Sunday, June 26, 2011

Advocacy Project

As many of you know, I am currently in Palestine and Israel as an Advocacy Project Peace Fellow working with the Alternative Information Center.

The postings on this site will likely decrease for a few months as I concentrate my efforts on writing for the Advocacy Project Blog as well as for the Alternative Information Center.

I'd like to encourage you to stop by the AP blog and subscribe if you're so inclined. I'll be writing about my daily life there and anything else that catches my interest. I'll be cross-posting here as much as possible!

Links to my last three posts:

Back to Bethlehem: It’s been a year and a half since I left the West Bank after living and working there for 6 months. As I prepare to head back to Bethlehem to work with the Alternative Information Center as an AP peace fellow, my mind pulls images from various scenes of my last visit. Waiting outside my apartment for the Arab-Israeli taxi that will take me through the checkpoint and into Jerusalem, my host family stands around my packed bags as my host mother scurries around trying to fit a few more items into my carry-on: the Arabic coffee I love, some Palestinian pastries, a bag of spices. I hug my friends good-bye and tell them I will see them again. Inshallah, they say. God-willing.

The Swing of Things: A slight breeze ruffles the stagnant summer air that has settled heavily into our office space. I found a powdered mix of Oregon Chai sitting neglected on a dusty shelf in the market across the street and I am happy to relish the creature comfort of sipping out of a normal-sized mug. The minuscule cups of Arabic coffee are perfect for a social gathering, but I am habituated to the American ritual of sitting down to work with a gargantuan mug of coffee…or in this case Oregon Chai. I’ll take what I can get.

Just Another Day in the Office The Alternative Information Center is a joint Israeli-Palestinian activist organization focused on political advocacy, grassroots activism and an end to occupation. Here you find news of resistance within Israeli society, settler violence against Palestinians, the economy of oppression, and the daily struggle to carve out a life within the fissures of a long-standing conflict. It is within this organization that I am beginning to find my place. After my morning run where I keep an eye out for wild dogs and taxis zipping too quickly around the corners, I head to the office.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Perfect Day: San Francisco

Whenever I head back to my native California, I usually have a list of places that I absolutely have to go to during my few weeks at home. Here is my list for San Francisco.

1. Breakfast. This is a tough one. I have two favorite breakfast joints in the city. The Pork Store Cafe in the Haight and St. Francis Fountain in the Mission.

The Pork Store has a special called "Eggs in a Tasty Nest." It's 2 eggs nestled in a bed of hashed browns with bacon, grilled green peppers, fresh tomatoes, onions & garlic topped with cheddar cheese and served with biscuits. I swoon a little bit every time I have breakfast here. The garlic, the hashed browns, the cheese, the biscuits, the free coffee refills and the line of locals hanging out the doors of this classic café. It's always crammed with people and the place is buzzing with conversation and spoons clinking coffee mugs. I love that sound.

St. Francis Fountain is a classic diner.  Operating since 1918, it's apparently San Francisco's oldest ice cream parlor. Either way, I'm a classic bacon and eggs kind of girl and their bacon is cooked perfectly. The home fried potatoes are great and they have mimosas. And poinsettas (cranberry juice and sparkling wine). I'm just saying.

2. Lunch. 
I miss Mexican food the most when I'm away from home. One of my favorite places for some kickass tacos and quesadillas is La Torta Gorda in the Mission. The tortillas here are mouthwatering and the salsa...amazing. I'd probably have lunch here, take a mural tour of the Mission with mural tours, and then head to Philz for some amazing coffee.

3. Dinner. It's a tie between Burma Superstar and Ti Couz.

Oh Burma Superstar. How I love your tea leaf salad, ginger lemonade beer and mango chicken. How I also love the fact that the Richmond location is right across the street from the Green Apple Bookstore. It's the perfect place to kill an hour or two while you wait for your table at Burma Superstar. They don't take reservations. Or you can head up the street to one of two Irish pubs.

Ti Couz. Word on the street is that this amazing French creperie located in the Mission is closing. However there is some discussion that it's being sold and not completely shut-down so I'm holding out hope. It's cozy, delicious, and the blood orange mimosas are a perfect way to enjoy a lovely San Francisco evening...or morning. Anytime is a good time for a mimosa.

4. Drinks.
The Monk's Kettle in the Mission. Great place for a beer.
The Alembic Bar in the Haight. Great place for a whiskey.

5. Coffee
I'm a coffee shop snob. I admit it. I love coffee shops and can easily spend hours enjoying a delicious latte while taking advantage of the free wi-fi. My absolute favorite coffee shop in SF is Philz in the Mission. They have other locations, but the one in the Mission is my favorite. I'm also a fan of Haus and Sugar Lump. Just down the road. Honestly you can't walk two feet in San Francisco without stumbling across a fantastic coffee shop. These just happen to be the ones I frequent.

My favorite thing to do in San Francisco is usually just walking around. I love hitting up the thrift stores in the Haight and having a picnic in Golden Gate Park (weather permitting...). The Asian Art Museum is one of my favorite museums to go to, but the natural history museum (California Academy of Sciences) is really fun too. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Blogger is going crazy

I have no idea why or how, but for some reason Blogger reposted my blog posts from the past two months or so. Sorry if it overwhelmed your blog feed. I know it did mine. The past few days have made me super happy that I moved over to my own domain using WordPress as a design platform. 

But don't worry, I'm still going to keep this blog going. I'll probably just double post things, but regardless -- I'm pretty happy to be at least stepping back a bit from Blogger with a brand new shiny website. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

10 Things I Love Most About My Road Bike

1. Connecting with nature. Nothing says "I love getting up close and personal with nature" more than  a wasp stuck in your sports bra while barreling down a steep and very busy mountain road at 50 kilometers an hour.

2. Exploring new areas. There is something indescribably special about cycling an extra 15 kilometers up the wrong mountain pass after cycling 60 kilometers already. In those moments all I can think about is how lucky I am to be exploring such a beautiful area and how much I would love to smack the guy who gave me directions.

3. Adrenaline rush. Clipping along downhill with a steady headwind as a semi-truck speeds past you causing your bike to hop to the side in a few heart-stopping "Oh my God, I'm really going to die" moments is probably my favorite way to spend a Friday afternoon. 

4. Relaxation You know how relaxing it is when you're scared out of your mind cycling down Alpe d'Huez and you would love to stop but are unable to pry your fingers from the brakes? Yeah, me neither.

5. Quality time with boyfriend. Sure we could have a romantic dinner followed by a long moonlit stroll through the park. Or we could spend a day together with helmet hair, gnats stuck in our teeth, covered in salty residue from sweat and and grunting monosyllables as we pant for oxygen while pedaling our bikes up a 10% grade. 

6. Empowering.  Being unable to unclip from your pedals and toppling over in front of a crowd of competent cyclists is a real confidence-builder.

7. Chafing. It builds character. I'm also single-handedly supporting Johnson & Johnson. 

8. Oblivious Pedestrians. I love it when I'm cruising along at 30 kilometers per hour down the bike path and a pedestrian steps out right in front of me. Slamming on my brakes so suddenly that I risk spinning out and then getting yelled at for riding my bike in the bike lane is about as funny as getting hit in the head with a hand pump.*

9. Bike Grease. I've never been a fan of that whole "my clothes are clean" look, which is why I'm glad that pretty much every item of clothing I own now has bike grease smeared somewhere across it. My shoes have bike grease stains. My calves and arms have bike grease stains. The bathtub and floor have bike grease stains. Hell, even the cat has bike grease stains. Bike grease is in these days. 

10Looking Good. Spandex shorts with foam wedged into the crotch? That's hot.  

*I would never advocate the use of violence because someone steps out in front of you on your bike. Unless you're racing or you're doing a time trial or you're having a really good day on your bike and you're in the zone. **

**Apparently I'm not supposed to have caveats about hitting people with a hand pump in my disclaimer about not hitting people with a hand pump. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gear: Ski Boots and Socks

After much research I thoughtfully selected my ski boots and favorite ski socks. Ha. Just kidding. I got the boots on Ebay and the socks were a Christmas present.

Nonetheless, I lucked out. And with the ski season coming to an end, thought I'd throw up a few photos of my ski gear. Starting with boots and socks.

You can also check out a piece I wrote for Matador about my skis a few months back.

Darn Tough Vermont Over-the-Calf Cushion Sock:

I, um, only have one pair of ski socks. I dry them out at night, okay?! Ski socks aren't particularly expensive, but they're not cheap either. And as a friend's grandma once told me "It doesn't matter how good the sale is. It's not a bargain if you're broke." Considering I now clip coupons and haggle over being overcharged 49 cents, I'm guessing I fall into that category.

At any rate, these Darn Tough socks were a gift and though most people moan about getting socks from relatives, I was pretty darn excited. Get it? Darn? Darn Tough? Because they're socks. And they're darned. And they're tough. And...


Tough crowd. A Darn Tough crowd. Ok, I'm sorry! I'll stop. These socks are the Darn Tough Vermont Over-the-Calf Cushion Sock. I know that some women get irritated by the array of girly colors offered for most women specific outdoor gear, but I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Darn Tough for making some burly ski socks and coloring them purple. They match my boots and this, for some reason, makes me happy. It's the little things.

Up until I'd gotten ahold of these socks, I'd used some old backpacking socks I found in my sock drawer. Backpacking socks are great for backpacking, but they didn't quite do the trick with my ski boots. These Darn Tough socks are ultra comfortable and come up high enough that they prevent any rubbing from my boots. They also fit really snuggly preventing any weird bunching up or rubbing and they kept my feet nice and warm. I've only worn them one season, but they've held up really well. Not too much pilling and no obvious worn or frayed areas. Also they don't smell that bad after a day of skiing. Well, at least according to British guy who I made sniff them. What? I wasn't going to do it and somebody had to.

They normally retail for $19.95, but you can probably snag them on sale right around now since it's getting toward the end of the season.

I bought these boots on Ebay. I'm not kidding. I scored them a few years ago when I was first thinking about getting into skiing. It was another few years before I actually did hit the slopes so these guys sat on the top closet shelf for quite some time before coming into contact with skis or snow...which means they're probably quite outdated. I lucked out on these guys though. They fit perfectly, are super comfortable while hiking up and offer plenty of support on the descent. Occasionally I find my feet getting a little bit chilly in them after sitting for awhile, but that's rare. 

At any rate, I'm not a ski equipment expert. You may have gathered that I'm not an expert in anything related to skiing except falling. However, I know when I'm comfortable and in these boots, my feet are happy. Well, as happy as they can be when I'm marching them up snowy peak after snowy peak. I have a love-hate relationship with my body, but not with my boots. These boots are at least 4 years old and have seen two seasons of backcountry skiing. Aside from some scratches and normal wear and tear, they seem to be holding up pretty well. My only complaint is that I look like an idiot when I'm trying to walk down stairs in them. Scarpa, can you fix that? Hello? Scarpa? 

Monday, May 9, 2011

It's like I'm trying to kill myself...

Weekend Recap: 

Friday: 60 kilometers. Strong headwind. 15 kilometers on main highway. Semi-trucks barreling down within inches of my handlebars. Cried at least once. 

Saturday: 110 kilometers. Col de la Machine (1111 meters). Col de Carri (1202 meters). Col de Herbouilly (1352 meters). Got lost once. Swallowed approximately 3 bugs. The remaining insects landed in my sports bra. 

Sunday: Sat on couch. Stared at wall. Occasionally got up from couch to procure beer from fridge. 

So basically a typical weekend.  

One of the advantages of being broke is that instead of taking the train to my friend's house (60 kilometers away) like a normal person, I can wholly and completely justify taking my bike...which is what I did Friday. After making a pros and cons list of course. 

Pro: Relaxing. Fast. Comfortable. Minimal sweating. No bugs in teeth unless you hang your head out the window, which I only do occasionally. 
Con:  8 euros

Pro: Free. Exercise. 
Con: 60 kilometers. Arrive sweaty and with bugs stuck in my teeth. Strong headwind. 15 kilometers on main highway. Strong possibility of death by traffic accident. 

Something is clearly not right when spending eight euros supersedes my concerns over death.  Alright, the truth is that I prefer to ride my bike. Just don't tell anyone. My sanity is already in question. I don't need this added to the list of reasons I should be institutionalized. 

The plan was for me to meet British guy at a friend's house who lives in a renovated farmhouse in a small village outside of Grenoble. My only mission was to obtain a bottle of wine along the way. French Easter holiday hours rendered this mission impossible.  

Complete side note, I would like this:

British guy asked if they have a model for clumsy people because otherwise he wouldn't trust me with this thing and a bottle of wine. He's just a little bit upset right now because I've broken two glasses this month. Considering how many hours there are in  a month and how often I use glasses, I think that's pretty good. He disagrees. I'm going to IKEA tomorrow to get more glasses for him and a plastic sippy cup for me. 

At any rate, after two and a half hours of cycling against a strong headwind, spitting bugs out of my mouth, and resisting cardiac arrest every time a truck barreled past me on the highway, I arrived. British guy was waiting in the garden and our friend's five year old daughter showered me with flower petals. The table was arrayed with a bowl of strawberries from the garden, goat cheese from just down the road, fresh bread, and a bottle of sparkling wine. 

There was nothing to be desired that evening. A long bike ride, delicious wine, amazing food, and good company. If I could save one memory from my time in France, that would be it. I can't think of anything that could top that evening. 

Saturday we met up with another friend and cycled 110 kilometers through the Vercors and over three cols. We stopped in La Chappelle en Vercors for lunch at a great local restaurant. But I'll write about that tomorrow...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Never Dive into Rivers: How I broke my nose in Germany

I was studying abroad in Germany and I was desperate to be back in a boat. Living in Humboldt County-- aka Six Rivers-- for so many years had spoiled this little whitewater kayaker, and I was feelings pangs of homesickness and a longing for something familiar. Which is why I went in search of a kayaking club and how I got in contact with Friedrich.

Friedrich wrote back to say no outings planned till August, but would I be interested in teaching kayaking? He needed some help with a basic whitewater kayaking course and if I was interested we could meet to discuss. 

I needed a job and I wanted to kayak so I wrote back expressing my interest and we set up a time to meet on the banks of the Neckar-- the swollen brown river moving sluggishly through Heidelberg. A few days later Friedrich showed me around the boat house before dragging out a few misshapen plastic boats. We slipped into the river and played along the eddy lines. After 10 minutes he offered me the job and told me to show up the following Friday. I was surprised. Shocked. Didn't I need to sign some paperwork or liability forms? Friedrich shot me a bemused expression before reminding me that this was Germany, not the U.S. If someone drowned on this Class I river it was their own damn fault. 

Panic set in. I didn't know any of the kayaking vocabulary in Germany. Rushing to the bookstore I found an introductory kayaking book and began memorizing as much vocab as I could. When I met my class for the first time, I was so overcome with nerves that I could barely stammer out my name. But they smiled encouragingly and while I corrected their kayaking technique, they corrected my German. A few weeks passed effortlessly before I decided they were ready to learn how to roll. 

As I stood on the dock illustrating how to perform a kayak roll, my students began to murmur concerns about the temperature of the water. I couldn't believe it. The water was tepid at best. It certainly paled in comparison to the hypothermic conditions of the Pacific Northwest waters. In an effort to convince them that the water was fine, I jumped in. Unfortunately I didn't carefully ease in, being wary of rocks, as I had instructed my students to do. Oh no, I did exactly what I had told them never to do. I dove. 

My hands slammed into the rocks bouncing off and colliding with my face. The force of which spun me around and I scraped along the rocks, cutting deep scrapes into my back and shoulders. Gasping for breath and still in complete shock, I surfaced and launched myself back onto the dock like a seal. My students stood around me in a circle as I struggled to comprehend the extent of the damage. Blood gushed from my nose and beads of blood were forming along the scrapes on my shoulders. 

There were exclamations and questions of concern coming at me from all directions until one student bit his lip and asked "So, is the water cold?" 

Laughing in spite of myself, I told them to get in their boats and warm up. I'd follow in a second, just as soon as the bleeding stopped. Feeling a little like Chuck Norris, I completed the class, trying to ignore the throbbing pain increasing around my nose. As I stowed the last boat in the boat house, a student turned to say good-bye before encouraging me to stop by the hospital. "Your face is really swollen. You look terrible," were her exact words. Germans. Glancing at my watch, I hopped on my bike and pedaled to the hospital, hoping to get in a visit before my university courses that afternoon. 

Parking my bike, I jogged into the hospital where a nurse looked at me expectantly. I explained my situation before being informed that since the doctors were on strike and my situation was obviously not life-threatening, it could be hours before a doctor would be available to examine me. I asked her if she thought it was worth waiting. In true German fashion, she told me that of course it would be good to have an x-ray done, but that since my nose--if it were broken--had broken cleanly, there was really very little that they could do other than give me painkillers and tell me to take it easy for a few days. 

I told her I'd come back and rushed off to class. Over the next few days the swelling subsided and the flesh around my eyes turned marvelous hues of purple before fading to a sickly yellowish color.

While rumors circled around that I had gotten into a bar fight over a World Cup game, I boarded a train headed for the North of Germany to meet some extended family members whom I had never seen. Over coffee and cake that afternoon, I regaled them with the story of how my face had come to be so swollen and well, purple. 

Nodding before taking a sip of coffee, my cousin gestured toward me as he admonished his kids "This is why you should never dive unless you're sure of the depth." They gazed somberly at me before one daughter piped up "But she is a kayaking instructor. She should know that."

Only Homer Simpson could sum up my feelings at that point.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Grenoble on a Sunny Spring Day

Paris is chic, beautiful and busy. Sporting elegant architecture, museums on every corner, and food which people travel thousands of miles to sample, Paris is a place of self-importance.

Grenoble then is the backwards cousin who has no appreciation for the so-called finer things in life and prefers hiking boots to high heels and tartiflette to tartare de boeuf. 

This simple, alpine city will never match the Parisian way of life; its architecture, food, effortless style and elegance. But I wouldn't want it any other way. 

Grenoble has embedded itself so deeply into my heart that I can't imagine living in France and not being here. Weekends in the Chartreuse, Sunday morning cycling around Alpe d'Huez and the Col de la Croix de Fer, backcountry ski outings before work. A life that revolve around skiing, climbing, hiking, cycling in a city that is surrounded by peaks; comforting sentinels with their jagged edges softened by snow. 

And as I rambled through town on a Saturday morning, I stopped to pick up a pain au chocolat before roaming aimlessly through the morning markets. I hiked up to the top of the Bastille and looked out over the town. Families were picnicking in the field behind the ruined fort, students grilled out, and others like me were simply sitting on their own and enjoying the view. 

Grenoble isn't Paris. But I love it all the same.

Isère river

View from the Bastille 

Téléphérique up to the Bastille

Walking along the Isère

Place Victor Hugo 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Travel Advice: items you should never travel without

Since I've traveled a lot, I thought I would include a list of items that I've found absolutely invaluable in my travels. Hope it helps.

Item #1: British guy
Indispensable for looking at maps, actually reading the guidebook, doing math, carrying everything, fixing things, and taking pictures. Speaks Italian, French and English. Is also good at being tall and therefore easy to find in a crowd. Lends jacket in cold weather. Knows a lot about geography.

British guy is reading something sophisticated.
He's holding up the "games" section for me. 

Downsides: You might find yourself spontaneously signing up for a marathon or cycling through the West Bank. Might possibly be a spy. Steals french fries.

Item #2: Running shoes
You never know when you might stumble across a marathon and feel compelled to sign up for it. 

This is how you should tie your running shoes to your pack to ensure that 
they don't fall off while you're racing to catch a train in Germany. 

Downsides: You'll have to actually run the marathon. 

Item #3: Petzl Tikka Headlamp
Strobe setting. Enough said. Also you can be that annoying person reading on the plane while everyone else is trying to sleep. Go ahead. Set it on the highest setting.

I didn't have any photos of just the headlamp.
I tried to find a funny photo. I even googled "cats wearing Tikka headlamps." 

Downsides: It's really hard to look sexy with a headlamp on. You'll inevitably blind people while trying to talk to them.

Item #4: Scarf
Useful for covering oneself while visiting religious sites, shielding off the sun, and escaping out the window of your hotel (I've never done this, and if I did I would probably use sheets because that's what they do in the movies. But you never know. Maybe a scarf would work). Can also double as a towel. 

It was windy. 

Downsides: Sometimes gets caught in taxi cab doors.

Item #5: Passport
Customs officials get irritated when you try to enter a country without one. Also it's no fun to travel without at least 2 or 3 items that you absolutely 100% cannot lose or you're screwed. 

For added excitement to any trip, try this: 1. Leave passports in hotel safe; 2. Forget about passports; 3. Check out of hotel; 4.Start to get on bus going to another town hours away; 5. Remember passports; 6. Sprint through town to hotel, retrieve passports, sprint back; 7. Leap dramatically onto bus with passports; 8. Spend next 10 minutes sweating profusely on parked bus while bus driver has 2nd cigarette break. 

This is what a spy's passport looks like. 

Downsides: Completely screwed if you lose it. For U.S. citizens: Hard to pretend you're Canadian while carrying travel documents emblazoned with USA on them. 

Item #6: At least 5 books
Plenty of reading material. You can finally catch up on the entire collected works of Dostoevsky.

I just wanted an excuse to reference one of
 my favorite contemporary writers

Downsides: You won't read them. You won't even look at them during the trip. You'll wonder why you even brought them. The answer to this question will elude you until you're packing for your next trip.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

To Keep Myself From Sighing

Today is easy street.
A nonsensical lyrical bit of English
floating through my head
as I repot the cilantro plants and move the basil into the shade
 a glossy look to their leaves
as the sunlight filters through the trees
where well-fed cats hang in branches
casting wistful looks at the coy blackbirds
they will never catch

A call from another world
the coffee machine beeps
flinging my flips flops off
I wash the soil from my hands, the scent of cilantro
clings to me, a reminder of
the sticky rice paper of Vietnamese spring rolls
and the images of home
that move me.

To keep myself from sighing
over the weather beaten couches
of a San Francisco coffee house
I pour the milk,
and stir the sugar in.
The methodical movement of my body
reaching for the spoon
is comforting
and now only an overpowering need
to sit
and sip Italian coffee
out of the chipped cat mug
rescued from the recesses
of a cupboard
overflowing with tupperware
and mismatched lids

A mesh chair in the garden.
And a book--good or not
it doesn't matter
my mind is
somewhere else 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Alpe d'Huez Round 3: How I Finally Conquered My Arch Nemesis

The most popular blog post on my blog--hands down--is the account of my first miserable attempt to cycle up Alpe d'Huez and then my struggle to make it down without killing myself.

At the expense of my brake pads, I managed to inch my way down 13.8 kilometers of 21 hairpin turns before coming to an ungraceful clattering stop in front of a group of Dutch cycling tourists. They smiled and waved as I spit a fly from my mouth and smeared grease stains across my face in an attempt to wipe away the tears and snot. When I pried my fingers from the handlebars in Bourg d'Oisans, I nearly sold my bike then and there.

I've spent the past year trying to piece my shattered dreams of being a competent cyclist back together. And while I still don't find spandex shorts especially flattering (I think it's the foam wedged into the crotch area that ruins it for me), I've wobbled my way up and down cols, valleys, cycling paths, and major interstates.

I've managed to get grease stains smeared across every item of cycling clothing I own and the tips of my white leather cycling shoes are scuffed and ripped. A screw is missing from the piece on my shoe that clips into my pedal. My helmet has scrapes, my water bottles are starting to mold, and I can almost pump up my tires without shrieking when my tires hiss air loudly and unexpectedly.

And last week, wearing my scuffed cycling shoes and grease stained cycling jersey, I managed to wobble my bike unsteadily up to the top of Alpe d'Huez.

Averaging 10 kilometers per hour and stopping once to set the world record for inhaling a Snickers bar, I pushed myself and my Trek bike to the top. Bourg d'Oisans fell away and became a series of flickering lights and small houses and the silence was only occasionally shattered by the sound of a car engine suddenly zipping past in a flurry of exhaust.

I cheered myself on each time I passed a sign marking the turns. 21. 20. 19. 18. 17. When I hit the 9th turn, I knew I was going to make it up. "Halfway there, girl" I muttered in a very different sort of pep talk from the one I had uttered last year in an attempt to convince myself I wasn't going to meet my death by cycling down.

With three kilometers to go, British guy came flying down to meet me. As the temperatures began to drop with the sun and the silence was only interrupted by my heaving breathing, his familiar orange jacket was a very welcome sight and the offer of a Snickers bar to boost my energy was even more welcome.

Spirits renewed and sugar reserves restored, I pedaled steadily up the last few kilometers. When I rounded the bend and saw the sign for Alpe d'Huez, I felt like shouting it out to the world. Or you know, updating my Facebook status.

Nikki Hodgson 21 hairpin turns. 13.8 kilometers. A 7.9 % average grade. 1071 meter elevation gain. Made it up to the top of L'Alpe d'Huez for the first time yesterday. Third time's a charm :)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mourning Lili Cat

In 2008, in the midst of the three-week war in Gaza, a friend wrote to lament the fact that an opossum had been carelessly struck by a car in the middle of a Southern California residential neighborhood. The driver, she wrote, hadn’t even stopped to see if the opossum was okay (it wasn’t).

When I read her e-mail, I was in my hotel room in the West Bank flipping between Al-Jazeera and CNN while the Israeli jets flew low and fast overhead. Whether they were routine air exercises or part of the military operation in Gaza was impossible to say, but it was unsettling nonetheless. As I read over my friend’s rant about the opossum, I scoffed and felt an unfamiliar wave of judgment rising up within my chest. Who the hell cares about an animal when people are being slaughtered just as cruelly around the world?

I bit my tongue and simply ignored that section of her e-mail, but despite being an animal lover myself, I could not comprehend how someone could spend so much energy worrying about an opossum or a cat or a dog when there were so many crimes committed against humans on a daily basis.

But then Lili cat died. Just after wrapping herself around my ankles and gazing at me with bright green eyes, her tiny body was hit by a car rounding a bend too quickly in the middle of the French countryside. There was a resounding thud and her crumpled body was thrown to the side of the road in a matted heap of black fur and blood. The driver didn’t even stop.

Her owner, my friend, cast a devastated look at her small form and muttered “merde” under his breath as he turned his children away from the scene and went in search of a shovel.

Lili cat was placed in a cardboard box; her stiff tail sticking at an odd angle was all I saw as they carried her away to be buried. An impromptu cross was hammered together and her name was written with a Sharpie pen. Lili.

My friend’s five year-old daughter took my hand and somberly lead me forward to the grave under the bushes. "To say good-bye," she said. As I stood there, my heart ached for things that would never be. Lili’s sleek form stalking lizards in the grass while her kittens stumbled over each other in the kitchen, tripping unevenly on their tiny paws, their ears flattened down and their eyes sealed shut.

Yesterday I had run my hand over Lili’s swollen belly, imagining the little kittens that would soon be running about this renovated farmhouse. A purr rumbled through her body and she nudged her head against my hand. Lili cat. I heard the life being taken from her body, and now I cannot get the sound out of my head. I want to erase it, undo it, and bring Lili cat back.

I feel reasonably silly mourning a cat. In the grand scheme of things, my mourning energy could be better spent on more devastating acts of injustice.

It just seems ridiculous to mourn the loss of a small black cat when wars are being waged, natural resources pillaged and destroyed, opportunities snatched from most and handed to a few. I would feel ashamed to look someone in the eye who had actually lost something substantial in their life and tell them I was regretting the loss of a cat. 

 Still, when I think of Lili cat bounding through the garden and attacking my feet as I harvested berries and watered the herbs, my heart sinks lower in my chest. We will never do that again. 

I miss her. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Halfway between here and there

Sitting in the garden with my feet up on the chair and my favorite drink in hand (half lemonade, half beer), I watch the sunset, gazing at the trees and the swarming masses of gnats illuminated by the beams of sunlight. It looks as if the bugs are trapped within these narrow streams of light, but I know that it is only my perception, or rather lack thereof, that gives the appearance of isolated swarms. In reality they are all around.

The 11 year old version of myself is nudged awake by this image. I can see myself running through the grass, trying to catch fireflies in the long evenings of Missouri summers. My Grandmother is stretched out on her lawn chair doing a word cross puzzle and my Grandfather is marching about the garden with his precise step; his pant legs tucked neatly into his socks and a floppy canvas hat looking decidedly out of place on the head of an otherwise meticulously dressed Englishman.

My Grandmother has been dead for nearly 10 years. My Grandfather nearly 4. But my daily life is still wrapped up in the memories of our lives together.

I am going back to the Middle East in a matter of weeks. Though it's only for the summer, it's filled me up to the brim with emotions for which I cannot quite find the words.

So I sit on this wrought-iron chair watching the stray cats romp through the tall grass of an unruly garden. I breathe everything in deeply. The trees and their delicate star-shaped leaves. The honeysuckle plant that British guy just planted over the weekend; its vines have been pushed against the trellis. I sip my beer and try to wrap my head around the mixture of yearning, excitement and fear rushing through my veins causing an impossible churning in my heart. That conflicted mass of emotion that comes from a desire to go, but a reluctance to leave.

France has become my home. I feel mixed up in it, my whole life tangled up in its complexities, idiosyncrasies and simple beauty. Like being tangled in the sheets and wrapped up in the arms of a lover, not ready for sleep, but still reluctant to get up and disturb the cozy equilibrium of two people wrapped up in each other.

But the Middle East is where I came to terms with myself. Somewhere between Arabic and Hebrew; the checkpoints and the confusion; the simplicity of a starry night on a warm rooftop and the complexity of an enduring conflict...I uncovered elements of myself I never knew existed.

And they were good.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

10 Most Memorable Travel Moments

Food and water station at Toubkal marathon. 

1. Germany. Long summer days spent lazily dangling our legs into the water while sipping beer. I try to explain s’mores. My friends find marshmallows so I can demonstrate this American campfire phenomenon.

2. Netherlands. Largest student relay race. 4:00 a.m. I am shaken away and handed a jersey. I greet the dawn running through the low-lying hills of the Dutch countryside.

3. Mexico. Tarot card reading in the middle of the jungle. The monkeys howl from the trees and the candles cast shadows against the wall of the palapa.

4. West Bank Checkpoint. Israeli soldiers serenade us with  “Hotel California.” The stars hang above the hills and their voices echo back. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. 

5. Istanbul. Stuck in a hotel elevator. Laughing deliriously when the concierge tells us to stay there while he searches for help.

6. The Dead Sea. My Palestinian friends scatter to the shore, eyes blinking wildly at the silver expanse of salty water stretching all the way to Jordan.  They had never seen it.

7. Jordan. Sitting in a Bedouin camp watching the shadows stretch across red rocks as camels pad heavily into the desert.

8. USA. Greyhound bus. I pull out a map and eight of my new best friends huddle around me as we trace our route across the country.

9. France. Hiking through the Alps in summer, stopping at mountain huts for homemade meals shared with fellow hikers.

10. Morocco. Spontaneously signing up for a mountain marathon up North Africa’s highest peak. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Story up at Women's Adventure Magazine

Boots, Backpacks and....Bears? Oh no. Swing by and check it out! can just listen to this song. It always makes me happy. 

Happy Thursday! 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Project Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You, Day 3

On Thursday evening British guy and I set off to visit a friend of his who lives about 60 kilometers from Grenoble. Because it was already dusk when we set off, we elected to take the train most of the way there and then cycle the remaining distance to this friend's restored farmhouse near the Vercors. Except I forgot my light and had to cycle in the dark (Very bad idea. Don't do this.) So that was, um, exciting. To say the least.

We spent a lovely evening celebrating the birthday of an adorable little 4-year old girl. Man alive, that girl has got spunk. You can see it in her eyes that she'll never let fear dictate her life. I love it when I can add a 4 year old to my list of inspirational people.

The next morning British guy and I packed our things and set off to ride the 60 kilometers back to Grenoble. Except that he was going over the Vercors and I hadn't brought very warm cycling clothes which meant that the descent would be freezing and I would be a very unhappy camper. British guy however was set on that route so that left me to cycle an alternative route by myself.


Here's what was running through my head:
1. I am going to get lost. I have a terrible sense of direction. Terrible. I would get lost in a paper bag. I honestly don't know how I manage to get anywhere. If I have a map, I'm generally okay but without one...forget it. I'll end up in Spain before I realize I've made a wrong turn.
2. I'm going to get a flat tire and I won't be able to change it. Embarrassing. I'll have to hitch a ride back to Grenoble (hey, it's been done before).
3. I'm going to crash in the middle of some town square in front of everyone (also been done before).

The cop-out option was just to take the train back, but....I decided to take on the challenge. I really wanted to go out for a nice long cycle, and there isn't always going to be someone to go with I went.

And it was beautiful. Spectacularly gorgeous morning, nobody in sight, and crisp cool weather. I stopped at a bakery along the way and picked up a pain au chocolate which I ate alongside the river on the cycle path heading back to Grenoble.

I made good time and felt really empowered for having taken on an adventure that I wanted to do, but had been initially discouraged from taking on because of fear.

Nikki: 3
Fear: 0

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Le Bonnet de Calvin. Because hiking is fun

When British guy asked if I wanted to go hiking with his friend over the weekend, I was intrigued but also apprehensive.

"Is it a technical hike?"

"Yes, 3 or 4 of you will probably die."

"That sounds right up my alley."

"Ok, I sent an e-mail telling him you would get in contact with him."

"Wait, I have to send him an e-mail?"

"Yes, that's the idea."

" French?"

"No, Chinese."

Making dry witty comments seems to be a British national past time.

After stalling for two days I finally worked up the courage to e-mail British guy's friend. You can read about that here.

If I'd known that I was going to have to wake up at 6:00 am, I might not have signed up. Luckily I didn't know that until it was too late to back out. I'm not really a morning person. Or a night person for that matter. I'm more of a middle of the day person.

At 6:00 am I leapt out of bed, excited to start the day. Haha. Yeah right. I hit the snooze button about four times on both of the (count 'em two) alarms that I set. Then I rolled out of bed and proceeded to put my underwear on backwards and my t-shirt on inside out. I'm still working on this whole getting dressed thing.

I staggered out of the apartment with my thermos of tea and made my way onto the tram heading toward the university to meet the rest of the group.

We hiked up to the top of this mountain. It has a name. A very good French name....that I cannot remember. (Edit: I've just been informed that it's Le Bonnet de Calvin. I knew that.)

Wait...we're going up there?! Let me look at the map!

Looking for Mens? Look no further. Ha. Ha. Incidentally I was the only one in the group who found this funny. Where's another native English speaker when you need one?

Some encouragement along the way....

View from just below the summit.

 The last climb up to the summit.

Almost there...

The view.

More view.

The beginning of the descent. The more conventional members of the group elected to walk down. But who wants to be conventional when the alternative is a homemade sled? Yeah. Me neither.

Oh. Sorry. I thought this was the photo shoot for the cover of Outside Magazine.


Should I stop posing now?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Project Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You, Day 2

Yesterday's challenge was to send an e-mail in French to sign up for a potentially uncomfortably awkward social situation. I sent my e-mail, and then rewarded myself with an Oreo. I'm big on self-rewarding. Especially with Oreos. By 8:30 pm I still hadn't heard anything, and thought maybe the hike had been cancelled or there was no more space left, and that I would be off the hook. But then I received this e-mail:

Ok pour toi. Par contre, le rdv est avancé à 7h30 au local de l'ESMUG, vers la piscine universitaire.
Tu vois où c'est?
Si problème téléphone moi
<---(HAHA. Telephone someone. In French. That's funny)

In case you didn't get that, it basically translates to: Ok for you to come. Meet at 7:30

Half excitement and half apprehension, I packed my stuff and set my alarm clock for 6:00 am (gulp).

Which leads me to today's one thing that scares me: go hiking with a group of people I'd never met before AND be required to speak French the entire time. Does that count for two? I think it should. No? Fine.

Here's why it scared me:

1. I'd have to get up at 6:00 am. Just kidding. Sort of.
2. I would have to speak French. The potential for making an idiot of myself substantially increases when I'm required to speak French.

And aside from a minor fear of falling to my death, that was it really.

Hm. Interesting that my fear of speaking French seems to supersede my fear of falling to my death.

I'll write about it in more detail tomorrow, but facing up to my anxiety paid off. I had an amazing time with some great people, enjoyed France's spectacular mountains, and stumbled my way through enough French to satisfy myself that yes, it is slow going, but I am learning a lot.

So today's tally is:
Me: 2
Fear: 0

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Project Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You

Do one thing every day that scares you. -Eleanor Roosevelt

Truth be told, I'm afraid of most things. There's your standard fears: flying, heights, spiders, death. You know, the usual. Then there are my own personal fears....falling while cycling, falling while skiing, falling while climbing, just generally falling, making mistakes,  calling people, social situations, people judging me, speaking a language that isn't my own, not doing anything meaningful with my life, not being intelligent enough, good enough to do anything worthwhile. I battle with it constantly. Some days I'm more victorious than others. Small victories really. Other days I feel like staying in bed safely under my covers. Other people live safe lives. Why can't I? Because I'm afraid not to take risks...afraid that if I don't face up to my fears I will "face my death with the realization that I have not lived." (Thoreau)

So. I've decided to do one thing every day that scares me. Nothing new, I know. But I'm going to blog about it. See what happens. Document the process. Maybe it will be depressing, maybe it will be enlightening. One thing is for sure though and that's that it will definitely be entertaining.

Let's get this show started.

Today I have to write an e-mail in French to sign up for a hike that is taking place tomorrow. See, British guy has gone skiing with his friends on a trip that is way beyond my skiing level. To prevent me from sitting on the couch all weekend eating cheese and watching reruns of Friends, he got in contact with a friend of his who is part of a mountaineering club. The mountaineering club is going on a hike tomorrow and British guy asked if I could tag along. Now all I have to do is write and say that I do want to go and arrange a time to be picked up. That's the situation, and this is what it makes me want to do:

Please note: I did not do this to the cat (Oddball is his name). He wedged himself in-between the two pillows. Probably because he had to write something in French and would really have preferred to sit on the couch watching reruns of Friends. 

Here are the things I'm afraid of:
1. Potentially awkward social situation. I don't know any of these people.
2. Writing an e-mail in French. My command of the French language is shaky at best. Sure, I've improved a lot over the last few months, but I still feel like a complete idiot whenever I try to write/say anything. I could write in English, but that's sort of copping out isn't it?
3. Tomorrow I will have to speak French. All day. With people I don't know. It will be full of extreme awkwardness.

Cop-out option:
Don't write the e-mail and stay home instead.

Why I don't like that option: It's lame. I want to go hiking.

Ok. On-y-va.

I just sent an e-mail in the most rudimentary French EVER saying that I would like to go tomorrow.

I'll let you know how it goes. Funny how empowering doing such a small thing can be. I know most people don't think twice about these sorts of thing, but when you're afraid....something inconsequential often seems impossible.

Here's the recap:

  • Time it took to getting around to sending e-mail: 2 days
  • Time it took to actually write one-line e-mail: 5 minutes
  • Time it took to work up the courage to send one-line e-mail: 15 minutes
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