Saturday, November 5, 2011

Is I Where?

In A Nutshell:
The purpose of this post is simple, to knock this blog out of its seven-month coma, to explain my past absence, to establish the present, and chart the future. Explanation of absence: Tanzania, Kenya, Turkey, France, Germany, France, South Korea, France, Germany. As for the present: I’m one month into an MA program in Modern Global History at Jacob’s University in Bremen, Germany. As for the future, I plan to post something (SOMETHING, I say) here once a week. That’s the nuts and bolts! If you’re honestly interested in all the confused personal details (especially about the last seven months) then read on!

I'm Back!
     A few months ago a student in Korea asked me “Please to tell, is I where?” I immediately recognized that this is exactly the question I’ve been trying to ask myself for months, but hadn’t been able to find the words. I’m still trying to find the answer.
Since my last post:
2 Foot Injuries.
5 homes established and abandoned in 4 countries.
5 times reunited and separated from Celine.
7 different planes.
29 different beds.
250+ official/bureaucratic emails.
28,000 miles (more than the circumference of the equator).
     In what seems like the blink of an eye I’ve gone from sitting crippled and alone in vast African wildernesses, to settling into luxury a Korean bullet-train, picnicking under the Eiffel Tower, eating squirming tentacles under faux-bamboo, days and days of jet-lag, languages like a soup in my head, intimate candle-lit dinner with the woman I love. I’d be a fool to try to summarize it… so here it goes.

1.  Out Of Africa:
    The last thing I had to do in Africa was my Pilgrimage to Ol-Doinyo Lengai, The Mountain of God. Everything was perfect, terrifying, and thrilling, except for my choice of shoes. Two days into the trek, miles from even the smallest drivable-track, I had baseball-sized blisters and was barely able to stand. I had to be rescued by a friend from the city, and I was eventually driven out crippled, dehydrated, helplessly enchanted with the wildness I’d walked into with my own two feet, and completely humiliated that my feet got me just far enough to leave me stranded.     
     By the time I could walk again it was time to fly out and close my time in Africa… and in some ways to close the time of world-travel I’d planned out five years previously. About Africa, a couple months later I wrote my academic mentor Jaime O’Neill this:
“The most I can say about Africa is that it's a REAL place, with all the power and thrill and  horror that entails. For the first time in all my travels I stepped onto completely unrestricted places, places where I could do anything that I had the strength to do, and anything could be done to me if I didn't have the strength to stop it. If nothing else, there's a forceful blow of truth in places like that, and you realize how much is artificial... and how grateful one can be for some artifice! Even in the worst moments I loved my time there. I think the only thing I really require out of life is to FEEL alive, and Africa is the kind of place where you cannot escape the bracing grip of life, until you're dead. And I mean that in the completely non-morbid pragmatic way of the Africans themselves.”
     I miss it, in many ways, and The Mountain of God still lies in the distant dark behind my eyes.

2. Reunion
     From Nairobi I flew to Istanbul to meet Celine, after seven months apart. It was a powerful moment, but the strangest this was how normal it felt. Even in that exotic city straddling Asia and Europe and separate from both, as soon as she was by my side, I felt at home, at peace. Celine completes me in a way I didn’t know was possible, and every time we part I feel like she’s taken a bigger and bigger piece of me away with her.     
     After Istanbul we flew to France, where we got to stay together for two months (the longest time we’ve been in the same country during our 15 month relationship), and I met her family, food, and culture. During this time I spent 5-8 hours a day hunting for and applying to summer jobs in Korea, America, UK, Germany, Thailand, and Japan, sorting through nearly 300 English-taught MA programs in Germany, and gathering in the scraps of paper that prove my life from all corners of the world. I rarely went a day without communicating with three continents, but I rarely went outside. Other than that, it was all about getting to know Celine. During this time I wrote my Grandma: 
      “Every day I'm stunned anew by some new evidence of how well we fit. Of course I knew about all the big things before we got together, and all the essential things checked out perfectly... I never counted on her pacing when she talks on the phone, or blowing her nose very loudly, or disliking deep water, or being fascinated by swords, or being messy... LIKE ME! :-) She's so easy to be with, so laid-back and rational about what is and isn't a big deal, so ready to talk about anything.”
     In April my parent arrived in France for a visit, and we spent a whirl-wind three weeks in Paris and all over “Celine’s France,” covering the main sites in her current state Alsace and her home-state Lorraine. Then it was time for my whirl-wind tour of German Universities, hitchhiking and couchsurfing through 9 cities in two weeks. I met amazing strangers and wonderful old friends, and I got excited about studying in Germany.
I returned to Celine just in time to catch a flight to South Korea, where I’d landed a job that fit my needs perfectly…

3. Asia Redux: South Korea
     I’m going to burn for this (Koreans nurture an intense dislike of the Japanese), but the conclusion that stuck in my head is “South Korea is exactly like Japan… only less so.” It’s smaller, less intense, less foreign, less mono-lingual (easier to find an English speaker in Korea any day), less socially-exclusive, less expensive. I greatly enjoyed my time there, for one simple reason: the Korean people. My students all warmly welcomed me as a friend almost from day-one, and I’ve never spent such a short time in a place and been so sad to leave.
     Besides the visit of two close Czech friends and Celine during my final month (I think I used every word I know (doesn’t take long) in Czech, French, Japanese, and Korean in a week!), I traveled very little, explored very little, studied very little. This was the closed I’ve ever come to a “working holiday,” and I needed the down-time. The inactivity (along with surviving on spaghetti and sandwiches) allowed me to save nearly $3000 in a summer, which was essential for the next stage of the plan.

4. À Nouveau en France
   I flew back to spend another session of jet-lag and double reverse-culture shock (white people everywhere!!! Speaking French!!!!!) with Celine in her new home near Mulhouse. During this time I again spent hours daily on the computer, this time looking for a flat in Bremen. Between her work and mine we discovered a mutual dormant love of retro computer games, a shared talent for breaking glass objects, and shocking signs that she might succeed in teaching me to cook! All too soon it was again time to put a national boundary between us.

5. Hallo Deutschland!
    I didn’t mention that while in Korea the acceptance letters came in, and with much hemming and hawing I chose Modern Global History at Jacobs University for a variety reasons. I’ve now been in Bremen for exactly a month, and already immersed in another life. I’m comfortable and engaged here, not to mention over-my-head busy, and I rarely have time to reflect back or look very far ahead. When I do look back, it’s strangely unsettling to try decide where I’m actually coming from, and when I look forward it makes me as panicky as excited. The Challenge is not over, not by a long shot.
     For a long time I’ve been aware that life is about priorities, and somehow that’s always gotten me through. But I’ve known for many months now that I would have to face too many Number One Priorities during this chapter of life:

-Priority Number One: School. It is a master’s program, and it is serious. The program could be more intense, but I’ve been out of school for years and the readings and presentations already keep me in the library more than out of it. If I don’t make this my Number One Priority I’ll fall behind immediately.
-Priority Number One: Learn French. Celine speaks perfect English, but I’m never going to feel fully comfortable about our life together until I can actually speak with her parents and not feel like a baby when I’m in her country. I’m taking a French class and trying
(often failing) to spend an hour a day on it. If I don’t make this my Top Priority I’ll fail in the most important element of my future.
-Priority Number One: Part-Time Job. If I don’t find a job soon then all these other plans might not matter. Savings from Korea got me here and give me a buffer for a few months, but I always knew this was something of a leap of faith. I counted on getting a job on campus but didn’t realize that my program starts a month later than all other students at Jacobs… Not speaking a word of German makes other opportunities frighteningly limited. I’m applying to language schools and international bars. No luck so far and this is Priority Numero Uno.
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Study German. I can survive without speaking German here, but I hate the thought of spending two years here and not learning a good bit of the language. I can’t make myself give up entirely (nor find time to really start).
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Writing. The only career goal I really get excited about is writing. And however much it’s obvious to you that 6 months without practice leaves its mark, you can be sure it’s more obvious to me. I’m determined to post something here every week.
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Website. More and more people (many of them friends of friends) have asked me for advice about living abroad. I realized that the main ways most young Americas do it is by studying abroad, teaching English, being a missionary, volunteering, or long-term travel. I’ve done all of those in several countries. In fact, living abroad is the only thing I feel legitimately knowledgeable about. I’ve gotten the idea to create a website called “How To Go Abroad.” It would take a great deal of work, but it could be awesome. When? I’ve no idea.
-A Close-Second Priority (aka: Never Going To Happen): Exercise. I haven’t exercised for months, and I feel myself getting weaker. Must… move…. my….lazy…..
-A Close-Third Priority (aka shouldn’t give it time but will anyway): Socialization. My classmates and flat-mates are awesome people and I want to spent time with them. And let’s face it, I need a social life.

     There’s not enough time in the day to do half of this, even if I was absolutely efficient, which I’m not. The problem is deciding what to give up when all of it is either essential, or extremely important. Something tells me the next two years in Bremen will fly by.

6. La Vie Internationale, Mezinárodního života, Des Internationalen Lebens, 국제 생활,  Uluslararası Yaşam, 国際的な生活, Maisha Ya Kimataifa....

     It’s never far from my mind that I’m living a life that is far beyond my own wildest dreams, with all the awe and struggle that comes with it. On one hand, everything has gone off without a hitch. Months of research and work produced a workable compromise between reality and the ideal, and then hammered out the details. I did spend the summer working in South Korea, I was accepted to MA programs in German. It has all worked out exactly as I wanted. So why does that make me nervous?...

     On the other hand, I often feel that things have spun completely out of control, and I seriously wonder how long I can keep my grip. In the last five years I’ve lived in eight countries, and I’ve gone from spending a full year there (USA, CZ, Japan), to six months in the next three (South East Asia, India, Tanzania), to three months at a time (France, South Korea). My mind has started doing funny things to me, taking strange things for granted (often wrongly), and getting stuck on things that should be normal. “Listen to that chanting loud-speaker…Is it time for Muslim evening prayer already?”… “No, Caleb, you’re in Korea, and that’s the loud-speaker on the vegetable delivery cart.” “Not again! Those kids are giggling at me just because I’m a foreigner.” “No, wait, you’re in Germany and everyone is white here. They don’t know you’re a foreigner.” “Did I just start speaking Japanese to the Korean shop-owner, Germany to the father of my French girlfriend, and Czech to my Serbian classmate?” “Yes, yes you did.” At this point I’ve stopped wondering whether I’m experiencing jet lag, culture shock, reverse culture shock, inverted culture fatigue, or maybe just fatigue… they’re all crushed up against each other and lying in a snarled heap, as are the mountains of paperwork I’ve had to do for each step.
     But this is a confusion that has been slowly bubbling up for many months, and the need for a bit more stability has led me on a topsy-turvy ride to the here and now: looking forward to two years in the same place, happy to be on the same continent as my girlfriend. It’s still a foreign country, and I’m still 100s of miles from the person I want to be with, but the Merry-Go-Round comes to a stop very very slowly, and I’ll take it with gratitude, since I was getting pretty dizzy. As I slowly make my way around the plastic Unicorns and Zebras and carefully step off this ride, will I finally stumble out of the Circus, or be sick on my shoes, or get pushed onto a real roller-coaster? Your guess is as good as mine.


  1. Caleb, that is just awesome post. I read it without breathing. I really think that you're life is awesome and you grab every opportunity to make your life more interesting and better. I wish I could do that too. Good luck with everything.
    And is still true you've never been to Denmark? :-)
    Ahoj Blanka.

  2. Caleb, A very good synopsis o fyour past few months. Makes me dizzy just thinking about all you have done and where you have been. It may be a good idea to start to write blog with answer / questions about the maze of traveling. Coul dbe a real comedy routine on the side...
    Your writing may be unpracticed but the art is still there. Keep on keeping on.

  3. Caleb, A very good synopsis o fyour past few months. Makes me dizzy just thinking about all you have done and where you have been. It may be a good idea to start to write a blog with answers / questions about the maze of traveling. Could be a real comedy routine on the side...
    Your writing may be unpracticed but the art is still there. Keep on keeping on.

  4. Your words have always moved me. This blog post is of no exception. I keep thinking back to when LiRoy and I said goodbye to you as you left Korea, and the thought that for you it was a bitter sweet moment. Sad to be leaving a country that you have gotten acquainted with, but excited to be on your way for more adventures and most importantly to meet up with your love. Caleb, I hope life will never cease to amaze you and wish you every happiness with Celine. Be well. Take care. Keep up with your 'priorities'. Don't forget those you meet along your many journeys. Keep in touch!

  5. Great blog caleb. You haven't lost your touch in writing - in some ways it's even better - more down to earth and easier to follow. I think your idea to make a website for future travelers is an excellent idea. Could be the makings of the book you wanted to write. But I know you've got several priorities over this one. Keep focused on the things that really matter and the others will fall in place in due time. Love, Mom

  6. Thank you SO much for the feedback and encouragement everyone! That's what gives me the motivation to keep writing, and I need all the motivation I can get! Thanks for reading!