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,