Tag Archives: travel

What I Learned on My Winter Vacation

Among the many reasons people cite for travelling internationally, broadening your perspective and growing as a human being is probably the most well-worn. What precisely that means, however, varies dramatically depending on what type of growth results you are looking for. Making your Facebook friends jealous and being able to trade tips with your yuppy friends on what to order in a Paris café are some of the more mercenary goals, perhaps. But at the bottom of all of it is the belief that encountering more kinds of people and more ways of living makes you a better human being.

I do actually believe that, otherwise I would have chosen the kind of life I’m living. But often what we think of when we talk about the kinds of experiences that make us broader, wiser, more tolerant people are the kinds of experiences that teenagers write about in their college essays: either the types of experiences that put us in touch with the goodness in all humanity (including our own) by bearing witness to triumph over adversity or the types of dramatic self-discovery that occur when our plans and expectations are radically upended.

I’ve been living abroad for six months now, and I’m not really sure that I’ve had either type of experience. Perhaps that is because I am living the same kind of middle-class, 9 to 5 (well, 10-6 because Europe does everything an hour later than America) existence that I would in the States, associating primarily with other expats and intimidatingly well-educated, cosmopolitan Russians. The Russia I live in is a fairly rarified on. The challenges I have experienced have been of the “Thanksgiving is coming and I can’t for the life of me find ground cloves!” variety. Ok, a few weeks ago, an entire work day on the last day of classes was hijacked for a two-hour cab ride with five other colleagues to the Immigration Office in brutal Moscow traffic in which one of the cabs got into a wreck, and the cab driver had to pay off the other driver so that we could make it in time.

But maybe that’s the point. Rarely are we given the opportunities for the kinds of apocalyptic self-examination that make good memoirs. I know people who have had those sorts of experiences, and I am not excited to follow in their footsteps. For the most part, it’s in this kind of mundane bullshit that you come face to face with your limitations and the places where you could stand to change and adapt and, you know, “grow.” And the reason why travel abroad is often associated with that is because for those of us who don’t have children, going to another country is the best possible opportunity we have for being ruinously inconvenienced.

At least that is what has happened to me on our winter vacation to Southern Italy. Vacationing in a different country is, as it turns out, a very different beast than living in a different country, and in many ways, it is a fiercer one. There is far more pressure to have the time of your life, for example. “I have spent quite a lot of money to be here,” you tell yourself on a daily basis. “I had better not spend it playing another level of Plants vs. Zombies when I could be out there having a good time.” “Italian food is amazing,” you tell yourself as you realize that you are possibly doing permanent damage to yourself with the amount of wine, pizza, and gelato you are consuming in the name of seizing the moment. And it is in the name of making the most of your time in this place that you consider waiting in a queue for the Sistine Chapel so long that it would give you a rage stroke if you encountered it outside the context of this vacation.

I do not want to set you up for the expectation that this has been a bad trip or that I am ungrateful for this opportunity. Far from it. Please believe that I did jump up and down when I saw the Colosseum and that I have been gleefully uploading photos to Instagram every night. I embarked upon this trip overflowing with optimism. And maybe because of that, it has also been a particularly acute period of encountering the disappointing limitations of both the trip and of myself as a human being. I have learned that I am precisely the type of over-ambitious, type-A vacation planner I always thought I wouldn’t be, treating the guide book like a check list and becoming livid at my spouse because he broke up the day’s itinerary with his suggestion that we go back to our Air BnB in the mid-afternoon after five hours of walking and have a nap. In other words, we have become the most disgusting, overworn stereotype of travelling couples ever.

I have also learned that in both psychological and physical terms, I am completely inflexible when it comes to my tea intake. I am basically a grouchy, be-tweeded Brit or Uncle Iroh (take your pick), and Italy is coffee country, where the best a tea-drinker can hope for outside of certain very specific Roman establishments (where tea is served as a sort of novelty or sop to tourists) is a bag of Lipton Yellow Label served in a cappuccino mug. And a reliable wi-fi connection is pretty much a deal-breaker for me. “The internet connection is really just there for checking tourist information,” my landlord tells me when I complain that it is too slow and cuts out all the time. “You are history’s worst monster,” I think, mourning the episodes of 30 Rock that I planned to watch quasi-legally via VPN connection. (If an Italian coffee-shop–those places where you guzzle espresso while standing at a counter–advertises Wi-Fi on their front door, take it with several grains of salt. This is not a country where you can expect to park for several hours with your laptop.)

I, who like to think of myself as a tolerant, open-minded person have found myself characterizing the inhabitants of an entire country based on the rude, pushy behavior of off-brand tour guides outside of the Vatican, a couple of obnoxious waiters, and that family in front of me walking very slowly and taking up the entire sidewalk while throwing their trash on the ground.

I will not, as it turns out, wait for multiple hours to see a Michelangelo masterpiece. I will instead buy handbags. 

It occurs to me that I may have sort of lucked out by landing in a country that happens to support most of my addictions and neuroses, where it is dark most of the time and the free wi-fi is plentiful, where I can swill tea around the clock even if it does keep me awake at night and where the locals share my preference for putting on a set of headphones and staring sullenly into the middle distance while using public transportation, avoiding eye contact with strangers at all costs. If a Muscovite complains about the fact that everyone on the metro stares at their mobile devices rather than striking up friendly conversations with the person next to them, they probably exile him or her to California, where fiends like that belong. If someone is standing on the wrong side of the escalator or is blocking the door of the metro car, you can shove them out of the way. No one will blame you. This is Russia, mofos. 

In other words, the ways in which travel forces you to grow are often far more mundane than the ones you think are worth writing home about. In truth, it’s the times when a little kid dumps tacos in your purse that you come face to face with your humanity and are forced to become a better person. I hear that having human children gives you this sort of opportunity all of the time. I also think I’m content to remain precisely this selfish and this limited for now. At least until my next vacation. 

 

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Why English and Rhet/Comp Graduate Students Should Consider Career Choices Abroad

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If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be able to walk here from my apartment, I’d have…done…something.

November starts tomorrow, which means that job hunting season for new and expectant PhDs is about to really get going, and I am having bad acid flashbacks of weekends spend queuing up Interfolio dossiers and hoping I remembered to change the receiver’s address on each cover letter. I am hoping to stay put in my current job for a good while, and not only because I’m hoping to avoid crying in restaurants for a few years, but because I can honestly say that I am enjoying my job. Really, really enjoying it. And even though it wasn’t Plan A and even though I wound up here through a bizarre series of coincidences and chance encounters, I couldn’t be more grateful that I ended up here rather than at one of the other places that offered me interviews (but didn’t offer me jobs). Now, I certainly can’t say that my experience is typical, but it’s enough for me to recommend that English and Rhet/Comp students (and all fields, really)–facing increasingly dire prospects on the US market–look at an international career as a viable option. Some reasons:

Travel, duh.

Some of my current satisfaction has to do with location and the thrill of travel. I made a pact with my spouse when I began my job search that–and this is the exact wording–we would not die in Waco. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but you can guess some of them. Cut to three years later, and I am at interviewing for a position for a university in Waco. And I interviewed for two more jobs that were in places very much like Waco but with different weather. For many, no doubt, Waco is a brighter prospect than Moscow, where the sun currently comes up around 8:45 am, but a couple of weeks ago, we walked from our 600 square foot apartment to Red Square on a chilly day in the rain, and I was overwhelmed with disbelief that this is my actual life. Different isn’t always better, but when you’ve felt yourself grow stale in a place, going somewhere completely different feels like a rebirth. You aren’t better, but just by virtue of changing your life so radically, you lose a lot of bad habits and pick up a few new ones. You find yourself challenged and engaged in ways that are completely unexpected. And you learn a little bit about surrender.

Working Conditions

Speaking in more practical terms, the set of conditions under which I’m working are quite a bit better than what I could have expected in the US. Though this isn’t a tenure track position, it’s a renewable contract with an institution that was willing to make a pretty considerable investment in getting me over here. I am getting paid at near the top end of what Assistant Profs make in my field in the US. I have a research budget. I got to design and teach my own literature elective my first semester here. I teach a 1/1 load alongside my Writing Center admin responsibilities. My students are Ivy-League caliber and turn their assignments in on time and have forever ruined me for teaching in the US. I have health insurance. I could go on.

Building Something New

I teach at an institution that is only two decades old in an English department that is only a few years old. For some, I think this would in and of itself be anxiety producing. And there are drawbacks. The building I work in is decrepit, though that’s largely because the school invested in world-class faculty on the front end rather than facilities. The former Rector had to, you know, flee the country under the threat of political persecution, but we have a new Rector who seems extremely qualified and energized about where the institution will go next. In short, the people who work here seem to think that they are involved in doing something extremely important and urgent for their students, their research field, and their country, and despite the specialization of the school, the English department is part of that. And that, to me at least, is so much more exciting than slotting into a long-established literature or writing program at a centuries-old universities where the possibility of making a genuine difference means working against entrenched interests and traditions.

This Writing Center is only two years old and is the first of its kind in Russia. The US model Writing Center is rapidly becoming a very attractive import for many European, Asian, and Middle Eastern universities. Not only does this mean that there are jobs out there but that international, multi-lingual writing centers and writing programs are becoming a new frontier for research.

International Colleagues

Which brings me, of course, to the fact that the American academic universe is pretty much hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. And particularly in the areas of rhetoric and composition studies, there is a LOT of interesting work that could be done if there were more exchange of ideas internationally. There’s always some noise about the need to do so, but very little of it actually happens in practice.

And then, of course, there is just the stimulation of having colleagues from all over the world just down the hall. I work with people from Belarus, Palestine, Turkey, and Italy as well as Americans who have made their entire careers abroad. And I’m interacting with these people in a place where “Americanness” isn’t neither the default nor the goal, where we are all foreigners.

Marketability

For the reasons discussed earlier, Americans with English and Rhet/Comp degrees are extremely marketable on the international market, especially if they can bring some ESL/EFL experience together with expertise in a content field. the TESOL jobs site and the International Writing Centers Association website are good places to look for openings. Be aware, however, that in addition to talking about your research and teaching, you will need to be able to articulate–both in your cover letter and in your interview–why you want to work abroad and why you want to work in that country specifically. The turnover rate among expat employees is high because people get homesick or have a change in family circumstances or whatever, and schools who pay for moving costs invest a considerable amount in their faculty up front. So you need to be able to argue for why you are a good investment.

I was warned before taking this job that working abroad could hurt my marketability if I want to return to the US. I have heard anecdotal reports that this is true, but the person I replaced had two job offers in the US, so take that for what it’s worth.

Caveats

Working abroad is not for you if:

  • You are seeking the traditional middle-class American experience with children, extended family in easy reach, and steady, reliable employment. Granted, for many of us, this simply isn’t an option we can count on. But the truth is that going abroad means being uprooted, many times, potentially. And it means going long periods without seeing your parents or siblings or old friends. If you go abroad, you need to wrap your head around the fact that this isn’t study abroad. This is going to be your life, and if you have doubts, it’s best to grapple with them early on.
  • You shun hassles. I mean, I don’t know anyone who likes being inconvenienced, but moving internationally is a giant effing hassle in every possible way. I have had to deal with more paperwork than it took to sell our house (and most of it in a language I don’t read well). Shipping a few boxes of personal items and research materials has been an undertaking so grueling and expensive that I question whether it was worth it (probably not). And airports, man. Airports.

The takeaway here is that it’s not going to be a glorious experience for everyone or 100% of the time, but it’s a career path that is very seriously worth considering as an alternative to stringing together adjunct work, taking a 9-5 office job, teaching a 4/4 lectureship with no opportunities for research or career advancement, or even *gasp* a tenure track job in quite a few cases.

The Past is With Us

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The ceiling of the Taganskaya metro station depicting the Soviet flag on a blue background.

During my summer in Boston, I came across a couple of op-eds by Mary Baker Eddy on the goings-on in Russia at the close of the nineteenth century, and I realized for just how long Russia has served as a kind of foil for the United States. Even before the rise of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War, even before we became rivals, Americans looked to Russia as the incarnation of old-world tyranny standing in stark contrast to America’s beacon of freedom. And in the highly self-serving op-eds that Putin and McCain each served up recently, we see that that this condition persists to a certain degree.

When Americans think about Moscow, I think the image they typically conjure up is the Moscow of the 90s in much the same way that people who have never left the South or the Midwest picture Times Square in the 80s when they think of New York City. It’s difficult to shake the stark imagery and Manichean drama of the Cold War when that defined our view of Russia for so long. But when I’m standing in a subway car surrounded by people swiping away at iPhones with ads for Audi dealerships on the wall, the only thing that really reminds me that I’m not in the US is the fact that the ad is in Cyrillic. So dramatic has the change in this city been in just a couple of decades that I’m repeatedly stunned by the fact that people exactly my age remember standing in lines with their mothers for bread and toilet paper. Russia is still a complicated place beset by inefficiency and corruption, but it has also made some stunningly rapid strides in the direction of what many Americans would call progress at least in terms of adopting Western consumer culture.

Stalin-era apartment buildings viewed from my office window.
Stalin-era apartment buildings viewed from my office window.

Vestiges of the Soviet era–and of an even older Russia–exist everywhere. There are the few remaining statues of Lenin, for example, and the utilitarian apartment buildings. But the remnants that stand out to me are the ones that more directly impact everyday life. You can tell, for example, that customer service is a recent concept here both because of it’s absence in some places and its almost aggressive presence in others. Russian service workers vacillate between the almost overwhelming enthusiasm of the Japanese and the hostile aloofness of the French. The employees at one grocery store chain all wear crisp green and white uniforms, and they take your fruits and vegetables from you and weigh them on the spot before you go to the checkout counter. Many gas stations are full-service, and if you decide to browse the selection of mugs in Starbucks, chances are a very cheerful employee will be right there to tell you all about them within seconds. Elsewhere, you will have to physically grab a customer service representative to get them to take your money. One time, after finishing a restaurant meal, I asked for my check and watched my waitress nod and then walk off to take a smoke break. Waitstaff–for whom a 10% tip is considered highly generous–routinely ignore you, which means you can sit and socialize for hours without feeling like anyone is trying to turn the table around but also means that you may sit there forever before you get your credit card back.

Of course, that’s if they take credit card. Cash is the standard here, even for very large transactions. Many cashiers will ask you to provide exact change, and a few will still get very irritated with you if you don’t have it, an attitude left over from a time when currency was scarce. In fact, my most hostile encounters with Russians have involved quibbles over change. The worst was at the food court of a mega-mall.

And then there is the paperwork. Every transaction that involves the Russian government requires everything besides a blood sample (actually, you need one of those to get a work visa) and a letter from your first-grade teacher. Things that seem like they should be simple turn out to be really complicated and vice versa. To get an apartment, you need to have a lot of cash in your hand and the ability to sign your name. There is no credit check or tax return requirement. The landlord just needs to like the look of you. (I just assume this means that they get to break your thumbs if you’re late on the rent). However, getting a bank account (getting a bank to allow you to GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY) requires two forms of ID, a notarized translation of your passport, verification of employment, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember. Right now, we are trying to get our belongings through Russian customs, which requires a letter from my employer (I need to prove I’m employed to bring my stuff in the country…why exactly?) and a notarized power of attorney to allow the moving company to pay the customs officials for me. To get this document notarized, I waited in a notary’s office for an hour and a half while it was passed around to three different people and while they found a translator who could make sure I understood what I was signing even though I prepared the document in the first place.

(Aside: I should note that bureaucratic nonsense is alive and well in the US as well and can appear just as irrational, judging by the letter I had to sign in order to prove that L. Ashley Squires and Laura Ashley Squires are the same person, a step that was apparently essential to the sale of my car in the state of Texas. Also, the US also puts foreigners through an unbelievable amount of bullshit, but this is my little complaint corner right now. The way to cope with it in either country is to be patient, have a sense of humor, and pray.)

But the secret of this Kafkaesque nightmare is that very little of it actually matters. All these papers you need are merely boxes that someone in some office needs to check, and it’s unlikely that they actually pay attention to what’s in them. But you need to do them correctly because one day someone might, and that will of course be at the moment when the consequences are the worst for you.

But elsewhere the lingering evidence of the Old Russia is simply puzzling and amusing. Occasionally, it’s delightfully so. The building I work in is a Soviet-era office building, one of those structures that was built quickly and has quickly fallen into disrepair. As is typical in Moscow, the public areas (lobbies, hallways, etc.) are dilapidated while offices and classrooms are fully renovated in the modern style. It still has a stolovaya, a cafeteria where lunch would have been provided to employees but where you can now buy a very inexpensive meal. At the entrance are two security guards who stop no one from walking in the building and a woman whose ostensible job is to issue passes that no one bothers to ask for anymore. She sits all day looking at an empty visitor notebook like a character from a Pynchon novel.

There used to be guards on every floor who would give you your office key and take it from you when you left for the day. This still exists but only on the nineteenth floor, which, incidentally, is where my office is. Every day, I ask for the key from a man who has probably been working there for 40 years and whose job it is to take it off a hook on the wall and hand it to me. When he’s not handing out keys, he watches internet videos. This is actually a Russian workplace custom that pre-dates the Soviet Union. In Dostoevskiy’s Crime and Punishment, there is a floor guard who fails to notice anything when Raskolnikov is murdering the landlady.

While it can occasionally feel like evidence of backwardness, this litany of customs and procedures and personnel that probably had a point that expired some time ago is really evidence of just how rapidly Russia has and is still changing. This country’s national literary tradition didn’t take off in earnest until Pushkin in the nineteenth century, and in just a couple of generations, it produced Tolstoy. And in less than a generation, it has gone from bread lines to Starbucks. This makes it often frustrating and even frightening, but it also makes it rich and exciting and dynamic. One of my Russian colleagues said that she left the US to return to Moscow because the stability and samey-ness of life in America just got boring, and I can see what she’s talking about. But truthfulness, this historical dynamism, this pursuit of chance at a breakneck pace and all the messiness that comes with it, is something that Russians and Americans share.

 

Purse Tacos and Other Travel Disasters

True story: I actually really enjoy air travel, which is a good thing, because I have been doing a lot of it lately. Time spent on an airplane always feels like the epitome of free time, the perfect excuse to read a book for pleasure or shotgun a whole season of Portlandia on my iPad because what the hell else am I going to do? Work? Psssshh. It’s not that I don’t do those things on the ground. It’s just that I feel a lot less guilty because the range of possible activities I can perform at that moment has been narrowed to a list that mostly includes my very favorite things. Even waiting around in an airport isn’t all that bad, provided the available food options are passable and I’m not trying to be somewhere at a specific time.

That said, having nearly completed a summer travel itinerary that has gone from Austin to Birmingham to Austin to Denver to Austin to Dallas to Boston to Denver to Boston to New York to Dallas to Moscow, there’s been some inevitable…discomfort. Two weeks ago, I got to spend the night in Logan Airport. On the trip to and from Birmingham, I got to experience Houston IAH’s B-terminal, where someone had actually been shot and killed a few weeks prior. More specifically, I got to hang out at gate B-84, which has the most awesome Foursquare reviews I have ever seen. “IAH flight crews call the B-84 gates the ‘litterbox,'” says one. And of course, I’ve had my baggage lost twice by Delta.

But that’s fine. Because last summer set the bar travel disasters in my life in a way that makes pretty much everything else seem manageable. I think I would have to actually be detained by Homeland Security in order to top it.

This was one of those tragedies that was slow to unfold, and as with all the things that ruin your life, the consequences of what happened wouldn’t really start to become apparent for days after the precipitating event. See, as my family does every summer, we were visiting a Colorado ranch owned by some family friends. And one of the highlights of this ranch experience is the food. The menu has been carefully honed and perfected for decades by a woman named Sue who is married to the spitting image of the Marlboro man and who looks like, if she needed to, she could field dress the animals she cooked herself and also churn the butter. This food is unbelievable.

Tuesday afternoon at this ranch is always a Southwestern/Mexican buffet. Being from Texas, I am critical, but this buffet is very good. I should mention also that this ranch attracts families with small children. And often those small children are accompanied by adults with very little common sense. Otherwise, I can’t imagine why it would have occurred to this one gentlemen that it would be a good idea for a four year old to carry a heaping plate of tacos back to his table all by himself. I think you see where this is going. Said child tripped and spilled the entire plate directly into my open bag, which was sitting right next to me. I mean, he scored a perfect hit. This was one of those bags I use for travel that has all kinds of useful pockets and stuff, and the taco ingredients were in all of them. It was a miracle of physics.

The adult accompanying this child just kind of stood there while my husband escorted me away so that I wouldn’t drop the f-bomb in front of a toddler. Outside, I cleaned guacamole and sour cream out of the grooves around my iPhone and determined that pretty much everything else in the bag was destroyed, including the bag itself. Taco meat juice doesn’t age well in a purse.

When we left the ranch, my sister gathered up all our trash and picked up the bag–which, if you recall, had a lot of pockets–along with everything else. If you think you know where all of this is headed, I congratulate you. I did not. It was only as we were pulling up to Denver International Airport that I realized that I was missing my driver’s license and the key to our car, which was in a parking lot at Austin-Bergstrom Airport. Oh, also our house keys. And my university ID. These were all critical items that I keep in a specific pocket when I travel so that they’re, you know, safe. This was the pocket I forgot to clean out.

Like any right thinking human being, I first turned on my husband. And when yelling, “Did you clean out that pocket??!?!?!11” over and over didn’t change the situation, I rapidly progressed through the next few stages of grief. This realization, if you recall, happened as we were pulling up to the terminal, so I walked straight to a Southwest agent to ask what you do if you lose your photo ID. It turns out, you can get through security, but you have to be grilled by a TSA agent for a while and explain to him that your ID is missing because purse tacos. Lucky for me, I am a white lady.

While standing in the security line, I called the Mazda dealership to try to figure out how to get a new key for our car. Turns out, it costs $300. Oh, and we’d have to have the car towed. And we’d have to wait until Monday to do that because this was Saturday evening, and they are closed on Sunday. At the same time, I placed a call to Barb, who works at the ranch office and who was appropriately horrified when I told her what had happened and informed us that the trash hadn’t been collected yet, so there was hope.

When we arrived at our gate, it turned out our flight was delayed, which gave me time to connect with my sister and find out exactly what she had done with the bag and to relay to Barb the excellent news that she didn’t actually need to go dumpster diving. The bag was retrieved, and they promised to FedEx my IDs and keys Monday morning. That was the last break we would get the rest of the night.

A 45 minute delay turned into a 5 hour delay, which meant, of course, that we would have missed our connection in Phoenix. Our only option was to go to Houston and from there to fly to Austin first thing the next morning. I had to be back for something at noon the next day. I may have yelled at the gate agent.

So we went to Houston, where we slept in our clothes for four hours in a terrible hotel before repeating the whole “I don’t have photo ID because, see, four year old and tacos” show once again. It took longer this time, but my white privilege and I did eventually make it through. And we did make it back to Austin, where we had to rent a car, drive to my sister’s apartment so that we could get their spare key to our house, go home, and figure out that a spare key to our car probably existed if we could just find it.  Fortunately we did, though I had to go fulfill my noon commitment and we wound up not returning the rental car or retrieving our car until much later in the evening.

So kids, the morals of this story are: Beware toddlers carrying Tex-Mex. Check all  the pockets. And most importantly, get the four year old’s dad to pay to replace the bag, no matter how old and ratty it is. Because the fiasco might just wind up costing you a couple hundred in FedEx and car rental costs.