On Leaving

Open road stretches out before me, cornfields and forests swirl into blurry greens and yellows. The windows are down and my hair tickles my nose, the sun warms my thighs and my elbow is getting sunburned but I don’t mind, I’ll peel and the dried skin will remind of me this day, this place, this slippery moment. The radio plays U2, Beautiful Day, and I’m singing loud.

What does leaving feel like?

on leaving1

It feels like that drive down the freeway. Like everything is right and the world is beautiful and maybe I’m wrong, maybe nothing is right because why does it hurt? I’m heading somewhere I want to go and leaving somewhere I want to stay and I want to be in both places and so I try to force the in between to linger. Tears stream down and blow off my cheeks, stolen by wind.

My toenails were hennaed black when we evacuated from Somalia and I remember watching the black grow out with my nail. When I clipped the last sliver of nail with black swath across the narrow tip. When my body released that last vestige, no longer stamped with a reminder of where I had been. I remember it feeling like, with that one snip, we were evacuating all over again, like something had been irrevocably removed.

Does anyone else see green grass and feel dizzy? The green blades like sea snakes swaying in the summer breezes. Does anyone else notice the way leaves filter sunlight and cast glittery shadows, orbs of golden light reflected off rivers in diamonds? Is there a way to hold it? To paint it on my toenails so I can carry it until I am ready to let go?

During leaving days every interaction is intensified, every color made more brilliant. Do you know I’m going back to Africa, to Djibouti, on Thursday? I want to say to the cashier, the postman, the hair stylist. Do you know this is my last box of strawberries, my last jog in shorts, my last swim in fresh water, my last heart-bearing conversation with you, dear friend? Do you know how exhausting it is to live so many lasts, again? And then next week to be living so many firsts, again? To be so heavily aware of the preciousness in each moment, each bite, each conversation, each sunburn?

I try to capture the feeling and words refuse to be harnessed. It is a welling up, a hollowing out, a summoning forth, and a tamping down. There is grief and loss and joy and gain. Because there is both leaving and arriving and in the middle is the purgatory airplane ride during which I will pass from one world to the next.

Is it too dramatic to say leaving feels like death? If you knew which day you were going to die…? I do. I know that on this particular day I will leave and I won’t be back for a couple of years and in those passing years, things and people change. And every second lived during the leaving days is weighted down with the knowledge that I can’t have this back. Maybe the practice of leaving is like a burial, like laying to rest. Like placing a headstone over the meaningful moments, places, people. Marking them, planting seeds in them, trusting that flowers will grow.

Is it too dramatic to say arriving feels like rebirth? If you could reinvent yourself…? I can. I shed the Minnesota and put on the Djibouti and there is an invigorating freshness, a sense of opportunity and anticipation.

We are leaving (we already left). We have left many times in the past and have arrived just as many times. Though it might seem I should be used to this, adjusted to the countdown and the onslaught of sensory details, both in leaving and in arriving, I’m not. I don’t want to be.

I look at the cornfields and think, I love cornfields and why can’t I stay here? But I’m afraid that if I stayed I might not love cornfields the same way anymore. I wouldn’t love them in a leaving way. If I stayed I wouldn’t see the ocean and wouldn’t think I love the ocean, wouldn’t love the ocean in a leaving way.

A tug-of-war reigns and it is both exhausting and life-affirming. It intensifies color and taste and laughter and sadness.

This is what leaving feels like.

This is what arriving feels like.

To Recline or Not To Recline?

Last February I wrote a blog post about the man who sat behind me on a seventeen-hour international flight (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Toronto, Canada) and refused to let me recline my seat. The post generated a good amount of traffic and fiercely opinionated comments, both in support of my right to recline and in support of his right to leg space.

airplane legroom

This week a United Airlines flight had to be diverted (Newark to Denver, diverted to Chicago) after a fight broke out between two passengers. A man used the Knee Defender to prevent the seat in front from reclining. The passenger in front demanded he remove the device, he refused. The flight attendant demanded he remove it (though not banned by the FAA, the device is not allowed on United Airlines flights), he refused. The female passenger threw a cup of water in his face. The plane diverted, both were kicked off, and continued on its merry (and delayed) way.

Who was right? Was I right to be angry that I couldn’t recline for seventeen hours? Or was the man behind me right to defend his leg room?

In my situation, he reclined his own seat. He also refused to acknowledge me during the entire flight. He wouldn’t meet my eye, didn’t politely explain that he had long legs, didn’t engage in any constructive way.

My father is 6’3” and says that every time he boards a plane (he rides economy class), he speaks with the person in front of him. He says, “I’m a big guy. I know you will want to recline your seat and you have every right to do so. All I ask is that you please inform me before reclining so that I can adjust my legs and my tray table.”

He says he has never had a problem. Not only that but most times, the passenger in front doesn’t end up reclining.

I tend to believe that people are generally reasonable and that when this kind of conversation happens, both sides can be gracious. But in my opinion, refusing to discuss the recline or slipping on a sneaky device without discussing it will only serve to bring out the fury in already exhausted and stressed passengers.

Perhaps a reasonable suggestion might be that on overnight flights or when you are traveling with an infant on your lap or when your legs are longer than average, passengers simply have a discussion with people in front or behind. Flying can bring out the worst in everyone, I know. I’ve been on thirty and forty hour journeys (departing for yet another one in less than 24 hours). With three young children. But I don’t think it is asking too much for the adults among us to behave like adults which might mean not throwing water in faces, not growling and shaking seats, but simply having a conversation.

What do you think? Do passengers have a right to recline? A right to refuse to be reclined into?

*image via Flickr

10 Essential Expatriate Travel Skills

When there is no amazon prime or delivery options or shopping online, there are some important skills to develop. When prodigious amounts of travel are required, there are some important skills to develop. When navigating two worlds, there are some important skills to develop. I’m not sure how you could practice these before embarking on international moves but I’ll leave that to you. Here are some useful skills, a mere scratching of the surface…

travel skills

  1. Packing the right amount of peanut butter
  2. Knowing exactly what 50.0 pounds feels like
  3. Accurately guessing what style and size shoes your toddler/tween/teenager will wear eighteen months from now
  4. Purchasing the right running shoes to get through the next 2,500 miles
  5. Sitting nearly upright for fifteen hours at a time without losing your mind
  6. Walking off those fifteen hours in preparation for another 8-10 before doing it again, while in a cramped airport lugging carry-ons, purses, computer bags, backpacks, diaper bags, strollers, and 1-3 zombie children
  7. Filling out visa and immigration paperwork with one hand, the paper balanced on soft-sided luggage which is balanced on top of your thigh which is leaning against the metal bars that hold up those red ropes, so that you can stand in line while filling it out instead of getting stuck at the back of a group of not-from-around-here tourists
  8. Peeing from any level of squat regardless of the availability of toilet paper or hand sanitizer or bathroom stall doors or bathrooms
  9. Calling two countries home
  10. Knowing that ‘home’ has multiple meanings

This week I’m packing, planning for a 50-hour journey (including a 22-hour layover in Kenya), and slipping out of one home while sliding into another. I will be relying heavily on these skills, and more, this weekend.

What have been some of your essential skills?

*image via Flickr

Culture Shock in Pictures: Bathrooms

Back by popular demand, I’ll continue off and on to post photos reflecting culture shock. Today’s topic is bathrooms. Oh yes, let’s look at photos of bathrooms. (caution, this post contains words and images some might find offensive.)

In America the majority of toilets are sit-’n-shits.

floral bathroom

There are a few port-a-potties (clean, contained, sheltered from the elements and peeping toms, and stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer).

porta potty

There are also outhouses, essentially port-a-potties built from wood and without the hand sanitizer. And there are open fields, bushes, lakes, and patches of grass where, if you live in rural areas and are a five-year old boy or younger, are perfectly good places near which you might drop your pants and water the grass. I know because I’m related to boys who have done this and I’ve seen them do it.


In America, toilets flush for you, sometimes while you are still sitting on them. Water, soap, paper towels or dryers, all are turned on for you. Sometimes there are plastic sheets to put over the seat, sometimes there are little boxes on the doors so you can open the door without touching it.

Couches. In the bathroom. And decorations. In the bathroom. This is, to a Djiboutian, absurd. As is the fact that we have a magazine rack in the bathroom at our house. Imagine! Djiboutian bathrooms are often dark, damp, and the home of jinn, or mischievous devils. They are not places to linger or beautify.

reading on toilet

In Djibouti we also have many sit-’n-shits though they are a bit different. In homes there is no guarantee of toilet paper (what do you think your hand is for?) or hand sanitizer (just wipe with the left, eat and greet with the right). In restaurants there is no guarantee of toilet seats or running water (or paper or soap). In the airport there is no guarantee of a door (or paper, soap, seats, or running water). In the hospital there is no guarantee of privacy (I have carried my urine in a clear plastic cup, sloshing, past other patients, after using the toilet with no soap, paper, or running water).

bathroom bankoule1

In Djibouti we also have squatty potties. These are similar to port-a-potties minus the throne, toilet paper, water, sanitizer, and sometimes minus the walls and roof.

squatty potty

And we have the side of the road. Before races or simply whenever the need arises.

bathroom team1

I would guess, conservatively, that I see a man urinating in places like this at least twice a week

bathroom road2

Culture shock comes in when that American toilet flushes on me while I’m still on it and when the hot water flows down the drain in the shower. When our kids were younger and if we had time during layovers, we had to visit every single bathroom we passed, to see if they all had magic toilets and sinks and paper towel dispensers. We’ve also had to work with our family on when to flush and when not to flush and what to do with toilet paper. Some toilets can’t handle paper. In Djibouti we follow the general phrase:

If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown, flush it down.

That doesn’t fly when visiting guests in America.

I’ll leave you with this image, from Denmark so not American, but clearly something that, if encountered after being in Djibouti, would absolutely induce culture shock.


How do you experience culture shock in bathrooms?

Culture Shock in Pictures: Grocery Shopping

 Culture Shock in Pictures: Clothing

Culture Shock in Pictures: Scenery

Culture Shock in Pictures: Time

*porta potty image via Wikipedia

*floral bathroom image via Flickr

*outhouse image via Wikipedia

*lip urinal image via Wikipedia

*reading on toilet image via Flickr

Don’t Beat the Heat, Use It

Quick link: 7 Kid-Friendly Ways to Beat the Heat (While We Still Can!)

Writing at Babble today with a list of suggestions on how to use the heat, instead of ‘beating’ the heat.

I get pretty tired of people complaining about heat and humidity. I do it myself and get tired of myself in those moments. But I’m trying to change my perspective on heat and these are some fun activities that we have tried and will try in Djibouti.

use the heat

To read some of our ideas, click here: 7 Kid-Friendly Ways to Beat the Heat (While We Still Can!)

Does your family have any fun things for the hot summer months (ice bucket challenge, perhaps?)