21 November 2013

Navigating my landscape.

If you'll forgive me for a second, I'm going to start with banana bread: it's a thick ol' piece, from Cafe Solstice up on University Way. The secret is that it is studded with chunks of white chocolate. Not chips. CHUNKS. Before I moved to Japan, years ago when I lived here, I loved that bread. I would get it every Sunday morning as I passed the coffee shop. It was my jam.

I passed by the coffee shop just the other Sunday and saw the banana bread. Of course, I ordered it. And... meh. Just not the same. Too rich. Too thick. Too studded, and I can't believe I'm saying that. It just wasn't right. It wasn't what it used to be to me.

It's not just the banana bread. There's other things: my yoga studio. Wait, were the classes always this fast paced? Formerly favorite coffee shops, restaurants I remember liking, shops that used to be exactly my style.  It's akin to putting on a pair of jeans that used to fit like a glove. Now I try them on and stare in the mirror. I like these? I liked this?

Growing, I guess. Evolving, I'm told. Culture shock, someone said last week, though that sounds a little extreme for a change in banana bread preference.

Last night, as we fell asleep, Amos and I were talking. I asked him if he thought that repatriation would be easier if we moved to an entire new city, a new state. "Absolutely." His conviction was reassuring. Moving back to our old home has been surprisingly hard. My mind skips over Japan and tries to convince me that it didn't happen, but I keep reaching for things I used to love and finding them not quite right. Do I like this? It's a navigation of a landscape I assumed would be completely familiar. It is my home, after all. I like it?

As I walked up to the new house after yoga earlier this week (the class was meh), I saw Amos cooking dinner through the window. He was in his red flannel shirt and the steam from the food was rising above him. I think he was using the bright blue plastic colander from my college days. He was backlight in the window and the house and trees darkly framed him. The simple beauty of the scene snapped me awake. My partner, my job, my house, my life. I can't believe that I get to live this. That's what I keep focusing on as we trudge through this readjustment, this repatriation, this evolution. The fact that I'm facing it speaks more to my luck, speaks more to the joy and the opportunities I've had. Acknowledging that things aren't fitting right now will open the doors to things that are more right. I think? I know. To this, for this, I'm navigating.

25 October 2013

Not if I don't want it to be

I'm so certainly in America right now. There's really no confusing it: the grains I've eaten this week include farro and two types of quinoa; the beers are all heady IPAs or pumpkin-flavored-somethings, and they taste just like fall smells. I've been in my car more often in one month here than one year abroad; my friends are chatty and loud; my clients refreshingly direct and communicative. My ears and jaw are both exhausted. Ordering coffee is an elaborate ordeal: what origin beans? What roast? Which obscure preparation method? My barista is wearing skinny jeans and has a mustache?

I love it. I hate it. Our life in the last month has moved so, so quickly. It's only now settling to the point that where my mind can catch up. Amos and I moved home one month ago, as of last Sunday. It feels like a long time. In those 30 days:

  • We settled into temporary housing.
  • He began a new position in his company.
  • I began a new job (what?!)
  • We flew to the midwest metropolis of Wichita to see a friend get married, and squeezed in a side visit with my mom in Kansas City, all in a long weekend.
  • We looked at houses.
  • We bought a house (WHAT?!!)
  • Amos switched to seven straight days of midnight to noon shifts the week after we went under contract, which made signing those mortgage papers particularly stressful, which is just a nice way of saying I forged the crap out of his name.
  • My sister has come up twice to drop off cars and bikes stored at her house. She's coming up again this weekend, I think with a coffee table and my Volvo. Up for sainthood, that one.
We've seen friends and family almost every day, and on Saturday we finally hit a wall and watched approximately 12 episodes of "How I Met Your Mother." Such a mediocre show, but damn it if I'm not a little curious who Ted ends up marrying.

What's weird about being back is the fact that it's not weird at all. It's eerily the same. Little things in the city are different, big things in our friends are different, but it just feels so normal. It's almost like Japan didn't happen. My friend Jennifer put it so well when she said that her mind took her time in Seattle before, and her time in Seattle after, and just stitched them together, completely skipping the part where she lived abroad. It'll just hit her sometimes. "Oh, yeah, we did live in Japan."

That makes me angry. And sad. And a little lost.

Because it was SO big. It was a move across the world. It was a level of personal growth that I never expected. I mean, it might sound silly to say that taking a Zumba class in a Nihon gym was an arc d'triumph for me, but looking in the mirror, being silly and unguarded with a bunch of women as we all tried to shimmy and channel our inner salsa dancer, I remember thinking that this, THIS MOMENT, was a depth of myself I didn't know existed. I never thought I'd be here. But these women were my women; I became silly and unguarded.

Giving up my job, pausing my career, facing all the fear and struggle that went along with that loss... a trailing spouse in no joke. I went abroad, stepped away from everything I knew, moved forward as my spouse's support, and I fucking did it.

I slowly lost the angst that came when people asked me "what I did all day." I learned to make friends quickly and easily and make small talk an art form, especially on how to small talk your way into real talk so you can become good friends already. I joined women's groups -- something that I had always distainfully avoided, I don't know why -- and I had a blast with my yukata and Zumba and lunches and skiing. I was a partner to my husband in a way I couldn't have been if we had stayed in Seattle. I knew no one but him when we landed, and we went through it all completely together. We adventure'd and problem solved and tackled all sorts of weird things that came our way. We were a family before we arrived in Nagoya, but a deeper connection was built there.

I miss those things even more than I miss the food and trains. I miss the adventure of it all, and I'm stumped to why it feels different here. I mean, we just bought real estate in Seattle (like, Seattle proper). If that's not an adventure, I don't know what is. We're going to Amsterdam and South Africa in January for a friend's wedding, so we're not homebound. Somehow life here lacks a sense of wonder I often (often, not always) had in Nagoya. It feels a bit trudging here. I don't know why, and it bothers me, and I hope it changes as we settle. I think it might, ne? I mean, corporate housing can weighten even the lightest of souls. What I would give for a sharp knife and a rack of spices.

No one here knows that. People I meet on the street, friends that I'm making, this isn't visceral to them like it is to me.

When I was here in July, the first 72-hours were rough. Upon arriving in America for a vacation, I was struck by how final leaving Japan would feel. How quickly it would disappear. How we would have to let it go, otherwise we'd be the people who talk about it all the time and never move on. During that trip, an idea began to surface and I made a decision. When we got married, Amos and I made a 1-year pact: he would try out wearing a ring, something he wasn't keen on, and while I wouldn't change my name, something I wanted to completely veto, it wasn't off the table. I'd think about it, and we'd revisit our decisions in a year. Well, we moved to Japan and that's not the time to make any legal changes. Shean it was (and we ALL know that Amos was going to keep wearing his ring because, yes).

I felt pretty strongly about keeping my name. When you're a Sarah born in 1985, you get called by your first and last name pretty often. I was always Sarah Shean. About half the time, people mispronounce it, but when they do get it right, it is a great name. Sa-rah Shee-an. The flow is outstanding; my parents killed it. My middle name is my mother's maiden, and connects me to a grandparents who really 'got' me, if that makes sense. I was willing to do Sarah Shean Amos, maybe. But lose the Shean?

Much more than that one year later, I was sitting on a balcony in Seattle, after a couple glasses of wine, talking with my friend Tim, and a realization hit me. I was Sarah Amos. It had happened in Japan. It was who I was, and it felt really right. If I let my neurosis wander, I can see that my actions are a passive acceptance of a patriarchal society. I understand that the "it's your choice!" feminism is a fairly weak argument, since the easier (and more acceptable) of the choices often supports unequal systems, and our society has no pressure to ever evolve. The entire name-change is reflective of our culture that expects much more flexibility and accommodation of its women than it does its men. Man, the feminist in me gets it.

But, BUT, on a MICRO level, its the right choice for me. It reflects who I am, today. It connects me to a person I most care about, Amos, and reminds me of what a great thing I did, joining him in this life. It attaches me to a partnership that asks crazy big things of me and supports me completely as I work toward them. It signifies the support I have from my husband, a man who thinks that I can move the mountains, given half a chance. It makes the big things, the soul-shifting things, the things I really want to remember about Japan, it makes them real.

As I settle and my nerves calm, I hope to let go of the expectations around both the good and the bad of being back. I hope to rise above the trudergy that can be an international move when it's not glazed in a new cultural experience, and I hope my name reminds me that it's not over yet. Not if I don't want it to be.

19 September 2013

A Tour of Our Japanese Apartment

As I type this, I'm standing at my kitchen counter, and movers are bustling around me. Almost all our furniture is out of here, including my grandmother's 1940s sofa that barely fit out the hallway (it's so long -- eeps!). The relocation company estimated a day and a half to pack, but I'm betting they are done in under seven hours (UPDATE: It took 6). I have "Stay" stickers on my computer and on my shoes, just to make sure they don't get boxed up in the whirlwind. Our bags are packed for 45 days in hotel, and they also have "Stay" stickers on them, stacked up in the shower room. The transport company will be here to pick them up at noon, shuffling them up to Tokyo's Narita airport, where we fly out on Friday. We'll meet them there, right before we check in, so we can take the train carrying only small rolley-bags, nice and light. Japan does urban efficiency just so well.

our apartment building

People warned us that Japanese moving companies were unreal: so careful, so detailed oriented, so precise. They would cut boxes to fit your belongings, people said, and lay mats on the ground and tape cardboard to the walls before they even begin. All of this is totally true, but I just didn't expect them to be so fast on top of it all. We are flying, you guys.

With our sweet home all dismantled, I thought I'd give a tour of what it was like while we lived here. I'm always cautious around showing too much of our home to the world wide web, so while I've posted some photos here and there, I've held off on too many until we left. Since I snapped them hours before we began to dismantle, our home is oh-so-not staged. Food jars are empty but not washed, and the bed is kind of more wrinkled than I remember. I swear I thought I dusted. Judge not too harshly, internet.

Our apartment in Nagoya was about the same size as our place back in Seattle (700 sq. ft-ish). Only instead of a 1920s brick building, we moved into a 2008 high rise with all the latest technological advances for earthquakes and typhoons. Even with the speaker system and the camera that allowed you to see who was buzzing your apartment, I was mostly impressed with the way the drawers opened and shut so easily compared to our old kitchen. Charm and quirk are one thing, but I've since become a sucker for the straight lines and efficient insulation of new(er) construction.

Apartment buildings here do not have pools, workout rooms, or other amenities that places in the States sometimes have, but our place had sweet bike parking, and our location was killer, right next to a huge park and a 10-minute walk away from everything. If you find yourself moving to Nagoya, I would highly recommend the Fushimi & Sakae areas. You can't lose.

Apartments in Japan are specified as LDK + number of rooms (LDK means living, dining, & kitchen). We lived in a LDK + 1, which is basically a one-bedroom. Apartments are sized by the number of tatami mats that would cover the floor. These mats are the woven-grass flooring found in traditional houses. New houses often have a tatami room, but ours, unfortunately, did not. They're so comfortable to lounge in.

[Digression: My friend had a tatami room with a table hidden in the floor. You pressed a button, and the table would rise up about a foot and a half. You'd sit at it with your legs dangling down in the cutaway section (think of a sushi restaurant in the States). The table also had an heating element under the table, kotatsu-style, to keep you warm in the winter. If that's not badass, I don't know what is.]

While our place was LDK + 1, our dining room had retractable pocket doors, so we could close off the entire apartment into three rooms, or have it wide open so we could see our living room from our bedroom. It was a big square that we could break down into smaller areas should we need for guests, for privacy, for heating and cooling. This allowed us to use our dining room as a second bedroom when guests visited, or keep it more open concept when we were just hanging out. A fantastic use of space, and the only downside was the lack of noise and light blocking that pocket doors inherently have.

We had a large balcony, and like most in this country, it's pretty utilitarian -- meant for hanging laundry, not have dinner. The thick, high concrete walls prevented any viewing while you were sitting down, but I did love to have coffee or a glass of wine, standing up. As a bonus, if you were out at 8am, the workers at the all-glass-window office building across the street did their morning stretching routing, and you had a prime viewing spot. Floors of matching salarymen doing toe touches and arm crosses: I got a kick of out it for two years straight.

As I told you about before, our apartment was fairly western, but it did have the Japanese toilet and shower room. So efficient. My long ramble on toilets is still one of the most popular posts on Jackson Riley.

Our galley kitchen was semi-open, with a cut-out section above the sink. Kitchens in Japan come with one wall (at least) totally blank. You have to supply your own counter or storage unit, along with your own appliances. Yup, when we moved in, our place had no lights, no fridge, no air conditioner or heater, no washer dryer. It did have a fish grill about the size of a college textbook, which I had no idea what to do with. We furnished our kitchen with my favorite appliance, a fantastic Toshiba fridge, and a standalone IKEA kitchen storage cart that I could not be happier with (similar to this, but bigger and without wheels). Opting to maximize our counter space, I skipped the microwaved / oven combo and stuck it out with our toaster.

Why yes, our sponge IS in the shape of a frog.
I may not have ever really cleaned the outside of this sucker (in case that's not obvious). Sumimasen.

Overall, we loved our little apartment and found it the perfect size for two people. We would have liked a fully separate second bedroom, and a glass barrier on the balcony, instead of concrete, but there's not much else we would have changed. (Okay, okay, I would have sprung for a more powerful convection toaster oven). If we ever do a remodel or build a house, we really want incorporate some of the features we loved (Pocket doors! Separate WC! Shoe closet! Foyer! Kitchen drawers, not kitchen cupboards! Self-filling bathtub with an automatic temperature detector!)

So we're saying goodbye, which always is easier the more empty it becomes. We'll be checking in to the Marriott, our home away from home, soon. Then Tokyo. Then Seattle. さよなら, 日本,  especially to our dear, sweet home. We only will have fond memories.

Okay, maybe we won't miss the complicated trash system. 

12 September 2013

I will forget.

These days, as I bike down the street, as I enter my gym, as I go to the fish market, I'm chanting in my head. Remember, remember. I'm willing myself to make mental photos, like that of my husband lounging on the futon in our ryokan in Kyoto, when I convinced him to wear a matching yukata with a "It'll be our last time" whine. A mental photo of my friend Vikki taking the awkward first sip of nihonshu (sake), where you have to bring your lip down to the glass because it is too full to pick up... It was a just-girls night at our neighborhood soba place, and we ordered two glasses of nihonshu the owner recommended. Sake is a man's drink here, but within 10 minutes of our glasses arriving, two Nihon-jin next to us, also out for a friend date, ordered it. (So don't say I never did anything for feminism, okay?)

Remember, remember. Starbucks at home won't have seven flavors of Frappucino, and you won't put your bag down first to save a seat, and there won't be Disney tunes played on a harp on the speakers. Home will be different. I will forget.

It's the final countdown.* Nine days... no wait, now eight. My dear bike goes to a new home tomorrow, with the AC unit and lights following on Saturday, the fridge and washer and dryer on Sunday. Movers come on Monday and Tuesday (two days for 600 sq feet, Japan?!). We check out on Wednesday, cancel phones and bank accounts, bullet train to Tokyo on Thursday, fly home on Friday. This is real. This is happening. The fat lady is singing as I fold laundry and make list after list. Emotions cloud the brain; I can't rely on myself to remember to pack 45 days worth of underwear and to include something that can pass as Halloween costumes, since we won't have our home delivery before October 31st.

I thought this would be the time of pro and con lists for Japan, for my life here, for my experience as an expat. But it's still too early, my emotions are still too strong. This is the hard part of the move, the part where all you do is say goodbye after goodbye. All of these goodbyes are leaving holes in my heart, little spaces there wasn't before. You need this space when you move to a new home, to fill it up with new people, adventures, and hellos... but this making of the space? Man, it hurts.

I don't want to say goodbye. Even though I know its time to go, it doesn't feel like time to leave. We have made a life here, a sweet life, a good life. Now we say goodbye.

It all feels very real, quite raw, and entirely too fast. Decisions we have made, especially around moving, around leaving, around Japan and America, they all seem wrong, even though I think they might be right. My emotions are sitting heavy in my stomach, and I seem not at all excited about our return. All I can see is our departure.

I will miss the smell of matcha in the underground malls. I will miss the shops and railway stations, the mass transportation, the bicycles. I will miss the courtesy people give each other. Bikes do not yell at cars, cars look out for bikers, children raise their hands as they cross the street to try and help everyone see them. People are not entitled in their being, and there is time. Time for you to get on the subway. You are part of a system. I will miss this, this 和, wa, harmony. Even though I disrupt it unintentionally, and constantly; There are so many levels I just cannot see.

I will miss the attention to detail. The presentation. The intricate cakes and sweets that line the counters of the fancy department store supermarkets, always located in the basement. I will miss the food, the fish markets, the ingredients so fresh you can eat just about anything raw. I will not miss the price of food, or the 15 layers of plastic everything is wrapped in.

I will miss the fashion, where it is okay to care what you look like here. There is no mom-jeans in Japan, and it's such a good thing. I am dreading the Puritanical condemnation of vanity that somehow translates to sloppiness back home, but I will not miss the infantilization of Japanese women with the ruffles and kawaii style. I will miss the old women with purple hair. That's just so, so cool.

I will miss the people who sweep the sidewalks clean each morning with brooms made of sticks tied together, doing what has been done for hundreds of years. I will not miss the calls of irishimase! as I walk into a store, or the hovering shopkeeper. I will miss the silver or leather trays where you put your money to pay. I will miss the two hands people use to take the money, or cards, or gifts, because it does make the giver feel attended to and appreciated.

Little things. Big things.

I will not miss my Japanese washing machine. I will miss my Japanese refrigerator. I will miss the hooks and baskets where you can set your purse so it doesn't touch the floor. I will miss the foyers and shoe closets, and I will most definitely not miss the Japanese style toilets, from which I see why the take-your-shoes-off-culture developed.

The shower room. I will miss the shower room.

I will not miss being different. I will miss being special. I will not miss people checking me out of the corner of their eye as I sit down. I will not miss any mistake I make being chalked up to the fact that I am gaijin.

I will miss my obasaan at they gym, the one who really likes me, even though we can't speak much. I will miss my fellow volunteers at the Nagoya International Center who send me emails on the Fourth of July saying “America is 237 years old, and I love the USA!” I will miss my dear yukata sensei who patiently taught me to sew and whose house was always open to me and my husband. I will miss our friends, scattering to South Africa, England, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Ohio, and South Carolina. I will miss my Japanese teacher and my English students. I will miss the extra time life allotted Amos and I when we only had to manage one work schedule. I will not miss being a housewife. I will not miss the assumption that my marriage defines me, that my husband’s career is a feather in my cap. I will not miss how easy it is to spend ¥10,000. I will miss the the really, really good sake and the perfectly hardboiled eggs from 7-11 (word). I will miss the politeness and softness of interactions. The convenience and ease of life here. I will miss Japan.

I will really, really miss Japan.

*Arrested Development (You're welcome.)

04 September 2013

Japanese Health & Body Image :: the troublesome

A couple months ago, I went jean shopping. It’s always a dicey proposition here: sizes are small, selection is limited and expensive, and there is something so demoralizing about putting on pants where your butt or thighs or calves (calves, people! calves!) don't fit. But I really wanted a pair of neon jeans for spring, so to the stores I went.

I was so down on myself. I was feeling chubby and big and Western and American. You know how it goes. It’s a constant stream of self-loathing in your head, a knot in your (chubby, tubby, stupid) tummy. 

I found the jeans, but there was only a few sizes left. I grabbed the biggest one available, it fit great (!), and then I realized the number on the waistband. You guys, it was a size I have never worn. I was constantly nagging on my body, feeling so terrible, and I was actually the smallest I've ever been. When I looked in the mirror, even then, I still saw a chubby gaijin.

THIS. This was my wake-up call to the body image problems I began to have in Japan.

Morning and Night (2006) by Misato Suzuki

I recently wrote I wrote about the “good” side of Japanese health: the small portions, the food culture, the movement and mobility of living in the cities. Today I'm tackling the other side, the darker side. I want to be gentle but honest, and caveat this by saying that this country has been a wonderful host to my husband and me the last two years and will forever have a special place in my heart. Japan is not a place where flaws are readily acknowledged, and while I want to be forthright and upfront, I don't want to be judgmental or combative. This post is simply my personal experiences, and I'll tell it from that lens, a personal one, rather than a condemnation of the country's values as a whole (because that is CERTAINLY not my intention). 

Japan is really, really thin. As I sit and write this in a coffee shop, women walk by and are almost uniformly slim. I would guess that an average size here is zero or double zero, with a little bigger woman being a 4-6 (American) size. When I shop in America, the mannequins that display the clothes are crazy small – I don't know one person who actually looks like that. Women here often look like a mannequin: narrow arms, thin thighs, long and lean, head to toe. 

A huge part of this is genetic. Friends who have given birth here mention the doctor has two charts for normal fetus weight, one for Japanese babies and one for Western. In the womb, moments from conception, our frames are different. Turns out “bigger boned” is not just a euphemism.

Circle #4 (2009) by Misato Suzuki

I WISH it didn't bother me. I WISH I had the acceptance to look down at my boobs, my butt, my hips, and be happy (because I've had Japanese friends say they wish they could have boobs. Grass greener and all that). But I came of age during the Kate Moss reign of fashion, and there is something in me that wants to be that thin, even though I don't want to be that thin.

Maple (2006) by Misato Suzuki

After my marathon, I joined a local gym. Gyms are not very common here, and this was a fancy one, with a spa and cycling classes and air conditioning (!!); it was a consolation prize for turning down grad school. I knew the hot, hot summer was coming and that exercise helps my mental state. I have a genetic predisposition to depression and anxiety (and the general Irish moroseness and fatalism), but working out helps considerably. (If I was to dole out any marriage advice at this point, it would be to choose a partner who, when you want to join a crazy expensive gym for all the reasons above, even though it feels super extravagant given your status as an unemployed housewife, he says quickly “I think you should do it” and then offers to go with you to sign up.)

I love my gym. It’s clean and white and has great machines and fun classes. It’s mostly Nihonjin; I am one of the few Westerners and everything is in Japanese. But you guys… the anorexia. I guess I didn't realize it before I was going into a locker room every day, but I've found that women here struggle with eating disorders at a seemingly higher rate than back home. Given the slim build of Japanese women, the layers and loose fitting fashion of clothes here, the hidden nature of this disease, and my general obliviousness, I didn’t notice that some women were riding that line until weeks after I joined the gym.

Someone sick versus someone thin is very easy to spot on a naked body. There are thin women here who are fine, of course, but there are some that are not: women who weigh themselves before and after working out. Women who work out, relentlessly. Whose spine and ribs I can see, whose knee joints stick out from their legs. Who go into the sauna to sweat it out and reweigh themselves before allowing a drink of water. It breaks my heart; it is difficult to put into words. There is nothing I can do, but it is terrible, painful, and sad to watch. I get it, too. Japan is a high-pressure country. There is One Way, and heaven help you if you don’t fit to that. Eating disorders are about control, and I understand why it would seem like a rational proposition for these women, and how quickly it would spin out. 

Even knowing this and witnessing the sickness that some of these women face, I can be terribly bothered when I am the biggest one in my gym class, not even five minutes after leaving the locker room. (Ugh.) When we line up to begin, oftentimes I notice that my thighs are the only ones that touch. That my belly has a curve to it. That my arms are much bigger, even if they are strong and lean.

I tend to workout in standard American wear: running tights and tank tops. Japanese women are just warming up to the tank tops (I like to think I help inspired their fashion exploration!), but they are more covered up, with shorts over their tights and loose fitting t-shirts. I am the only one who must have a sports bra. Given the fashion differences, given the natural body differences, I am often the biggest woman in class, and I’m in the smallest outfit. That does not feel great.

This is what I find troublesome about myself in Japan: that even after seeing the extremely high tolls that a quest for control and perfection can take, I am still disappointingly susceptible to negative and harmful thinking about my body. No matter where you live, I think it's hard to have a healthy body image. I think it is especially difficult in Japan.

Hong Kong (2006) by Misato Suzuki

So, why, you ask, do I continue with the gym? Because even if at the beginning of class I’m down on my body, about halfway through I get so euphoric about what my body can DO. How I can jump, how I can run, how strong I am, how capable my muscles can be. It sounds super cheesy, but I am so grateful for the movement that my body is capable of. I LIKE my body ten minutes into class. 

I also like the company that these women can give me, who ask where I was if I miss a day or ask how my weekend was. I like the structure gym can give my life here, and the benefit of having a place to go when it’s so easy to become a homebound housewife during the long, hot summer. Also, it has a free coffee machine. I'm a sucker.

When I moved abroad, I thought Americans were fat. Like, that was our thing, maybe along with baseball and pizza. What I've realized though is that Japanese are thin and the rest of the world is fat. Obesity is a huge global problem, and one that I think will be very complicated to solve. I can't look at the rates increase over the last 30 years and think it’s simply a problem of individuals eating too much. I think that American and the Western world’s food sourcing and composition has gone goofy, and we need a multi-pronged approach to begin to fix it. In my mind, living abroad has cemented that obesity is not a single person’s fault but rather a failing we, as developed nations, have as a community.

But it has also awoken me to the immense pressures of staying thin, a problem we don't face to this degree in the US. Where there is so much pressure to be perfect, to be the same, to be in control, it can rear its head in ugly ways. Given the massive weight gain other countries are facing, it's a problem that’s easy to ignore or downplay. The Japanese are naturally thin, yes, but there is more at play and more pressure than initially apparent. There is only one word for fat in Japanese. This is a language that has soft and polite expressions for just about everything (there is a nice and honorific way to ask for water!) but not one for being heavy. In English, a rather ineloquent language, we have many (chubby, heavy, pudgy, overweight, rotund, curvy). In Japanese, you are fat or you are thin. Additionally, I don't think there is no expression similar to the English one “painfully thin.” Language and vernacular can be a telling thing.

Marching Band Through Prague (2011) by Misato Suzuki

To be a Westerner in this environment can be difficult. It can play with your head something fierce. Why am I so big? Why are ALL these women so small? I work out! I eat healthy! I should be a triple zero too! I have to remind myself that THIS IS CRAZY. Often times, I wish I could be a beacon of self-acceptance and not be bothered by being able to meet the unattainable standards that my society deems attractive. That wouldn't be true, and it does bother me, and I have to remind myself to breathe and to let it go. To practice self-care and self-love. To practice honestly about my body and my health, about my country’s status of health, about Japan’s status of health. For the sake of the women at my gym, I wish Japan was perfect and didn't have this unhealthy side… but I am glad I was here long enough to see it and to understand that no country has it all figured out, that no place has “healthy living” nailed down. It reminds me to be gentle with others, and to do that, I have to be most gentle to myself. Touching thigh biscuits* and all.

*Thanks, Tina Fey.

02 September 2013

Japanese Health & Body Image :: the good

‘Japanese people are healthy.’ Of all the stereotypes that exist about this country, this is probably one of the most innocuous and accepted. Of course it’s not that simple; we can't say that this country is the ONE to have discovered how to be healthy, and the rest of the world has remained willfully ignorant, gorging on lasagna. It’s more complicated than that, more nuanced. That’s annoying because I moved over here hoping that I could, for once and for all, nail down the secret formula before I moved home to America, land of the fatso.


Moments before I write a blog post like this, I tend to take a deep breath. A pause before I jump off the cliff that is A Difficult And Nuanced Subject. Writing about things like this – body image, health, culture, food, big Ag – woah, it can be loaded. My pause before writing has lasted months on this one. It’s tricky, and I'll do my best, and I urge you to be gentle and have patience with me. 

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

I'm going to focus this on what I've noticed about Japan, rather than a condemnation of America, and I'll be breaking it up into two posts. One, today’s, is a more positive one, with a focus on healthy food and active lifestyle. The next one will be about body image and some of the problems I've witnessed in this culture. Okay? Okay. (UPDATE: Part II here)

If I was to distill the food culture of Japan into a short phrase, a lá Michael Pollan, I'd probably say something like this: Real food, dictated by tradition, in tiny portions. 

When we moved to Japan, we lived in the hotel for over a month and were eating out often. The first thing Amos and I noticed was the portion size. Traditional Japanese meals have several small dishes, each with only two to four bites. Arranged to showcase color and texture, the visual presentation is as important as the taste. The small plates spread out on a tray means that less food is given, and the chopsticks make you eat slower (you can't ‘shovel’). Your stomach has time to recognize that it’s full. This is the opposite of family style; there are no ‘seconds’ or ‘help yourselves.’ 

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

Even at restaurants not traditionally Japanese, the small portion sizes are quickly apparent. A medium pizza at Dominos is slightly larger than my outstretched palm. Cokes in the vending machines are 6 ounces. Hamburger and fry sizes are straight out of 1950. Small (the size below ‘tall’) at Starbucks is the most commonly ordered, and I've never seen anyone walk out with a Venti or Grande. It’s like Japan missed the “supersize me” movement. 

Once we moved into our apartment, I began to go to the little grocery store down the street, and I found the same thing. A bag of chips is 10 ounces, barely larger than snack size. A bundle of asparagus is 5 stalks. A loaf of bread is 1/3 of the size of the ones back home. It means that I go to the grocery store more often, yes, but it also meant that our food waste almost completely disappeared. Our portion sizes have decreased at home as I naturally bought and cooked what is available to me.

For the first couple weeks, I'll admit it was an adjustment. I was hungry! Amos and I would often stop by the kombini (convenience store) to pick up a snack because dinner didn't seem like “enough.” Slowly, our stomachs began to adjust. Small portions made me feel better; I rarely found myself too full after overeating. We began to order several small plates and share. We began to order a little at first and a little more later, if we were still hungry. Food is expensive, so there is also a financial incentive for this kind of behavior.

I also began to realize how FRESH the food seemed. Eggs yolks are bright orange instead of a muted yellow. All the fish is sashimi grade. Inventory at our supermarket is kept low and moved quickly. Sometimes things are in stock; sometimes they aren't. Produce and fruits are limited to just what was in season. Strawberries in early summer, grapes in late summer, figs in fall. Good luck getting anything beyond grapefruit and persimmon in winter. We eat a LOT of cabbage and broccoli. Even in grocery stores, food is expensive, especially fruits and vegetables. This can be annoying at times, problematic at others. On my last visit home, my doctor noticed my vitamin levels were lower than normal and asked what ‘color’ my plate was. I realized I'd been relying too much on greens. I now cough up the dough to add in bell peppers, and I do sincerely miss the variety and abundance of farmer’s markets and produce aisles back home. (Soon, you guys. Soon.)

We eat less here, and what we eat is fresher. But here’s the kicker: it takes NO more effort than our eating habits back home. In the natural course of living here, mimicking the old ladies in our grocery store, our diets have changed. I give no real thought to calorie restriction and we eat rice, mayo, pork, avocados, nuts, soy sauce, and a whole host of other ‘high fat’ or 'bad for you' foods. We don't eat gluten free or vegan, but we eat much less dairy and wheat. I have to almost seek it out when I want it. Shockingly, I don’t miss it as much as I expected. It’s there when I do want it, and to eat it is a conscience choice. I don't ‘accidently’ eat wheat or dairy here, the same way I don't ‘accidently’ eat high-fructose corn syrup. This makes me feel better. I don't feel deprived, but rather like my diet has been ‘right-sized.’ It feels normal, even to me as a bread lovin’ American.

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

What I am extremely envious is Japan’s cultural history of food. Given the homogeneous and relatively isolated environment, Japan has a very apparent and well-established history with food. There is little discussion on what is healthy and what is not, or what you should eat and when you should eat it. There are fad diets galore (last summer it was tomatoes and you couldn't find a damn one at the stores…), but there is also a consensus. Onigiri is a good lunch, nori is part of a balanced diet, and subtle flavors are an indicator of a healthy food, strong flavors of rich or fatty food. In a complete mind-fuck, fruits are at the top of the food pyramid, right up there with sugars and fats. Tea counts as water (even naturally caffeinated green tea). Fatty foods exist, for sure, but they are more 'real.' Karage, or fried chicken, has a higher chicken to fried coating ratio. It’s always recognizable as chicken, if that makes sense. You eat two pieces for a splurge – the large chicken part of the fried chicken makes it so filling!

More than food, though, it’s the lifestyle. For instance, Amos: to be him in Japan can be an exhausting experience. You wake up, put on gym shorts, you hop on your single speed cruiser bike and pedal 40 minutes to work. Change clothes at the office, then walk up five flights of stairs to your desk. There is an elevator, but no one is supposed to use it, even the poor guy who has to refill the vending machine. You sit at your desk, where office temperatures are kept at a balmy 85 degrees year round in the name of energy conservation. For lunch you can go to Indian or sushi, but more likely, you'll end up in the cafeteria where the food cost is subsidized by the company, and it’s pretty basic. When your day ends, you bike home, and dinner is served on a salad-sized plate. You and your wife ‘retired’ the dinner-sized plates a while ago when you realized they had become too big. You decide to go to the movies. Hop back on your bike and ride for 10 minutes. Park the bikes and walk down the stairs to an underground mall. You know there’s an elevator somewhere, but you've never been able to find it. You decide to get a beer at the theater. Live it up! Can’t do that in America! The beer is 8 ounces. 

This is Japan. You want to go somewhere? Walk. Cycle. Subway (which involves walking and stairs). Driving is expensive and inconvenient within the city, so when you want to go to dinner, you walk. Grab a drink with a friend? Walk. Japan is not ADA compliant, so there are few elevators and ramps, and if you do seek those out, you feel like a loser because only people who really need them, like stroller-pushing parents or walker-toting older people, are using them. 

Life in Japan is movement. It’s often sweaty and crowded and, simply put, not conducive to being big or heavy (or tall. Sorry basketball players). Japan has figured out that for urban centers to thrive, density is important, and the most efficient way for people to travel is by foot, bike, train. The side effect is that your body is in motion. It’s not foolproof – there are Japanese people who are overweight, and its not enough movement to compensate for an unhealthy diet or incorrect portion sizes. But it is a lifestyle and, like the food, it feels normal and healthy. It takes very little effort, and most days I do not ‘miss’ a car (as opposed to trying this in the States, where I felt the lack-of-car acutely). Similar to those 1950 sized hamburgers, it seems vintage and quaint, and then it hits you there maybe there is something to that tiny waist your grandmother had.

Amos works out much less than he did in Seattle. He’s lost about 10 pounds and full pant size since moving here. I did not think he needed to lose any weight at all when we moved, and then it just came off! It’s all through portion size, food choices, and increased daily movement. That’s the thing that shocks me about Japan: it can be very easy to be healthy here.

Oft times, health is tied to weight, and I do think there is a very strong correlation. But it is the movement of life here that keeps people mobile, with joints working, lungs breathing, muscles moving. This, combined with healthy weight, makes hearts happier and lives longer. Weight is a good indicator of health, but not the only one, and I don't want to seem like the two are interchangeable. It's Weight + Movement.

Now for a disclaimer: I have had to work harder since I moved to Japan. My status as a housewife is less mobile than my life back home, where I bused and biked to work. When I moved here, the snacks at the kombini were too enticing, and, thanks to hotel living, it took awhile to find a new balance. I put on 10lbs that I have worked to slowly lose and get back to my ‘normal.’ Look, being healthy in Japan is easy. I didn't say it was idiot proof.

photo: Maureen Chaffurin

Amos and I have found Japan to be a great place for us, and now that we are looking to moving back to America, we're thinking about what we will take home. There are many, many things that only work in Japan – often times, The Japanese Way is not exportable. Here, companies monitor employee’s health, putting them on exercise and diet plans if they show a weight gain at their annual check up. Is that exportable to America? Riiiight… for better or worse, that’s a little too Big Brother for our Independent Individual national identity. 

We can't, and perhaps shouldn't, take everything. But can we make a conscience effort to be mindful of portion sizes, especially when eating out? (Last time I was home, I automatically ate only half of a meal when I was at a restaurant, and it was perfect.) Can we consciously make an effort to eat fresh and unprocessed food, even if that means we shop more often at a farmer’s market and pay more for our groceries? Can we be upfront and honest with our bodies and be mindful when we begin to gain weight and stop it before it becomes a problem? In Japan, I've seen that to be old doesn't mean you have to be big. That is up there with one of the biggest lessons this country has taught us. More than chopsticks, more than kimono, how to age in a way that keeps extra kilos off and allows you to be mobile and active into your 80s… that is a lesson I hope to keep close to my heart as we head home. I want to grow up and be an old Japanese woman. 

An article like this will always be incomplete. Imperfect and prone to generalizations and bias. These rambling thoughts are simply my personal and anecdotal ruminations after living here for two years, especially as we begin to move home. There is so much more on this topic. I’ll post about the downsides, (and woo-eee, there are some). There is much to admire, though, about Japan’s food culture, about how the Japanese live and are healthy, and I am very, very thankful I was able to live here and see it.

21 August 2013

We're Leaving Japan

One month from yesterday, at 5pm JST, we will be leaving Japan for good.

One month from today, at 3pm PST, we will be landing in America. For good.

My emotional state right now is all over the board. To wit: AAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Friends, I've been sitting on this for awhile, and I'm sorry. I'm a bit backed up in blog posts, mainly because some of them are sticky and difficult to write (like the last one). Amos and I are moving home. Plane tickets are booked (as of yesterday), notices are given, jobs are lining up back home, our appliances are for sale on facebook. (You need a Japanese fridge? Call me! Priced to move!)

We knew that we would be leaving in the fall. It was a decision Amos and I came to after I turned down grad school. Fall is a better time for me to land a job back home. We would land before the holidays, hopefully making housing easier to find. It was time.

When I was back in America, we got our move date. September 20th. I was in Starbucks, parriahing off their free wifi*, when Amos sent the email. "We have a date: September 20th. Official." I burst into tears. I couldn't tell you if they were happy tears or sad tears; there were just tears. It was happening.

The difference between this move and our move here is that I'm much more accepting of the tears. It's like I now have an internal checklist of what to expect. I can say to myself that there will be at least three unexplainable emotional meltdowns during this process. That Amos and I will not see eye-to-eye on several large-scale life decisions. That I will cry silently over a cup of coffee in a strange coffee shop at least once. That both the highs and the lows will turn my head and flip my stomach. That the first hour on the plane will be one where I am bereft at leaving the country and yet totally pumped for the tiny, tiny wine glasses they give you in business class. So tiny! So cute! But I'm so sad!

There's a whole host of things I'm feeling right now, and I'll be writing more about them in the coming weeks. My soul is ready to leave... I find myself forgetting simple phrases I use to easily use. Reading has regressed. Patience is wearing thin for the endless summer. I'm beginning to pull out of my home here to prepare for my home there. But I'll miss this place like crazy. I know Japan has nestled deep in my heart and, even in the short time I've been here, it's changed me. It's tough, you guys. And sad. And exciting. And I'm so glad I have a place like this to share.


*We all love to hate on Starbucks, but the free wifi, the clean bathrooms, and the ability to sit in there for over an hour without anyone giving you the stink eye makes it a pretty clutch stop while travelling. Also, I had mad gift cards, so...

09 August 2013

Turkey & My First time Visiting a Muslim Country

Photograph by Gavin Hellier/Getty Images, via National Geographic

I really meant to write this post a couple weeks ago. I had a trip to the States planned, but I thought it would be easy to type this out on the plane, or in the train, or in a local coffee shop, where I'd sip my Cafe Vita coffee pensively. HAHAHAHA. Let's be real: it was Seattle in the summer time. I slept on the planes, planted myself in front of a window and drank beer on the train (the views down to Portland are incredible), and spent time in coffeeshops gabbing with friends I hadn't seen since we moved.


Here's the thing about these blog posts: As much as I write for you, I think I more write for me. To remember. To capture what has happened before the experiences fade softly into the recesses of my mind. I'm a little worried, honestly, that I waited too long on this post, that it won't be quite as rich as if I had written it back in early July. For that, I'm sorry, both for you and for me.

I loved Turkey. Some places nestle into your heart and Turkey was that for me. More than just sightseeing, this place made me more aware of my worldview, of my culture, of my country in ways I didn't expect. It was a country that - more than most places I've visited - made me think differently. It noticeably shifted my perspective.

I feel like this could be a minefield, and I'm going to handle this as gently as I can. I love my home country, America. Even though I rarely say it (because America has a tendency to oversell it in general), I am proud of my country, most days and in most ways. We have some serious flaws (de DUH), but on the whole, we are a'ight.

Let's jump in.

I don't know any Muslim people. That's a hard sentence to write, but I think it's true. Now, I might know someone who practices Islam but I'm not aware of it... because why would you publicize that in the States? I mean, really. Let's be honest: there's a huge prejudice against Islam in America. I didn't fully realize this, I don't think, until I went to Turkey. Not only was I in the minority (98% of Turks are Muslim), but I was able to put faces to those who practice the religion. My inability to do that before made me realize that until I stepped off the plane in Istanbul, I couldn't make a personal connection, in any way, to Islam. It's not something people are broadcasting. This hints at the perception of the religion within the US.

You know how Dan Savage says the best way to improve gay rights is to come out? His argument is once people realize that their friends, their family, or their sons and daughters are gay, the movement is personalized and easier to understand, accept, and respect. I think it's the same with the Islamic faith. Once we can put faces of those we love to the religion, it is infinitely easier to understand and realize how different it is than the fundamentalist, terror organizations, who have about as much in common with Islam as the Westboro Baptist Church has in common with modern Christians. Or Fundamentalists Mormons have to Latter Day Saints.

Turkey is a popular holiday destination for Iranians, Iraqis, and Saudis, as well as Asians and Europeans. This leads to an amazing mix of people waiting in line for the Hagia Sofia. Our guide in Kapadokya mentioned that the women in the black niqabs were mostly Iranians, not Turks. Turkish women, according to our guide (a Turkish Muslim herself), usually wear only the veil as a personal preference (she didn't, saying she was "modern," as was her mother). Standing in the hot, dusty desert, it was easy for me to see how a veil could be a practical, as well as religious, choice. It's counterintuitive, but covering up can almost keep you cooler than wearing fewer clothes. I think that context is important in understanding how religious and cultural traditions came about. The climate, I think, made some previously perplexing things seems totally logical. (Now, I'm not saying this is the entire and only reason for the veil. Of course not. I'm saying it could be like the restriction of pork in a kosher diet. Many Biblical scholars think that pork was often contaminated and unsafe in ancient times. Now it's a religious belief, but there many have been many reasons that it became such. Nothing develops independently.)

Ala Magazine cover via Mecca Donna
It was so interesting to see advertisements for modest wear, to see clothing shops for the long coat-like dresses many women sported. It was incredibly different than anything I had experienced before, even in Japan. It reminded me how much there is out in the world & how narrow my experiences can be.

Turkey was also the first time that I visited a mosque and heard the call to prayer. The first time I heard the microphoned Imam's voice, I felt nervous. It's one of those feelings you don't expect and can't predict. I was totally embarrassed at my (internal) response. I realized, in contemplating my reaction after, that the only times I've heard the call to prayer have been via television shows, like "Homeland." The call to prayer there is usually followed by terroristic acts. I know. How terrible is that? Of course I would have the reaction I did. Apparently, I'm no better than one of Pavlov's dogs. It took almost a week of constantly hearing the prayers that I began to associate them with beauty and piety and spirituality. I don't think you have to believe in the Muslim God to recognize and appreciate its followers' devotion.

It didn't make me feel weird or judged to be a non-Muslim in Turkey. It was, strangely, similar to being a Westerner in Japan: it was so obvious that I was different and from the outside, I was almost reserved from judgement and given a wide berth. I felt zero animosity toward me as a woman, a Westerner, a Christian, or as an American. None, and for that, I am very grateful to the citizens and tourists of Turkey.

In Japan, I'm gaijin, in the Middle East, I'm infidel, and in Mexico, I'm gringo. I know all of these words can carry a negative connotation, but I don't find myself bothered by them. I am an outside person to the Japanese. I am a non-believer of the Muslim faith. I am a white, English speaking American. These other tribes are not my own; I am here as an observer, to witness and appreciate the world and how it is both similar and totally different than my own.

I actually found it easier to divorce myself from any judgement from the Muslim faith than from the Christian faith. I was raised Catholic, as was my husband, and members of our family are very devout. I find myself feeling more guilt, more judgement, more anxiety when I have to interact with devoutly Catholic faithful than I do with Muslim or Evangelical Christian faithful. When I hear about Catholic dogma, I have to constantly confront the fact that I listened, I prayed, and I stepped away. My actions, while highly personal, are an unavoidable Statement On The Church. When I was visiting Turkey and would see women in hijab praying in the back of the mosque, I could distance myself and appreciate it. It wasn't personal. I've never had to contemplate me being in hijab at the back of my place of worship, so my personal feelings are left, delightfully, out of the equation. I can simply appreciate this woman's faith and the expression of her spirituality. I found it easier to do for Muslims than for my own Catholic family. This, THIS, was eye opening. I really hope that I become more accepting of people whose values I personally decided against the way I so easily found acceptance for people who values were foreign.

When we were in Turkey, there were massive protests/riots going on over Gezi Park (on a micro-level) and the balance between Church and State (on the macro-level). I had no historical knowledge of Turkey before my visit, so it was a little bit of a crash course in history and current politics. Let me say two things right off the bat: there was NO chance of an "Arab Spring" uprising. That's not what the protests were about. The one thing all Turkish people seemed to agree on was the continuation of Turkey as an independent nation. How they wanted it governed seemed to be the area of contention. Second: the international news media was being terribly irresponsible and inaccurate. It was shocking to see the photos on CNN and the BBC and then arrive in Istanbul. Honestly, it looked like a different city. Let's just say the cropping does wonders. When the Prime Minister took the international media to task for irresponsible and inflammatory reporting, the old Sarah would have thought he was full of it. Hating on the media? Routine dictator move. The new Sarah? Eh, I think he had a pretty good point. The media reports were not lining up to the reality of the situation. That said, I don't think journalists should be in jail, and there is some legitimate beef about that. It's complicated, this situation.

When Amos and I were digging into the reasons behind the unrest, it was surprising that some the "conservative" or Muslim influenced laws were less strict than those we have in the US. For instance, a controversial law had just been passed disallowing open containers of alcohol and limiting the hours of sale for alcoholic beverages. You guys, it was the SAME LAW as in the States. We are strict with booze, and I would make the argument that comes from the Judeo-Christian and strong Puritanical roots of our nation. Turkey's law - this law the international media was decrying as a sign that the country was slipping into radicalization - was the same flipping law that we have in America. Now, I think the law is annoying and paternalistic. But is it a sign of radicalization? Or just a manifestation of commonly held religious tradition?

Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Turkey is having an internal debate over the degree that its Muslim faith should influence its democratic rule. There is internal strife over the role of the military, the role of secularism, the role that Ataturk's founding principles should be upheld or updated. What Turkey made me realize was how similar that discussion is to ones that are happening in the United States.

While America has the separation of Church and State as a founding principal, in my travels it has become increasingly clear how blurred that line is. For good or for bad, we are a Christian-influenced nation. We debate the merit of prayer in school, and many people are upset that they cannot have their children pray in public school. Now think for a minute: what if this debate was happening in Turkey? What if the big push was to have Muslim children be able/compelled to pray to Allah in schools? What would we, as Americans, say about this? What claims would we make about the stability and integrity of the modern Turkish state? You see where I'm going with this: We are, in ways, a Christian version of Turkey, to a lesser and less-violent extent, and these questions that Turkey is grappling with are the same ones facing our country. We have a strong religious tradition that sometimes comes into conflict with a secular government. Resolving that line -- balancing the rights and the will of very different types of people -- is a tricky one. I found myself willing to cut Turkey some slack once I realized how America was struggling with similar issues. I know the government in Turkey can be autocratic and bullying. But remember, Kent State happened in America. We are not a shining beacon on a hill.

Protests and unrest are inherent to democratic governments. I know Turkey isn't wholly democratic, but I think things like Gezi Park are an important part of its journey as a modern state. The conflict between the secular and liberal city and the conservative and religious rural areas is not a foreign concept to me. How often do we face that in America? In Washington State?

Beyond the food, the history, the architecture of Turkey, I am so glad we went so I could see the people. That's where I learned, that's where I grew, and that's where I came to understand my homeland and myself in a new light. A slightly grayer and more complicated picture arose, and while that may lend itself to convoluted and inarticulate blog posts, it does help me feel a part of my tribe even more, and a very willing citizen of this fantastic world.

12 July 2013

Turkey & Croatia :: The Details (Part II)

Where did I last leave you? Oh, right: Istanbul, my favorite city in the world. (Second to Seattle, of course). Splitting our time in Istanbul, Amos and I decided to head to Cappadocia (as spelled in English) or Kapadokya (as spelled in Turkish). I like the Turkish spelling better because it is phonetically closer to the pronunciation and easy enough on English speakers. Kap-a-do-kya. That's how I'm going to refer to the region, though I fear being one of those people who pronounces Paris "Par-ee" when speaking to other Americans over unlimited salad & breadsticks at an Olive Garden. (Because we all know those people, and those people are the worst.)

Ahem. Kapadokya is a region in central Turkey where the geological structures -- soft rock covered by a hard exterior of volcanic sediment -- have eroded to create fantastic towers and shapes in the desert. It is also a land full of houses built into caves, and these houses have been used by everyone from the Hittites and Persians to the early Christians, who used them as hiding spots before Christianity was an accepted religion. The more archeological work is done, the more Turkey seems as likely as Macedonia for the birthplace of civilization.

The Kapadokya region is bordered by several small towns strung together by two lane highways. Given that the sights are spread out and it can be logistically challenging, we used a guide service for this part of our trip. We booked a 3-day, 2-night package through Euphrates Tours. It just made things so easy: we didn't have to coordinate a thing.

We caught a 6:55AM flight out of Atatürk airport, and from the Sultanahmet district, it was an easy 30 minute cab ride (our hotel's free airport shuttle was one way only). Istanbul has notoriously terrible traffic, and it was nice to miss it by leaving early. We flew Turkish Airlines, easy-peasy, and touched down in Ürgüp, the largest city of the Kapadokya area, by 8am. We met our driver, piled into a (thankfully) air-conditioned bus, and drove an hour into Göreme, a town much closer to all the sights. We met up with our tour group and headed off, all before 10AM. It was incredible to realize we had been in cosmopolitan Istanbul only hours before. It felt like ages ago, in a good way. I love it when that happens on vacation.

Honestly, I'm not a huge tour group fan. It's rare that I feel like the amount of information you get from the guide is worth the awkwardness of having to be an active listen on tour. Using a book, you can skip the boring parts and spend more time on things you find interesting and not worry about offending. In a tour group, you always have to be consciences of other people, stay together, make small talk. You could do a private tour... with all the guide's attention on you... the entire time... and, wow... doesn't that make you sweat a bit just thinking of it? BUT, for this area of the world, a guiding service was totally worth it. All the sights are quite spread out, guidebooks are a bit hard to find, and the cities' economies run on tourism, so we were supporting well-paying local jobs.

My father's worst nightmare.

We stayed at the Gamirasu Cave Hotel in the little village of Ayvali -- and this is where a tour guiding company really knows their stuff -- a hotel I would have passed by, thinking it too remote. It was lovely: quiet and secluded, with an amazing pool and places to lounge. We were so tired from the long days sightseeing in the blasting heat that the isolated location didn't bother us in the slightest. We did have to eat dinner there, but the food was delicious and the prices affordable enough it didn't bother. I would recommend that hotel, even if you don't book a full tour.

Kapadokya was completely interesting and historical, and I enjoyed it very, very much. That said, I feel no need to go back. Amos and I saw everything we could want -- we even splurged on a hot air balloon ride (totally worth it) -- we have lovely memories and photos from our stay. It's not like Istanbul, where the vibrancy would make compelling return trips, or like the Canadian BC countryside, where my soul can unwind and relax (and thus I return). This was a one-time place, and there is nothing wrong with that.

On the third day, we flew out of Kayseri, another small town in Kapaokya (and there was some confusion on my part for the open-jaw-ness of our ticket. Double check, people! Always.) Let me say this about Turkish Air: I had low expectations, but it was a fantastic airline. Planes were new, flying was easy, food was delicious. It was real sandwiches on real baguettes with real mozzarella cheese and real and fresh tomatoes with mint yogurt on the side. You can tell a country takes its food seriously when airplane food and continental breakfasts are something to write home about. I mean, come on. Respect.

From Kapadokya, we went back to Istanbul for 2 days, then on to Croatia. On the map, these places are not that far apart, but we discovered it is quite difficult to get between the two. Our original flight, via Bucharest, was changed several times until we ended up on a plane flying back to Frankfurt, then back down to Dubrovnik. (And people complain about the airport hub system...). We left Istanbul at 5:45AM, almost missed our flight (the airport is surprisingly busy that early), but we were in Dubrovnik by 2PM. It was annoying, but, you know, perspective. It wasn't that bad.

We planned to spend 6 days total in Croatia, just around the Dalmatia Coast. For a two week vacation, we moved pretty slow. Amos and I have discovered that's how we prefer to travel. We like to stay in a place long enough to not be rushed, to try a couple restaurants, to get coffee lazily and without hurry, to walk all around and enjoy a bit more of the vibe. It also maximizes our time on the ground and not 'in transit,' where even when things go right, it can be a pain. We stayed put in Dubrovnik for 3 days and then spent 48 hours on the island of Korčula (pronounced Kor-chu-la), the supposed birthplace of Marco Polo.

Hotels in Dubrovnik are expensive. It's a city still bound by medieval walls, and, while charming, it has no place for large buildings. Apartments are easy to rent and way more affordable. Many residents rent out their places during high season and leave for the more modern (and more convenient for everyday living) suburbs.

We rented a charming one bedroom apartment for 80€ a night. It had an amazing view of Old Town Dubrovnik, a balcony, a basic kitchen, a washing machine, and about 400 stairs between us and the city. I went in cocky -- we're in good shape! -- and ended up so sweaty each time we finally made it back to the apartment. It ended up that we would pack everything we needed for the entire day before leaving in the morning, and it did impede us from ever "popping in" for a quick stop. But it got us out of the (at times) claustrophobic Old Town, and you forgot alllll about the steps when you sat on the balcony with a glass of chilled wine.

The view from our balcony.

Dubrovnik was beautiful, one of the prettiest places I've ever seen. It was so interesting to see a city where the walls built in the 1500s had protected the city from artillery shells in the 1990s. Yugoslavia was a place I knew little about, and I loved being in an area where the crossroads of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam tied it historically back to Turkey, where we just were, and mainland Europe, a culture closer to my own.

[Also, a confidential to American history teachers: MAYBE YOU SHOULD MENTION THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE AT LEAST ONCE. Um, at one point 1 in 3 people lived under the empire and it was not touched on at all for me. Like, ever.]

The obvious downside to Dubrovnik was the crowds. Two words: cruise ships. At least two were docked at any given time, and it often rose to three or four. Old Town is home to 2,000 locals, at best, and it can face upwards of 9,000 cruise ship tourists in a single day. (Greater Dubrovnik has a population of 50,000). With that many people in town for only a number of hours, the city just can't handle it. All space is devoted solely to tourism: restaurants for tourists, kitschy knick-knack shops for tourists... the crowds are daunting. When you looked down Stradun, the main street of Old Town, it is constantly packed with tour guides raising up paddles as masses follow behind them, full of fanny packs and white tennis shoes. There's nothing terribly wrong with cruise ship tourism, I guess, but it rather kills a towns spirit when it seemingly is the town. We found the food overpriced and mediocre, with no need to worry about repeat business. (After one lunch, I asked Amos how is hamburger was. His reply: "My beer was good." So... yeah). We hit the couple tourist sights early or late to avoid the queues. With all of this, it was nice to steal away up the hill to our apartment each night.

Not that it was all bad or unenjoyable. We found wonderful swimming just outside the city gates, where we could jump into salty, clear water from rocks that supported the city walls as they rose from the ocean. It felt as 'off the beaten path' as you could find because you had to wind around outside the city gates for a while and persist past a few almost-dead-ends. This hiddenness made it.

We were jumping off of rocks to swim because there is almost no sand in Croatia. The lack of sediment gives it the bright, clear blue waters (bluest waters in the world! Visible from space!). We would walk around, get hot, jump into the sea, walk home. We spent an afternoon at a fancy beach club, renting chairs and being high class. It was an kind of fun and classy experience, but it turns out that Amos and I prefer free rocks.

We stumbled upon an older couple when we first found our hidden swimming spot. The woman, well into her 60s, was in the water, and after awhile, I realized she was in her underwear. It seemed her and her husband had found the spot on accident and jumped in despite their lack of swimsuits. We gave them a wide berth (the spot was almost empty), but the lightheartedness was contagious. It was sweet how, when they were done, he held up a scarf so she could have some privacy to get dressed. You just knew it was out of character for them: she was probably a teacher and he was probably an office worker, and when they returned back to their normal lives, they would look at each other and laugh about their secret almost-skinny-dip, that time they got crazy while on the Dalmatia Coast.

(Did I just project that whole story onto two strangers? YES I DID.)

Rick Steve's pamphlet on Dubrovnik seems to suggest that you would like to spend 3 to 4 days in the city. I would beg to differ, and Amos and I were ready to move on by the end of Day 2. We stayed on, eating watermelon gelato and jumping into the water, but were happy when our time was up and we caught the shuttle bus to Korčula. We had booked a tiny studio apartment near the city for 50€, and while the accommodation was only okay inside, it was right across from the water and had a little patio where we enjoyed fig newtons and views of Korčula's Old Town. It was here that we discovered that you don't order a bottle of wine at dinner; you order the house wine. It comes in a liter sized glass carafe, and it is both delicious and cheap. In case you don't realize, a liter is a lot of wine, as Amos can attest to my giggling halfway through dinner. We didn't finish the wine, and since it cost us about $12, we didn't feel too bad about it either.

We spent a quick 2 days in Korčula, renting bikes and wine tasting and swimming in Lombardia (a small town about 10km away). We read books on the patio, walked around Old Town, tried out various little beaches. Again, I found the food only okay, but the ambience was fantastic. It was a quieter, less crowded version of Dubrovnik. We stumbled upon a winery where they made Grk, a dry white wine produced only in Lombardia. The grapes are all different sizes on the vine and this makes them inefficient for large commercial wineries. The first cultivation of these grapes was with the ancient Greeks, hence the name. These grapes are a bit wild, and the process hasn't changed much in hundreds and hundreds of years; this particular winery had been in the family for over 300. A young guy was tending the shop when we stopped in. We did some tasting, bought a bottle, and then he casually showed us where all the wine was bottled. I now know that corks come in bags of 1,000 and that you can print professional wine labels off a home computer. The bottle is on our wine rack, next to a jar of fig jam, waiting for when we are sick of Nagoya and wishing we were back in a land where people believe in swimming in the ocean, instead of just using it for industry (ahem).

On our second to last day, we caught the bus back to Dubrovnik, and stayed at the swanky Hotel Lapad, in the modern part of the city. We got a killer deal on it from an online booking company, and enjoyed walking around that neighborhood, especially the part where we drank wine while sitting on a cafe's outdoor glider swings. The next day, our plane didn't leave until 3PM, so we laid by the pool in the morning and killed time before heading back to the airport via taxi (it's a 35 minute drive). Further proof of the good luck we had on this trip: Mike's suitcase broke, but on the last day, and we were able to use up the end of both our Croatian kuna and Euros at the airport cafe, buying a beer and a juice for the exact rate. I had it calculated down to the cent, and, seeing my neurosis skill at combining two currencies and exchange rates into one purchase, the attendant offered me a job. If I have trouble finding work when we return to Seattle, I know there's always a place for me at the Dubrovnik airport. (Tucking that away in my back pocket).

We flew back through, yup, you guessed it, the Frankfurt airport. Seeing at this was the third time, we treated ourselves to "A Taste of Germany," complete with 3 types of sausages, a pretzel, sauerkraut, mustard, and 2 hefeweizens. We had to make the best of our crazy flights, and my mother always taught me that the last day of vacation counts, even if it is spent travelling. So... large beers!

We caught the red eye home through Tokyo and arrived in Nagoya safe and sound. If this ends up being our last big trip while we are abroad, I can easily say we made it count. And that? It feels pretty good.

Resources & Budget:

We had a budget of $185 per person, per day, based on -- who else? -- Rick Steve's advice for traveling Europe. It assumed $150 for a hotel, split between two people; free breakfast at the hotel, $15 lunch, $5 snack, $25 dinner, $65 for entertainment & transportation, which includes all museums, sightseeing, souvenirs, cabs, &c. This did not include our flights, except for the one in and out of Kapadokya.

We found it exactly right for cosmopolitan Istanbul, too little when using a guiding service in Central Anatolia, and too generous for the laid back coastline. We never felt like we were "on" a budget -- we didn't deny ourselves much -- but it was nice to have it in mind and keep a gentle eye on expenses. (Obviously you could do it much cheaper, if you were of the hostel & grocery store picnic mentality. We all know how, at the right time in your life, those trips are a blast.)

Resources I found helpful while planning:

- Istanbul by Rick Steves, paperback book
- Dubrovnik Snapshot by Rick Steves, iPad edition

Blog Posts & News Articles:
- The (not so) Starving (new media) Artists Guide to Istanbul Survival Guide for the Kadiköy & Moda neighborhoods
- Iconic Itineraries: Nine Perfect Days in Turkey, published by Conde Nast Traveler
Cappadocia Guide: Turkey's Kingdom of Caves, by John Gimlette, published by The Telegraph 
Hither & Thither Travelogue of Croatia & Montenegro (August 2008). INCREDIBLY helpful.
- The Coastal Delights of Croatia, published by Rick Steves on his blog.

Other Resources:
Dubrovnik Apartment Source, for accommodations
- Korcula Explorer, for accommodations & travel information

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...