Monday, October 29, 2012

Updates 10/27/12 and Posts for Your Perusal

I have officially been in America for one whole month.  Home has been many things so far: comforting, confusing, wonderful, stressful, and full of dairy.  

Following the surprisingly accurate culture shock graph, the first two weeks seemed like they were made of glitter, rainbows, and ice cream: I saw all of the people I so dearly missed, got lots of hugs, ate lots of food, and had a great time reacquainting myself with American amenities.  For reference, cheese is a gift from God, hot showers are an example of total perfection, and there is absolutely nothing in this world like a teary-eyed reunion hug from your parents.

The next two weeks have been somewhat less euphoric. I'm happy to be home, and I love that I can call and text my best friends whenever I want. Certain things, though, seem baffling, unnecessarily stressful, and/or just really sad.  I don't get why we have 24 different types of face wash at Target. Why do we spend so much time worrying about matching their shoes to their jackets and which boy Taylor Swift is currently singing about? There's apparently a hashtag* #firstworldproblems, which I really can't bring myself to look at.  I guess it's good that we're self-aware enough to know that some of our problems aren't actually problems, but it's vaguely discouraging to consider how much time and energy we're wasting on those when there are bigger and more important issues we could be fixing.  I'll get off my soap box now.

The other big worry point in my mind is the job search -- I hate being unproductive and not having a plan, and both of those things seem to be happening right now. I'm much happier when I've got a project, and I can't wait until I have a place, a purpose, and a goal. If anyone knows people in nonprofits in DC, please let me know.

Whew.  Feels good to talk that out.  I think readjustment gets easier over time, and I think mine is so far just about the same as that of all of my other Peace Corps Volunteer friends. Like everything else we've done together, we will soldier this one through and come out better, wiser people for it. 

In the interest of memories and reflecting on this whole experience, here are a few of my favorite blogs and stories from the past two years (I made you a highlight reel).  And with this last post, friends, I'll consider this blog complete.

*There has been a lot of technological/pop culture catching up that I've had to do.  Hashtags still have me bemused, but today I've mostly figured out "YOLO", Ryan Lochte, Honey Boo Boo, the Facebook iPhone app, and how to save pins on my phone's Maps thingie.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Top Ten Books Read in Benin

Hokay, so someone asked me to write a list of my top ten books read while in Peace Corps.  Obviously I accepted, as it is a list.  I'm standing here trying to whittle it down, though, and I'm having some trouble because I really seriously like books.  In order to simplify this process, I'm adding rules:

  • I can't put rereads on my top 10.
  • I'm basing my choices on how interesting and fun to read they were, not necessarily literary merit or smart factor.
  • I can put up to 15 books in my top 10.

There, that's easier.  In a kind of vaguely ranked order, except the first one (a must-read):
  1. Half the Sky -- Kristof and WuDunn*
  2. East of Eden -- Steinbeck
  3. The Poisonwood Bible -- Kingsolver
  4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- Chabon
  5. What is the What -- Eggers
  6. Cutting for Stone -- Verghese
  7. The Green Mile -- King
  8. No Country for Old Men -- Steinbeck
  9. Delusions of Gender -- Fine*
  10. The Fever -- Shah*
  11. Price of Honor -- Goodwin*
  12. Love in a Time of Cholera -- Marquez
  13. Breakfast of Champions -- Vonnegut
  14. In Defense of Food -- Pollen*
  15. A Tale of Two Cities -- Dickens

Friday, September 28, 2012

Ireland, Part 3: Cork/Blarney to the End

I'm sitting in the Chicago airport right now, waiting for my final flight home. While I had an awesome last couple of days in Ireland, I'm having trouble coming up with a cohesive way of summarizing it all, probably because, guys, I'm going home! In the interest of finishing what I started in blogging this trip (don't worry, there will be at least one more sappy blog post to come), here's a list of the post-Galway highlights:

  • Saw gorgeous and very green Irish countryside, only occasionally getting lost on the tiny country roads.
  • Sights seen and appropriately gaped at: Cliffs of Moher, beginning of the Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle, Cahir Castle, Rock of Cashel, and some awesome caves. Deduced that man giving tour, while fascinating, probably spends way too much time in said caves.
  • Toured the Jameson whiskey factory, and got to do a whiskey tasting between Scottish, Irish and American whiskeys. Cheat sheet on the differences: Irish and Scottish are made of barley, American is usually maize. Scottish malted barley is dried with peat smoke, lending the smokey flavor. American is distilled once, Scottish twice, and Irish three times. Irish aging casks are often old sherry or bourbon casks, whereas American ones are oak and are legally required to be changed yearly. Whiskey primer complete.
  • Watched a movie! This was a complete impulse move, and it was 100% worth the 8 euros.
  • Bridget's cousin Niamh takes us out for one crazy night in a small town Irish nightclub. We survive the challenge and have a fantastic time dancing with the locals.
  • Shop more. Eat more. Generally enjoy life.

And that takes us up until today (Sept. 27th), which is a total of 17 hours in transit on my way home. It's real. It's happening. We're really going home.

I just hugged Bridget goodbye (Vicky had a different transatlantic flight this morning)...a weird feeling. We just spent 2+ years of our lives together, balancing each other out through highs and lows. It's going to be strange to know I won't see them in two weeks in Cotonou. I couldn't have had better travel mates, though, and i've been consistently amazed throughout this whole multi-continent adventure at how seamlessly we've worked together.  There are very, very few groups of people who could travel together for a month and not really be tired of each other afterward...we're lucky, I guess.

Anyway, so that's the end of this trip. The adventures and mishaps, the stories we'll tell and the ones we'll pretend to forget. Bridget and Vicky, thanks so much for the last month, or the last two years, really. It's been amazing. You've been amazing. Now let's go home.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ireland, Part 2: Driving

(Dear Parents and Other Nervous People, by the time I post this, we will have already returned the car. Please take a deep breath, relax your shoulders, and pour yourself a cup of tea. We are still alive, and will see you in two days.  Love, Lissa)

In Ireland, most of the things you want to see (castles, cliffs, scenery) aren't in the big cities. While you can get to them via busses or tours, those would require us to haul our bags around everywhere, which is not fun when you've got two years' worth of stuff crammed in there. When planning our trip, Bridget, Vicky and I decided that it would be simpler and more freeing if we just rented a car and drove around on our own.

Fast forward to September 20th, when we went to Budget rentals with a copy of Bridget's license and, shortly thereafter, walked out with the keys to a shiny silver Ford Fiesta. In order to save money, we got a manual instead of an automatic, which would have been about twice the price. We skipped the GPS upgrade (these technology things are confusing), but we did spring for full insurance, a move we later realized was our most brilliant of the trip.

It should be said that none of us knew how to drive manual. I mean, sure, we knew the concept and each of us had at some point spent an hour or two trying to shift in an empty parking lot, but beyond that, we were absolute beginners. Also, we hadn't driven in two years. Also, in Ireland they drive on the left. Adventure!

Immediately upon entering the car, our chosen driver Bridget started trying to learn all the rules of driving stick shift all at once. As knots of nervousness visibly formed in Bridget's shoulders, Vicky magically transformed into a kids' soccer coach instructing, encouraging, and occasionally chiding as Bridget scrambled to do all 18 necessary actions at once. In the spirit of solidarity, I sat down in the back seat and immediately turned a festive shade of green.

For the next several hours, we collectively struggled: Bridget with the clutch, Vicky with the bajillion one-way streets in Dublin, and me with my overwhelming desire to vomit. We couldn't find the controls for the windshield wipers when it started to drizzle, then later accidentally turned them on while looking for a turn signal and subsequently couldn't figure out how to turn them off. At one point we ended up in a cul-de-sac, lost and having stalled out (again). After trying to restart the car at least 15 times, we took a pause to ask a concerned-looking service man to direct us toward Galway. He very politely showed us where we were going, then with a look towards our probably smoking vehicle asked in a very bemused voice, " did you get all the way here?" Good question, sir. Good question.

The first day was rough. We had a system worked out (Bridget worked the pedals and the wheel, Vicky shifted, and I kept my mouth shut), but the transmission would never be the same. By the time we got to Bridget's cousin's house, we were ready to hire a chauffeur and/or horse driven cart for the rest of the trip. But as just-finished Peace Corps Volunteers, we are nothing if not determined, and so the next day we got ourselves back in that car, strapped ourselves in, and hit the road.*

It's now day five of our Great Car Adventure, and I have to say, trial by fire works. Bridget can now stop, start, reverse, and shift all by herself, and this morning she successfully started the car on a steep incline and made it to the top (we cheered). She is, for the record, an absolute champion.

There have been mishaps, like that time we accidentally drove into the Ring of Kerry park, which is famous for its extremely narrow, windy, hilly, cliff-y roads...but all cars look better with a little texture, I feel. We've stalled out a truly impressive number of times in a wide variety of places including hilly farmland and busy city intersections, which I think just proves our ability to adapt our particular skill sets to any geographical setting.** Further, we've developed a highly advanced and effective system for preventing collisions, which involves the three of us collectively yelling at whoever is driving/walking/stopping their car in front of us. The turns are now smoother, the shifting less likely to send us to the chiropractor, and we almost always remember to stay on the left side of the road.

We're pretty much professional at this point. Now if only we could figure out how to turn those rear windshield wipers off.

*Jack, and don't you come back no more no more no more no more.
**Don't worry, this is already on my resume.

Actual (and appropriate) toll booth sign in Ireland.  No, they didn't write
this one just for us.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ireland, Part 1: Dublin

a. Ireland is SO COLD! I have developed a dance to warm myself up. It is both completely ineffective and absolutely stupid-looking, and involves a lot of kicking and yoga squats, but hey, it passes the time when gale force ice winds try to turn me into an icicle.

b. The first two nights in Ireland we spent in Dublin. Dublin is the home of many things, but one of the most important is the original Guinness factory. I am a fan of good beer, particularly dark beer, so we made it a point to tour the giant pint-glass-shaped factory and sample a glass of the product in its hometown. We also did a bit of shopping (a good set of day dresses is a necessity, right?), sampled the local selection of stews and seafood chowders, and just generally enjoyed the accents surrounding us. I definitely, definitely cannot do an Irish accent. Do not ask.

c. Moate! Bridget's dad is fully Irish (I hear he still has an accent), and so most of his family still lives over here. For our third night in Ireland, we drove* to Bridget's cousin's house in Moate, where her hilariously blunt family took us in, fed us ridiculous amounts of homemade food, and entertained us with gossip and old family stories. We'll be going back there on Monday to hang out with Bridget's cousin Niamh, who seems to have a devilish twinkle in her eye when she says she's going to take us out on the town.

d. Galway...was kind of a fail. After driving(*) all the way from Moate and managing to get ourselves to the hostel without the benefit of a GPS or visible street signs, we learned that we'd accidentally booked the hostel for the previous three nights instead of the correct ones. Furthermore, it was a big sports weekend in Galway, and that hostel had absolutely no space for us. We did a speed assessment of our situation, borrowed the hostel's Internet and researched other hostels, only to discover that while there were two with space that night, there were zero in the entire city for the following day. Game changer! We booked that night, got ourselves to the hostel, and rearranged our week so that we'd get to Cork the following day. A twist in the beginning there, but we won the day. Champions.

*This verb deserves its own post.

Athens, Part 2: Everything Else

As previously stated, our trip would have been much less awesome without Dora and Kimon, but since both of them are Real People with Real Jobs*, we had some time on our own to explore the city. And there's a lot to explore.

Everyone learns about Greek mythology in third or fourth grade, and if you've ever taken an art history class you've doubtless spent lots of time going over Greek art and architecture. Athens is almost tough to believe sometimes because every five feet you're suddenly in front of something super famous that you saw in textbooks back in school. There was the Acropolis. The Temple of Zeus. The Temple of Athena. Hadrien's Gate, and his library. Most impressively, the Parthenon, a huge and gorgeous structure on a hill that is considered one of the most architecturally perfect buildings ever built (the Greeks cared so much about the visual ideal and beauty that they engineered slightly tapered columns to give the look of absolute perfection).

Anyway, so we were busy. We spent hours in the National Archeological Museum looking at famous ancient statues...awed as we were, Victoria and I kept a running commentary that had our abs hurting we were laughing (quietly, promise!) so hard -- we decided that we could probably start a horribly inaccurate but very entertaining tour business through Athens. Let us know if you're interested.

*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*In a week, I start looking for real jobs. If anyone knows of openings involving writing (grant writing especially), development, NGOs, and/or women's rights/health, please email me at

At our Greek barbecue!
Learning to Greek dance

Climbing the Acropolis

The Parthenon

Vicky and Bridget look out over Athens

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Athens, Part 1: Kimon, Dora, and a Greek Barbecue

Immediately upon arrival to Athens, our hosts Kimon and Dora whisked us off to a Greek barbecue with a group of their close friends. Kimon and Dora are some of the nicest, most hospitable and generous people that I've ever met, and for the 3 days we were in Athens, they were our CouchSurfing hosts. CouchSurfing, as previously discussed, has been incredibly good to us: each time we've surfed with someone, they've not only given us a place to sleep but have also helped us navigate the city and given us information that's not found anywhere in the guide books. Kimon and Dora took it a step further than that... Well, more like a marathon further.

So, Greek barbecue. One of the things we've craved while traveling has been "real" cultural experiences -- seeing how actual Turkish people drink coffee or how real Greeks spend low-key weekends. The stuff that's not in the tourist brochures and probably wouldn't make a good photo. So when Kimon, who picked us up at the port with a sign reading "Sister Mary Melissa", invited us to go hang out with their friends and eat home-cooked food, we were absolutely delighted. We tried to seem relaxed and cool about accepting the invitation ("Sure, yeah, that sounds great, we love food..."), we all exchanged secretly excited looks as we headed off towards the dinner party. Real Greeks! Doing Real Greek things! In Greece! We were winning at life.

The evening was wonderful. The food alone was ridiculously good and fresh*, the conversations easy and interesting and full of different perspectives on food, the economic crisis, and differences between our countries. We danced to old school rock and roll and then to traditional Greek music. The best part, though, was walking into a group of 12 people at a dinner party and them not missing a beat. It was absolutely perfect, but then it got better.

Kimon and Dora drove us to where we were staying, which turned out to be our own fully furnished apartment. When I say fully furnished, I don't mean that it had a bed and two chairs. I mean that our hosts had gone out and stocked the entire place with things they thought we'd like. Kimon reads my blog (Hi Kimon!), so he knew us pretty well before we arrived: he bought coffee so Bridget could wake up in the morning, fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfasts, cheese for our constant cravings, and, most impressively, Trappist beers for relaxing after a long day.

TRAPPIST BEERS FROM BELGIUM. I don't know if y'all remember this, but last July when my family and I went to Paris, my college friend Phil met up with me and gave me a Trappist beer he'd gotten in Belgium. I carried it back to Benin with me, and it completely made my month. Kimon and Dora somehow remembered that and tracked some down just to welcome us to Athens. I can't even think of the proper adjective to describe that, so I'm going to go with crazysweetawesomegenerousadorableletsbefriendsforever-esque.

I just realized that I'm writing probably a ridiculous amount about these wonderful people, and that very soon you all will tune out and skip to the post about the Parthenon. I'll make this quick. The rest of our time with our hosts was just as amazing as the first day, and every minute and meal we spent with them was as interesting and fantastic as that first day. They took is to their favorite off-the-track restaurants and a gorgeous bar overlooking the city on our last night.

Over plates and plates of fresh fish, calamari, shrimp and crab**, they asked us genuinely thoughtful questions about our lives in Benin, what we thought about it and how it had changed us. As we're finding recently, it's rare to find someone who wants to hear more than 30 seconds' worth of Our Thoughts On Africa, so getting to talk about it with people who not only were interested, but even asked follow-up questions.

I'll stop there for now, but to Kimon and Dora, who I know are still reading: thank you. We loved Athens, and I think we mostly loved it because of you. Your hospitality and genuine interest in our lives, your thoughtfulness and your enthusiasm made Athens probably our favorite stop on our trip so far, and we consider ourselves so lucky to have gotten to know you. Keep in touch, and next time, we'll see you in America!***


*A shorter version of the menu: kebobs and homemade grilled sausages, rack of lamb in the grill, Greek salad with fresh feta and local olives, white wine, grilled pita, French fries, and homemade tsiziki yogurt sauce.

**When eating with Greek people, always, always let them order for you. Best decision of the trip.

***Dora, I already have restaurants in mind. And Kimon, small batch local beers. Get ready.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Things We Are Learning

Post-Africa, it is maybe a really good thing that we're taking this trip. Why? Because awesome. But also because we're, uh, a little strange by American standards right now, and we should probably work some of that out before arriving in the U.S. of A.

Example: Every time Bridget says something potentially confusing to a waiter, hotelier, or person who might not speak English, she follows it with a click. In Benin, this would be a normal way to check for understanding. In Europe, it's just weird.

Thus, things we are learning on our trip:

1. You can't just click at people. Clicking means nothing in the west unless it's accompanied with a finger pistol gesture, and even that is strange.

2. On a related note, responding to questions in one of our standard grunts leads to blank stares and concern as to the status of our mental health.

3. No licking fingers, even to show that our appetizers were delicious.

4. Seventy eight degrees to the rest of the world is apparently not cold. Go figure.

5. No one wants to learn African. If you try to teach a group of new friends in a bar how to cheers in Gún, they will stare at you until you awkwardly yell "cheers!" and take a sip. Noted.

6. Rules actually apply to us now. We apparently can't just drive motorcycles without licenses or deliberately flout the no shoes rule in restaurants just because we're yovos. Boo.

7. We can stop apologizing to people every time we try to pay with a big bill. In non-West Africa countries, people don't hoard their coins. The same cannot be said for us, as collectively we could probably fill a treasure chest with our precious 20 franc and 5 euro pieces.

8. We can stop referring to dresses that hit two inches above the knee as our "slutty dresses". Besides the Amish, no one will be scandalized by our blindingly white kneecaps.

9. You can't just eat butter. Also, for some reason, waiters tend to have an averse reaction to you if every time you see a dairy product you break out in song and pre-rehearsed dance.  Bridget literally broke out in an impromptu mini-opera entitled "World of Butter! I'd love to live in you!" two breakfasts ago, and Vicky and I have been doing the Cheese and Butter Dance™ since we left Benin.
10. On the Internet, there is Google. Google is a thing that knows stuff. Instead of making up facts, maps and things we think we remember from this one book we read in third grade, we could probably just look it up on teh interwebs. Because Google is smarter than we are*.

*Someone should probably fact-check this on Google.

The Greek Isles

Google Santorini.

(I'm gonna give you a minute to let that sink in.)

K, so we spent half of the last week there, and the other half in Naxos, which is basically the same except less busy. I can't really thunk of what I want to say about the isles, because it seems like the pictures say it way more effectively than I ever could -- the clear turquoise water, black sand beaches, and white houses on steep cliffs overlooking the Aegean. We spent our days lounging on the beach and wandering into little beach shops,* eating fresh fish with tomato-and-cucumber salads and sampling different sorts of frozen Greek yogurt. It was heavenly, it was paradise. Our parents emailed to make us promise to come home.

*As we are going to be Real Grown-Ups now, we've decided to invest in important grown-up staples like classy handmade leather bags and sandals that won't fall apart in a month. And, like, scarves and makeup and this cool pair of volcanic earrings I found for $12. You know, investment pieces. Because that's what Grown-Ups do.

(Photos, despite the fact that my photography skills never seemed to actually capture it all, will be here in a day or two. I forgot to bring my camera to the internet cafe.)