Once upon a time, I worked to get a brand new environmental non-profit off the ground. Our name was Rock ‘n Renew, and we used musicians and bands to highlight climate change and what could be done to help, mostly to an audience of young people and students. I believed the climate science was clear: the earth was warming at unprecedented rates and this would have major detrimental effects on our environment as time progressed. Fast forward a decade and it doesn’t seem much has changed. Mileage standards for cars were raised, but there hasn’t exactly been an explosion of solar panels or people using trash to fuel their cars. (Yes, I watched Back to the Future too many times as a child.) Most people I know still heat and cool their homes with gas or coal-fired electricity. Waste is produced in massive quantities by industry and consumers. Americans eat tons of meat, which requires an enormous amount of energy and water to produce, and the world is increasingly joining them. A decade ago, I felt like I was shouting into the wind most of the time. Individuals could do small things like switch to CFL lightbulbs or take reusable bags to the grocery store or ditch plastic water bottles, but it felt like the tiniest of dents in an enormous pile of rubbish.
Sometimes I think living overseas, especially in a post with lots of American expats, is just one long camp or party or freshman dorm orientation week or whatever the analogy is for a bunch of adults planning specific, orchestrated types of fun that one usually associates with children. Of course I contribute mightily to that event calendar myself with the various holiday-themed and random activities I host for the neighborhood. I don’t really remember what it is like to live in America where you don’t automatically have access to a whole group of the same 40 people who rotate doing fun things on the weekends and you always have two or three invitations each week to a party or barbecue or karaoke night or other super relaxing shindig. I actually participated in a beer pong tournament last month, complete with regulation-size tables, laminated tournament brackets, and a food truck serving bratwurst for the crowd. This isn’t normal, right? It may not be normal but I like it.
The last time I was in the U.S. during a presidential election—2008—I got myself right on the front lines, moving to Ohio to volunteer for the Obama campaign and watching each twist and turn of the campaign with breathless excitement. By the time the 2012 election rolled around, I was living in Botswana with my husband and baby and couldn’t even stay up late enough to watch the returns come in, so I didn’t find out who the winner was until morning. I cared just as much, but living abroad I was too far away to do anything besides cast my vote in the mail. Watching your home country’s elections from overseas can stir up a lot of feelings, especially if your preferred candidate isn’t doing so well. Here are the seven stages of grieving for the expat voter, explained, to get you through that difficult period when you’d like to fly home and beat some sense into your fellow Americans. 1. Shock. Perhaps you were paying too much attention to the internal politics of your new country or were busy watching rugby or cricket or whichever non-American sport you’ve started to follow now that you live overseas. Whatever the case, you looked up one day to discover that the most popular candidates for president weren’t the ones you’d hoped or predicted, and you can’t believe your eyes. Surely America will come to its senses, you think, and pick the leader you believe the country deserves.
I’m usually a few years late to the party when it comes to pop culture. I’d like to blame this on living overseas, but the truth is I didn’t start watching “Lost” until Season 4, and I still haven’t seen Avatar, Crash, or Million Dollar Baby, even though I was living stateside when they all hit it big. So it is no surprise I hopped on “The Americans” bandwagon just a few weeks ago. But as soon as I did, I rode it hard. I was hooked from the pilot and binge-watched my way straight through dozens of episodes, enjoying the finale of Season Three when it aired a few days ago. I love the premise: an average American husband and wife with two kids and a home in the burbs are actually badass Russian spies gathering intel on the U.S. and trying to weaken capitalism from within. I also love the 1980s, so the kitsch from the era strewn through every scene is a happy bonus. (My family had that exact same yellow smiley face cookie jar.) And sure, they’re communist spies: but first and foremost, Elizabeth and Philip are expats.
My three week vacation in the U.S. has come to an end, so it’s time to do the numbers: Books Read: Three. The first was How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely. This was okay, kind of funny, but not memorable. It lacked much heart, and the plot line–that all contemporary fiction that sells well is calculated drivel made up to push sales–made me really cynical about the ability of current novels to inspire or elevate. After studying Ulysses for two years to write my dissertation I started to think that already a few years ago, so this is not a good direction for me. Next came Making Your Dog Your Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete. Non-fiction, fabulous book from the ’70s from a monastic community who raises German Shepherds and their advice on how to have a great dog. I loved this book and read it all in one windy day on the beach, which the library probably won’t appreciate because sand in every single page may have fluffed it up permanently. Finally, the perfect quick plane read, My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler. Hilarious, bawdy and totally inappropriate account of the author’s history between the sheets. Midgets included. I read basically the entire thing from Doha to Islamabad. I like memoirs about 100% more than I like fiction at this point. Trashy Magazines Read: Seven. So I am totally up-to-date on pop culture now. I used to turn my noses up at stuff like US Weekly and Star. That was before I moved to another continent and felt lost and confused when hearing about things like Kendra Wilkinson, Demi Lovato, the people with 19 children, any […] Read More
Last night I went to Walmart for the first time in my life. As I guess every single person in this country already knows, you can buy anything you want at Walmart, including oregano seeds for $1, karaoke CDs of Lady Gaga’s latest, and a pre-faded red tee shirt that says “I’m a Pepper.” This is awesome, any way you look at it. Draw a veil discreetly over that rather compelling documentary I watched a few years back about how bad Walmart is. My visit to Walmart was so unusual that my credit card company immediately suspended my card for suspected fraudulent activity. Remember that I live in Pakistan, charging up electric generator sets and tiki torch fuel cans left and right and no red flag is raised. Re-examine your screening process, Capital One. I restored my credit card privileges in time to do some damage at the mall today, the next stop on my consumer tour. I don’t like shopping at the best of times, but cramming six months’ worth of essential purchases into one day is especially icky. Random sampling of my list of must-haves today: sneakers, “Game Change” book about the 2008 election, sports bra, organic mascara, yoga block, 2011 dayplanner, pastry cutter, silver polish, and sesame oil. I should have bought the sneakers first and then put them on for the 6-hour mall walking marathon that commenced. Shopping by yourself is weird. You have to depend on the fawning opinion of the commissioned saleswoman about the black leather and velvet leggings/ankle boot combination that you want to believe could work on the Islamabad party scene this fall (solution: go with your […] Read More
So I’m in the U.S. for the next few weeks before I return to Islamabad on June 1. The last month or so of work was insanely busy, which was why I didn’t get it together to post a new blog since celebrating my one-year anniversary with Pakistan. It was definitely time for a break. Living in another country where just about every single thing is different than you’re used to is tiring in a very specific, particular way, and the only method of finding relief is to get away for a little while. I’m most excited about the food. It’s crazy how much I miss things like avocados, blackberries, Fage yogurt, and whole wheat hamburger buns. I went to Trader Joe’s within one hour of landing in DC, mostly just to wander the aisles, mouth agape, before picking up items from the aforementioned list, as well as pumpkin granola, an adorable bag of clementines, and butternut squash. The next few weeks are not so much a “vacation” as they are a time to recover, regroup, and get refreshed for returning to my stint in a foreign country. Exercise is super important, as is a lot of sleep, good eating, and good conversation with a few friends. So I want to apologize right now, in advance, for the fact that I will not be seeing most of you while I’m in the States. There just isn’t time, unless I want to turn my relaxing break into a breakneck social whirlwind, which my energy levels cannot afford at the moment. The trip here was a little bumpy, which refers not only to a very turbulent flight […] Read More
I have just returned from the U.S. after spending three weeks there on my annual R&R. I can’t remember what “R&R” stands for. It’s either Rest and Recuperation, or Rest and Recreation, or Rest and Recovery, or…really I’m just not sure. At any rate, I am entitled to one per year and for sure I am not going to miss a free vacation. If you work directly for the U.S. government abroad (which I don’t), they actually make you take these trips back to the States on a frequent basis so that you don’t lose your patriotism. I would say that living in a place where you’re not allowed to walk around by yourself or wear skirts accomplishes that patriotism all by itself. The thing is though, I missed Islamabad while I was away and am happy to be back in what is starting to feel like home. After three weeks as an ex-pat in America, some observations:
What is it about leaving something that makes it seem all the sweeter? Ever since I knew I was leaving, I have been conducting a love affair with Boston, one that has involved candlelit dinners, walks down Newbury Street with smiles for each budding spring flower, and sighs of appreciation and nostalgia for every favorite corner, haunt, and quirk about this city that I have lived in for ten years. After all, thanks to Skype and the fact that calls from Pakistan to the US are only two cents a minute, I can keep in pretty good touch with all the people I love while I’m gone. But I can’t stroll over to Devlin’s for the juicy bacon cheddar burger, and I can’t go to the Public Garden to sit on the brass ducks or make fun of people for going to the “Cheers” bar. I can’t sneak my favorite Cuban sandwich from Yawkey Way into the fancy Fenway seats upstairs before the game starts. I can’t get all excited about ivy on brick buildings, or order pad zeeyou from one of the three excellent Thai restaurants around my house. I can’t go down to Daisy Buchanan’s to sing “The Piano Man” during last call (or to borrow their plunger in the middle of a very crowded Christmas party when we realize we don’t have one). I can’t take Boston with me. Yesterday is a perfect example of this recent love affair. I spent the day with one of my dearest friends doing a bunch of great Boston things. There was a little Newbury Street, a little trafficky Mass Pike, a little Waterfront, a little […] Read More
So I’ve been too busy this week to post. The way things have gone lately, I actually think I might have more time in my life once I arrive in Islamabad. I’m back in Washington for training. This includes meeting everyone in the company, absorbing about 300 different acronyms, and pretending to understand all the international development lingo. I’m also taking care of mundane activities like picking up my work laptop, learning the company’s timesheet system, and signing up for emergency evacuation insurance. Well maybe that last one is not so mundane. I’m headed back to Boston tonight to commence my final week on American soil for a while. Those seven days will be filled with saying final goodbyes, consuming large quantities of soon-to-be illegal martinis, and trying to make a year’s worth of stuff come in under the 400lb airfreight shipping limit. The karaoke machine is complicating that process. Wish me luck! […] Read More
Nothing is weirder than a Peep. I’m ready to eat a lot of new, strange food, starting in less than two weeks when I move to Pakistan. Twelve different kinds of mangoes and three different kinds of pomegranates, I’m told. Goat curries, bitter gourd, mutton in tomato sauce, and chicken. (Well, chicken’s not weird, but the fact that you can buy it live off the street in front of your house is.) I love curry and flatbread and samosas, but I’m sure my visits to my favorite Indian restaurant down the street in Boston will not have prepared me for full immersion into the daily food culture of the subcontinent. But back to Peeps, the weird food of my own country. You know ’em: fluorescent little marshmallowy chicks and bunnies that appear suddenly in every drugstore and supermarket this time of year in an array of colors found nowhere in nature. They’re weird, they’re highly beloved, and they’re very American: add them to the list of things I won’t be seeing in Islamabad. I’ve had some time to think about Peeps a lot today as I scraped smashed Peep out of the carpet and pried dried Peep off the sides of empty martini glasses. (Peeps figured prominently in my spring-themed going-away party last night.) What are Peeps? Marshmallow, obviously, and a crapload of toxic food coloring, but oh so much more. Peep is an industry onto itself. You would think that, much like a Cadbury egg, they would be cursed with the problem of seasonality. They are chicks and bunnies in lurid approximations of pastel colors after all, trotted out at Easter for candy baskets and the […] Read More
Update: I bought a karaoke machine. Frivolous purchase or wise investment that will yield hours of entertainment in entertainment-challenged Pakistan? You decide. I’ve been told again and again that people don’t go out to bars (illegal) or restaurants (high-profile targets); they hang out socially in people’s homes. I’m thinking that will be entertaining for about a week and then we will need something to do. Enter the Karaoke Party Machine. I’ll be breaking this fine piece of equipment in at my going-away party tomorrow night; if you’re not in Boston and can’t make it, think of us belting out “I Will Survive” wherever you are and feel sorry/relieved that you can’t join in. […] Read More
I am buying stuff. My mode is consumer, the internet my gateway. It turns out The Magic Bullet was just the tip of the iceberg. The last three days have seen me purchase, in no particular order: An iPod speaker/docking station thing An alarm clock that wakes you up with ocean noises and gradual soft lighting that approximates the gentle dawn. A metal thing to hang all my necklaces on. A year’s worth of my favorite shampoo, conditioner, and chapstick. A new yoga mat. Green Vibrance vitamin powder that tastes like grass. A black cocktail dress for “embassy parties.” A webcam. grapefruit seed extract. charcoal. It’s a weird list; I recognize this. It’s the kind of list that emerges when you 1) are moving to a foreign country without health food stores or Western retail and 2) have spent most of the last decade in graduate school. (The grad school thing just means you’ve been broke for a long time and couldn’t justify paying for frivolities other than heavy anthologies of Irish drama and endless stacks of photocopied scholarly journal articles at 10 cents a page.) Anything unnecessary that I wanted over the last ten years I pretty much didn’t buy. But I never forgot that I wanted it. Which brings us to the Progression Alarm Clock. I’m sorry: did I call it an alarm clock? My mistake. It’s actually the Progression Wake Up Clock, as its manufacturers take care to point out. That’s because this product is specifically designed not to alarm the body into wakefulness, but to rouse us how nature intended. That is: peacefully with the earth’s light and sound, the way our ancestors […] Read More
I just got back to Boston today from a few days in Washington DC. I was there for a conference, some pre-Islamabad meetings, and a visit to my naturopath so she could tell me the best way to fend off parasites from Pakistani street food. It was a beautiful weekend–so warm we could have drinks outside at Sequoia on Sunday afternoon and pretend it was June. Being there made me think about moving and living in a new city and change in general. Right after college, I moved to Washington DC for two years, and I can’t say I loved it. I was broke, working an entry-level job, and shell-shocked by my switch from sunny Santa Barbara and the luxury of college life. All of a sudden I was getting up early, wearing nylons, and wrestling with parking meters, winter clothing, and a fridge crammed with the food of five roommates. I missed California, the easy measure of academic success, and not talking about politics. I think I overlooked some of Washington’s beauty in the process. I remember thinking it was cool that I could see the lit dome of the Capitol outside my bedroom window and that I studied for my GREs in the gorgeous Library of Congress reading room. But I always knew I was going to grad school and would be off before too long, so I never settled in as much as I could have. My friends and I had lots of after-work drinks on the roof of the Hotel Washington, we watched Fourth of July fireworks from the office balcony of whichever Senator someone we knew was working for. We […] Read More
(Alternate title: “What To Do While You’re Waiting to Move to Pakistan”) There’s a new list making the rounds of Facebook this week. I know we’re all sick to death of these lists: the “25 semi-interesting things about me” list and the “20 questions about high school” list and the “5 movies I’d take to a desert island” list. And yet I keep reading them, and I keep making them. I am a sucker for these things. This new list is even more potentially unpleasant than the others because it is designed to make you feel inferior. It’s the “BBC Book List,” a list of 100 worthwhile books as determined by the BBC, which comes accompanied by the claim that the average person has only read six of them. At least, this is how the list has been introduced. I can’t find any evidence that the BBC actually had anything to do with this list and that some nerdy grad student didn’t just throw a list together and tack “BBC” on it to make it more credible. In fact, I think this is exactly what happened. This is not stemming the tide of enthusiasm for this exercise in the least, however. The purported BBC Book List is all the rage this week on literary websites and blogs dedicated to things like proper punctuation. Put aside for a second the fact that I am a visitor to punctuation blogs and let’s talk about the books. So, the average person has supposedly read six of out these 100 books. A snooty little prediction like that makes me want to prove the “BBC”/nerdy grad student wrong, so I […] Read More
I am staring at a long, nasty list of things I need to do before moving to Pakistan (which could happen in as little as two weeks, I found out today). Clean out my closet. Buy hand sanitizer. Give back that book of yours that I read or that skirt I borrowed. Set up my Power of Attorney. Get shots for tetanus, polio, typhoid fever, and hepatitis B. [Side note about tetanus. Does everyone know you are supposed to have a tetanus booster every ten years, even if you’re not moving to the Indian sub-continent? Am I the only one clueless about this? You should have seen my doctor’s face when she found out I hadn’t had a tetanus shot since the late ’80s. I guess it’s a good thing I’m going to Pakistan, so I don’t die stepping on a rusty nail right here in the good old U. S. of A. Back to the list.] Use up all the root vegetables from our farm’s winter share. Catch up on Battlestar Galactica. Go to the dentist. Get a haircut. Eat lots of raw vegetables and salads while I still can. Buy everything I can’t get in Pakistan so that I can ship it to Pakistan with me. [Sidenote about buying everything I can’t get in Pakistan and shipping it to Pakistan with me. I know this screams bad idea. And yet, I really want to do it. Moving someplace for a year, especially a foreign place where you’re pretty sure they’re not going to have that sunscreen you like or whole wheat pasta or Dagoba dark chocolate in roseberry flavor, has given me a sort […] Read More
I’ve always been pretty clean. (College roommates and ex-boyfriends: feel free to disagree.) I don’t know what happened: maybe I got used to the chaos of a campaign office, or was altered by the experience of living out of my trunk for most of December and January, or somewhere along the way things just got out of hand. Whatever the case, here I am now, underneath a mountain of crap, opening up the door to the back room of my apartment to show you all that I’ve been living like a pig. What does this have to do with Pakistan, or with cheeseburgers? Nothing, except that I can’t pack for a year-long trip if I can’t find my passport or my wallet or my favorite lounging sweatpants. (You think I am joking about the wallet, but I’m not. I have just been keeping my drivers’ license and a credit card in the back pocket of my jeans.) And I can’t start writing about more interesting things like Pakistani food, the language barrier, different customs, adventures with camels, my collection of shalwar kameezes, and etc., until then either. This room used to be my study. It’s where I wrote a lot of my dissertation (the rest at the coffee shop down the street), drafted up many marketing documents and articles, and brainstormed ways to get a nonprofit foundation off the ground. It has a great view of the backyard, the little vegetable garden that my landlord plants every spring and tends all summer, and a gorgeous weeping willow tree that he lops off every few years in an act that seems totally vicious, until it always […] Read More
I have nothing new to report on Pakistan (the group is still waiting for the contract to be signed, it’s 99% done, we should hear any day, etc. etc.) so instead I’m taking a second to talk about how much I hate waiting. When anyone asks me for the latest update on the job/contract process, I have been using the phrase “holding pattern.” (As in, “thanks for this morning’s article about Pakistan being volatile and dangerous for Americans, Dad; the group is still in a holding pattern until we get final word on the contract.”) It’s a quick way to describe waiting, that experience of being neither here-nor-there. I’m not afraid of flying, but two out of three of my most anxious moments in the air have been when my plane was circling low and nervously over a dark city, unable to land and at the slow mercy of waiting–on the weather, on the wind. I don’t mind waiting for things if I have something good to do in the meantime. Just the other night I had to wait for a slice of pepperoni pizza at two o’clock in the morning. I didn’t mind this at all, because I had Ellen and Jenae there to provide entertaining conversation and the unruly crowd at Rednecks in Allston to provide great people-watching. (Rednecks has the best corndogs in the city and also had that stabbing a little while back. Take note, ye who are concerned about my safety: there are no stabbings in Islamabad). Last Wednesday, I had to wait all day for the new Lost to come on. Luckily I was able to fill the time by bringing […] Read More
I always loved that song by The Clash. It’s so peppy and full of fun little rhymes: If I go there will be trouble And if I stay it will be double …etc. I’m stealing from the Clash’s eloquence to refer to a decision I have to make in the next two weeks. Volunteering for the Obama campaign the month before the election confirmed my long-term interest in the political process and made me want to finally stop stalling and get involved. I decided once and for all to pursue a career in politics, specifically in strategic communications: something I like and am good at. I put out feelers in Washington DC and started to get in touch with all my old contacts there about a possible job on the Hill or in the Administration. I’ve already rustled up a few good leads and a lot of great advice from people who know the city and the system. But my job hunt there is in its earliest stages. In the meantime, I got an offer. It’s for a fantastic job–strategic communications for a USAID consultant, exactly the kind of work I want to do, with a great team of people, working towards powerful initiatives, in a challenging, stimulating environment. In Pakistan. Yeah, the job’s in Islamabad. Is this a huge plus or a huge minus? Depends on who you ask. On one hand there’s being apart from everyone I love for a year. On the other hand, there’s being involved in interesting work that makes a difference in people’s lives. On one hand, there’s leaving most of my favorite clothes behind so I can shroud […] Read More