On Chickens

The title should say it all.

Not really.

Here are some valuable links:

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation

A great podcast from the BBC’s The Inquiry about meat consumption and climate change entitled “Can we eat our way out of climate change?

And for those of you who still aren’t sure how I managed to convince a random Norwegian family to pay me in food and housing for three months, here’s a link to the WWOOF website.

Onto the vlogging!

 

 

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

Despite our religious apathy, many of us have grown up in a culture of “holy” days that have come to mean something far different from that which was originally meant or that contemporary believers may wish. Regardless, these holidays have come to mark significant times of the year, and for me, Christmas will always be a special time. Not all Christmases have been great, and some have been flat out disappointing, but my first Christmas abroad was sure to be different. In all honesty, I was a bit apprehensive.

I first cast off from the US almost two years ago with the intention of spending a full year abroad (I had even contemplated spending Christmas in North Korea!). However, massive change of heart and change of life direction sent me rushing back home to arrive just in time for Christmas for the second year in a row. This time, however, I will do no such mad dash around the globe.

No, this year, Christmas has come and mostly passed as I mill about comfortably at Joel’s home in Germany. The relatively warm weather and persistent gray gloom have suppressed the Christmas feeling, and the ubiquitous Christmas markets in the towns I’ve traveled through in Scandinavia and in a couple cities here in Germany have bespoken only the gaudy consumerist veneer I hate about Christmas. Even last night, on Christmas Eve, I spent most of the evening alone while my host family visited the grandparents. An experimental meal of avocado and jalapeño poppers with failed thumbprint cookies was hardly the Christmas Eve fare I’ve grown accustomed to (although it was delicious).

Things all started to come together this morning. A cute little tree had been set up when I returned from my run, and Joel’s mom, Michaela, was in full frenzy in the kitchen. The smell of roasting sweets and sauteeing delectables filled the house as the boys strung one strand of white lights around the tree. The family proceeded to decorate the Charlie-Brown-esque evergreen with simple orbs and ribbons as I watched unobtrusively from the corner.

Feeling the need to contribute, I began to prepare a batch of cookies by darting into the kitchen to grab tools and ingredients each time Michaela stepped out. When Joel’s dad returned with his 91-year-old mother, I was just finishing up the dough, and the table had been prepared with a gorgeous ad hoc centerpiece of fallen bark, boughs, and leftover ornaments. The bubbly grandmother, who shuffled about a full head shorter than anyone else, prattled incessantly to the whole family, even me, who understood only a few words of her rough but joyful German.

Dinner was simple but delicious, and Michaela even accommodated Joel and me (I have been conforming to his pescatarian/vegan diet) by preparing two plates of salmon separate from the pork roast. As we finished up the main course, I tossed the prepped cookies in the oven for a few minutes, and the hearty oatmeal cookies were well-received when the attempt at ice cream didn’t quite pan out.

Just as I might have done on a typical Christmas Eve, we then gathered in the living room to open gifts. I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who obsessively unwraps gifts without tearing the paper (the whole family did so). I was also pleased to see the unashamed gifting of alcohol (grandmother got each member of the family a bottle).

But most of all, I was stunned when two of the presents were delivered to me. Having spent much of the evening quietly observing from the corner, I felt dragged warmly into the scene when Michaela handed me a small black and silver package with a bow. It was a small journal and pen, perfectly timed as I’m filling the final pages of the one I brought to Korea. As I hooked the pen over the soft moleskin cover just as I had done for so many months on my previous travels, I couldn’t stop smiling.

This family has already been unbelievably generous in hosting me in their home for nearly a week now, and I feel I can hardly repay their hospitality. Yet, they even went the extra step to bring me into their family tradition with this small gesture. Though I’m not with my family this Christmas, I have found a family, and I am forever grateful for their kindness.

Whether you’ve gotten together to worship or just to share time and food with family and friends, I hope your time is joyful, and I wish you the best on this Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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No Solitude

Pacing this small cage like an animal in captivity, I somehow feel more liberated here than in the larger cabin of the train car behind me. Here in the small antechamber, my fingers numbing and my joints cramping from the cold, I am in a state of being seldom accomplished over the past several months of my life: alone. 

I am, by nature, an introvert to the highest degree. To me, people are stressful. In their presence, I constantly feel anxiety. I am on high alert, my guard almost entirely protective. Always one eye stays focused on the looks, the stares, the breath, the movements, the actions of those around me. Each additional cohabitant compounds the effect. In the open bay barracks of the train car, the dozens of foreign bodies – their individual needs and desires, their personal characteristics and speech – it saps my energy constantly. It prohibits my mind from being my own. In the economy of my intrinsic energy, this diverted attention is like a government in a great war, taxing energy production to the point of crushing any hope of growth or improvement, hoping only that resources will last to the end of conflict. 

Here in my alcove, I can escape. Though cold, hard, and small, it is like a vast cavern for my mind to wander. Of the four doors of this chamber, three open to the rushing Siberian landscape. The fourth door is windowless and blocks any attention on my being on this side. My fellow passengers have no reason to transit this space. Only interrupted occasionally by an attendant storing dirty laundry in the corner, I can direct the eye that had been preoccupied with my outside appearance inward where a roiling amalgam of thoughts, feelings, and emotions press forth in an amorphous and chaotic fervor. With only the distant homes of rural Siberian towns as my companions, I can filter and sort these thoughts. 

This is not meant to be an attack on humanity. Indeed, the greatness of this adventure has come entirely from the interactions with the people I have met along the way. Though I will have only been on the road for two weeks before this writing comes to light, I feel as though I have been here for years. Not because of boredom or strain of travel, the time has felt so full because the relationships I have built have reached a depth generally reserved for friends of long acquaintance. 

Most recently, I have had the honor of spending many hours with Lena, a student of philology, addicted traveler, and eternal dreamer. When I arrived at the train station of her hometown of Irkutsk at what felt like early morning because of the darkness (though it was actually 7:30), she was waiting with her brother Slava, who had driven the 20 minutes from their home outside the city to pick me up. Too tired from the journey and intoxicated by the scenery, our conversation in the car was limited, but it was certainly not for lack of common language. Lena speaks wonderful English, and her brother can communicate passably. With a quiet demeanor, a shaved head, and hard characteristically Slavic features, I believe many lone travelers would have feared Slava. However, his kindness was palpable. When I pulled my heavy bag from the trunk of his car, he immediately took it from me, slinging it like the small bag I wore, and carried up the three flights of stairs to their home. When I entered their small apartment, I was met with the wonderful smell of roasting herbs and frying oil. Especially after the 36 hour journey from Ulaanbaatar, during which much of my diet consisted of crackers and dried fruit, the prospect of a hot meal was exhilarating.  Slava dropped my bag in Lena’s room, and I put my other bag on top of it when I had taken off my dirty boots. Lena took my winter coat from me to hang in the closet, and I laid my sweatshirt on my pile of bags, adjusting to the warmth. The futon in her room took nearly half the small square bedroom and her desk took the other. Though small, it was cozy, and I took a seat. 

It was only a moment before her mother came around the corner to say hello. With disheveled short blonde hair, she was a broad-shouldered, top heavy woman, and she wore a beaming smile for her new guest. Her jerky motions spoke of excitable eccentricity, and her sweatshirt and jeans attire gave her a comforting motherly aura. She extended a hand and introduced herself in Russian. I stood and did the same in English. She said a few other pleasantries, and Lena translated. She was so excited to have a guest that she had made a special breakfast of peroshki and baked chicken. At their beckoning, I joined them in the kitchen as Lena’s mother finished frying up the cabbage-stuffed doughy rolls. As Lena and I discussed potential plans for the day, Slava and his wife Masha emerged from behind the back wall of the kitchen that was apparently the extent of their mother’s bedroom. We all crowded around the small glass table on stools and plucked peroshki and chicken quarters from the glass bowls in the center. Lena translated what was pertinent of the conversation, but much talk revolved around me and my travels, a curiosity for all. As I filled my grumbling stomach with the delicious greasy foods, I relaxed into the conversation with yet another incredible group of people to whom this journey has led me.