I guess I’m not a cat person…

Sinchurio Samba Foula, Senegal. Summer 2012.

To say I was at the end of my mental rope seems a bit exaggerated, but I definitely needed something or someone new in my life during the hot, rainy season in Senegal. Because distractions were not easy to come by in my remote village, I thought a new kitten would be just that kind of someone. Struck with an idea, I jumped on my bike and sped off towards my friend Ruth’s village, where I knew there were kittens which her family would be only too happy to give me. Picking one out who looked cute and friendly enough, I put him in a bucket, placed some mosquito netting over the top, strapped it securely to the back of my bike, and sped the 17 km journey back to my own village with my new friend riding along behind.

When we got back, I showed my host siblings my kitten and none of them seemed to be very impressed by the new addition to our family. Not cat people, I shrugged, and brought the kitten into my hut. I had made up a little box for the kitten with grasses and an old t-shirt and put the box outside my hut door in my backyard. The only thing separating my backyard from a cornfield, the compound of my host family, and my host mother’s vegetable garden was a grass fence filled with holes for rats to get in and kittens to get out. This didn’t strike me as a problem until night fell.

corn field outside hut

The cornfield outside my fence. This picture was taken during a different season than when the story takes place.

I was congratulating myself on having thought of the kitten, as he was snuggled on my lap while I read my book by headlamp before going to sleep. I could see this becoming a routine for us, until it came time for us to go to each of our own beds, his outside my door in the box and mine in my hut. He did not like this arrangement. As soon as I deposited him outside, he began to yowl and quickly scampered back inside and jumped on my bed with me.

Growing up on the ranch, I was raised with the firm belief that animals do not belong in a human’s bed, no matter how much we love them. Unfortunately, my little kitten did not hold the same belief. Time after time I took him outside, he would begin to piteously meow and run back inside.

By this time, I was getting very tired and knew that I had a long day of planting the next day. I was also growing tired of the kitten that this very evening I had been so happy to have as my newest companion. I decided to lock him outside and hope that he stayed in the not very enclosed enclosure of my backyard. How far could he go? I thought to myself.

Two things then happened after I closed the door to my hut that would prove this to be my worst decision yet:

First, the door to my hut was my only source of air. In the muggy heat of rainy season, without the open door, I began to swelter inside my hut. The kitten also did not take kindly to this newest situation and yowled incessantly outside my closed hut door. While lying there, closing my eyes, wiping sweat from my face and trying to ignore the kitten and the sweat angel beginning to form beneath me, the second thing happened which could not be so easily ignored.

inside of hut

The exact setting of this story.

I heard a deeper yowl. One that sounded much more menacing and had not come from my kitten. I sat bolt upright in bed and listened again. The kitten had stopped mewing, but above me, I heard the deep-throated yowl again and to my terror it was coming from directly above me. I heard a scratching of thatch as whatever creature it was that had now identified my kitten as a snack prowled across my hut roof.

I shot out of bed, opened the door, grabbed my kitten, and quickly slammed the door. I put the kitten down and stumbled around until I located my headlamp. The growling had stopped, so I went outside and shined my headlamp all around. I could see nothing. Maybe I had scared whatever it was away when I closed the door. Even so, I wasn’t about to put the kitten outside.

I sighed. My situation had become far worse than I ever expected. Now, not only was I uncomfortably hot and sweaty because I could no longer open the door, I also had a furry body curled up next to me in my bed! This was not turning out to be the easy companionship I had imagined mere hours before. After two or three minutes of severe sweating, cursing, and pushing the kitten off of me, I couldn’t take it anymore. I bolted up for the second time and opened the door. I gasped in the fresh, if not particularly cool, night air and decided on my third, and final tactic.

I would sleep with the door open, with the kitten tucked into the crook of my arm. I was desperate. I needed sleep and this seemed like the only way. The kitten had other plans though.  Every time I put it on the bed with me, it would jump off and run around my hut. I heard the scratching again on the roof. No! The damn thing was still there, I thought, wildly launching myself from bed again, lunging for my kitten and pinning him to my side on the bed. He mewed in protest.

“Ssshhhh, sshhh. You stupid animal,” I said to the kitten. “Do you want me to throw you out to whatever forest creature is out there lurking on my roof? Be quiet!”

I tucked him into the crook of my arm and closed my eyes, this time in disbelief at the hell I had brought upon myself. Before I knew how or what was happening, what felt like a monstrous weight covered in hair, settled itself onto my chest. This was not the kitten.  It was the creature from outside. I’m fairly sure my brain stopped for a moment in stunned horror, but only for a moment before I threw myself out of bed choking on a gasp that was a scream too scared to come out. I stumbled around in the blackness groping for something to bash it with. I saw it dart out the door and I grabbed my headlamp. I shined it around until I saw the creature from the night back atop my thatch roof. It was a huge, mangy Tom cat. Not completely the monster from my imagination, but still a knarly old thing and I shuddered to think he had just been sitting on my chest.

“Acha, Acha, Acha,” I scream whispered at him, until he fled over the back of my fence and into the cornfield.

Needless to say, I stayed with the door closed for the entire night and didn’t sleep at all. In the morning, before going to the field, I put the bucket back on my bike, placed the kitten inside, and strapped the mosquito netting over the top.

Mumbling something to my family about the kitten not working out, I pedalled quickly to Ruth’s compound. When they heard and saw a mewing bucket on the back of my bike, all of the women stopped what they were doing, put their hands on their knees, and laughed like I’d never seen them laugh before.

I shamefully undid mosquito netting and put the kitten down. “I guess I’m not a cat person after all,” I said to Ruth, “But damn, do I have a story to tell you…”

hut

A picture of my hut and the thatched roof the Tom cat prowled around on. A much more dire setting during nighttime…

 

We got Married!

2.2.18 — It was the most beautiful 40 degree and sunny weekend, tucked between a snowstorm and an ice storm. We risked the notoriously bad February weather in order to get married on my family cattle ranch in central Nebraska and it ended up being the most perfect weekend, both weather and otherwise. In true Ingo and Whitney fashion, we flew halfway across the world from Berlin on Thursday, drove to Nebraska Friday morning, got married Friday evening and were on a plane back to Berlin Monday morning. While everything was a bit of a whirlwind, we wouldn’t have changed anything.

I’ve taken this time to reflect on the weekend and have listed my top 10 favorite moments/things about our wedding that I think you will enjoy.

1. Having a small wedding with only our immediate family members and two best img_9297friends there. Anyone who knows Ingo and/or me knows that we love a good party. This is why it might be surprising to some that we had such a small intimate wedding. I think this might have even surprised us and, of course, our friends would never let us get away with only a small wedding which is why we plan to do a wedding continuation party in 2019 after Ingo finishes his MBA. BUT, what I think Ingo and I found is that having only 20 people at the actual ceremony allowed our two families to get to know each other in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to do if we would have had a huge wedding. img_9317Because of where we live and where our family members live, we won’t always have the chance to get together in one place. It was really special for us to see our families together and for us to have the time to spend with everyone individually instead of racing around from person to person.

2. The vows. It was always going to be important to us to have very personalized vows. We wanted our marriage to represent our commitment as two people to each other as partners for life. I didn’t want to repeat after anyone and I didn’t want anyone else setting the parameters for our commitment to each other. So while we definitely got a raised eyebrow from the judge when we asked her to pronounce us “Adventure partners for life”, I am so glad that we did it this way. Here are the vows we wrote in my travel journal and said to each other during the ceremony:

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My vows to Ingo: I love you because you are every choice. You are the passionate choice, the adventurous choice, the rational choice. You are the partner who matches both my heart and my head without leaving either behind. I know that in you I have found my life adventure partner, my number one cheerleader, my best friend, and my most compassionate critic: You make me the best version of myself. Because of you, I want to be kinder, more compassionate, and more thoughtful. I know the partnership and love that we have is something extraordinary: It is a love that I wasn’t sure existed and am grateful every day that it does. I feel lucky to find myself at the center of your incredibly wise love, a love that I hope to learn from for the rest of our lives. Your spirit is like none other I have ever met and I am constantly in awe of the light you bring to all who know you. Above all, I am ecstatic to share life with you.

In our life as partners, I promise to love you and choose you every day. I promise to support you and include you in all life decisions. I promise to be vulnerable and honest with you and to work together in open communication. I promise to help you become a better person, just as you do for me. I promise to work through challenges and be your strength when you need it the most. I promise to respect you and consider you equally to myself. I promise to be patient with your ADD and your scullyrat tendencies, just as you promise to be patient with my less-laid back temperament. I promise to never give up on adventure and to be by your side for anything and everything life throws our way.

These are the promises I make to you, Ingo Bret Albrecht, today and every day as we commit ourselves to each other in front of friends and family and continue this partnership in love and life.

Ingo’s vows to me: I remember the day we met. You had just had mouth surgery, but still you could barely contain your smile and excitement in starting something new, which I now know is virtually impossible for you. You enchanted the room then with your wit, easy-going nature, and humor. Little did I know that first enchantment was only the beginning of something far greater. Although life pulled us apart before we could get to know each other more, somehow the universe managed to bring two wanderers back together some years later. It was then, when we started writing every day and finally when I go to spend theme with and know you, that I knew I have found my adventure person for life. I fell in love with all of you: your zest for life, your soft goofy side, and the voice you use when you speak to animals, your love for poetry and art, your demand for integrity, your passion to make the world a better place, and your constant search for the adventure that life holds.

Today I am the luckiest man in the world to know that I get to journey alongside of you. I promise always to be on that search for adventure together, to always be willing to grow, to communicate, to speak when it is necessary and to be silent when words are not needed. I promise to be patient with your faults, just as you promise to be patient with mine. I promise to support you in the hardest times of life and to celebrate our mutual and individual victories when life is at its best. I promise to respect you and consider you equally to myself. I promise to love you and to always use our love as a compass.

These are the promises I make to you, Whitney Frances Jenkins, today and every day as we commit ourselves to each other in front of friends and family and continue this partnership in love and life.

3. The venue. In all the world, the ranch I grew up on is still the place that holds the number one spot in my heart. The ranch has been in my family for nearly 150 years and is where I feel most at peace. It is the setting of a childhood which would set the foundation for the rest of my life: I was able to run wild, build forts, and run a Pygmy goat herd. While getting 200 people out to the ranch would have been a logistical nightmare, it was much easier to have only 20. img_9255I was so grateful to start my own family here and to have my new family see me in a place that explains much of who I am. As Ingo knows, the ranch sheds light on a very important piece of my soul and I’m so happy it was able to shine on such an important day.

4. Narrowing it down to the important stuff. Having the small wedding allowed us to really narrow down what it was that was important to us. There were no flowers or music or even any rings. While even a small wedding has it’s stresses, I felt so fully present in everything that happened that weekend. On Saturday morning, the sun was shining down on all of the dusty snowy hills. Ingo and I were outside in the driveway taking a quiet moment to ourselves and we knew that even if we tried, we couldn’t have done it more perfectly. I will be forever grateful for that feeling.

5. My parents. Many parents might feel stressed out about hosting a wedding, no matter what size, at their house. img_9278 And not only at their house, but at their very remote ranch house, where there are hardly any other options for entertainment besides the wedding guests (see #7). This didn’t intimidate my parents at all. They went above and beyond to make this our perfect wedding. My mom went out of her comfort zone and decorated the tables beautifully. She baked my favorite childhood cake as the wedding cake. She and my dad scrubbed the entire house down and worked together like clockwork the entire weekend to make sure the party went smoothly. I feel so grateful that I have parents who I can count on during my most important life moments and also parents I can look to as an example of what amazing life partnership looks like.

6. My horse (and other ranch stuff). Ingo knows that if he ever would have to take a backseat to anyone, it might be my horse, Ginger, who I’ve had since I was 13. He’s cool with it. img_0619The beautiful weather made it possible for Ingo’s family to go down and meet her at the barn. It was not only being able to see Ginger, but to show them the other parts of growing up on a ranch that I love so much. They went to see Dad feeding the cattle and were able to shoot at some skeet. My three new nieces spent some time learning the basics of riding and took the horses around the corral bareback. These are all small things that make the weekend stick out to me.

7. The remoteness of the ranch. Like I mentioned, I felt a little nervous about sticking a bunch of people who had never met in a house for an entire weekend. Unlike the city, we don’t have many places to escape to if things go south.

 

This very isolation though is what set the perfect backdrop for a romantic and peaceful wedding weekend. It helped people to come in with the mindset that they were there to be together, which is exactly what we did.

8. The dress. Lots of brides stress about the dress. Not me! Shout out to my friend Kimberly Ideus on this one– she gave me the head’s up about a site called Rent the Runway. They ship beautiful dresses straight to your door in 2 different sizes, with a back-up style. I was able to get an absolutely stunning dress for a fraction of the cost and then send it back three days later. I would totally do it again and recommend it to anyone else who has fancy events they need a dress for.

9. The drinks. I would be remiss not to mention that the entire weekend we had the most perfect wine and champagne.img_9380 Ingo’s father Helmut went above and beyond to make sure that we had an abundance of both, which he had carefully shipped in from his home in Miami. Always a most charming host, he never let a glass go empty and everywhere you looked, happy wedding guests were sipping wine and chatting for most of the night.

10. The groom. The most important number in the list of things that were absolutely perfect about our wedding. I wasn’t always sure I wanted to get married. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if finding one person forever was an actual thing. People are fun and some relationships are great, but I imagined there would always be a new adventure to move on to… by myself. How could one person be IT for the rest of life? Ingo changed my mind and it was surprisingly easy to do. He doesn’t ask me to stop adventuring or even slow down. He flies right alongside me. img_9360Now every adventure I would have gone on solo is made so much better because he will be there to share it with. Although I believe myself to be ever-evolving as a person, Ingo is the kind of person who gives me an insight to myself that not even my best friends can give me. I know I have the best chance of being my best possible version because he is my husband.

We say it so many times to each other, How did we get so lucky? Two marriage skeptics, two wanderers, two amateur philosophers, two of a kind in so many ways– we have found the perfect match in each other. And I truly do feel like we have found an extraordinary love. As you can probably imagine, I could go on for much longer, but I won’t. I’ll try and at least save it for another blog…

Monday Morning Commute

Chonburi, Thailand. July 5, 2016.

This is a story I’ve been meaning to write for awhile:

The fried banana man was busy this morning. I wiped the sweat from my upper lip and tugged uncomfortably at my teacher’s uniform—symptoms of hot season in Thailand. Standing a polite distance away, I watched out of the corner of my eye as a bald monk in flip flops and orange robes murmured prayers to the banana man, both of their heads dipped under the shade of a dilapidated green umbrella shielding the banana stand. When they had finished, I approached and made my order.

The banana man grinned at me, two teeth showing in his upper gums. We couldn’t speak to each other—my Thai was not good enough, but we always greeted each other in this way and he always spoke to me in Thai. It was our routine, and I looked forward to seeing him each morning before I went off to teach in the local high school down the road.

I watched the bananas sizzling in the hot vat of oil, my mouth starting to water. The monk had decided to rest so he reclined against the railing of the bridge where the stand was always set up, settling himself on a bright red plastic lawn chair supplied by the banana man.

Bananas finally bagged up, I bowed goodbye.  “See you tomorrow!” I said in Thai and started up the sidewalk. Before I made it two steps, there was a rustling from the long grass beside the banana stand and the great head of a python appeared out of the ditch beside the bridge. Its six-foot body soon followed, lumpy and bulging in different spots from what I assumed was its last meal. I couldn’t help but wonder in that moment what exactly had been its last meal and if it found humans as tasty as I did fried bananas.

As stunned as I was to see a huge python blocking my commute to school, I had to feel bad for the poor guy, as he coiled back slightly, feeling his belly slide onto the warm surface of a human pedestrian sidewalk, right in the middle of Monday rush hour. We aren’t in the swamp ditch any more, I imagined him thinking.

banana man

The exact setting of this story, sans python. Photo Credit: Connie Read

People halted, suddenly unable to continue on without stepping into the never-ending stream of road traffic, into the swamp ditch that the snake had just appeared out of, or over the giant reptile now stretched fully across the path. None seemed like very good options, and I joined them in choosing the fourth option, which was to wait and see what happened.

The appearance of the snake had caused business at the banana stand to come to a stop and for the first time, I realized that the snake was also blocking the entrance to a small laundry shop. A little old man wearing a white tank top, shorts, and flip flops stepped spryly out of the doorway of the shop towards the snake armed with nothing but a long metal pole and a burlap bag.

One of my favorite things about Buddhist culture is that they do not believe in hurting or killing anything. I’m not sure if the presence of the monk nearby helped, but the intention of the old man became clear as he began to prod the snake in the face with the metal pole in an attempt to coerce it into the burlap sack. It also became quickly clear that while the snake didn’t particularly like the sidewalk, he was really offended at the idea of having his six-foot body dumped inside the sack and transported elsewhere.

To show his indignance as this new development, the snake began striking at the pole and hissing menacingly. While I felt a little sorry for the python, I also had great admiration for the brave old man who was now swinging the burlap sack at the snake’s head like a bullfighter, while gracefully dodging inches behind the striking mouth, his only shield the thin metal rod.

All thoughts of being late to work seemed inconsequential and I watched the scene with a mixture of fear and awe to see who would win this battle between giant serpent and man. The crowd shouted encouragement and let out hisses of breath when the snake struck, narrowly missing the man’s bare shins and feet. Finally, when I wondered if the snake would triumph, out of the laundry shop stepped another man. This one was younger, with stooping shoulders, a dragon tattooed across his shirtless chest, and a cigarette hanging from his lips.

He nonchalantly grabbed the pole and without taking the cigarette from his mouth took on the task of prodding the snake’s face into the bag which his grandfather was now wielding more deftly with two hands. The poor python was no match against the two of them and within seconds and a few more hissing strikes, his head was shoved into the bag and the grandson quickly lifted coil after coil of the writhing body until it disappeared inside.

I could tell that python disturbances at this location were probably a lot more normal for them than it had been for me because without any more pomp and circumstance, the smoking tattooed grandson sulked back into the shop and the grandfather hauled the live bag of snake towards the ditch where it had come from. Like some sort of stop-animation film, everyone resumed walking, the snake delay only a minor annoyance in their day.

Commuting to work is the most ordinary thing in the world, until it isn’t.  The appearance of the python, the brave grandson and grandfather, and my luck to have seen such a thing all made me grateful for the ability to realize that extraordinary adventures can come in seemingly mundane moments. Even though I no longer commute by the banana man on the bridge, I know there is adventure in the unlikeliest places. I can’t wait to see where I find it next.

Gaudi and Picasso: Finding that One Thing

Every Christmas my Dad gives the three of his children a reading challenge. Last year it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. According to many, it is one of the best philosophical studies of the 20th century. According to me, it is also the most difficult to get into. So, needless to say, the three of us have all read at least the first chapter and are considering it more of a five year assignment rather than a one year.

Exasperated by the failure of the 2016 Christmas challenge, Dad decided to step it down a notch. As I suspect the reading challenges have been set up as a way for Dad to recommend life lessons without giving direct advice, this year’s book was one that was more palatable, but also teaching on one life lesson that Dad (and the author) thinks is essential to success and happiness. The book is called The One Thing by Gary Keller . The life lesson, as far as I understand it, is that people who choose their “one thing” in life and become an expert in that will see the most fulfillment and happiness from their life. 

In the days after Christmas and while traveling to Barcelona from Nebraska, I began to read the book. Unbeknownst to me, reading the book before going to Barcelona was like pre-reading for a biology dissection class. First you read about the anatomy, but it isn’t until you are actually dissecting that you feel that all of that reading can be applied to the real life situation. It turns out that going to Barcelona was the most perfect supplemental learning material my Dad could have asked for because in doing so, I ran straight into two of the most celebrated finders of that one thing, two men who were proof of the theory. The first is the Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso and the second, is the Catalonian architect, Antoni Gaudi. These two men’s lives and work came to life for me in Barcelona, and parallel to my Christmas challenge reading, gave me a perspective of their work and their passion which I can appreciate so much more.


Pablo Picasso

I’ve never loved Picasso. I’m more of a Van Gogh girl and visited the MOMA in New York over and over again just to make straight for the floor with Van Gogh and stare for long periods of time into the depths of his paintings. I’ve always found Picasso’s work ugly and uncomfortable, and would never linger for long at one of his paintings.

The Picasso museum in Barcelona not only brought the painter to life for me (by showing the things he loved like the guitar and bull fighting), but demonstrated to me that whether I liked his art or not, he had found and mastered his “one thing”. When Picasso was only 14 years old he was already producing paintings I would buy on the street if I saw them. Many painters would have stopped there and many have. They paint the same bridge or cityscape over and over because people liked what they paint and thus buy the paintings. Not Picasso though.

The first room is full of beautifully painted landscapes and extraordinary portraits of people demonstrating that he had mastered the technical aspects. But as you continue on through the exhibit, the portraits of people start to slant and break. The colors of reality are replaced with the blues that characterize so much of his work.  Work by work you watch a master become the only one in the arena.  You marvel as his paintings evolve from great, to totally original, to what they are known as now, which is simply, Picasso.

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Pablo Picasso, 1957, The Pigeons

One room particularly stuck out to me. This is a room full of paintings from dates that follow each other in day-succession. August 6, August 7, August 8 and so on. These paintings are different depictions of the same scene, which was the view from his studio  as he painted one his most famous assignments, Las Meninas. I realized that these were paintings done on his “break” from Las Meninas, but they were still masterpieces in themselves! At this point he had become such a master of his “one thing” that it had become a part of his being– his work was not work, it was him being himself.

My last note on Picasso is that this exhibit truly moved me. I felt like I was given the opportunity to glimpse into a life that was the perfect example of finding a person’s “one thing”. In another word, the gallery is a living reminder of what human fulfillment looks like.   Pictures of Picasso as an older man are displayed at the end of the exhibit, surrounded by the things and people he loved. I will never see him the same again and I am grateful for what he taught me through the evolution of his life’s work and my own search for my “one thing”.


Antoni Gaudi

Gaudi, like Picasso, is a person that found his one thing and went for it. Gary Keller writes, “Believing in big frees you to ask different questions, follow different paths, and try new things. This opens the doors to possibilities that until now only lived inside you.”

Gaudi’s work is the epitome of “believing in big”. In 1900, his futuristic architecture is something that could only be dreamed up from a mind free from restrictions and limits. In 2018, his buildings in Guell Park look like something out of a sci-fi film or a movie created from graphic animation. In 1900, Gaudi had no such inspiration and drew almost entirely from the nature all around him. He incorporated the biological building structure into his man-made creations.

img_0151Walking into the Sagrada Familia actually took my breath away. The basilica, which was the capstone of Gaudi’s career and his most crowning achievement, is a testament to human’s limitless capacity for creation. Unfortunately, he died before the completion of the building, but I believe he must have died a man totally invested and possessed by the challenge of creating one of the most fantastic buildings in the entire world. Pictures do not quite capture the magnitude and beauty of what it feels like to be inside the Sagrada Familia. Huge stone pillars soar high above you and gather like treetops among the brightly lit ceiling designed specifically to let natural sunlight in. Everywhere you can find Gaudi’s inspiration from nature. Like Picasso, he went above and beyond mastering architecture, and became an architect in a class all his own.


I will stop gushing about Picasso and Gaudi now, as well as about finding the “one thing”, but I would highly recommend going to Barcelona and making the Sagrada Familia, Guell Park, and the Picasso Museum “must dos” on your trip. Maybe if you do, you could also check out the book, The One Thing, for your airplane reading. I know that I’m thinking a whole lot differently about life these days thanks to a few great men– Picasso, Gaudi, and my dad, of course.

Traveler tip: Book your tickets online and in advance! They are usually sold out on the day and are cheaper online. 

The best tapas in Barcelona

We saw it from down the darkened streets. The light from the window looked cozy and warm as if it had not only been generated by electricity, but by the people and energy pulsing from the six high top tables crammed inside. We swung the door open, but nobody really looked. They all leaned forward into their own parties, speaking energetically to each other in Catalonian. To our left was a glass bar where two big ham legs hung on silver hooks and a busy, but not hassled looking wait staff zoomed back and forth carrying tapas and refilling beer and vermouth. One of them, a small bearded man buzzed towards us for a moment, like a hummingbird, to listen to our request, “Cuatro personas“, said Olivia, the only one of us with passable Spanish, holding up four fingers just in case. He smiled, nodded, and buzzed away.

This place was a recommendation from a Catalonian friend, and like everywhere else in the world, the best places to go are always those found via the local word of mouth. She had told us that it did not have a webpage and that we would not be able to make reservations. We were on a search for the best tapas, and in a city where outstanding tapas are the norm, this place felt a little like magic.

After scanning the menu, and glancing surreptitiously at the tables of others, we made our selection. Catching the waiter’s eye, Olivia once again made the order for us, while he listened patiently, smiled, and pretended he did not speak any English. The four of us had been placed in the corner, so with my back to wall I looked around at this tiny, yet perfect tapas restaurant. Behind the bar, bottles of brightly colored alcohols lined the walls and to the left of the big wooden door we had come through was the window that had provided our first glance into the world where we were now too, a part of the scene. Above the window, was a long chalkboard covered in the names of all the Vermouth you could order. At our table we perched on high stools and were so tightly packed that I bumped elbows every so often with a mother behind me and found the suspicious glare of her toddler upon me if I turned my head to the left. Erin’s back was against a huge mirror that helped give the impression that the small restaurant was much more spacious than it really was. The two waiters continued to bring out plates of steaming, savory potatoes with hot sauce, thinly sliced meats, stacks of cheese, and fresh seafood. Olivia and I also chose to partake in the in-house brewed Vermouth, a Catalonian specialty. A glass of Vermouth here cost 1.50 euros and is served with an orange slice and a green olive.

There are several reasons why I love tapas. I love that tapas are meant to be shared. Tapas are smaller portions of food and you are meant to order several dishes even for just a couple of people. This makes for not only a dynamic eating experience, but physically, tapas in the center of the table create an atmosphere of camaraderie, as if the the conversation itself weaves and crosses within the patterns of traded plates. This means that tapas are a food meant to be slowly enjoyed over conversation and drinks. There is no problem with ordering another round if the table is still hungry, or just wants an excuse for the prolonged company of their friends. Also, there is no rush. In the United States, it is not uncommon to get the evil eye from a waiter for staying too long at the table after you have finished eating. Working as one myself for several different stints, I understand that this is American etiquette, but is also tied to our culture of tipping. More tables means more tips. In Barcelona, we never felt rushed through our meal. They left us to our experience and did not feel pressure to be at hand every moment. Although the food was in fact the most delicious tapas I had tasted yet, I felt that our night was more than the food we ate.

In that place, in the back corner, I felt like I was part of something. Our own table was alive because of the four of us. We held spirited conversations about the things we cared about the most. Each side of our table reflected a face and a mind with something to share. All of us listened intently to each of the others, and in our turn spoke passionately and convincingly on each point. Outside our table, I was sure each of the other tables was doing the same. I couldn’t hear or understand what they said, but I could feel the mini worlds of community colliding into one. Within the warm light and soothing smell of tapas, I felt myself living in a memory.

~~

This is just one of the moments that we shared during our five days here. If you ever go to Barcelona, I’ll tell you the name of the restaurant. As promised, I am writing a blog a week. Because of travel, I missed last week’s blog. Tomorrow I am making up for it by writing about Gaudi and Picasso, two artists I feel I got to know quite well during our time in this beautiful city.

Wishing everyone a beautiful start to 2018.

Coming home for Christmas

I’ve always loved airports. Many of the standard airport procedures that make people nervous give me a sense of calm and purpose– the purpose of moving. In an airport, you are leaving somewhere and starting in another place. Airports are Limbo. They are the place where you can think about where you came from and also where you are going. They represent a fresh start to somewhere. They are a portal to where I want to be, whether that is in a new place and new friends or old haunts among dearly loved people who I am returning back to. I have felt some of my happiest and most peaceful moments within the walls of the airport among the rushing businesspeople, screaming children, and panicked travelers grabbing their heads in despair as the security officers confiscate their favorite lotion and throw it nonchalantly into the trash. It’s three fluid ounces, people.

My trip home for Christmas, from Berlin to Nebraska, was everything opposite of what I have just described in the first paragraph. It was the kind of trip that makes even the most comfortable traveler think for a second about giving up travel forever. Without getting into it, because that is not what this blog is about, I am two days late to get home, I was detained at UK immigration, I had to evacuate the terminal because the fire alarm went off right before boarding, and when we finally did get back in and onto the plane we were delayed by another 2 hours just sitting on the runway, and lastly, but certainly not least, my German sausages I had brought home to share with my family were confiscated and thrown, like the lotion, nonchalantly into the trash.

But…

I am home. And even while swearing to myself never to travel during the Christmas season, as I got into the car and left the Rocky Mountains behind me on the Western horizon, I knew that I would do it again, because there is nothing like the feeling of returning home. As I whizzed by the familiar signs, Julesburg (halfway home), NEBRASKA, “The Good Life” (Hell yes it is!), and finally turning off at North Platte and driving the last stretch, the best stretch, I felt the rest of the anger and frustration and problems the travel snafus had caused leave me somewhere before Highway 92. From there on, I felt free.

The sun shined down on the rubble of the cornfields, golden snapped stalks and ruffage sticking up through patches of snow. Black angus steers, furry now with their winter coats, nosed through the leftovers and huddled together for warmth. The bright green hills I had left in July had faded to yellow and a dusting of snow coated them and accentuated the canyons running down to lower land. I was the only car on the road for miles.

Finally turning into my driveway, I sighed with relief. I had made it. I parked the car and walked into my house. The familiar Christmas decorations were up: huge red pointsettas bursting out of brightly wrapped pots, several interpretations of the manger scattered throughout the living room, and of course, the most perfect cedar tree twinkling with lights and covered in years of carefully collected ornaments. Alone for a few moments, I walked in and sat looking at the tree. I would do it all again, I said to myself. Yes, I would do it all again.

Now as I write this from my childhood bed, I wish you all the peace and comfort of being in your homes among the people you love for the holidays. A very merry Christmas to all of you!

Best of Peace Corps Senegal

I’ve had so much fun re-reading some of my old blog posts, which I have now compiled for you into the Best of Peace Corps Senegal blog. My nearly three years in this beautiful country is without a doubt one of the most transformative periods of my life. It provided me with invaluable insight, lessons that have set the foundation of my life, and taught me more than anything else, that the world is a very big place full of people so different, and yet so alike if we take the time to realize it.

It is very clear to see that I left the Peace Corps a more reflective, less naive, and more globally aware person. It would seem it really is true— life is a learning process and we will all probably look back at the younger versions of ourselves and laugh (and maybe sometimes grimace). I hope to continue laughing at the younger version of myself throughout every stage of life.

I’ve picked out 12 of my favorite blogs for you to peruse from my time in Senegal (2011-2014) to show you a little glimpse of one of my most wandered countries, a country forever in my heart, and one which will always feel a little bit like home.

A Wild Woman’s African Dream Come True, Nov. 23, 2011: The first impression in my new village.

The Bike Ride from Hell, Dec. 13, 2011: Hilarious now, terrifying then.

Chicken Victory, July. 18, 2012: A story of overcoming challenges and grabbing your life’s chicken.

A Closer Look at Life, July 31, 2012: Living in a Muslim country during Ramadan (first part of blog) and one of the hardest days I had while living in my village (second half of blog).

Rats, this is War! March 5, 2013. The title explains itself.

A Particularly Hot and Bothered Peace Corps Volunteer, April 10, 2013: An open letter to Banana Boat sunscreen, which reveals some of hot season’s greatest challenges.

The Road Home in Rainy Season, June 24, 2013: A peaceful post that takes me back down memory lane.

You are in my Heart, Sept. 15, 2013: Reflections on the two years in southern Senegal and saying goodbye to my village for the last time.

They Call Me Family, Oct. 9, 2013: Why I will always be so grateful I was placed with the Pulaars.

Wanna Feug Jaay? Mar. 24, 2014: One of the most unexpected reasons you HAVE to visit Senegal.