Thursday, April 25, 2013

How my cubicle is like a Willy Wonka elevator

I love to travel because I love people.  Talking to them, learning about them, asking them too many questions, telling them embarrassing stories about myself.   And the people along my travels are like postcards in a big dusty photo album in my mind.  

Hulya, the Turkish jewelry maker, who invited me to eat dinner with her family in the back of the store.  We had met only minutes earlier, were mutually fascinated with each others' foreignness, and then I was sitting at her table spinning spaghetti on my fork and hearing Turkish conversation float around me.  

Clive, the Irish guy who came up to me at the train station in Vienna and pointed to my backpack:  "Want to be best friends and travel-mates for two days, and then never speak to each other again?" I laughed. I said 'yes.' We covered almost every square inch of Vienna.  And then never spoke to each other again. 

The couple from Mexico whom I met in Switzerland.  They taught me about the "McDonald Index" of a city.  How much does a Big Mac cost in each European city?  I offended her at first by calling myself an "American" ("Mexico is America too!")...but then she forgave me, and we talked all night over beers in the hostel kitchen, because we couldn't afford to eat out in Switzerland. 

Alexander, the Bosnian on the nightbus, who needs an entire post to explain what he meant to me. I can't believe it's been 13 years since he nervously kicked the gravel and said to me during the stop for gas: "If you need help translating, I'm pretty good at English."  And then patiently let me ask him a million questions about the war that just ended.  Does he remember that American girl sneaking into Sarajevo, wearing her turquoise Columbia coat in a bus filled with black-coated men?  Does he wonder what happened to me? 

There are three key ingredients of who I am: people and words and places.They're a Venn diagram in me, with more shared area than not.  I talk, I write, as a means of knowing people.  Sharing human experiences.  I read others' words to learn who I am.  Stir it in my mind and spill it back on the page.  I remember standing in the kitchen, rapid-fire questions to L, in my typical journalist-way, and saying: "I'm asking too many questions, aren't I?"  "No, I like it.  It's nice."  "Okay, good...because I don't really know how to stop."

I show love to people with words and food.  Sometimes the only way I know how to help is to write, and then it seems like this ridiculously empty thing after I hit "send."  But it's the best way I know how to sort through situations, connect with people. Written or spoken.  Sitting on a couch, letting words pour out to a friend.  It didn't really fix things, maybe, but it felt like it did. 

I think people want to be known and understood...want to understand...and questions and writing are how I interact with the world.  Were it not for Alex on the Bosnian bus, I would have become a war journalist.  When he told me what that meant...the voyeuristic, exploitative side of it...that part of me went away.  The formal side of it, anyway.  I wasn't going to jump out of a bulletproof van and take pictures of children's legs exploded by snipers on their way to school.  But I knew I wanted to keep exploring people.  Going places.  Asking questions. 

And then I took this job.  The English Lady for the Army. Before I learned about this position, I was 100% certain I didn't want a full-time job, and I remember wondering why the hell I was sending my resume for a job I wasn't sure I even wanted.  Then it all happened so quickly (interview and offer) that I listened to the impulse and said "yes."  We scrambled to re-configure our life's infrastructure, had several weeks of life I hope to NEVER experience again, and then the smoke cleared and I was left with this job that amazes me.  

It takes all the pieces of my life that I've gathered in my pack, and put them together in this magically contrived position.  Writing, reading, teaching -- everything I loved, but on steroids.  This week has been insane with work.  But because it's the right job for me, it just feels like more of what I love.  

That cubicle that I feared would atrophy my life?  It's actually a locus point for all these experiences coming to me. My life didn't get smaller, it got bigger.  My Allied Officers, who come from all over the world.  Bosnia! South Sudan!  Country after country, coming through my cubicle.  Reminding me of places I've been, people I met.  Places that imprinted in me throughout the years...that meant so much to me...and I shake my head in wonder that there's a Bosnian military officer sitting at my desk getting help with his paper. 

Tomorrow, I'm going to lunch with a Major in the Pakistani Army.  He was my student last term, and then he gave a presentation last week for the international students. I sat in a room filled with officers from 20 countries, crammed together in that room to hear Maj R. speak. I was squished between Ghana and Germany, staring at the back of Egypt's head. I have these dreams of working for United Nations, traveling the world to talk to people, and this job that I accepted with an impulse-yes brought everything to me.

During Maj R's presentation, I was scribbling notes as fast as I could write them.  My war journalist side was exploding out of me...out of my pen onto paper.  I had no idea why I needed what he was saying so much.  But I did.  I sent him an email afterward, telling him how much I appreciated his talk, and we went back and forth with questions.  He had them about America, I had so many about Pakistan.  

So tomorrow, we go to lunch.  Tonight, I texted a Nigerian man about his memo format...wrote back to my Turkish student about using citations...and reviewed a draft for a man from Ecuador.

Words and people and places.

I will never stop being grateful for this.


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