My Biography

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I grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Detroit.  Everything about the town – the people, the layout, the food – made me feel trapped.  My soul told me there was more to experience on this planet, an idea encouraged by my mom and my high school German teacher, Janie Barner.  My fondest memory of German class was a lesson Janie taught on travel vocabulary.  At the end she asked, “Now, who has been bitten by the travel bug?”  My heart swelled, and I knew I had been bitten, hard.  Within the next year, I travelled to Germany with my class, and the bug bit deeper.

I did not want to go to college.  Chiefly, I wanted to join the Peace Corps.  My parents pushed me toward the safer path of a four year degree.  I went away to school, earned a degree, a load of debt, and fell upon the perfect opportunity to work abroad.  After graduation, I spent two years teaching English in Austria and traveling Central and Eastern Europe.

I needed a special kind of courage to live and thrive on my own within a foreign country, system, and language.  I remember arriving in Bad Aussee, the small Austrian town where I would live and work.  It was dusk on a late summer day, and it had taken longer than anticipated to arrive.  I passed the address a couple of times before I found it.  My landlord stuck her head out of the window and greeted me.  I could barely understand a word from my landlord’s mouth!  Austrian German is different than the Hochdeutsch I had learned, and my landlord spoke in the unique Bad Aussee dialect.  With time, as the language became more comfortable, I learned to use dialect words in my German.

Months prior to my return to Michigan, I had doubts about how I would fit into my culture, my hometown, with my family and friends.  I moved back in with my parents, which provided a sense of comfort, and started nursing school.  Though, I missed Austria daily, my travels enabled me to see my hometown through a new filter.  I began to appreciate the quaint downtown and the nature trails.  But my desire to travel did not go away.  As the days marched on, and as nursing school became more of a nightmare, living with wanderlust was a lesson in patience.

Now, I am a nurse living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I have had to readjust my feelings about travel.  Through my adolescent and college years, I saw travel as an escape from what I perceived as a boring life.  While I still feel wanderlust, I am learning that travel is more a frame of mind than a location.  With a sense of exploration, travel can be as easy as walking out the front door.

Exploringly yours,

Alaina

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(This was originally written as my first assignment – a biography – for the online travel writing course, MatadorU.)

Lessons from Missing a Place

Grazer Hauptplatz
Grazer Hauptplatz, Graz, Austria

I’ve been back from Austria for nearly three and a half years now.  I spent two school years teaching English there, exploring, meeting some of the best people I know, and generally being up to no good.  I met people from all over the United States, Great Britain, and Europe.  We were paid way too much money to do not that much work, and in our free time we had fun.  We all ended up there because we had studied German in college, and, I, for one, was not ready to figure out “the rest of my life” quite yet.  It is crazy to think how long ago it was now.

I think of that time, that place, and those people at least once a day.  When I am daydreaming at work, when I am walking to the bus, when I hear a song, or when a random German word pops into my head.  The two apartments I inhabited there, my friends that went through those years with me, the routes I walked, the public transport I used, the birthdays celebrated, the food, the beer, the cigarettes – all the memories are there and tinged with nostalgia.

My personal philosophy is that it is never healthy to live in the past, but this is a bit different than that.  These are memories so strong and vivid that they just seem to come to mind automatically.  And I think that the newness and foreignness of that time had intensified everything; I mean, I can barely remember what I did a month ago, but I feel that I remember all of those two years.

So, as more time falls between myself and Austria, I try to reflect on what I learned there, and how I can apply those lessons to my current life.  Lessons like: always have a sense of adventure, and spontaneity; your bed may be comfortable, but you must earn that rest after a night of fun; there is always some new place to explore, despite the seeming mundaneness of it.

But, since then, I have accomplished so much.  I went back to school, and I am now a registered nurse with a 40 hour per week job that I love.  The hard part is, after experiencing such freedom and newness, to now stay in one place, and do the same job each day.  Part of what I am also trying to teach myself is that exploration does not have to be on a grand scheme, in a foreign locale.  Exploration of yourself, and your mind, can be just as new and exciting as exploring a far off city.

And those are some lessons I’ve learned from missing a place.

Exploringly yours,

Alaina

Notes On Packing: Or, How Am I Going to Fit 1 Year of My Life in 3 Suitcases?

Luckily, I don’t have this much baggage. … Nearly, though.

Photo by kthread

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a problem. Well, maybe more like two or three problems. As I sit here on my bed surrounded by postcards, ticket stubs, half of pairs of socks, six pairs of jeans and books I never read while playing a game called TAKE, TOSS or STORE, my problems are impossible to ignore and borderline embarrassing. And the first step is admitting to that problem, right? Here goes.

Problem #1: I’m a chronic overpacker. Let me put it this way: I went home for three weeks at Christmas and came back with an extra bag, bringing my suitcase total up to 4. For the return trip, I’m attempting to limit myself to the use of two suitcases, while leaving one (the largest one) stored here for my return in the fall. This has made me realize that I own a lot of clothing… But I never have anything to wear. Huh, the conundrum of being a girl. This leads into…

Problem #1.5: I like having stuff. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m materialistic, but I like things. When I get paid, I enjoy spending my money on clothes, books, magazines, shoes — pretty much, anything and everything I absolutely don’t need. I recognize this needs to stop, and recently it has, but not before I accumulated so much stuff in this apartment that I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.

Photo by Drew Coffman

Problem #2: I’m a hoarder. The most difficult part of this packing extravaganza is sorting through everything I own, one year’s worth of stuff!, and deciding what to do with it. And guess what? I hate parting with nearly everything. I’ve managed to fill my bedroom in Michigan with movie ticket stubs, pictures I took in middle school of people I no longer talk to, magazines and random party favors. Spending a year in Europe has given me an extraordinary opportunity to collect useless brochures, un-sent postcards, train ticket stubs, cards/postcards/letters people sent to me and everything in between. In this case, I don’t keep these things just because I like them, but because it has true sentimental value to me. Tossing the souvenirs in the trash bag makes me sad.

So I sit here, surrounded by my life and memories of this year, with my apartment in shambles and I am perplexed. I’m not sure how I’m ever supposed to fit everything into a few suitcases, and I wonder how my assistant friends are faring with this packing business.

Photo by zenobia_joy

But mark my words: I’m going to get home and streamline this process for next year. First step, be able to strap my life on my back. Then… try to take over the world. Or something like that.

Do you have problems packing, too? Or do you think I’m insane? Let me know in the comments!

Until next time…
Cheers,
Alaina

Is America Really Full of Fatties?

The Famed Golden Arches

Photo by Vacacion

In the past two weeks, I’ve done an America-centric lesson in about eight classes. Each time, I opened the lesson with a mind map on the board; I wrote ‘USA’ in huge letters, and asked my students what came to mind.

“Fat people!” was the first shout-out every. single. time.

And McDonald’s was the second.

Even today, when I did a lesson about Great Britain, two different classes thought of “fat people.” By the end of today, I was sick of hearing the word “fat” on my students’ tongues.

Alright, cool. Americans (and Brits, apparently) are fat. The thing is, I could look out into the class and see the same shapes and sizes that I would in any, random, American class… I do have to admit, however, that Austria does have more fit youngsters, even if they do smoke and drink more often and freely than their American counterparts.

These experiences got me thinking… Does America really have that many more fat people than the rest of the world? Sure, we constantly hear about the rising rate of obesity and incidence of Type II diabetes in America, but for my English as a Second Language students to blurt this out as the first thing they think about the USA? Come on. What about Obama? Freedom? New York City? The War on Terror? Angelina Jolie? … No? Alright.

So, naturally, I turned to Google.

First of all: obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) over 30. BMI is calculated by dividing one’s weight by the square of one’s height.

After a bit of tricky Googling, I came across this article, Obesity: in Statistics, from BBC. The tagline blares: “People are getting fatter almost everywhere in the world.” …not just in the United States. The article goes on to call obesity a modern problem, naming fast food to sedentary jobs as the sneaky culprits. After numerous, fancy charts, I found what I was looking for: a list of the top countries with adult obesity problems. And guess what? The United States is not #1, but rather, #5 with 32.2%. Nauru claims the top spot with a 78.5% adult obesity rate and the United Kingdom rounds out the top 10 with 24.2%.

But, that wasn’t all that I found. This Daily Telegraph article betrays Australian women as having the fastest growing obesity rate, warning that they are “close to matching America’s obesity level.”

Additionally, the LA Times reports that Mexico, once a hungry country, is now battling an ever-increasing childhood obesity rate “behind only the United States for highest in the world.”

Apparently, obesity is not just America’s problem — fat people exist everywhere, even in exotic, beachy locales. From these three articles, it seems that while the United States does not have the highest obesity rates in the world, it is a useful scale of measurement for the rest of the world’s obesity. Furthermore, I can’t blame my students for thinking that all Americans are fat. Afterall, 3 in 10 Americans are, in fact, obese. Meanwhile, Wikipedia claims that Austria had an obesity rate of only 11% in 2000.

Thanks again, Google, for answering my pressing questions.

What do you think? — Are all Americans fat? What’s your view of America + obesity? Do the stats surprise you?

Until next time…
Cheers,
Alaina

A Day Trip to Hallstatt, or “Paradise.”

Alright, so a bit has been up lately, and the updates will come at ya in posts throughout the week. But first, I must update you on my day trip to Hallstatt.

Hallstatt is a village in the Salzkammergut, about 15 minutes drive from Bad Aussee. Although it’s in the same region, it’s in a different state, Upper Austria (BA is in Styria). I actually had no idea it was in a different state, so I was a bit surprised. Situated right next to the Hallstättersee, the city is smooshed between lake and mountain. The drive was fun; over the mountains and through Obertraun, another tiny village. I never get to ride in a car in Austria, so it’s always a nice experience. The road is closed during the winter because of avalanche danger (we saw the remains of a new avalanche on the way through), so the only way to reach Hallstatt in the winter is by train/boat. Consult any guidebook about Austria, and it’ll implore you to visit Hallstatt (I implore you, too.).

Hallstatt, from the far end  of the downtown.

Anyway, Zandra had called me up last Monday and invited me along for a day trip (on Wednesday) with her husband, Tom, and son, Leo. The weather was sunny and pristine, so we had lunch and drinks outside, next to the lake. Leo had fallen asleep in his stroller, so Zandra was excited for a quiet lunch. We all ended up getting the Bärlauch ravioli. Bärlauch is translated as “wild garlic,” but it looks nothing like normal garlic. At all. It’s green and leafy. It’s in season now (for a short time), and apparently, one can just stroll up to some field in BA and pick it fresh (but I haven’t tried this). The dish was delicious.

While we were eating, an Australian couple traveling through Europe asked Tom to take a photograph of them in “paradise.” I really couldn’t blame them for using such a strong word. Sitting next to the lake, with a white wine spritzer, the sun on my face, mountains all around, it truly did feel like paradise. As they walked away, Zandra said (paraphrase),  “You know, we really do live in Paradise. People save up for years to come here, but we live here.”

We decided to walk a bit through the downtown and up a pathway between the houses. The village is built right into the side of the mountain, so all the houses are stacked, with pathways going in between. As you look  up the mountain, you can see the built avalanche protection. I’m talking real mountain here. The entire downtown is a Fußgängerzone, which means no cars are allowed. Even so, the pathways to the houses are too narrow for cars. I felt I had walked into a private world; the tourist noises were dulled and I got an up close look at the houses of Hallstatt.

We walked on a path just like that one in the middle.

And then, suddenly, I felt a something prick my hand, and I looked to see Tom, jumping away from me and giggling like a 12-year old, with a handful of some plant.

“Brennessel,” he said. “It’s good for arthritis.”

“Great, but oww.

Brennessel is a type of nettle and stings you when it touches you. Needless to say, I got him back and a Brennessel war ensued, which ended up involving Zandra as well.

Zandra and I ended the trip by picking up a boring hitchhiker and depositing him in Obertraun. We followed the trip to Hallstatt by drinking in Zandra and Tom’s backyard and enjoying the remaining warmth of the day. Couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day, really.

The whole time we were in Hallstatt, walking the cobblestone streets, the beauty shocked me. I honestly haven’t seen a more beautiful town in Austria, or anywhere for that matter. The traditional houses and store fronts, the mountain to one side and lake on the other combined so that all I could say was, “Wow.”

However, I did learn that Hallstatt has the highest suicide rate in Austria, because in the winter it receives no direct sunlight. Despite the overwhelming beauty, could you ever live in a place that received no direct sunlight during winter? My answer is, “Erm, probably not.”

Until next time!
Cheers,
Alaina