September 22, 2009

Mid-Morning: New WC

Collin and I christened the new Writing Center space today with a pot of coffee and a continuation of our major-life-decision talk. It turns out that both of us are unsatisfied with our respective chosen majors, but that we both eventually want to pursue higher education. As I often do, I immediately suggested that Collin study abroad to take a break from the dismal world of academia, and he countered with his customary, "but I'm a castle-builder" explanation. He is indeed a castle-builder—that is, one who prefers to create a web of relationships, commitments, and aspirations that center on a single geographic location. He wants to build his castle and enjoy the kingdom. I, on the other hand, am an exemplary wanderer. I'm never satisfied with my current location, and I am inclined to circumnavigate the globe in search of some higher meaning (or at least stories worth telling).

Surprisingly, Collin and I face a very similar dilemma, except I am one year further in the process. I have no advice for Collin, because my solution to the question of graduate school and beyond was about as pigheaded as they come: To heck with it all, I'm going to Cambodia. I need more time, a new space and deep-fried tarantulas to help me figure out my future (although if deep-fried tarantulas are in my future, I might need to rethink this…). I hope Collin doesn't have to go through the misery that was my lamentable fourth year at UNK. Attempting to be an überstudent, I took on far too many extra projects that left me exhausted, not to mention medicated. Sure, academia can be a very rewarding place, but the intense self-pressure to publish material or to create a project that will be satisfying may recklessly eat away at relationships, motivation, and stomachs. I have the holes to prove it!

On second thought, maybe To heck with it all, I'm going to Cambodia isn't such bad advice.

September 20, 2009

Desk Interpretation

My desk is multi-tasking, fabulous and hopelessly international. An old, heavy laptop takes up a good chunk of space, and the digital picture frame I was so excited about sits lifeless among a chaotic mix of the things that stake claim to the precious space. I had high hopes for that frame. I've got a bazillion pictures from Thailand and Austria that I foresaw blinking on my desk day and night, regaling the fond memories of time abroad. Instead, I have had great difficulty getting it to play what I want, and it mostly sits unused, a $170 paperweight. My basket of knick-knacks, or crap, as I prefer, has a wide array of pens, markers, cat stickers, an envelope with a hiragana/katakana chart, an old (probably incriminating) jump drive, some loose change, and an emergency bottle of Tylenol.

My stainless steel water bottle (ever dropped one of those? The noise is incredible), a used Kleenex, stapler, pens, calculator and a bottle of lemongrass essential oil sit atop my desk, exactly where I last left them. My student ID, taken long enough ago that I had short brown hair and six-pack abs, is wrapped with headphones, my motivation to run to the university gym on occasion. A half-burnt incense stick from the weekend, a bottle of perfume, and a necklace that I bought in Bangkok have also made their way onto my desk.

On the slide-out drawer on which most people put a key board, I find a quagmire of papers. Some are from my HIV project: old , useless drafts mostly. I also have a smattering on Khmer lessons, the free kind, printed from the internet. I can already tell that Khmer is going to be hard to learn. The script is, well, it descends from Sanskrit, if that provides any clues. The point is, it's not letters, but symbols, and the sounds associated with said symbols are not similar to the sounds I am accustomed to making. As a by-product of these lessons, I have written some of the Khmer symbols on orange sticky notes, with a pseudo-phonetical transcription that is probably more detrimental than helpful. I look at a character that resembles a 2, except more like a ornate backwards S. Underneath, I see the transcription "Kha"—which is somehow different from the other symbol that says "Ka." For the life of me I can't hear the difference in the internet pronunciation guide. This mystical H, what is it, and how do I say it?

September 16, 2009

"Scambodia" vs. Intuition

So I'm going to Cambodia in January--kind of on a whim. In the midst of a depressing search for life's answers, I decided to try teaching English abroad. It seems like something I would like: traveling, meeting new people, and getting paid to do it. Unfortunately, it seems that a growing number of my peers are considering the same life-path, which is why I'm so glad I picked Cambodia—nobody else is going there! Ha, suckers going to beautiful developed nations, I'm going to a developing nation that is chock-full of landmines.

"Scambodia," as it was often referred to on the internet, is indeed probably full of scams, especially in the ESL/TESOL realm. It's a risk I have to accept, as I learned today at the bank while trying to wire money to Cambodia for my deposit. I sat across from a banker with an inflamed zit by his nose. I told him the plan and he immediately went into dad-mode. Are you sure this is legit? I was almost offended at his question. First, of course I had done all the checking Google would allow, and second, how the hell should I know?

My bubble thoroughly burst, I conceded that I probably should do some more checking, though I already knew that tracking down this type of organization, especially outside the US, was almost totally impossible. As his fatherly spiel continued, some hyper-reality set in. Suddenly I pictured my empty bank account, me crying in a scary hostel in Phnom Penh, and an archetypal Cambodian monkey ridiculing me for being so naïve. Then I thought, those things will probably happen regardless of CamTEFL. Scam or not, I'm in for an adventure.

My invasive internet search began with the BBB, which as predicted, was absolutely no help, and the small goose chase they sent me on was even less fruitful. For the next hour, it was hit an miss searches of IP addresses, domain names, and known scam lists on various websites.

I am prone to trusting my intuition (some people say I'm stubborn—that's just semantics). CamTEFL is the only ESL program that didn't give me a bad feeling. This program is small, based in Cambodia, and is affiliated with several other volunteer agencies with noble aims. If it is a scam, they have gone to such elaborate lengths to cover it that they deserve my money. Something about the Cambodian Rural Development Team just sounds like a life-changing, soul-enhancing, world-peace-inducing organization that I just can't picture being fraudulent.

Call me naïve, call me stubborn, just don't call me Jenna.

I really need coffee—speaking of, I hear Cambodian coffee is a must-try!

September 14, 2009

Barista's 10:15 am

We planned this coffee date last night--long before we had to wake up and stagger in this morning. This was to be a celebratory coffee of the temporary return of two good friends, and the send-off of another to Eastern Europe.

Instead, small groups of us file slowly into the Sunday morning coffee line. We are five strong in the line, but then another finds her way to us. She's twenty minutes late and in the clothes from last night. We all smile in anticipation of the sure-to-be entertaining story. This is almost too college: a group of well-traveled, bright young women, who are always sarcastic, and always, always, always talking about sex.

You can tell a lot about a woman by the coffee drink she orders. After an intense wait in the line, we are gathered around the table drinks in hand. I have a small soy latte and bran muffin, making me the youngest 78-year-old in the world. To my right, a large vanilla latte marks an indulgent choice for a health-nut; next to her sits a small peppermint mocha, the ultimate rebellious drink in the summertime. On the other side of the table, one sits without a drink, she's too hung-over for a sugary, lactose-filled beverage. Next to her, a tame medium vanilla chai compliments the boldness of its drinker. Across from me sits a caramel latte that I gifted because of her perpetual bad luck with stupid men. To my left, the one with the pending story holds a large raspberry hot tea.

We all look at raspberry tea, waiting.

She doesn't disappoint us.

September 11, 2009


Tribeka is the coffeehouse of choice for egotistical exchange students in Graz, Austria. We file into a que (called a “Schlange” in German, or a “line” in boring American), thirsty for the frothy beverage and hot baristas. The girl with the flower tattoo on her elbow is the master of the steamed milk, while the John Mayer-esque barista percolates espresso with salacious hair flicks. I’m not sure whether I want a latte or a make-out, but since I have to order in German, I had better stick to the latte.

I review my rote phrase over and over in my head: ich hätte gerne eine Latte, ich hätte gerne eine Latte. It sounds perfectly Austrian in my head, but when it’s my turn to order, I freeze. An incomprehensible phrase that sounds like Ik hat gurn eine Latte falls sadly out of my mouth and lands on the frustrated ears of tattoo girl, who immediately recognizing my American accent, asks, “Sorry, what?” It’s a crushing blow to my ego, but it happens so often that I’m used to it.

“A latte?” Even my English sounds stupid.

Austrians are a petite crowd, demonstrated by the horrific staircase in Tribeka. The dangers of carrying a steaming glass of bliss up a narrow, winding and unpredictable staircase are plenty. Once upstairs, I feel like a mutant giant because the ceiling is just inches above my head, the tables are tiny, and the prized window chairs are so ill-fitted to my height that I simply give up and sink into the corner--narrowly missing a major collision with the uneven ceiling.

The thing about study abroad is that it is such a distinct and distant time period. I want to write about Amanda and Allie in this blog, but I just can’t anymore. It’s almost like they never existed. They do belong in this story, sitting across from me, having the same size issues while watching the cute little Austrians slip easily into the window seat. We drank a lot of coffee in that place.

In Austria, coffee is life. People are late all the time and they basically excuse themselves by explaining that they were at coffee. Immediately, the rest of the room nods in agreement, that yes, coffee is more important than whatever they are currently doing. Coffee-to-go is not popular for this reason. Why get it to go when no one cares if you are on time?

Besides an excuse for any scenario, coffee is a true art. A Tribeka latte has a swirling Tannenbaum design atop the inch or two of foam. I try to imitate the Austrians by eating the foam with a spoon, but it just never tastes good. Oh, and the size—forget venti (friggin’ huge) size from Starbucks. If you want a latte, you get a small. That’s the only choice. Coffee communism—a remnant of Eastern Bloc influences.

Commie or not, the best thing about Tribeka was the pitcher of water with chunks of mint or fruit shoved in. Nothing like a glass of lukewarm water with floating material on a hot day.

September 10, 2009

Das Leben Ohne Kaffee

I never drank coffee with Takeshi when he came to visit me in Austria. Not exactly sure how that happened, given both of our coffee habits. On the other hand, the pretext of his visit and the unforeseeable events of the trip may explain our lack.

Instead of casually indulging in one of Salzburg's classiest cafes with my international boy-toy, I felt like I was babysitting a grumpy, sick toddler who happened to be presenting some brilliant philosophical stuff at a conference in Austria. Among the various ailments he was suffering from was an unfortunate eye infection that forced him to wear the glasses that show just how poor his vision really is. He also couldn't sleep at night, which meant that I too was awake for three days straight. I just couldn't be nice to him.

I was so frustrated with him and the situation that I broke up with him then and there in my shitty little Austrian apartment. Interestingly, that day was our best day together during that trip. Reconciling our broken relationship with laughs and make-outs was like the funny foam on top of a cappuccino.

Takeshi received the e-mail about his father's sudden death on Tuesday morning—the day after I broke up with him.

We never had coffee in Austria. In fact, it would be a long time before we could have coffee again.

September 2, 2009

2:30 pm Barista's

Barista’s Daily Grind—artsy coffee shop, money-sucking void, and preferred meeting place for Kearney’s intellectual elite. Rachael and I meet once a week for soy lattes, although lately I have been ordering Mexican mochas. My stomach hurts from the ulcer that had been in remission since June. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast, and my stress level is on the rise. Low rumbles in my stomach and gurgling acid alert me that this is no time for lactose and caffeine, but as the Mexican mocha slides down my throat, I refuse to listen. Rachael samples her soy latte, finds it exceptional, and smiles with coffee-filmed front teeth, characteristic of good coffee.

We don’t like the silence in our booth, so Rachael asks me about the week, and I divulge my favorite story about how I cried at Target. I love the drama of this rather pathetic and story about my anxiety getting the better of me as I stood in red and khaki, humiliated. I pepper the story with hand gestures and exaggerations that elicit sympathetic laughs from my listener. Rachael changes the subject to her family—namely, to her mother, whose recent bouts of paranoia (it’s not paranoia if they are actually out to get you) have been weighing heavily on Rachael’s psyche. I chime in with a quick story (that I draw out for emphasis) about my own mother’s recent confessions.

The thing about Mexican mochas is that they are so dang cinnamon-y. My teeth are coated in an unnervingly thick slime that I’m sure stains my teeth with a rusty sheen. The cinnamon on my lips feels warm as I tell about my weekend escapades, but I am all too aware that everyone who works at Barista’s knows (and loves) my “gentleman caller.” Awareness notwithstanding, I let loose a few intimate details that I’m sure can be heard across the room. Rachael and I are dangerous in that way: we like to talk about sex and gossip about mutual acquaintances in voices that are too loud to be ignored.

Her most recent trials and tribulations with LSAT practice exams (along with a re-cap of this summer’s scores) are starting to bore me, so I ask about her daughter. I am then flooded with information about her daughter’s infatuation with boobs, Jesus, and playing teacher. My beverage is cooled now, but not going down easily because of the strong resistance from my digestive system.

I throw away my cup in a container I’ve always assumed to be a trashcan, though no proof exists outside of an occasional “thank you” from a barista. Rachael and I part ways and reluctantly rejoin the world outside Barista’s.

September 1, 2009

9:45 am UNK Writing Center

Amidst the piles of packed boxes, carts of writing handbooks and general dishevelry, I sip coffee with Collin. Our director, a superwoman of sorts, though wonderfully disorganized, stews in the other room over her own cup of coffee, cursing the company in Wisconsin responsible for our current snarl of an online appointment book. She is the one who brewed this coffee--Shurfine brand from last semester if I'm not mistaken. I've doused mine with off-brand hazelnut creamer until tolerable, and I now turn my attention to the conversation with Collin, my brilliant co-worker.

He drinks the coffee black, an admirable and self-sacrificial task. The way he drinks it fits him: straightforward and untainted by the hazelnuts that have overthrown so many of us. We talk about the pieces of paper that have been thrust onto our desk in a whirl of confusion as our director paces back and forth trying to figure out how to make this writing center functional in its half-way-moved-across-the-library state. She's asked us to write a little blurb about the Writing Center for a University newsletter, but the directions were hazy at best. We sit, cups in hand, staring at a blank screen and several seemingly arbitrary sheets of paper from her desk.

Collin and I are the yin and yang of writing, the decadent and the trim, the functional and the superfluous. Neither of us embodies any of these characteristics consistently, but we are always in opposition. We spew quips and sarcasm, adjectives that would make any English teacher jealous. Our Writing Center is provocative...yes, that's the perfect description.

Our coffee cups are empty, and neither of us dare to enter the director's office, for fear of the next strange and ambiguous busy-work assignment. It's the end of the shift. We leave the cups on an empty shelf.

To get the first one out of the way

Since I only get one draft of my life--unlike my writing projects--I am determined to make this go-'round the best and most interesting possible. I live to converse over steaming beverage and write on anything that will take pen. To do these things in Kearney, Nebraska (my current residence) makes me happy, but to do them elsewhere in the world, now that is what I truly live for.