There is No Place Like Home Not Home

Minnesota is like a warm, cozy sweater.

When I go home, I feel such a deep sense of nostalgia. Love and sadness. I can’t stop calculating the sameness against a myriad of changes, cataloguing my foregone youth.

A kind of surreal, uncanniness permeates, this time heightened by the fact that I hadn’t been home for two years. I hadn’t been to America for two years. Coming back was both shocking and familiar.

Each place a story. Memory triggers on every corner. It all reminds me of things I didn’t even know I forgot.

Everything is layered and filtered through my sense of time, belonging and loss.

Arriving on American’s July 4th birthday, but too late for fireworks, the next morning I met friends for Sunday Bruch. We went to Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka, in the posh Western suburbs of Minneapolis. I was met by cheesy hash browns, bacon, an omelet station and walleye fish cakes. The all-American breakfast in the timber cabin, full of bric-a-brac, was so perfectly Minnesotan.

Like a film set.

Coming off jet leg added to the dream-like aura and my sense of being completely home and not at home at all.

Every day in Minnesota the sky hit me with its super blue. So wondrously bright blue punctuated by cartoon fluffy clouds. The weather printing out one perfect day after another.

Perfect days were broken by nighttime thunderstorms, a rare event in my life since I left home. Several nights the sky was pulsing with the most spectacular lightning I have ever seen. High energy storms caused the whole sky to flash on and off, lighting up the neighborhood over and over to the rhythm of thunder and rain.

Every morning the green grass glistened with fresh dew.

The lakes seemed more blue and sparkling. The trees glowing shades of green, tussled by the wind off the water. Growing up I didn’t appreciate the beauty that now assaulted me.

In Minnesota, land of sky blue water, land of 10,000 lakes, you are always going to ‘the lake’, or ‘the lakes’. It doesn’t matter which lake. All lakes are The Lake.

I found myself understanding the appeal of the cozy, closed, round lake, soft rolling hills and flat land.

The city, like the nature, was on full summer display. Colorful, luminous, vibrant.

Minneapolis is a lovely place. People were out in full force enjoying its lakes, parks, bike trails, cafes and rooftop bars. The city was homey and fresh at the same time, offering up my favorite places and new ones. I saw childhood friends and friends from my 20’s. None of us can believe how much time has passed. None of us can believe how 90’s fashion is making a comeback.

I wonder at how we have changed and how we have crystallized those essential parts of ourselves that will likely remain. This mysterious part of myself, some deep part of my consciousness, has lived so many lives and yet is like the constant companion of my ever changing life. We reflect more and more of our true selves. Our past selves like other lives.

Beyond the lakescapes and cityscapes, I spent the summer at my childhood home. There is something disconcerting about being in my 30’s and sleeping in my old bedroom.  And I love my parents and appreciated spending time with them. I enjoyed their cable T.V., eating family dinners , the peaceful back porch overlooking the yard and gardens.

Porch light

Porch light

I don’t own property. I have no personal home base.  My own self is my own true home when I don’t know the who what when where why of any sort of material home.

Somehow, even though I was home for almost six weeks, I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with family and friends as I would have liked. I didn’t make it to the Walker Art Center’s International Pop Exhibit or sculpture garden. I didn’t rent a bike.

One of the things I miss most when living overseas is American breakfast diners. Simple food done well. I looked up City Pages 10 best breakfasts and went to at least five. One of them, Al’s Diner in Dinkytown, was one of my favorites when I went to the University of Minnesota. Since I left they have made it on to Food Network’s “Diners, Drive In’s and Dives”. It was always popular, but now you could wait hours to saddle up to one of its 14 stools. There are no tables.

I listened to the college kids around me and felt old. I read “Apples are from Kazakhstan” to prepare for my upcoming move and waited my turn. It was everything I remembered and more.


Kazakh, meaning wild, and free

Next year I will be eating horse meat and speaking Russian. At least this is what I tell my students about my next big move: Kazakhstan.

This year I applied for jobs all over: Spain, Hong Kong, Morocco, Brazil, Tibet, Norway and more. I had quite a few interviews and very few offers. Wondering if I was a bit crazy, I took the job in Kazakhstan.

I will be teaching high school English at an exclusive school for Kazakhs. I will be living in Shymkent, the 3rd largest city in Kazakhstan, whatever that means. The country is the 9th largest country in the world, which means it’s big! The next largest city, Almaty, is a 10 hour car drive away, and they don’t look that far apart on the map. According to the internet, it’s full of beautiful landscapes, which is part of the draw.

Part of the former U.S.S.R, and famous for Borat, I am picturing Soviet Era apartment blocks in my town. People speak Kazakh, but Russian is the lingua franca of the region. There are over 100 ethnicities peacefully cohabiting. Almaty is known to be quite European-cosmopolitan and Kazakhstan is the most stable and prosperous ‘stan’ of the former U.S.S.R. I’m very curious to learn more.

There is no strong desire to say, “well I’m done with this whole international teaching thing”, pack up and head to the States. But moving to Kazakhstan, more than Dubai, seems like a much bigger decision. This will be the fourth country I’ve lived in and my fourth year away.

I floundered around a lot in my twenties. The whole, modern, existential crisis of what am I supposed to do with my life? First world problems. Was it easier when we lived in huts? Had only to hunt. Gather the nuts. Sing around a fire. We knew our roles and our place in society. Now there are so many life options and so much stress over picking the “right one”. A perfect, forever life purpose, like a perfect, forever soulmate.

I looked around for years. Did many things I enjoyed and plenty I didn’t. I once read that the real difference between Communist Russia and America, was that in America there are so many brands of toothpaste, so many shampoos. And the toothpastes, they are all the same, all the choices can make an immigrants head spin, while really there is no choice better than others. Is life like the toothpaste? Is there a “right choice”.

Obviously this is simplistic and I wouldn’t want to wait in a Moscow winter bread line. But maybe all paths lead to the same thing: life and more life.

Just buy one. Just make a choice. Roots or rootlessness.

For now I choose Kazakhstan. I want to hike their mountains, ride the Trans-Siberian railway, visit the people who hunt with eagles, see the other ‘stans’, drink yak milk in a Mongolian yurt.

The other day I woke up worried. I’m getting sad, saying goodbye: to friends, my favorite cafes, palm trees and the beaches of the ever super salty gulf. Have I made the right choice? I don’t know.

I’ll need a winter coat. I never have much of a plan for more than a year. AmeriCorps for a year. Korea for a year, grad school for a year. The one time I thought I had it all figured out, in love, getting married, becoming a teacher, moving to the forest to raise goats and chickens, the future disappeared and I had to make new plans. I had to mourn the future. And I think it’s a resurgence of this mourning, along with these new goodbyes, while stepping into an unknown again, that has me on edge.

This next contract is for one year and then I will have a chance to ask again, should I stay or should I go now. It is not a forever choice.

So, despite my recent doubts, I took the job in Kazakhstan, because the idea of going alone to a place I have never been, won’t know anyone and won’t speak the language, makes me inexplicably excited. The word Kazakh means wild and free, or an independent free spirit. I’ll take this as a good sign.

Schlemiel, Schlimazl, My neighbor probably thinks I’m crazy

I don’t want to think I have bad luck. In fact, despite life’s major ups and downs, I have a positive outlook. Have even been referred to as bubbly. Everyday I am thankful for my apartment, which my job pays for, which means I will never be homeless and burnt to death by the unforgiving Dubai sun. I am thankful for my family, friends, toes, eyes, coffee, books, chocolate. I am thankful for the ocean, the palm trees and fresh juice. The list is possibly as endless and infinite as the universe.

A friend posted to facebook: illustrations for words that do not exist in English, by Marija Tiurina  It’s awesome. Then she said as soon as she saw ‘Schlimazl’, she thought of me! A chronically unlucky person. Not so awesome.

This winter, I had bed bugs. It was awful. I had my apartment treated. Twice. Bagged all my knick knacks- bric-a-brac-everything into black garbage bags, after cleaning it all with rubbing alcohol. Then I put the black bags in my car. The heat is supposed to kill the eggs. I had Post-Traumatic-Bedbug-Disorder, sleeping on an air mattress instead of my bed, for an extra month after the treatment.

This winter I spent weeks shopping for the (expensive) gear I would need to hike the Great Wall. I don’t have winter clothing in Dubai; I needed thermals, a really warm jacket, boots and more. I packed it all in my carry-on…in case my checked baggage got lost. So smart! Until my carry-on suitcase, was stolen, at the airport. “Oh, it will turn up…it won’t be stolen! People wouldn’t do that in Dubai!” It was never seen again.

My neighbor probably thinks I’m crazy.

My ground floor hallway, with its perpetually propped open side door, near the garbage, attracts massive, fatty, monstrous cockroaches. Recently I saw three of these saunter in the side door. I’m in a horror movie fussing with the sticky key. When my door finally opens one of the giants slips in! I screamed so loud. I screamed so loud my cat hid in the bedroom for two hours. I screamed so loud my throat hurt. I screamed so loud that my neighbor poked his head out. I heard him in the hall “Is someone being attacked!” I didn’t answer. Embarrassed and still too panicked trying to find a weapon. I’m proud I managed to kill it with Windex.

Not too many days later, I am playing with my cat. He’s got that bushy tail, huge-eyes- hyper, pouncy look. He’s running back and forth, jumping at the wall. Skids under the kitchen table, pulls the computer plug, sending my computer flying, until it crashed. Hard. I screamed. Loud. This time like an angry mad woman. Then swore a bunch. The screen blinking a question mark.

In the morning I saw my neighbor for the first time ever. I wanted to tell him, ‘There was a huge cockroach and then my cat broke my computer. Okay. I’m not crazy Thank you for asking if there was an attack’.

More things, like having a super-exploded tooth, needing laparoscopic surgery, winning a phone that doesn’t work…also: banks. A string of years of stressful life events, are probably a few reasons my friend thought of me, when she saw “Schlimazel: a chronically unlucky person”

Sometimes it feels like one thing after another. Always some problem to solve.

When your friend tells you she thinks of you as a chronically unlucky person, you have to wonder about your luck or lack of luck. What is this luck thing anyways? Being born without all my molars?

Am I a negative person? I don’t think so. Is it random? Is it fate? Part of my karmic cycle? Do any of us deserve it? Do I need to read ‘The Secret’? You could read this blog and think I’m lucky with the travels and living in Dubai, the so-called lap of luxury. It’s all somewhere in between. In the end, the good luck and the bad luck both make good stories.

Capitol G: when I reach my maximum capacity, I’ll be livin’ large!

Its been a little over four years since Geoff left this world, and I think about him everyday. Everyday some little thing reminds me of him.This afternoon it was legos and spicy food at lunch. More and more the remembering makes me happy.

Today, May 12th, would be Geoff’s 40th birthday. His birthday is near Mother’s Day and I’m sure it’s terribly, unbelievably, beyond my capacity to understand- hard. I think of his incredible parents often. When he was ill they moved from Florida to Oregon, to help take care of him and be with him. I am forever grateful. Geoff was happy they got to see the place he loved so much. I love his parents forever too.

I would like to tease Geoff about turning 40. People complain that they are getting older, I’ve done it too. Time passes so fast. But the truth is we are lucky to grow older.

Geoff was a nerd and into the internet before nerds and the internet were cool. He loved Lego robots, cartoons, and was a lifelong Whovian. When he was sick we watched the entire Battlestar Galactica series and had long philosophical talks about it.

I miss discussing the meaning of life, the universe and everything with him. He knew it was 42.

The first few weekends we ever hung out, we went to Bagby Hot Springs, the Oregon Coast, and Mt, Hood, respectively. He would make omelettes, spicy potatoes, and coffee before we set out in his truck. We continued all along to take these road trips. I fell in love with Geoff and Oregon simultaneously. Long before we said ‘I love you’, I would tell him, ‘I am so in love with Oregon’, ‘me too’ he’d respond.

Beyond nerdy indoor activities, Geoff was ready to kayak, hike or snowboard every chance he got. He taught me how to snowboard. Once, I proudly made it down the mountain without falling. I accidentally told his parents he had a motorcycle, but now that the cat is out of the bag, I can say he loved that too. He had an adventurous spirit. And follow through.

He took me on top of the mountains in the wilds of Oregon to shoot a gun and I liked it. He made me feel like he could protect me in some post-apocalyptic wasteland. Geoff said he would only join the military to fight for Cascadia, the region from Northern California to Vancouver, British Columbia.

He was fun-loving, happy go-lucky and generous to a fault. A bouncy, smiling presence.

He always said he had a truck so he could he could help people move. He had the nickname of a superhero from Dexter’s Laboratory, and painted a big G on his kayaking helmet, made to look like Superman’s S.

We both loved Oregon’s outdoors, but we loved Portland too. We first met at Portland institution Stumptown coffee. For some time Geoff lived by the Willamette river and could carry his kayak there after work. Then go for a Bison burger at Buffalo Gap.

Sometimes I miss the simple pleasures of Portland, the bookstores, coffee shops, neighborhood eateries, McMenamin’s cinemas, craft beers, parks and walking along streets with lovely homes that have gardens bursting with flowers. Roses taller than me, And the trees. The magnificent, massive, magical trees. When I first saw the Columbia River Gorge, just outside of Portland, my heart swelled and it felt like I was home. Geoff used to say he’d had prophetic dreams of living in a valley and found it in Portland.

When Geoff died, I decided to look for an international gig. I needed to bring new energy and life into my life. I also worried about being unable to find work in Oregon. When I came to Dubai, I didn’t know if it would be for a bit, and then I would go back to Portland. My home. In the beginning it was hard. Leaving Oregon, I was grieving him all over again. But, with time and new adventures, I have found I’m enjoying my traveling days. Too much to return. For now.

I was recently reminded that all the bookstores and coffee shops, all the things I love will still be in Oregon when or if I choose to go back.

All the things, but Geoff.

Christmas Tree Land

Christmas Tree Land