Walk On

Put one foot down. Then pick up the other and move it forward. Repeat. Again. Again. Keep your eyes open. Don’t let your eyes linger closed when they blink. It is indeed possible to fall asleep while standing up. But don’t do it. You might fall down. Keep your eyes open. Put one foot down. Now, move the other.

Last night I flew across the Atlantic, tearing through a sky that bled shades of red I have found on no earthly palette, continuing on after the sun dipped into an infinite horizon, the plane now cloaked in black as deep as sin. As morning rose, and clouds appeared as thick as summer cotton, me so desperately wishing I could feel the clouds pass through my fingers, I flew on, touching down in Stockholm as the sun rose on the last Sunday of August 2008.

My mission for the day: stay awake. Do whatever it takes to make it to nighttime without sleeping. Force myself to adopt a new time in a new place.

There is only one way for me to do this, and that is to walk. Walk and walk and walk.

So we walk over a busy bridge and past shops that have not yet opened on this not-quite-summer, not-quite-autumn Sunday morning. We walk past the city library, where people are actually lined up waiting for the doors to welcome them in at noon. We walk through a sprinkle of rain falling from perfectly sunny skies. We walk past churches with glittering gold domes and doors that crack open to reveal snatches of deep organ music. We walk through a playground, where kids giggle contagiously as they jump on mini trampolines built into the ground.

We pause at a kebab shop for a quick lunch, scarfing down a doner, but not sitting one minute beyond the last bite because that one minute could cause me to fail at my mission.

We walk to a tech store and while Jeff buys a broadband network card, I walk laps around the cell phone displays. We walk through a market, me continuing past old army outfits and antique cameras while Jeff stops and buys tomatoes and photographs a fountain whose figures seem to hold their hands in defensive postures, as if trying to protect themselves from the pigeons that use them as perches. We walk past a T.G.I. Friday’s, where waiters in their mandatory flair take orders from diners seated on a patio. We walk toward the undulating sound of Middle Eastern music, and then walk around an Iraqi cultural festival. We walk past details–a lion’s head door knocker on the entrance to a vocational school, a secret staircase tucked neatly in-between two tall buildings, a sculptured security gate displaying jesters and numbers outside a bank.

In a brave moment, we break at a cafe to drink hot chocolate from tall glasses in a comfy corner booth, but we forces ourselves up before the warmth of the drink can settle in my belly and pull my eyelids down like shades.

We walk through the bottom floor of a department store, past displays of delicate pastries and fragile glass. We take a lap around a gallery, where the art is at best an attempted flattery of other, better art. We walk into an auction house, and keeping our hands forcefully in our pockets, we wander amidst those bidding on early twentieth-century furniture and decorative objects that my untrained eye mistakes for junk. We walk into the supermarket and down aisles of cheeses and breads and a surprisingly broad selection of Asian food. We walk home, market bag now full of food, dinner for the next few nights in hand. We walk to Jeff’s lab, and I walk up and down the hallway trying to read Swedish cartoons while Jeff speaks with his mentor. We walk to what is now home–a small studio in a seven-story building. We two-step in the tiny kitchen, and then walk back and forth between the table and the bed as our pasta dinner cooks.

And then, finally, we stop walking. We sit. We eat. We watch the sun set out our windows, the clouds wisps of navy against a turquoise sky, the tall pines nothing more than dark shadows. I have made it. Nighttime is here. My mission is accomplished. I can quit walking. I can now, finally, sleep.

It’s the End of the World as I Know It

Today was my last day of work. I distributed all my project files to co-workers. I forwarded emails that someone may one day need to whomever I thought might need it. I moved my electronic files from my own personal drive to a shared department drive. I verified my last time & attendance sheet. I had lunch with my favorite co-worker (and friend). I turned in my keycard and ID card. I said my goodbyes and my thank yous. And then I walked out of my office for the last time, taking one final glance at the nameplate beside my door.

I am no more Theresa Blackinton: Editor. There is a blank under my name. A space waiting to be filled. I am nothing, and I am everything. I am whatever I choose to be. I am free.

Yes, it is the end of the world as I know it.

But you know what? I do indeed feel fine.

5 Things I Should Not Have Left Behind

Following up on Theresa’s post about useful things abroad, here’s what I’m missing over here. Since we’re here for six weeks in the same apartment, this is obviously a different list than the backpacking standard list. Theresa, don’t forget these things when you come =). So here I am, less than a week into my stay in Stockholm, and already I’m finding many things I wish I had brought with me. Now, this is no disaster, since Theresa is coming this weekend and can save me on some of these things and Sweden is a developed nation and I have been able to purchase everything I needed, but it definitely could have saved me some money.

1. My travel towel – I left this with the RTW stuff and didn’t bring it here, assuming (incorrectly) that linens would be included where we are staying. Lesson learned, always keep this close by … as many of you have already discovered.

2. Umbrella – How silly of me to come to Stockholm without an umbrella. It’s drizzled/rained steadily for three of the five days I’ve been here, and twice I’ve had to lug myself back from the store, soaking myself and my cargo. An umbrella would’ve been useful. And oddly, they did not have them at the store either time.

3. Rug holding mats – This one I don’t think anyone could’ve seen coming, not that we had any to leave behind to start with. There’s a rug on our linoleum floor that flows so easily across the floor, it slips every time I step on it and I almost fall on my ass. Something must be done, but the concept of rug securing pads has apparently not reached Stockholm (even though they have many more linoleum floors covered by rugs), as I have seen no such product anywhere. Maybe the good folks at IKEA have something this weekend. Alternatively, I guess I could just take the rug up for my own safety, but that just makes a starkly bland room even less colorful.

4. Fitted bed sheets – Fitted sheets are just so much better than the flat undersheets common here. We also need our own flat topsheet. Even though I have my sleep sheet to take care of me now, I’m counting on Theresa to bring these over. I’m just accustomed to my American bed stylings and don’t sleep nearly as well otherwise. Jet lag doesn’t help with these things either.

5. Multi-outlet power strip – We have too many electronics! But they all have North American plugs. So we need a multi-outlet power strip to plug into our travel adapter so we can plug in our American gadgets (if this is a bad idea/dangerous, please let me know in the comments!)

My iPod is in Need of Your Help

I’m in the mood for soliciting help. Perhaps it’s because Jeff’s already gone to Sweden, leaving me to tie up all the loose ends alone that I’m feeling a little needy. It’s a bit overwhelming, I have to say, and when and where I can get help, I’m taking it. Did I mention that he left me with a car with a dead battery and a AAA membership that expired a few days ago? Thank God for friends! And also thank God for Craig’s List because Jeff also left me with a bookshelf, corner desk, and a couple of large items I was somehow supposed to dispose of on my own. (Just to be clear, he’s busy working his butt off over there in Sweden getting ready for his defense, not vacationing or anything, but I certainly could use him around here…or at least a clone of him.)

Anyhow, after all of your incredible input in regards to the packing list, I thought I’d come back to you all and ask for just a little more help. Please? I swear I won’t ask again for, well, at least a few days. This isn’t nearly as pressing of a matter as the packing list, but you know how sometimes you get something in your head and you just can’t do anything else until that one thing is taken care of? Well this is that thing at the moment—I need to know what music to load onto my iPod to keep me sane and happy while we travel.

Back in May, I wrote a list for Brave New Traveler of 30 songs that capture the spirit of travel. I’ll be making sure all of those are on my iPod. I’m sure I can use a little inspiration every now and then…or a reminder of why traveling is so wonderful. I’m guessing I’ll probably also want some songs that remind me of home. I’ll need to scan through my collection to see what immediately conjures up people or places that I’ll want to think of. But what else? What specifically? What songs have saved you on that 17-hour bus ride? What songs put you in a Zen place when you’re in your fifth hour of a flight delay? What will put me to sleep at night in a noisy hostel? What will keep me awake when I need to be extra alert?

Just so you know, I might have the most neglected iPod in America. I’m really not that much of a music person. I don’t know if I’ve even once updated my playlist in the year I’ve had the thing. People tell me, however, that I will absolutely want this on the trip, so I’m taking it. Now just tell me what to put on it. I’m open to all suggestions. I’m really a bit of a music idiot.

And thanks. You’re all swell. And if I can do anything for you just let me know. Or if I can give you something—a half jar of curry paste, a couple of cans of ginger ale, two rolls of toilet paper, a nearly full box of Q-tips—you just let me know.

Help Me Pack

I’m making what is hopefully our last run to REI this weekend (conveniently timed to coincide with their Labor Day Sale). I’ll probably also stop in at Target and maybe Hudson Trail Outfitters. We have most of the items on our packing list, but there a couple of things I still need to pick up. (Ex-Officio underwear at 30% off sounds like a deal to me!) Plus I just want to browse through the stores, looking for anything I might have forgotten but Lord knows I couldn’t survive the trip without. Before I head out on this final shopping expedition, however, I’d like your input. What items can you just not travel without? I don’t care if you’ve gone around the world, around the continent, or simply around the block, I want to know the one item that you never leave home without? Is it warm socks for the airplane? Photos of your family? A cable lock? Snacks? Your favorite underwear?

Leave a comment and let me know what your one (or ten) item(s) is (are). Maybe you’ll spur a thought in me or remind me of something I’m forgetting. My brain’s like a sieve these days, so I’d sure appreciate the help.

A Sign of How Strange Our Lives Have Become

Jeff leaves for Sweden tomorrow, and I follow 1.5 weeks later. We’ll be there for a total of 6 and 4.5 weeks respectively. While there, we’ll take a 5-day trip to St. Petersburg, and we may also visit Estonia and Latvia. That’s kind of big, right? Yeah, I’d say so. But from the way we’re approaching it you’d think we’re doing nothing more than flying home for the weekend.

In the past, I would have made twenty-seven packing lists by now. I may have even packed twenty-seven times. I would have made a list of all the things I want to see and do, searching blogs and travel boards, guidebooks and websites for the best of everything. I would have fretted and stressed. I would frankly have thought about it a whole hell of a lot more than the approximate 3.7 minutes I’ve spent thinking about it so far.

But this time I’ve done none of that. I’ve done nothing at all actually. Maybe it’s because we’re both so busy tying up loose ends and finishing up big projects. In between confirming elevations and trail distances or reviewing the figures in scientific papers, we haven’t had time to worry about whether we need to pack warmer clothes, whether we should take an extra plug adaptor, or whether it’s best to be at the airport two hours or 1.5 hours before departure time.

Maybe it’s because we’ve both lived abroad in Europe before. It’s familiar. It’s almost easy. I know that if I don’t pack a toothbrush, I’ll easily be able to buy one. I know that if I don’t pack enough underwear, I can easily do a load of laundry. I know that the transportation system makes sense, that Internet is widely available, that food is familiar, and that they may speak English better than I do. The fact that Jeff has traveled there every year for the past five and many times in the years prior to that, can carry on a conversation with that rare Swede that speaks no English and that, hey, he carries one of their passports around, makes it seem all the more easy and comfortable.

Or maybe it’s the fact that seen against the background of the trip we’ll embark on upon our return from Sweden, this trip seems small and incomparably simpler. We don’t need immunizations or immodium. We don’t need cable locks and yellow fever certificates. We don’t have to debate whether to take the chicken bus or pay a few extra bucks and splurge on the tourist bus. We don’t have to ponder the best way to approach a squat toilet. While our round-the-world trip will have us almost exclusively in the developing world, this trip will have us in one of the world’s most developed countries.

I don’t mean to trivialize our trip to Sweden, and I don’t mean to say I’m not excited. I’m sure once I board my flight across the Atlantic, it’ll hit me. I know I’ll end up with lists of places I want to visit. I am certain at some point I’ll worry about what I did or did not pack (though in mid-air it will be rather futile). I have no doubt that I’ll take a million photos and find thousands of things to marvel at. It’s a trip that a short time ago would have seemed huge…and which is, in fact, huge. But right now it’s kind of like looking at a lake while swimming in the ocean. And I can’t help but be slightly amused by that.

Complications with our Itinerary

You know how you have everything figured out once and for all? How things are perfectly organized? When all the generalities are in their proper order and you’re only worrying about the minutiae and detail? You’ve got the goal in sight and just have to shape the edges? And then you take one last look at it and reality sets in and you realize it’s all completely wrong …

That was us today. We went back through our general path and realized for a couple of different reasons that things are not right. First, there’s the problem we alluded to last week that we can’t easily do a round the world airline miles redemption for our original plan. And while annoying, this is the not really the problem. The bigger problem is that we are currently planning on plowing through India (presumably in a short amount of time) at the height of monsoon season. This is, so we hear, not an easy thing to actually accomplish logistically, let alone have it be enjoyable.

So given a little free time this week in our schedules, we tried to lay out some more concrete plans but have only caused ourselves more complications. We’re toying with reversing the order of Africa and Southeast Asia, but that still leaves India in between and just causes us to head to African rainy season(to be fair, not always a bad thing). We can jump ahead to India then back to Southeast Asia, but that totally nullifies being able to do a RTW ticket. Our best thought right now is to do reverse order and go South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, India.

Unfortunately, we won’t really have time to think about it for another few weeks as we immerse ourselves in finishing our respective books. I just thought I’d share this bit of panic we’ve been going through the last few days lest you all mistakenly think we’re totally organized and on top of this trip. We’re just one big circus these days.

American Images at 70 MPH

The drive between DC and Louisville passes through almost no cities; the college towns of Morgantown, West Virginia and Lexington, Kentucky are the metropolises of this route. In the place of large cities, however, lies 600 miles of authentic rural America. We saw this America as we blew by at 70 mph on the large interstate highways. To be honest, this project was inspired by the gigantic crane advertising the county fair we saw leaving DC off of which two items were hanging: a monster truck, and a gigantic flowing American flag. Nothing could be more appropriate.  Outside of that fantastic image we could not capture, here are images of the scenery that struck us.

An Ode to Our Apartment

Thanks to seven friends who offered helping hands in exchange for pizza and beer, we are all loaded up. The many hands made light work of the hauling, and their expertise in loading trucks and their knack for spatial relationships (a skill I’m sorely lacking) was much appreciated. It’s good to have friends. Leaving them behind is certainly not something we’re looking forward to. But tomorrow we hit the road, driving our 16-foot Penske truck through the western reaches of Maryland, into the cross-studded hills of West Virginia, and through the bluegrass of Kentucky to my parents’ home in Louisville.

Tonight our apartment is nearly empty, and it very much reminds me of what it looked like when I first arrived here almost exactly four years ago. Then there was not much beyond white walls and the smattering of furniture Jeff had already moved in. Now there are colorful walls, but still just a smattering of furniture, this time that which we will leave behind. Though I will be coming back here, living with just an air mattress, small table, a few dishes, and my computer for two weeks, it feels like this is it. For Jeff, it pretty much is. Maybe one or two nights post-Louisville trip, but he’s just about spent his last nights here. Four years ago, he started things out living here alone for a week or two before I arrived. Now I close things down, living here alone for the final two weeks.

This place has been good to us. It’s the first place the two of us both called home, the place we moved in together just after getting engaged. We painted the walls together, dripping blue and green paint all over ourselves and the plastic we’d been wise enough to put over the carpet. We picked out furniture and decor, aiming to have a home and not just a house. Here we planned our wedding, mulling over the guest list, picking out readings and music, making a long list of do-not-play songs for the DJ. Here we addressed envelopes and licked them close until we lost all sense of taste. Here we built the foundation of a life together.

In this one-bedroom apartment we fought over stupid things and then made up. We laughed much more often than we yelled or cried. We played Scrabble, Uno, and Yahtzee here. Here Jeff howled hysterically at my video playing skills, and I’d laugh until I couldn’t breath whenever I talked Jeff into participating in my impromptu dance parties. We cooked together in our kitchen, then watched deer out our window as we ate dinner at the tiny card table we called a dining table. We celebrated birthdays here. We had friends over for Derby parties, Super Bowl parties, Rock Band parties, game nights, and for absolutely no reason at all. We decorated our first Christmas tree here, and we figured out how to keep the tree from falling over the next year. We lived out the first three years of our marriage here.

I sold my first freelance article here. And I was here when I found out I had gotten my first “book deal.” On many long, late nights here, Jeff wrote his thesis. And it was here, over the past four years, that we schemed and saved, planned and proposed, dreamed and desired, daring to turn a vague wish to travel into the reality of a year-long trip around the world. When I close the door behind me for the last time, I expect to feel a slight twinge of sadness. But I’ll take the memories, store them carefully in a place I can access whenever I wish, and then step off into the future, in search of the next place to call home, whether it be for four years, four days, or four decades.

Oh the Horror That is Moving

In the grand scheme of things, there are, of course, many things much worse than moving, but just let me be dramatic for a moment and say that as I sit here Sunday night after two full days of emptying closets, sorting through belongings, and packing boxes, I can hardly imagine what they are. And to think that we just have a one-bedroom apartment with very little closet space. What in the heck are people thinking when they buy those McMansions with their zillions of rooms and closets large enough to live in? Those things are just waiting to be filled with stuff, and more stuff, and even more stuff. Stuff that you never see again after you put it away. Stuff that you have no idea how it got there or when it arrived. Stuff that you have no use for. Stuff that you paid good money for so that it could collect dust. I hope what they’re thinking is that they’re never moving again, and when they die the house can be razed (because pity the heir that has to go through all that stuff).

Part of my brain is telling me that I could make an excellent post here about our consumer culture, our unseemly attraction to things, the way in which the stuff we owns eventually owns us, but another part of my brain is saying “oh my gosh, I just want to go to bed,” and that part is totally winning. Anyhow, you’ve all heard that lecture before, so just replay it to yourself in your head while you look at pictures of our move in progress.

For me, the hardest part of moving is the mess that you must create in the process. I have to work hard not to let that overwhelm me. I also have to work hard not to run into things, trip over things, bang into things, and in general kill myself as I try to make my way through the mess. I begin to feel better as things again become organized, albeit this time in piles of boxes. I’m also a bit blown away by the sheer volume of it. While looking at the humongous box of clothes Jeff is planning to give away, I was both amazed by how much he was able to part with it, and flabbergasted by how much he had to begin with. But like I said above I’m too damn tired to make any educated comments. At this point, all I know is that I’ll be glad when we get the truck loaded up on Tuesday.