Volunteering Looks like Coffee on an XL Yellow Shirt

“At least we’re late together!”

My khumbi had been late getting to Durban – two bomake had to get off the khumbi after a fight over the ownership of a bag – and my taxi driver kind of understood where I needed to go but not really. I had remembered my passport, so that was good. My ID badge photo was the most photogenic ID photo I’ve ever taken and I assume it was only because I wasn’t paying attention. I was relieved by the presence of other latecomers, and we walked into the volunteer meeting just as all the people stood for whom this was their fourth International AIDS Conference. Some people thought we were also four-year volunteers. N-n-nope, very very new.

Manu, my supervisor, had the hair of a queen, the clothes of an artist, and knew exactly who I was from the description my friends had given her at Cool Runnings the night before. “The hair, sisi. And the walk. The walk like this.” Her hands mimed a pendulum swing. In our group, the volunteers who were running Global Village sessions, there were two other Peace Corps volunteers, including one RPCV in her sixties from South Africa. We chatted about acronyms as we walked down to the Volunteer Center, in the parking lot, where we decided we didn’t want to wait for our t-shirts in the 30-person long line – in the end, a mistake, as no one ever orders enough size smalls.

The International AIDS Conference is the biggest international conference on HIV/AIDS, and the faces of AIDS around the world are multitudinous. The conference itself centered on panel discussions, the presentations of research papers, and posters, while the Global Village – open to the public – was a more boisterous gathering of international and local NGOs, art, music, even a yoga class, and the (much nicer) Exhibition center next door had booths from pharmaceutical companies, bigger NGOs and research institutions (Tom from the London School of Hygiene was a giggler) and groups like the International AIDS Society, MSF, and some Korean condom company with condoms that glowed in the dark. There was a photography exhibition on aging and AIDS. There was another on the different faces of AIDS around the world; not only how they’re seen by an outside camera, but they were given a camera themselves and asked to show their own world.

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The main stage in the Global Village was hosting musicians, performance artists, actors, and a daily yoga class at 8 and 12. I also happened to stumble upon Elton John there while going to clock out — casual — but the Condomize campaign, next to the main stage, refused to be cowed by Scheduled Activities and played its music ever louder. Theirs was one of the most colorful booths, replete with full-size condom costumes, semi-temporary tattoos, a photo booth, and an Instagram station.

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Every day was different, exhausting, fueled by coffee from the vouchers we got at the beginning of each shift and flatbread pizza from the packed stand near the DREAMS booth. Sometimes there was free popcorn. Sometimes there were free orange slushies. I became adept at attending the sessions that served bagged lunches, and on the second to last day we discovered the hot plate finger food near the escalators, if you were there til after 6. I went to big sessions in arenas as big as my college basketball court, to watch Bill Gates and Elton John and Prince Harry speak on giant screens; I nervously balled my notes together between my palms while waiting to ask a panelist a question on how to encourage girls to look beyond pregnancy to work, if there was no work to be had in their communities (her answer was unsatisfying). I learned that India has one of the best transgender welfare systems, in large part because third genders are a part of their culture. I was given a movie called No Boundaries, a documentary from Nigeria about people living with disabilities. And one of my favorite sessions, on the final day — a forum for youth activists across Africa to talk about creating a continental network of youth activism, about how to change minds & hearts, and how to use our voices and our skills to bring attention to the youth of Africa. I took a lot of pictures that day, but my favorite was the one taken at the end of that session, for which I stayed far beyond the end of my shift, where the energy was palpable & there was hope.

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I was ready to be inspired by this conference, and I often was — but there was less hope than I expected. The worldwide HIV incidence rate has stagnated, as has the funding for new AIDS research. Bill Gates talked about exciting developments towards an AIDS vaccine, a treatment that could be administered once every few months and would improve adherence rates — but he also discussed the need for double the money, for the prototype and the finished product. AIDS isn’t sexy on the world stage anymore, in part because treatment and adherence are so tricky to standardize. Every intervention has to be tailored to the community it’s in; there are no blanket solutions. Many of the sessions tended to be reiterations of problems that we already know, instead of discussion of possible solutions or paths forward. And there seemed to be a disconnect, in some places huge, between the researchers and their subjects, in a way that, as a Peace Corps volunteer, often seems almost unethical. At the grassroots level, these numbers are humans with problems that keep them from adhering or addictions they can’t overcome or financial problems that obligate them to sleep with a “blesser” (sugar daddy) for school fees. At the top level, it seems like these women and sex workers and transgender people and drug users are all tarred with the same brush, making them a mass statistic that can often seem beyond help.

The key populations that the rest of the world focuses on, too, are not those that we see in Swaziland. In most of the world, the most vulnerable populations are female sex workers (FSW), men who have sex with men (MSM), intravenous drug users, and LGBTQI community, partly because these groups are already highly stigmatized anyway, and partly because they’re prone to more high-risk behaviors. These populations don’t loom large in traditional Swazi society. But perhaps more depressingly, the key population in Swaziland is half of the population — women & girls, who are at high risk for HIV infection just by the nature of how their gender is treated in Swazi society. We have to deal with this fact every day, particularly in GLOW. But it’s hard to think about for too long. And few of the papers in the conference dwelt on the plight of women and girls in societies like Swaziland.

Nevertheless, every day I left the conference and had spirited conversations with my fellow volunteers about the sessions we’d attended that day. Ah we of the yellow shirts — my hostel was full of delegates and volunteers, from Tokyo to Singapore to Ireland to Canada, we shared stories over Windhoek drafts and took advantage of the Tinder Tuesday deals at Taco Zulu and learned from each other and danced with each other, enjoying that though the work we’re focusing on is often painful and sad, and that the statistics on the screens named by carefully-dressed researchers with Swiss accents are the people that we live among, there are many people who are trying to make those things a little bit better. It helps to not feel so alone when facing a tide so high.

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Durban by the sea, Durban in the sun, Durban glittering over the ocean at night — I spent my days working and learning about something I love, and I spent my nights soaking in the feeling of being home again, or close enough. I spent the weekend before the conference with friends, and we could dress like ourselves again — we shared poached pear salad & pesto gnocchi & we danced for ten hours to old school hip hop — we made friends with photographers and skaters and traded bracelets with strangers. I breathed easier. I always do.

The next AIDS conference is in 2018 in Amsterdam, and if I end up where I hope, I’ll make my second volunteer appearance. I don’t know how it could compare to South Africa though, where two blocks from the conference starts the hint of a township; where many of the volunteers themselves announced their positive status; where the importance and immediacy of the work done in the conference is evident as soon as you walk out the door.

In the quote my interview with a French journalist, who referred to me as “la petite rousse Emily” — it was amazing to be there, and amazing to participate.







Half the City

Knee to sweaty knee with two of my best friends here, our khumbi swung around the highway towards the Umhlanga resorts and we got our first view of the sea – and, like the first time I saw the Indian Ocean, I got emotional. Whitecaps and tankers and sand, and, growing slowly larger, the skyscrapers of the Durban beachfront. Despite the exhaust fumes and the hot sun and the wild mix of perfumes from inside our Swazi khumbi, I started to breathe so much easier.

Last weekend, two of my girlfriends and I went on a whirlwind trip to Durban and Cape Town for the Ultra music festival. I have never needed vacation so gaspingly, and in the last few hours it looked like it wouldn’t happen at all – government strikes in Swaziland threatened to become violent, and our safety and security officer initially locked down any travel from Manzini or Mbabane for fear that we’d get caught up in a riot. After a maddening and frantic few hours of negotiating, calling almost-strangers to sweet-talk them into driving us to the border, and serious proposals to sleep in the bush, we left a day early. I wasn’t unhappy about that. More days in a city is always a good thing for me.

I was born for cities, you see. I grew up in the muted chaos of DC; my earliest memories are of traffic on I-95, of sidewalks surrounded by buildings taller than I could see, of a limitless supply of new and fascinating stimuli. Visits to my father’s side of the family in Long Island were always accompanied by a trip to the city, a place I have always felt comforting in its riot of noise and color. And two of my most formative years have been spent in and around Paris, languid and expansive and constantly stimulating. Now, I live in a country whose entire population is smaller than that of Akron, Ohio. The biggest building I’ve been in has been smaller than my high school. I expected to have to adjust to rural life – and I have, in my way. But it always surprises me, the actual physical relief of being back among the grit and grime of a city, and how much even an unfamiliar one feels like my home turf.

In Durban, we played in a drum circle in a dark reggae bar called Cool Runnings where the rhythm didn’t really matter and everyone stylish had dreads. We stuffed ourselves full of pumpkin ravioli and poached pear and gorgonzola salad at a tiny Italian restaurant called Mama’s that reminded me of a familiar Long Island haunt. We wept with joy (again, just me) over chicken nachos and mojitos. In Cape Town, we sat on the sidewalk and ate burgers and drank glasses of white wine and people watched and quickly came to the conclusion that we were just shy of pretty enough for this town. We had smoothies (smoothies!) and pizza with brie and prosciutto. I think I got sick from so much wonderful food. We sat on balconies and flirted with men who spoke French and with those who didn’t. And at Ultra – oh, at Ultra. We crowned ourselves with plastic leis and wormed our way into sweaty and undulating crowds and put our hands up for Skrillex and got down with Robin Schultz and randos cupped my face on their way past and we ran into a man we’d seen in Cape Town throwing himself down the street in a mix of karate, ballet and the dance of the whirling dervish. We squeezed three people into a two-person tent and yelled “Steven” and “Allen” for about an hour, because everyone else was doing it (note: this is apparently A Thing that we Did Not Know About). We lay under tents and woefully pronounced ourselves too old for music festivals. Then we got up and danced some more.

It was madness, and I love madness. Vacations are always difficult here; they remind you of what you’ve given up to be here. But maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps it’s good to be reminded that I made that choice, and why. The day of my return, after a miserable seven hours in a hot khumbi blasting what seemed to be the same gospel song over and over, I ended up at my usual haunt – where Angelo, the Italian who’s been staying at this backpackers, cooked us all garlic pasta, and we talked with Martin the climber about traveling and relationships, and good music played and good company flourished and I sighed happily.

Back in my community, things are flourishing as well, even if these are slower flowers to bloom. We had our first GLOW interest meeting at the high school on Friday, the market I’m particularly eager to tap into, with two extremely motivated teachers as our counselors. We walked down to the high school surrounded by forty of our primary school GLOW girls, who volunteered to come to show off what they loved about the club. Time and again it is these girls, these wonderful girls with their smiles and their determinations and their dreams, who make it worthwhile being here. Everyone here has their own motivations, and each have their own rocks that help them get through being here – whether that be their host family or close-by volunteers or teachers at the school – but for me it is these girls, with whom I can barely communicate but something is getting through. I am always so proud of them. And I want to do something worthy of them while I’m here – so that, at the very least, they will come away feeling stronger, more sure of themselves, and more able to tackle the issues in their own community that I either can’t see or can’t help. That’s where the passion is. And I guess I can give up cities for a while if this is where it leads.


Learning Curve

The first day of school was always one of my favorite days of the year. New backpacks filled with new clean notebooks, six pencils ready to go, schedule in hand, and it was another year for new friendships, new books, new everything.

The first days of school in Swaziland have looked nothing like my autumnal beginnings. These first days are marred by tears and by locked gates, and, today, by a strike by teachers for higher pay. School fees are a strong center of concern in Swaziland; in families that can stretch to twelve children a pop, paying not only for books and pencils but for uniforms and for tuition can often be too difficult for parents whose resources are already stretched thin. This is becoming particularly obvious now, as Swaziland continues to get sucked dry by this pernicious drought. (Oh, wait, nevermind – the King declared that the drought was magically over.) Particularly in the southern lowveld, dead cows have become an eerie sight on the sides of roads – and cows, in general, represent the bulk of a family’s wealth, at E3000 apiece. And for those kids whose parents can’t pay, they are banned from the schools, and in some cases, physically locked out. We shall see what the harvest brings, but with the expected rise of food prices, and the already exorbitant price to have water delivered to communities, we expect the rate of children in school to drop dramatically next year.

Yet still, even with the extremely dismaying sights of mothers begging for leniency to send their children to school, the new school year brings fresh starts. The communities tend to stagnate during the holidays, with students either visiting relatives or working at home, or hiding in bushes to scare their friendly Peace Corps volunteer while she’s carrying groceries up a hill. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, not here anyway. The mountains provide endless spots for hide and seek; giant boulders become mountains to conquer; when the world is sad and lonely, playing with kids will always make it better. And despite my latency on this blog, I too have been keeping busy!

In December, we helped run the second camp for Boys Reaching Out – an organization of clubs around Swaziland that focuses on male identity and self-esteem, as well as several sessions on leadership, on relationships, and on drugs and alcohol. As an avowed and very loud feminist, the first few days were a little tough (I’m not even going to go into some of the opinions about hitting women or men who change diapers). But, in the end, BRO camp is the most rewarding thing I have done so far. The visible change in attitudes and perceptions, the amount of introspection and creative thinking, and the unbelievably good flashmob, not to mention the boys themselves, convinced me that the Peace Corps, for all its flaws and drawbacks, does do great things, things that will outlast us and hopefully shape future generations. And what a joy and honor to share in those changes.

Now that school has begun again, so too will our GLOW and BRO clubs. At the moment, we have a GLOW club at our primary school and BRO at the high school; this year we will try to introduce GLOW at the high school and BRO at the primary. I’m particularly excited for introducing high school girls to GLOW – in my eyes, they are the most in need of a space of their own, where they can speak freely and ask questions, and learn, and teach. I’m in (slow, slow) discussions with our HIV counselors at the clinic in order to support and grow their HIV support group for kids, called Super Buddies; mostly I sit in their waiting room and cheerfully use my ten words of siSwati over and over again. I will start writing the GLOW grant for next year soon; we recently had our GLOW training of counselors and club leaders; we’re laying the groundwork to establish a group that advocates and trains community members on behalf of the deaf population in Swaziland. I am unsuccessfully trying to introduce my host brother to Pilates; so far he is unreceptive. Attrition shall conquer all. Except the earwigs.

Over New Year’s we went to Durban, South Africa, and I embarrassingly shed a tear as we crested a hill and I saw my first skyscraper in six months. I also cried over the nachos. And the ocean. And the wifi. All in all, an emotional few days, but days in which I immediately felt back home – I was made for cities, really. It was very tough to return; and in the wake of our return, two of our volunteers terminated their service early to return home. It made me question my service. Am I doing something useful here, something that couldn’t be done by a Swazi? Or am I just taking up space? Could I be doing something even more useful at home in DC, or my other home, in France? How much of this is naiveté and how much is truly useful? Why was I previously not more grateful for washing machines?

But here I am and here I will remain, drinking bitter black tea on my porch and watching the maize blow against the background of the mountains, making faces at the chickens, listening to my old but good music and making plans. In a few weeks will be our wine-and-cheese themed Galentine’s day, where I get to be cheerfully snobby and everyone else will cheerfully ignore me. A few weeks after that is the Ultra Cape Town music festival, where I get to dance for 48 hours straight with two of my main chicks. And in the meantime are sunny, gorgeous days like today, where my walk to the store was a chainlink of kids wanting to talk to me, of girls like Sandile who earnestly tell me that education is the most important thing in her life, of tiny triplets who offer me a fruit that I’ve never seen before but can’t stop eating, of a free ride from the khumbi driver who only calls me Red. When I first arrived, the last volunteer’s shadow was still heavy on the community, and I reacted by hiding from it. But now, I walk down the dirt road and still can’t believe that I’m living out the dreams of my childhood, that I’m living on my own in Africa, that I have the opportunity here to make at least a few lives better. We work hard, we play hard, we dream big and sometimes we fail miserably. And every day I remind myself of the beauty in the world, and of our mandate – as the privileged, as the idealistic, as people – to create as much of that beauty as we can ourselves.


Outside of the Pick ‘n Pay grocery store in the Mbabane mall, there is a whole row of Christmas trees, drenched in fake snow and trinkets, right next to a bunch of reindeer, who are themselves right next to a Santa Clause, in Bermuda shorts, playing a guitar. The oddity of it all, especially as we’re all swimming in our own sweat, makes it hard to believe it’s already December.

It’s December, and hot, and we are running out of water. Swaziland is going through the worst drought we’ve had since 1992; thousands of chickens and cows are dying because of the heat and the lack of vegetation; Mbabane, the capital city, is starting a water ration tomorrow that shuts off all running water between 6 pm and 6 am. It’s a scary thing, particularly given the consequences — with no crops growing, food prices are rising, and next year we’re concerned about all the implications that that involves, including kids dropping out of school because their parents can’t pay school fees, people not going to the doctor, and drinking contaminated water. It makes our situation as volunteers also that much more uncertain; though Peace Corps won’t let us go without water, it’s hard to envision how we can be effective in our jobs if we’re the only ones with water in the community, setting us even further apart from the people that we’re trying to serve. We look at the sky every day and wish for rain.

But in the meantime, we’re also keeping very busy. Two weeks ago we had an In-Service Training, which culminated in a very hot Thanksgiving feast at our Country Director’s house, where we all ate way too much and sat around feeling very plump. A plate of turkey and mashed potatoes and beans is very different in 96 degree weather than it would be at home. That following weekend, GLOW sponsored a march in Manzini against gender-based violence, a march led by our Swazi senior counselors and attended by girls from clubs all over Swaziland. How effective it was, I don’t know, but the girls had a chance to get up and perform for the other girls — two girls from my club performed poems about the power of girls that they wrote themselves, which of course made me beam in the back like I had something to do with it.

The following few days we had our Program Design & Management workshop with our Swazi counterparts. Though it was pretty much a recap of everything we’d already covered, it was very cool to work with our counterparts to set up an action plan for our project in the communities; the counterparts also got a chance to understand more about the Peace Corps design (less money, more action). My counterpart (also my Boys Reaching Out counselor) is a dynamo named Mbongwa, who’s dropping a few tracks in a few weeks, so queue that up in your iTunes! Best part of the week, though, was the unexpected company of the Namibian Army’s Men’s & Women’s Volleyball teams, with whom we shared a few dinners & a lot of snickering on the porch of our dorms.


After that (I literally haven’t been home in two weeks) I had the Senior Counselor’s Training for GLOW, where we met with those counselors who had been with us longest and were the most motivated. We helped to do a review of the GLOW camp that happened last year, and plan the Training of Trainers, the big counselor training that will happen in January. We had a one-day break for a friend’s birthday on Sunday, complete with slip ‘n slide (pool water & soap, being careful about the drought) and bouncy castle. And today begins a week-long camp for Boys Reaching Out, something that I’m really excited about but also will have to push the energy for.

The days go slowly, but the weeks go so fast here. In just three weeks I’ll be leaving for my first vacation in Durban, South Africa — an actual city with an actual beach — and will spend my first Christmas away from my family. It helps that, despite the music and the fake snow and the lights, it doesn’t feel at all like Christmas.

In Peace Corps, everything happens in intervals. So many weeks until the next training, so many weeks until the next vacation, so many weeks until someone’s birthday or a community event or a grant deadline. In January, we have training of trainers, and I will begin to write the new Peace Corps grant; in February, a jaunt to Cape Town to see Tiesto and Skrillex and Robin Schultz; in April, GLOW camp, in May is the biggest music festival in South Africa called Bushfire, which will happen right up the road from me; and in June, a dream trip for my birthday in Paris and celebrations back home, a celebration that will also include my one-year mark. So slow, yet so quickly.

This post has been more newsy than introspective, which is probably good from time to time; I wish I could write something more elegant, but my brain is too full of acronyms and to-do lists. So for now, I wish all of you a belated Happy Thanksgiving, an early Merry Christmas, and implore you to treasure that cold, because that fake snow? Mostly just glitter.

Four Months Late, Hello

Nothing happens when you expect it to here.

Swaziland has, among many other fascinating and colorful cultural traditions, a very different concept of time. A very forgiving concept of time. This was actually a training point for us during our first three months – Swazis, generally speaking, do not do punctuality. A meeting at 10 am could be at 10, or 11, or 2 pm. The kombi driver that said he was leaving “manje” could indeed mean he is leaving now, or he could mean three hours from “manje.” You could be left with 50 swarming girls because the teacher forgot to tell you she wouldn’t be able to make it that day. And yet, for all its frustrations, this is my excuse for not posting a blog sooner – Swazi time.

Swazi time, lack of internet, and days that are simultaneously full and empty. Swaziland is a world away from any home I’ve known so far—my first few months were spent without electricity, cooking by candlelight on a gas stove, and going to bed by 7 if I’d forgotten to charge my computer out of sheer boredom. Our bus to and from our training village in the mountains, where we lived with host Swazi families, bounced on unpaved roads and frequently had to avoid the cows that are ubiquitous here and apparently have little sense of self-preservation when it comes to moving vehicles. If we wanted to treat ourselves during lunch while at our training university, we went down the street for chicken dust—roasted chicken served out of an old shipping container with two leaves of spinach and a hunk of pap (a bland staple food made of maize; think day-old grits without butter or salt). I discovered which foods can and cannot survive unrefrigerated; however, my hut was basically a refrigerator at night, so my findings may be skewed.

It’s now been three months and some change since we blearily arrived at the Jo’burg airport, where our bags were miraculously unstolen, and the inbetween has been both a whirlwind and a drag. We spent our first few months in what the US government calls “Pre-Service Training” and what anyone who’s gone through it calls “Peace Corps Jail.” This was six days a week of training sessions, which included two hours of language, culture classes, safety & security information, and, occasionally, visits from current Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs, we adore acronyms here) to impart some of their tested knowledge. September 3rd we celebrated our Swearing In – our metamorphosis from trainees into Volunteers, a distinction that involved mostly a bank account – and I was voted to give the speech, during which only a few people fell asleep. Our move-in day, the day after our celebration, was hallmarked by lots of aspirin and even more rain. And since then, we’ve been spread across the country, trying our very best to Integrate with a capital I.

Integration is a tricky thing. To do anything official in the community, you have to be formally introduced to the chief, to the Bucopho (literally “brain”), and to the whole community – until then, you are a officially a stranger. We aren’t technically allowed to begin any projects until the end of Integration, though that didn’t stop one of my counterparts from leaving me alone to teach fifty girls about self-esteem one very hot Friday morning. Our job is simply to meet people, which we try to do through homestead surveys, through making a community map, and—in my case—from sitting in the sun eating emafati with the makes (mothers) and complaining about how hot it is. Or I smile helplessly through a conversation I do not understand on the bus on the way to Manzini. Or I wade my way through a mass of small people who all of them, all of them, want to touch my hair. It’s tough, in part because there’s so little to actually get done, but also because these first months set the foundation for the rest of our service—a lot of pressure when my best sentence to date is “Ngiyakhuluma kancane siSwati,” directly translating to “I only speak a little siSwati.”

But it hasn’t all been work and no play. Due in small part to my batted eyelashes, and in large part due to the fact that our culture coordinator wanted to go anyway, we were able to go to the inaugural King’s Cup, a soccer tournament between two of the big South African teams (the Orlando Pirates and the Kaizer Chiefs) and two Swazi teams (the Swallows and the Royal Leopards), which was a day that started with a mob to get in a stadium smaller than my high school’s track, and ended drinking ciders out of Swazi car trunks as we watched the sun set. At the beginning of September we went to Umhlanga, the Reed Dance, a traditional Swazi event that involved thousands of girls from all over the Kingdom who come to cut reeds and present them, with song and dance, to the Queen Mother to repair the windbreak on her house. And in the inbetween, we made the most of our time together. The Community Health village of Nkamanzi dominated the Youth Development village of Sihhoweni in a game of soccer to which the entire community showed up; we went to a Swazi wedding where we watched traditional dancing during the day and then danced ourselves under the stars to a DJ in the evening; my language group and I got together on Sundays to avoid four hour church services and cooked breakfast and watched movies. The porch of my hut opened up onto the valley, and I used to sit with my gogo –grandmother in siSwati—and watch the fog hang over the trees as I ate incwanwa (sour porridge) and the dog named Bopsi sat underneath my skirt and waited for me to be careless. We played with kids and hiked three hours up cursed waterfalls to the very top of the sacred mountains where we found perplexed Swazis asking us why we didn’t just use the road. We ate a lot of Swazi food we intentionally didn’t request translations for.

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To be honest, I watch a lot of Seinfeld. I sleep a lot. And there are some days when I haven’t left the hut, or even my bed, in large part because the enormity of this undertaking seems a little unmanageable. I’ll watch 30 Rock or Midnight in Paris or House of Cards and I will be filled with longing for the places that I know, the places that I love and are familiar to me and in which I have a home. But the good days outweigh the bad ones; the possibilities of what could be done here outweigh the echoes of things I could have been doing instead; and at the end of the day, I’m doing what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was five years old.

Every day now around 5, my host brother comes out with a soccer ball, and we play one-touch. Both of us are equally bad, and the ball more frequently goes into the cornfield than it does to the person we were aiming for, but we laugh a lot. The sun crayons itself streakily down through the mountain peaks. The dog ignores us. The air smells like woodsmoke, you can hear the sounds of the valley going home around us, and as much as I miss my family and my friends and my smoky dive bars the world over, this life of endless rice and girls singing and the chance to leave some sort of imprint of my brief passing – this is all right too.

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TL;DR — France Gives You a Lot of Vacation Time

To begin, the usual disclaimer: I am pretty terrible at keeping up with this blog. (Sorry, Grandma.) I would say it’s because nothing happens in this sleepy little town, though that’s not true — small wonders every day, new discoveries of flower-covered paths, lots of cow-spottings, late nights with Leffe in friends’ apartments where everyone speaks better English after a few bottles are empty. New recipes discovered while singing badly in my kitchen. Afternoons balanced on the windowsill to catch some sun and watch the cats sunning themselves on the sidewalk.

A few weeks ago our (third) two-week vacation began, and I went in search of the sun. After winding our way through the French countryside with two doctors and a salesman, I stepped out of the BMW into the packed streets of Bordeaux and directly into the arms of one of my closest friends from home, who lives there in a gorgeous airy apartment, and we spent three days eating biscuits and drinking wine and watching Portlandia together while it rained. We talked about the future and the past, and I hugged her a lot, and for a while we sat by the sea. My rain-soaked little heart warmed.


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I Went on Vacation

My left leg is bruised, in four places. The first is from a graceful trip over my computer cord; the second, from an even more graceful encounter with a chair; and the third and fourth from the rhythm of a very heavy bag (but less than 20kg!) that broke blood vessels from Clamecy to Paris to Vienna to Prague, and back the other way. A charming description, I know, but I had such a good time they forgot to hurt. In Paris the sun was everywhere and so were we – watching models pose in the Place des Vosges, drinking wine on the Canal St Martin, pausing in front of exhibits about the Marquis de Sade in the Musée d’Orsay before awkwardly realizing they were penises and we’d been looking at them for too long. In the metro on the way to the airport, a sudden waft of feathers blew into the bored face of a boy standing at the door, and his expression of sudden shock and disgust and confusion made me laugh out loud. In the airport, the carpet was ugly and the sandwiches expensive. The man behind the counter told me that my sweater went very well with my hair, and that was nice. The clouds as we flew out of the sunset looked like colored dust. And then we fluttered down into the glittering lights of Prague. Immediately lost in apparently vowel-less words, I was rescued by someone I’d only met once before – in hipster glasses and a pair of scrubs, my friend J. of 20 minutes in a dingy bar in DC had driven three hours to come pick me up, which was my first indication of the expanse of his generosity. He and I and his New Zealander coworker stopped in the city center for a welcome pint, and then, armed with cappuccinos from McDonalds, drove back through the darkness to Vienna, and discussed Lord of the Rings and the future and politics. The week that followed was possibly one of the best of my year. I woke up lazily every morning to a sunny room and coffee, and went to bed to Louis C.K.’s thoughts on life. I visited most of the major sights in Vienna during the day. I went to the Albertina, Vienna’s most beautiful art museum, and saw an exhibit on the artist Miró – an incredible and delicate interpretation of a fascination artist. You could literally walk through the progression of the artist’s work like a lifeline, from his minutely detailed pictures of life on the farm he adored to the point where his horizons and his work explode into geometrics and colors and generously rendered stick figures of women screaming red-breathed rebellion against the tyranny of the Spanish Civil War and men with erect penises, to scenes of birds among constellations where the title is the thread that binds the shapes together. It was like watching someone spin with open palms. Miró scattered himself and it was beautiful to watch.

“Woman Rebelling”

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In Brief

I never, ever, ever want to introduce myself again.

Yesterday was my first day of classes (forREAL classes) and after going to four classes last Wednesday and another five yesterday, I was really itching to say “Yes hello my name is Heidi yes I’m from Germany ja, never been to the USA” because after my name and my place of birth and my favorite things to do and my favorite movie (you can’t win with that one) nine or ten times, I start having an identity crisis. Not to mention that even when I do say these things, it’s to a sea of uncomprehending faces (“elle dit quoi ?”) and maybe, if we’re lucky, some halting questions about how old I am. I don’t mind it, too much, and I know that it’s really hard when you’re with a native speaker to have the confidence to try meeting them on their linguistic plane — but after three consecutive class periods of fifteen year olds giggling and whispering to each other and deer-in-the-headlights silent to my direct, monosyllabic questions, I start to think perhaps what I will learn the most here is patience.

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Every day at around noon, the bell on the church tower five houses away from mine chimes, regally, elegantly, comfortingly. Every morning I get up and make myself a huge cup of instant coffee, not because I need the caffeine (for all the nothing I have to do), and I eat a bruised apple because it was my brilliant idea to bury the whole bag under all my other groceries, and I sit at my spot in the window and read Amélie Nothomb’s first novel, Hygiène de l’assassin, and maybe contemplate lunch.

Every day at around 12:15, the church bells go absolutely crazy for no apparent reason, chiming absolutely no hour but possibly letting us know that the British are coming. The main road that goes just in front of my house also goes crazy, everyone desperate to get home – after all, there’s only two hours for lunch, o the inhumanity – and, from time to time, the gravel crackles as someone rips down the road beside my window. The church bells keep going, not understanding why we’re all not running for the craggy hills. The dog across the street barks. I make another cup of coffee. It smells like honeysuckle.


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