Sunday, August 2, 2009

Three funny signs.

I saw these signs while adventuring in the city and couldn't resist sharing!

Exhibit 1.Roughly translates. "We're not serving breakfasts on credit anymore because people can't remember what they ate." Ever heard of a tab?

Exhibit 2.

I looked at this sign for several minutes before figuring out that the "R" and "H" are switched. I mean maybe they're not and the guy was really named CRHISTIAN. I doubt it. I would also say writing something incorrectly in iron is about as bad as writing it in stone. There is no going back.

Exhibit 3.
Roughly translates. "I have my first cell phone!" This kid looks like 5. Why does he need a cell phone?! Where will he be that he won't be with a trusted adult. I mean, he is adorable and all, but I think someone in their marketing department didn't think this one through.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Some creative expression.

During the course in Brussels one of the speakers said something that really struck me. In thinking about public health and emergencies you are presented with many numbers: 20,000 people dead, 12,000 displaced, 100,000 affected. To quote Joseph Stalin, which does seem somewhat odd in this context, he said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” That sentiment pulled at my heart in a way I never expected. It is so easy to forget that behind each number that is quoted in a disaster, there are innumerable hurts; mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, who are experiencing the pain of loss. If I chose to work in this field my one fear is that I will forget that behind each statistic is a story and that it is those stories we want to rewrite.

That night after class I came home and wrote two poems. I don’t consider myself a “poet”, but it just felt like the way to best express how I was feeling. I’m sharing them with you because this topic means a lot to me and I hope it may eventually come to mean something to you as well.

Victims lost to Statistics

So much pain
But it is hidden
Behind the numbers
Which numb us

Cries are silenced
Becoming entries
In a database
Meant to teach us

Faceless statistic
You have a family
Tell your stories
Always to remind us

Desires Limitations

Loss so great
We cannot imagine, though we try

The pain you feel
The empty loss and sorrow

It is only yours to bear
We cannot help, though we try

Brussels, Bruges and a First Class Flight.,

Alas, my resolve has failed me yet again, and sadly it is you dear readers who end up paying the price. Please accept my sincerest apologizes for making a promise I have not kept. In order to avoid further disappointment I am simply going to not make any more promises about how frequently I will post. Who knows, I may end up posting more than before. It’s amazing how much obligation can change how we view a task. Take reading for example. In school, it was inevitable that if I was required to read a book, I enjoyed it much less that books I chose to read on my own volition. As a second example, look at chores. When I chose to clean my room, the task was carried out much more joyously than if I was forced to clean it. The lesson in all of this: figure out how to motivate people to do what you want them to do, but have them do it by their own inspiration. I will call this is the “Task Theory” for when this line of thinking is formally recognized and becomes famous. (Or maybe it already is formalized and I just don’t know about it, which seems to happen to most of my great ideas.)

At the moment, my current location is approximately one mile away from one of the wonders of our modern world: The Panama Canal. I arrived in Panama last Saturday and just finished my first week of work as an intern at UNICEF. I half expected to arrive and quickly become disillusioned by the bureaucracy of a large international institution. I find, to my happy surprise, the opposite to be true. The people with whom I work are dedicated and brilliant. They truly believe in the importance of what they are doing and seem to genuinely enjoy being in the office everyday. It is very refreshing. I am tasked with preparing the curriculum for an upcoming workshop my group is hosting on cluster coordination. To fill you in, I am working as a part of the emergency response group specifically in the water and sanitation (WASH) sector. The humanitarian aid community recently (i.e. 4 years ago) adopted a new approach to emergency response called cluster coordination. The goal is make sure there are no major gaps in humanitarian response like there have been in the past. The cluster approach is mainly an organizational tool. With innumerable humanitarian actors working in the field (governments, UN agencies, Red Cross, and large and small NGOs) it is hard to coordinate to make sure everyone affected is reached and efforts are not duplicated. The workshop we are holding is intended to train people to lead the WASH cluster in the event of an emergency. The great part is since I am working on this training, I myself will know the material!

The people at work have been very welcoming and I know these seven weeks will simply fly by. I am happy to say I am looking forward to getting back to Stanford. I don’t yet know what I want to do as far as degree choices go. However, I recently came to the revelation that I have been thinking too much about myself. How do I get ahead? What is best for me? How do I pursue my passion? I was also feeling frustrated that I didn’t have someone to share this sort of decision with. Then it struck me. I had been leaving God completely out of the picture. The maker of the universe cares about me and wants to share in my future. What’s more, as much as I want success, what he wants for me is even greater. I am working to take my eyes off myself and look to God. What I need to be asking is, How is what I am doing bringing glory to God? How can my passions be used to bring to light issues that God desires me to tackle? I am thankful for this clarity of thought, but also fear that I won’t know how to apply it. One step at a time is how it will have to be. For now, I am going to finish my internship continuing to build up knowledge and seek clarity for what path I should be taking in my studies. I’m also going to try and stop focusing on myself and try to be a blessing in other’s lives in how I treat them and in what I say. My prayer is that I can be the salt and light to others that God intends me to be. I know that was pretty heavy, but its seems like it has been so long since God laid something like that on my heart and I felt I needed to share it.

My last post to you was from Brussels highlighting some of the more interesting things about the city. I have to say my time in that city was magical. I felt so carefree and happy. I would go to class each day, work out, have dinner, and then either read, do some work, or go sight seeing. I also started going to bed earlier which made getting up in the mornings for class much easier. I genuinely liked getting up, dressing nicely, walking to the metro and going to class, which in my mind was the equivalent of going to work. I always dressed very professionally and took my enrollment in the course very seriously.

Oh, I just found a note I left for myself to tell you about Le Lout. I was out running one day and had to stop for like 3 minutes while a herd of cows finished crossing the road. In the city you get stopped by trains and traffic lights, in the country you get stopped my cow crossings. Quite the parallel. By the way, cows are very large up close. I considered trying to cut through, but the thought of being run down by one of those beasts was enough to keep me waiting.

Back to Brussels. I felt I really learned a lot about public health in emergencies. They seemed to focus a lot on complex emergencies which are situations like in Darfur, Sudan, Somalia, and other places where you have protracted conflicts. The thing I liked the most was being around people who were interested in the same things I was. I realized that what I had been calling disaster response is really humanitarian aid, assistance intended to save lives. This differs from development aid that is intended to spur societal advancements. Both interest me and I am wrestling with which sector I really want to pursue. What is becoming more and more clear is that after an acute disaster like a hurricane or flood, the local capacity to respond is really where the life saving occurs. The only way to help in those situations is to work towards better preparedness and that is best achieved through effective development efforts. In the course I learned about epidemiology and public health. This fascinates me because I see the obvious link to water. My adviser at Stanford actually got her PhD in public health and that switched on a light bulb for me. Public health is all about finding trends and working to improve the overall well being of a population. It seems a lot like detective work and that intrigues me.

The people at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters were great. They were motivated and excited about their work. I really enjoyed talking with director over lunch. I talked to her about my interests and sought her advice. She was wonderful in her insights and presented me with an experienced prospective. Throughout the course, we had several really great speakers come and talk to us. The stories they told of conducting surveys following the Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and in Darfur were really amazing. It sounded so adventurous. One other thing I noticed was that the most of the participants, who had a whole range of experiences and ages, were not married. The presenters, however, were. What was the difference? The participants were on the ground each day working overseas. The presenters were researchers working abroad on and off. I want to travel and have adventures, but I’m not sure at what cost I’m willing to pay for that. In any case, it was an amusing observation. At least I realized the consequences of my potential choices before I’m have to make them instead of looking back in ten years and being like, “shoot?! what have I done?” Moving on. As part of the course, I worked with a group to make a presentation on how complex emergencies impact health care systems. I did a lot of the work, but did it willingly. Groups always need a leader so I stepped up to the plate. We laid out a plan to begin with and then divided up the work. The following week we came back together, discussed what we had done, and I integrated the work, comments, and reflections into a final presentation. In the end I know people really liked ours because we were each allowed to request print outs of two posters. Our poster got the most requests ;) The other aspect of the course that I really appreciated was that the participants really participated! We had really great discussions during the sessions. As I have learned at Stanford, this is not always the case and I should not take constructive dialogue for granted!

I posted the presentation in .pdf format online if you are interested in checking it out. I would recommend taking a minute and looking over the slides. You might just learn something new...

Impacts of Complex Emergencies on Health Systems Presentation

Aside from the class, the other highlights of Belgium include seeing Bruges, a well preserved medieval city. I went there the first Saturday I was in Belgium. There is a movie called In Bruges about two assassins who end up in Bruges that I watched while I was in France. The movie was totally violent so I wouldn’t recommend it. However, it was shot on location in Bruges so it was cool to recognize places from the movie. Recognizing places from a movie also happened yesterday in Panama City while I was out walking about in Casco Viejo. The fancy party scene in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace is held in Casco Viejo. Here’s a picture of the place below.

Maybe you’ll recognize it. If not, go back and watch the movie. So yes, Bruges was very beautiful. I climbed the 360 steps to the top of the bell tower. To my disappointment, the view was not very good and the staircases are all spiral which after 360 steps is enough to make even someone with an iron constitution feel a bit woozy. I also took a nice little boat ride through the canals and shot lots of pictures. There was also happened to be a huge flea market going on the day I visited. It was fun to look through all the antiques. It’s amazing how much European junk looks just like American junk, just even older ;)

The second weekend I was visited by my good friend Raj for a time on Saturday. He is living in London now and was able to plan his trip to Amsterdam with a 5 hour stop over in Brussels to say hi. It was fun walking around with him and his friends. We enjoyed some authentic Belgium waffles and sampled some fine Belgium beers. Let it be known that beer is kind of an obsession in Belgium. They have over 240 different brews. My favorites are the sweet beers, naturally, and the fruit flavored ones! I know! I was so surprised myself, but they are good :) Bars in Belgium are not sketchy like in the states. They aren’t night clubs where people are getting trashed. They are simply social hangouts. Oh and the other things. SO many people in Belgium smoke. I don’t get it. The cigarettes are very expensive and it destroys your lungs. It seems like all of Europe missed the memo about smoking slowly killing you. The sister-in-law of the owner of the bed and breakfast where I worked in France smoked all the time. She had such a terrible smoker’s cough she had trouble communicating sometimes. Seems like a high price to pay if you ask me.

On Sunday I took a train out of Ghent to visit my friend Bart from Stanford. He is from Ghent and was kind enough to give me a lovely tour of the sights. Not only does Belgium have fruit flavored beer, in Ghent, Bart introduced me to flower flavored ice cream! It was amazing. I had violet ice cream. Can you even imagine?! We went through the restored castle and had lunch at a great Turkish restaurant. Did you know there is such a thing as Turkish pizza. There is and it is really delicious. The trip I want to take is to visit Turkey. I really wanted to go there before, but now that I had that pizza, I really want to go! It was nice to tour a new city with someone. I have become so accustomed to be traveling by myself I forgot how nice it is to share with someone :) I didn’t, however, take any pictures of Ghent while I was there. I realized I can’t do both; Tour with someone else and take pictures. Taking pictures takes all of my focus. On my last day in Brussels I went out and took pictures all over the main parts of the city. They are posted below. I’m in the process of coming up with a name for an online portfolio. I’d like to transform my hobby into an extra income generator. Let me know if you have any ideas. I want the name to sound refined yet traveled.

Sunday night I also went and met up with the cousin of my friend Sebastien from Stanford. The cousin just finished his master’s degree in energy studies. We went out for a drink and he gave me some great tips about places to visit in the city. Namely, Luxembourg Place where the European Union Parliament is located and the Old English music museum where there is a restaurant on the top floor with sweeping views of the city. I made it up there just in time one day after class when we go out early. One down side about the city is that everything closes really early! It’s hard to do anything after 5pm.

I had a wonderful time going running through the various parks and along the canal. I really feel like by running I can get a great feel for a place. One morning I got up and did a long run visiting each of the cities three major parks. I did that when I was staying in London several years ago. I call them park hopping runs. They are really fun and leave you feeling very accomplished. My running has been coming along nicely. I’m back in shape to the point where I am looking forward to getting out each day. The very mild temperatures in Brussels also helped that. In Panama it is unbelievably hot. I am going to bed by 10:30 so I can get up at 6:30 to run. By 7:30am it’s almost too hot to go. I learned that today. I slept in and didn’t get out until 8:30. I was doing my long run as well. When I got back at 9:40am it was like I had already taken a shower I was so drenched in sweat.

In the interest of your time and my sanity, I’m going to wrap up my post here. On my way from Brussels to Panama I had to take two flights, Brussels to Newark, Newark to Panama City. I’ll have you know one of my dreams in life is to fly first class on a long haul transatlantic flight. Little did I know, my dream would be realized long before I ever thought possible. Waiting to board the flight in Brussels my name is called and I’m asked to come to the front desk. The lady looks at me, “Sara?”, she smiles, “You’re going first class on this flight.” I couldn’t believe it. I thanked her, still somewhat in unbelief at this amazing blessing and took my new boarding pass. Seat 1E. Those eight hours from Brussels to Newark were some of the nicest I’ve had in a long time. The service in First Class was incredible. There was nothing they didn’t offer you. There was a five course meal finished off with ice cream sundaes. No plastic utensils and you didn’t have to hold onto your plastic cup for an annoying 20 minutes after you finish your drink waiting for the stewardess to by again. There was no one asking you to get up so they can get to the restroom, and you, yourself, being able to get up and go when you pleased. All free movies with the in-flight entertainment system. Fresh cookies and a seat that reclined with a foot rest that came up making you feel more comfortable than you ever thought possible on an airplane. Dear friends, I have experienced the way the elite travel and for the first time in my life contemplated pursuing extreme wealth in and of itself as a career. What a way to end four weeks that are without comparison.

As a preview of what is to come, on Friday I went to visit the Miraflores locks on The Panama Canal (which I can see from my office space). As a civil engineer, I have to admit, I was smitten.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A few random observations...

While I don't, at present, have time to write a full post, I wanted to jot down some observations and funny things that have happened since I've been in Brussels. Here they go, in no particular order...

While running today I had a guy flash his van headlights at me. Kinda of like someone would honk at you, but with lights. Strange.

Walking beside the canal I noticed a bunch of glass near the curb. My naive mind thinks, well that stinks... what if you wanted to park your car there! But then I notices this glass was appearing pretty frequently but at irregular intervals. The mystery was solved when I saw, to my shock, a car whose window had been broken into. So that means all those patches of glass I saw were previous break-ins! This also explains a sign I saw posted in one car farther down the road that read, "Please do not break into this car. There are no valuables inside. Thank you." It's worth a try I suppose. I think a better option would be to find a different place to park.

The public transport system here works on the honor system with random checks by the "control". I bought a month pass because I knew I would be using the metro and buses a lot. Some people take their chances. If I ever felt foolish about spending the 30 Euros to legally ride, I was vindicated yesterday. As the bus I was on pulled up to a main stop, I noticed all these uniformed guys standing around. It felt like something out of a movie, but the bus stopped, the doors opened, and these guys boarded the bus and asked to see everyone's tickets. One rider across from me got up and tried to get off saying, "Oh, I forgot my wallet, I'll get off..." No mercy. Thankfully I had my pass and the guy who checked it seemed quite pleasant. The funny thing is that the picture I had to use to get the pass was really a bad picture. Incredibly unbecoming. I also happened to be very sharply dressed that day so the contrast was pretty noticeable. The guy looks at my pass, looks at me, is about to hand it back but decides to look at it again and then says, in French, something along the lines of that pictures does not portray you well, you look much nicer in person. I just smiled.

While we are on the topic of public transportation I would like to note that the Metro stations play play music on the platforms. Not only does this make the time go by faster it makes you feel like you are living in a musical. Especially when you get off the train and the musical selection just happens to perfectly suit your mood. The first time it happened to me I half expected people to break out in dance!

One unpleasant thing about this city is that you frequently gets whiffs of nasty pee smells while walking down the street; especially passing corners or even some metro entrances. Naturally this grosses me out completely. However, I had a revelation the other day regarding this disgusting habit people seem to have here. The explanation relates to a very famous statue you may be familiar with called Manneken Pis. Basically it's a statue of a little boy peeing. It all of the sudden didn't surprise me that in a city where the most famous statue is urinating in public, that the general population would think that it was an okay thing to do.

Belgium is famous for chocolate, fries (not called French fries, but simply fries), and waffles topped with anything from sugar to creme to bananas to chocolate. All things at are basically incompatible with eating healthy. Why can't someplace be famous for its smoothies or something?!

I've had more beer in Brussels in the last two weeks than I've had in the last 3 months. (That's actually not saying much.) Why? Because in addition to the treats I mentioned above, Belgium beers are also world-renowned. Sitting down with friends and having a drink is like the national past-time here. And, I would like to add that they have fruit flavored beers! A cherry beer is called a Kriek. Highly recommended drink you should try... but they also have raspberry, peach, honey, ect. It's amazing!

Good night ;)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, you now have 46,000 to keep you busy.

These are some of the best photos I took while in Normandy. They include general coastline scenes, countryside near Le Luot, Avranches, Villedieu, and Granville. Pretty much in that order. Enjoy!

La Merveille

Photos of the Bed & Breakfast. I think they do a nice job showing off the place :)

Le Luot shakedown. Better late than never.

Written Saturday July 4th. Not posted until today because of internet issues…go figure.

At this moment in time, as I sit at 11 Rue Leon Lepage in Brussels listening to cars drive by on the street below surrounded by filmmaker paraphernalia, I have to say for the first time in a long time I am completely at ease and content. As you can gather, I made it to Brussels and before I tell you all about the two weeks I spent in France let me just say that I am incredibly blessed to have this great apartment to rent while I am here. Not only is the apartment fantastic, but the friends of the owner that live upstairs have been wonderful. To begin, the women met me at the Metro station so I didn’t have to try and find the actual building by myself. Then we went on a walking tour in the afternoon, and last night we went to the Brussels Film Festival. The movie showing was a Swedish film “Together” with French and Dutch subtitles. I was so excited because I could actually follow the French subtitles. It was definitely not a Hollywood style movie. Believe it or not, the movie started at 10:30pm and with the after party socializing we didn’t leave until 2:30am! What a way to be introduced to Brussels. It was really a good time and since I had no reason to get up early this morning, slept in until 11 ;)

So, back to the point of this post… The Bed and Breakfast called La Merveille situated in the lovely, very small village (15 houses) of Le Luot. Getting off the train to meet my host I was naturally a bit nervous. There is always that shadow of doubt that you’ve made a bad choice. My take on this feeling is that it’s actually a good thing; it keeps you on guard. In any case, as promised my host (whom we’ll call Ray) and his dog were at the platform to meet me. My first impression was a good one. No alarm bells ringing except that his car was quite dirty with dog hair all over the place. Thankfully he had a bed sheet to put over the seat and assured me that his regular partner never sits in the car without covering the seat. So he knew it wasn’t a normal state for a car to be in.

As we arrived at La Merveille I was relieved to see that it was just as it looked on the website. No Tom Foolery on the location. I casually asked about how many guests there were at present and I was, not going to lie, a little unsettled when he said that the guests from the night before left this morning and there were no guests at the moment. I wasn’t super keen on that fact, but I still felt okay with the situation. He gave me a tour of the yard, the house and my room which was on the 3rd floor. It was actually like this huge family suite with several rooms. I thought I was going have a Cinderella type of lodging, but I was given one of the nicest rooms in the whole place! I was also happy that it was on the third floor. I could have been being a bit paranoid, but the space was nice, as was the locking door. In the end, there was absolutely nothing to be concerned about. I was left in complete peace when I was upstairs in my room. After the first day that he showed me the room, Ray never came back upstairs. It was nice to feel like I had my own part of the house. That first night we ate dinner and went over some jobs that he was looking to have done and discussed what I thought would be some good projects. I was exhausted from traveling so I turned in early. The funny thing is that given the latitude, it doesn’t get dark until between 10:45 and 11:00pm. I eventually got used to it, but man is it weird when its 10pm and it looks like 7pm outside.

I’m obviously not going to go through each day with such detail. Honestly there are only one or two important things that happened each day and the rest of the time I was having a wonderful time relaxing. Some of the jobs I tackled included weeding the front area of the house. The weeds and brambles had over taken the sign and just looked unkept. After about 2 hours and numerous scratches all over my arms and legs I was proud to show Ray how nice the front of the house looked. He was really impressed! The grass had been cut the day I arrived, but none of the edges had been weed whipped. I asked Ray if he had a weed whipper and to my surprise he did, but in England they call them “strimmers” so it took a little bit of description to come to an agreement about whether he had one of not. How does one have a weed whipper/strimmer/whatever you want to call it and not know it or never have used it? That is a great question. During my time there I realized Ray is a self-proclaimed disaster when it comes to completing any sort of practical task around the house. This is pretty surprising when you consider that he makes his living my running a Bed & Breakfast. Case in point, the first night I was there he was watering the flowers and comes running into the house all frazzled to turn off the water main because when he turned on the hose he loosened the top of the faucet and there was a spray of water shooting 10 feet into the air. Oh, it was funny. Thankfully for him though, I am very good when it comes to practical tasks and in another hour I had all the weeds trimmed and the place was looking very spiffy. Funny episodes were a common occurrence and usually included me kindly asking Ray about something he was doing incorrectly and him replying, “I probably shouldn’t have done that, right?” “Right…”

Other things I did were to weed the stone patio area, clean a couple of bathrooms, and make up beds for guests (in anticipation of their arrival). We were supposed to get a couple staying with us on Tuesday night, but they didn’t show up. I was pretty surprised and a bit frustrated. I knew it was a Bed & Breakfast, but where were all the people?! Turns out the really busy time started the week I left. Figures. The nice thing was I was able to help with some jobs we wouldn’t have had time to complete if there were a lot of guests. Side Note: Unlike American style bedding where you have a mattress sheet, top sheet and a comforter, in Europe they have the mattress sheet and a duvet with a duvet cover. After each guest you take off sheet and the duvet cover and wash it. It makes a lot of sense actually. When I was in London several years ago, that it how the bedding was. It took a while to get used to it, but in the end I kind of like it now. It makes things simpler. It’s also how the bedding is here in Brussels. By the way, I could have stayed at the University where my classes are being held. But that would have been a dorm room with a shared kitchen and bathroom and no where near the city center. For the same amount I would have paid for those accommodations, I have a whole apartment to myself! I will have to commute to the classes, but I figured better that way than having to commute into the city for fun. If that was the case I doubt I have spent much time in the center.

In addition to random outside jobs also including buying poisonous gas to put down mole hills (the lawn was experiencing a pretty severe mole problem), buying and planting more flowers, I also was in charge of preparing dinners. I will repeat again, I am not cut out for cooking. It’s not that I don’t try, I do. And thankfully Ray would eat just about anything, but I can tell the difference between food that is really good and food that is only mediocre. My food is mediocre. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, just that I recognize this is continually an area I can improve upon. The nice thing was I did get to experiment a little bit. Ray really liked eating meat. I didn’t really have much experience cooking different meats, so I went online and learned about it. We would go out to the store and I would pick out whatever we needed for the next couple of days food wise and Ray would pay for it. That’s part of the deal; a few hours of work in exchange for room and board. It was nice that I was able to determine what the board would look like. I was able to pick out healthy foods and put together some well balanced meals. I have to hand it my mother and all the other fine women and men out there who prepare meals every night. It gets tiring trying to figure out what to eat. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of always having the same thing…

One perk was I was able to run a lot while I was there. The roads were pretty narrow, but also had very little traffic. During several runs I think I was passed by more farm equipment than actual cars. I have to admit, I have developed quite an infatuation with European cars. They are really stylish and small. In America, cars are huge, but here they are compact and zippy. Ray had a manual car which I never asked to try and drive, but kind of wanted to just to try out my new skills and because the car was from Britain and had the wheel on the right side instead of the left. I couldn’t believe you can drive British cars outside of Britain legally, but I guess you can. It was licensed and everything. So you’re driving on the right hand side of the road with the wheel on the right as well. I can imagine it’s a pretty bad angle and not the best plan ever invented. In any case, my running adventures were some of the best times I had. The first day I went out I came across a very old man standing at a rather deserted cross-roads. He looked like he wanted to talk so I clicked off my ipod and went over to say hello. He was nice old man and while I couldn’t understand everything he said I did learn that he was 92 years old! At first I thought my French was failing me, but no. 92. Wow. If I look like that when I’m 92, I’ll be very happy. He seemed to be moving about just fine! That sort of encounter was exactly they type of thing I was hoping for!

Another time I was out running and passed the same farmer driving his equipment around several times. Each time he turned around waving wildly and giving me a thumbs up. I doubt the see many regular runners around their parts. Last Monday, I went out even though it looked like it might rain. 10 minutes into the run, the rain was holding out but, there is a dog that is running right towards me. I started thinking to myself that this would be the end and was happy I had gotten my rabies shots before I went to Africa. At least if he took a bite out of me I would be in okay shape as far as not becoming rabid goes. In any case, I yell at the dog as he is about 20 feet away, no change, still full speed at me. Then wouldn’t you know, the dog keeps running. Took no notice of me whatsoever! It was like he was out for his own little run and couldn’t be bothered. It was strangest thing I had ever seen when it comes to dogs and running. Later in that same run, the threatening skies opened up and poured for a 20 minutes. I figured a little water can’t hurt ya and kept on with my planned route. The rain was really very refreshing. I just wish I hadn’t had such a big t-shirt on. It became very heavy with water. As the rain slowed the clouds parted and sun started shining. I knew there had to be a rainbow somewhere. My ipod starts playing the song “How Great is Our God” and wham, to my left is a full out beautiful rainbow. It was exhilarating to say the least. It felt like life was the way it was supposed to be all of the sudden. What a feeling to have. A real sense of peace and blessing washed over me and I was full of praise for this crazy life. That moment was definitely a highlight of Normandy for me.

With very few guests I was able to do some sightseeing which was wonderful. On Wednesday Ray drove me over to see the coast for the first time. It was pretty spectacular. I never got to see the actual D-Day beaches because those are about and hour and half away, but what I did see was amazing. The big town closest to Le Luot is Avranches. Avranches is right on a bay that experiences some of the greatest tides in the world, differences of 45 feet. This means at low tide the sea practically disappears. It goes out for miles and miles. The first time I saw it it was low tide. After seeing the coast we went to a place called St. Hillaire de Harcourt to meet a couple that is good friends with Ray. They stayed at La Merveille when they were house hunting in Normandy. They were Scottish and wonderful people to be around. Completely the opposite of Ray, the man was very good at Do-It-Yourself type work. He was renovating the house they are currently living in. It is also a Bed & Breakfast, but hasn’t been around as long and is a bit more out of the way to get to. In any case, we all went out to dinner and had a very nice time. The Scottish couple actually were the first people to have a HelpX person come and stay with them. They had another American girl come and she was fantastic. Because of their great success Ray decided to try HelpX as well. I’m really glad that chain of events happened as it did or I wouldn’t have had this awesome experience.

Another place I got to visit in the down time was Mont St. Michel. St. Michel is a basically a little mountain island that sticks right up in the middle of the bay. An abbey was constructed at the top a very very long time ago and today it is a favorite spot to visit. I was able to go last Monday. We got there early to beat the crowds which where sure to arrive. I took one of the first tours of the abbey. I was going to take the French tour, but there were like 40 people. So I waited for the English tour which had only 6 other people. It was a great tour. The guide was really funny and told interesting stories and not just boring facts about the building. I learned that the word Bar-B-Que comes from French in that they used to roast whole animals on a spit and the spear went from the “barbe” (beard/mouth) to the tail “queue”. Said fast “de barbe au queue” kind of sound like BBQ. This is probably just a tale he tells to entertain tourists, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Let’s see. On Saturday I was dropped off in Avraches for awhile to sight see and take pictures. The same was repeated on Sunday, but I was instead dropped off at Villedieu. Pictures from both places are posted next :) The things I liked the most about Avranches were the Botanical gardens, and very old castle ramparts. In Villedieu, there wasn’t much to see, just a lot of copper shops. Funny enough, I asked the lady if all the copper items were made in the town and she said no! Oye!

My final tourist adventure was to Granville. Granville is also along the coast and it a picturesque coast town. I had done some research and found a center for sailing and nautical sports. They also rented windsurfs. Since there wasn’t too much to see in the town I went to the office and made arrangements to rent a board and sail at 2pm. I don’t know why she told me 2pm because that was seriously when there was a group of about 150 little French children all having a sailing class! First off, I’m not super good at windsurfing yet. Second, I was all by myself. And third, I wasn’t super confident about the wind and having about 30 little sail boats all around isn’t the easiest thing to navigate. However, I sucked it all up and had a really fun time. By the end of the hour I was feeling more comfortable again. I determined to ignore all the children’s calls to me and went about navigating to and fro in the little bay. Turns out though, that the time I was going to be finished also coincided with when the class was over and there was a huge traffic jam at the dock. Instead, I just sailed my board onto the shore and the guy who helped me get all set up came to take my sail and I carried the board. It was a much farther walk, but if I would have waited for all the boats to go in I would have missed my train back! I was super excited to be able to break out the windsurfing skills I learned at Stanford this past Spring. I just need to keep practicing to get really good, but I may have found my new water sport ;)

With all this activity did I ever get to help with any guests? Yes! In total we had 14 guests while I was there. The first group was a family of Americans. Can I tell you I was cracking up when they rolled up in matching European rental cars, all got out decked in North Face attire carrying all North Face luggage. Oh materialism. North Face is a really expensive outdoor brand and I was amazed and a little disgusted by this showing of wealth. In my head I nicknamed them the Little North Face family… turns out, they were from California. For some reason, I am NOT surprised. They were really nice people and they could have all been decked out in Prada, I was just happy to finally have guests and be put to work. I liked feeling like I was earning my keep :) I helped cook and serve for the Bar-B-Que in the evening. In the mornings we provide a lovely French style breakfast. I helped lay the tables, cut up the bread, and arrange the pastries. Upon reflection, I’m not sure I want to go through with the whole waitress thing when I get back to Stanford. Maybe I just need a little more training, but I don’t know if it’ll be all the fun. I would like to work at a florist shop. How about that? Eh, maybe not. I think the draw of the waitress thing was that it would be in the evenings. The daytime floral gig might not fit into my schedule… But I digress. We also had a Swedish/Italian couple stay as well as a group of three Englanders two of whom were currently living in Hong Kong?!@ And finally a Swedish family that we cooked for on Thursday night. My other contribution to Le Merveille was taking some stunning photos of the room and the house to use to update their website. I think they turned out really well.

All in all I would say my B&B experience was a great success. I was a little frustrated that I wasn’t able to speak more French, Ray didn’t speak French like at all… I did take a phone call in French for him and talked with a French guy who helped out around the house occasionally. I went to church on Sunday which was all in French :) It was something about a blessed bread service and they passed out whole chunks of bread to eat. It was great. It was like a snack in church, and no, it wasn’t communion because they did that too. It was something else entirely. The church community is very small, very few people in that region are religious and the service rotates between churches on a weekly basis. How wonderful that the week I was there the service was at the church across the road! I think my favorite part was singing the songs in French :)

I will end this post with three short stories on my travels from Le Luot to Brussels. 1. I lost my very special water bottle when I moved seats on the first train. I was devastated. Seriously. I love my blue camelback water bottle. It was like a security blanket and a life source. I had lost it several times before but it always came back to me. However, as I sat on the train with no water bottle in sight I was certain it was gone forever. For the two hour remainder of the time, my sadness did not diminish and as I got off the train in Paris I couldn’t help but look just one last time. I looked all around my first seat, but nothing. Then, as luck and fate, and divine intervention would have it, I looked up into the luggage rack and Voila! There it was!!! Oh I was so so so happy. You don’t know how much something means to you until you lose it and its not often that you get it back to appreciate it again.

2. At the station in Paris I had to buy a metro ticket. The lines at the machines were really long and after waiting in one and then having my card fail I was at a loss. I had already lost 15 minutes and needed to get to the other train station to catch my train to Brussels. There were all these guys walking around trying to sell you metro tickets and they seemed pretty shady. At first I was like, no way. But after my failed attempt to purchase them with the machine I saw them as my next best option. I asked the guy if it worked and he assured me it did. Not wanting to be ripped off and more just needing to get through the turnstile, I made the guy walk over with me and make sure I could get through. All’s well that ends well. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was what I had to do.

3. Once at the Gare de Nord I had to retrieve the ticket I purchased online. Normally you can do this at the little yellow machines, but again my card failed. I hate that not all machines recognize American credit cards. Our cards don’t have a special chip in them so the machine rejects them… Anyway, I had to wait in a really long line that was not moving. I still had 45 minutes before my train left, but with 10 minutes to go I realized I wasn’t going to get to a window in time. The lady in line behind me offered to hold my bags and I frantically tried to get someone, anyone’s attention. The whole ordeal was super stressful. I couldn’t miss my train because someone was waiting to meet me and I had no way to get in touch with her to say I wouldn’t be there. The timing worked that one ticket window opened and I ignored everyone else to make the man give me my ticket! I have less than 10 minutes! I had already paid for it! I just needed it printed on a boarding pass for the train. Oh I was SO MAD! People take 10 minutes at these windows deciding which train to take and how much to pay, etc. and my transaction took all of 90 seconds. The man passed my ticket under the little window and I grabbed my bags and rushed to the platform. I showed my pass to the security people and had to walk to the end of the platform to get to my car. Once on the train with bags safely stowed I sat down took a deep breathe and the train started to roll out of the station. If I had waited any longer to make a fuss I would have missed my train. If I had not bought my Metro pass from the shady guy I wouldn’t have made my train. So many close calls, but by God’s grace I was on the train and headed for Brussels.

Hope this was as entertaining to read as it was to write. I promise to write more frequently so you don’t have these monster posts all the time. As a treat for making it this far let me entertain you with the anecdote that my HelpX host had an incredible toupee. Exact same side part just in a slightly different place each day. And, the dog, which was scratching itself all the time… turns out it had fleas. Awesome. Not.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Back in Action and Ready to Travel.

It’s been awhile, pretty much a full school year, since I last posted. I would like to think I didn’t write because I was too busy, but frankly, I just didn’t think people would want to read about my life post-Africa… Sometimes I didn’t even find it all that interesting, especially compared to the excitement of last year. Maybe at some point I’ll write a few posts summarizing highlights of my first year of Graduate School at Stanford, but don’t hold your breathe. For now suffice it say, very generally, I had a challenging yet enjoyable time. The coursework was manageable, engaging, yet quite frustrating at times. I met some really wonderful people and wouldn’t believe how sunny it could be!

So what prompts me to write again? What has caused me to break my silence and again take up the pen, now only a metaphor for the keyboard, which is mightier than the sword? Believe it or not I am off on another whirlwind adventure this summer and want to share stories of my wanderings with you. To bring you up to speed I am currently in the very small town of Le Luot in France. I will be in France for 2 weeks, onto Brussels in Belgium for 2 weeks, and then make a major shift to Panama City, Panama for 7 weeks. In Brussels, I’m enrolled for a course called Assessing Public Health in Emergency Situations. It’s being held by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the Univesité Catholique de Louvain. This centre, centre is a very European spelling which seems fancier that it probably should, hosts the world’s database on disaster information. I’ll have you know my research interest is in how water and sanitation service recovery following major disasters impacts public health. This course will introduce me to the basics of public health assessment and allow me to learn more about the Em-Dat database that will likely play a role in my dissertation research. So if I have to be Brussels, why am I in France? I figured if I was going to come all this way across the Atlantic I might as well make it worth my while. Since I had already done most of the touristy stuff in Paris the last two times I had been here, I was determined to get out into the French country. I got a gig working at a very quaint and lovely Bed and Breakfast in Southern Normandy; free room and board in exchange for a few hours of work. The website of the Chambres des Hotes is: if you would like to check it out. I’ll probably be posting some of my own pictures of the place soon as well.

If you’re wondering how I arranged to work at a B&B in France let me direct you to a lovely site I discovered called This site connects hosts and helpers from all over the world. It was inspired by the idea of WWOOFing that is an exchange of work for room and board on organic farms. HelpX just expands the options to include hosts that are not organic farms. So far I have really enjoyed my time here at La Merveille. I imagine I’ll post very couple of days when I have something interesting to report.

But before I regale you with some very funny anecdotes from my experience getting to this place, let me explain where Panama fits in to this whole deal. So after my course in Brussels, I have arranged for an internship with UNICEF in their regional office which happens to be in Panama. I wanted to get some real-world experience with disaster response efforts and UNICEF is a major player in this area. I will be working with the disaster response group under the supervision of the director for the water and sanitation program. This position is pretty much a dream come true. I am kind of nervous that my Spanish isn’t up to par, but I’m planning to work on that over the next four weeks. My Mom was trying to discourage me from hauling along a very large Spanish textbook with me but in the end I brought it… now I must strive to vindicate my admittedly not so sensible packing choice by really using it. I opened it up to today and reviewed some regular verbs, which is a good sign since today was my first full day here and already I used it once. It’s a good foot to start out on. Without any further delay, tidbits of silliness really.

The flight from Chicago to New York was very short and yet I managed to get bumped and jostled more times that I could count. I don’t think I was hanging out into the aisle, but I swear every time the flight attendants walked past, they bumped into me. There was one older gentleman in particular, who wasn’t especially large, but was especially careless in carrying himself. After one hit that was quite obvious I was half tempted to use my flight attendant call button to bring someone over just ask them to be more careful. In the end, my manners and better judgment kicked in. I also remembered the time I was trying to put my camera bag in the overhead compartment and accidentally hit a lady in the head with it. Yeah, I felt pretty bad. But planes are tight spaces and stuff like that happens.

As another note, and maybe I’m just more aware of this at the moment, but it seems like every time I’ve flew as of late I’ve been seated next to a boyfriend and girlfriend pair. How do I know they were only dating and not married? Because they were holding hands and kissing. Generally, and maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seems like once you’re married the PDA stuff tends to chill way out. I think there should be a rule against PDA on airplanes. Especially because most rows have 3 seats, so even if you and your significant other are together there is likely someone else in very close proximity who would you like to get a away, but can’t unbuckle their seatbelt. And FYI, I would say the last 4 flights I have taken have been like that. And, as a single gal who isn’t all that excited about being single (still…) having to endure plane romance almost invokes the gag mechanism. Alright, that was a little melodramatic, but I’m just saying. It makes you acutely aware of your situation. On the flight to Paris from NYC I was seated next to a typical couple as described and actually moved to a different seat that was open in a row with only one older guy seated at the window. Boy was that a good move :)

So I wasn’t sure what my French would be like, but I got off the plane and I was trying to decide whether to take the bus or the train to get to the station so I busted out my French and wouldn’t you know it came right back to me. I was pretty happy about that. I was, however, unhappy that the only ATM in the terminal was HSBC. I was looking for a BNP Paribus ATM so I wouldn’t have to pay fees. I learned through my stellar French communication that I couldn’t pay with a credit card for the bus, so I opted for the train. Those machines do take plastic. The train was half the price 8.50 Euro vs. 16.50 Euro and while it took longer and was way more complicated, I was happy to stick it out. I was, however, unhappy that I decided against changing out of my black ballet style dress shoes and have blisters to show for my choice to be more stylish than practical. In my defense, I had no idea the transfers from the RER train to the Metro to the SCNF trains would be such long walks. I also reasoned that the money I saved by taking the train could go towards paying off the USB to Mini-USB cable I paid $20 for at the airport because I forgot mine at home. These cables come free with most cell phones, and I have like 3 at home. However, without one I can’t get my pictures on my computer. With 11 weeks and countless photo opts in my future, I stomached the bill and bought it. I’m glad I did because I don’t know where I would begin to look for one here. Although I will keep my eyes open. If I find one cheaper I may return the other one when I pass back through Newark… We’ll see. It just frosts my cookies that I forgot it in the first place!

Another learning point from this trip is never chose to use an over the shoulder bag instead of a backpack. I got this great new Under Armor tote bag that is huge and stylish and pretty much awesome, but I overloaded it and carried it around with me for way too long. Consequently, I work up this morning with a terrible pain in my neck. How do I know it was the bag? It is on the opposite side as the side I carried my bag. I can just imagine how out of alignment my vertebrae are and it makes me shudder. In addition to the neck issue… this bag lost me a very valuable baguette sandwich. After milling about the train station and walking way to far with the amount of luggage I was hauling I sat down to eat a chicken sandwich for which I begrudgingly paid 4.70Euro. I sat down in the waiting area and as I am taking my big back pack, off the rolling suitcase that has my black bag on top with my sandwich inside succumbs to the force of gravity and crashes to the floor. What ensued should have been tapped as it would have been a hit on YouTube. I try and pick up the bags and things start falling out. I can’t get the tote straps unwound from the rolling suitcase and just as I’m making progress the sandwich which is packaged in a sleeve of plastic slides out. Thankfully it didn’t hit the floor but only rested on my backpack, but I watched in horror as all the chicken fell out from between the bread. If there weren’t pigeons all over the place I may have invoked the 5 second rule, but I know too much about microbiology now to let that one slide. Anyway, it was like pieces of my heart were falling to the floor with each hunk of chicken. I was so hungry! The food place was about a quarter mile walk and I already felt ripped off. So here I was devastated, tired, and hungry, without a sandwich and still with all my luggage in disarray. I can only imagine what the people around me were thinking. I know one woman was thinking I would lose my wallet which also tumbled out of my bag in the great calamity as I will refer to it. She was very kind and held one of my bags while I made amends with the situation. I still ate the sandwich which at this point consisted of lettuce and tomato. Although, at the very end I discovered there was one lone piece of chicken that hadn’t fallen out, a saving grace of protein to redeem my meal failure and boy did I savor that little morsel.

As we are on the topic of food let me tell you about my experience with Quick a fast food type place. After acquiring my sandwich I realized I needed more water. I went to the vending machine and it was 1.80Euro for a bottle. “Highway robbery!” I exclaimed in my head and went over to the fast food place thinking that of course they would be cheaper. Wrong. They wanted 2.40Euro for the same bottle! But I was already in for the transaction and felt kind of funny backing out. So I joking said in French that Wow that is expensive, no? The lady laughed and agreed. I took the opening and asked if instead I could just get a glass of water. She obliged my request and I got my glass of water that I subsequently poured into my water bottle. (Small victory number one for my French.) All’s well that ends well. I wish I could say the same for my sandwich. At least it made a mildly entertaining story…

Final story, and I regret it’s not great, but its rather teachable so I will continue. Shortly after the calamity I boarded the train headed to Villedieu-les-poeles. I was pretty confused trying to find my seat and manage my luggage all at the same time. When I located my seat, my heart sank. It was in a grouping of three seats two facing backwards and one forward. Most seats were in groups of four, but this was only three and looked cramped. There was already someone in the forward facing seat and someone in the aisle backwards one. I was at the window. The girl at the aisle… she looked about my age seemed super put out that I was supposed to be sitting next to her. I myself wasn’t so thrilled especially when it looked like there were a ton of open seats. I thought it might be like in Malaysia where things fill up as you go along so I was reluctant to move. I also didn’t realize I would be going backwards until I was already settled into the seat. With the two adjacent seats taken, I had no where to put the bag of doom, so I kept it on my lap. I was thoroughly dissatisfied and probably still a little upset about my sandwich. When the conductor came through for the tickets I asked if I could change my seat because I was getting sick. (Small victory number two for my French.) He said yes, but I also kind of thought he indicated I could change at the next stop. I kept waiting and waiting with my anger and dizziness mounting. I’m telling you the girl next to me seemed like she would bite my head off if I said anything to her. Finally, however, even as the train was moving I decided enough was enough. I asked the girl to let me out, which she actually did quite kindly… I think you could tell I wasn’t doing so hot. I gathered up my bags and bumbled down the aisle trying not to be like the annoying flight attendant bumping into people as much as possible. I made it to the next car forward and found a lovely extra seat. In an instant I felt my blood pressure go back down and my tension was falling away with each clink-ka-clink of the train as I sat in my, as I’ll call it, seat of freedom. Going backwards I couldn’t enjoy the scenery. In the other seat I also couldn’t move around or do anything. And compared to the new group of four chairs, the old ones were much closer together. The train never filled up. And I don’t think the seat assignment on my ticket meant a hill of beans to begin with. So what did I learn? Don’t pretend that facing backwards on a train is going to be okay and don’t wait to move. If you’re in some else’s seat, they’ll let you know and you can move. Moreover, the conductor is not going to kick you off for not being in the seat on your ticket, at least in this case. There was no way to know when I bought the ticket that the seat would be so terrible. I feel like assigned seats and I are not getting on well together as of late. First kissy couples on airplanes, and then pissy girls on trains! Heaven help me. Maybe God is teaching me to stick up for myself. Or to make the move when necessary, even if its awkward at first… oh, that’s good… and maybe aptly applied to my current grad school situation in which I’m debating my future at Stanford. Hum.

That’s all for now. More on Le Luot and the life of a B&B worker soon to follow.

Adeiu mes amis,