Category Archives: culture

In case you were wondering, I am a feminist

I really love the Internet because it has so many things to offer. It’s where I go to read about current events, and find great new music and books, and search for crochet patterns, and look up tasty recipes, and learn new photographic techniques, and browse thought-provoking essays, and just generally lose myself in an amazing array of information. I have had a great deal of happiness from the Internet. But lately it has shown me some very sad things.

There’s been this:

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…and this:

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One of my favourite bloggers, The Everywhereist, recently wrote about a horrific, sexist experience she had while traveling, and earlier this week writer Sara Benincasa penned an inspirational essay after being asked by a male fan why she’d gained weight. Benincasa’s comments prompted comedian Eden Dranger to follow up with some remarks about her own appearance, and her blog post has now also gone viral.

As you might expect, all of the above have resulted in a fair amount of trolling–itself the focus of some recent online attention after Joel Stein wrote a thought-provoking piece about it in TIME. More importantly, the things I mentioned above–which, you’ll notice all involve women–have opened the floodgates to an outpouring of support and love and understanding and acceptance. Much of this involves some form of “I know how you feel because I have been there too”, which I find terribly disturbing but not at all surprising, as I myself happen to be a woman and, yes, have been there too.

A friend of mine shared something earlier that nicely summarises some of the challenges associated with being a modern lady:

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This cartoon focuses on appearances, but you could easily make another one of these that has to do with being career-focused/sporty/forthright/sexual/independent/childless/and so on versus whatever opposites of those traits women are “supposed” to be according to those who judge them. Basically, it is absolutely impossible to be a woman and do it right. This is not to say that it isn’t sometimes difficult to be a man and adhere to all the often-equally-imprisoning standards that society decides are appropriate for males. The problem is that women seem to be policed to a much greater extent, and hounded when they step out of line and find success and enjoyment in simply being themselves (see first photo above).

Sometimes the hounding becomes physical, and/or is targeted at the physical vessels in which we live, and to me that is a barrier that should never be breached. There are few things in this world that are well and truly mine, and even fewer things that I can control. But my body and all that it contains and makes possible–my brain, my personality, my emotions, my womb–is my domain. As far as I am concerned, it is not ever permissible or acceptable for:

  • someone to treat me unfairly or unequally because of the shape that my external shell happens to take
  • someone to make assumptions about me because my body looks the way that it does
  • someone to decide what is right or wrong for me based on the way that I look, or what is the right or wrong way for me to look
  • someone to do something to my body that is against my wishes

Those things should never happen, and yet they all have, on numerous occasions, just as they have for countless other women (and human beings in general–again, I’m focusing on ladies here because I am one and know that reality best, but I’m well aware that a range of people have been, or are, in the same boat at some point or another; it’s equally egregious no matter who suffers these indignities).

I will give you an example from my own life. This is a photo taken of me back in my high school days by a male friend of mine:

Photo Disk 2 342
(uploading photos of myself to the internet before it was cool)

He was a computer nerd and was showing me his brand new web cam, which was pretty snazzy technology at the time. I was wearing a bikini because we’d been in his hot tub with some other friends, who were also there, as were his parents, and the entire situation was completely innocent. The photo wound up online with some other photos of all of us having fun in the summer holidays, as one does when one is a teenager.

The image sat around in cyberspace doing nothing for a good year or two until someone felt the need to point it out to my mom and ask whether she wasn’t scandalised by it. She wasn’t, of course, because she is not a Puritan and knows that a) the human body isn’t anything to be afraid of, and b) you judge someone’s character by means other than photos posted online. However, having to consider this question gave her pause, just as it gave me pause when she asked me about it. For just a moment, it made me feel guilty, and dirty, as though I’d done something wrong. I was ashamed of…of…of what, exactly? Having a body? Wearing a relatively chaste two-piece bathing suit in front of others? Being comfortable enough in my own skin to allow someone to take a photo of me? Being uninhibited enough to allow that photo to be posted online without thinking anything of it?

I will give you another example. Here is a photo that I posted on my first ever personal webpage–which, incidentally, I coded from scratch because sometimes girls are computer nerds too:

Photo Disk 2 340
(i never anticipated this pose might be considered suggestive or sexy in any way)

It’s another completely innocent shot, taken (I think by my grandmother) during a moment of relaxation before heading out on a day trip somewhere. I used this image in my autobiography section, which included a link to my e-mail address in case anyone wanted to get in touch. For the longest time, I only ever received messages from my high school friends, until one day when there was a delightful missive from a (male) stranger who described all the things he’d like to do to me on that bed. My autobiography clearly indicated that I was in high school, and was underage, but of course that was of no concern to my troll, because these things never are–as Emma Watson could tell you.

I was surprised, but not hugely, because I had long since learned the rules of engagement. I was only eleven years old when I first–knowingly–received sexual attention from a man; he turned to his friend and complimented my ass in a stage whisper while both men grinned lasciviously, and threateningly, at me and the friend I was with. I was scared and, again, ashamed, feeling that somehow this encounter was one that I had brought on myself…by innocently feeding ducks at the zoo. Even at that young age, I had already absorbed this horrible notion we have in our society that the victim–particularly the female victim–is always at least partly responsible for whatever comes her way.

High school was even more educational. There was the time when (male) runners on the track team took bets about whether or not my prom date could seduce me into giving up my virginity on prom night (nope). Then there was the time I refused to perform sexual acts on a boyfriend and so he started a variety of–untrue–pornographic rumours about me. There was endless catcalling when I was out on training runs for cross country. (On an unrelated note, after receiving a call of complaint from some prude, our coach decided it was inappropriate for girls to run in sports bra tops, but totally fine for guys to run shirtless.) It was during high school that I received my first (of many) un-asked-for gropes, as well as my first full-on physical assault–pinned against a wall while someone tried to yank my clothes off.

That last one scared the bejesus out of me and made me fully aware of the perils of being smaller and weaker than approximately half the population. That’s when I enrolled in weightlifting classes with the goal of making life harder for the next–and I knew there would be a next–jerk who tried to take more than I wanted to give. I had no grand illusions that a little extra muscle would suddenly make me rape-proof, but I hoped, at least, that it would give me a fighting chance. What it actually gave me was greater athletic prowess, which was an unexpected but pleasant side effect. This may seem like a tangent, but bear with me–I promise I’ll eventually weave all these strands together into a glorious feminist tapestry.

indoor track
(mistress of the indoor track)

I didn’t know it at the time, but being good at sports was something that would come to enrich my life and keep me sane. There is nothing better than feeling your own strength, successfully guiding your muscles through complex coordinated movements, striving to push harder and achieve more and then succeeding through the force of your own willpower and stamina. My chosen arenas–the cross country course, the track, and the field–are particularly wonderful for this, because really it all just boils down to you, the athlete, and what you can do with your body. This eventually made me happy with, and proud of, my physique, but it has been a long, slow journey.

By the time I joined the running teams in college, I’d become acutely aware that my body was not like other bodies. I wasn’t shaped like the lithe long-distance runners and high-jumpers or the powerful throwers or the wiry sprinters. If you drew a Venn diagram of these three groups–the folks I spent most of my time around and knew best–I was somewhere in the overlap of all of them. This is why I eventually found a home in the heptathlon, but until I did, I just felt confused and dissatisfied. I was bigger and denser than nearly all the other runners, who seemingly subsisted solely on salads and carrot sticks and the white parts of hard-boiled eggs. Clothes didn’t fit me; my waist and my hips and my thighs were all the wrong dimensions for each other because of my musculature. I had bulgy biceps and prominent veins. When I tried on outfits in shops, things didn’t hang on me the way they hung on the mannequins. I felt like an unattractive freak.

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(me at peak muscle, weighing in at around 160 lbs)

None of this was helped by my boobs. I can’t forget about those, because the world won’t let me. I remember standing up in high school once to give a presentation in front of the class, and one of the guys called out, “The turkey’s ready to come out of the oven!”–referring, of course, to my nipples, because I was cold and they were mimicking a thermometer that pops up when a roast is done. Another witty phrase I heard all the time was, “Your headlights are on!”

Those were the days when my breasts were only just getting started. They kept growing and growing throughout college, to the point that I couldn’t run unless I was wearing two sports bras, and I kept having to get rid of perfectly ordinary tops that suddenly began to look pornographic. It was a major pain–sometimes literally–and brought a lot of attention that I really didn’t want. Staring. Commenting. “Accidental” brushing up against. One of my (male) coaches talked about my boobs once, and also the “junk in my trunk”, and also my menstrual cycle, as though any of these things was a topic that had any bearing on my abilities (because, unlike Fu Yuanhui, I am not and was never going to be an Olympic athlete, so analysing the potential impacts of these things on my performance–especially given the tone and terminology my coach used–was wholly unnecessary).

His remarks felt horribly inappropriate, but he’s hardly the only one to feel perfectly natural talking about my assets. Men, women, friends, strangers; over the years, many have commented on the size and shape of my bits and pieces, as though I were an animal up for auction, as though it were somehow relevant. Sometimes people even thought they were complimenting me, but, collectively, they were making me feel that I was nothing but a piece of meat.

javelin
(a bendy piece of meat)

So there I was, wanting desperately to just be an interesting, multilayered person who was valued for her intellect and talent and generosity of spirit, someone who was comfortable being herself. Instead I felt horrifically awkward in my own body and frightened of the ways in which that body made people interact with me. It didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, what I wore or didn’t wear, what personality and achievements and actions went along with that body. It all seemed so fraught and impossible.

Sitting here over a decade later, I’d like to say that I have learned that, in fact, it is not fraught and impossible, but I haven’t. It actually is fraught and impossible. That’s why all this recent stuff online has disturbed me and sent me off on many a meandering contemplation. I’ve worked hard to find myself a relatively safe space and am lucky to be surrounded by relatively safe people; as a result, I’ve been able to minimise the extent to which I suffer from the sorts of events and situations that plagued me in the past. Do I still get catcalled, and groped, and followed in the street, and talked down to, and ogled? Of course; it just happens less. I think this has allowed me to feel that we were making progress as a society, but I suspect it just means that I’ve been insulated.

Being a woman–especially, god forbid, a woman of colour or a lesbian woman or a trans woman or an ambiguously gendered woman or whatever extra twist you want to add–is complicated and difficult. We can achieve the same things as men, or even do better than men, and still not receive the same level of respect and attention:

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We can engage in activities associated with intellect, diplomacy, business acumen, eloquence, and other cerebral skills, but still our looks are dragged into the equation as though they impact the ability of our brains to function:

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(note: i in no way support carly fiorina, but i also don’t think her appearance would have impacted her ability to function as president)

Even if we are physically beautiful and graceful and poised and elegant, it’s often deemed insufficient or inappropriate somehow–often relative to some other feminine ideal held up on high:

michelle2
(seriously, WTF is this and why does it exist in the 21st century?)

In 30 seconds of poking around online, you will find memes that will make you want to leave the Internet forever, and they’re all about looks–women who are too fat or too skinny, with eyebrows too thin and drawn on, wearing clothes not appropriate for the body type, engaged in activities inappropriate to body type, and so on, and so on. Why? What bearing do those things have on a person’s worth or legitimacy? And why are there so many more of them for women than for men?

One last personal anecdote. When I was a senior in high school, I went to a photo studio to get my senior portrait taken. I was asked to bring a few different outfits and a couple props. Here are two of the resulting photos:

senior photo 1

senior photo 2

While taking the first of those photos, the photographer said that I looked nice in that outfit and that he hoped I was enjoying it as much as I could then, since I wouldn’t be able to wear those trousers when I was older–the implication being that I’d pop out a few kids, since that’s what women do, and get pudgy around the middle, since that’s also what women do. You can tell from the expression on my face that I was not loving the conversation. At no point during the second photo did we discuss the fact that I brought the guitar because I play it–just as I play several other instruments, sing, write music, and perform onstage. I guess those talents are irrelevant next to my ability to show off a decent figure.

I wish that I could wind up this essay with a resolution of some sort, but it’s not that kind of a piece; I don’t have the answer to this problem. Well, actually, I do–we should all be kind and treat each other with respect and realise that all humans are equal regardless of our various cultural and physical differences–but I don’t know how to make that happen. Humans have been struggling with these issues since the dawn of civilisation and I could probably write a whole book on the biological underpinnings of this but it’s outside the scope of this piece. I would like to say that we’ve made progress on these issues since, say, my mother’s era, but women still don’t earn as much as men even when we do the same jobs, we’re still fighting for rights to make decisions for our own uteri–not to mention dying because men are preventing access to appropriate facilities–and we’ve got armed policemen telling us what we can and can’t wear, as if they know what’s best for us.

So why have I written over 3,000 words just to reiterate that, yes, women have it rough? For two reasons, really. The first is that I’m sick of this debate over what feminism is and whether it’s needed and who is/isn’t a feminist and whether “feminism” isn’t just a nice way of saying “man-hating”. If only we sank as much time and effort into issues that impact women and their bodies–such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, arranged marriages of children, access to birth control, maternity leave, and, while we’re at it, legitimate prison sentences for people who attack women.

The second reason, which is more important, is that there is power in sharing. It’s not until you hear someone else’s opinions and experiences that you realise you aren’t alone. I have wasted time envying friends for being taller or thinner, having prettier hair or a better complexion, rocking a six-pack or a J-Lo booty, and meanwhile they wished  for my curves or my muscles or my earlobes or my who-knows-what. While I was obsessing over my own pet insecurities and thinking that everyone else was totally perfect, they were doing the same thing, and none of us realised that actually we all have something to be proud of because we are all gorgeous in our own ways–not just how we look, but, more importantly, how we act, what we achieve, and who we are fundamentally.

As the responses to the Everywhereist and Sara Benincasa posts show, we not only deal with the same sorts of raging insecurities about our bodies, but also the same susceptibility to attack–both physical and emotional. We ladies are resilient creatures, leaving our homes and navigating the world each day knowing what is lurking out there. We harden ourselves to the comments and the threats and the actions, and we learn rules about where we can go and when we can go there and how we can act so as to minimise the likelihood of unwanted attention or attack.

We become so used to these protective habits that it’s all too easy to forget how insane it is that we should have to cultivate these behaviours in the first place. You think it’s just you, or just that one guy, or just your town, or just your country, or just your culture, but pretty soon you hear enough of these stories from all sorts of women in all sorts of places, and suddenly you realise: This is a real thing. This thing is a problem, and it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed now.

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(surround yourself with good people who inspire you to do good things)

The amazing thing about the Internet is that even though it’s highlighted some real ugliness this week, it’s also underscored the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of other people who agree that we can be better. These people are willing to provide support and encouragement and assistance in order to tackle this problem. Many of these crusaders are men, who can benefit in a variety of ways when women are treated more equally. (Incidentally, gender equality also improves education and the economy and even the environment, and leads to social changes that improve life for other disadvantaged groups as well. Yay!)

None of us knows how many days we’ve got on this earth or which one will be our last. Why waste precious time agonising over unimportant details and being cruel to others? Let us all stop being so hard on ourselves and on each other. Let us stop worrying about what we look like, and pay more attention to what we achieve and who we are. Let us look for and praise the incredible kindnesses that humans are capable of in our best moments, and then engage in more of those. Let us all be the sort of people that we would like to encounter in our own lives. It’s a miracle, really, that each of us exists at all, and that those of us who exist now happen to be doing so at the same time in the same place. Why not celebrate that miracle with a bit of kindness for our fellow man–or woman?

The Ancestor’s Trail 2014

Long-time readers of the blog may remember that, in 2012, Sasha and I participated in a secular pilgrimage called The Ancestor’s Trail. It is an annual event inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tail. We had to take a hiatus last year because Sasha was out of town and I had transportation issues (one day, I really must get a British driving license). This year, however, we were both able to participate–which was particularly good considering that I had been invited back as a speaker.

Previous iterations of the AT took place in Somerset’s beautiful Quantock Hills. This year’s version was in a new, and very different, location: Epping Forest, which straddles the border between London and Essex. Sasha and I hit some terrible traffic during our drive to the southeast and ended up being trapped in the car for about 8 hours instead of the 5 that we were expecting. After spending all that time sitting down, we were more than ready to stretch our legs on the 12.5-mile Human Trail–the longest of the many walks that cumulatively make up the AT.  This portion of the trail started at the Chingford Station just before 10 AM on the 30th of August.

starting point
The field in which we began our walk. Each footstep along the trail took us away (metaphorically speaking, that is) from the point at which humans became a separate species, and towards the earliest form of life on Earth.
road ahead
Because the trail is arranged such that you are metaphorically walking backwards in time towards the first living organism on Earth, the view ahead may show you your own future, but it simultaneously shows you your evolutionary past.

Although we met at the train station, the real starting point of the hike was a field just behind it. There, and at subsequent stops along the route, we paused to think about the evolutionary history that had inspired our journey: the appearance of Homo nearly 6 million years ago, the development of mammals 220 million years ago, the emergence of vertebrates some 500 million years ago, and the origins of life approximately 3.8 billion years ago (to name but a few important evolutionary benchmarks).

beneath the oak
This was one of our first stops of the day; I believe we were still on the primate branch of the family tree at this point.

Although this year’s trail was in much closer proximity to human-disturbed habitats, it still had some stunning scenery. My favorite portion of the trail was the one that took us under the canopy of some beautiful beech trees:

beeches
If you think those trees look a bit manicured, you’re right; Epping Forest is known for its long history of coppicing, pollarding, and other forms of arboreal manipulation.

We also spent a fair amount of time out in more open habitats–especially towards the end of the day. We passed by and through pastures and agricultural fields, all of which were surprisingly calm and quiet given our proximity to the city.

cloudy sky
One of many unused fields we passed during our long walk

One of the big differences between the 2012 and 2014 Ancestor’s Trails was that this one involved the theatrical skills of Ioan Hefin, from Theatr naÓg. Ioan specializes in impersonating/portraying Alfred Russell Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who independently came up with a theory of natural selection very like Darwin’s. Oddly enough, this was the second time that Sasha had seen Ioan perform, having also enjoyed one of his Wallace soliloquies while being inducted to the Linnean Society of London last year.

ARW
He walked the whole 12.5 miles in costume, but not always in character.

My next favorite portion of the trail was the area where we stopped to have lunch. We had just left the Epping Forest behind and transitioned into the open countryside that lay between the forest and the woodlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park where the trail ended. It was obviously a relatively posh area, with quiet country retreats and bridleways for horseback riding. We even passed a very upscale-looking fenced estate.

bridleway
We weren’t the only ones out and about on the trails; we also passed equestrians, joggers, bikers, hikers, and dog-walkers.
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I'm sure is its raison d'être
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I’m sure is its raison d’être.
grassy field
This is my favorite photograph of the day. I love the pale golden color of the grasses, and their wispy texture makes the hills look soft and velvety. (They weren’t; they were actually a bit scratchy.)

If you look at the back right-hand portion of the photograph above, you’ll notice a man in red. That is Jon Bagge, a professional photographer who also attended the trail last year. He returned this year to collect images for Urs Willmann, a journalist who was writing a profile of the trail for the German newspaper Zeit. Jon very kindly shared his photos with those of us who were present on the day, which means that, for once, I can show you the view from the other side of my camera lens.

Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
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Sasha and I discuss…something, while journalist Urs Willmann (behind me in the black t-shirt) interviews a trail participant.
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After a long day of walking, I rest my feet with some of my fellow pilgrims. This image gives you a particularly good view of my Darwin-riding-an-archaeopteryx t-shirt (by Stated Clearly), which I thought was an especially relevant fashion statement given the theme of the day.
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I find something amusing. Or maybe I’m just thinking about how awesome my t-shirt is.

I would be lying if I said that 12.5 miles wasn’t a bit of a trek–even for someone who loves walking and nature as much as I do. I was worried that my back would start to hurt, but actually it was my feet that ultimately betrayed me. Maybe I need new hiking shoes, or maybe I just shouldn’t ambush my body by taking a walk that is three times as far as I would normally go in a single day. I don’t think I’m the only one who began to feel battered; whereas people had been quite talkative and jokey early on in the day, conversations dwindled and became quieter after lunch. More and more hikers simply put their heads down and powered on, grimly determined to make it to the end.

That is not to say, however, that there were no moments of lightheartedness. There was some antelope mimicry, complete with faux antlers and pronking behavior. There was applause and murmurs of appreciation at the clever and amusing speeches that had been written to recognize each of the important branches in the evolutionary tree. There was good-natured chuckling at the obstacles that Nature had thrown in our path (namely mud and pools of standing water, in which I nearly lost my lens cap). We also took the time to appreciate some unexpected artwork that we found along the way:

Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.
Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.

We picked up our last pilgrims fairly close to our final destination–the Cheshunt YHA. They represented our friends the bacteria, about whom one of the hikers had written a clever little ode that recognized the fact that even though some bacteria make us sick, many more keep us healthy and are responsible for a huge proportion of the genes that can be found within our bodies. His witty observations helped revive us and give us the energy we needed to walk the last mile or so to the refreshments and rest that were waiting for us at the hostel. Also aiding our progress was a small brass band making some very cheerful music to accompany our final steps.

the band
We were coming from the right-hand side of this picture and heading towards the left. Just before crossing over this bridge, I had the good luck of spotting a great crested grebe–my first-ever sighting of the species!

Everyone was obviously feeling a bit peckish by the time we arrived at the hostel. As soon as we entered the building, we flooded into the cafeteria in search of snacks and hot beverages. I only had eyes for the freshly baked donuts, which were amazing. I suspect that my enjoyment was partially aided by the fact that I was in an extreme sugar deficit, but I am also confident that those were superior treats that would have been delicious under any circumstances. And that is why I was forced to eat two.

As I sat consuming my sugar, I discovered why my rain coat, which I’d been wearing tied around my waist, had become so heavy throughout the day:

burrs
A little souvenir from the Trail

Once we’d had a chance to recharge, Sasha and I said our farewells for the evening and made our way back to our B&B. En route, we stumbled across one of the mailboxes that had been repainted  in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics:

mailbox 2

mailbox plaque

I’m not really sure how they chose which mailboxes to paint in honor of each athlete; Laura Trott isn’t from Cheshunt, but from Harlow, which is 11 miles away. But perhaps I’m being nitpicky. (At least it makes more sense than if they’d put her plaque on a mailbox in, say, York.) I felt pretty ridiculous photographing a mailbox, especially since I’d secretly rolled my eyes at a couple of mailbox spotters who were geeking out about some rare pre-Queen-Elizabeth mailbox that we passed during the 2012 Ancestor’s Trail. Ah, irony.

Upon reaching our B&B, I noted that I felt very much the same as I have previously when returning to my campsite after climbing Mount Kenya during the University of Exeter Kenya field course: weary, sore, very much looking forward to a shower, but also quite proud. While recuperating in the comfort of my fluffy bed, I used TripAdvisor to figure out where Sasha and I should go to dinner. We opted for the Coach and Horses, a gastropub with Spanish influences. They started us off with some fresh garlic bread bites, and I immediately knew that we’d chosen wisely.

bread bites
Garlic + butter + bread = happiness on a plate

Neither of our main courses photographed particularly well (I admit that they both kind of look like pet food), but they were both very tasty. I had the albondigas con espinacas, or spiced meatballs with spinach. Sasha opted for the steak stroganoff.

cait food
My meatballs…
Sasha food
…and Sasha’s stroganoff

Given the number of calories we’d burned during the day, it’s probably no surprise that we were both still hungry once our main courses were gone. The only solution to that problem was to order dessert–which came in the form of fruity ice-cream cheesecake. I’d never had a frozen cheesecake before, but I can confirm that it is delectable.

dessert
Our hard-earned (one might even say…just?) desserts

Once we’d licked our plates clean, we headed home for an early night. I, especially, needed my sleep, since I was due to give a lecture to the AT crowd the following morning. I was impressed by the number of folks who showed up despite the travails of the previous day and the fact that many of them had a long commute home. You know you’ve got an eager audience when they agree to show up at 9:30 AM on a weekend.

The first lecture of the morning was delivered by Ryan Walker, a herpetologist who talked about salamanders in recognition of the fact that this was designated the AT’s “Year of the Amphibian”. I was up next, discussing “The Sounds of Love“–aka birdsong. Judith Mank, of University College London, wrapped up the festivities with her discussion of sex determination. All three of us fielded some excellent questions, and the crowd was not only very attentive, but also quite tolerant when I had some technical difficulties. It was exactly the kind of audience that every speaker dreams of.

Of course, that wasn’t really surprising. During my first experience with the Ancestor’s Trail crowd, I had found my fellow pilgrims to be friendly, thoughtful, inquisitive, and insightful; the same was true this year. They are an interesting group of people to spend time with, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to join them in both Quantock Hills and the Epping Forest. Even if Sasha and I don’t find ourselves signed up to give AT lectures in the near future, I hope we still have the chance to participate in the hike–though perhaps with more supportive shoes next time.

Top and bottom fives

A fellow American expat recently asked me a question that, he said, he poses to all transplants that he encounters abroad: What are the best and worst things about living where you live, rather than in the US? It is a query not dissimilar to the “Do you like living in England?” that I am frequently asked, but more specific. As always happens when I am asked the latter question, I did not have a quick answer on hand; it is just not something I think about on a regular basis.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t make comparisons–especially when I first moved here–but I have long since switched to a mindset of simply getting on with the process of daily life. That’s not necessarily a good thing, since it means that I tend to overlook not only the Britishisms that annoyed me when I first relocated, but also those that I found (and still find) quite pleasant. I think we all probably do this to some extent, no matter where we live or how long we’ve been there; the things you encounter every day can easily become mundane to you even if they would be deemed wonderful by someone–or even everyone–else. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I was surprised when the Sunday Times recently named Falmouth as the fourth best place to live in the UK–it’s not that I don’t like Falmouth, but it does seem rather ordinary to me because I see it on a daily basis.

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Obviously, something is wrong with me if I can think of even this view as “ordinary.”

In any case, the best/worst question stuck with me, and I found myself pondering it in the days that followed, as I went about my expat existence. It made me look at my Falmouth life through two sets of eyes–those I had when I first moved here nearly five years ago, before I adjusted to the new conditions, and those I have now that I have come to see the Falmouth/British way of life as normal and expected.

Strangely, my lists of pros and cons could be both longer and shorter than the “top and bottom fives” I have compiled below. For both categories, there are things that emerged quickly, and others that I only realized after considerable thought; some affect me only periodically, and others once seemed important but have faded in significance as I’ve settled in. Still, they are all relevant to some degree or another, and you may recognize some as topics that I have addressed in previous posts.

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Me, with my importer

The lows of life in Britain (because it’s better to start with the bad and finish with the good…)

Honorable mention: Use of the word “trousers” instead of “pants”.

5. The smell of dampness. The smells of mold and mildew are not unique to Britain, but they are far more pervasive here than pretty much anywhere else I have ever been. I think this is caused by a combination of factors. First, you’re never far from water (see point #2 in the next section) and rain is incredibly common; it is not hard for things to become waterlogged. Second, in addition to the moisture, there is also a tendency to have mild temperatures; these are the perfect conditions for cultivating a nice collection of “aromatic” microbes. Third, there are many old buildings here that have had centuries over which to absorb the damp. Fourth, many of these structures are built in such a way as to facilitate a certain closeness of air–they’re made of stone, for instance, or have only very small windows. Cumulatively, all these factors contribute to an odor of wetness that can be smelled in even the cleanest and tidiest of homes. Often it can be combated, and potentially even defeated, only with the most prodigious of efforts and at great expense.

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On the up side, lots of water droplets = lots of rainbows

4. The wind. I know that everyone complains about Britain’s precipitation, but actually I don’t mind rain. In fact, I like it; I always have. What I don’t like is the seemingly incessant wind, and the combination of wind and rain. It ensures that you get wet no matter what you are wearing, and that your hair never looks good. It gives me headaches. It causes my windows to bang shut and my apartment to creak loudly in the nighttime, thus keeping me awake. It blows dust in through every crack it can find, and knocks wads of moss off roofs and onto your head. It makes the seas choppy, which renders boat journeys miserable. It finds you wherever you are, inland or by the sea, and just generally makes a real pest of itself.

 
The wind is so strong that it even shapes the trees
The wind is so strong that it shapes the trees as they grow

3. Things are tiny. For someone living in Cornwall, Britain seems pretty big; it can take an hour to get somewhere else in the county, let alone from one county to the next, or from England to Wales or Scotland. But this is deceptive; in reality, the UK is not very large, and yet it is home to quite a few people. To make this possible–and, in particular, to make this possible atop infrastructure dating back centuries and, in some cases, all the way to Roman times–it is necessary to make everything tiny so that it can all be crammed in to what little space there is. Because roads are small, cars are small. Houses and apartments are small, which means that rooms are, too; kitchens are diminutive, thus necessitating tiny fridges and freezers that barely hold a few days’ worth of food. Stores are often quite narrow, making it difficult to squeeze between rows and racks of items on display; God forbid if you need to fit past another person as you navigate these narrow corridors. And don’t even talk to me about storage space; I have almost none.

Not bad, as far as woods go. Notice the size of the trees--this is a very young stand.
Not bad, as far as woods go. Notice the size of the trees–this is a very young stand.

2. No trees. Obviously, there are some trees in Britain, but there aren’t nearly enough for my taste–and they don’t occur in large enough patches. This is particularly noticeable in Cornwall, and throughout the west country in general, where you are much more likely to encounter a field of sheep or cows than a stand of trees. What is amazing about this is that Britain used to be covered in forest; here in Falmouth, excavators once unearthed the petrified remnants of an ancient forest that was swallowed up by the estuary as melting glaciers advanced the shoreline by several meters thousands of years ago. I grew up among trees and frequently feel the need to walk under them, far away from the sounds of traffic and the sight of human constructs. That is not an easy thing to accomplish around here.

1. Distance to family. As I was growing up, I always knew I would end up leaving my hometown and going somewhere else. I deliberately chose places that were not Ohio when selecting where to go for my higher education and my summer employment. However, I never imagined that I would end up in a whole other country–at least, not for a period longer than your average vacation. I’ve always been pretty independent, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually felt homesick, but I still find it difficult to be so far from my family. In an emergency, I could get to them within a day, but I would probably need all 24 hours of that day, and it wouldn’t be an easy thing to pull off. It would be nice if it took less time and energy (and, of course, money) to get back to see my parents and grandparents. But, whenever I think about how difficult it is, I do have to console myself with the thought that at least I live in an era when technology makes it easier to stay in touch, both in terms of electronic communications and physical visits; a couple hundred years ago, I would have been much more cut off than I am today, and both letters and visits would have been fewer and farther between.

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Family selfie in the Columbus airport. We were doing group selfies before it was cool.

 

The highs of life in Britain (because, no matter what I said in the last section, I do actually love my new home…)

Honorable mention: So. much. tea.

5. Cultural history. I first came to England as a teenager, on what I have since referred to as a “literary tour of England.” The Bronte parsonage, “Thomas Hardy country” (i.e., Dorset), the Globe Theater, and Tintagel were some of the many places that my parents and I visited during our tour of the country. My mother, an English teacher, was responsible for the bulk of the itinerary, so of course there was a bit of a theme. However, what I have learned since moving here is that it would be hard to go anywhere in Britain without stumbling across something of historical significance–if not literature, then music or architecture or science or whatever else you can think of. It is full of fascinating remnants, artifacts, and stories left behind by the humans that have lived here for thousands–if not tens of thousands–of years. Britain was hugely influential in shaping my own country, in particular the bits where I have lived: Appalachia, Philadelphia, Williamsburg. Melting pot though it may be, the US can trace its modern origins (please note I am not ignoring the importance of the original inhabitants of North America!) to England. In many ways, visiting England is like visiting home, albeit a very ancestral one. Another way to think of it is as a giant living museum, though I’m not sure the Brits would enjoy that view of their country.

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Roman mosaic unearthed in St. Albans, as viewed by me in 2006

4. Robins (and other British wildlife). Britain may no longer have wolves or bears or other dramatic large wildlife comparable to that found in the US, but it does still have some spectacular species–and they are easy to see no matter where you are. From the water’s edge, you can see seals, sharks, whales, dolphins, porpoises, otters and even, if you find yourself in a particular portion of Devon, beavers; in the air there are peregrines, kites, buzzards, and any number of brightly colored, sweetly singing passerines. On land, you can find badgers, foxes, impossibly cute hedgehogs, stoats, and a myriad of other small mammals. Wherever they can find a crack to root in or a ledge to cling to, there are lichens, mosses, wildflowers, and, in larger patches, shrubs, trees, and berry bushes with fruit available to anybody who cares to pick it. Springtime in the US is remarkable, but it is even sweeter in the UK, where winter brings longer periods of dark and less snow to make the cold worthwhile. Those first few slightly warmer days nearly make your heart burst with relief, as does the sight of almost painfully bright primroses and daffodils and, above all, the insistently cheerful trill of the plucky little robin. Even in the most urban of areas, the Brits do an amazing job of leaving space for greenery and giving you an opportunity to interact with wildlife wherever you are.

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European robin in the old cemetery on St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly

3. Proximity. Although the Brits tend not to think of themselves as inherently “European,” the British Isles are, undeniably, both geologically and geographically linked with the rest of the continent. One impact of this is an astonishing ease of travel from Britain to pretty much anywhere else you might want to go–not just in Europe, but beyond, via Paris, Amsterdam, and other continental hubs of airplane travel. This facilitates more than simply ticking another country off your list; it also enables you to experience new languages, cuisines, music, fashion, ecosystems, and whatever else you might be interested in. Since moving here, I have been to Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, India, Australia, Kenya, and the Czech Republic; this autumn I will be adding another country to my list when I go to Greece. Even more impressive is the fact that I don’t always have to go all the way to London to embark on this travel; regional airports (not to mention ferry terminals and train stations) right here in the Southwest act as gateways to many of these destinations, making it as easy to travel between countries as it is to travel between states–or even cities–in the US.

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Boats moored at Custom Quay, Falmouth

2. The ocean. When I was studying for the UK citizenship exam, I learned that there is nowhere in Britain that is more than 70 miles from the ocean, and that fact has always stuck with me. The sea is such an important part of British life, both past and present, but I think that the ocean is such a standard part of British existence that it tends to be taken for granted. For someone who comes from a landlocked state (no offense to Lake Erie, but it is still just a lake even if it is a great one), the perpetual proximity of the ocean is an amazing thing. It is a symbol of freedom, a conduit to possibility, and, extending as it does all the way westward to the shores of North America, it is also, perversely, a bridge that connects me to home. I may have lived the bulk of my life inland, but after only a few years on the coast, I would have a very hard time moving away.

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Wildflowers along the shorefront walk between Pendennis Castle and Gylly Beach, Falmouth

1. Transportation. You may think I’m a very boring person for choosing transportation as my favorite part of life in Britain, but public transport is pretty darn amazing here, and it affects me every single day of my life. My driving license does not permit me to drive independently in a car, and yet I can get pretty much anywhere in the country whenever I like, without that much of a hassle–not to mention in a fairly eco-friendly way, since I’m sharing my ride with a bunch of other travelers. For a mere £0.80, I catch a bus to school every morning and can then walk home every evening–combining exercise with transportation and killing two birds with one stone. The University of Exeter is not the only thing within walking distance. I can also go shopping for groceries, clothes, home furnishings, books, and pretty much whatever else you can think of; I can go to a restaurant, or a movie, or to the doctor, or even just head out into the countryside to see a bit of nature. Rarely do I ever need something that I cannot easily access on foot–a thing that is true in very few American towns and cities. The lack of this facility is immediately obvious to me when I visit the US, and I very much miss the feeling of independence that you have when you live in a place that does not cater so heavily to cars.

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Train pulling in at Colesloggett Halt, near Bodmin, Cornwall

I suppose I am lucky to have moved somewhere that I like so well; after all, Sasha could have whisked me off to Siberia or South Korea or somewhere else that is so truly beyond my range of experience that I could never learn to feel at home. I do wonder about that, though: Was it luck, or is that just the way I am?

I love to travel because I love to see, do, think, and feel new things; I have never been anywhere that I didn’t find interesting, even when my destination was the sort of place that makes other people raise their eyebrows when you say where you’ve been (Droitwich Spa, I’m looking at you!). Obviously I wouldn’t have been happy in a country with an oppressive religious and/or political regime, but beyond that…it’s quite possible that I could have settled in anywhere. It might have taken more time to adjust to, say, unreliable electricity or cockroaches the size of salad plates (I’m thinking here of horror stories I’ve heard from my own family members), but in exchange for these things I might have reveled in something else that made it all worthwhile.

Who knows? Maybe one day we will move again and I will have a chance to explore this theory–or maybe we’ll live out our days being serenaded by herring gulls as we listen to the wind whistling through the rigging of the ships in the harbor. Either way, I’m up for it.

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How can I not love Cornwall, given its steady supply of cream teas?