15 July 2016


Apologies for not updating my blog in ages.  We moved back to New York in August of 2014 and now live in Brooklyn.  Too much has happened in the last nearly two years to try to discuss it.  I'm still processing some of it.  New York feels like home and I'm glad to be back and able to spend time with the people we love.  Lately though, I miss living abroad and certain parts of life in Kenya.  As time evaporates, as it is wont to do here in New York, it sometimes feels as though we lived in Nairobi twenty years ago instead of two years ago.

Today, I want and need to talk about France.  

When I was 10 or 11 years old, I decided that France was Very Cool, full of pastries, chic people, beautiful art and lots of cute outfits.  It was then I decided that I Should Live There.  So when it was time to learn a language at the age of 12, I hesitated absolutely zero seconds in picking French.  When I was in middle school, I got a French penpal named Alexandra who lived in Menton, a small town on the Côte d'Azur which is renowned for its fabulous annual Fête du Citron, which is quite literally translated, a Lemon Party.  

Since this was back in the early 1990s, we had to actually write each other letters on tissue paper-esque airmail paper, then gently fold the paper into a featherweight airmail envelope, take it to the post office and put the letter in the mail.  I would anxiously await her replies, written in beautiful fountain pen with immaculate, yet foreign, penmanship, which would take a few weeks as she would have to go through the same process in Menton to reply to me.  Alexandra and I wrote back and forth a lot as we worked on our language skills.  I don't remember precisely what we talked about, but we had a lot in common, if memory serves.  She really, really wanted to learn English and I really, really wanted to learn French.  We were both 12 year old girls who found each other's lives relentlessly exotic and fabulous and our own pretty mundane.  I remember thinking it was so awesome that we had so much in common even though we lived so far away and in two different countries.  We wrote to each other long after we were required to and really, until we both became teenagers and were too busy sneaking out of our respective homes to send letters to each other.  This morning, as I was sweltering through a workout in Brooklyn and watching in abject horror at the morning news on TV, I remembered Alexandra and hoped that she is happy and healthy wherever she is.

I continued my French studies through high school and was absolutely exhausted at being so terrible at conjugating verbs and trying to remember which noun was masculine (le) or feminine (la), that when I got to college and I placed out of the language requirement, I readily abandoned my childish dreams of living in France and sitting in cafés drinking coffee and eating croissant.  My freshman year advisor urged me to continue my French studies since, according to him, I was really good at French.  I've never been really good at French.  Seriously.  But I was 18, a baby adult, pretty impressionable and had no idea wtf I was doing, so I said "ok" and registered for a French class.  I kept taking French classes (French wound up being my minor) and got into my college's study abroad programme in Toulouse.  I also got into a study abroad programme in Paris and was having difficulty deciding especially since I wasn't sure about living with a host family.  One of my French professors urged me to go to Toulouse.  He said that living with a host family and going to a prestigious French university would give me insight into French culture that most non-French people do not get to see.  I thought that sounded good, and again, I had no idea wtf I was doing, so I said yes to Toulouse.  I moved to Toulouse, along with 18 other American students, in the fall semester of my junior year.  

Toulouse is a beautiful city in the Midi Pyréenes region in the South of France, nearly equidistant from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.  It is the second biggest university town in France (after Paris) and filled with students from all over France, Europe and the world.  I attended (and somehow managed not to flunk out of) the Insitut des Etudes Politiques (aka the Sciences Po), which to this day is still a noteworthy accomplishment to me.  The academic year that followed was tricky and scary at first.  I came home really freaked out and crying a few times because I was pretty sure I was going to flunk out and that I had no idea what the hell I was doing (per usual).  However, I just kept putting one pied in front of the other and wound up having a really incredible experience that left me with so many fabulous memories, great friends and a real appreciation for the culture and the people of France.  Living with a host family was perhaps the best way to really learn a language, because if you can respond like a human person at 8 a.m. after a long night drinking with your amis when your host mother yells up the stairs "TU ES EN RETARD POUR TON COURS!" (trans: YOU ARE LATE FOR CLASS!), you're pretty golden.  Side note: another great way to objectively tell how your language skills are doing is when you have the delightful experience of dreaming in another languageDefinitely time to pop a bottle of champagne (the real stuff) at that point!  It was certainly a very immersive experience and one I would recommend to anyone who can put up with the minute amount of discomfort for the exponential amount of experience.  I still keep in contact with my host mother in Toulouse and hope to see her again soon.

After I got home from Toulouse, I loved France so much that I insisted on auditing a French seminar course for majors on The Relationship Between the Sexes (which was a seminal review of the role of gender in French literature), simply so I had something interesting to read and discuss each week.  This also entailed a few trips to the hermetically sealed Archives room in our college's library, to read venerable books by turning the pages with tweezers.  While wearing gloves.  I, again, through this lens of women being ordered around, learned how very lucky I was to be a 21 year old woman in the States in the early aughts.  After I graduated, I did not study French again for a long time.  I kept eating baguettes and camembert, wearing (and dreaming of wearing) French designers, reading Baudelaire, drinking Côte du Rhone, going to museums to look at works by Matisse (and others) and overpaying for Vogue Paris at my local newsstand in Manhattan.  

I went to Paris, alone, in the spring of 2006 and had a really amazing single person adventure.  The kind that everyone should have at least once.  I brought three bags with me.  One empty, one filled with clothes and the third filled with shoes.  I would spend the day however the mood struck me, mostly falling in love with Paris for the umpteenth time during the day and hanging out with my French friends at night.  I went to the Musée d'Orsay (my absolute favorite) to stare at the Manets, to Buddha Bar, to meet colleagues at our Paris office (and limp home in way too high heels), to cafés where I drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and read the newspaper en français.  I finally went to the Rodin Museum and did not find it As Great As Everyone Says (though still pretty rad).  I found the one tabac in Paris that is open on Sundays (near the Champs-Élysées).  I got off course a few times but instead of being anxious, since I was alone, I found it exhilarating.  I always eventually got where I was going and if it meant a detour in Dior, Chanel or Lolita Lempicka to marvel at all the beautiful clothes I couldn't afford, then all the better.  I walked all of the steps in Montmartre and walked home from evenings out along the Seine gazing out at the sparkling, twinkly lights.  In true local fashion, I even got into a bit of a spat with the manager at one of the grand magasins on the Rue de Rivoli because I could not for the life of me get an adapter for this weird new plug in the wall.  I figured it out eventually and he begrudgingly accepted that he might have been wrong, maybe, this ONE TIME, which at the time was a victory of epic proportions.  I came home, reminded of joie de vivre, clutching a copy of Elle France, having filled my empty bag with wine, cigarettes and new clothes.  In the way that only works when you're young and indestructible, I slept the whole way back to JFK, went home, showered, changed into my new hyperchic French clothes, stopped to get my makeup done by a friend at Chanel and went to a party at the 21 Club.  Circle, completed.

Shortly thereafter, I would meet the man who would become my husband and my single person adventures would be replaced by couple adventures, which are also really awesome in that you get to share all of this beauty with the person you love the mostSome years later, we went on our honeymoon to French Polynesia, which is a DOM-TOM of France complete with a rich South Pacific, Polynesian culture that has somehow blended in the French influence.  For instance, I can more easily find a decent baguette in Bora Bora than I can in most places in the US and it will most likely be handed to me by a Polynesia homme or femme, either of whom will most likely be wearing a sarongBack in 1992, an intrepid Frenchman even figured out how to make wine out of coral, bless his heart.

A year after my solo trip to Paris, I started working at a major international organization which offered free language classes.  Solely in order to get away from my boss at the time and to be legitimately excused from work, I started studying French again.  Nearly a decade later, I am studying to take the Language Proficiency Exam - again - in French.  An exam so difficult that I hear actual French people have failed it.  I already failed it once (by ONE point, ugh) when we lived in Nairobi.  I still suck at conjugating verbs.  I still have difficulties with le and la, which is why I take a page from David Sedaris and just say things in the plural (les) when I'm not sure (and when possible).  I should probably apologize to all of my French teachers, ever, for Just Not Getting It.  I can talk for hours in French, preferably while enjoying le vin, but my writing is not very good without a spellcheck.  I will spend the rest of my summer working on these things in preparation for the exam, which I pray that I will pass this time around.  Merde puissance treize.

So, when the Charlie Hebdo attack happened in Paris on 7 January 2015, I felt sick to my stomach.  I felt even worse after the Paris attacks in November 2015, home alone in Brooklyn with a sick puppy to care for while my beloved was out of town, grasping at straws, trying to make sense of it.  I wrote a paper for grad school for my Psychology of Terrorism class about the man who murdered seven people and injured five in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012.  After yesterday's horrific attack in Nice, I feel helpless and pained for the victims and their families but also for France and its people.  I don't know what the solution is to what's happening in France.  I do know that there is no quick fix and that any durable solution will require a fuckton of political will to get to it. 

I went to Nice when I was a student with my sister and some friends (read: we stayed in a hotel that was an authentic French flophouse/shithole, which I didn't mind, until my 16 year old sister wisely informed me we were going to stay Somewhere Else and graciously checked us into a real hotel room, with our own bathroom and beds without permanent dents)I'd never seen a pebble beach or this kind of ocean before.  It was truly magnificent, a coastal city lined with palm trees and bordered by the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, filled with sparkling sunshine and a vertiable bevy of elegant, quirky and interesting people who call this special place home.

As I've said before, I truly believe that in order to really understand a place, it's imperative to live there for awhile.  And even then, we're just scratching the surface.  I feel as though I was permitted, for a brief sojourn, to peek into another way of life, one that openly embraces our free will to do what we want, even if that thing is technically not exactly legal (see: smoking in the metro).  One that encourages a glass of wine at lunch and a cheese course (AND dessert) after your dinner.  One that delights in haute couture and has an entire museum devoted to style.  One that celebrates a new book by a notable author, an art opening, the first bottle of Beaujolais of the season, a rugby match or a random Wednesday as something worthy of an epic party.  One that, like every other place I've ever been, values family and country above all else.

I also know that France is, and always has been, a really magical place.  I hope that the people of France remain true to their effortlessly fabulous spirit even in these difficult times.  

So, if you'll excuse me, I need to start looking for a ticket to Paris. <3

15 June 2014

On Father's Day

Today is Father's Day in the States.  This is now the second Father's Day I'm missing.  Having said that, we are only a full length Lent away from going home so I can't complain too  much.  Even if I did, as my dad always says, who would be listening?

As you may have guessed, my dad is full of useful sayings like that.  To me, my dad has always been my hero.  I've always looked up to him and not just because he's a full foot taller than I am.  My dad is the person who introduced me to some pretty amazing music (Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, REM, etc.) as well as taught me about how to catch a fish and shoot a gun.  Both skills that would come in handy later in my life.  He helped me with my insane math homework and I have to say, I would imagine that number of people who can explain invisible numbers to a surly teenager is very limited.  He taught me about football, coached my softball team and cheered me on at all my games and various recitals and shows.  He was also the person who fixed the chapel train on my gown and made me giggle as we walked down the aisle to my soon-to-be husband.  And he also never once told me to limit myself because I was a girl.   

One of the greatest things that I learned from my dad is that family comes first, always.  His focus was always his family and there were many times, I'm sure, that he would go without so we could do something or have something that we wanted or needed.  Having said that, much like Chris Rock's dad, he still got the biggest piece of chicken, as it should be.  When I had to start getting up really early for school, it was my dad that would wake me up and make me a cup of tea.  When I was home last year, I was so tired the morning that I was leaving that slept through my alarm for a half an hour, and it was my dad that gingerly woke me up.  Once I dragged myself out of bed, he had a cup of coffee waiting for me.  It's funny how little has changed in twenty years!   

Some of my favorite memories of my dad are when we would go fishing - either off the rocks, in a cove somewhere or on his boat.  Sometimes we caught a lot of fish, other times, we got totally skunked but it was always really fun.  One time, my sister and I went out with him and my dad caught a fish and put it in a bucket filled with sea water.  We were just little girls, and for reasons known only to little girls, we decided that the fish was really cute and we wanted my dad to throw it back into the ocean.  I can now imagine that my dad was probably really looking forward to bringing it home and having it for dinner with my mom, but he nonetheless indulged his daughters' pleadings and threw the fish back (much to our delight).  It's funny how one seemingly minor event in my childhood still comes back to me as an adult.  From my dad, I've learned that sometimes it's good to indulge the whims of the people you love and that you don't always have to be first in life.  At the same time, he also taught me that when someone pushes you, you have the right to push back.  It's a delicate balance to know when to back down and when to stand up and my dad is still sometimes teaching me that balance, even now.

My dad hasn't always agreed with my choices (for instance when I left my job on Wall Street to go work for my current employer), but he has always been supportive.  I count myself very lucky for that.  My dad is always really up on current events so ever since I was little and reading Weekly Reader for news, I occasionally find myself in the middle of a "Crossfire" type of debate with him about any number of issues.  We may not always agree but at least we can both see each other's point of view.  Being able to quickly think on my feet and at the same time, put myself in someone else's shoes, are both really invaluable skills to have as an adult. 

When I got my post in Nairobi, I was a bit concerned as I had never managed a team, let alone a big team in another country with a whole different culture than my own.  My dad, having had extensive management experience, was an indispensable resource for advice and guidance.  Some of the issues I was dealing with were delicate to say the least, and my dad was one of the people who guided me through the potential minefield I was walking in.  Management, I have learned, is a very precise balance and has some very unspoken rules when dealing with subordinates, colleagues and superiors.  My dad, of course, was very proficient in these rules and shared them with me and it's made me a better manager and a better person.

I carry all of these lessons (and more) from my dad as I journey through life.  It is his presence, even its shadow from afar, that is guiding me when I'm managing a client's expectations or trying to get the busted lamp in our living room to work.  

And, perhaps just as importantly, he also taught me that if you can have a laugh while dealing with something ridiculous, all the better because life is short and precious.

Happy Father's Day to you and yours.
Love from the 254.

Dad, Ann & me, 1983

27 May 2014

And away we go!

First things first, as everything seems to be official now, I think it's safe to announce that we are moving back to New York from Nairobi soon.  I've been offered a new post and am ready to return to the mother ship/home.  I wasn't sure when this day would come but here we are.  And I'm very excited to get back to New York.  I'm most excited to see our family and friends (including all the little ones) and to enjoy some of the comforts that living in arguably the world's great city (IMHO) holds.  Things like taxis at 3am, pizza, public transportation, amazing restaurants, the ability to walk down the street, an opera at the Met, Central Park, the museums, Yankees games, the Fairway, weekend trips to the Hudson Valley or the beach, concerts, Seamless, shopping, the list goes on and on and on and on.  However, now that I'm very close to finalizing the start date of my new job, something very strange and unexpected has happened.  The initial excitement has worn off and I have started to feel, well, anxious.  Perhaps this is about starting a new job, which is always induces some hand wringing.  I don't think it's about the move itself since the move from New York to Nairobi was traumatic enough for several moves, so this one will be a cinch.  Seriously, a team of professional packers is going to come over and pack up our stuff FOR US.  

So what then is it about going back to New York that is waking me up at 6 a.m. filled with doubt?  I reflected on this a bit during this morning's yoga practice and all I can come up with is that I know what our life here is like but I'm not sure what our new life in Manhattan (or, God help me, Brooklyn) will be like.  I don't know where we will live or what will be my favorite neighborhood restaurant or where I will get my nails done or where we will order pizza from or where the gym will be.  Some of this is fun.  I've always lived uptown and wanted to live in a different neighborhood.  But there is a sense of the unknown that is jarring.  What will our apartment look like?  Will the ceiling be high enough for a kudu shoulder mount?  Will we have enough room for our artwork?  And what the shit is in our storage space (because I can't recall)???  I have to remember my mom's advice when we found out we were being posted in Nairobi: "Embrace the adventure"... though I think part of it is that I'm weary of adventure (for now).

In light of our impending move, we decided to do one last international trip within Africa (technically) before we left.  We spent last weekend on Mahé Island in the Seychelles.  I have been intrigued by the Seychelles since we were planning our honeymoon years ago.  Then I sorted out that from NYC it would take about 36 hours, one way, and three airplanes to get there.  We wound up spending our honeymoon in French Polynesia (16 hours, two airplanes) which was divine.  Whenever I have a bad day, I think back to the frenzy of Tahiti, our pet shark Snuggles in Moorea, the crystal clear waters of Bora Bora and the dolphins frolicking in the current in Rangiora and feel so much better.  At any rate, since we are so close, we thought, what the hell! and off we went for a long weekend.  It was nice to get out of Nairobi and all the insanity of the past few weeks for a little while.  I really need to just lay on a beach and relax, so mission accomplished!

So, first off, the Secyhelles are really beautiful:

Having said that, are they more beautiful than say, Mozambique or the Kenyan coast?  I venture a no.  Are they a much bigger pain in the ass and expense than both those places?  Yes.  The weird thing about the Seychelles is that the hotels charge astronomical rates for meals ($50 for a shrimp?  really?) but the taxis also charge astronomical rates to take you anywhere, like say, a reasonably priced restaurant.  To go about 15 minutes, we had to pay $25.  I won't get into the rates to go to/from the airport.  We did manage to find a fairly nice guy taxi driver who though he was still admittedly ripping us off, did cut us a little bit of a break on the price.  Everyone blames the cost of petrol (that's gas for those of you reading this stateside) which is about US$2/liter.  It's slightly more than half that in Nairobi so really, the math doesn't quite add up.   I'm aware that it's an island economy but so is Polynesia which, in comparison, wasn't as expensive.  I'm suppose I'm also spoiled as I haven't been to Europe in a long time and I understand a breakfast in Zurich these days costs upwards of US$50.  But so far, the Seychelles has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive place I've ever been (so far).  

The people are really lovely though and it was an interesting place to visit for a few days.  We even got a tour of the collection of wines that the sommelier at the hotel, Lindo (a very nice South African guy from Jo'burg) was building.  He told us some guy from Europe saw this very rare bottle that they had on the resort's website.  He called, asked for details about the bottle and then apparently flew in on a private jet, picked up the bottle, and flew right back out.  That guy must really love wine. 

While I did not get to the 830am yoga class on Saturday, I did do my yoga practice in our room in the mornings before we had breakfast.  I didn't bother with setting up my laptop for an online class and just did a self led practice, which was really awesome and a whole new experience.  In addition to my morning vinyasa practices, I also did some yoga on a palm tree while awaiting my overpriced daiquiri.
Get it, tree pose?

One really interesting thing is the other guests who were there.  There was an odd mix of people from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.  For instance, at some point on Saturday, we were laying out and several women (I'm presuming European but not sure) had their tops off.  Then I walked down to the ocean to take a swim and saw a woman attempting to swim in her burqa.  So quite the wide swath of cultures all converging in one place... though most people didn't talk to us or really, each other.  Which, as an American, I always find odd.  We did meet this really nice Canadian woman who lives in Abu Dhabi.  She said she could tell we were American because of our tattoos (!!!!).

And the whole hassle of being there was really worth it is as on Saturday night, I did something insanely uncharacteristic for me and decided to go nightswimming.  No one was around as everyone goes to bed there around 10pm.  I walked down to the beach, looked up and almost fell to the ground.  The sky was just lit up with a huge swath of bright, sparkling stars and shooting stars.  It looked like you could reach out and touch then.  And that the sparkles were just going to slowly and quietly slide right into the ocean.  Some research upon returning home indicates that what we were staring at was the Milky Way, our very own galaxy.

It was seriously the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  It was like God and/or the Universe just painted this gorgeous tableau just for us and to be present in that moment, and with P, was a real gift and one that I will carry with me forever.

This is close to it (photo credit):

I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on the plane ride home and it reminded me of why we travel.  I had no idea, despite having walked past the Time/Life building hundreds of times, that the motto of Life Magazine was: 

To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other & to feel. That is the purpose of life.

That pretty much sums it all up, in a very succinct and perfect way.  This is why we get on airplanes, this is why we deal with the things that are a pain in the ass, this is why we accept the discomfort and the hassle and the expense and the pain.  Because sometimes, something as simple as the night sky will take your breath away and you will carry that moment in time with you forever.

08 May 2014

On Mother's Day

This Sunday is Mother's Day in the United States.  This is now the second Mother's Day in a row that I've not been able to see my mom, except on Skype.  And I am one of the lucky ones whose mom is still here with us.  But I do so miss giving her a big hug and catching up over a cup of coffee. 

My mom has been an inspiration to me for as long as I can remember.  She worked as a trauma nurse in a hospital up until the day before I was born!  Can you imagine being nine months pregnant and dealing with TRAUMAS in a HOSPITAL?  I can't even fully fathom either of those things, let alone both at the same time.  She has always forged her own path, followed her heart and been intensely courageous, even when it was difficult and incredibly uncomfortable.  Sometimes I look at some of her accomplishments and think, how the hell did she do that?  And at such a young age!??!  When I find myself faced with a challenge that seems very daunting, I have to remind myself of the things my mother has done and not only done, but jumped in, feet first, with no hesitation.  Moving to a new country where you don't speak the language, for instance.  Starting her own business, for example.  Dealing with me as a teenager, that must have been atrociously terrifying.  She never backs down from a challenge and is always up for an adventure.  And she knows exactly how much "a little bit" of salt is AND she knows how to get out any possible stain (red wine?  done!  peach juice?  no problem!).  My mom is also someone who doesn't give a hoot about appearances or superficial stuff (minus my ankles which she seems to delight in ragging on me about). 

I'm in my mid-30s and I still turn to my mom when I need guidance on something or am feeling horribly sick and just need to hear her voice.  I emailed her this week to ask for her advice on an annoying problem that had popped up as she always knows exactly what to do in any given situation.  We exchanged a few messages and as I was hitting "send", I realized how lucky I am to have my mom in my life.  And then I thought of all the things I want to talk to her about.  I started thinking about why moms are so comforting.  Not to get all psychoanalytical, but it comes from your childhood and the fact that she has known you for your whole life.  

For most, though not all, your mom was one of your primary caregivers as a child.  I was lucky in that both of my parents took care of me and my sister.  My mom was the person who kissed my boo boos, tucked me in at night, helped me poke holes in the lid of a jelly jar so I could catch fireflies, read me stories, endured me learning to play a few musical instruments (have you ever heard an 8 year old play a violin?  it's not pretty), took us to the beach (even in the winter), encouraged me to be creative, introduced me to how wonderful the opera is, busted me sneaking into the house at 4am, visited colleges, beamed with pride at graduations, helped me move into my dorm freshman year, did not laugh at how tiny my first apartment in Manhattan was (though I'm sure she wanted to!), cried tears of joy at our wedding and encouraged me to go to grad school.  My parents were the second phone call I made when I found out that I had gotten posted in Nairobi (my husband being the first).  I was upset about it, to be honest, and she was the one who reminded me that it was what I had wanted and what I had worked so hard for.  Her sage advice was to stop freaking out, dry my tears and to embrace the adventure.  Pretty excellent advice and something I need to remember more often.

I think that our moms are a part of all of us.  Your mom is so inherent to who you are that you can't help but be shaped by her, even after you're more or less grown up.  For me personally, I know when facing a quandary, it's always my mom's voice in my head that is urging me to do the right thing and helpfully pointing out that I already know what to do.  

I love that my mom is now a grandma too (thanks to my sister) because it makes her so happy and she is so good at it!  Our niece is very fortunate to have two such incredibly strong women in those pivotal roles in her life, both mom and grandma.  I trust that she will be just as inspired as me by these two women who kick ass, day in and day out.  Watching my sister become a mom has been really powerful also, she is just so good with her daughter and I see so much of our mom in the way she cares for her little one.  I'm forever curious as to who our niece will grow into with such amazing guidance and support. 

We can all take comfort in knowing that regardless of where Mom is, she is always right there with you. 

Happy Mother's Day to you and yours.
Love from the 254.

Mom & me, 1980

06 May 2014

Week O'Talkin' Shit

Last week was really hectic in Nairobi.  Just very busy with work, some socializing and also trying to plan a forthcoming trip.  I did go for a run Thursday, which was a first since I sprained my knee while stumbling down the stairs.  Ironically, the night that I tripped down the stairs, I had spent the night dancing in heels with no trouble but apparently going bare foot to the kitchen to get a glass of water was Trouble!  Good news is that it looks like my knee is all healed up and judging by my sore muscles, I have a lot more treadmill time ahead of me.  I don't mind as running always makes me feel like strong, like I could take on anything, so bring it on, gym! 

In other news, last week was definitely the Week O'Talkin' Shit.  Here's the why:

P and I were minding our business having dinner at a local cafe.  The woman sitting behind us had apparently just gotten off a plane and barely stopped talking long enough to drink or eat anything (or God forbid have an actual conversation with the poor guy sitting across from her) because she was too busy just pouring forth her opinions.  Perhaps she was practicing her audition for one of those shows on TV where everyone screams at each other?  One of the gems that came flying out of her mouth was "I'm from EUROPE.  People think I'm American ALL THE TIME, IT'S HORRIBLE."  At this point, I damn near stood up and started singing that terrible God Bless the USA song.  The other Americans, as well as the myriad of other nationalities present, were also finding this person totally annoying and rude.  We bolted as soon as possible and it was a sonic relief, to say the least.  I figured we would never see this woman again and then I saw this person walking around the office the day after and guess what?  SHE WAS STILL TALKING.  How her jaw doesn't develop a major case of arthritis and fall off, I will never know.  And this is coming from me, major chatterbox extraordinaire.

I also heard that someone was talking some shit about ME recently.  Word is that this person is angry that I passed the competitive exams and said person did not (among other things).  I don't understand why some people deal with failure by trying to take someone else down. I think a much better approach is to befriend someone who has something you desire or admire and learn how they did what they did.  Isn't that more productive then just getting all evil and huffy?  A friend of mine suggested that I confront this person.  I didn't feel the need as I don't consider this person a friend (and haven't for a long time) and also, the Universe always sorts out these kinds of people.  People who are so deeply unhappy with themselves that they insist on being horribly negative with others always get their karmic just desserts, in one way or another.  While this is perhaps not quite as instantly gratifying as telling someone to go fuck themselves and then punching them in the mouth, it will happen... eventually.  Like, you will get a Facebook friend request (wtf!) and find out that they're still single, working a boring job and living in a basement apartment in New Jersey... oh and they have developed a bout of adult onset acne.  Karma's a bitch!

I got CC'ed on an email at work last week that was so filled with vitriol it made me question if the sender had been laid since the Reagan administration.  Why do people think it's ok to treat someone lower on the totem pole than them like total poo?  You don't have to be friends with everyone you work with but you can treat everyone with respect and behave in a professional manner.  It's really not too much to ask since you're being paid to be there and interact with others.  I've seen people who full on despise one another meet in the same room and put aside their differences to forge a path forward with their work.  I mean if Rabin and Arafat could do it, why can't we?

We all gossip from time to time, it's human nature.  In New York, it's practically on the agenda at all meals.  However, there is a major difference between some minor gossip (eg: "Did you see that Jane dyed her hair blonde?") and serious shit talk.  One thing I've learned in my short time on this earth is that if you're so profoundly unhappy that it comes spilling out of your mouth whenever you are near others, it might be time to stop, look around and figure out why.  Obviously we have a right to react if someone does something not so nice to us but if there is no real reason to just up and be a total hater, you're talking shit.  Everyone has their own challenges and walks their own path. What you or I might consider to be someone's idyllic life may in fact be a nightmare.  P once told me that it's that it takes the same amount of effort to either make someone's day or break someone's day.  Isn't it better for the world overall if we take an extra second or two to make it?  And bear in mind, if you are living indoors, there is food on your table and clean water to drink, you're already doing much better than the vast majority of the rest of the world.

I'm off now to go tell someone to fuck themselves and punch them in the mouth...... just kidding!

Love from the 254 kids.

PS This blog has now been added to the Blog Expat directory!  Woot!

17 April 2014


Last weekend, the New York Times published a fluff piece in the Style Section about a couple.  One paragraph caught the attention of the blog Africa is A Country which caught my attention and I thought it best to read the whole thing.  No one can be that ridiculous.. right?  I found the article itself pretty insipid and boring, but it's that one paragraph that had me and a lot of people across the Internets feeling like projectile vomiting, eg, this:

“I’ve never been to Africa, but I feel like I have this deep affinity for it,” Ms. Hanley Mellon said. “I’ve read every Hemingway, we collect Peter Beard, I’ve watched ‘Out of Africa.’ It touches your soul to visit and smell the smells, and you can’t recreate the experience without immersing yourself.”

That one inflammatory statement of verbal diarrhea combined with some neocolonialist turpitude and smug ignorance in an otherwise boring piece of flufftastic journalism haunted me for days.  As such, I had to ask myself, why did it bother me so much?  I don't particularly give a rat's ass that these two are very wealthy or that they resemble a pair of "inbred greyhounds" (a friend's words) or that they have a kid named "Force".  I may have my opinions but I'm all for live and let live (see Peter McWilliams) - we all walk in our own shoes and have our own struggles.  On a normal day (assuming I had access to a paper copy of the New York Times) I would have flipped past the article after possibly reading a line or two, dismissed it as boring drivel and never thought about it again.  So what was it about that one paragraph that made my blood boil and my head feel like it was about to explode?

First off, the references that this person makes all allude quite clearly to East AfricaErnest Hemingway's two full books that are set in Africa (Green Hills of Africa and True at First Light) are both primarily set in East Africa, in Tanzania, Uganda and/or Kenya.  Peter Beard lived in Tsavo National Park (Kenya) and also bought a property in Karen, a neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya.  Out of Africa, the Meryl Streep epic film, is set in Nairobi back in the early 20th century.  While I can sort of understand how when most people picture "Africa" they picture lions and all manner of epic monumental natural beauty of East Africa, and I reference my last post, AFRICA IS NOT A COUNTRY.  In fact, it's made up of 54 countries.  And not all of the continent is savannah.  There are also some pretty incredible deserts,jungles, tropical beaches, snow covered mountains and huge cities.  So my first point is that what this person means is that they have an affinity for East Africa and possibly Kenya, not THE WHOLE CONTINENT.

My second issue is that despite the many books written, photographs taken and films made about ANY place, you can't even begin to comprehend a place without spending time there.  I loved France from the moment I picked up my first Madeleine book as a child and was quite the little Francophile.  However, I did not truly, completely understand it until I spent a school year there, living with a French family, going to a French university, dreaming in French, hanging with my American &French  friends and living life there - going to class, sitting in cafés, etc.  I still love France, but in a much deeper way.  My relationship to France has gone from a casually superficial fascination to actual understanding and longing.  I haven't been to France since 2007, which bothers me on a rather increasingly frequent basis, as there is still so much to see and do.  

While just picking up and moving abroad isn't an option for most people, buying a plane ticket could be.  I saw Hangover 2 and read The Beach but it didn't make me an expert on Thailand.  And having only spent a few weeks there, I understand it more but would never fully comprehend the country, culture, language and its people unless I lived there. 

The idiot savant from Greenwich is right in that you can't really understand a place unless you're standing on a road in Bangkok smelling your dinner cooking or driving through Kenya and having the incredibly clean air and smell of random fires burning hit your nose or walking by a café in Paris and getting a whiff of coffee and fresh croissants.  But unless your TV (or book or photograph) is scratch and sniff, how does one do that?  You can't.  You have to get up off your ass, pack some stuff you might need, get to an airport and possibly sit in a very uncomfortable seat for a really long time in order to actually immerse yourself.  

As a visitor, we are all just temporarily passing through someone's every day but at least you're there, taking it all in.  What has struck me the most about traveling are the really small things that you would never know until you go somewhere.  The secret sauce in the Royale Eatery burger in Cape Town, the sounds of chanting at the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the narrow winding lanes of the Amalfi Coast, the sensory overload of stepping into a nearly thousand year old church in Pécs, the sparkle of the Caribbean Sea (even sparklier in the middle of winter), the beauty of the "country" anywhere, the warmth of Indian Ocean, the rainbow of leaves in the Hudson Valley in the fall, Paris in the rain, the music notes winding around New Orleans, the imposing and harsh beauty of the Farallon Islands, the way you can see the bottom of the ocean from an airplane in Polynesia, the pulse of South Beach, the taste of a wine grape in South Africa, the great expanse of the ocean in the Hamptons, the tiny shovels you get with your gelato in Rome, the way that the moon hits the snow in Vermont, the list goes on and on. A bite into a fresh peach, a certain kind of rain, a sip of pastis or a spin on the radio can sometimes just take me right back to where I was.  And all those things are great, some cliché, some not, but they're all my personal memories.  

What has made those sensory delights complete is being able to share them with people.  I love to travel with my friends, my family and (perhaps the expert of them all), my husband but it's also fun to travel with people you just met (though as we get older that experience gets less frequent).  Someone once told me the best way to really get to know someone is to travel with them.  Maybe people in new relationships should book a plane ticket a month or two in, just to see who the other person really is (radical, I know).  You also don't know a place until you really spend some time with the people who live there.  Whether it's a friend of a friend, someone being paid to show you around or just some random people you meet in restaurant or bar, no amount of guide books could ever highlight the nuances of where you are right that second as well as a local... someone who hasn't been to the Empire State Building since a school trip in the 4th grade, for example.  

I'm nowhere near the most well traveled person I know and I will probably never be.  I flipped through 1,000 places to see before you die at some point and I love the epic lists (WORLD'S BEST BEACHES!  UNEXPLORED ASIA!) travel websites make, but I don't have a running list of places I have to tick off like some super expensive shopping list and I don't get to travel for work all the time.  My hats off to people who can rack up a million frequent flier miles, but I'm just not that type of girl.  I'm suppose that I'm more of the type of girl who likes to wander when the impulse strikes.  Our day to day lives are so stressful that I'm not the kind of person who wants to be stressed when on vacation.  Given a free week to go somewhere new, I would personally rather spend that time wandering around a new city or working on my suntan and drinking daiquiris on a beach than trying to see 15 countries on a breakneck speed guided tour.  To each his or her own, everyone has their own reasons for traveling and their own preferences.  It's certainly not for me to judge anyone who has the balls to get on a plane in the first place.

To me, the whole point of traveling is to get out of your routine and shake some shit up.  To experience all the good and bad with someone or a bunch of someones just makes it sweeter.  To sit around in your home and claim an affinity to a place without even having scratched the surface is not sweet.  It is lame.  It is an affront to every person who has not known how or why, but gotten on the plane anyway.  It is an affront to adventure.  And most of all, it is fucking boring.

17 February 2014

Common misconceptions about Africa & Kenya: DEBUNKED

So, since we've moved to Nairobi (which by the way, is in Kenya, which is a country in the East Africa), I've noticed that many people know very little about Kenya or Africa as a whole.  While I certainly can't expect everyone to be up on the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, I'm still a bit perplexed at the complete ignorance about this place from other places.

So to clarify: (via wikipedia) "Kenya lies on the equator with the Indian Ocean to the south-east, Tanzania to the south, Uganda to the west, South Sudan to the north-west, Ethiopia to the north and Somalia to the north-east."  

Kenya ≠ Africa!  

Africa is a continent (and a really big one too, the second biggest continent after Asia):

Kenya is a sovereign state (or country if you prefer):

Now, if you are reasonably well educated and/or read The New York Times or The Economist (as I'm sure most of you reading this are), you are probably saying "Kat!  No one would ever confuse the two!".  Oh but that's where you are wrong.  Lots of people confuse the two all the time, sometimes even sitting Presidents.  

So allow me to reiterate:

  • Kenya is a state in Africa.
  • Africa is a continent, comprised of 54 sovereign states.   

Having gotten that out of the way, I will debunk a few other myths about living in Nairobi (note: again, this applies ONLY for Nairobi and NOT for the rest of Africa as a whole).

MYTH #1:  It is always hot here.  

The climate is quite pleasant, seeing as how in general, it is not hot like the surface of the sun here.  Now, I grant you that four of the ten hottest places on earth are in Africa but they are located in Ethiopia, Mali, Tunisia and Libya.  

The climate in Nairobi is generally pretty lovely, especially since Nairobi is 1,795 m (5,889 feet) above sea level so we have no pesky humidity here.  The average temperature around Nairobi is 82F (27.7C).  And during the "winter" (July & August), the daily high is around 60 with the lows at night being in the high 40s.  So not exactly the horrible winters that New York has to contend with but also a bit cool at certain times of the year.  Definitely not super hot.

If it's warm outside and you stand in the sun, you may feel hot but if you stand in the shade, you will be perfectly cool.

MYTH #2:  It is really cheap to live here.

This is not true.  At all.  And we moved here from Manhattan!  I'm judging the cost of the things against what they cost in New York, which is widely accepted as a very expensive place to live.  Truth is, after over a year here in Nairobi, it occurs to me that, possibly with the exception of value for space/price in housing, it is actually cheaper to live in Manhattan.

Rents in Nairobi are at record setting levels, including a 25.80% increase in the last year in the ex-pat bubble and the market is booming.  I recently saw a listing for a house in our neighborhood, in a new compound, on about 1/4 acre for $4500/month.  That's really over the top insanity.  That house had better come with gold pouring out of the faucets and diamonds falling out of the ceilings.  However, one silver lining in this cloud is that normally you can find a home with a ton of space and hopefully a decent sized garden/yard.

On top of whatever you're paying in rent, if you're like us and your landlord could give a flying fuck about maintaining your home, you are also responsible for repairs which stack up when the less than excellent construction starts falling apart.  Seriously, one time the sink in one of the bathrooms just turned on and wouldn't turn off.  Another time, the main circuit breaker CAUGHT ON FIRE.  Next, you have to pay for any household staff (gardener, housekeeper, etc) then your full time security then your normal household expenses such as electricity (currently approx two to three times the rate in Manhattan), water, wifi (currently four times the normal rate in Manhattan), cable (about the same as Time Warner) and potable water delivery.

Most things are imported here so the price of even the simplest things is triple, sometimes quadruple the cost of what it might be in the States, Europe or even in South Africa.  Why does this happen?  First off, there is a limited number of things that Kenya produces.  When we moved into our house it had nothing in it.  The kitchen was a bunch of cabinets, a sink and a floor.  We had to buy a refrigerator (made in South Korea), a washer/dryer (also made in South Korea), a stove/oven (made in Italy) & a microwave (made in South Korea).  Importing things into Kenya, as I've found out the hard way, is very expensive.  Not only do you have to pay for shipping, everything must go through customs where it is subject to a customs duty, import taxes and VAT.  The shops must pass along these costs to the consumer which is why, for example, we have the same TV we had in New York but it costs three times as much here.

Same goes for groceries, though I'm not sure entirely why.  Obviously for a good piece of brie imported from France, the cost will be hefty as not only does it have to be shipped here, then go through customs, then it has to make it to the store without going bad.  So instead of paying $6 in New York, we end up paying between $12-15 here.  That I get.  It's a luxury item and one that is not in high demand here so the market prices it out at what it will bear.  What I don't understand is why bacon costs 855 bob ($10.05) when it comes from place down the highway?  Long story short, a trip to the grocery store here is at minimum, three to four times the cost of a week's worth of groceries from the Fairway.  Boy, do I miss the Fairway!

So there is clearly a major market here for cheaper imports and higher volumes, then why, say, does Wal Mart or Target open up shop here and rake in the dough?  Well, it turns out that they tried and discovered that doing business in Kenya is not always very easy... as I've heard directly from business owners here.

For more details read my friend Laura's blog post on the The Ex-Pat Tax as well as this excellent article in the New Republic on why things are so expensive in the most impoverished of places.

MYTH #3:  There are lions in our backyard.

This is not true.  But we also don't live in Karen, which is right next to the national park.  We do have a ton of exotic birds, lots of beautiful flowers and plants, some of which look like they are out of a Dr. Seuss book (as P pointed out yesterday) and all manner of weird bugs.  We have a ton of monkeys on campus at work which is really cool (until they steal your lunch) but we're not surrounded by herds of gazelles and elephants don't wander down the road here.  And not to sound bored with the wildlife, because I could never ever be, but if you've been on one game drive, you've been on them all.  I highly recommend using your own vehicle to drive yourself around the national parks.  Or get out and do some hiking*!

*P nicely pointed out to me that advising people to get out of their cars mid-game drive is a horrible idea.  Whoops!  Sorry, my bad.  So, to clarify: do NOT get out of your car and/or go hiking in lion country.  Very bad idea.  I do highly recommend a dawn hike with the Masai warriors in the Masai Mara (major lion country but they're carrying spears) OR some hiking in one of the national parks where being eaten for lunch is not a major risk (see: Hell's Gate, Aberdare, Mt Longnot, Mt Suswa, etc.).

[to be continued...]