Travel and the identity crisis

Those that know me happen to know that I have been going through a bit of an identity crisis. It stems from that existential crisis that many Americans face – what am I, exactly, when it comes to culture, ethnicity, and even standpoint on the world scene? A lot of it comes down to what I always perceived myself to be when safely tucked away as a member of my own diverse yet cohesive community, versus what the rest of the world perceives me to be while I move through their territories.

To anyone outside of America, I am an American (unless they mistake me for Canadian, a popular second choice). To my friends and myself, when inside of America I am part of several much smaller cultures that like to put a large divide between themselves and commercial patriotic truck driving America. So, while I am American, I identify more closely with small tribes of Americans (academic types, coastal kids, members of food co-ops and such). It feels somewhat awkward being lumped together with the whole of America because then I feel as if I am being identified with all of the better known parts that people in the rest of the world are aware of – questionable politics, war, McDonalds, gas guzzlers, McMansions, economic inequality, plot-less action flicks, and so on. Those happen to be the exact parts I disassociated myself from even when in the US, preferring to be involved more in the local community – rather than national – culture.

To another often rather large subset of Americans, I could be identified as Irish-American, Italian-American, German-American, Turkish-American, etc. The fact that I, being an American mutt with some Colonial roots, fit into about six or seven of those groups – that is confusing enough on its own. Which one is the primary group? Do I even have a primary group at this juncture?

Add that to the fact that a some-random-percentage Italian-American that has never seen Italy nor spoken Italian is probably not likely to fit in very well if they visit Italy. I’ve already felt like a very non-Italian freak after just an hour spent sitting in their consulate’s visa waiting room. So, this deep since-birth identity of Italian-American, it doesn’t really feel as if it translates to simply Italian. The same goes for the rest of my multitude of ancestral nationalities. All of this becomes glaringly obvious when outside of the American bubble – the only place in the world where my particular identities make much sense at all.

It comes down to incongruity in perception. People see an American when they look at me. What I see in me is not only mostly in opposition to that generalization, but it also includes subsets that your average person outside of the US is not going to be able to accurately identify. On top of that, I have to deal with the fact that I am actually American. I’m accustomed to surviving in a system that is so efficient that it is ruthless, that paints over the bad parts and hides all of the dust bunnies under a bulging carpet that it then steam rolls flat – and I have been molded by that. There are deeply ingrained survival and ethical level aspects of me that will always be American. Just don’t expect me to eat the nation’s chemical laden Lucky Charms and chug them down with a Big Gulp Coca Cola.

 

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English is a foreign language – even when you speak it

The other day, I was having a conversation with a very English Englishman (does anyone even use that word these days besides me?). It was rather rocky as we came across various stumbling blocks. When he said “orange” I had no idea that it referred to squash (i.e. British Kool-Aid). Why would I, really? I don’t drink the stuff in any land. When I said “sorry” as an apology, he took it to mean that I hadn’t heard what he said and so he repeated it. Things went on from there with little improvement.

It got me thinking about one classic conversation I had many years ago as a Yankee in the southern half of Mississippi. It went something like this:

Elderly Southern woman: “You’re from New York City?”

Me: “I’m from Connecticut and my friend here is from Chicago.”

Elderly Southern woman: “You’re from New York City!”

Me saying something along these lines: “Actually, Chicago is in the state of Illinois. New York City is in the state of New York, which is not Connecticut. They are separate.”

Elderly Southern Woman: “You’re from New York City!”

Me: “Yes, I’m from New York City.”

 

Early Mornings

Usually we’ve been places just a touch too long to really be considered tourists (foreigners: yes, tourists: no), but that hasn’t stopped me from loudly proclaiming “Let’s head down to _______ (fill in random attraction) and pretend to be tourists!”

There’s something freeing about speaking in one’s own language and accent without an overwhelming expectation of “What? You don’t speak exactly like us yet and you’ve been here for HOW long?” The truth is, no, I don’t speak exactly like the locals because:

  • They would be offended if they knew just how bad my attempt at a cockney (or any other) accent was and
  • I’m still me – a unique person with a unique history that does not perfectly match anywhere on this planet, never mind this exact location.

So, on some days I’m a tourist.

For large attractions we go early in the morning and usually on a weekday in order to skip out on the overwhelming crowds of people. There’s something magical about the beginning of a new day and walking freely among history’s monuments – all without getting stuck in a crowd or having to hear the shouts of vendors.

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A view of Big Ben without the big crowd

Getting up early also means beating the crowds into museums, aquariums, theme parks, and zoos…

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We’re kind of aquarium fanatics – more on that later

There are also plenty of smaller and less attended attractions one might not even think about until sitting somewhere bored for several months. One of our favorites ended up being the American Museum in Bath, England. What American would think of going to a museum about America while in a foreign country? The answer: one that likes giggling at what the British really think of us. Oh how difficult it was to keep a straight face.

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The above “yarn tree” with its day-glow colors was found directly in front of the American museum. I’m fairly certain that it was a completely unrelated project (I think?), but never the less – there were many jokes made about the significance of traditional American yarn trees and the 4th of July.

Just remember, rush hour eventually catches up to us all, even those of us that avoid peak hours….

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Personally, I prefer to hide from it in the safety of a nice cafe until the masses have passed by. The way I see it, there are two options when confronted with traffic (and life in general):

  • Hang out for a while, enjoy yourself, have a conversation, have some tea – and be late
  • Get packed into a train like a sardine, experience delays, stand around waiting – and be late

Travelling with cats

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Bringing the pets along can be a wonderful yet harrowing experience. I’ll never forget the day I spent stuck at Customs wondering if I would ever see my furry family member again because the vet had forgotten to sign one of a dozen forms. Our cat wasn’t faring much better trapped in a cage in that building full of barking dogs after his 12 hour flight.

It all worked out for us in the end. We spent the day waiting for the vet to wake up in our country of departure, properly signed documents were faxed, and this was finally released to us:

 

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Image from the ride home after customs

 

It took him a couple of days to recover. I think it took me several weeks. We have learned a few things since then, mostly by trial and error – emphasis on the error.

 

Legalities and Preparation

Every country has their own specific rules regarding the entry of animals. Check their laws and check early. Sometimes it takes months of preparation depending on just how ridiculous and extensive the requirements are. There are companies that specialize in getting cats through customs in you have the extra dough to throw around. My best advice: always, always have a backup plan. Pets, unlike luggage, cannot be replaced.

 

Bring familiar foods

You may love the local cuisine. A finicky cat may not share your enthusiasm. Not all cat foods are created equal. Even if a store carries some of the same familiar brand names, the ingredients are likely to vary greatly from country to country. We found a huge difference in protein levels in cat food between countries – or I should say our cat did by showing worrying levels of lethargy from the low-protein local feline cuisine after a move. Even if feeding a cat a raw foods or homemade diet, be aware that meat and general food quality can vary vastly. The safest bet would be to bring along enough food to allow time to find an acceptable local cat food and transition over to it without causing any food bowl related trauma.

 

And safe water

If you are drinking bottled water in a new location, don’t forget to share it with the pets. They can be just as affected by low quality tap water.

 

And familiar toys/bedding

We all find comfort in the little things from home, cats included. Our older cat prefers his fold up bed. Our younger one loves her toys (also fold up for the most part).

 

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And familiar friends

Travelling companions are always a plus. Our newest addition turns two this year and we couldn’t imagine life without her.

 

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Soft vs hard carriers

Hard carriers are required by most airlines. They can be bulky and may not work for everyday travel, however they do give more room for food, water and general moving around during longer trips. Soft carriers, on the other hand, are like soft luggage or a large purse but designed for pet travel. There is less room inside, but for small cats and kittens they can provide a much easier and less conspicuous mode of short term transport. The soft carriers are also naturally held much closer to the body which makes comforting an anxious cat that much easier.

 

Leashes and harnesses are for show only

Our cats are accustomed to harnesses. They’ll even delight people by seemingly walking along on a leash as if they were well behaved. If they see a dog, or anything else for that matter, they will have completely slipped even the most secure harness in under 0.2 seconds. I personally would not recommend harnesses as anything other than a novelty.

 

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Most of all, listen to your cat…

We’ve learned plenty just by being aware of our cats’ behaviors as they adjust. As it turns out, they like a lot of the same things we do – sunny days, relatively peaceful environments, good food, the occasional nap, new toys and adventures now and then to keep things interesting.

 

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How not to make your own lotion

I love watching DIY lotion videos. They say you can just throw some all natural ingredients into a pot, warm them up, blend it all together and *magic* you get a light non-greasy lotion that looks like whipped cream.

It does seem perfect at first, and so simple. You wouldn’t even have to worry about finding a natural lotion during your travels – just easily whip some up yourself every now and then. It’s like a dream. Let me explain how the reality actually goes.

 

Oil and Water – Rules of

First (if you’re anything like me) you will learn that you really did need that emulsifier to get the oil and water ingredients to blend together. No amount of whipping it or stirring will magically combine the two. Even if you do somehow get them to stay together long enough to put in the container, when you open it up an hour later to admire your homemade product it’s going to be a separated and unpleasant looking mass.

Water_and_oilImage courtesy of Victor Blacus

Stirring and Whipping – Not the same

My first attempt was in the spirit of being all natural. I thought to myself, I don’t really need an electric mixer, I’ll just put my energy into it and stir a bunch with a whisk. Between that and the oil and water fiasco this is what my second or third attempt looked like:

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Not very fluffy. Trust me. Watery and clumpy might be a better description.

No One Needs a Bowl that Large

It’s just an ego thing, I promise. You are not going to immediately start producing commercial sized amounts of lotion by your first, second, or even tenth try. Go small. It will encourage you to use less ingredients. This is a good thing. It means less ingredients will be thrown away when the entire batch goes wrong – which it will.

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As my mixing bowl (okay, it’s really a pot) got smaller, my lotion attempts started to look more like lotion. Coincidence?

Throwing Good after Bad – Why this rarely works

I have discovered, on more occasions than I can count, that one of the ingredients was making my recipe too greasy, too odd feeling, too oily, too watery, etc. In some cases this can be fixed by adding more of an ingredient with the opposite effect. Sometimes it is just time to let the batch go before you end up with a very large amount of unusable lotion. Remember that some of those ingredients are expensive, especially when all added up together. Do you really want to throw them into a product that you think is unusable in its current form?

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So many ingredients to waste (or not waste).

Citric Acid Burns – Why preservatives might not be great

It took four times before I realized that my batches were not working (and I was wasting ingredients by adding more to try to dull the skin burning effect) because the natural preservative that I chose to abundantly use was actually pretty strong and my skin – well – it isn’t quite that strong – it’s actually rather sensitive. It probably didn’t help that I was also using a citrus based essential oil to give the lotion a pleasant scent. Citric acid seems less harmful than long chemical names, but for the beginner lotion chef, it is probably best to be skipped. My honest advice would be to skip the preservatives completely while in the learning stages, make very small batches, and just keep them somewhere cool (i.e. the fridge) until they are used up.

Lotion is NOT a Meringue 

I do not care what any of the DIY lotion experts claim. If you have been whipping your recipe for ten minutes straight with no results, then it is not going to whip. You’ve either gotten overexcited and tried before it was cooled down, or your recipe just wasn’t designed for whipping.

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Hint: if it looks like this is will NEVER whip up.

There is always another day and another batch.

“I Have the Perfect Container for This!” – Phrases to avoid

They say to sterilize a container and have it set aside for your perfectly whipped lotion. In theory, this is a good idea. In real life, there’s just no point until you know what consistency the end result will be. Will it actually be light whipped heaven or will it end up (like most of mine) being so hard that it could be formed into a stick of lip balm, a thick cocoa butter type semi-rock, or a liquid best left in a bottle with a pump so it doesn’t all pour out at once? I have never actually – not even once – managed to create a truly light and fluffy whipped lotion. Creamy? Yes. Whipped? No.

The Chem Lab

In following various internet advice on “natural” and “safe” ingredients *cough*, I have ended up with several jars of ingredients that I would never actually put in my recipes even if they do promise a perfect result. Research before you buy. You would be amazed how many seemingly innocent sounding ingredients started their lives as a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.

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Image courtesy of FEMA. Not my actual kitchen.

We learn by making mistakes. At this rate I shall soon be a genius.

Lions, and tigers, and roller coasters – Oh, my!

Normally, I’m not a fan of large crowds of people or artificially constructed happiness (i.e. theme parks). There is something about the smell of cheap perfume, cigarettes, and copious fabric softener use combined with the repetitive clash of canned circus music that makes me want to run for the woods screaming after the first hour.

That and I have discovered with age that many theme park rides are just brightly painted torture devices that leave one hanging upside-down, begging for mercy, and promising to give up every state secret if the interrogator/ride operator would just make the ride come to an end.


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The kids – and birds – seemed to enjoy themselves.

Understandably, I put off going to them. However, with kids there really is no way to avoid the trips completely, especially during the warmer months, so I made a compromise – we found an amusement park that was (somewhat) lacking in whiplash inducing rides but that made up for it with wildlife. We found it at Chessington not too far from London. I think I may have even enjoyed myself (with a little assistance from a headache pill – I’m human and circus music really is bad).

Having the option to go on an overcast day that threatened (but never actually produced) rain was a definite advantage. The air felt nearly clean and the lines for rides were minimal. The wide paths were ours and ours alone in many cases. The animals (mainly the spider monkeys and some very fancy show chickens) that were willing to acknowledge humans gave us their full attention, having few other people to interact with. Other than a mild case of whiplash, it was actually all rather pleasant.

The odd day

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Meet one of our previous house guests.

This guy met the business end of a coyote and won, doing the entire coop a great service. However, he needed some time to recuperate after and thus became a household regular for a couple of weeks until his missing feathers grew in enough to manage the outdoor climate.

I have to admit I miss his inquisitive nature as he would settle in for the night, roosting on his towel on the back of the sofa while watching me peck away at the laptop keys.

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The cat was a little confused, but fairly well behaved when it came to our house guest.