Saturday, October 9, 2010

What the TEFL?!?!: Musings on Reverse Culture Shock

The other day I had a flashback of sitting in the classroom at TEFL Worldwide, face planted in my lesson plans, stressed and overwhelmed, waiting to use the two copy machines and for some advice from Terry. I was surrounded by all my TEFL peers, who came from so many places for different reasons, at different stages in their lives, with different histories and reasons for being in Prague enrolled in this course. There was something about that camaraderie that was unique. We all suffered through this challenging course, spent Friday nights getting wasted, Saturday nights doing homework, while simultaneously adjusting to a new country and language. We all freaked out before finally calling our one-to-one partner, took the exceedingly long tram journey back to Praha 9 at night, sat awkwardly in Galerie Fénix to get our daily fix of internet, ate potato balls at the beer garden behind TEFL/Hotel Pivovar, spent many nights on the hill that was Letna beer garden, overlooking Praha 1, and of course, were tricked by a pastry that seemed to be filled with chocolate, but was, obviously, actually filled with poppy seeds.

All I could think was, “Wow, I did that?” It’s crazy to think how different my life was during the one month of my TEFL course in Prague compared to now. There’s this weird thing that always happens to me when I’m back in America after an extended time living abroad. For some reason, whenever I’m back in the States, it’s hard to believe my life abroad was real. That everything really happened, and that that girl traveling Europe by train, working on farms abroad, teaching English to nerdy engineers at a Czech energy company, was me. I don’t know why this happens, and it certainly doesn’t work the other way around. When I’m living abroad, my American life and history definitely seems real…just further away and not as important. Perhaps it’s because when I’m abroad there’s usually at least a couple Americans around who can validate my past, even if it’s just a, “Yeah, I always love Taco Bell when I’m drunk too!” When I’m back in America, there are rarely many people who can validate my European existence. Maybe I’m just too busy doing exciting stuff when I’m abroad to think much of America. Or maybe I’ve just lived in America longer. Perhaps if I lived abroad for more than a year at a time, it would stop seeming so transient at some point. Who knows?

All I can say, is reverse culture shock is much more of a bitch than the good ol’ regular stuff. It has always been really hard for me to understand distance and endings. When I came back after a year of living in Brighton, England, I’d sit down and visualize the path the bus took from town to Uni, what all the bus stops looked like, remember what songs I was listening to as I passed them, and be so overwhelmed that I could know something so intricately and so detailed and not be THERE. How could I know exactly what the corner in the refrigerator that held my favorite wrap in the Sussex Uni shop looked like and not be able to GO there and get it?! It’s still a very hard concept for me to grasp.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my year, because there was absolutely no time for reflection during it. It was always one adventure right after another, lots of friends, lots of new friends, lots of alcohol, lots of emotions, and not much thinking. In some ways, it was very freeing to not have any responsibilities. My family didn't even know what country I was in for the majority of the year. Hell, even I didn't know where I would be a few days ahead, with the unique ability to hop on and off trains granted me by my rail card. I’ve always been something of an over-thinker and over-planner, so it was great to step so far outside my comfort zone and just go with the flow. I say that in a completely positive way. If I was asked what I would do differently, the only change I’d make is to remember to take a daily vitamin this time. Once my funds became limited, I basically lived off instant noodles and French fries. Paired with never getting enough sleep and my body was not happy. I am convinced my body is a reservoir for all of Europe’s Rhinovirus strands. Within me the future Super Cold is brewing, watch out. I’ve gotten sick more this year than any other year in my life.

When I left America last time, I was running away. I think almost every expat I met was. From a shitty relationship, from the unknown after graduation, from boring jobs and a predictable future. Though, I guess you don’t just up and move to a foreign country when everything in your own is perfectly to your liking. Of course all of us were leaving something unfavorable behind. Now that I’m back, I feel more like I am DECIDING to live abroad again. I am becoming bi-lingual, I am saving money, researching visas, e-mailing alums, and making connections. I’m not planning to move because I don’t want to live in America, I’m moving because I want to live in Europe (Germany).

I’m still working on the why. I like that I don’t need a car, that nobody uses dryers, that it’s not just the liberal hippie types that hate excess packaging and think it’s silly to waste things, that I can’t find all the shitty processed foods I eat over here and have to actually cook myself real meals. I like that the variety of Americans I meet, the ones that actually live abroad, are always DOers. They don’t just talk about shit, they make it happen, and tend to be more independent, confident and adventurous than the average people I meet at home. I like that the Europeans whose countries I’m sharing often have such different backgrounds from mine, if only because our countries had very different histories. It never ceased to amaze me how casually my students in the Czech Republic mentioned waiting in line for their food during communism, or what foods didn’t exist to them. Of course, it is something from their past that was routine and familiar, not much to think on for them. To an American who can really only imagine communism from the perspective of a history textbook, it is crazy to think how someone even a few years older than me could have such a completely different childhood. It’s weird to think of what it would be like if America was communist when I was growing up and I wasn’t allowed to leave to go on vacation to Canada, like my family often did. Or what it would be like to not have pineapples or bananas.

Things like this just make me realize how absolutely small my world is and how little I really know. It’s easy to feel smart when you’re surrounded by people who know the same things as you, who were required to take the same courses in high school, know the same collective national histories. There is definitely sometime about throwing myself into foreign situations and finding my way out that I’m addicted to. I want to learn and understand everything about the world…how could I just stay in one place?

I write this as another fall comes around, making me a bit nostalgic for all my TEFL and Prague friends, for cooking in my flat in Prague, then curling up on my couch and watching shitty American TV on the internet. For sitting in the beer gardens shivering, just to get as much time out of the not-quite cold yet weather, for dancing in Chateau Rogue while my friends have dance offs and kids on drugs break their glasses on the dance floor, for parties in the Bubenská flat, for the entire experience that was Cross Club, beers and movie nights at the Globe Café, for the high pitched sound the tram makes while accelerating, for the little lady at the Potravíny near my flat that always held up “Coriander!?” when I came in. Even more, for the walk home from Hlavní Nádraží, that always involved a stop in Mama Coffee, where my Czech ordering skills slowly improved, followed by a walk through the park and the vineyard to get to my flat.

While my life in Prague was not the perfect one for me, it was a good one. I’m happy at whatever Powers That Be for putting myself and such an amazing group of people together in one place for the time we had. The past year really did change my life. When I arrived in Prague that first day, I absolutely never imagined what lay ahead for me. While it will never be exactly the same, and that’s okay, I’m still very excited to go back for New Years to kick it with the kids holdin' down the fort, and even more excited at the prospect of living only one country away next year!

In the meantime, things here are not so bad. I’ve downsized to one job, which means I can actually have a life again, picked up a volunteer position teaching English for which I start training soon, and hopefully will soon acquire a free German tutor/conversation partner through Smith. I love my apartment, love my housemates, and while I still feel like I’m just waiting for time to pass until my next adventure, this break and peace from constant activity and new things was surely something I needed, if only to keep my body from acquiring yet more strands of the common cold. After this year I’ll be re-charged and ready for the next venture! In the meantime, y'all should come kick it with me in Northampton!

Monday, September 6, 2010

How I came from Prague to live in Northampton, MA.

If you read my blog, you know I've been back in America since May. What I don't think I've explained is why. I've been waiting until things were settled before telling. As both of my jobs and my class begin this week and I am sitting in my new apartment, I'd say we're good. So, here's a summarized version of the past year for all of you who are new here:

I graduated from Smith in 2009 and set off in late July of that year for a month long intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course at TEFL Worldwide in Prague. The course kicked my ass and I (mostly) loved every minute of it, except being stressed all the time and writing papers on Saturday nights, but it really did prepare me for teaching English. After graduating, I was unemployed and almost homeless for a bit before finding an awesome flat and securing two jobs in Prague. My main job at Excellent Skola said they would sign my work visa papers, but not help with the visa process at all. Let me just mention, that any visa process is pretty complicated and terrifying, but of course this one was entirely in Czech.

After applying to 200+ jobs and attending some 15+ teaching interviews, this was as good as it was going to get so I took it. Lots of people want to teach English in Prague, so there is a lot of competition. They gave me the phone number of a lawyer I could pay to do my visa and he stopped returning my calls, so I found my own. My landlord Jiři liked to take frequent month long vacations to Miami, and as I needed a notarized and signed document and lease that guaranteed me a place to stay for a year, this significantly slowed the already time-limited process. At the end, the lawyer I hired to help was shitty and didn't get my paperwork done in time, nor did she bother telling me she was running behind after an entire month, so the day before my tourist visa was to expire, I found out I wasn't getting my work visa.

This was somewhat okay, because by November, I was stressed all the time. I liked my other job at TeaTime Skola, but my main job exploited me as much as they could. Though I signed a contract agreeing to this exploitation because I was desperate, it got to me over time. There are only so many times I can watch my boss take 30% out of my paycheck for taxes that weren't going to the government (I wasn't on the books) and healthcare I wasn't getting before wanting to cutabitch. Add all the shit they yelled at me for constantly that wasn't my fault, like asking my boss where my class was held because they didn't include it in their e-mail, and I was done with this company. When I had a crying mental breakdown because of a scheduling conflict, I realized I could do better. So, I put in my months notice and my last day was something around December 15th. While I loved Prague, there were some things missing in it for me. I was basically drunk the entire 6ish months I was there and while I do love getting completely schwasted and going to absolutely mind-shattering clubs (see: Cross Club) while dancing to experimental techno music and buying weed in stores behind the bar, I like having at least an OPTION of doing other things. I did not find this option. I'm sure my ideal community was there somewhere, but at that point in my life I wasn't willing to sit at a job I hated to find it.

Plus, my goal was to travel. I had so many friends living all over Europe and no time off to do so as my jobs were barely covering my rent. I figured if I left I wouldn't have to pay rent to begin with and so through some questionable means, I "extended" my tourist visa. I traveled to Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Ireland and England. I worked on farms in exchange for food and a place to sleep through HelpX, stayed with friends, and couchsurfed (via You can read about all of those adventures in this blog, but needless to say, even though I ran out of money at the end, got a horrible stomach virus while sleeping in a tipi with no indoor bathroom and came home bedridden with mono for a month, this past year was easily the best year of my life. I met so many amazing people with a similar sense of adventure. People who actually do things instead of talking about them. During my travels, I heard some amazing life stories and bumped into some people who had been traveling as long as 6 years! I made friends on planes, trains, bars, you name it. I felt as if I had really found my "people". It also made clear several things:

1) I want to live in Europe. I am still figuring out how to explain this decision well. There are many levels to this desire that I can explain if you ask, but what it comes down to is this: When I am in America, I find that I spend my time counting down to other days, hoping time flies quickly to the next vacation, adventure, etc. During the two years of my life I lived in Europe, I woke up every day excited about my life and felt generally more balanced between work/leisure.

2) To achieve #1 without being a slave to large language schools my entire life, I need to be at least bilingual. Thus, I have been learning German. While I am not yet fluent, I have been learning pretty rapidly. My education started in January while I was traveling and working on a farm in Germany, but I did not actually begin studying until March. Starting in March, I got hold of a German text/workbook and put time aside every day to do part of a chapter. I can now say, I am pretty much done with the book. Starting in June, I found a private German tutor whom I met with twice a week for most of the summer. She was a huge help and while our first lesson began with me not even understanding how to tell time, our last lesson was conducted almost entirely in German. Through Couchsurfing, I also found a German conversation partner, whom I met with a couple times and became friends with. I am also auditing intermediate German at Smith this year, but I'll get to that later.

This brings us to the now. I decided to apply for a Fulbright grant that will provide me with a job, visa, health insurance, and a travel stipend to teach English in a German school should I win. While I was originally planning to go back to Germany in August, I realized toughing it out in America for the year was worth it for this opportunity. Luckily, Smith College, my alma mater, agreed to let me apply through them even though I graduated, which increases my chances of succeeding and provides much-needed structure and support.

Once I decided to stay in America for the year, I made a choice to move back to Northampton, MA, where I attended university. It's a great little town where I still have some friends, rent is not too expensive, there are lots of lesbians, and endless amounts of coffee and vegan food. I can also audit classes at Smith for $50, so that helps my German cause. Not too shabby. After 2 trips to Northampton over the summer, I found a great apartment right near my favorite coffee place and one of my favorite bars for a very good price. I live walking distance to town, have a big kitchen, two porches, a closet in my bedroom and a backyard. Let me tell you, this was not easy to find. Of the 15 or so places I looked at, most of them were tiny and disgusting or with older women or men trying to replace their children. In one place I wasn't ever allowed to have people over for more than 15 or so minutes. In another, the roommates wanted absolute quiet at all times. Or there were the people that were too hippie for me, and I generally think of myself as a pretty progressive person, so that's saying something. It's all about balance.

Getting a job was much easier and I secured several interviews before I even moved up here. I now work at a small cafe in Haydenville and at Trader Joes. As I have a class 3 mornings a week, it made a 9-5 pretty impossible. I will probably have endless coffee in my life and a discount on awesome food so really things are pretty great. Now it's all about working the kinks out of my schedule as I am currently working 7+ days in a row without a day off starting tomorrow. After not having a full-time job for over a year, this is going to be interesting. Though, I think the variety will help.

My Fulbright application is due to Smith in late September. I've been working on it all summer and I have to say, I don't know how people do this while still in school. It has all been a LOT of work, but so far I've learned a lot about myself and what I want in the process. I've also learned how to write for a grant, which is an entirely different kind of writing from anything I've done previously. Before the end of this month, I have to complete my German language evaluation as part of the process. This is the part I've been shitting myself over. Almost all applicants have studied German in university for at least two years while I only began 6 months ago. I must say, I have a lot more motivation than I had while I was in school, if only because I don't HAVE to do it. And damn, have I studied hard. I know more German than I ever knew of French after 8 years of studying it. I am still terrified though because I'm not sure I've managed to cram 2 years of university-level German into my brain in 6 months. Wish me luck!

That's the general gist of it all. Basically, I am here this year to learn German, apply for the Fulbright grant and refill my bank account. My feelings about being back are mixed, but after my crazy year, it is nice knowing I'll be in the same place for 12 months. In August/September of 2011, I am packing my bags and heading back abroad whether I win the Fulbright or not. Until then, I'm looking forward to another New England fall.

I will definitely have more updates in here during the year, but I figured this post was very overdue.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Philadelphia, PA and Washington DC!

This is a bit delayed. My B. After leaving my job at SIG, I decided to go on an adventure to DC to see Katie with my friend Julia and then go play in Philly with my other Kt after that. Yes, I collect Katies. Also, their initials are both KG. Lolz. Myself and Julia's driving adventures actually sucked us into a parallel universe, as you can see here. Tunneeeeeel! Also, I need to make a note that I saw Julia three different times this year, in three different countries (Czech Republic, Ireland and America). I love my life.

In Bethesda, Maryland, which is right near DC as Katie actually lives in Maryland. Dear Smithies, does this look familiar? (Hint: old Pub Safety arch). Next to an awesome gelato place that Katie took us to that had tomatillo flavored gelato. I just got coconut and some type of plum flavor, though.

Yaaaaay gelato! Katie and Julia...reunited!

Please note that the building in the background has a giant shark swimming through it. DC IS CRAZY AND FILLED WITH SHARKS AND REALLY CLEAN METROS WITH CARPET!

DC has something for everyone. For me, vegan noms....for Julia, her own empanada store.

During our trip to the movies to see Inception in DC (for like 5 billion $$$'s), Julia went on a little food buying spree. We found out the next day that some of them also work as erasers. Sort of useful? Not really, but entertaining for about 3 minutes.

ZOMGS transition to Philly! I heard about this bar called Tattooed Mom from my friend Lindsay, so we made the journey to South Street to check it out. This place was awesome, had tater tots, vegan noms, and free dum dum lollipops on every table! And cheap PBR tall boys! And toys! Drunk people love toys! Anyway, people left us lots of messages in the Ladies'. "Fucked pooped and did coke here!". Good to know?

"I survived this bathroom!" Me too, several times. ;-)

Tattooed Moms also had bumper cars! Drunk people also love bumper cars that function as tables. Basically, this place is my drunk self's version of paradise. And I touched Kt's boob.

Kt being a creeper next to this cool building/path/whatever thing. It has all sorts of shit in it including bike wheels, coffee mugs, wine bottles and pretty shiny things! Yay Philly!

More crazy shit cemented into a random building! I love it! I want to live in there.

We found the Gayborhood, but some crazy dude tried to ruin my picture by shoving his hand in front of my camera. Luckily, I captured the rainbow! Whaddabitch.

We went to this awesome awesome awesome huge market place in Philly that had all sorts of fruits, veggies, food stands, wine, candy, etc. And I saw sugar cane for the first time! And ordered a vegan Caesar Salad wrap that took FOREVER to be ready.

Those are my sort of cracked out random adventures! Posts on Northampton and Mystic, CT...eventually. I am in the process of finding a new place to live, writing/editing my Fulbright essays and learning to speak horrible (but hopefully sort of endearing?) German. More on that once I'm actually settled. Well, as settled as I ever get.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Cheated on You, Smith College: SIG Bryn Mawr 2010

Hey hos! Long time, no update. Oops. Here ya go.

I have possibly the best summer job in the world. Not only do I work in that castle above (as well as other castles), I have the coolest co-workers and even get paid to go to the beach (albeit with 80 children). I work at the Summer Institute for the Gifted on the Bryn Mawr College campus in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, which is about 20 minutes from Philadelphia by train. My job title is "Housemaster" and I am, indeed, the "Master" of a "House" for 3 weeks. Well, girls' dormitory. Anyway. I supervise something like 65 girls from 8-16 years old, Residential Assistants and Counselors, working from 7:30am until 11pm and this was my second year running. It is absolutely crazy and this year was 100 times more stressful than last, but I love it. Basically, I deal with homesick kids, kids that don't listen to their counselors, lead off-campus trips and work in the office (delivering kids to and from classes, calling every parent ever, typing evaluations into Excel, etc.). I also get paid to watch things like this:

Matt and Rasheed helping out Hilby the German Juggle Boy

Back in the dormitory, my role is making sure the chillins' don't go completely batshit insane. This year throwing parties in the middle of the day during Rec Hour and such was The Cool Thing. They even sometimes made these cute little invitations for their counselor group.

Matt's understanding of "being in jail" during Capture the Flag

Off-campus trips meant lots of sleeping on buses on the weekends. We have to catch up on our sleep somewhere! Sorry Jon!

All of my awesome coworkers!

By far the most popular act in the Staff Talent Show this year!

As my job is a residential position and the kids are in class during the day, I spend my days in the office. Thus, I saw a lot of the boys' Housemaster, Jared and the Administrative Assistant, Julia. On one of our 2 days off (in 3 weeks, yes) we caught up on the all-important Grown Up Time.

Favorites! We went on an adventure outside of Hope's Cookies.

Jared and I riding cows. We look equally special.

And I'll leave you with this, to sum up what supervising 70+ kids from some 8 countries and 16 US States leads one to do...

Okay, okay, it was already smashed before it made it to my forehead. Is this an American enough picture for you, oh non-American friends? I tried.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Adventures in NYC

Last weekend I packed a backpack and headed off to NYC to play. Usually I drive to Brooklyn, but because I was meeting a friend near Grand Central and almost killed myself and everyone on the road last time I drove, I decided to take the train in.

The LIRR is an experience, to say the least. If you ever take the 2am train, which I did not this time thank goodness, it is full of drunk messes heading back to the suburbs. One time I was riding home a girl (woman?) peed herself because she was so drunk, making a nice yellow puddle on the train floor that slowly headed in my direction. It takes me 2 hours to take the train from Port Jefferson to Penn Station, though driving the same distance takes an hour and a half. As I've made a pact never to drive in NYC proper, this train ride is not so bad. I get a lot of reading done, homework, whatever. The most frustrating part is that the train goes so slow until I get to Huntington and change that a person on a bike could probably overtake it. I'm still not sure why that is, after 20+ years of riding this train. I'm going to assume it has to do with the fact that the train crosses so many roads that it's not allowed to speed up less it hits someone.

After arriving in Penn Station, I was greeted by the familiar mob of people running rapidly towards me. This would be overwhelming if I wasn't used to it: Penn Station is rather small for the number of people filtering through it each day and when that track number goes up on the timetable, they are OFF. Never mind that the train will sit there for 15 minutes before leaving, bitches want a good seat. New Yorkers like running, why else do you think they wear those Nike's with their business suits?

A really bad picture of outside Grand Central Station. It was really weird carrying a camera around when I'm not a tourist. Shall I say, a bit embarrassing? Whatever, I'm documenting!

The first thing I did in NYC, of course, was grab some Starbucks to caffeinate myself and then made the 20 minute walk to Grand Central Station. Starbucks in NYC is like McDonalds in the suburbs. It is not uncustomary to find two Starbucks exactly opposite each other on the same street. Clearly, it is too much work to beat it to the crosswalk to get your fix. before you judge me for not supporting my local coffee shop, hear this: On Long Island, where I live, there are no independent coffee shops. There are no independent anythings, except Italian restaurants. So, as I have loyally refilled my Rewards card to get free soymilk, ordering from Starbucks is virtually free. Well, free in that I have already paid for the drink by putting money on my card, so the lack of money exchange made it feel free. This is why I should never get a credit card, friends.

I met up with my friend Cobby from university, whom I met before I even arrived at Smith College 5 years ago. I hadn't seen her since my junior year, when we met up during my breakup-induced alcoholism. Needless to say, there was a lot of catching up to do. After a stint at a fancy, expensive place filled with business people, Cobby brought us over to a much less classy establishment (and better) establishment called Tequilaville, where we proceeded to get crunk on margaritas and munch on chips. We then took our respective commutes home, hers on the Metro North and mine on the subway to Brian's in Brooklyn. I made the mistake of buying beer in Brooklyn just because it had piggies on it and tried to convince Brian to go to a queer party in Williamsburg. It tasted like ass. And I failed.

The blurriness of this picture of Cobby and me is proportional to the amount of margarita in my body. American-sized portions for the win in this case!

Inside of Grand Central Station. I hope you've all seen this flashmob video that took place in GC station.

When my drunk ass got to Brian's, he fed us pickles! One benefit of NY pickles is that they're sour, not sweet like all the gross pickles I ate in Europe. I remember Colleen and I trying to decipher pickle jars for 15 minutes in Tesco in the CZ in hopes of finding sour ones. Fail.

Nick was really excited about his pickle.

Saturday, Brian, his friend Nick and I headed to their local coffee shop, Outpost, to which I already have a half-full frequent buyers card. Next it was off to Manhattan proper to go kayaking in the Hudson river for free! This was quite the adventure as it was relatively wavy for the little kayak (and I had only ever been canoeing before), but super fun! The downside is that I had to walk around Manhattan looking like I'd peed myself for several hours afterwards. Thus, not only was I walking around being judged by the hipsters in my baggy t-shirt and gym shorts, I was walking around with a wet ass. I did tempt fate though and brought my camera on ship to record our voyage as such:

Nick, braving the Hudson.

Brian and me. Shutup, the waves may not look big, but every time a boat went past we were attacked by its wake! Also, I am aware that sitting cross-legged is not proper Kayaking technique. Shh.

In an effort to dry my ass, I sat on the wooden bench hoping it would soak up remnants of the Hudson. I made my mark!

Nick pointing out that his ass mark has a penis.

Saturday night Dana was having a belated housewarming party, DJ'd by her awesome Australian friend Nat who she met in Australia, but has since moved to NYC. So we headed up and across to Harlem to check it out. The weird part, is that I'm pretty sure I drunkenly attended another party in NYC last summer in the exact same building that she lives in as the sense of deja vu I got while walking in was astounding. Strange. I spent the night hanging out, trying to figure out how to be a DJ and saving the lesbians (myself included) from Brian, who prefers boys but tends to turn to lesbians when drunk. I've never quite figured this out, but it proved an endless source of entertainment. By the end of the night I had had my share of Bucket, a mystery drink of Dana's that tastes like magic, but will have you shwasted and lives in a giant, you guessed it, Bucket. Thus, it was off to Brooklyn again to sleep!

Sarah and Dana

DJ Nat

On the way home, someone clearly got murdered against the subway wall at 145th Street.

Brian wasn't a fan of me taking awkward pictures late at night in the subway.

Sunday I was supposed to go to a German language meet-up in Alphabet City through couchsurfing, but it ended up not working out so I just got more coffee with Brian and helped him pot his plants. There was a tornado warning in effect all day, of all things, so I stalled a bit as my Mom frantically sent me text messages about my impending doom, before heading off to the train again in what turned out to be only a slight wind storm. However exciting a tornado would be, I'll take a wind storm over that every day. Have y'all seen Twister? That shit's fucked up.

Lolz. I found Germany.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Northampton, Massachusetts: Welcome to Lesbianville

That's right, folks. I'm back in America and I brought some crazy European germs with me! At least I got three seats to myself to lay down and sleep on the plane. I've been sick for three weeks and after visiting two doctors three times and getting sent for two rounds of blood tests, they're thinking it's mono. When I get the results from the second round of tests I'll know for sure. I've broken out in a rash all over my body, blew some mystery solid material out of my nose yesterday that at first I was convinced was actually a part of my lung, have something seriously fucked up going on in the back of my throat that looks like leprosy and am on my second round of steroids. Needless to say, it's been fun and I've never slept so long or been so sick in my life!

You didn't think I'd be done blogging just because I'm back in America, right? This might just be a year for me to recover, replenish my very empty bank account and rapidly learn German (more on this later), but I'd probably die without adventures. First up: Northampton, Massachusetts!

Let me tell you a few fun facts about Northampton. It has the largest number of lesbian households per capita in the entire nation ( My first year there, Coldstone Creamery, the major ice cream chain, went out of business to the local ice cream place called Herrell's. All of the chain stores are hidden on one road away from the center of town. There is an acapella group in town called the Raging Grannies and they are grannies that sing about peace, justice, and how much they hate George Bush. Northampton is the first place I've ever been proud to live. You cannot throw a stone here without hitting a trendy coffee shop. Or a lesbian. Of course NoHo has its problems, but I like it here.

It's in the Pioneer Valley and is home to the one and only Smith College, my alma mater. Smith is a women's college of less than 3,000 undergraduates. They call it a mini Ivy League and boy, did it kick my ass for that title. There was one time during finals that I burst into tears in the dining hall because a piece of broccoli fell off my plate and that, my friends, was the last straw left of my sanity. Also in the area are four other universities: Mount Holyoke, which is also a women's college; Hampshire, the hippie one that doesn't have grades; Amherst, the preppy one and last but not least; UMass, the much bigger state school. Students at any of these schools can take classes at any of the others. Smith is the Gay One.

A picture of part of Main Street in Northampton that I stole from the internet. The best game to play while walking around NoHo is called "Lesbian or 14 year old boy?" I mean this in the best possible way, I love me some lesbians.

During my 3 years at Smith College (I went abroad), I lived in Tyler House on Green Street, which was an old estate from the 1800s that Smith bought from super rich people. The areas of campus are Green Street, where the quiet nerdy kids allegedly live (except we know how to do it in Tyler), the Quad, where the straight girls and parties are and Upper and Lower Elm, where the hipsters are alleged to live. We don't do "dorms" and instead have 36 smaller houses. Most people stay in their house their entire time at Smith if they like it and we elect and govern ourselves leading to a general sense of house community (and house booty). Tyler was pretty bangin' because we had a dining hall and were right near the gym and academic buildings, so I could be really, really lazy. At one point someone stole a key to the dining hall and during finals we would break into the kitchen and make ourselves really big sandwiches and sodas.

Tyler House

We have Paradise Pond (really part of the Mill River that was dammed off) on campus and our own waterfall! During Spring and Fall you can canoe and kayak on the pond for free if you're a student, alum or friend!

At Smith, we are a very self-selecting bunch. Rather than throw keg parties and go clubbing all the time we like to do things like this:

Pin the Body Part on the Androgynous Being and,

Make really big blanket forts that take up the entire living room and have a TV in them! Say hello to Charlotte.

Fall is the best season in New England, the area of the States that Massachusetts is part of. Here is a walking bridge on campus leading to the Athletic Fields. Smith campus is pretty.

Now that you've had a primer on Northampton and are getting a feel for Smith College, I'll start telling you about my adventure. Though I was sick and ailing, my doctor prescribed me steroids so I headed up to for Senior Week (re: giant week of partying and adventures before graduation where seniors are allowed to stay on campus after finals) and Commencement (graduation). I booked my flight back to America specifically for this, only giving myself enough days to recover from jetlag, so I was pretty pissed when I got sick, but I went anyway!

The first thing I did honestly was go to the Co-Op because one Miranda M. was too busy being an outdoors kid, kayaking in Greenfield, MA to let me in. It's okay though, because I got some vegan chicken and beef boullions, dried apricots and 2 free sample boxes of iced tea! The first thing I did when she got back and let me into her room was a) say hi and b) order Taipei & Tokyo. At Smith, I ordered so much sushi delivery from them they knew who I was. Oops.

Before an adventure to Brattleboro, Vermont, Miranda discovered that one of the big trees outside Tyler House had fallen down in a storm. We also tend to hug trees at Smith. But really, this thing was massive, good it didn't fall on somebody's car.

This is in Brattleboro, Vermont, which is about a 40 minute drive away. We occasionally go there to checkout the Twilight Tea Lounge, an awesome tea place that has over 100 types of tea and baked goodies. It's still awesome, but not quite as great since they moved locations this year. This river and that mountain are pretty much in the center of town. Brattleboro is basically a more rugged version of Northampton.

In Northampton there is a store called Acme. It sells things that wouldn't sell at other stores. Things like these baby doll body parts that have penises. We like to walk though this store in Thornes for amusement. And to buy cheap things.

On one such trip to Acme, Amy bought these animal noses. So we all put them on and walked through town back to campus. Amy was a condor.

You wish you were this cool. Me, Alli and Amy. Or should I say, Dolphin, Dinosaur and Condor.

Alli (left) and Celine. Do you sense a theme with the noses? Because there is no work to do during Senior Week and Smithies don't know what to do without work, we can be pretty creative with our adventures. On one occasion Alli and I made a mad rush to Target before it closed. Without further plans, we sauntered across to Buffalo Wild Wings. Let me set the scene here. Buffalo Wild Wings is near UMass, so it was filled with frat boys watching sports and their straight girlfriends. Some of us may be straight, but we don't look it and are lost in frat culture. Don't get me wrong though, Smithies can play a mean game of Beer Pong. We stuck out like a sore thumb and it was awesome.

Katie, Amy and Celine met up with us. They thought we'd get drunk. As two of us were underage and I was sick, we had another idea. Alli and I had realized that the establishment had unlimited soda refills, so instead we had a contest to see who could drink the most sodas. I said I would drink 15, I mean, you just pee it out right? I don't drink soda much. This ended up being far more entertaining than being drunk, as we just chugged soda, peed all the time and then giggled for hours from our sugar highs. As a table, we only drank 11 sodas. I drank 2.5. Shut up, things are bigger in America. Those cups were as big as my face. Alli won. In the bathroom I overheard such conversations as "Megan thinks Joe likes her and it's like, totally hilarious because he, like, thinks she's disgusting!".

I also saw this awesome advertisement that said "Mo-He-Toe: Congrats. You're now bilingual". Good, I'm happy it was that easy.

Katie! Reunited! This lady puts the fab in fabulous. We talked about poop and ate Taco Bell and it was pretty much amazing. There was also a trip to Montague Book Mill in there somewhere. Books you don't need in a place you can't find.

Christine (center) gave about 15 massages one night. This is Miranda's (left) look of pain. Christine doesn't mess with her massages. Anna's (right) massage is not quite as painful.

On a super exciting note, the lovely Gina, my TEFL Worldwide comrade whom I met in Prague, lives 45 minutes away in Connecticut and drove out to visit me. We went to Cafe Evolution, a wonderful all-vegan cafe in nearby Florence, MA for lunch and took an adventure through Smith's Plant House, which is massive and boasts such things as banana trees, a rubber tree, tea plant, coffee tree, cacao tree, venus fly traps and tons of orchids. This is us and and a pretty special plant with little squishy balls on it.

This is me petting a really hairy cactus in the Lyman Plant House on campus.

And I'll leave you with this, the chapel on Smith campus is called the Helen Hills Hills Chapel. Why? Because she married her cousin (Hills HILLS). Someone decided the "Chapel" of Helen "Hills Hills" was tired of being the third wheel, so they added a little somethin', renaming it "Helen Hills Hills Chapel Chapel". Nice one.

I ended up getting too sick to stay for Commencement, which killed me because Rachel Maddow was giving the Commencement address, which you all should WATCH HERE! I think my favorite line is:

...Al Capone rose from humble beginnings in Brooklyn to build a huge crime empire that essentially owned Chicago during Prohibition -- a personal triumph.

All these people dream their dreams and work hard and achieve their dreams.

Some dreams are bad dreams...

You should all watch that video up there though. Not only is Rachel Maddow a flaming hot homo, she's hella smart.

Image of Rachel Maddow (a la The Rachel Maddow Show), a political commentator who rose to national prominence after launching her career on local radio, stolen from Google Images.

I could write about Smith and Northampton forever (and farm lesbians), but you get the idea. I just might though, as I plan to move back to Northampton in August for the year since I cannot survive more than a month or so on Long Island. I'll hopefully be auditing intermediate German at Smith (once I get permission from the instructor), working to save up money and bein' a big gay before heading back to Europe (hopefully on a Fulbright grant this time)! I'll probably write more on this and my constantly changing plans in another post.