Motorbikes, bubble tea, and monsoon rains have all become a part of our new normal here in Saigon, Vietnam. I can’t believe it has been two months since I first arrived here! It has been an odd mix of both slow and fast, from waiting through quarantine then jumping into my new job and everything that came after. We’ve had a wonderful time these past few weeks setting up house and settling into our new life here. Here are some of the highlights
At the beginning of September we had a day off of school for a local holiday. We joined some new friends at a fancy spa in our area for a day at the pool, and then went for dinner and some drinks in town.
While we were out that day I saw a family releasing fish into a lake. This is Buddist tradition that represents compassion and invites good karma.
I’ve had a fabulous time going to some different workshops over the past month. My friend Brianna and I attended a macrame workshop at a little tea house in our area where I finally learned the art of large-scale macrame by making a plant hanger. I’ve taken to this craft immediately and completed two more since then.
We also attended a candle making workshop. We learned about scents and waxes and mixed our own signature fragrance into our own candles.
Brianna and I also peeled ourselves out of bed early one Saturday to attend a traditional Vietnamese Opera. It was quite the experience trying to guess the storylines and adapting to the music.
We have wheels! One of Kim’s dreams has been to have a motorbike of her own to zip around town on so about two weeks ago we made it happen! Our new bike we are just renting for now. Some people rent the entire time they live here to make it easier for maintenance and repairs. We don’t have a plan at this point but are happy to just have a little red bike to take around town. So everyone, please meet Rizzo! On our first weekend of having her, we took her out around our area and ended up finding Kim's favorite Vietnamese breakfast dish:
A big part of this month has been in setting up our house. Our apartment came furnished so we haven’t had to buy many big items thankfully. But it was a big day when we got night side tables and lamps for the bedroom. There are so many little things that go into moving into a new space and I’ve been trying to be conscientious about what we are buying. I want to love every item in our home. I was surprised to discover that it is a big online ordering culture here. But somethings you just need to see in person. I was delighted to stumble upon this basket store while we were out adventuring the other day. It had the *perfect* laundry baskets that I was looking for.
I also might be a little obsessed with buying plants. All the plants. And gorgeous pots to put them in. The plant nurseries here are just endless jungles of greens. It feels like when I was adventuring through the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Speaking of adventuring, we’ve had a lovely time of it. Here are some spots we found while wandering around District 1 (the heart of the city)
And this past weekend we went to District 5 (chinatown), where we had hand-pulled noodles and found Bead Land. It is a small alleyway overflowing with beads, jewelry making supplies, every kind of thread/yarn/string/rope imaginable, and so much more! I am certain I will be needing to return to this area
One evening we were lucky enough to go on a mini-street-food tour with one of my colleagues. We tried a few different local dishes. I’ve been so impressed with the vegetarian options here! There are so many local vegetarian and vegan restaurants! It’s nice to be able to have vegetarian versions of the local dishes as well as some tasty fusion ones.
We’ve had more lovely gatherings with lovely people. Newbies brunches, double date nights, and even High Tea.
We went to the movie theater the other weekend and ended up in a "love cinema" where all of the seats were actually full sized beds! 🙈😂 We were the only ones in the theater at the time, not sure how I'd feel about what others would be getting up to 😬😉Don't worry, the mattress was plastic and looked very clean.
In other news, Kim got a badly needed haircut.
A few last snaps from the last few weeks.
It’s funny how quickly we adapt to changes. I feel so settled into this new life already. Sure, there are many areas to still sort out (like my home art studio) but in so many ways it all feels normal now. I’m deeply missing my friends from Istanbul and my family and friends back home but I'm glad to have found some fabulous people here in Saigon who are amazing additions to my expat family.
Kim is out of quarantine. Penny is with us. We are in our new apartment. I feel that I can finally say that the moving to Vietnam mid-pandemic is over. I’m so happy! The last few days I have felt an overwhelming sense of joy and contentment. We have had so many months of uncertainty and worry, with plans A through Z and then some, it is surreal to finally be on the other side of it all. And now, now we can go on with all the fabulous things that come with arriving in a new country. Setting up house, exploring all the areas, trying all the new foods, finding adventures in the every day, and enjoying the sense of newness. That is exactly what I am trying to do now, not rush through this special stage of aw and new. Like our first Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) or exploring our neighborhood or getting to know new fabulous people.
School has been going wonderfully. It’s a rush to get the year started and an adjustment to these new grade levels. I am teaching 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade which is a shift from Middle and High School that I’ve taught for the last few years. But I’m not a newbie when it comes to this age range either. I’m slowly rearranging my room and starting to get it set up for proper student agency. I’m so use to just focusing on having the right resources but now I feel that I can actually take the time to make my room a beautiful and inspiring place. No hurry though, I feel I’ll be here for awhile. Especially with the open-access COLOR photocopiers/printers ; ) This was the first week collaborative artwork that I organized with my fellow art teacher (grades 1-2), Nick. Each student drew themselves or something that represents them.
We had two more COVID tests, one and two weeks after our release. The last one was the absolute worst. The tester made me gag 3-4 times as he stuck the swab continuously down my throat. He was so rough with the nose swab that, for the first time in 8 tests, it continued to hurt for awhile afterward. I’m SO glad to be done with all of that.
On Monday I signed the lease to our new beautiful apartment. I absolutely love it! My top three priorities were a place close to school, that allows Penny, and is within our budget. This fits all of those while being nearly across the street from school. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to walk to school for the past five years and I didn’t want to have to deal with a commute. Additionally we were looking for at least two bedrooms and we got three! One master, one guest bedroom, and one art studio room. We wanted a huge kitchen for Kim with a nice stove and oven. This kitchen is so big and lovely, it has 3 gas burners and 2 electric ones, plus the owner bought us the biggest toaster oven I have ever seen! It also needed to have LOTS of natural light which is abundant in this apartment. It has the master bedroom on the backside of the building so it is nice and quiet and faces the sunrise where the rest of the rooms have glorious huge windows overflowing with light. Plus one whole wall in the living room is just a big glass sliding door. We were also hoping for wood flooring, check, and nice lighting, check check. There is also a perfect entry area with built in storage which I realized was important to me after looking at many apartments that opened directly into the living area. The place is fully furnished with a modern look (most had hideous furniture that we would have had to keep). In addition, we have a bathtub, two balconies, stunning molding throughout the whole place, a pool, AND the owner bought us a dryer! I seriously could not ask for anything more, we are so in love with this place!
Kim is so beyond happy to be out of quarantine. I took the day off from school to get her properly settled. It was such a joyous reunion!! To finally be here, all together, I just don’t have words. We spent the day walking around the neighborhood, buying pillows, trying some different foods, and wandering for hours around various grocery stores.
Penny has been enjoying our new place and neighborhood. She is pretty hot so we take her for a walk early early in the morning and later in the evening when the sun goes down. I’m happy to be in a quiet area where she can wonder off-leash without any problems. We've spent a chunk of change at the vet already for a gunky eye and getting her regular meds (heartworm, flea, tick, etc). We decided to become "members" at the vet which means for a fee we get unlimited consults for the year - I'm certain we will get our moneys worth. We did get caught in our first monsoon the other day. Penny was very unimpressed.
Over the weekend we ventured out of our area, District 7, for the first time. Friday night we went to a kitchen store about 15 minutes away and then walked around. We found a bustling street lined with food and drink stalls, produce sellers spilling out into the road, fish and meat sellers cutting up their goods (including plump still-hopping frogs), and so much more. It was rush hour which means there were motorbikes coming from every direction like a swarm of bees. It was insane and a bit much right off the bat. I was happy to return to our quiet, clean, open area of Phu My Hung.
Saturday we went off to another area, District 2, which had a fun hipster vibe to it. We searched a few boutique house-goods stores for the perfect dishes. I’m hoping to take advantage of this opportunity we have to set up a home completely from scratch by being very conscientious of what we buy for it. I intend to curate our home carefully and make it a beautiful, inspiring, and lovely place. Which means we are on the hunt for beautiful, inspiring, and lovely things. It was fun meandering around and looking through the shops. We bought some dishes that I’m happy with but I might just have a hand at making my own as well. Later on, we stumbled on the American style diner and had our full of milkshakes and burgers. Kim was super excited to get a stack of pancakes (something she’s been craving for weeks).
One of the fabulous things about Saigon is that you can get anything delivered. And I mean ANYTHING. It has become part of the culture here and is so convenient. We just got a beautiful new bed set delivered yesterday. Kim also picked up a big selection of plants for me and a new watercolor. I’m excited to start nesting and making this our ideal home.
As I mentioned in the last update, it was a struggle to do everything without Kim. But she managed to find a way to order me flowers and get them delivered to school even before she was out of quarantine.
Saw a rainbow while walking Penny and video chatting with Kim (while she was still in quarantine)
Went plant shopping and found this cutie straight out of a Dr. Seuss book
Breakfast time has been yogurt with mangos served in our drink glasses because we have not yet gotten any bowls. Plus a new notebook and pen for my morning pages.
Bubble tea and pedicures is my new weekly ritual.
I can finally say that the saga of moving is finally complete! Kim and I have begun the new chapter of our lives in Vietnam. I can’t wait to continue sharing all our adventures with you all. I want to thank each and every one of you who have reassured me over the last few months, who have listened to each and every part of this saga, and who are rejoicing with us from afar. I love you xoxo
18 Memories From 2018
Looking back on 2018 makes me wonder how I am going to be able to keep topping these amazing experiences that make up my life. Seriously. They say to live the life you love and love the life you live and I am unabashedly doing just that. The year started off with the best treat of welcoming our new golden retriever, Penny, into our family, followed by a spring filled with visits from my family members, including lots of Turkish road trips and unbelievably beautiful adventures. The summer was kicked off with our Myanmar family in North Carolina for a wedding celebration and stretched long allowing us to fully soak in all the goodness that is family time back home in Maine. The fall brought our second year in Istanbul, a blooming of my personal art making, plus more travel in the winter. Each year that I have put together these blog posts (2014, 2016, 2017) I feel a deep sense of gratitude for where our journey has led us and the soul-warming experiences we have had along the way. Thank you for being along for the ride. So, without any further ado, here are 18 memories from 2018.
18. Adopt Penny
One of the very best decisions we made this year was to invite a new 4-legged member into our family. The story of her adoption starts back in Myanmar. After we accepted the move to Istanbul in the spring of 2017, we both began researching the new city that we would call home - me in the form of the art scene, the history, the neighborhoods, and the things to see and do. Kim devoted her research to two topics, the food (street food, restaurants, grocery store prices - she knew walking off the plane how much to pay for an apple) and animals. As I’m sure you know, Kim’s family has always had golden retrievers and they take up a big part of her heart (bigger than my section I’m sure). This is when Kim connected with Yasemin, a woman who has devoted her life to rescuing (mainly) golden retrievers off the streets of Turkey.
The story goes that years ago golden retrievers became the “must have” for the Turkish high class, and so everyone began importing and breeding them. Quickly they became over bred and less desired and turned onto the street. Since goldens are so docile, they have little chance of surviving on the streets against the other, more aggressive, types. So Yasmin steps in when she can, rescuing every golden she can find. She then works with golden adoption agencies in North America to send them to people who are anxiously awaiting a golden friend. Unfortunately, this whole operation has to stay underwraps because she has gotten threats from locals who think that she is stealing dogs and selling them. But, she goes on to do her good work, quietly.
Kim quickly offered to become a foster home for dogs who are awaiting their ticket to a new home. We had also talked about the possibility of getting a dog this year. While we were in Egypt for our winter break Kim got the message from Yasemin, she had a dog for us. Kim must have watched the video Yasemin sent of (what would be) Penny every minute of our trip, while anxiously and excitedly wishing it to end because she now had a four-legged friend to get back to. The day we came back, January 1st, Penny walked into our apartment and Kim knew she wouldn’t be leaving.
Penny has been a joy to have with us all year long and makes us smile and feel loved every single day. She was a very shy, anxious, tiny creature, who has grown into a friendly, sweet, not-so-tiny member of our family. From spending her days on the streets and then in a cage in a pound, she quickly took to Kim and now follows Kim wherever she leads. Penny flew to Maine and back with us this summer and just blossomed, running around in the yard and going on hikes with me. She got very itchy and come to find out she is allergic to Maine grass - seriously. Penny loves her giant bed, walks to Krispy Kream where she convinces strangers to feed her their donuts, and having her head rubbed. We are so, so glad she is ours.
2. Black Sea Birthday Road Trip
For Kim’s birthday this year I surprised her with a long-weekend road trip. As you know, Kim loves driving and I love riding. So we hopped in our rental car (having to pick Penny up and place her in the back because she had no idea what was going on), and set on our way. I had randomly picked out a place for us to spend the night, having no idea that it was a spectacular little gem of a city called Safranbolu. It was jaw-droppingly gorgeous, straight out of a fairy tale. We wound our way through the mountains that bordered the Black Sea, and winded our way back down. We found a castle, jaw dropping mountains, and bee keepers selling honey street side. Read about the whole trip over here.
3. Dad & Pam Visit Istanbul
In March we had a fantastic week when my Dad and Step-mom, Pam, visited us in Istanbul. Neither had ever traveled abroad before and it was an absolute joy to be able to share in their first international experience. I’m not sure how to put into words the depth of fulfilment it gave me to be able to provide/share this life-changing experience of traveling to/with the man who made it possible for me to be able to live this amazing life of traveling that I do. I think out of all my seven siblings that I am the most like my dad, from him I got my understanding and compassion, my quiet, observant quality, my work ethic and my overall personality. We share similar processes of how we form opinions, translate thoughts about the world, save memories, and react to situations. He has quietly encouraged each of us to dream, always supportive of whatever way we choose to spend our lives. Finally, he got a little peek into what my life was made of.
It was a whirlwind of a time, trying to show Dad and Pam all Istanbul had to offer while stopping to enjoy the little intricacies that only appear to a fresh-off-the-plane set of eyes. We visited all the sites, wrode the tram down Iskale street, took a ferry ride on the Bosphorus, showed them our neighborhood, and treated them to all our favorite Turkish foods. Oh, and then there was the hilarious costume photo shoot we found ourselves in that I still cannot stop laughing about!
4.Ephesus/Pamukkale Road Trip
We didn’t just stop in Istanbul though. They were set on seeing as much as they could so we hopped back down to southern Turkey to walk the ruins of Ephesus and visit the Virgin Mary’s house. Seeing my dad sitting in the grand amphitheater, taking it all in, is a sight I will keep close to my heart. These places meant a lot to Dad who connected with the stories from the Bible in a way that was not possible before.
We popped over to see the calcite pools of Pamakkale and almost got lost on a long dirt middle-of-nowhere road that Google sent us on. They then went to spend a few days seeing my oldest sister Renee in Egypt before having one last Turkish breakfast with us and then flying home. I think that we may have ignited the travel bug in them and I hope that we will be able to have another adventure abroad again so very soon.
5. Family Trip to Athens, Greece
Kim and I weren’t alone for long because only a few weeks after Dad and Pam left, my sister Amanda and her husband Josh joined us. These are two of our favorite people in the whole world and to be able to share another adventure abroad with them is what dreams are made of! You might remember them from our road trip around Israel. This time we were headed to Greece! First stop, Athens. We spent a few days in this ancient city traipsing around the Parthenon, taking in all the history at the museum, enjoying every stop on Kim’s personally made food tour around town, and of course taking ALL the pictures. I’m still thinking about the Greek yogurt top cream with honey and nuts we had *drool*
6. Santorini aka Heaven on Earth
It was easy to decide to make Santorini our other stop in Greece. After seeing just one of the jaw dropping photos of the white houses clustered on the cliffs over the ocean, I was sold. And boy was it perfection. We had decadent meals served by waiters who became friends and invited Kim into the kitchen. We had adventures out on quad bikes, zipping around the island and eating sandwiches we whipped together on the back of the bumpers. I had a quiet morning wandering session squeezing through all the nooks and allies of Oia and being blown away by the beauty at every turn. We even took the time to hire a professional local photographer who got some unbelievable photographs of all of us exploring the island. The whole experience was perfectly incredible.
7. The Fairy Tale that is Cappadocia
We weren’t done yet though. Amanda and Josh had one more stop they were dying to make and that was back in Turkey. So we flew back there, grabbed a car and made the not-so-quick drive down to Cappadocia. A town in central Turkey known for its land formations in the shape of cones. It has underground cities that you can still go and (try to) squeeze through and an astounding show every sunrise where the sky fills up with hot air balloons that bobble around through the clouds. This was such a special place and I already have plans to return back in 2019.
8. Bike Ride to Bulgaria
Back in Istanbul it was a normal week when I saw an online posting for an opening on a weekend bike ride from Turkey, through Greece and Bulgaria, and back to Turkey. I thought about how insanely awesome that sounded by the insane outweighed the awesome in my mind. The next day my colleague/partner in crime/work wife mentioned that she would be going on a bike ride that weekend. Could it be? Yes, the exact same one. And quickly the decision was made, the plans were booked, and I was on a bus to the most north western town in Turkey. Two days, three countries, 28.4+ miles, one night in Bulgaria, and one very sore bum later I had a fantastic experience with some even more fantastic people.
9. Wilmington Wedding
Immediately following our last day of school in Istanbul I flew to Wilmington, North Carolina to meet up with Kim and our Myanmar tribe. I am so grateful that we have been able to get together two years in a row despite being in all different parts of the globe. Sharon, Steven, and their two kids are in Malaysia currently and Shelly & Luis are in Florida. We all got together to celebrate Shelly & Luis’ wedding in Wilmington. It was such a festive time that was jam packed with quality moments of the everyday sort - dinners together, drinks around the pool, walks around the adorable little town, and all the conversations that we could squeeze in between wedding prep. The ceremony was lovely, funny, and heartwarming; and boy did everyone dance the night away. As always, it was too short to spend with some of my favorite people in the whole world but I’ll take the little slivers of sunshine and hold on to them tight.
10. Boston TAB Institute
Mid summer I took the train down to Boston where I joined other Art Educators from all over the world at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for the TAB Summer Institute. TAB stands for Teaching For Artistic Behaviors, an art teaching pedagogies that I have been following since I very first started teaching. TAB teachers follow a three sentence curriculum: What do artists do? The child is the artist. The classroom is their studio. When I want to explain my method of teaching simply, I tell people that I don’t teach children how to make art, I teach them how to be artists.
It is challenging as an art teacher to not have many people in the same field as you in the same space to bounce ideas off of. Then on top of that to be committed to this amazing choice-based methodology, greatly limits the amount of like-minded art educators I’ve come in contact with. This can often be a challenge to continue to grow professionally. This is why I was so excited that my school, MEFIS, approved my request to attend this conference.
For a week I was surrounded by art educators who are passionate about giving the student artist as many opportunities for agency, independence, and choice as possible. We had round-table discussions about what is working and not working in our classrooms, presentations from some well practiced TAB educators, and talked with the founders of TAB. We also had a large studio open all week with a variety of different centers set up for us to go in, be inspired, and make art. It was a week of being re-centered in my teaching philosophy, networking with other talented educators, getting inspired, and making art.
Plus, I spent a glorious half a day wandering around the spectacular collection at the MFA Boston - sketching, gawking, and trying to take it all in. It was everything you want from a Professional Development and more!
11. Summer in Maine
What a luxuriously long summer we had in Maine. It was the longest I’ve spent in Maine since we moved abroad and it was just chalk full of all the summertime goodness - campfires, unintentional family get togethers, strawberry picking, swimming, hiking with the pup, sunsets behind the mountains, ice cream trips, so many sleepovers, shopping, camping, and on and on. Kim was happy to accept a job as a prep cook and baker at the Gingerbread House in Rangeley which kept her joyfully busy for most of the summer. Meanwhile, I hoped around from couch to couch soaking in as much family time as sanely possible.
Just a few of the summer highlights included Meg’s adorable book themed baby shower, frisbee golf afternoons and spontaneous sunset hikes with Drew, planning and watching Sam & Cody get engaged, going to the Great Falls Balloon Festival (a tradition I haven’t made it to in 4 years), family amusement park day at FunTown SplashTown, spending hours in the craft store with Autumn (and then nights watching movies and trying out all our purchases), attempting stand-up-paddleboarding and then kayaking while pouring out our deepest worries and biggest dreams with Amanda, hanging with Zane - the coolest nephew ever, wandering my home-town fair with all the fam, wedding dress shopping for Sam with all the girls, avoiding the freezing mountain water at Smalls Falls with Nikki, Mac, and Danny, endless hours of driving just to share conversations with Andrea, hiking with Lanie, and all the amazing meals from the grill enjoyed on our picnic table with Kim.
Just before I was to head back to Istanbul in early August, I got word that the school building was still under construction and they moved our orientation to online which meant that I got an EXTRA two weeks at home!! In this time I was able to photograph a last minute wedding down in Boston - which allowed me to fund my camera replacement (from the one that got stolen last year).
12. Second Year in Istanbul
After the extra time in Maine, as much as I hated to leave, I felt myself getting antsy to get back to our normal routine and at the end of August I headed back to Istanbul for our second year in this big, beautiful city. The first task at hand was unpacking our new apartment. We were happy to move into a different school-provided apartment still directly next to the school. We were looking forward to more light, a small balcony, and (mainly) a much bigger kitchen. Kim arrived a few weeks behind me so I spent that time arranging and rearranging, unpacking, and organizing. I bought a stunning kitchen island, a water cooler, a bigger mattress, and even more plants. I feel really good with what I was able to arrange for the unique space we were given and both of us feel much happier than last year. Kim is able to satisfy all her kitchen needs while I have my own little art corner, these are both in the same open space so we can each do our own thing while still staying connected.
I’m enjoying my second year teaching art to grades 5-8. I feel that this is my ideal age-range. I know that middle school can make most people cringe (I said for years that I would never teach middle school), but there is something that clicks in place with these students around this age, they are old enough to do more advanced things, have depth in their ideas, and have longer spurs of concentration; yet they are young enough that they still really want to do what they are supposed to, they don’t (usually) have that teenager attitude (yet), and they are funny. I enjoy my schedule and my extra responsibility of being Head of Department for “Group 6” aka the specialists. Kim is just beginning a new work venture that has a lot of potential and we are both excited to see where it goes. I’m glad to say that Kim and I will be staying for at least a 3rd year, if not more after that.
I’ve had days of playing tourist and wandering the grand bazar, riding the ferry over to Asia, and exploring the nooks and crannies of new neighborhoods. But most of our days are simple, walking Penny through the park, having a tea down on breakfast street, or spending the evening cooking/art making at home. We are very comfortable and happy with our little but grand life over here.
13. The Art of Papercutting
This school year has seemed much calmer than ever before. It took me a few months to realize that this is the first time in my seven years of teaching that I am not in my first year at a new school, nor am I job searching (which is practically a full-time job of it’s own). This has allowed me to have a lot more time and headspace to work on my artwork. Starting back in May, I was inspired to create a papercut map of istanbul to place over my Ebru artwork. Ebru is the traditional Turkish art of water marbling that Kim and I took a six week workshop in (Kim continued with private lessons afterwards). After that, my love for papercutting was reignited and I began making all sorts of papercut artworks. Our friends Katherine and John who are still teaching in Myanmar commissioned a Yangon themed papercut from me and it will forever be one of my favorite artworks I have ever created. I made a letter “O” for little baby Oakley’s baby shower, and a few other little pieces. When I returned to Istanbul I continued working on the papercuts. I began designing little scenes encapsulated in circles that could be shown against a real life background, I created geometric designs, and then I returned back to maps.
“The Places the Make Us,” is an ongoing series of layered map papercuts. The original one I created included four maps, one for each of the places that Kim and I have called home since we were married. I just adore cutting maps and am so happy that others have liked them too. I have created three commissioned pieces from this series, personalized for the special locations of each client, and have three more on the docket. One of my goals this year was to find a way to get my art out there more and I love that I can create these one-of-a-kind, individualized artworks that are beautiful and layered with meaning. Please get in touch if you are interested in commissioning an artwork from me.
14. World Record Setting in Kas
My oldest sister, Renee, is a professional freediver currently living in Dahab, Egypt. She has unrelenting ambition to make her dreams a reality which led her to the World Freediving Championships in October. Coincidentally, these were held in Kas, Turkey - just a short flight and a few hours drive away from Istanbul. It was priceless to be able to watch Renee surfacing as the new USA National Record Holder, after her record-breaking free immersion dive of 63 meters (203 feet). For those who are unfamiliar with free diving, it is diving without using any breathing aparatas aka holding your breath. It is always uplifting spending time with Renee who is an inspiration for all of us Blundon siblings.
Kas is the cutest little ocean-side town on Turkey’s southern coast. The sunsets were unbelievable and the vibe was quaint and breezy. We even took a quick trip over to Demre, the home of St. Nicolas - the man who eventually became known as Santa Claus. There we were also able to visit the rock tombs of Myra, an ancient city.
15. Moroccan Road Trip
Winter break this year brought us to Morocco, a country that has always been in the back of my mind. When planning our two week trip, I came across story after story of scams, harassment, overwhelming touts, and other forms of things that traveler’s dread. Now, we are no nieve travelers but the vast amount of these stories that I read gave me pause. I arrived in Morocco very guarded, ready to fend off the numerous hassles that I was told I would face. You know what happened? Absolutely nothing. Not once did I feel any more harassed or harassed or tricked than any other country we have gone to. I felt perfectly comfortable as a woman, traveling with other women, despite all of the people telling me the contrary. To our advantage, it was winter so my legs and arms/torso was nearly always covered, and we had a car so we avoided many tourist heavy areas (like bus stops).
Our friend Katie joined me and Kim for the two-weeks as we drove around from fantastic city to the next. We flew in to Casablanca but did not spend any time there as I had researched that it was nothing but a big industrial city. Driving up the coast we spent on night on the ocean-side town of Assilah before heading to the mountain village of Chefchaouen. From there we went down to the ancient city of Fez, spending days wandering the incredible median (main city area where no cars are allowed). After enjoying the culture of Marrakesh we finished off our trip at an all-inclusive resort before heading home.
Morocco was everything I had hoped - beautiful chaos, endlessly winding medinas, stunning mosaics, cute towns, tasty couscous, cactus gardens, and an overall fabulous adventure.
16. The Blue Perl - Chefchaouen
Hands down, my favorite place in Morocco was the mountain village of Chefchaouen. This is known as the “blue perl,” due to the blue paint that covers the majority of its buildings. Some say it is to bring the sky down to the earth so the people are closer to God, others say the blue keeps away the mosquitos, whichever the reason everyone can agree that it is absolutely stunning. I spent hour just wandering the narrow walkways taking pictures at every turn. It was a photographer’s dream for sure!
17. 30th Birthday Surprise Trip to Paris
Kimberly made my dreams come true when she surprised me with a weekend in Paris for my 30th birthday. The whole trip was absolutely magical. It was beyond anything I could have hoped for. It will truly be a memory to last a lifetime. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have a wife that would give me such an experience. Read about the whole wonderful trip here.
18. 4th Year Married
In May of 2018, Kim and I celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary. I am in awe every year of how much we manage to still learn about each other, what elements we are still discovering, and how our relationship changes as the different aspects of our individual selves continue to develop. Although we have faced challenges, just as all others do, we continue to come out stronger and closer as a result. And still, there is no one I would rather adventure, through the world and through life, with.
Well there it is, another big, long, way-to-many-photos, yearly blog post. If you’ve made it all the way to the end, cheers to you! Thanks for following along on our adventures. See you in the next one!
Most of the last two months have been filled with getting my feet under me at school. But one evening last month Kim and I went down to Ortakoy after school. This is the little neighborhood that is about 15 minutes walking from our apartment. We had to rush down because we needed to go to the bank, when we were finished we decided to take a stroll around the area. We wound up sitting near the Bosphorus snacking on some street food and sipping tea. We tried a new to us drink called salep. It is a milk and flour based hot beverage made of wild orchid powder from the roots of mountain orchids. I found this surprising since it tasted like my favorite winter flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was a lovely evening and one of those moments that make me pause to breathe in awe of experiencing this place.
Our Tiny Apartment
I’ve been putting off sharing pictures of our apartment because I wanted to finish decorating it first but I feel like that process will be ongoing so I’ll share with you what we have so far. Ever since I got my first apartment when I was 17 my place has been kind of haphazardly put together. You know, the typical “college apartment” with hand-me-down furniture, pieces picked up from yard sales, posters taped to the wall, mixed-matched everything. Coming to Istanbul Kim and I had hopes of loving this place enough to call it home for longer than the length of my two year contract and I had dreams of a beautiful apartment. I was so very excited to come to Istanbul and have a new place where we could design intentionally. We could purchase furnishings that we absolutely loved, set-up a design that is both beautiful and functional, and have a place that is truly curated. Unfortunately when we arrived I realized that our blank canvas was actually a very small, dingy canvas. I sat on the sofa that first night with teary eyes seeing all my hopes going up in flames convincing myself that there was no way we could make this a place we loved. I was not happy and the apartment still stands as a low point in our move. Slowly, however, we’ve began adjusting and settling into our new place and pace of life. One by one we found furniture pieces and specific items focusing on a clean, open concept in order to keep as much room as possible. Despite my lack of a green thumb, plants bring me a lot of joy so I’ve been collecting many and am loving the way they make the space feel. It may be my new obsession because everytime we walk into the grocery store I can’t help by scope out the plant section which unlike America is composed of all potted plants rather than cut flowers. So I present to you our current work-in-progress abode, Casa Kim & Alisa:
The Prince Islands
Just before school started a few of us new teachers too a trip over to the Prince Islands. It is a small group of Islands just an hour ferry ride away from Istanbul. No cars or other motorized vehicles are allowed on the island so it is traditional to take a horse drawn carriage ride around the island. It was an adorable way to spend a day.
Fall Has Arrived
I hate the cold. You would think living in New England for the first 25 years of my life might have given me some greater adaptability to the cold but I always told people that the cold was the number one reason for me leaving New England. It’s not just the cold, it’s the darkness, and wetness, and not wanting to leave the bed because stepping on the floor feels like stepping on an iceberg. The cold is just miserable to me. When you leave for work at seven in the morning and it is dark out only to return home from work at five in the evening and it is still dark out, it is soul sucking. Hence the reason I spent the past three years living in the tropics. Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a fan of the heat either but I would much rather be sweating then shivering. I might have just stayed right there in the tropics if it weren’t for my wife who was melting away by the 100*+ days - see Kim is a true Mainer from the western mountains who wears shorts and flip flops long into the winter. So, as all the good married couples do, we compromised. Turkey is supposed to have very mild winters with an average of eleven days of snow a year in Istanbul. It (supposedly) rarely gets below 30* F. I can handle that I thought - silly silly past Alisa. It is 45*F today and it is freezing! The wind is blowing in from the water with that winter undercurrent and all I want to do is curl up in my bed, eat soup, and never some out again. A few weeks ago I grudgingly unpacked all of the sweaters that I salvaged out of my storage boxes in Maine this summer and I have been rationing them since - hoping to use them as sparingly and infrequently as possible. But the current temps have brought the sudden realization that I did not even bring a jacket. Looks like shopping will be in my future. On a positive note, the cold has inspired me to pick up my favorite winter craft - knitting.
Kim in France
While Kim was in France the US decided to stop allowing Turkish citizens to get US visas. Turkey, in response, did the same thing back to the US. Meaning that all visa services for US citizens were put on hold. (Read about it here) Luckily Kim already had a tourist visa that she would be entering Turkey with but with the suddenness of the situation and the unclarity of it, there was a lot of nervousness from both of us about her getting back into the country. It is crazy that the presidents can just make rash orders like this that effect so many people. What if she hadn’t had a visa? What if the new teacher that came to my school arrived just one day later? What about the person on my expat forum who is getting married here next month and isn’t able to get visa for any of her family to join her? I hope they work this out very soon because I want you all to come visit me!
My Stolen Camera
This is a hard one for me to write about, so much so that I almost didn’t put it in the blog but it was a significant event that happened and I think I should share with all of you. Kim and I went out exploring one Saturday and we had a marvelous day of wandering the streets of Istanbul. We went to some different areas, meander the cobblestone paths, visited the spice bazaar, and even got a fish sandwich for Kim from one of Istanbul’s famous fishing boats. The last thing we decided to do was go uptown to check out this big grocery store that Kim had heard about. It was a big store and I was sure to keep my camera on me while we were shopping because we were moving back and forth from the cart. But as we were walking up to the checkout counters Kim asked me to go grab her a water so I set my camera bag in our cart knowing that Kim would be right with it and went searching for a water. When I returned I helped Kim load up the groceries and pay. As we were walking out of the store I realized that the camera was gone and the bottom dropped out of my stomach. I frantically went back into the store and scoured the checkout area then found a security guard. The rest of the night was a blur of watching video footage in the security room, talking with the police through google translate, and crying. The next day we went to the police station and filed a report then later in the week Kim went to some of the used camera stores in town and dropped off a flyer, but it seemed completely useless in a city of twelve million people. Here is the video from the footage if you are interested in seeing it. The first video is of them stealing the camera bag out of our cart while Kim is loading things onto the register. The second video clearly shows their face as they steal another bag from a different cart. The saddest part to me is the young girl that the woman have with them who is most likely carrying stolen items in her little backpack for them. It’s interesting that every person I’ve shared about this event who has lived her is shocked, saying these things never happen here.
This camera has been with me for six years, through sixteen different countries, photographing twelve weddings and hundreds of thousands of photos. It was a camera that I saved up for slowly by shooting weddings and portraits and a lens that I traded in four other lenses to buy when I moved to Myanmar. It was a constant source of creativity for me and all of a sudden it was gone. I cried a lot that weekend, knowing how long it would take for me to save up for a replacement that was going to cost a couple thousand dollars. I reached out to my sister Andrea, the other photographer in the family, who I know would understand my pain. When, to my surprise and delight, she shared with me that she had my exact same camera body that she was looking to get rid of because she had upgraded recently. When thinking about how to get it to me I knew that shipping it was out of the question because getting things (especially expensive, valuable things) through customs here is a huge endeavor that often ends up making the senders/receivers regretting that very action. But it just so happened that Stan was leaving for France later that week and Kim was going to meet him. Some quick work on Andrea’s part, creative packing on Stan’s part, and careful transporting on Kim’s part and two weeks later I was holding a new camera body. I’m still stunned at how that all worked out and the generosity of everyone involved. Now just to save up for a new lens.
At an Art Loss
I’ve had a lot of pent up artistic energy lately and have not been really sure what to do with it. Maybe it’s due to the loss of my camera. I’m so very grateful to have a camera body again, and lucky enough to have brought one other lens with me so I am able to use it. It’s strange how it is the exact same model as my past camera but it feels so foreign in my hand, it doesn’t have the same scratches on the bottom from the tripod, or the little tiny dent on the grip, the viewfinder is slightly different and the screen looks clearer without the protector on it. After I got it I felt a sense of resentment towards it in a way that I can’t quite put into words but I think is mainly connected to still feeling pain from the violation of having this precious tool stolen from me. Anyway, the other day I had enough of it. I decided to take myself on an art date day in town. I grabbed my camera and set out for the day to do some of my favorite things. First I took a ferry ride which I simply adore. Something about sipping a tea while sitting in the breeze on the ferry deck is pure joy. I took a series of photos while I was riding that I will save for their own little post. Then I spent hours wandering around art stores. I hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting any art stores yet and I loved meandering through running my fingers over the paper and brushes. I ended up leaving with a new sketchbook and didn’t waste any time cracking it open doing some ferry sketches on the way back over to the European side. Lastly I went for my first visit to Istanbul Modern, the contemporary art museum in town. Although none of the pieces jumped out at me I enjoyed taking my time to sketch a few different paintings and perusing the gift shop (aren’t art museum gift shops the absolute best??). It was the most wonderful day and I put this page together from momentums that I gathered to remember it.
One of the funnest experiences I had over the past month was participating in a Murder Mystery Dinner. If you are not familiar with the concept, it is a mix of a dinner and a play that everyone is a part of. Before the night you are given a character and a backstory, every person comes dressed up and stays in character. Throughout the night events unfold, more information is given to you in sealed envelops to help you respond in the way your character would. There is bribing and gossiping happening all around. Eventually someone gets “murdered” and each person investigates the others to come up with a guess at who did it. I’ve always wanted to attend a Murder Mystery Dinner and this one certainly did not disappoint. Our theme was 80s Prom Gone Bad and my character was J.J. Smart, the class valedictorian. The night was a blast due to our awesome host who put it all together and the very best of folks to play with.
In addition Kim was the caterer for the evening. She pulled off the most delicious four course meal for the 20 or so people attending and every bit of it was spot on. There were stuffed mushrooms, caesar salads (with fresh anchovy dressing), pumpkin and ricotta raviolis, red wine braised short ribs with polenta, and a chocolate guinness cake with raspberry coulis to finish it off. I’m bummed that I didn’t grab any photos of the food but take my word on the mouthwatering taste of it all.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a great leader in Turkey who founded the country out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. He is deeply revered by all Turkish citizens. His statue and portrait are seen in restaurants and homes all throughout the country. At our school we have a photo of him in every single classroom. On November 10th the entire country stands still for one minute (9:05 am) to commemorate his passing. At school we had a large gathering that involved a speech, a wreath laying, and the minute of silent. Check out this short clip to see traffic stand still even on the bridges and highways.
Kim has been spending her time doing what she loves, cooking for people. She developed a service where she offers a variety of food and sells it to the teachers/staff at school. Every week she puts out a menu of salad, dinner, casserole, soup, and specialty items then delivers the orders to school. We are so grateful that she has had a tremendous response from the teachers, enough to keep her happily busy every week. The main disappointment of our apartment is most certainly our kitchen that is the size of a closet. I have no idea how she cooks dozens of meals in that space every week and nearly never complains about it but I think I have previously established that she is some sort of kitchen goddess. Here is this week’s menu to give you an idea of what she’s been cooking up:
We have been taking weekly Turkish Lessons which have been great but not sticking as well as I would like. Kim has trouble following but I’m understanding in class fairly easily but as soon as I leave I seem to leave all that I’ve learned behind as well. I think they are helpful no matter what though - even if it’s just a word or two a week. Thankfully Turkish is significantly easier than Burmese, at the very least I can read and pronounce the words. I think our teacher gets exasperated by us though, a group of teachers together is not usually an easy group to handle.
In Other News . . .
I’ve been teaching a beginners yoga course after school, and Kim has been tracking down every market in town. I’ve just completed my 10th week of weight lifting and am really enjoying seeing my body change and feeling stronger by the week. I realized that I forgot to bring any brown closed toe shoes so I tried to go shoe shopping the other day only to find out that they don’t carry any women’s shoes above the European size of 40. This is equivalent to the American size of about 9 in women's. Isn’t that crazy! I managed to track down one pair of brown boots in a 41 that mostly fit my feet but I now know what is on my summer to-buy list. There certainly have been some downs over the past two months but thankfully there have been a lot more ups and all in all we are so very happy in Istanbul, at my new job, and in our new home. We can’t wait to explore more of this country and Europe, but right now we are happy wandering the streets of Istanbul, experiencing the newness of the honeymoon stage.
Here are some tasty bites we’ve had while out and about.
Kim trying some street mussles
Ferry rides are my favorite
There is a "Fruit Garden" just down the street from us where anyone can go and pick fresh fruit for free, right now it's pomegranate season.
Our new weekend routine of going for a late Turkish breakfast every Sunday
I've been rolling with my kombucha brew this year and have expanded to Jun (made with just green tea and honey) as well as hibiscus tea kombucha. So tasty!
This is Phoebe. She is a cat that hangs out in our apartment compound because she used to belong to a teacher that lived here but she got left behind. And then another teacher adopted her and left her behind again. So sometimes we let her come cuddle in our apartment.
Until next time my friends
December in Yangon is just like December back home, minus the snow, and the cold, and the stores mobbed by Christmas shoppers, and the . . . Okay, maybe it is not just like December back home, but I did try to make the month as festive as I could starting with our Christmas Tree and our Christmas Party. December is an important month not only because it is Christmas, but because it is also my birthday month! Have a read about all of that and more below.
My second favorite day of the year (after my birthday of course) is getting-a-Christmas-tree-day. Always an important tradition in my family, getting a Christmas tree was a huge event that involved coordinating the schedules of everyone in the family, spending hours hiking through the snow, and many eruptions of “this is the one!” There were arguments over the fullness of branches, the softness of needles, and the necessary height of the tree. Snowball fights broke out and fingers/toes/noses got numb. One time my mother declared that we would not settle for any ol’ tree, that we would have to wait for a sign that it was the right one. After an hour of searching we actually found a tree that had an old birds nest in it! It was lumpy and scrawny but we all insisted on getting it because it was “the sign.” That was defiantly the ugliest Christmas tree we ever had! Eventually the majority of us would agree on one and dad would shimmy under the branches to saw it down. Each year, after we found “the one,” we returned home to blast the Christmas music and trim the tree. It was always fun to rediscover the ornaments that we had made and find a way to fit all of the stockings on the chimney. Yes. Getting-a-Christmas-tree-day is certainly the best.
With these roots it should not surprise you to know that I am adamantly against fake Christmas trees. Last year was my first Christmas away from my family so I improvised by buying a large potted house tree to use as my Christmas tree. Unfortunately I am not very good at keeping plants alive and that tree is barely hanging on. Riding in a taxi downtown I saw the most cheerful sight. Right in the middle of the fruit stalls and beatlenut stands was a CHRISTMAS TREE store!!! Although they were all fake trees of course, they were so festive that I couldn’t resist. Hence my first every fake Christmas tree. While we were missing the pine smell and the grandness of a real tree, this little plastic one brought a lot of Christmas spirit into the apartment. Here is the final result.
Kim has developed another mysterious illness, this time it is in the form of pink spots. No, it’s not chicken pox (although we considered that) we think it is some version of heat rash. These little spots appear in different areas all over her body after she is in a hot environment (hello? Any place in Yangon!) They are extremely itchy and are painful at times. AND she has had this for almost two months now! Yes, she has gone to the doctor and they gave her a bunch of different medicine to try, but the thing about heat rash is the only thing that can really make it go away is being cold for long enough which is simply not possible here. Poor Kim, hopefully these spots will disappear soon!
On the 9th I turned 27 years old! I love my birthday and was so glad to be able to share it with some awesome people! On Sunday we had a small ladies brunch at a fancy hotel called Inya Lake. It was a luxurious event that involved course after course of delicious food and endless Champaign. The afternoon turned into hours of munching, sipping, and chatting with some great ladies.
As is tradition, I took a personal day for my birthday giving me and Kim the day to celebrate together. The morning started off with the best macaroons in all of Myanmar. Our first stop of the day was to the nail salon where I have been trying to make time to go for weeks to get my nails painted and designed then we headed over for a massage at my favorite day spa. We enjoyed lunch at Sprouts, a local salad shop, before starting our search for a piece of artwork. Last year, I bought myself a painting on my birthday and I absolutely love it so I thought this year I would do the same. Buying artwork can be difficult, we wandered for a few hours to a couple different galleries before I finally decided on a beautiful abstract canvas painting by a local artist. With that in hand we headed off to Shwe Sa Bwe for dinner. This fine dining restaurant is a social enterprise, meaning that it helps the community buy training and employing local underprivileged people in the fine dining field (so they can get hired long term in a good establishment). Not only that but it was simply spectacular! Defiantly one of the best meals we have had in Yangon. After our lavish 4 course dinner we drifted home to the most decadent and delectable chocolate torte that I have ever tasted (have I mentioned how phenomenal my wife is?). What an amazing birthday! Here is to an equally as incredible 27th year!
The art scene in Yangon is lacking for a city of this size, but luckily we have a lot of great people working on improving that. One place is the Deitta Gallery in downtown Yangon which is specific to photography. I took my Advanced class on a field trip here to see their UnEarthed exhibit. Not only were the photographs absolutely spectacular, but the content was informing and revealing. With each photograph was a typed story all about the hazards of working in Myanmar in the extractive industries sector (think mining for gems and the like).
It is not a secret that I adore Christmas. I love the whole spirit of the season! This year in Yangon Christmas was slightly more apparent than last year. A few times I heard Christmas Carols playing in English while riding in a cab or shopping at a store, there were more Christmas decorations on display all around the city, and I even saw some Christmas carolers on our street once! I was also lucky this year to have a roommate that also adores the Christmas season. So we banded together to throw a Christmas Party! Since almost all of our friends leave for the winter break we picked a Saturday early in December and hosted a huge shindig. We played a silent Christmas movie, blasted Christmas music, had festive Christmas themed food and drinks, and organized a Chinese Auction/ White Elephant. If you are not familiar with the game it goes like this; everyone brings a gift – for our party we asked people to bring the funniest gift that they could find for under $5 – and then based on a number drawn out of a (santa) hat, the gifts are open one by one. The opener gets the choice to keep the gift they selected or trade with someone else. There was SO much laughing and fooling during the game from all of the silly gifts (giant pictures of naked babies, used shoes, a slingshot and tattoo gloves) it most certainly was the highlight of the evening. Even though it is 80* and sunny every day and our families are all so far away, it was amazing to have an evening of Christmas fill our home.
The day before winter break I received my very first care package! My awesome sister Andrea put together an assortment of goodies and fun things and mailed them all the way over here to Yangon. Some of the special food items included honey nut cheerios (my absolute favorite!!!), Oreos, Resses Christmas Trees, Jif peanut butter (our #1 favorite brand), Marshmallow Fluff (Kim was ecstatic about this one), Goldfish, granola bars, Cheez-Its, Fruit Roll-Ups, Hot Chocolate, special chocolates, and some of Maine’s own whoopee pies! Special little items were also tucked inside like a drawing from my nephew, Zane, some family photos, a make-your-own snow kit, a scrapbook, and a small canvas. How lucky am I?!?! I can’t tell you how amazing it is to get so many goodies from home. We have learned to live without many things we are used to here so it is such a special treat to receive all of this! Andrea is defiantly the best!
I have to tell you the story about receiving the package. I was at school when my secretary brought up a slip for me from customs saying that the package was here. My school offered to go retrieve it for me but I wouldn’t receive it until after break (this was the Friday afternoon before our three week winter holiday). Luckily, Kim was headed downtown so I told them that I would pick it up myself and I ran the slip over to Kim. When she arrived at customs there was some problem with getting the package so Kim had to give them the equivalent of $5 (plus the fee for getting it out of customs which was about $3) to get them to give her the package. As soon as that was slipped into the man’s hand all was well and Kim walked out with the package. What a crazy place we live in.
Much of my free time in December was filled up with trip planning. Kim and I had our first three week long break starting in December and we were not going to waste a minute of it. We decided to spend most of the time in Vietnam; I’m not sure where the idea came from originally but once we set on it we knew it was the right choice.
We also decided to visit Siem Ream in Cambodia on the way over. From booking 7 different flights and 8 different hotels, plus all of the organization in between, it was quite the challenge but one that I was certainly grateful to have. The massive trip needs a couple blog posts to share it in it’s full amazement but I’ll leave you with these few photos before I go.
This is the wreath and mistletoe that I made from some fake garland I found at the Christmas tree store and some other Christmas shots for you.
I hope everyone had an amazing holiday season! Stay tuned for posts about our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia!
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world