Tuesday, January 09, 2018

2017: From Asia to Europe and Back Again (with a lot of stops in between)

Happy New Year and Greetings from Berlin, Germany! 2017 was the year that I decided to leave Asia. This decision had been a while in the making – while my apartment was in Bangkok, I spent most of 2015 in the Middle East and most of 2016 in Europe (Serbia, Bosnia, and traveling in Greece, Middle Europe and Portugal). I finally bit the bullet and closed down my apartment in Bangkok and moved to Europe.

I knew at the end of 2016 that I was definitely going to leave Bangkok but I still wasn’t sure to where. Motivated by an inability to stand the 100% humidity and heat and awful sexpats of Thailand (along with an uncertain status as I was on a tourist visa), I wanted to take advantage of my British citizenship and EU passport before the powers that be finally pull the United Kingdom out of Europe. The allure of cheap Thai massage, jasmine flowers, and spectacular Thai food were not enough to hold me in Asia anymore and I had vague thoughts of “putting down roots” somewhere where gender equality and mild summers might exist. As a freelance consultant, I often work from home or travel for my work so I’m fairly free about where I can be based.  I came up with a plan to check out the cities that most appealed to me and to spend 3 months in each one until I decided where “home” would be.  I had also been in a bit of a depression and deep funk in 2016 with the awful double whammy of Brexit and the Trump election[1]. I started to heal a bit when I was asked to speak at the anti-inauguration in January with the Democrats Abroad in Bangkok where I spoke from my heart about the terrors that the Trump administration was going to bring to women – both in the USA and around the world. I took the next step in healing by returning to Beirut, Lebanon (via Oman). Beirut is a beautiful and exciting city where my friend Lina invited me to teach a class on Gender and Emergencies at the Lebanese-American University for her Institute of Women’s Studies in the Arab World[2]. It was very healing to be teaching energetic young students in Beirut as that was where I was when the dreaded Trump election happened. I also got to enjoy all the delicious Lebanese and Armenian food that Beirut offers and hang out with my friend Tom who kindly let me stay with him.

In March, after a short sojourn in Geneva for work, I headed to Berlin where I had rented a small (VERY SMALL) apartment in a neighborhood called Prenzlauer-Berg. Imagine my surprise and shock to find it did not come with internet! Although spring in Berlin is beautiful and I loved being outside, I am a free-lance consultant so need internet at home (plus as those of you who follow me know, I’m a social media junkie). While looking for a new temporary apartment, I unexpectedly landed a lovely apartment in Kreuzberg and he gave me a lease til March 15, 2018 so voila – decision made (at least for 2017). I hope to stay in Berlin but the housing market is very difficult so maybe the other cities may become options (Athens, Lisbon, and Paris if you are curious).

After a great spring and summer in Berlin (with travels to the UK to see Sarah marry Brett in Stonehenge, in Tuscany to see Maria marry Philippe, visiting Toni, Joeri, and Enzo to meet Yara in Bosnia, work trips with Kristine to Turkey, and amazing days in my friend Christine’s flat in Paris), I picked up my trusty bike from Amsterdam and spent it cycling around the parks and canal in Berlin having late night picnics. I also signed up for some writing classes and finally started writing (a long time dream)[3]. I’m really enjoying the move a lot. Being in a country with seasons again is fantastic and I love the culture and vibe of the city. If only I could get a permanent apartment!

2017 was also the year I turned 50. I can hardly believe it myself. How can I be 50 when I still feel 17 inside? Half a century of living deserves a big celebration so my dear friend Adrienne Cox, who I met when I worked in North Carolina after the death of my mother, flew out to join me on my adventure. After a fun night in the biergartens of Berlin, we flew off to Moscow where I fulfilled a dream of seeing Russia for the first time. We joined up with my friend Svetlana and her husband, Luca, and 4 others (Eva, Lora, Jason, and Connie) and jumped onto the Trans Siberian Railway where we spent a week traveling to and exploring Yekaterinaburg (where the Romanovs were murdered) and Irkutsk (on Lake Baikal in Siberia). So much vodka, caviar, Crimean Champagne, pelmenis, and “Trans Siberian bloody marys” were consumed.

Sarah and Svetlana’s
Trans-Siberian Bloody Mary recipe
Train generic tomato juice
Pickle juice from the delicious Russian pickles we bought at every stop
Sarah’s Tabasco sauce
Svetlana’s “spicy bear” sauce

Pour into train proof – adult sippy cup and consume at all hours of the day.

After a week on the train in Russia, Adrienne, I carried on with two girls (Lora and Eva) on the Trans-Mongolian Express and headed to the capital of Ulan Bataar. We went down a step from our first class Russia travel and ended up 4 in a compartment with a Dutch couple who had very particular ideas about how the train compartment should be organized. Henk and Marlena lightened up though when we brought out our bottle of vodka and soon we were all friends. The Russian-Mongolian border was an experience as we had 8 hours to cross so killed the time by traipsing around through the small Russian town on the border and making friends with the local drunks who liked to hang out by the train station. Eva lead a yoga session on the tracks as well.

Mongolia was spectacular – after one day checking out all the Genghis Khan monuments and listening to some spectacular throat singing[4], Lora and I headed out to the countryside to stay with a nomadic Kazakh family in their traditional ger (known as a yurt in Europe). It was freezing cold by the time we got there and we rode some Mongolian ponies, had a lovely meal with the family, and gazed at the spectacular Milky Way in the clear non light polluted sky.  After playing an incomprehensible game with some sheep ankle bones with the kids, there was some miscommunication and Lora and I found ourselves sleeping in the yurt without about 15-20 people. It wasn’t very restful but the next day we drank some mare’s fermented milk and drove out to see some of the Gobi desert and to ride a Mongolian camel. We were just coming in from our camel ride when who did I spot in the distance? Our train buddy Eva and her brother! We had a nice reunion with some Genghis Khan vodka by the campfire for the night. The next day, on the way back to Ulan Bataar – we stopped into a national park where they are reintroducing the wild horses (precursor to our domestic horses) and I got to sit in the wild and watch a herd of them enjoy the sun with no fences or cages to be seen. Truly a highlight of the year. (you can see more about them in a movie that Julia Roberts produced called: Wild Horses of Mongolia[5]). Mongolia is a spectacularly beautiful and wild place – one of the most special countries I have ever been to. I highly recommend that if you get the chance, you should go there. It has a spirit that is hard to put into words.

Lora and I bid adieu to Eva and got back onto the train where we completed the Trans Mongolian and headed to Beijing, China. We lucked out with some great train mates – Barbara and Leo – two Italian punk rockers and we introduced them to the custom of drinking vodka in the morning. All was going well until a horrific few hours at the Mongolian-Chinese border where they locked up the toilets, turned off the running water and the air conditioning and electricity, leaving us to vegetate and stew in our hot compartments where I somehow managed to spill KimChi instant ramen sauce all over Leo’s pillow on his bunk. Finally, we were able to enter China and use the toilet! It was a world apart from Russia or Mongolia and not at all what I expected  - clean public toilets in the train station, muzak wafting from the fake neon trees on the train platform, and uniformed Chinese guards to escort us around. We rolled into Beijing the next morning to rain and a cold front but after a nap, we lucked out for the rest of the trip as somehow we had clear weather and clear sunny skies without a hint of pollution. Lora and I visited the Forbidden City (a bit dull), ate and drank our way through the hutongs/back allies of Beijing (with amazing food like donkey burgers and jianbing[6], Beijing Duck with my friend Lars from Bangkok) and met up with Barbara and Leo to see Beijing’s craft beer scene. Lora encouraged me to be brave and hike up the very very high and very steep Great Wall of China (instead of emulating the Chinese and taking the cable car) and then I headed off to Shanghai alone on the train (this time business class!). I fell in love with Shanghai – a perfect mix of old and new. It was again, very different than what I expected – crowded but not oppressive. The Chinese are amazing hosts- kind to strangers and their food is spectacular. A highlight was a food tour I took through the French concession where I sampled snake, hand-pulled noodles, so many different dumplings, roasted lamb – and ended the evening drinking martinis in a beautiful 1920’s style bar listening to the “Old Man Band” of jazz musicians over the age of 80 play old jazz standards. I also learned about the 30,000 Jewish refugees who fled World War II and were sheltered by the Chinese in Shanghai. Very moving to go to the old synagogue and learn about Dr. Jakob Rosenfeld[7] who was grateful to the Chinese and ended up serving as a doctor with Chairman Mao in the Chinese Revolution.

I got back on the train again to old Canton (Guangzho) where I got to meet up with my friends Karen and Phillip who hosted me and showed me around this lovely city in a monsoon, treated me to dim sum, and giggles with their kids. Finally, I jumped on my last train and headed to Shenzhen where I unfortunately missed Nolan, my friend from Goatfeather’s in SC, but rested my bones before hopping the border to Hong Kong, getting on a plane to Bangkok, and packing up my apartment and saying goodbye to dear friends in Thailand. Phew!

I lived in Thailand from February 2011 in the same apartment so I had a very close relationship with Khun Nee – my housekeeper who looked after me and my cat, Simon Le Bon. She nursed me through my kidney operation in 2011, minded Simon through all my travels, and cried and hugged me when he died and I brought home his ashes. I will miss her – not just her immaculate housekeeping but her warm and caring nature and all the sweet things she gave me and did for me (she often brought me doilies, little animal figurines, pomelos, buddhas as well as ironing my sheets and keeping my houseguests in line). She is an amazing kind devout woman and treated me well. I’ll also miss my motosai guys – the four men who provide motorcycle taxi service in front of Sethiwan Residence. They always gave me free rides, cheered me up, and once even warned me to stay inside during the Yellow Shirt protests on a night that got violent. Wanchai, my favorite of them all, took me to the airport on my last day and gave me a lovely Buddhist amulet to protect me in Europe. While I was, sometimes, very lonely in Bangkok - the relationships I had with these lovely Thai people will ensure that Thailand is always in my heart. I’ll also miss my great expat neighbors, Kathy, Andrea, Richard, Jordan, and Rebecca, from Sethiwan Residence. When we were all living there together, it was as close as I ever came to my dream of making all my friends live in the same building a la Seinfeld. My other dear memory will always be the Ottolenghi Cooking Club where I joined Vanessa, Ramya, Momo, Andrea, Kathy, and others to cook for each other from Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks[8] and post instagrams hoping to lure him to Thailand. I had the chance to meet him in Berlin where I babbled about our devotion to him so keep the hope alive Momo and Vanessa! It might happen! We will continue our cooking adventures via our facebook page but it won’t be the same without the food in front of us.

So after almost two months traveling again in Asia, I flew to Berlin (via Qatar!) but for less than 12 hours before I turned around and tried to fly to Brazil (tried because in my fatigue I lost and then recovered my passport forcing me to stay grounded for 24 hours). I presented a few papers I wrote at the biannual Sexual Violence Research Initiative conference in Rio and got to explore that fantastic city of contrasts. From lying on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to the amazing street art and music, Brazil has it all. I loved it.

I then finally returned to Europe to spend the rest of the year here. Well – sort of – I did a rapid trip with my friend Devanna to Iceland to make sure I could handle winter! So much for putting down roots! But autumn and winter in Germany are also lovely. From bicycle rides through the golden leaves of the parks of Berlin to the cozy glüwein fueled winter markets, Berlin has something for every season. Alyson came to join me in December for a holiday and we headed to the Christmas markets and the sites of Berlin before ending the year in rural Wales with my friend Sandrine.

Even though 2017 saw the world being terrorized by ISIS, a never ending war in Syria and Afghanistan, the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar (and the death of our love for Aung Sang Suu Kyi), the cheeto faced maniac who is currently serving as president of the United States and the incompetency of the Tories negotiating Brexit, it was, for me,  a very positive and fulfilling year, both professionally and personally. I accomplished some great work (publishing a chapter of a book with my friend Devanna[9], putting out two publications with my work with UNFPA for the Whole of Syria response[10] and Women’s Refugee Commission in Lebanon[11], co-authoring a paper with some amazing feminists and presenting in Brazil[12], and working with UNICEF in Greece and Italy) and I made some great new friends (you know who you are). And I moved to Europe. While I miss my little furry friend Simon Le Bon, in 2017 I move forward hopefully into 2018 ready for new adventures, houseguests, and fun!  Please stay in touch and let me know if you are coming through Germany! I’d love to host you!

Much love,


[1] For some of my immediate reaction to the Trump election, see my blog at: http://screamsfromthepinkcollarghetto.blogspot.de/2016/11/cooking-to-heal-your-broken-political.html
[2] Check out Lina’s amazing work at http://iwsaw.lau.edu.lb/
[3] Excerpts can be found on my blog: http://screamsfromthepinkcollarghetto.blogspot.com

[4] Check it out for yourself here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rmo3fKeveo
[5] Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RzVQ988LDQ
[7] For more on the refugees of Shanghai, see http://www.china.org.cn/video/2015-12/12/content_37300684.htm
[8] Ottolenghi has several amazing cookbooks but my favorites are Plenty and Jerusalem. An amazing mix of mostly vegetarian Mediterranean food – run and get yours now! https://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/
[9] Sarah Martin and Devanna de la Puente, Forthcoming 2018, Mind the Gap: Challenges and Opportunities for implementing the Relief and Recovery pillar of UN Security Resolution 1325. in S.E.Davies and J. True (Eds). Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace and Security (New York: Oxford University Press). http://www.monashgps.org/single-post/2016/06/10/Oxford-Handbook-on-Women-Peace-and-Security
[12] Cofem: Feminist Perspectives on addressing violence against women and girls, 2017, Eclipsed: When a broad protection agenda obscures the needs of women and girls. http://raisingvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Paper-5-COFEM.final_.sept2017.pdf

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