Is there a place for “Skills I’ve Picked up on the Road” on that application?

Erik and I with Ramunas, the truck driver who picked us up along the highway, and his family and friends in Panavezys, Lithuania.

My friend who lived in China for the last 3 years and I were discussing recently what extensive travel could do for our resumes.  She, who speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently, has a very useful skill.  I on the other hand spent the year after graduation abroad working several cool but brief jobs, which can’t really look good to employers, who must be asking “How did you manage to get a permit to work in both Poland and Ukraine at the same time?”

Well, English-teaching aside, the 4-month internship with JRS was the best work experience I’ve had post-graduate.  But, it was only for four months.  I am an employable writer, but my portfolio isn’t exactly stacked yet.  I am ambitious in life—but it’s been about life—with less of a focus on “marketable skills.”

Sometimes this gets to me and I regret not fighting harder to find another job with JRS right after Africa, and sometimes I regret not studying Spanish in college.  But I always just tried to keep some sort of equilibrium at the time of making these decisions, and followed my gut along the way.  Ultimately I think my often scattered decision-making is not terrible, and I’ve learned a lot along the way, from being forced out of familiarity, time and time again.

Thomas carries my suitcase on his bike home from the train station in Marburg, Germany.

“You’re willing to live an uncomfortable life.”

The brainstorming session with my friend at the bar about “What traveling and living abroad qualifies us to do” ended with “We’re really good at… living.  We have good stories.”

And by that I mean we’re adaptable.  We’re not high-maintenance, we can deal with stress by ourselves and we’re not afraid of—as so many Americans seem to be—inconveniences, uncomfortable situations, and “the unknown.”  We constantly welcome the unknown.

Since that conversation I’ve been trying to expand on this idea.  I’ve come up with other “skills” I have acquired from traveling:

Haggling for goods.  “700 bob?!  No way, the girl over there said she’d sell for 400.”  Nairobi’s insane Sunday Massai market taught me the finer points of bargaining.  I put this skill to practice when buying my bicycle and other items in Krakow.  Also, it made my Polish a lot better.

Market in L'viv, Ukraine

Communicating with locals without speaking their language.  I do know some functional Polish and Czech, but only a few words in Swahili and Ukrainian, and practically nothing of any other language, other than Spanish.  This is one of the questions I get most about traveling, “How do you get around without knowing the language?”

It’s really not that difficult.  First of all, you buy a map.  Then you figure out how to get around the city, whether it be the public transport system, walking, or cabs.  Then, you learn some very basic vocabularly (Where is? Left, Right, Please, Thank You.)  That is about all you need to know.  Even if you don’t learn those few words in the local language, you always have your hand to point with.  If you are friendly, people will help you.

And oh yeah, English is the lingua-franca of the world. In many places in the “developed” world you will find someone who speaks a little English. I suppose there is some “app” that would help you with this too, but I will forever scorn the traveler who thinks they are badass while traveling with an iPhone (Although honestly, a hard-core traveler is probably the only person who actually needs something like that.)

Sleeping in weird places.  Under mosquito nets, on buses, trains, hostels, on random people’s couches, on a futon for 6 months in the same bedroom as a Polish girl I found on the internet, huddled next to other travelers, on the floor of my friend’s dorm room in Bologna… you get the drift.

My bed in Nairobi. Definitely not one of the weirdest. I'm not sure how much I really needed that mosquito net there.

Looking clean without actually being clean.  The shower situation in Nairobi was either cold or scalding hot, if the water turned on.  Rain-water bucket showers and heating up water on the stove to wash my hair became common-place.  I started going 3-4 days without washing my hair and became skilled in styles where you could see the grease less.  Au natural…

“Saving Myself.”  I went to my doctor to get malaria medicine before going abroad last year, and during the short appointment he gave me a lecture that I’ll never forget.  “You have to know how to save yourself,” he said, in reference to traveling in the bush.

He told me that there were a few essential things I needed to have with me.  1-Re-hydration salts, 2-Malarials that will help treat you if you get Malaria, and 3-bandages and Neosporen to treat cuts.  He scared the pants off me that day, but I didn’t forget it.  I made my boss in Italy go with me to the store and buy Italian re-hydration salts and I found some bandages, but when I went to Africa that’s all I had.  Medical practices differ greatly from place to place, and I’ve had to go to the doctor or hospital in 4 different countries.  All you can do sometimes is have the basics covered, for the rest hope that drinking tea will in fact cure your cold (Poland,) and that those 8 Chinese peanut pills will in fact take care of your “malaria” “pregnancy” or “flu” (a fantastic diagnosis in South Sudan last year.)

The hospital in Rome where I got stitches one night, then returned to have them cleaned a few times. Really cool building.

Abandoning the desire for control.  The airplane lands in the desert, you say?  And they’re writing my name on my ticket for me?  I’m traveling for 4 hours going 15-miles per hour in a pickup on bumpy roads, and both sides are full of land-mines?  The only way to get to the schools to conduct interviews is to ride on the back of a motorcycle?  The train is stopped at the border for 3 hours?  The Russians next to us on the 21-hour bus are taking pulls from their own vodka while playing cards shirtless?  The truck driver we’re hitchhiking with just invited us to stay the night with his family?  And on and on and on… You say uncomfortable and dangerous?  I say adventure!  And I also say, swallow that fear, because it’s most-likely coming from years of living in the safe little bubble of American worry-worts.

I hold my liquor well.  I suppose this doesn’t take much explaining, but thanks to a tolerance of strong Eastern European booze, a blubbering drunk girl I do not become.  I maintain character.  Except, of course, if there is Klezmer music involved.  Then the dancing happens.

Making friends with… everyone.  The Polish girl sitting next to me at the bar who is buying me another shot.  The priest.  My former students.  Anyone who wants to hang out… Because when you travel alone, after a few days of only making conversation with the lady selling fruit, you start to get a little silly.  People are just people, as Regina Spektor says.

So, who wants to hire me to be their personal consultant for living an interesting life?

Hard at work at the English Summer Camp in Piekary, Poland

The downtown YMCA reminds me of a European sauna

An Odessa beach on the Black Sea

I love the downtown YMCA in Lincoln.  It’s unpretentious and full of colorful people. It has good equipment and the staff are always friendly.

But man, those old naked women standing around in the locker rooms.

They just kill me.  I’ve gone to a variety of gyms in Lincoln over the years, The Racquet Club, Sports Courts, 5 Willows (for a month or something, while they were briefly operating,) Jazzercise facilities, and my other favorite, The Goodyear Gym in Havelock.

None of them even remotely compare to the total disregard of modesty that I see on a daily basis in the locker rooms at the downtown YMCA.  People at the Y love standing around naked while talking to their friends, doing their hair, texting someone or re-arranging their lockers.

Though I would welcome seeing fewer naked old women on a daily basis, it’s also pretty hilarious, and really reminds me of saunas, gyms, bath houses, and beaches in Europe.

Russian sunbathers on the beach at Jurmala, Latvia

I’ve been to saunas in Germany, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, and been swimming on beaches, rivers and in lakes in several more European countries.

Dresden, Germany’s coed naked sauna was the wildest. I was so surprised when I first walked into the sauna room I turned around and walked back to the women’s locker room—I thought I’d just walked into the men’s changing area.  A guy who worked there pointed me back into the sauna, where my friend’s friends I was staying with were already waiting.  I donned a towel basically the whole time, but I was one of the few.

The friends I was with acted totally normal about the whole thing but I had a hard time even making a conversation, I was so distracted and giggly.  Not only were people lounging around totally naked in a public place, they were also drinking.  The sauna in Dresden included a bar!  As if a “European sauna” could get more cliche.

I was chatting about this to a German girl in Omaha a few weeks ago, asking if all saunas in Germany were like that.

“Yes, it’s the proper way to do it!” She said.  “You know, Europeans see sexuality the way you see violence in society.  It’s just normal and accepted.”

That is a broad statement of “Europe” in general, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard a European comment on prudish American attitudes, compared to the prevalence of violence.  It’s a strange comparison, but is not unwarranted.

Outside the Turkish baths in Budapest

Europe is just more chill.  The first experience I had in a sauna-like setting was in Budapest, Hungary in 2007.  It was the first time I’d been abroad, and my cousin Rachael and her friend Stephanie invited me on their Thanksgiving-European adventure. Budapest was our first stop, along with their famous Turkish baths, filled with natural hot spring water.

It was a time when I was still reading guide books for basic information, and Rick Steves had given us a very detailed list of how to get from the entrance of the bath to the changing room, into the sauna.  It turned out to be a complicated process, as using basic services in post-communist countries often are, and I remember getting yelled at multiple times by large Hungarian men for wandering around the men’s changing room, and walking somewhere with shoes on.

We went to the bath at Gellert Hotel, and opted for the coed swimsuit area, which was absolutely packed with old Hungarian men in speedos.  It was prime people-watching.

Saunas and Swimming in your undies

This is also pretty normal in Europe.  On one of my trips to L’viv, Ukraine last fall I ended up having to go the undie route because I didn’t bring a swimsuit, and nobody batted an eye.

Probably this is because I was still one of the more conservatively-dressed patrons of the sauna, which was inside a modern gym in L’viv.  The sauna itself was really nice, and had several different rooms depending on your taste, including Finnish and the classic Russian banya, where you lie down and get lightly beaten with birch leaves.

And it is totally normal for woman of every age in many parts of Europe to assume that a bra is the same thing as a swimsuit top.  If you don’t believe me just take a walk around the Vistula River in central Krakow in good weather and take a look at the lounging masses of half-clothed people soaking up the sun.

I remember seeing this along the Vistula out in Piekary, the village where I taught English at several summer camps.  After class I’d take a walk or a run out through the fields along the river and see old Polish men in really short shorts, sitting with a fishing pole and a beer.

Vistula river from the monastery at Tyniec

Whenever I’m outside around water and people in bathing-wear in Europe I feel like I’ve been transported back to the 60s, because of what people are wearing.  It’s the coolest feeling.  People are oblivious and unpretentious.

My last trip to a European beach was in Sopot, Poland, on the Baltic Sea.  I went with my American friends Christi Anne and Justin, after Christi Anne and I had taught a week-long summer camp in Ukraine, then an exhausting 2-week long summer camp in Poland.

Even though it was almost too cold to lay out on the beach, I went for undie sun-bathing. It wasn’t the first time though–that was in Trakai, Lithuania, with our hippy CouchSurfing hosts who didn’t have a shower.  But we did have a lake!

Ah, what freedom.

Before jumping into the lake at Trakai

Balkan beats

Dancing at Zinger with Marcin's Polish parents

One of the great cultural experiences I had while living in Central/Eastern Europe, time and time again, were the candle-lit bars turned clubs around 1am when the Balkan, Klezmer and Gypsy music turns the place into an alternate universe.

I’ve yet to find any place in the States that compare to the dimly-lit meccas of friends, booze and wild table-dancing.  Often, I’d go home when the sun was rising, from Zinger, Blind Eye [in Prague,] Piękny Pies, and other wonderfully hedonistic spots.

I loved these places, particularly Zinger, because I became entirely entrenched in another world.  The bohemian decor, candle-lit wooden tables, surly bartenders, and the piano that I once played very late on a Wednesday night, makes you forget that you actually do have a normal life, that you haven’t always been there and that the sun will, eventually come up.

Zinger in the morning, a quiet cafe with my friend Paul

So many times I remember thinking, while dancing shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the crowd, as the sun peeked through the windows,

“This must be the end of the world.”

So I invite you to hear some of the following sounds of Eastern Europe, even if you can’t dance to them in the old Jewish district until the wee hours of the morning (click on link to play.)

Boban I Marko Markovic Cinnamon Girl [Super fun mix of genres, with a great Balkan beat, would be typical of Zinger and Blind Eye]

Goran Bregovic Mesecina [Zinger played a lot of Goran Bregovic, his stuff was great to dance to]

Czeslaw Spiwa Maszynka do Swierkania [The video to this song is a pretty decent example of the type of insane bars there are to party in, in Krakow]

Ukranian Gypsy band, Burdon [I saw this band play in L’viv last Spring and was nearly weeping they were so fantastic live.  After seeing them, I often heard their songs played in bars around Central and Eastern Europe.  This is a beautiful example of Gypsy music]

Notes on a snowy February weekend

“It’s hard to tell the difference between sea and sky, between voyager and sea. Between reality and the workings of the heart.” -Haruki Murakami

Keeping a firm grasp on the future, while not going insane in the present.

I’ve found myself in an interesting position for the past 7 months.  I didn’t really have a plan after I left Krakow, other than coming to the States for awhile to work.  I didn’t think I’d be living with my parents, or working in Lincoln.

As always, I have played this year out by ear.  I have sought out jobs and internships, submitted my writing to magazines, and researched further educational prospects for myself.

Finally, I decided on pursuing a skill I have wanted to have for a long time—fluency in another language.  I’ll attend a Spanish language school in Bolivia, beginning in September, for 3-4 months.  That’s awhile to wait around, but so be it.  Life is fine here, [fine as wine, as they say.]

And within the less-exciting days in Lincoln, I am finding some stability.


The summer after I graduated from college, before I went to Poland, a few friends and I used to sit on my old porch and talk about weird in-between time between major life events and travels [in-betweeks, we dubbed it] and the various ways to live in it.

I am constantly split between a desire to have a very stable life (saving money, staying in shape and writing and reading a lot) and having an adventurous, romantic life (traveling, hanging out with friends all the time, making dramatic changes, staying out way too late with cute boys, and boozing in exotic locations.)

A few times abroad I’ve had a nice mix of these, but usually I go further off on the adventurous/romantic end.  Obviously I’ve observed this in myself, and have made constant conscious efforts to figure out how I can live abroad while keeping the sort of vague stability I’m trying to achieve in Lincoln.

I’ve been surprised by how hopping my social life has become here, and how productive I am when I only have so much time left in the day to write, read, and see people.  Because then, that’s all I do.  Create and hang with friends, for the most part.  I’m pretty darn stable here.  Sleep, more than anything else, is what I lack on a daily basis.  But there are many worse things to lack.

This time last year, this was my window in Poland


Finding “flow” in daily life 

Though I derive a lot of pleasure from both conflicting aspects of my personality, the reason I’ve been working so hard to achieve the stability and hope for future stability, is because I lacked it so badly in my year abroad—and because I have come to realize how happy hard work, (and mainly) writing, makes me.  I have always known this to be the case, but after reading an article about how you find the most happiness in life in doing things you love the most—writing, singing, dancing, whatever, it made me realize that this what I need to work toward always having in my life.  The article is Travel and the Art of Flow, and I highly recommend reading it.

I love weekends now more than I probably ever have.  I can sit in my childhood room full of my books and photos from abroad, and can work on essays about my exciting last year, in peace and comfort.  Deep in my memories and reflections and current entertaining friends I block out the constant thought that I have to go back to the clinic the next morning.

Big names, future hopes

I just finished editing a document my Polish Jesuit friend is sending to the Superior General of the Jesuits (aka the Black Pope.)  It’s been a great thing for me to stay in touch with him, and a variety of other characters from abroad.  Somehow I know that in my personal life I’ll find whatever professional things I’ll need in the future.  I have such a difficult time separating work from the rest of my life, I always just strive to find that balance, because you should enjoy what you do the majority of your waking hours.  Because work isn’t just “work.”  It’s your life.

Also, I am nearly finished mailing letters for Molly to Sr. Helen Prejean, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Maurice Sendak, Ralph Nadar, and a few others.  It’s her new project—to try to convince them to let her interview them about what they were doing when they were in their early 20s.  She wants to hear if they have any idea advice for all of us, jumping from one passion to another, trying to find a way we want to live.

The weekend of snow

Fun in the snow

This weekend we had more than a foot of snow, and Friday night until Saturday late afternoon I spent with a friend  I met just twice briefly in Ukraine, and his two friends, who were visiting from Kansas.  They bunked at the house for the weekend.  Friday night I gave them the grand tour of Lincoln’s finer drinking establishments, and Saturday we spent all day playing in the snow.

I love having visitors.  Hanging out with fun people is an aspect of stepping into oblivion for me.  Anything really, that can distract me from thinking about the 40 hours I spend at the clinic a week, is a beautiful distraction.  It’s suspending life for hours, for a day or two, and living differently.

And then there’s Murakami, who keeps me in neutral. His alternative-universe where dreams are part of reality keeps my “reality” relative.