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Boston-June-July, 2007


June 17, 2007

Moving Back to the U.S. (from Cyprus)

I have to admit I found it quite intimidating moving to Boston. This transition is the first time that I am moving to a place where I know no one. Not only do I know no one, but at least by Cypriot standards, I consider Boston a large metropolis – a quality that will make finding community and relating to the crowds around me even more difficult.

To put these initial reservations in context, I just spent over 9 months working in Cyprus. Cyprus, in general, is a place where you cannot cross the street without bumping into Maria’s aunt walking her dog, Yiorgos on his way to the taverna for coffee, or Yanoula who just heard the latest gossip and cannot wait to share. Though this sort of tight inter-networked community could at times feel overwhelming, it also offered me a strong sense that above all everyone cared about your life, welfare, and business – perhaps a little to much. For example, “caring” included offering advice on anything from the correct way to wash lettuce (with salty water), to the correct way to wear your socks to avoid catching cold (high), or from the appropriate amount to eat so as not to “grow weak” (massive amounts), to, above all, the correct way to socialize (only with people you or your family already know).

So flowing from these pillars of community comes the assumption that you will always be surrounded by people who know you and who you know. Thus the idea of moving to such a large city, a city where I knew know one, and – most shocking of all – living with strangers (especially male strangers who are not my brothers or cousins) is a life transition that took and will take some getting used to. I give this context only to explain my initial expectations for the difficulties I will face through this re-entry process.

June 18, 2007

First Day

Today was my first day in the office. I needed to play catch up as I was arriving a week after the other two Fellows. Without skipping a beat following introductions, our mentor ushered us into the conference room for a program review on the psychology of performance. It was fascinating, coming from a psychology background, to see how our presenter has managed to expand the area of sports psychology to all realms of public performance. She spoke of learning to shift our focus from external to internal and from narrow to broad depending on what the situation demanded. For certain professions, such as an athlete, a narrow and external attention span is best. For other professions, such as for a lawyer or director of a company, an internal and broad (i.e. strategic thinking) approach is better.

In the presenter’s discussion of obstacles to optimal performance, she described the crippling fear of internal criticism. This obstacle acts as a self-doubting internal dialogue which can undermine our performance if we do not learn to control it. She advised us on certain methods we could use to channel this stream of self-critical thoughts in a way that will not distract us.  Boy will that take some practice in my case!

On another note, my initial anxieties about coming to a large, anonymous city are slowly being disproved. For example, I have been struck in only my first day by how closely even the most random of strangers can be connected and how those connections offer community in the most unexpected places.

For example, since I was a little girl I have dreamed of visiting Cape Verde, a country made up of islands off the coast of Senegal. While I had studied this particular place in detail, knowing the names of the various islands, towns, flight routes that could get you there and had even studied the language (Portuguese), I had never met a Cape Verdian. It was not long before I found out that one of the interns in our office was from Cape Verde! Not only was she from Cape Verde, but she was from the particular town on the particular island where I had decided I would live when I finally made my trip there! In a split second this individual went from being a stranger to a person with whom I shared a common love and intrigue – granted hers was based far deeper in experience.

June 19, 2007 

Re-entry lessons

Lesson 1: Crossing the Street

Crossing the street in Cyprus is a definite test of faith. There are very few pedestrians and fewer still designated pedestrian crossings. Cars race at high speeds and more often than not test the limits of a red light. Thus, one would be crazy to walk out where there is a pedestrian crossing without lights until the streets are completely clear.

In my first few days in Cambridge, I slowly learned that cars actually do stop for you. It was a difficult lesson to learn. The first few times I stayed on the side of the street for ages waiting for the cars to clear. Finally I noticed that men, women, and then even mothers with their baby strollers would walk confidently out as a car was on-coming. Most of the time, the car would slow down to a full stop to allow the pedestrian to pass.

This morning I decided to confidently try this technique on my own on a new cross walk.  I approached the road, took a deep breath and stepped out in front of an oncoming car.  Sure enough the driver did stop and I confident began my walk across.  I was half way across before I realized that this particular cross walk (unlike the others I had been observing) had a pedestrian light – and that light was red!  Seeing that I dashed across the rest of the street thanking some higher power that I the driver who had given way – even when it was a green light for him – had been paying attention that morning.

Lesson 2: Finding your way

During my time in Cyprus, I learned the lesson that if you are trying to get to any important place you need only walk and eventually whatever the small street is, it will eventually intersect with the few main streets. Don’t bother with a map because streets resemble a knotted lump of spaghetti and their names have constantly been changed as national struggles/heroes and martyrs came and went.  Don’t bother asking for directions based on street names or showing a map too because the locals will not know them.   Thus I learned not to bother learning street names or to bother carrying a map with me (though the 2nd took 6 months to learn).  Finally, you will likely not need to ask for directions because locals are quite good at noticing when visitors are lost and confused and will quickly offer their help. 

In Boston, I’m slowly realizing that this same set of strategies may not be as effective in Boston – if only from my track record of getting lost each time I’ve ventured out of my apartment (so far 4 times).  Of course this could simply be attributed to my below average sense of direction, but I would rather argue that it is due to a change in environment, urban planning and people’s attitudes towards efficiency.

This morning, I set off from my house very absorbed in my thoughts about the day’s tasks.  I missed my turn and continued walking down – down – that street with the purple doll house and the garden with jasmine perfumes, and eventually the Mexican restaurant – but as for the name – I couldn’t tell you.  Well, I kept walking.

When a walk that was supposed to take 10 minutes turned into 30 minutes, I realized that I must have long passed my ultimate destination.  I decided to try some side streets. The neighborhood became increasingly less affluent and soon the coffee shops had turned to barber shops, the whole foods to bodegas and fast food.  I finally decided that it was time to find help on the directions – as my sense of direction had apparently failed me.

Lesson 3: Asking for directions

Looking around me I waited for a few pedestrians to pass to see if that would stop and over directions (the Cypriot way).  I also was a little unsure of how to ask for directions given that I did not have a map, did not know street names, and presumably was far away from my desired destination.  Finally realizing that I would have to step forward and assert my needs – otherwise I might be there for hours – I chose a friend looking young woman.  She was quite sympathetic of my predicament (she had also recently moved to the area from India) and she was able to offer me direction in a Cyprit sort of fashion – i.e. general direction and landmarks (“walk diagnoally until you see the tireshop and then the fire station on your left and in about 30 minutes you should be there….”) – and this was all a walk that was originally supposed to take 8 minutes!

June, 20, 2007

Boston By Daylight

It is my third day and third time arriving home at 11 pm after leaving the house at 8. If this pattern continues my roommates will start to wonder if they should have found a second sub-letter to use my room during the daylight hours. But the packed schedule is so far exhilarating so I am not complaining.

Today my day went late because I went to meet with a potential Turkish teacher. In an auspicious series of coincidences I found out that one of my new colleagues just moved in with a Turkish housemate. This Turkish housemate, upon my inquiry, had offered to trade tutoring in English for tutoring in Turkish – an ideal exchange which required few negotiation skills given her generosity.

In typical Turkish fashion however, such an arrangement had to be sealed in person over tea. Thus, this evening after work I walked home with my colleague to meet her housemate and my future “hocam” (“teacher” in Turkish). Walking into Hocam’s apartment, I was walking into a different world in which personal relations and interactions trumped business and schedules. For the first time since returning from Cyprus I was able to let out a deep sigh because of the familiarity of this world.

Without looking at our watches we talked for hours – comparing cultural differences, methods of language learning, dilemmas of learning while not in-country, and the advantages and disadvantages of learning formal Turkish (resmi lisan) or Turkish of the people (halk lisan). Only at the very end did lesson times, scheduling, and contact information come up – yet somehow it felt as if the meeting had been far more “productive” than any other more “efficient” format would have been.

June 24, 2007

Pushing Boundaries

Some of the tenants of our Fellowship are learning to stretch our boundaries, explore new areas and multi-layer our experiences.  Trying to capture all three goals in one activity I decided to accept Seisei’s invitation to go to the Boston Science Museum.  I haven’t visited a science museum since I was in second grade!  After second grade we moved from a large city to a small suburban town with no public transportation.  This change made the closest science museum over an hour’s drive away – something my parent’s were not overly keen to do on a regular basis.  Plus, it seems that tracking started early in my new school and as early as third grade there were the kids who went to science museums on their weekends, those who went to art museums, and those who went to malls. I was an art museum child…and on the rare – desperate occasion, a mall one.

Entering the Boston Science Museum I at first felt like I was trespassing on someone else’s territory.  I knew my territory well – it was the realm of social sciences and humanities.  At least in college we were taught to have much respect for or fear of the barriers between the sciences and the no – science divisions.  Entering the first exhibit, however, I felt the thrill of being an investigator again as I tried to figure out the best way to yank a table cloth from under a dish-filled table without moving the dishes (slippery cloth, heavy dishes, fast and strong force) or to balance the maximum number of nails on a magnet (criss-cross nails like the rafters of a roof with two nails length wise as supporting beams – thank you Seisei!).

Preparing for my placement in Tanzania at the Jane Goodall exhibit on chimpanzee social and family behavior at the Boston Science Museum.  Turns out chimpanzees use mediation and negotiation just as we do to work through daily interactions

Tanzania, Gombe Stream National Park – in Boston…..a couple more months and I’ll be in the real thing.

Doing a taste test to determine my level of PCP tasters…..the more tasters the more bitter….

And of course, I could not skip the “Compete or Cooperate” game at the museum given that I am a negotiator in training…

It was inspiring to feel once again like this world of knowledge was accessible and exciting.  I could have spent much longer, but a packed schedule drew me away pre-maturely.

Later that evening my roommate made the suggestion to try an Indian fast food restaurant for dinner.  Before my year in Cyprus, I would not have had to think twice about accepting this suggestion.  After a year of relying on lemon, salt and olive oil alone in my cooking to flavor my food, I was a bit wary about how my stomach who react to the menu of mango lassi, curry, pickled chutney, spiced yogurt, etc. 

Indian fast food – placement – lemon and olive oil – spicy – too many rich and complex flavors for my stomach to handle.  But if this can happen in Cambridge then I should be less judgmental if it happens after eating at a street stand in Kolkata which as the moment is the site of my third placement.  I will have to build up some more tolerance for complex, spices flavors in the mean time…

Finally, to finish off the evening, my roommate suggested meeting up with some friends for a beer.  Just to give some context, I should mention that my roommate is a beer connoisseur.  He brews his own  and knows more about the various types, colors, and tastes than anyone I’ve met before.  I, on the other hand, am not a beer drinker and was quite determined I would not be one – even for one evening.  My preference lies more with water – or occasionally wine.  Listening to my roommate gush about the various flavors, describe the intricate production process, and become vary serious when describing how to tell if a beer is “good” or not,  I realized that it was possible to gain an appreciation for a vast body of knowledge that my new acquaintance had revealed to me.  I walked home that night with able to tell the difference between a lager and ale and with more understanding rather than pre-judgment for the beer drinkers among us.

Through stretching my boundaries in these ways, I am slowly feeling less like an outsider sitting and observing the lives of others around me and more like a participant. This “re-entry” or re-transition is likely easier because I am coming back to a familiar way of life if not a familiar place. But I still have to fight the urge to remain an observer where it is safer or demands less effort in order not to forfeit the opportunity to be pushed and grow in the process.

June 25, 2007

Finding Balance

I think the 14-hour days combined with jet lag have finally caught up with me.  Today my body crashed in protest to my mind’s constant string of commands.  It took a high fever and failed attempts at patching myself up with medicine before I realized that rest was the only panacea. I think one of the challenges I will face during this coming year will be learning to strike balance between my mind’s “to do” list and my body’s capabilities.

On the one hand, I feel like I will never have the opportunity provided by this Fellowship again.  How many times in your life are you told “design your dream year, pick the places, the organizations, and the work – so long as it fits in our general guidelines.”  I want to explore, learn, investigate and soak the experiences to the fullest.  Yet, in order to make the most of the experience, it will be just as important to schedule in rest, reflection and rejuvenation time.

The frustration I feel now at being held back by sickness should serve as a reminder of why in the future I not neglect to plan breaks as well as a flurry of activities.  To this end, I decided to leave my computer at work so that I will not be tempted to work during rest time – thus I am handwriting this entry on the back of a receipt while taking the subway home….

June 27, 2007

Reflections on the Year to Come

Sitting at home and reading through the former Fellows’ journals it dawned on me how big an undertaking this year will be not just in a cerebral sense but also in a psychological and emotional dimension.  In other words, it will not be enough to prepare ourselves for this experience through reading and studying alone – two skills I know I – and I am sure the other Fellows – learned well in school.  But rather, we will also have to prepare through a deeper sort of introspection that is harder to “practice” or prepare in the same sense.

As I read through former Fellow Jared’s description of the loneliness he felt eating a meal by himself, or Tori’s experience having her only winter coat, apartment keys, etc. stolen on a frigid northern European night, or Julia’s injury that impeded her mobility severely just when she had to learn to be independent in a foreign country, I realized how unprepared, nervous and yet incredibly exhilarated I feel to have embarked on this experience.

I realize the Boston placement is only a test run – perhaps a little more in my case due to some cultural adjustment issues.  But the issues I will be confronting in my other placements will make my musings on Boston’s traffic patterns and cross walks pale in comparison (See earlier entries).

After finishing the former Fellows’ journals, I was left with some new worries: What will happen when I get sick abroad? What if I have run out of money when I get sick?  What if no banks will accept my credit card, I’m sick and I can’t get any medicines, fruit, even toilet paper for tissues…and I’m all alone?  I hope contemplating scenarios like this will merely reinforce a pessimistic outlook, but rather encourage a sense of groundedness along side my glorious day dreaming about this once in a life time wunderyahr.

June 29, 2007

Settling In

For the first time since my return from Cyprus, something hit me.  For these last three weeks, I kept wondering why the infamous Northeastern metropolitan workdays were not leaving me as mentally and physically drained as my average day in Cyprus.  Then – while studying some GRE vocabulary on-line, an example sentence for “enervate” sparked a thought:

 “In countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria and Ghana I have always felt enervated by the slightest physical or mental exertion, whereas in the… US I have always felt reinforced and stimulated….”

— David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

Taking just Landes’ initial observation, I would agree that in a foreign country, the simplest of activities can be far more mentally and physically exhausting.  To simply navigate a different culture, language, system takes an enormous amount of energy which is sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously expended.   In Cyprus, daily excursions became so second nature that I stopped realizing that they required an enormous amount of mental effort.   This mental effort added up and after just a few tasks I would have to retire for the day.

For example, when a stranger steps into an elevator in Boston, there is a high percent chance that I can address him in English – my mother tongue = no effort.  In Cyprus, I might have to use Greek or Turkish for this same instance depending on which side of the green line I was working on.  My accent, while addressing the stranger, will give away that I am a foreigner, which will inevitably launch the stranger into a long inquiry regarding my nationality, where I am from in the U.S., my purpose in Cyprus, and what I think of Cyprus.   At this point the stranger will decide whether or not to share with me his own opinion on Americans, America, or his cousin’s son’s experience living in Long Island and, oh, is Long Island close to where I am from?

These interactions could take up to 30 to 40 minutes and I usually experienced 2 to 3 on the way to the corner store, 4 to 5 in the large market or grocery store, and 4 to 5 while running errands – all before the workday began.

Checking e-mail is a second case that demonstrates the extra effort required to function in a different place.  In Boston I simply need to walk over to my computer (at home or at work) clink a button and I have access to all the wonders of the Internet.  During my time in Cyprus, however, a trip to check my e-mail would include waiting until it was cool (or warm enough depending on the season) to walk 20 minutes dodging high speed, pedestrian hostile traffic, cross a check point (I was working out of an office in the buffer zone), greet and inquire on the health of the building custodian (30 minutes), open the office (if I had remembered the key), wait for the early 1990s computers to warm up (15 minutes) in order to finally find out whether the Internet was functioning on that particular day (it depended on the weather). If I was lucky and the Internet was working, then it meant another 15 minutes for each new page to load.

The first example – expending energy by just being a foreigner who must constantly explain, justify and prove herself, combined with the second example – the shear waiting involved in the most basic of tasks – must have drained me.  I am only realizing now the expense I was paying when I find my pockets suddenly still full at the end of these Northeaster – US working days.

June 28, 2007

Library Visit

I went to the Boston Public Library for the first time today to do some research on grant funding possibilities.  It made me think as I looked around at the people of all shapes, colors, and sizes, that visiting the library and studying libraries could really reveal a lot about the place one is in.  For example, is the library well funded or not? Is it centrally located?  Is it full?  Are people reading/using the books or simply congregating?  Can anyone use/take out books?  What sort of items are available?

As far as these various criteria I would give BPL a 10 out of 10  (from just one visit that is).  In a town near where I am from originally, the most crowded section of library is the DVD and CD section.  There is no public transportation to this library and it is right next to a mall which wins over the youth’s attendance.

In Cyprus there was a policy that only Cypriot citizens could take out books from public libraries.  Yet in my many visits to the particular library I used, I rarely saw a Cypriot citizen enter.  Most of the visitors were foreign students or refugees and immigrants looking to find news on their home countries.  The selection was composed of older editions and half the books in the library no one – not even citizens – could take out.

As I continue on in my placements, I will be very interested to compare the state of libraries in Turkey, The Hague and in my third placement which is in the process of being revised….

July 3 , 2007

Wish lists

As part of this Fellowship, we were asked to make wish lists.  David (Insight President) said that the wish lists are meant to be kept as reminders that life has endless possibilities and that there are no real permanent obstacles to achieving these possibilities.  My internal skeptic immediately spoke up saying, “Sure except for financial obstacles, and obstacles of time, age, ability, social structures, prejudice, physical barriers etc etc.”

But then I realized I was missing the point.  The idea behind making a wish list is to keep reminding yourself through referring back to the list that you are consciously choosing to live the life you live (perhaps some of us to a greater extent than others…but that’s another topic).  Thus if you are living a routine that is no longer fulfilling, rejuvenating, or stimulating, then it is your responsibility to change the routine – even if means simply changing your mindset.

With this in mind – and feeling a little less skeptical, I set about to make my list:

1). Dance classes 

I always wanted to be a dancer when I was a girl, but mainly due to funding, time, and eventually self-consciousness, that dream slipped away.  It is time to reclaim the dream.  I signed up for belly dancing classes – thinking that studying this particular dance form will help prepare me for my placement in Turkey. 

2). Talking walks on my own, without a map, in new places 

Rather than a pleasurable pursuit this item is closer to a self-challenge.  It was prompted by my realization that I have been working in Downtown Crossing and living in Cambridge for over two weeks and I have yet to explore either neighborhood (besides getting lost my first week).  Speaking of routines!  Even after just two weeks I have become so comfortable in my routine of waking up, going to work, coming home late, and going to sleep that I have lost my sense of adventure and discovery – which initially drew me to this Fellowship.

3). Visiting Cape Verde

I added this wish because it is something I have dreamed of doing since I was a little, little girl.  I know this dream is a long shot and one that will likely not be fulfilled this year.  Yet, there is something to be said for keeping a couple items on your wish list that will keep you dreaming.  After all what would happen if I managed to check off all my list items?

July 4, 2007

Independence Day in Boston

In the spirit of the fourth of July, I decided to explore the birthplace of that independence.  I figured there was a lot I could learn as a negotiator from a state that chose the motto “live free or die.”

The first place I visited was Bunker Hill – the site of the first significant skirmish against the British.  In this skirmish the David (our forefathers) held off the Goliath (the British forces) for impressively long.  In the end, however the colonialists succumbed to defeat and annihilation.  Reading the plaque that described the incident, I was intrigued by how it highlighted the “courageous American farmers” and the “oppressing British forces.”  I could not help wondering how Britain’s history books might describe this event.  For them was it the courageous, paternal army bringing order and eventually enlightened government to one of its backward colonies?  How would the phrase read if the player’s names were switched with their modern equivalents? 



In one of our assigned readings, Difficult Conversations, there is the idea that we tend to approach difficult interactions, whether they are personal conversation, political debates, or even negotiations before war, assuming that we have a message to deliver.  It is up to the other side to receive the message or leave it.  The authors suggest that in contrast, if we approach difficult conversations with an attitude of learning – wanting to understand what information, assumptions, or emotions the other side has that we might be unaware of, we will be far more successful at handling these tense interactions. 

My revolutionary American history is not strong enough to know which series of missed “learning” and “communicating” opportunities resulted in the eventual war.  But my reading of some current conflicts is a bit more solid.  And it makes me wonder, if our leaders focused less on playing hard ball and more on engaging skills from this technique would we today be still celebrating war monuments or instead celebrating the peace brokers?


July 6, 2007

Limits of Negotiation

After a few weeks at Insight, I am finally grasping the idea that almost anything can be negotiated.  Previously my tendency was simply to accept a price, answer, or explanation as given.  I am still struggling with the question though of whether everything should be negotiated.  I can imagine that as a parent it would be exhausting if our kids insisted on constant negotiation of terms, expanding the pie, and comparing perspectives on each issue that comes up from bed time to how much TV is allowed.

Pondering parenthood led to me to wonder, is there a trade off between time/efficiency on the one hand and process on the other?  Are there times when it is more appropriate to use the negotiation skills we are learning and other times when it is not?  Or are these skills multi-purpose, multi-use tools which should permeate all interactions?

On this note, I found it interesting when, during a discussion with one of my office mates about a difficult issue in her life, I teasingly applied our training and asked what she thought the other person’s interests rather than her positions were (core tenants of the negotiating theory we were studying at the time).  Not finding my comment amusing, she told me “on any other subject you can use these tools but not on this one.  This person is too difficult.”

From her reaction, I began to think of situations in my own life that would perhaps be too personal, too emotional, or too “obvious that I am right and the other person is wrong” to warrant applying negotiation skills.  Yet perhaps that is exactly what the more personal test of this year will be.   Will we three come out of it being able to approach even these more off limit categories with the same care and neutrality that we are now applying to less touchy topics?