Category Archives: geography

USA Trip 2018: Nevada City & Sacramento Valley

Greetings! This is the fourth and final post in my mini “USA Trip 2018” series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYCa few days in San Francisco, and time exploring the Point Reyes National Seashore, we journeyed to the foothills of the Sierras then into the Sacramento Valley for the remainder of our trip. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

Day 1: Sunday

Out of the fog and into the heat: that sums up the drive from Point Reyes across the Sacramento Valley and into the Sierra foothills. Not complete without a stop at California institution In-N-Out Burger, of course!

Upon arrival in Nevada City, we strolled through the cute, hippie, old west town center before splashing in the Outside Inn pool and relaxing in the heat with the New York Times. We had a delicious dinner at the New Moon Cafe (recommended by J&E) then called it an early night.

Day 2: Monday

I knew nothing about Nevada City before this trip. Why did we choose it? Well, we had originally considered Lake Tahoe but then realized it would be jammed with tourists and vacationers in August. As an alternative, a number of friends had recommended a stop in Nevada City, one of the first Gold Rush towns in the Sierra foothills.

Monday was a kind of rest day for us. We slept in then had a delicious brunch at Ike’s Quarter Cafe (thanks for the recommendation, Liv!) and lounged around in the 90F+ heat. Later, we roused ourselves enough to drive to Edward’s Crossing and take a dip in the Yuba River (another spot-on recommendation from Liv). The sun was hot, the water was cool, all was well. And luckily we didn’t come across any rattlesnakes. Smoothies and wraps from Fudenjüce (good tip from B) rounded off the day.

Day 3: Tuesday

We spent a leisurely morning writing postcards, then made our way out of the foothills and into the Sacramento Valley. First stop: Folsom, home of the eponymous Folsom Prison made famous by a Johnny Cash song, but also home to family friends (and avid athletes) J&E, who generously hosted us for two nights. After we arrived and admired their fleet of bikes and rowing shells, E took F and me on an easy 8-mile cycle on the paved “Johnny Cash Trail” to stretch our legs before dinner. It was also a test-ride on their “guest fleet” bikes for the next day’s adventure…

Day 4: Wednesday

…a 30-mile cycle from Folsom to Old Sacramento, almost all on paved paths along the American River and including a mini pace line to help the miles pass. It was fantastic to ride so far and not encounter any cars. We enjoyed lunch on the classic Delta King riverboat and then strolled through Old Sac before taking the light rail back to Folsom.

Cycling to Old Sac. Photo by E.

Day 5: Thursday

E took F out for a final cycle – faster this time, since I wasn’t there to hold them back – while I went for a run. We all met at Karen’s Bakery for a post-workout coffee. It was a nice end our stay with J&E – they treated us well and E was an excellent cycle tour guide! In the early afternoon we drove to my grandmother’s house in Roseville, where we caught up on the family news, showed off our holiday photos, and met Uncle K for dinner.

Day 6: Friday

F and I got up early with Grandma; she did her regular 2-mile walk and we went for a short run. After breakfast, we drove back to San Francisco, returned the rental car, and flew back to London and reality. We had an amazing trip. I enjoyed introducing F to the west coast while revisiting some of my favorite places and sharing many new experiences with him. We’ll be back, California!


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USA Trip 2018: Point Reyes National Seashore

Greetings! This is the third post in my mini “USA Trip 2018” series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYC and a few days in San Francisco, we drove across the foggy Golden Gate Bridge to the Point Reyes National Seashore. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

Do you associate smells with places? I have two strong smell-place associations: the damp sea air of Cape Cod, and the dry, earthy, eucalyptus-tinged smell of golden northern California. The latter is what Point Reyes smelled like and it was glorious.

Smells aside, you’ve probably gathered that the next stage of our USA trip was on the Point Reyes National Seashore. We had found a cute-looking AirBnB in Point Reyes Station to set up our base for the next few days and planned to see some big trees, walk/hike, and relax. (The “tiny house” AirBnB was perfect: comfortable bed, great outdoor shower, porch, fridge, and coffee maker. I’d stay there again.)

Day 1: Thursday

After renting a car from SFO, we drove back up through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping at the vista point for some great views of the fog rolling over the San Francisco Bay. Another hour or so in the car brought us to the cute little town of Point Reyes Station. We spent part of the afternoon exploring the town and bought two delicious cheeses from the Cowgirl Creamery, which at least four people had recommended to us! I wanted to go for a run, so F suggested we drive 10 minutes to the Bear Valley Trail parking area and get in a short jog before dinner. We ran a 5km out-and-back on a sneakily uphill trail to the Divide Valley. It was beautiful and peaceful.

Day 2: Friday

Muir Woods was a non-negotiable activity on this trip; it’s one of my favorite places from childhood and F loves trees, so I knew he’d enjoy it. Luckily, a few people had tipped us off to the fact that you now have to book tickets and parking in advance, so we reserved the earliest possible parking spot for Friday morning. We rolled out of bed at 6:20am, made coffee and PB&Js in our tiny house, and drove down to Muir Woods via foggy Highway 1. We got there at 8:20am and it was really peaceful in the woods until about 9:45, at which point we were on the way out anyway. It was totally worth going early to beat the crowds and enjoy the redwoods in their natural, peaceful magnificence.

On the way back to Point Reyes Station, we stopped at Stinson Beach; it was still a grayish day but there were plenty of people out. We cooled – more like chilled! – our toes in the Pacific waters and enjoyed a beach walk before grabbing hot dogs for lunch. Back in town, we browsed in Point Reyes Books and then drove up the road to Inverness for a delicious dinner of fish tacos and sweet potato fries at The Tap Room. Fast and fresh!

Day 3: Saturday

Our main activity for this day was to hike the Tomales Point Trail, a 10-mile out-and-back hike to the end of Tomales Point, promising to feature Tule Elk and other wildlife. We made a leisurely start and got to the trailhead around 10am. It was cool and breezy when we set off, but we warmed up fast in the bright sunshine. The hike was 2/3 easy walking on well-trodden dirt trails, and 1/3 on loose sand. It was a beautiful hike, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and Tomales Bay on the other. The Tule Elk were out in force and many California Condors were circling overhead. Stunning.

Day 4: Sunday

Before checking out of our AirBnB, we drove to the Bear Valley Trail area again and did the same out-and-back run that we did the first night. It was good to shake out the legs before we got in the car to drive to our next stop: Nevada City.


USA Trip 2018: San Francisco

Greetings! This is the second post in my mini ‘USA Trip 2018’ series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYC, we spent the rest of our time in California. San Francisco was our first stop. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

California feels a bit like home to me: my mom grew up in the Sacramento area, so my childhood was punctuated by regular visits to see family on the west coast. My family also lived in Berkeley for a year when I was 9 (ah, the memories of collecting Beanie Babies and seeing Spiceworld in the cinema!). I hadn’t been to San Francisco since 2010, so was excited to get reacquainted with the city and introduce it to F.

Flying over the Sierras

Day 1: Monday evening

We landed at SFO in the late afternoon and made our way into the city via BART. After settling into our hotel near Union Square, we went out in search of dinner. Hungry and thus somewhat indecisive, we eventually settled on Tacorea, a clever Mexican-Korean hybrid featuring burritos in various flavors. F had the kimchi burrito and I had a more classic California-style burrito. It hit the spot! After eating, we went for a long wander up and down the nearby hills until falling jet-lagged into bed.

Day 2: Tuesday

I convinced F to get up early for a run down along the Embarcadero. It was a grayish, foggy morning – typical San Francisco summer – and we got a good calf workout running up and over the ridge to the Embarcadero. Once on flat ground, we settled into a nice pace and stopped for the occasional photo. The best part of our run was the 15-minute break to watch the sea lions at Pier 39! It was shortly after 8am so hardly anyone was out: I told F that if we had tried to see the sea lions during the middle of the day, the area would be packed with tourists. After our run, we found the nearest Blue Bottle Coffee to rehydrate and fuel up for the day. Very nice coffee and delicious oatmeal.

Post-coffee, we spent a great 2.5 hours at SFMOMA, one of my favorite museums. They had a fantastic Magritte exhibition on. We had seen a Magritte exhibition in Brussels a few years ago and the art had not really spoken to me; SFMOMA’s show changed my mind. The exhibition focused on Magritte’s “Fifth Season” – his late works – and displayed how varied his style was: much more than just pipes and hats. After Magritte, we covered most of the rest of the museum. Saturated with art, we stopped for a BLT lunch at The Grove nearby. A spot of Levi’s shopping brought us to dinnertime, when we met my cousins K and A for a Burmese feast at B Star.

Day 3: Wednesday

Another nice day in San Francisco! Breakfast and coffee at Sculleryfancy PB&J and tasty coffee (do you sense a trend? Much coffee was sampled throughout our trip…America does do a good drip (aka filter) coffee).

We then met one of my aunts, a cousin, one of my uncles, and my grandma at the Legion of Honor Museum for lunch and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood exhibition. It was great to catch up with some of my family, who I hadn’t seen since my grandma’s 80th birthday celebration/reunion four years ago.

Dinner was delicious quinoa-lentil and roasted cauliflower tacos with watermelon-feta-mint salad at Liv and Iain’s place! They were wonderful hosts and we had a lovely, relaxing evening with them. They also gave us a lot of suggestions for the next two stops of our trip: Point Reyes and Nevada City. Stay tuned!


A few days in Provence

Tired of the long, grey London winter, F and I decided to go somewhere sunnier and warmer for a few days over Easter. We first considered an island like Mallorca but quickly became overwhelmed with how to find somewhere accessible but non-touristy. F then suggested going to Provence and I agreed!

While searching for a place to stay, I stumbled upon La Bastide Perchée, a B&B (“guest house “) in a small town a 30-minute drive from Marseille Airport and not far from Aix-en-Provence (in Provence you will want a car, rental or otherwise). La Bastide Perchée is a family home with four uniquely designed guest rooms and it seemed like a good choice for a peaceful getaway. Fanny and Ronan were wonderful hosts, providing recommendations for places to go and food to eat – even offering to make restaurant reservations for us. We enjoyed all of the restaurants that they recommended in Venelles and Aix-en-Provence. La Bastide Perchée’s breakfast timing was flexible and the food was good – a highlight was Fanny’s homemade yogurt. I couldn’t recommend more La Bastide Perchée for a few nights of peaceful relaxation.

Did I mention the view we had from our room? Nestled into the hillside above Venelles, La Bastide Perchée provides a glorious view of the Montagne Sainte Victoire across the valley. We could even see the snow-capped Alps on a clear morning. But lest you think we just gazed out the window for four days – and we did do a lot of that – let me tell you about what else we got up to in Provence…

Bibémus Plateau & Barrage Zola

Our first full day was bright and sunny; our hosts recommended walking near the Montagne St Victoire and pointed us in the right direction. We drove for about 25 minutes to a free parking area and walked up until we reached the Bibémus Plateau. (Apparently this is an area where Cézanne loved to paint.) We walked a little loop at the top and enjoyed the view while snacking on baguette and Camembert (when in France…).

Montagne St Victoire from Bibémus Plateau

F suggested we return to the plateau the next morning for a pre-breakfast trail run, so we arose with the sun and got into the car – pre-coffee! We decided to do a 5km loop to the Barrage Zola, a big dam/lake in a valley that we had seen from above the day before. Off we went, running to keep warm but pausing a number of times to take in the magnificent views. Down we descended into the valley, and up we climbed back to the top (we had to walk part, as it was quite steep and rocky – see the elevation profile below). The morning light and fog were amazing, and breakfast tasted extra good when we got back.

Lourmarin

We spent a pleasant afternoon in the ancient village of Lourmarin, which our hosts had again recommended (are you sensing a trend here?). The chateau/castle was closed when we got there in the early afternoon (apparently people in Provence take a long break from about 12:30-2:30pm – most shops close and not much happens), but we wandered the narrow streets, admired the pretty buildings, and had a nice outdoor lunch on a little plaza.

Aix-en-Provence

We went into Aix-en-Provence twice: once for dinner and again on our last day before driving to the airport. It’s a lovely little city, with picturesque winding streets and pretty buildings. We didn’t take much time to dive into the city’s history or culture, as we so much enjoyed not being in a city on this trip! Living in London means we prefer to escape to quieter places these days. But here are a few shots of Aix:

Our trip to Provence was wonderful and we would definitely go back, as there is a lot in the region that we did not explore.

 

Bits of Bulgaria

My good friend Hannah has been living in Bulgaria this year, teaching English in a secondary school. Since I never got around to visiting Hannah while she was doing Peace Corps in Georgia, I decided it was high time I visit her in Bulgaria. She’s finishing up her first year and will stay on next year to work with the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and Debate Tournaments) Foundation, which organizes speech and debate tournaments — modeled on the American format that some of you may have taken part in during high school — around Bulgaria. Anyway, I spent a lovely few days with Hannah both in Sofia, the capital, and in Pravets, the town she’s been living in. What follows are a few cultural observations and a number of photos of my trip.

I didn’t know much about Bulgaria before traveling, other than a few tidbits I gleaned from reading the Wikipedia page and that I have a Bulgarian learner at work. My expectations were based mainly on my experiences living in Ukraine; I wondered how Bulgaria would feel in comparison, especially as it has been part of the EU for 10 years (and Ukraine has not).

Firstly, language: Bulgarian, like Ukrainian, is a Slavic language and written in the Cyrillic alphabet. I felt strangely at home wandering the streets of Sofia and being able to read signs both in Cyrillic and Latin script. I picked up a number of Bulgarian phrases in my few days there and could understand some, too, thanks to my background in Ukrainian. Hannah’s Bulgarian sounds really good after only ten months there.

Sofia felt both like a Ukrainian city — corner shops selling a random assortment of snacks and alcohol, a good deal of chunky Soviet-style architecture — and much more western — an Asian noodle restaurant, many signs in English, and most cafe/restaurant staff speaking English. It was a fascinating contrast for me.

In terms of food, there’s a good deal of international cuisine in Sofia. Bulgarian cuisine features banitsa, a tasty cheese-stuffed filo pastry snack; lots of yogurt; ayran (a salty kefir-like drink); and fresh, colorful salads (that are not covered in mayonnaise!).

Pravets, the town Hannah lives in, is about 60km north of Sofia and has a cozy population of 4,500. Hannah teaches at the language high school, which draws students from around the region. There’s also a big hotel and golf course that bring in some tourism. It’s in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful green mountains. A peaceful spot.


Spas & Skylines: Exploring Bath

It was the week after Easter, and in addition to enjoying the 4-day weekend (thanks to two Bank Holidays), F and I took a couple of extra days off so that we could get out of London for a short refresher. We chose to visit Bath, as it’s not too far away and had been on my list of places to see, perhaps due to my fond memories of reading/studying Jane Austen in university. Also, one of my colleagues comes from Bath and gave us some recommendations for what to see/do/eat.

Bath didn’t disappoint. It’s a lovely small city with the prettiest Georgian architecture in Bath Stone (a type of limestone) — simple and grand, yet elegant:

Bath is very walkable and lovely to stroll around. The weather was glorious, so we did a lot of walking — and some cafe sitting/tea and coffee drinking/scone and cake sampling to rest our legs, of course. We also spent a lovely couple of hours relaxing in the Thermae Bath Spa, which takes advantage of the city’s natural hot springs and apparently is Britain’s only natural thermal spa. It felt wonderful to relax in the warm pools, steam rooms, and sauna… Our skin was so soft afterwards!

However nice the spa was, the highlight for F and me was doing the Bath Skyline walk after a good night’s sleep at Abbey Rise B&B (lovely proprietress, comfortable bed, and good food). The National Trust-curated Bath Skyline walk is a 6-mile (9.6-kilometer) loop around the river basin that Bath lies in. After about a mile of exposed uphill clamber, the terrain flattens out and the trail travels across meadows and through woods, parallel to old stone fences, and alongside cows and sheep in their pastures. You also get some great glimpses of the walk’s namesake, the Bath skyline.

The Bath Skyline walk was reminiscent of the walking trip we did with my parents in the Cotswolds two years ago (not surprising, as Bath is actually at the very end of the Cotswold Way). We got nerdy and recorded the walk on Strava, in case you’re interested in having a look. I’d highly recommend doing the Bath Skyline walk if you find yourself in the city for a day or two. It was so nice to get away from civilization and into nature for a few hours. We both came back to London refreshed and ready for the rest of the spring — but also ready for the next opportunity to escape the city!


Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

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The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.

 

Walking the Cotswold Way

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My parents visited F and me in the UK a couple weeks ago and took us northwest of London for a glorious five days of walking in the Cotswolds. The Cotswold Way consists of 102 miles of trails, starting at Chipping Campden in the north and finishing at Bath in the south. We spent four and a half days traversing half of the Cotswold Way north-to-south, from Chipping Campden to just above Stroud.

While we could’ve carried our stuff with us, my parents booked through a company that provided us with maps and route descriptions for each day’s walk and transported our luggage to a new B&B or guest house every night. The route descriptions also included lunch and dinner recommendations, so all we needed to take with us each day on the trail were the maps and small day packs. Very civilized.

I’ve written a short recap of each day below, but to save repetition let me just say that the Cotswold Way winds through many fields, pastures, meadows, and wooded trails. There were lots of sheep — some shorn, some wooly — along with the occasional herd of cows or horses. Bucolic England at its best.

Day 1: Chipping Campden to Stanton
  • 8:00am: Breakfast at the Lygon Arms, our hotel in Chipping Campden. Delicious porridge, fruit, and yogurt for me; home-boiled ham and eggs for F; smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for my dad (T); poached eggs and toast for my mom (D).
  • 9:35am: Let the walking commence! Over hill and dale…well, through field and meadow and over stile. It took us just over 3 hours to walk the 5.5-6 miles to the town of Broadway; a leisurely, conversational pace of about 2 miles per hour.
  • 1:00pm: Best lunch of the week at the Market Pantry in Broadway. Goat cheese and caramelized onion tarts and a chicken, bacon, and leek pot pie. Fresh salads all around and a few bites of a lovely lemon curd cake to finish it off and fuel us for the rest of the day.
  • 2:00pm: Walking up across a ridge and down into a vale to the tiny village of Stanton. We racked up a little extra mileage trying to find our B&B but it took us just over 2 hours for the last 4-5 miles.
  • We stayed in The Old Post House — a large, old house with a gorgeous garden owned by a friendly (and very well-off) couple.

Highlights of the day: Lunch at the Market Pantry and our B&B’s flat-faced cats that enjoyed licking F’s hand and sneaking into our rooms.

Day 2: Stanton to Cleeve Hill

The walking distance for this day had been advertised as 15 miles but ended up as “only” 12.2. It was quite a hilly day through lots of lovely meadows, fields, and farm roads, and past a manor house. Lunch was jacket potatoes with various toppings in Winchcombe followed by coffee/tea and lemon polenta cake. We  skipped Sudeley Castle & Gardens in favor of getting back on the Cotswold Way after lunch.

The day’s walking ended with a trek across Cleeve Hill Golf Course: knobby, rugged, windy, and sheep-filled! We unpacked at Cleeve Hill House Hotel near Cheltenham (famous for its horse racing and steeplechasing) for the first of two nights there.

Highlights of the day: F petted a pony and my mom was butted by a sheep… F also impressed us with his flower and plant identification skills (hooray for biologists). I took a lovely hot bath before bed.

Day 3: Cleeve Hill to Seven Springs

Lovely trails on this part of the route: up and along Cleeve Hill Common/Golf Course, quite a few wooded trails, lots of ascending! We finished our walk at Seven Springs were driven back to Cleeve Hill.

8.3 miles on the Cotswold Way (with a tasty Indian lunch) plus a little strolling in Cheltenham brought us to around 5 hours of walking and 9.65 miles in total. F returned to London in the evening, leaving my parents and me to do one and a half more days of walking together.

Highlights of the day: Walking along the ridge of Cleeve Hill Common/Golf Course in the morning for some amazing views.

Day 4: Crickley Hill to Painswick

Our second-biggest walking day: 12 miles in total, mostly through forests on lovely wooded paths. It was nice to be less exposed — expect for the first bit, up on a hill in the wind — and to walk on some soft and peaceful paths. I even ran for 25 minutes/2.6 miles in the morning. We walked across another blustery golf course near Painswick and had some great views throughout the day.

Walking 8 miles before a late lunch at the Royal William Pub certainly worked up our appetites: pie and chips was the only logical choice! We spent our last night in the quirky Cardynham House Hotel in the village of Painswick.

Highlights of the day: Great views from Crickley Hill. Running in the woods and walking on forest paths. I even spotted a young buck at one point, but he bounded away before I could get a picture.

Day 5: Painswick to (Almost) Stroud

After four days of perfect walking weather — partial sun and cool enough not to sweat — the weather gods of course sent us rain on our last morning. D, T, and I had a wet morning: drizzle starting out turned into steady, medium-hard rain. Walking in the rain builds character, right? The trail consisted of some meadows from Painswick and more lovely woodland trails around Haresfield Beacon. I think we walked about 6 miles on this last morning before catching the train back to London.

Highlights of the day: Feeling hardy while walking through meadows in the rain — the grayness certainly brightened up all the colors around us.

In sum, I’d highly recommend walking the Cotswold Way. It is well-signed, towns and villages are well-fortified with food and lodging options, and it is wonderful to have nothing to do but walk every day. F and I particularly enjoyed getting out of London for a few days to disconnect and appreciate the glorious English countryside. Thanks to D&T for taking us on a great trip.

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Living Abroad & Perspectives on the US

This week has brought some interesting perspective on life and living abroad. I’ve been back in the US for my grandmother’s 80th birthday party/family reunion and a brief visit to my parents (and also some quiet time to work on my MA dissertation). It was fantastic to see all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in California for the birthday party — I’m really glad I went. It has also been nice to be in Rochester and not have any official household duties — of course I help out, but visiting the parents is different from living with F like a “real” adult; here, I can be a bit like a kid again, albeit a grown one.

almost the entire family on my mom's side, gathered in Ventura, CA for my grandma's 80th birthday. Photo credit: Nancy R.

almost the entire family on my mom’s side (missing a couple cousins and partners), gathered in Ventura, CA for my grandma’s 80th birthday. Photo credit: Nancy R.

I lived at home for two months last summer, but that felt normal as I had only been in the UK for six months beforehand and was still on the heels of transitioning from Peace Corps/Ukraine life. Peace Corps was so different that returning to the western world was an adjustment in and of itself — it didn’t matter where I was, and there were so many changes that I had to take each one as it came.

But this year, I’ve become settled in my UK life and haven’t been back to the US for almost a year. Being “home” has felt different, in part because I’m here for a vacation-y 10 days rather than a long period of “living” time. Here are some things that have struck me about the US after living in the UK/Europe for a year and a half (of course, the following things seem extreme because I live in London, a city of 8 million, and am comparing it to Rochester, a much smaller city of 300,000. But I think I’d feel some of these differences no matter where in the US I was):

  • Open space. Americans often take for granted how much space this country has. On the flight from London to LA, my British seat-mate and I marveled at the hugeness of the land, particularly in the southwestern US, and at how much of it is uninhabited (and uninhabitable. And beautiful).
so much space!

so much space!

somewhere in the Southwest

somewhere in the Southwest

  • Traffic and driving. Okay, so LA has crazy freeway traffic, but the Rochester streets are so peaceful! My dad and I were driving to Panera the other morning for breakfast (and endless coffee refills, yes!) and I remarked on how quiet the streets were. My dad replied, “Oh, I was just thinking it was pretty busy.” That’s perspective for you! It comes from living in London, where traffic is dense no matter the time of day. In a similar vein, driving has felt really easy here after cycling in London, where I have to be hyper-aware on the bike so as not to be run over by aggressive drivers. Cruising around in a car here feels quite calm in comparison.
  • People and friendliness. Maybe I’m becoming more like a reserved European, but Americans are so friendly and open…sometimes overly so, it seems to me. I’m happy to strike up the odd amiable chat, and do it regularly in London with our fruiterer shopkeepers. But many people here seem a little too in-your-face-potentially-forced friendly. It’s fine, and I do appreciate the openness, but it’s funny to come at it now from another perspective — if anything, it reflects how living abroad has changed me. I will say that it’s refreshing to go into a store here and be able to ask an employee about what I’m looking for, because I know that they will provide good customer service and help me find what I need. In the UK and other parts of Europe it sometimes feels like people are mildly annoyed when you enter their shop…but I sort of like that, too — or at least am used to it by now!
  • Short distances. Again, this is me comparing two cities of vastly different sizes and areas. But still, it is so easy and quick to get around Rochester. In London I have to plan and map out where and when I want to go somewhere, taking into account the time and money and clothing I’ll need. Here, pretty much everything is a 5-20 minute drive away. I could get used to that again…

Oh, the cross-cultural life is always fun and interesting! I wouldn’t have it any other way — it has opened my eyes to how different people live and how different societies function, and has brought me a hefty dose of perspective along the way. I love it.

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Summer “Issues”: Dissertation!

Apologies for the massive delay in MA updates. Last time I checked in, we’d finished courses and were writing essays and an exam. That all went pretty smoothly for me (though  nothing’s been marked yet so who really knows?) — the take-home exam was actually kind of enjoyable, as I’d prepared my texts in advance and just had to write close readings without worrying about bringing in secondary sources (some people did use criticism but it was optional so I chose not to for such short essays).

That was almost three months ago (!), and at that time I still didn’t have any ideas for my dissertation. Actually, writing about Mrs. Dalloway for one of my coursework essays made me really want to work on Woolf and trauma, but that quickly went out the window when I became overwhelmed by how much has already been written on Woolf (and trauma, in texts like Atonement and The Bluest Eye). I also wanted something more “relevant,” at least to me and my current life and experiences. So after some conversations and advice from my family, I turned toward cultural displacement/assimilation and spent a few weeks bumbling around on JSTOR by plugging word combinations into the search bars (“trauma,” “integration,” “culture shock,” “assimilation,” to name a few). Luckily, one mindless JSTOR session turned up an essay on Dave Eggers’s 2006 novel, What Is the What.

research in Senate House Library

research in Senate House Library

BINGO! I’d read What Is the What — and loved it — right before the Peace Corps and had forgotten how it deals with many of the issues of cultural integration, education, and international development that interest me. It was also a good choice because only four scholarly articles have been published on it, which leaves me room to form my own argument about it and not struggle to come up with something that hasn’t already been written on a hundred times.

Fast forward to now: I’ve re-read What Is the What twice; read lots of criticism and some theory on immigration, post-colonial novels, and storytelling traditions (to name a few); met with my supervisor twice (he’s great); and started drafting. It’s a bit overwhelming, as there’s a lot of material to juggle and an argument to work out and it’s all due on 1 September. But overall it’s going well and I am happy with my text and topic choice. I can’t tell you much because it hasn’t been marked (let alone written!), but it’s roughly about storytelling and voice and the immigrant experience, with some Toni Morrison thrown in for good measure.

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Xeraco & Valencia, Spain

A few weeks ago F and I ventured to southeastern Spain for some R&R in the midst of an already-busy summer. We had been invited to S&I’s wedding — hence the location — so decided to make a proper vacation out of it. The vacationness was enhanced by the fact that we stayed in a beautiful flat on Xeraco (say “Sheráko”) Playa that overlooked the beach. Xeraco is a town about 60km south of Valencia; we spent most of our time on the flat’s terrace, reading and enjoying the sea breezes. We dipped in the water when it was hot (watch out for jellyfish — I got stung in the warm Mediterranean) and walked on the beach’s soft sand in the cooler evenings.

The day before the wedding, we took the train an hour into Valencia to explore the old city center. It is beautiful, with lots of Arabic/Gothic/Moorish architecture dating from the 15th century or so. It was really warm — 34C — the day we were there, so we strolled slowly around the city center, through the cute winding streets and into the beautiful cathedral and a couple of galleries. We particularly enjoyed walking through the huge indoor Mercado Central (central market) while gazing at the huge jamón hocks, colorful vegetables, and super fresh seafood.

The market made us hungry, so we found our way back to a cute little square and sat outside in the shade at Bar & Kitchen/Mercat de Tapineria. There we enjoyed a light lunch, with the highlight being a delicious beet and tofu gazpacho: cool, refreshing, and a little bit sweet-sour.

Well-fortified, we made our way across the center to the Valencia Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia), which had free entry. It was nice to spend an hour or so inside during the hottest part of the day, and we discovered a remarkable artist whom neither of us had ever heard of: Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) was from Valencia but traveled a lot around Europe and won many art prizes for his portrait paintings. Upon his death, he bequeathed most of his works to the Fine Arts Museum in Valencia (which may explain why few have heard of him). His portraits, mostly of regular Spanish people, are remarkably realistic and impressionistic — just beautiful.

Sorolla’s “Academic study from life” (1887)

The museum pretty much concluded our Valencia visit. After resting in some gardens, we made our way back through the city center and took the train back to peaceful Xeraco. We spent another day relaxing until the 9pm-4am (!) Spanish wedding, which was beautiful and a lot of fun (congratulations, S&I!).

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“So many things were different, yet the experiences had much in common”: Peace Corps from father to daughter

The following post is inspired by this, from the Peace Corps Passport blog, about a woman whose father, like mine, was a Peace Corps Volunteer before her. Below, with the guidance of some questions asked in the model post, I reflect on how my dad’s stories and experiences as a PCV inspired me to apply and serve. This has been a work in progress for a while, but I thought now was a good time to publish it because in addition to my dad, I now have one more close Peace Corps connection: my good friend Hannah leaves this weekend for her own Peace Corps adventures in Georgia.

my dad and I, overlooking the Prut River valley in my PC post of Sniatyn, Ukraine (May 2012)

father & daughter, overlooking the Prut River valley in my PC post of Sniatyn, Ukraine (May 2012)

How did your dad’s Peace Corps service inspire you to serve?

I grew up hearing my dad, Terry, tell stories about teaching math and physics at an all-boys high school in rural Mpwapwa, Tanzania, where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) from 1964-1966, in the first five years of Peace Corps’ existence. (Terry writes that Mpwapwa “was a small town, with a small hospital and local population of little more than 1000, which swelled to nearly 5000 when all the 6-7 schools were in session, including the expatriate population of 200 or so, mostly teachers and their families, plus some employees at the Teacher Training College and the Agricultural Station, both a few miles out of town.”)

I might not have joined the Peace Corps if it weren’t for growing up hearing Terry’s stories. He told us about all the cool trips he went on during vacations — I especially liked hearing about his time as an Outward Bound counselor and climbing Kilimanjaro (I can’t remember if those happened together or separately). There was also a story about a Jeep getting stuck in the mud and about his star pupil who would read novels at the back of the classroom and whom Terry always tried to challenge intellectually.

I wanted to have adventures like my dad.

Did your dad encourage you to apply, or was he surprised?

Terry didn’t specifically encourage me to apply. During my senior year of college, I was tossing around gap-year options and he might’ve suggested Peace Corps. Or I came up with it on my own; I can’t remember. I struggled at first with the length of commitment — 27 months — PC service would require. Terry didn’t push me either way. Eventually, I realized that 27 months is hardly anything in the grand scheme of things, so decided to go for it. I don’t think Terry was surprised, though of course he couldn’t have anticipated it when he was a PCV:

Little did I know when I boarded a giant jetliner in the blowing late December snow at Kennedy Airport in 1964, bound for a posting in East Africa with the newly formed Peace Corps’ first group of secondary school teachers, that my daughter would be heading for a posting in Ukraine 46 years later, just shy of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary.

Do you think you went into service with a different perspective because of stories you had heard about your dad’s service? If so, how did those stories shape your expectations and decisions?

Definitely. Because I knew that I’d be serving almost 50 years after my dad, I tried not to let his stories shape my expectations or decisions. I’d be going to a different country at a different time, so I had very few concrete expectations going in. That said, Terry’s stories helped prepare me for big cultural differences and taught me to be open-minded and flexible toward opportunities that might come along. Of course I ended up in semi-rural Ukraine rather than rural Africa, but throughout my service I often reflected on what it must have been like for my dad when he was a PCV.

Did your dad visit you while you were in Ukraine? Did he provide any insight as to how things had changed since he was a volunteer?

My mom and dad visited me during my second spring in Ukraine. They spent valuable time with me at my site, experiencing how I lived and meeting my pupils, colleagues, and friends. Terry has provided a lot of insight as to how things have changed since he was a PCV in Tanzania.

1) The Internet didn’t exist when he was a PCV; no email, no Skype. No cell phones, either — my dad had to go to the larger town/city in order to make the very occasional phone call home. Snail mail was the best option for keeping in touch and sharing experiences with those back home. Terry writes:

We received all our mail, the thin blue folded aerograms from family and friends (that took 10-14 days transit time in both directions), at our school, P.O. Box 3, Mpwapwa, Tanzania.  I believe I had only two telephone conversations with my parents during my two years there, on the only phone available – also at our school in the Headmaster’s office, telephone number: 4, Mpwapwa, Tanzania.

In contrast, many contemporary PCVs — myself included — keep blogs during their service. I Skyped with my family almost every week for the 26 months I was abroad; Skype also allowed me to keep in touch with close friends. I still wrote snail mail, but email certainly played a larger role in regular communication.

2) But despite being fortunate enough to have technology access, I had to learn an entirely new language (with a different alphabet) for my Peace Corps service. Terry didn’t have as much of a language barrier to overcome in Tanzania; Swahili and English are both official languages, and he taught in English. Many fewer people speak English in Ukraine than in Tanzania. Also, my Pre-Service Training consisted of 11.5 weeks living with a Ukrainian host family in a small village. Forty-six years earlier, Terry was trained in the US — here’s what he says about that:

Our 3-month pre-service training had been in the U.S. (common then, as overseas facilities for most of the nascent programs had not yet been established) – ironically, ours was at Columbia Teachers’ College on the upper West Side of Manhattan, a strange setting, it seemed, to prepare us for two years in Tanzania, yet we were taught well.  Except for two things.  First, that my two weeks of practice teaching at Charles Evans Hughes HS on the lower West Side, with daily fights in the hallways drawing occasional blood and mostly indifferent students were a far cry from the disciplined, if rote, eagerness of the African boys at our school, for whom it was a privilege and honor and pass to a future life of their dreams.   Indeed, the greatest class punishment I could administer (as caning was the Headmaster’s prerogative) was to ask a student to leave class for the day – because they feared that some minor topic I would cover in their absence might appear on the comprehensive O-Level Exams (the British system still held) they would take in their senior (Fourth Form = 12th grade) year far in the future.  Second, our linguistic training comprised some 3-5 hrs of Swahili per week (a paltry amount compared to any program now), justified by telling us that we really wouldn’t need Swahili because we would be too busy teaching, and our servants would be able to take care of all our local needs.   Sadly (for me, as I enjoy learning foreign languages), Columbia was right – I taught between 27 and 35 hours per week in class during most of my two years there, and our students never wanted to speak Swahili with us, as they (correctly) claimed “It is much more important for us to learn English, Sir, than for you to learn Swahili!” 

Interesting, no? I’m fortunate to have been trained in-country, teaching “real” Ukrainian pupils and intensively learning the local language. The other striking difference between Terry’s and my service is the fact that Terry and his PCV roommate, Roger, had two servants:

Though we protested about having [servants] initially, we succumbed to social pressure that it would have been snobbery to deny the employment (the Tanzanians also enjoyed working for Americans more than for other “wazungu” = foreigners), but that we had to limit their wages to $1/day so as to not out-price the market.   We also succumbed to dire necessity, due to teaching load and the competing viscissitudes (sp.?) of our life on the school compound – cooking and hot water depended on stoking up the cast iron “kuni” (wood) stove before 6 am (classes began at 8) with the chopped wood (when would we have done this?), and we were expected to wear freshly cleaned and ironed white cotton shirts and shorts for teaching each day (oh, yes, the washing and pressing?).  Our food, whether tinned or fresh from market (shopping too, and the expected bargaining in Swahili?) was cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with tea ready for our short morning and afternoon teaching breaks, and served promptly and graciously by Amoni; his “shamba boy” helper Edward did the wood chopping, market shopping, other errands and such gardening as our tiny plot would yield in the arid Central District (ann. rainfall ca. 12″).

Did you catch the fact that Terry taught 27-35 hours of class per week? As far as I know, no PCV teaches that much nowadays: in Ukraine, we were told to teach 16-20 hours/week and use the rest of the time to develop extracurricular projects like English clubs, interest groups, and grants in our communities.

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So there you go: a brief “then and now” snapshot of my dad’s PC experience in Tanzania (1964-1966) and my experience in Ukraine (2010-2012). It’s amazing how some things are vastly different, yet others have not changed much.

Are you a PCV/RPCV? Do you know anyone who served in the Peace Corps during its early days? How did his/her experience differ from yours?

3 Days in Portugal: Lisbon & Sintra

Last week, I met my mom and grandma in Lisbon for a great three-generation vacation. We spent about two and a half days in and around Lisbon, which none of us had ever visited. In the few weeks before going to Lisbon, I got only positive reviews of the city from people I’d tell about my upcoming trip. The city lived up to the recommendations and the trip was really fun. Lisbon has a fascinating history — earthquake, monks, eggs, castles — that I won’t go into here; instead, I give you a brief summary of what we saw and did.

Note: if you’re planning to visit Lisbon, invest in a Lisboa Card — it’s totally worth it if only for the fact that it covers all public transport in the city (and also many of the museums). 

Sunday

Starting at Praça do Comércio, we walked away from the river and up hills and steps to Bairro Alto for great views of the city. Another hour and a half of wandering up and down Bairro Alto looking for a restaurant (we never found it) landed us at Ribadouro for a delicious late dinner of 1 kilo of shrimp, frites, and salad.

Monday

We took the train to Sintra, an easy 30 minute ride outside of Lisbon. The main event here was the Pena National Palace, which looks like a Disney castle. King Ferdinand II apparently couldn’t decide which style to build his palace in, so he chose to go Romanticist and mix together a bunch of different styles and colors. It was great fun to explore and photograph from all angles.

Walking downhill from the palace, we strolled through the Queen’s Fern Garden in Pena Park — a peaceful, green sanctuary that was a welcome respite from the sun and the bustling city. We kept walking back to Sintra, semi-accidentally down the path (much) less traveled. It was a bit of an adventure, but we all made it down safely and rewarded ourselves with a tasty fish dinner back in Lisbon at Solar dos Presuntos.

Tuesday

We took a tram to one of Lisbon’s highest points, near the castle. We opted not to go into the castle grounds and instead wended our way down narrow cobblestone streets and steps, through the Alfama neighborhood, eventually stumbling upon the old and beautiful Sé Cathedral. Once we made it back to the center of Lisbon, we enjoyed a lunch of coffee and pastries at Pastelaria Suiça. Try the pastel de nata, traditional Portuguese egg custard tarts that the monks invented because they had easy access to eggs and sugar.

Well-fortified, we visited the Coach Museum in Belém — amazingly ornate carriages and coaches from the 15th-19th centuries — and the Tile Museum, which displays the long and intricate history of traditional Portuguese tile making. We rounded off our three days in Lisbon with a big dinner followed by port tasting (when in Rome/Portugal…).

There was much more we could have done in Lisbon, but three days was a good length of time to get a feel for the city. I loved wandering the cobblestoned streets and mosaic-lain sidewalks, discovering beautiful tiled buildings and other gems of this unique city.