train tickets thought it would be a good idea to take Ecstasy, not tell anyone and then wander off alone into the night with said train tickets. A few of us then wandered to the movie theatre to see Broken Flowers just so we could sleep somewhere warm for two hours before finally giving up and retiring to the Munich train station to spend the rest of the night on the floor. 

Incidentally if you're ever stuck in Munich for a night with nowhere to sleep (for some reason, this has now happened to me twice), I recommend taking the subway to the airport and sleeping there. This is likely illegal, but more comfortable than sleeping in the underground, the train station or a movie theatre. Trust me on this one. The line between vagrant and poor student is a fine one, and that train station is drafty. 

So, I could write about that in detail. My experience at that Oktoberfest is postworthy, but I am going to defer it. Because I would rather write about the Oktoberfest in Taybeh. 

Mmm, beeeeer

Taybeh is a small town outside of Ramallah in the West Bank and it also happens to be home to one of my absolute favorite beers

I had been a fan of the beer since my first visit to the region, and when I found out a few friends were planning on heading to Taybeh for the Oktoberfest, I was eager to tag along. It meant going through one of the more notorious and unpleasant checkpoints, commonly referred to as "The Container," but I couldn't turn down an evening of music, friends and Taybeh beer. 

I lived in a small town outside of Bethlehem, and I was self-conscious about purchasing alcohol. Generally grocery store purchases have extreme potential for awkwardness (please see this blog for a very accurate portrayal of that awkwardness). The potential for awkwardness increases when you have only a few stores to choose from and all of those stores are owned and staffed by very genial Palestinians who will remember you and say hello to you on the street, stopping to ask if you are settling in nicely to your new home. This will cause you to think that if they remember you, they probably also remember what you buy. Purchasing toilet paper and feminine products just got about 50 times more awkward. 

Also...during my first few weeks I had a little trouble figuring out which white package of salt-like substance was table salt. It took me 5 tries. As evidenced by the photo below. The table salt was kept in a different section from the rest of the spices which is why it took me 5 tries to find it. I didn't think to look next to the flour and sugar. 

Is this one salt? This one? No? This one? What about this one? Dammit.

So my grocery store trips were always an adventure and I was slightly self-conscious about buying what I felt might be perceived as copious amounts of beer. Yes, I lived in a predominantly Christian town and drinking is socially acceptable, but I didn't want anyone thinking I was an alcoholic. The problem is that Taybeh beer is really good beer and it was really hot outside and sometimes I had a long day and just needed a beer. And by sometimes, I mean every day. 

One evening I went into the shop and thought I would just go ahead and purchase 4 beers at once instead of my customary one a day purchase. As I walked up to the counter with my 4 beers and a bag of chips, the shopkeeper asked if I was having a party. Lightbulb flickered. I responded, "Yes. Absolutely. I am definitely having a lot of people over, and I am 100% not planning on drinking these all by myself." From that point on, that was my technique. Anytime I purchased more than one beer at a time, I made sure to mention that I was having people over. That way I looked like more of a good hostess and less of a raging alcoholic, which is always a good thing. Please see Miss Manners for more detail on this subject. 

The material point of all of this being that I really love Taybeh beer and was really excited to go to the Taybeh Oktoberfest. 

Saturday evening rolled around. My friends and I piled into a shared taxi and headed to Taybeh via the only road available for Palestinians...the Valley of Fire. I'm not making that up. I'll post about it sometime. People often ask if I was ever afraid for my life while living in the West Bank. The answer is, no. Except for when I had to take the bus to Ramallah via the Valley of Fire. 

It took us a little longer than normal to get to Taybeh because whoever is in charge of city planning decided that the eve of a big festival would be the perfect time to rip up the only road going into town. But eventually we did arrive, and it was absolutely fantastic. The beer was delicious, the music was fun, the people were great. There were a number of troupes performing traditional dances and I, for one, absolutely adore Palestinian folk dance performances.* The culture, the costumes, the's spell-binding. 

This style of dress is my favorite. 

At around midnight, we decided it was time to head home although the party was still going strong. We had a long drive ahead of us and we were all exhausted. 

Not far outside of Bethlehem, we rolled slowly toward the Container checkpoint. I was sitting in the front seat and everyone handed their ID's to me as we approached the Israeli soldiers standing guard at the checkpoint. I rolled down the window and handed one of them our ID's. He flipped through them, handed the Palestinian ID cards to a fellow soldier and asked me where I was from. 

"I'm American," I said, "from California."

 "Ohh, California," he responded and he turned to another soldier who had sidled up beside him. He smiled and then with a heavy Israeli accent he began softly singing.

On a dark, desert highway. Cool wind in my hair 

The other soldier joined in. 

Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air. Up ahead in the distance, I saw shimmering light. My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim. I had to stop for the night

And then both of them were standing there, a full moon hanging heavy over a shadowed desert landscape, singing loudly and off-key. 

Welcome to the Hotel California. Such a lovely place (Such a lovely place) Such a lovely face. Plenty of room at the Hotel California. Any time of year (Any time of year). You can find it here.

I was torn between being amused by this unexpected spectacle and being saddened by the significance of the words they were singing and their particular relevance to this situation. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I smiled wearily. I was semi-drunk, exhausted, slightly car sick, they had semi-automatic weapons and I'm not exactly a fan of that song.** But there was nothing to do but sit and listen to the performance in its entirety. Two Israeli soldiers, their weapons slung over their shoulders, belting out an Eagles' ballad. 

Though I had spent a fair amount of time in Israel and was familiar with its side of the story--its sorrows and shortcomings--and knew that my Israeli friends had served in the army, Israeli soldiers nonetheless made me nervous. Numerous unpleasant experiences with the Israeli Defense Forces had left a bitter taste in my mouth. But in this moment, I felt like I was watching two kids dressed up in soldiers' uniforms, simply singing a song they liked in the middle of the night in the middle of the desert. Somehow I found this heartbreaking. They sang the entire song. I clapped--the staccato sound echoed across the valley. They handed us our ID's and we continued on. 

*This is a really, really poor quality video of one of the dances. It was taken with my little pocket camera and is only to satisfy the desperately curious. I tried to take a better video but I was distracted by a handsome Palestinian dancer on stage had had too many beers am a terrible photographer ....I'm not really going to come out on top here no matter what I say so I'm giving up. 

**No offense to Eagles' fans. It's a good song. It's just that people have a habit of singing it to me when I tell them where I'm from. Their enthusiasm has unfortunately dampened mine.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Negev, where there are--in fact--no rabid coyotes

When British guy and I first started hanging out, I was living in the West Bank and he was living in Israel. What can I say? It's complicated. In order to get to Tel Aviv to see him, I had to cross the checkpoint and take 3-4 different buses. The distance between us was roughly 70 kilometers (43 miles), but it usually took around 3 and a half hours...if everything went smoothly. Unless you're  British guy and you decide to cycle to Bethlehem. Then it takes longer, but you get bonus points for the shock value Israeli soldiers experience while watching you cycle through a checkpoint. 

At one point, British guy--being the social and outgoing person that he is--decided that it would be fun to rent a car and drive out to the Negev to go to a party in the desert. I was all for the party (It would be dark. Nobody would see me dancing), and I was fine with the renting the car bit too until I realized that it was going to be me renting and then subsequently driving the car. 

For some reason even though I had lived abroad before, I had never rented or driven a car in a foreign country. I thought of Tel Aviv. Of its chaotic driving and crowded streets. I thought of driving in Tel Aviv. I panicked. But this was before I had become comfortable having a nervous breakdown in front of British guy so I swallowed my apprehension and happily agreed. After all, it would mean a weekend in the Negev with British guy. 

At it turns out, I'm a surprisingly okay driver in other countries. I didn't kill or maim anyone and the car remained happily intact and without any scratches. 

Our trusty little car. Thanks, Avis!

So we headed out into the desert, British guy explaining the geography of the region and me cheerfully encouraging the little car through hour after hour of dramatic desert landscape.  And then when we reached approximately the middle of nowhere, British guy decided that it was a good place for him to get out and cycle for a few hours. I drove. He cycled. I WIN! Although at the time, I was wishing that I had a bike so I could cycle too. But now I'm glad I didn't because I probably would have died and it's best to ease into those sort of things. In fact, the best place to learn how to cycle is on one of the most notorious climbs of the Tour de France. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Driving through the Negev. This is where British guy got out to cycle. 

We ended up at a place called the Shaharoot Guesthouse. I'm not sure what they've done with it now. This was last November and they were having a big party--one last hurrah-- before shutting the place down, but there was some ambiguity about what would happen with the place. Any Israelis out there know what happened to it? It's too bad if it did end up getting closed because it was a lot of fun. 

The next day we drove/cycled down to Eilat, went swimming in the Red Sea, hung out on the beach, got a parking ticket, drove halfway back, found a big empty plateau overlooking the Negev and decided that that looked like a good place to set up camp. 

Driving through the Negev

We had a bottle of wine, a camp stove and some pasta. I was looking forward to drinking wine while staring up at the stars. But I should have known better. After spending many a camping trip in Joshua Tree National Park, I should know that the desert in November at night (especially a high desert) is the equivalent of an ice box with wind. 

British guy had a tent that was designed to comfortably fit 0.5 people. They said two. Fair enough. But you should know that if you plan on fitting two people in a 0.5 person tent with one sleeping bag, you're going to end up sleeping on top of one another. You know what? I don't like where this is going. Let's go back to the weather. It was cold. Freezing. Even by a normal person's standards. If you don't believe me, go find your closest desert and spend a night out there in November. That'll show you. Suckers!

So back to the part where I wanted to sit outside, sipping wine, and staring at the stars. Which is all well and good, except that it was freezing. However, I am a very stubborn person.  I once sat at a dining room table until 2 in the morning because my Dad said I couldn't get down until I finished my dinner, and dammit I didn't want to finish it so I sat there for nearly 8 hours. I've grown less fussy about food, but have still remained stubborn and this time I was hell bent on enjoying the stars while sipping wine. I didn't care if I froze to death. 

Well, as it turns out I did care and I am far less stubborn when it is below freezing. If only my Dad had known that trick. 

I hastily retreated to the tent. I slept for about 2 hours before I heard sounds. Being a rational person, I jumped to the most logical conclusion. That conversation went something like this: 

Me: British guy! 

BG: mrhm

Me: Do you hear the rabid coyotes outside the tent?

BG: [instantly awake] what?* 

Me: Well, it might be mice getting into our food. But it could also be rabid coyotes. You should go check.

British guy gets out of the tent and goes out into the subzero temperatures to check for rabid coyotes. I would have done it, but he's British and his sense of honor--excuse me, honour--would not let a fair maiden (um, me)  go out and check for rabid coyotes. Just kidding. I didn't even offer. It was f@&%*$ cold outside!

Turns out it was just the wind. But it really sounded like mice. Or coyotes. 

I should note that I have a history of making British guy get up to go check on what I am sure is either a) a serial killer; b) rabid coyotes; or c) a ghost. It's usually always the wind. 

But better safe than sorry, right? At least that's what I always say after waking British guy up and making him feel obligated to get out of bed to go and see what imminent danger is lurking in the corners. One of these days it will be rabid coyotes and then he'll thank me for being so alert. Or he'll be attacked by rabid coyotes, in which case he probably won't be too thrilled that I made him get out of bed.

*Actually, he probably said something like "I beg your pardon." He's more cultured and polite than I am and doesn't rudely demand "WHAT?!" of people who shake him awake to check for coyotes. 


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Alpe d'Huez: Why 21 turns is 21 too many

At the end of the ski season (my first ski season), I breathed a sigh of relief. I thought that I would have at least a few months reprieve from British guy seeing me break down in tears because I was a) unable to breathe at altitude; b) scared of falling to my death; c) frustrated because I spent more time on my backside than on my skis; d) could not do a kick turn to save my life; and e) all of the above.

Because I am sick and twisted and clearly have some adrenaline issues, I loved it, and I am undeniably excited for the return of the snow in a few short weeks....but I wanted to spend a weekend with British guy that did not involve me having a nervous breakdown because I was terrified that I would die and never get to go to In-N-Out Burger again.

So when British guy mentioned in an offhand manner that a cycling shop (go here for the shop. I highly recommend it. The mechanic there is fantastic) in Bourg d'Oisans was selling used road bikes and they had one in my size, I was excited. I'd pined after a road bike for years. I'd always loved riding my bike and thought cycling with a proper road bike would be easy to pick up. I felt like I was born to be a cyclist. I was going to be the next Lance Armstrong. Also, I was super excited about getting to wear spandex shorts. I love spandex shorts. Only it's really hard to look sexy in spandex shorts when you have a large piece of foam wedged into said spandex shorts. So that dream, at least, was shattered. I definitely did not look sexy. I looked like I had foam shoved in my pants. But I was still going to be an amazing cyclist. I knew it. I couldn't wait to get on the bike.

But then I got on the bike.

My sweet-ass bike, Marco. Alpe d'Huez, 2010

My feet were clipped in, I felt awkward and vulnerable and like I was going to fall over if anyone so much as walked past me. And this was Bourg d'Oisans...the base of Alpe d'Huez. The hub of one of the most notorious climbs of the Tour de France. People were whizzing past me in brightly colored spandex as I teetered along like a two-year old learning to walk. I was sure everyone was staring at me and feeling a whole lot of pity for British guy. It was like learning to ski all over again. Just once I would like to drag British guy to try a sport that I am an expert in and he has no idea how to do and is potentially terrified of so that I can be the one patiently waiting while he has a nervous breakdown. That fantasy is never going to be realized though because I don't think British guy is capable of a nervous breakdown.

Which means that I am going to always be the one collapsing in a neurotic fit of tears. Somebody has to do it.

Once I figured out how to clip in and not fall over, we went on a short cycling tour that had one tiny hill. British guy was cycling beside me giving me tips and telling me about the area we were cycling through. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't feel my legs. I wanted to hit him, but if I took one hand off of the handlebar, I was going to fall. Also I couldn't breathe. Or feel my legs. Did I mention that I couldn't breathe?

After our short tour, we went back to Bourg d'Oisans. The plan had been to cycle up Alpe d'Huez.

Alpe d'Huez, 2010

 My problem is that I get very enthusiastic about things that I know nothing about. So enthusiastic that I often (always) lose touch with reality and become incapable of identifying the line between what I can and cannot do. While sitting on the couch, discussing plans for the weekend, I was certain I could pedal up Alpe d'Huez. I mean, really. How hard could it be? Sitting at the base, however, looking straight up to where we needed to go, I didn't see how anyone could walk up Alpe d'Huez without a rope. So I took the bus up instead, reassuring myself that I just needed a few weeks to get used to being on a road bike and then I would show that mountain who is who! Turns out I was going to find out who is who much more quickly than I realized. I had taken for granted that there would be a bus back down the following morning.

British guy and I had stayed the night at the top of Alpe d'Huez and the next morning I cheerfully got up  and started packing my things. I asked British guy what time the bus left.

BG: What bus?

Me: The bus that we're taking down the mountain.

BG: There is no bus. It's Sunday.

Me: There's no bus? will I get down?!

BG: With your bike. Or you could walk.

Me: But...I....I don't know how to cycle. I'M GOING TO DIE!

BG: You'll be fine.

Me: You always say that.

BG: And you always are.

And then he's gone. Down the mountain at 200 mph (slight exaggeration, but only slight). And I'm left at the top of the mountain looking down its winding road and thinking I have no idea how on Earth I'm going to get down this. And I'm touched by British guy's faith in my ability to get down, but I don't think he comprehends my absolute ineptitude. And then I wonder how long it will take him to figure that out.

I gave myself a pep talk. It didn't help. I reviewed my options.

Option 1: Stay up at the top of the mountain forever. Pros: Will not have to cycle down mountain Cons: Could freeze to death. British guy has my wallet in his backpack so I would also be destitute. Hm. Actually,  am already destitute. Never-mind. But freezing to death is a definite con.

Option 2: Cycle down the mountain. Pros: N/A Cons: Will likely die.

Option 3: Hitchhike. Pros: Will not have to cycle down mountain. Cons: Will need to explain why I need a ride down. In French.

For some reason, Option 2 sounded like the best idea. I texted my mom good-bye, clipped into my pedals, and started rolling down the mountain. But within seconds my fears were realized: gravity + downhill + 21 turns + 2 wheels = death.  Ok, I didn't die, but only because I had a death grip on the brakes and even though that death grip was causing me an excruciating amount of pain and my fingers kept slipping...I could not release my grip. I was certain that it was the only thing keeping me from plunging off the side of the mountain. I literally inched my way down the 21 turns of Alpe d'Huez.

Alpe d'Huez in all its glory

My fingers were white and tingling, my feet were falling asleep and my legs were cramped from holding the tense position one crouches into when facing certain, imminent death.

I wish you could see my facial expression...

I really wanted to stop, but stopping was also a spectacle. I hadn't quite mastered how to stop and gracefully unclip my feet from the pedals so I continued inching down the mountain thinking of all the things I was going to say to British guy if I ever made it to the bottom.

I eventually made it to the bottom, and I'm not sure how long it took me, but British guy says that it was about as long as most people take to get UP the mountain. If it was me saying that, I would tell you not to believe me because I always exaggerate. However, British guy doesn't exaggerate so it must be true. I don't know why he doesn't exaggerate. I guess when you have your British wit to rely on, you don't need to exaggerate to be funny.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Not all who wander are lost, but...some are

I never intended on being a wanderer. I wasn't set against it. I just hadn't intended it. I love my place of origin (California), but in spite of that I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I live inside my head. I watch the world and am generally startled when it demands something of me. I am quiet when I should speak and I speak when I should be silent. Like an awkward dancer I am always off by one beat. My steps are right, but not in time with the music around me.

When I was growing up, Thoreau's words resonated with me. They still do. He went to the woods to live deliberately because he did not want to face his death with the realization that he had not lived.  He relocated to a place where he could find himself. For him, that place was the woods. For me, that place is the world.

I wander because wandering is where I fit in. I am an outsider by nature. I observe. I am always on the fringe, smiling, eager to participate but not quite sure how. Wandering enables me to place my nature within the expectation of those around me. When I wander, I am expected to be an outsider. I am acknowledged and accepted as being outside the social norms of where I reside. The world is more forgiving, more accepting, more patient. I am a wanderer because I have always been an outsider.

So I place one foot in front of the other and I move myself to a place where nobody expects me to fit in.
When I wander, I am alone and alive with my thoughts. But this life is not easy. I am also often alone with my doubt and my darkness. It's easy to feel isolated and desperately, desperately alone. I wonder if I am missing out on the lives of my family and friends back home and if I will regret it later down the road. Or if I regret it even now?

And these are thoughts that nip at my heels when I am once again sitting at a cafe alone watching friends and families gather together. And then it happens. I feel lost and the gap between my intentions and my actions seems wider than ever. My intentions are good, but I often fall short because I am afraid. I wrap stillness and solitude around my fear. I hide it so nobody will see how afraid I am. No doubt I am brave. I reach forward. I try. I fail. I try again. But there are those who mistake my courage for an absence of fear. But mark my words, I am afraid. My heart shakes and sinks under the weight of every day obligation. I am sensitive and vulnerable to the carelessness of others. My skin is not thick. There are days when I cannot get out of bed because I don't think I have the strength to face the disappointment the world often thrusts in our direction. And then the questions come.

Am I perpetually attracted to a place where I cannot communicate my thoughts because I don't want to communicate my thoughts? Am I stuck in a place where I am always off kilter...kissing the wrong cheek, confusing verb conjugations, missing the social norm by one subtle I stuck in this place because I do these things anyway and it's easier to have the label of FOREIGNER. The label of someone who does not belong....someone who is not supposed to belong.

I cannot answer these questions. I do not know why I wander, what I'm seeking or where I'm going. I only know where I've been and where I am. I only know that I am often afraid, but I cannot go back to the complacency of a reliable comfort zone. My life at home is easy. I cannot force myself to grow in a state of comfort and predictability. For better or for worse, I rely on external forces to shape me into the woman I long to be.

I am plagued by self-doubt and insecurity. I want to communicate, to more fully integrate myself into this world. But I am afraid of not fitting in; afraid of being judged and being found unworthy, unable, insufficient, inadequate. There are no reasoning with these fears because there is no reasoning with fear. For the same reason that I am afraid of a raspberry beetle, I am afraid that I am not good enough....that I will never be good enough.

I imagine many feel this way--wanderers or not---but it's hard to know for sure when you cannot get outside of your own head, your own thoughts, your own fears.

I communicate best when I don't speak the language. I am not caught up by words; their nuances and their double meanings. The best conversation I ever had was with a shopkeeper who spoke no English. I spoke no Arabic. He offered me coffee. I accepted. We sat and we grinned at one another. For 10 minutes we grinned and we drank coffee. When I left I had a better grasp on his character than I would have had after 10 minutes of speaking about the weather, the football game, the prime minister. Without words, we were fully present with one another. There were no opinions, no misunderstandings, no reason to give or take offense.

And these are the moments of wandering that I love best. The moments that so simply and profoundly illustrate our humanity. These are the moments that illustrate the other side. It's the side you come out on after you spend an hour, a day, a year, a decade struggling with your sense of solitude and inadequacy. It's the side that says, "You are okay. You are good enough, you are strong enough and you are by no means alone." This is the side I see when a little girl explains to me in Arabic how to use a yo-yo; when a young mother and her son smile shyly at me on the metro in Paris; when I stop into a shop to ask for directions and the man shuts up his bustling store so that he can personally take me to where I need to be; when I watch the sunset from a refuge in the French alps;  when I think of the truly amazing people I have met and continue to meet around the world.

It is these experiences and these people that define my sense of humanity and my faith in that humanity. It is a thousand ordinary moments, a hundred ordinary people and the way the ordinary has a way of becoming extraordinary. It is the moment when you are lost on a rainy day in an unfamiliar city and suddenly someone you have never seen and will never see again is there to open the door to the cafe he's leaving and you are entering. For no apparent reason, he smiles. Perhaps he senses you are tired and lost. Perhaps he has just won the lottery. The "why" is irrelevant. All that matters is someone reassured you at a time when you needed reassurance. There are a hundred thousand moments where the world would be more beautiful than we could possibly imagine if we could learn to see the extraordinary in the ordinary; if we could learn to cherish the sacred simplicity of a stranger opening the door for another and the sense of togetherness we unconsciously express in a world where so many feel alone. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Her Majesty, the Queen

This is what British guy's passport says:

Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary. 

This is what mine says:

The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United State named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.

His sounds cooler than mine which is absolutely unacceptable so I crossed out Secretary of State on my passport and replaced it with the Emperor of the United honor of Emperor Norton, Emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico.

Please add this to the list of reasons why I love San Francisco.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A weekend, a village, a bug

Let me just preface this post by saying that I dislike am terrified of bugs. When one touches me I shriek and run about with my arms flailing. It's reflexive. I can't help it. I once jumped out of the shower and pulled the entire shower curtain and rod down because there was a moth in the shower. (It almost touched me.) My flatmate was scarred by the sight of me running through the house sans clothing not thrilled.

This weekend British guy and I went to visit a friend of his who lives in a small village in the Vercors. This friend's house is one of my favorite places to be. It's stunningly beautiful, and this friend is one of those people you instantly like. He's calm, friendly and just a generally good person. He lives in an old farmhouse that he is restoring himself and the whole place just radiates peace and comfort. The setting of the Vercors doesn't hurt either. I would post pictures, but I, um, forgot my camera.

British guy had spent the morning with New Zealand guy at Lac Paladru. They swam, cycled and ran because they are very hardcore. I sat in the car because even though I long to be very hardcore, it was below 60 degrees, which is the temperature at which Californians cease to function. After British guy was done being very hardcore we caught a train to Saint Marcellin and cycled up from the train station to Froment where we had a lovely lunch in the garden, and spent the afternoon lounging in the sun. Suffice it to say I was très contente, and when British guy asked me if I wanted to pick some raspberries for dessert, I happily agreed and set off for the garden.

A little black kitten followed me and for a few minutes it was all very quaint. I was picking raspberries in the French countryside, the kitten was attacking my shoelaces, the cows lowed in the distance, and the setting sun cast a beautiful glow over the valley. And then I saw THIS

I did not take this photo. I would never get close enough to this thing to take this photo.
 This person is braver than I am.

Ok, FINE! This is what I saw and it's practically the same thing:

Again, I did not take this photo. This is a raspberry beetle. Go here for the original.

It was on a raspberry I had picked. Meaning that I had touched it. Or come close enough to almost touching it. I threw it as far as I could and ran for safety. The kitten followed. She liked my shoelaces. While the kitten attacked my feet, I took a few deep breaths and tried to tell myself that I was being ridiculous. I used logic. This was a tiny, harmless bug. It ate raspberries, not people. As far as I know I am not a raspberry. Therefore, I was safe. The bug would not devour me. 

Logic didn't work. I still felt somewhere deep down inside that the bug could and would devour me, but I went back to the raspberry bushes anyway. I stood in front of some wonderfully, ripe raspberries and tried to will my hand to touch the raspberry. The kitten ate a leaf. And then I noticed that the raspberries were covered in bugs. They were everywhere. My knees went weak. But I had no option. I could not go back up to the house and tell two men that I could not pick raspberries because....because there were bugs on them. I just couldn't do it. So I grabbed a stick and began knocking the bugs off the raspberries. I inspected each raspberry to make sure that there was no bug on it, picked it as quickly as possibly and threw it into the bowl. Then I had the clever idea of holding one end of the branch and shaking it violently. I was so absorbed in my effort that I did not notice the tiny, black form of a kitten crouching in the grass and slinking toward me. Until she pounced on the branch I was shaking and gave me a heart attack. Then she laughed. Because behind every regal and dignified feline face is a cheshire grin. Mischievous little beasts. 

I took a few minutes to bring my heart rate down and then resumed knocking bugs off raspberries with a stick. I felt that I had nearly enough raspberries to offer for dessert. I decided that I would do one more lap around the raspberry bushes just to top off my harvest. But then I saw a grasshopper. A large grasshopper that I was pretty sure was planning to jump in my general direction. So I went inside. 

The rest of the evening was spent eating delicious food, drinking wine, teasing the cat, and enjoying the special sort of contentment that only good company can bring. 

Monday morning British guy and I cycled back to Grenoble. He tried to teach me how to draft. It went well for the approximately 30 seconds that I was able to keep up with him. Next time I'm going to aim for 40 seconds. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hier ist kein Fußgängerzone!

Heidelberg, Germany 
I lived in Germany for nearly 7 months before I finally invested in a bike. I was broke and intimidated at the thought of going into a used bike shop in Heidelberg. I would have to speak German. About bikes. Even after 7 months of studying Germany I didn't feel up to the task. I was still shaken from my experience in a shop during my first month. I was looking around, minding my own business, when all of a sudden a salesman showed up and asked me if I needed help finding anything. At least that's what I assumed he asked. But clearly I should have double checked because when I responded with a giant grin and a "No, but thank you," he looked confused and a little taken aback. I knew that wasn't a good sign. I quickly went over the words he had just said and realized that he had, in fact, asked me if I was finding everything okay. 

At any rate, I was broke and intimidated and kept putting off the purchase of a bike. But a friend of a friend of a friend had some military connections. And that's how I ended up with a $40 dollar bike from a U.S. Army base. As well as Dr. Pepper, cheddar cheese, tortillas and goldfish crackers. It was heaven. Cycling home laden with two grocery bags, however, was not. I had no basket, no light (illegal in Germany), no helmet (Always wear one. I'll tell you why sometime), and the bags--which I had balanced on my handlebars--kept slipping and getting caught in the spokes. In short, I was doing what I do very well. Nearly dying. Causing a spectacle. In my defense, making a spectacle of oneself is not hard to do in Germany. For example....

...I smile. A lot. At strangers walking down the street, stray cats, small children, puppies, policemen, pigeons, anything I come across. I'm just generally a happy-go-lucky person and I like smiling. It's my favorite. Until I was informed by my German friend that the act of walking down the street in Heidelberg with a giant grin on my face was causing people to question my sanity. I then asked her if that meant I should also refrain from saying "hello" to people I passed on the street. She disowned me. But not before laughing hysterically, which caused me to question her sanity. I hadn't seen her laugh that hard since the time I told her I didn't like to surf in Northern California because the water was cold and I was scared of "big fish that sometimes eat people."

 Look, I didn't know the word for "shark" (Haifisch), and technically that description is correct. They are big fish and they do sometimes eat people. Anyway, you shouldn't laugh at people trying to learn a language. It's mean. Exceptions include Germans saying "squirrel." Sorry. I'm a terrible person and I apologize to Germans everywhere. It's the bitterness from years of not being able to order my favorite drink in Germany (Radler) because I'm so self conscious about my German "r" (and my French "r" everything and my Spanish "r" and my Arabic "r". Stupid "r's")

A Radler, in case you're curious, is an incredibly delicious concoction of beer and lemonade or lemon soda. I know what you're thinking, but on a hot summer day, it's an incredibly refreshing drink. Radler means "cyclist," which brings me back to cycling and bikes and the bike that I had purchased in Germany.

Yeah, I rigged the basket but check out the sweet bell...

I was euphoric after purchasing my bike. There were bike paths everywhere and it made getting places so much faster and easier. Except. Except for when someone was walking in the bike path. This doesn't happen very frequently in Germany, but when it did...I was stuck. My preferred technique to get someone to move was to cycle slowly behind them, weaving unsteadily and giving sighs of extreme exasperation. If When this didn't work I would hop off my bike and walk quickly past the offending party while casting a passive aggressive glare. Occasionally I would try a softly-spoken "Entschuldigung Sie, bitte." That never worked either. 

One day, I was cycling in the middle of the the bike path when out of nowhere someone was at my shoulder shouting "ACHTUNG! PASS AUF!" I veered my bike off the path and directly into the bushes as a fellow cyclist sped past me. I was in awe. It inspired me to be more aggressive. I purchased a bike bell.
The next time someone was walking ahead of me on the bike path, I rang my bell.


Ding, ding.

Still nothing.

Ding, ding, ding, ding!

And then. Then I was saved by a loud "ACHTUNG! HIER IST KEIN FUßGÄNGERZONE!" (Watch out. This is not a pedestrian path). The offending pedestrians leapt out of the way with looks of guilt and remorse as a triumphant cyclist barreled through. I longed to wield that kind of power, and I was determined to use this technique. I reasoned that since I had seen at least two Germans use it, it must be socially acceptable. 

A week later I was late for class and speeding down the bike path when I saw them up ahead. Two little old ladies teetering along with their dogs and shopping bags in the bike lane. Adrenaline rushed through my veins. Now was my chance. As I came up behind them I shouted as loud as I possibly could "ACHTUNG! PASS AUF!" 

Chaos ensued. They jumped. Their dogs jumped and then immediately began barking. Groceries toppled onto the grass. Expressions of shock and horror were exchanged. I was filled with guilt, shame, and remorse as I questioned whether I would be able to continue my life with this shameful experience lingering in the corners of my mind. 

For two days I cringed whenever I remembered what had happened. The next time I found myself on the bike path with pedestrians strolling nonchalantly right in front of me, I simply veered over onto the pedestrian path so I could go around them. As soon as my front wheel touched the pedestrian path, a woman walking toward me loudly barked "DAS HIER IST KEIN FAHRRADWEG" (This is not a bike path). 

I smiled at her and went straight to the bar for a Radler. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

How Istanbul gave me an elevator complex

When most people think of Istanbul they conjure up dramatic images of mosques, mosaics, and whirling dervishes. Me? I think of elevators. Elevators that get stuck and don't open. 

I've had the extreme pleasure of visiting Istanbul three times and each time I visit, I enjoy it more. Except for the elevators. The first time I visited, I was there for a conference and I didn't get to see much, but I saw enough to make me want to go back as soon as possible. So when a friend invited me last August to spend a week and a half with her in Turkey, I jumped at the opportunity. 

I've been fascinated with the country for quite some time. It's rich culture and dramatic history peaked my interest, and since I'm an environmental politics geek really sophisticated person...the negotiations between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are nothing short of fascinating. So I'm going to spend the next entry writing in extreme detail about them. 


Just kidding. I'm going to write about getting stuck in an elevator. 

It was in August. I'd been in Bethlehem for just over a month and it had been an amazing month, but I wasn't about to turn down another visit to Istanbul and a few days in Marmaris. 

My friend and I had arranged to travel to Turkey with a Jordanian travel agency who arranged all of our hotels and transportation. They also provided guided tours for an extra charge, but we figured that exploring Istanbul on our own would be more fun so that's what we did. Everything was going smoothly until day 3. We had visited the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern (my favorite), Topkapi Palace, toured the Bosphorus strait, eaten lunch at a restaurant on the Galata Bridge, and explored both the Egyptian Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar. 

Istanbul, 2009

Egyptian Spice Market, Istanbul, 2009

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 2009

We were now ready to take on the Princes' Islands. Except we didn't actually make it to the island we were intending to go to (there are 9, the ferries generally stop at the 4 largest ones). We accidently went to a lesser known one, and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about until we realized (too late) that we had gotten off the ferry one stop too early. 

If you're the editor of a big, really important travel magazine please note that this was a fluke. I never get lost or have anything bad happen to me while traveling. I always choose the best hotels, the best restaurants, kick it with the locals and am generally one of the most well-versed travelers ever. If you've ever traveled with is a great time to keep your mouth shut. Especially certain persons who accompanied me on an infamous 20 mile hike in Northern California. (If you hike with me and I tell you "just one more mile," just hit me. You won't regret it. Promise). Or certain persons who accompanied me on a road trip up the coast of Northern California and Oregon. Or that trip to Mexico. Or the greyhound bus across the United States (Please. Don't ever, ever do this). The trip to Luxembourg (don't pack while drunk). That overnight bus ride to Hamburg from Heidelberg (19 euro for a reason). Or...ok. That's enough. 

So we wandered around the wrong island --which was a very nice island despite not being the one we had originally wanted to see. We had lunch at an incredibly overpriced restaurant. If you're in Turkey and you go to visit the Princes' islands, you should just bring your own lunch. Unless you like paying 20 dollars for three bits of octopus tentacles and one calamari ring. If you do then, by all means, have at it. You'll be delighted by the restaurants on this island. 

Wrong Island, 2009

We took the ferry back to Istanbul and spent some time wandering around Taksim Square. Exhausted, we headed back to the hotel to drop some things off and rest a bit before deciding that what we really needed was some chocolate. So we attempted to leave the hotel. The two of us shuffled into the tiny elevator and hit the button for the lobby. 4th floor, 3rd floor, 2nd floor, 1st floor, lobby. Push elevator door. Nothing happens. Giggle nervously. Push door again. Definitely stuck. Panic. Begin banging on the door, shouting, and crying for my mom...or Keanu Reeves (see opening scene of Speed). 

And then for some reason we began laughing (I can only blame the lack of oxygen). Because who gets stuck in an elevator? In Istanbul. In summer. With no whiskey water. After a few minutes a member of the hotel staff came running over and knocked on the elevator door (which was very polite of him and we would have opened it if possible). The ensuing conversation went something like this: 

Hotel staff member: Excuse me? Excuse me, ladies? Are you still there? 

Us: (Inner monologue: Um. Yes? Is there another way out?)  Yes, we're still here. How much longer? 

Hotel staff member: 5 minutes. 

Us: It's really, really hot in here. Could you please hurry? 

Hotel staff member: Ok, ok! Two minutes! 

Us: Do you have any whiskey?

Hotel staff member: silence. 

We kept laughing. In fact we tried to take a video, but now when I watch it, it's just a very blurry, shaky image with two girls laughing hysterically. I'll spare you that spectacle. I don't have much dignity left, but I'd like to retain it. I might need it later. 

So we slumped to the floor and waited. And waited. And....

...finally the door opened! We ran out expecting an apologetic manager/mayor/president/world leader/the local media at least and free everything for the rest of our lives, but...strangely everyone just went back to work. So we had some Turkish coffee and chocolate cake and called it a night. 

mmm, Turkish coffee, Istanbul, 2009

We left the next morning for Marmaris. We had spent 4 days wandering around Istanbul and we were absolutely exhausted and needed a few days on a beach doing nothing. If you're in Turkey and you spend more than 2 days wandering around Istanbul and you decide that you need a vacation from your vacation, Marmaris is a good place to go. 

Marmaris, 2009

But it belongs to that category of places that are designed for tourists and are overrun by tourists. Don't get me wrong. We had a great time there. The hotel was lovely, the beaches were perfect, the pools are fantastic, and the food was great. So is the nightlife. But if you're looking for won't find them here. 

Of course, if none of that is really your thing...there is always this option. 

Thanks, but..., Istanbul, 2009



Thursday, September 16, 2010

That place they filmed Indiana Jones Petra, Jordan

In French class we've been discussing fashion this week. My teacher (who is sweet and friendly and whom I like a lot) turned to me and asked (in French because this is French class), "Nikki, what about you? Do you like to shop at Dolce & Gabanna?" I was wearing Chaco flips*, jeans and a t-shirt that says "ponies are pretty." But I appreciate that she was trying to include me in the conversation. At least I think she was. She could have also been subtly mocking me.

But ponies are pretty.

I like these ones. They live in Jordan. 

We're not ponies. We're horses. I can't believe Nikki wanted to be a wildlife biologist. Petra, 2009

Speaking of Jordan, you should go to Petra.

Here's why:

  1. Indiana Jones went. I should just end the list right here. 
  2. You can ride a camel. I don't like riding camels, but you might.
  3. It's amazing. Normally I wouldn't recommend listening to me because I often get lost, I sometimes  frequently run into things, and I once got my car stuck on a beach. But many other people say Petra is amazing so I feel okay about telling you to listen to me. Just this once. 
  4. The Bedouin men wear eyeliner. Ok, it's kohl. And it was originally worn to protect one's eyes from the intensity of the sun. But the material point is that they all look like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. I love Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. 
Petra, 2009 

I visited Petra last November while I was in Jordan for a conference (that's where I met British guy, but British guy didn't go on the trip to Petra because it was a girls only trip. Also I didn't know him when we were planning it. But it was mostly because it was a girls only trip and he's not a girl. I checked.) 

While in Amman, we stayed at an ibis hotel. It was nice except, for some reason, all of the sockets were British sockets. As far as I know, the rest of Jordan uses European sockets. From Amman we took a bus to Petra. It took about 3 hours and is a very straightforward way to get to Petra. In Petra we stayed at the Orient Gate Hostel and Hotel. You shouldn't stay there unless you are broke and looking for a cheap place to stay (if you are broke and looking for a cheap place, it's about 9 euro a night and it's decent. The owner is nice.) If you aren't broke, you should stay at the Mövenpick Hotel & Resort. I didn't stay there, but I did go to the bar on their roof. They have campari, which I love. Especially after a long day of pretending to be Indiana Jones hiking. The lobby was nice. So were the elevators. I once got stuck in an elevator in Istanbul. Maybe I'll tell you about it tomorrow. It was an extremely traumatic experience and I am now scarred for life. 

So, the moral of the story is...I don't know what the moral of the story is. Stay at the Mövenpick and drink campari. Also, watch out for rogue elevators in Istanbul. 

This donkey isn't really related to anything I was talking about. I just think he's cute. 

But continuing with our adventure in Petra. After checking into our hostel we set off immediately for the archaeological park. As we were walking there, we passed a second-hand shop. They had nylon track suits from the 80's. Wonderful-pastel-neon-parachute-pants-plastic-zip-awesomeness. I was traveling with an Aussie and another American.** The Aussie and I immediately decided we needed these suits for our upcoming camel trek in Wadi Rum. The other American was far more sensible and opted out. I, however, am not sensible. I am ridiculous. And I like ridiculous things. Like riding camels in 80's nylon track suits. Because then 50 years later I can call my friends and say, "Hey! Remember that time I rode through the Jordanian desert on a camel in a nylon track suit from the 80's? That was classic." 

Things like that make me happy. Blame my parents. Or Monty Python. Or the 80's. Or all of the above. 

So we made plans to stop by the shop on our way back. Because at that moment we were off to Petra and nothing was going to dissuade us. Not even fabulous, used track suits from the 80's. And they were fabulous.

The Treasury, Petra, 2009

Anyway. Back to Petra. Petra is absolutely fricking incredible. Seriously. The structures were breathtaking. You just can't even imagine how humans were able to accomplish such feats with such limited tools. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the Treasury or the Monastery. It's also easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people trying to sell you things. The first day we saw the treasury, walked around and refused camel rides, horse rides, postcards, carriage rides, donkey rides, guides, Indiana Jones hats, marriage proposals, and other assorted offerings. After watching the sunset, we headed back to the hostel through the darkening canyons and somehow ended up at the bar at the Mövenpick because I like to take my own advice. Campari. Lots of it. Unfortunately the used clothing store was closed by the time we got back so we had to defer the purchase of our fab camel riding suits. 

Petra, 2009

We had shawarma at the El Siwan restaurant for lunch and dinner. It was delicious. And this you should trust me on because  I love  LOVE shawarma and would probably eat it every day given the option. Incidentally the best  second-best shawarma I have ever had was in Germany. The best ever was in Bethlehem.  I nearly cried. It was that delicious. 

The next morning we got up at 6:00 a.m. I'm not sure why. Actually I think we intended to get up at 6:00 a.m. but we didn't actually get up until 7:00 because...well, because 6:00 a.m. is early. Too early. 

We headed back to the archaeological park and spent the day getting lost, getting caught in a sandstorm (I use the word "sandstorm" here very loosely. Extremely loosely. It was probably just a slight breeze and I got sand in my eye.), hiked up to the Monastery and generally had a fantastic time. 

The Monastery, Petra, 2009

The Monastery, Petra, 2009

We bought a two-day pass. It was a little bit expensive (57 Jordanian dinar/81 USD/61 Euro for two days), BUT it's like nothing you've ever seen (it's also a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985) and the tourism industry is important for the Jordanians. And Indiana Jones was filmed there. And the Bedouin men all look like Johnny Depp. It's worth it. 

"So. Come here often?" Sorry. Once again, totally unrelated to post. 

After two days of exploring Petra we were ready for our next adventure. But first we needed to purchase our camel-riding suits. The shop was open and we expressed our interest in the 80's track suits. The shopkeeper expressed interest in a lot more money than we were willing to pay for used track suits from the 80's. So we were forced to give up the dream of riding through the Jordanian desert in neon and pastel nylon. Heartbroken, we consoled ourselves as best as we could with kanafeh and left the next morning for Wadi Rum. Where I discovered that a two-day camel trek is not nearly as cool as it sounds. Even if you spend the entire time pretending to be Lawrence of Arabia. 

Petra, 2009

* Chaco flips = my favorite shoes EVER. I wear them everywhere and I adore them. And no, Chaco isn't paying me to say this. I just think the world would be a happier place if everyone was wearing Chaco flips.

** I don't normally refer to people solely by their nationality. It's just that while I have no qualms posting pictures of myself imitating an otter on the Internet, I realize that not everyone enjoys guest starring in someone else's blog so I try not to use names or post pictures of other people unless I have their permission. 
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