Thursday, November 26, 2015


This year marks the fourth Thanksgiving in a row that I’ve spent outside of the United States. While this has been a little sad—I miss Thanksgiving at my grandma’s house, with family and my aunt’s sweet potato casserole—I am grateful for having been able to celebrate every year. Sure, they were far from traditional holidays. They involved cooking over wood fires, slaughtering turkeys, and (unsuccessfully) scouring a Bosnian grocery store for anything that looked close to a Thanksgiving related grocery. But they were shared with friends (Will, here’s looking at you). They brought together communities I was lucky enough to live in and places I was passing through; I spent them in the homes of friends and strangers. In the best sense of the holiday, I shared the feast. For those experiences, I am thankful.

Things to be thankful for: Frozen turkeys at Sainsburys.
These last three years have also given me perspective. Thanksgiving is, in the broadest sense, a harvest festival—but it also serves an important role in our national American myth-making. We get to pretend our predecessors knew how to share, and not simply to take; we get to gloss over the uglier parts of our history and tell our children a tale of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together to eat. We like to boast about being a nation of immigrants, and this is a celebration of “our”, whatever that means, initial immigration. We know history didn’t really happen that way—but this roots us in what we like to think of as the best parts of American culture: hard work, generosity, opportunity, family.

This Thanksgiving, let’s think long and hard about those values we claim as somehow uniquely ours (putting aside the observation that pretty much everyone in the world values their family). Every time I tune into the American news cycle, I am saddened. Presidential candidates spew out policy proposals that go beyond xenophobia and bigotry into the realm of neo-fascism. Suggestions that range from closing our borders with weaponized drones, to merging state and federal authorities into a centralized immigration police state, to (horrifyingly) creating a register of American Muslims, are taken seriously; are debated by pundits and analysts; are allowed validity through media and public attention. State governors make noise about refusing Syrian refugees fleeing genocide, overlooking the inconvenient fact that they don’t legally have that ability. My man Bernie is, so far, the only presidential candidate to put out a humane and rational immigration policy that would allow immigrants access to justice, to economic opportunity, and to citizenship—surely this is what we mean, when we claim to be a nation of immigrants? And yet he is branded a dirty socialist, a dangerous radical, for ideas that, 30 years ago, would have been mainstream. If you don’t believe me, look up Reagan on immigration and refugee policy. Have we really fallen this far?

This Thanksgiving, enjoy being around the table with whatever company of family or friends or strangers you find yourself amongst. Enjoy the food (oh, the food!), the subsequent turkey coma, and the football. But take a minute between shoveling stuffing onto your plate and drowning your potatoes in gravy to do a little naval-gazing. If we believe ourselves to have a national identity and to have inherited a culture worth celebrating, then we need to pay very close attention to what that identity means and exactly what those values should be encouraging us to do. We are being stoked into a frenzy by fear-mongerers and nativists—but we’re better than that. And right now, we’re facing an opportunity: to move together towards a more just and enlightened society; to open our arms to immigrant workers and war refugees alike, and to turn our backs on discrimination; and to build a path to citizenship that will lead to greater economic growth, greater—not less—security.

And for that, I am thankful. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015


I've been in France for a week and a half. This past weekend Pierre and I spent three of those days with his family at the Moulin de Spoir, a farm and old mill on the river Eure outside Chartres. The weekend was wonderful.  Pierre’s parents were very sweet to me, his sisters and their families were great, and we threw a barbeque on Sunday for an assortment of friends, neighbors, and family. Pierre and his mother are both accomplished cooks, so there was no shortage of delicious food; the only challenge was saying no to a cheese course before dessert. There was fly-fishing; there were walks in the woods; there was excellent wine; there was a 10-km Sunday morning run through the countryside with Pierre’s sisters, Mme Decker on a bike behind us.
A river does run through it; that river is the Eure, and it is the Moulin de Spoir.

Pierre's brother-in-law and nephews give Kinder, a tubby Shetland pony, his biannual exercise.
Friday night after dinner Pierre and I headed into Chartres, to his best friend Tof’s house. Cast around in your mind for A Frenchman, and you’ll probably conjure up someone that looks like Tof: lean, dark-haired, chin encased in something perpetually between a shadow and a beard, rolling papers always close to hand. A mechanic and a perpetual tinkerer, Tof’s house is full of furniture he salvaged and modified. He’s direct, incisive, and encyclopedically knowledgeable about French cars.

After a drink, we left to see Chartres en Lumiere, the city’s annual summer-long light display. Upon discussion, it was decided that we would take the Dyane. This turned out to be a classic car I had heard about—around Pierre one might call the car, one of Tof’s pet projects, legendary—but not yet seen, the Citroen Dyane 6. A bright orange convertible from the mid-seventies, the Dyane is somewhere between an antique and a jalopy—“A great car,” Tof explained fondly, “although with this many people the ignition might not start right away.”

This turned out to be something of an understatement. With the Dyane geared in neutral and Tof at the helm, Pierre and I pushed the car the length of Tof’s street, breaking into a jog as Tof yelled back at us through the open driver’s side door, one flipflopped foot dangling. His scarf, an orange that (intentionally or not) perfectly matched the Dyane, flapped out along the side of the car as we painfully picked up speed. The engine finally sputtered into life, and Pierre and I leapt in, panting.

“And here I was regretting not having worked out today,” I gasped.

“You see? A multi-function vehicle,” Tof responded smugly.

“Just make sure you park on a hill,” Pierre muttered darkly from the back seat.

We pulled the hood back, letting in a rush of autumn air, and made our way towards the cathedral. Tof and Pierre pointed out monuments and the apartments of people I had met along the way.

Once we found a declining slope to nestle the Dyane’s nose down, we set out on a tour by foot. Our meanderings led us past bridges, monuments, and historic buildings that served as backdrops for light projections. I imagine it could only be maddening for those whose windows face a projector—and as Pierre remarked, the energy use must be staggering—but the result was lovely.  The cathedral, already a breathtaking structure, was the most stunning stop. Using traces of pigment that have been found on interior stonework during restoration efforts as a guide, the light designers had created a speculative suggestion of what the cathedral could have looked like when first built and painted; the paint is thought to have flaked off after a few generations, so no one really knows, but the result was magnificent.

The rest of the weekend went on rollers, as the French would have it, which is to say: went smoothly. Sunday afternoon Pierre hosted a cookout and petanque at the Moulin de Vilaine, a 14th century stone water mill, which was dismantled in large part by the French during the Second World War to keep the invading Germans from occupying it.  The millstones are no longer in place, but some of the structure still stands, and it is a perfect place to build a fire, throw a lawn party, or go fishing, all of which happened Sunday.

The Moulin de Vilaine

The afternoon wound down with a closely battled game of petanque. Mme Decker proved to be a formidable opponent. She studied the terrain, moved with decision, and unerringly nestled her metal boule gently against the cochonnet, or piglet, the small wooden ball that serves as a goal. Roger, a master gardener and retiree with a set of personally engraved boules, held the score steady for my team; his signature move was a sort of cannon blast that rarely failed to clear the earth around the cochonnet of enemy boules. Brute force won out over delicate sportsmanship, and our team took the win.

Roger, me, Pascal, and Laure: clearly look like winners to me.
We left Monday after lunch, the necessities of the working world luring us back to Bordeaux. Up next: I will maybe get the inspiration to write something about Bordeaux! In the meantime, I'm pretty sure a cafe in a afternoon-lit square in front of some kind of stone monument is calling me. My life is full of hard decisions.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Photo A Day

I give you my last five days and an introduction to my neighborhood in a photo a day:

Wednesday 26 August: Victoria Park. A short walk (or shorter run) from my flat, Victoria Park is one of the largest green spaces in the East End. Alternately known as the People's Park, it was built in 1845 to provide the Victorian working classes with their own parkland. It is a beautiful space, with manicured lawns and gardens woven through with running and walking paths.

Thursday 27 August: Regent's Canal. I don't know much of historic note about the canal, but the towpath is busy with pedestrians, runners, and cyclists, and it is a lovely place for an evening stroll.

Friday 28 August: Brick Lane. Running through Bethnal Green to Whitechapel High Street, Brick Lane is the center of my new neighborhood. It reflects in microcosm the successive waves of demographic change in the East End. The name hails from its past as a district of manufacturing, close to the wharves on the Thames. Jack the Ripper did his ripping in and around Brick Lane, and the narrow streets and architecture reflect its industrial roots. 

The 19th century saw increasing Ashkenazi Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe; this period survives in the most popular bagel place in town, the 24-hour Beigel Bake. The bagels come laden with salt beef and gherkins (which are apparently not to be called pickles) and dripping with mustard. As a former New Yorker, I will say the bagels themselves are nothing to write home about-- they're sadly not water boiled, an essential component in getting the right chewy texture-- but let me not quibble with an institution. 

Brick Lane in the 20th century became home to London's growing Bengali and Bangladeshi communities, some of the largest current demographic groups in Whitechapel. Brick Lane reflects this today, with street signs in Bengali, innumerable curry shops, and several mosques. The area feels very Southeast Asian, and very Muslim; some of my neighbors, and many in the crowds in Brick Lane, wear djellebas and hijabs.

The final demographic group, the 21st century's contribution to Bethnal Green, consists of people like me: young and often white students, artists, and gentrifiers, drawn by cheaper rent, multiculturalism, and an increasingly trendy art and bar scene. Brick Lane has not quite reached the level of Shoreditch, a hotbed of hipsters one neighborhood further west, but I speculate that it's only a matter of time before current residents get priced out.

Saturday 29 August: ramen. Saturday I met up with a friend from NYU, Megan, who is in London for the next month. We did touristy things (London Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, St. James Park, etc). But you don't need pictures of those things-- you've seen them all already, in every movie ever made about England-- and in the interest of providing at least one picture with people in it, I give you our dinner, at a ramen place called Bone Daddies. It was delicious.

Sunday 30 August: Spitalfields City Farm. I guess cramming three pictures into one is technically cheating, but I wanted to show them all, because this was the most exciting place I've been since getting to London. An urban farm and community garden in the nearby neighborhood of Spitalfields (pronounced, unfortunately, Spittlefields), the farm is a lively place. The many concurrent projects include educational and family programs (the farm was crawling with toddlers at a birthday party when I visited); an acre and a half of garden space under cultivation; a community garden specifically for Bangladeshi women to raise culturally appropriate crops; a farmyard bustling with goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, donkeys, and a Shetland pony; apiculture; compost production; wool dying and yarn spinning; and a small cafe featuring seasonal vegetables and cheeses. It's an impressive operation. I'm hoping to start volunteering in the garden, as a way to meet people and to keep my hands in the dirt. I have the feeling that this could be a great place to get plugged in to.

Which leads us to today. It's August Bank Holiday, an annual long weekend, and there's a Caribbean festival and parade on in Notting Hill. It's been raining all morning, but if it clears up a little this afternoon I'll head over. Tomorrow evening I fly to France to spend three weeks in Bordeaux with Pierre; upon my return, school will start, and life will get real.

When it does, I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In Which I Learn I Don't Speak English English

I almost didn’t leave for London yesterday.

Monday morning before my planned Tuesday afternoon departure for England and grad school, I had still not received my passport back from the UK consulate with my student visa.  As if that were not enough, over the weekend I had managed to come down with a case of bronchitis. Whiffs of panic could be scented in the air in the Skove household. But things came together, as they do; my passport arrived, with all my papers in working order. After a lovely going-away gathering with my farm coworkers, Monday night found me clocking in 11:00 pm at a 24-hour CVS, washing down antibiotics with codeine.  Tuesday my parents gave me a lift to Dulles to see me off, and before I knew it I was on a plane.

It was then that I had a rude realization: British English and the English I know do not necessarily share vocabulary.

Let me digress for a moment to explain that when you have 3-foot-long thighbones, as I do, economy seats are a real pain. I don’t mean this in some metaphysical way, like the way all your friends singing that one song from Frozen is a real pain; I mean the tiny space between seats causes actual physical discomfort.  So you’ll understand that when the time came to choose a seat online, and I saw an aisle seat with extra legroom at no additional fee, I thought my stars had aligned for once. I noticed small print explaining that this seat adjoined “cots”, and briefly registered this as odd—I’ve never seen cots on a plane, I thought, imagining metal foldout beds, like summer camp or M.A.S.H.—but mostly disregarded it, because hey, legroom.

As it turns out, “cot” is British (or Bringlish, a term I just invented now to describe British English, because they don’t own the whole language, thank you) for baby bassinet. This is, I anticipate, not the last time that I will unintentionally hoodwink myself ("Wait, your car got booted?! Were you not supposed to park here? Why are you gesturing to the trunk? That seems irrelevant.")

Let it be stated for the record that those terms are NOT synonymous, whatever British Airways might think. A cot is a cot. A bassinet is entirely different, chiefly in that babies occupy it, a feature that was inadequately advertised. “THIS ROW EXCLUSIVELY FOR THOSE WITH TINY WEAK EARDRUMS AND HEALTHY LUNGS”, the website should have said, in 32-point bolded font.

My linguistic indignation was useless, however; I was sharing a row with two infants and a toddler, and I couldn’t even complain about it, because I chose the seat. I did this, the traveller’s suicide, to myself. We taxied into takeoff, and as the pressure in the cabin increased, the babies, on cue, burst into a chorus of howls.  About the time they quieted down, the fasten-seatbelt sign went off, and the toddler turned on an iPad to resume watching—I kid you not—Frozen.

“Let it goooooooo, let it GOOOOOOOOOO,” Idina Menzel shrieked from two seats over, and I was overcome by a strong urge to beat my head slowly against the baby bassinet (excuse me, cot) in front of me.

It was shortly thereafter that my friend bronchitis made an appearance, and I burst into a fit of chesty coughs. The one doomed innocent in row 35, a nice German man with limited English seated to my left, turned slowly to look at me with an expression of mingled disapproval and despair.

“It could be worse,” I rasped cheerfully. “I could have forgotten my cough drops, then we’d be in real trouble.” I smiled, to indicate that this had been a joke, but he didn’t laugh. We’ll chalk it up to the English.

I started thinking about ways I could possibly be a worse seatmate: I could have athlete’s foot and yet insist on taking my shoes off. I could have brought a bag of spicy nacho cheese to slurp on as an in-flight snack. I could be a third baby, a nacho cheese-eating baby with stinky feet and bronchitis, who didn’t pack cough drops OR clean diapers. This last one made me laugh, which provoked another bout of coughing. I thought about trying to share this bizarre hypothetical with my beleaguered neighbor—“Want to hear about the worst baby in the world? You could have been sitting next to her!”—but in view of the resolute way he was staring straight at the televised flight map in front of him, presumably willing the plane to be in London already, I didn’t think he was in the mood for more of my jokes. I let him be and retreated behind a book.

And thus, inauspiciously, began my time in London.

This morning I got to my new flat in Whitechapel with a minimum of hassle, thanks to an exorbitantly expensive cab ride from Heathrow to the East End. If I never take a taxi again until the day I move out, I may be able to justify that blow to my carefully planned budget. London, as two months’ worth of Charles Dickens audiobooks led me to anticipate, is gray and drizzly. My flat is cute, with (hopefully) just enough room for four people, and a pocket-sized garden out back. My German flatmate, Tayfun, is proving to be as great as he seemed via email. I already have a new number; email me if you want it.

I’ve seen too little yet to give much more of a description than that, so we’ll leave it there—I’m here; I suspect I’m not dying of consumption, as my meaty coughs would seem to indicate; and despite not having slept one wink on the plane, I can’t wait to get out and wander around through the drizzle, exploring my new neighborhood.

So I’m going to do just that. Until next crime!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On the Road Again

It's been a little while.

It's been almost eight months since my last post, to be precise. This blog was originally kept as a Peace Corps blog; then it morphed into a travel blog, during my two and a half month trek in the Balkans. I suppose it could have become a farm blog during these last eight months, but it didn't. Despite the fertile material (pun intended) at my fingertips, I took a hiatus from writing. I learned to drive a tractor. I became skilled at seeding brassicas, a family of vegetables (kale, collards, cabbage) with biblically tiny seeds. I harvested more tomatoes than I want to think about. But write I did not.

But now I'm gearing up to be on the move again. In six days (six! Count 'em!) I'll be on a plane bound for London, to start my masters' in Environment and Development at the London School of Economics. I'll spend most of the month of September in France, travelling a little, reconnecting with old friends (B. Dunn, I'm comin' for ya!), but mostly spending time with Pierre, my boyfriend of eight months and a new addition to this narrative. Blogosphere, meet Pierre-Henry. He's pretty much the greatest.

I'll try to keep the sappy couples' selfies to a minimum. Indulge me this once.

Thus the reboot of the blog, because the alternative use of my morning is packing. Just as there's nothing like a looming final paper to make you suddenly realize how desperately your apartment needs to be cleaned, there's nothing like needing to sort out a backpack's worth of my earthly possessions to drive me to the keyboard.

I won't promise that I'll keep this up; grad school is going to bring with it a lot more work and a very different schedule than I have enjoyed for the last three years, and it's entirely possible that once my semester starts I'll barely have time to heat Ramen noodles, let alone write blog posts.

But... I'll give it a shot. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015


I came home yesterday.

Pops really rolled out the welcome-home wagon, complete with streamers, balloons, and flowers
After almost two and a half years away, punctuated early on by a short visit to America for my cousin's wedding, I have finally moved back to the States.  I am back in Virginia, back (for the moment) in my parent's house, in the small eye-wrenchingly yellow room in which I spent my high school years (years during which, it seems, I found it appropriate to paint entire walls that particular shade between school bus and highlighter on the sample strip).

I took the train down from New York on Friday. The sun dappled through the windows, reflected in bright bursts off the snow that blanketed New Jersey's sins like a choirboy's surplice. I spent the first few hours dawdling luxuriously over a paper copy of the New York Times, delighted that it was a copy from that day, rather than a copy sent in a care package mailed weeks before (old news: good for wrapping dead fish and sending to Peace Corps Volunteers).

As we moved south of Baltimore, I flipped open a paperback, a light read that I should have been able to breeze through. My attention wandered, though, as my eyes kept straying to the window, hungrily soaking up the landscape that flitted past. The train flew over long stretches of the Chesapeake Bay, capped with a crust of ice on which little piles of snow skittered and blew. South of DC we passed deserted piers that jutted into the Potomac, the boats frozen into their berths. I abandoned my book completely when we reached the marshlands north of Fredericksburg, staring out with wet eyes at brooks and runnels braided into a fine net that twisted between barren trees and over brown, loamy leaf mould. It is a curious observation: I have had the good fortune to spend the last two years travelling and living in a number of objectively beautiful places, from the dense, cacophonous rain forest of the Congo River Basin, to the stark, barren expanse of the Sahel, to the vertical majesty of the Sharr Mountains, whose snow-capped ridge thrusts like a knife swept across Kosovo and Albania. And yet, in that moment, eastern Virginia-- those flat, tidal floodplains-- seemed like the most beautiful place in the world, because it meant home. Eye of the beholder, I suppose. As we moved steadily closer to Richmond, I felt like my heart was the top half of a used toothpaste tube, and someone was squeezing up from the bottom.

It's been two days. I have yet to conquer all of my laundry, and I haven't really left my house much. I've been getting a lot of phone calls and visits, which has been touching and very pleasant; I don't think I had realized how supportive of a network I had had all along. I got to see my grandfather for the first time in almost two years; we drank straight gin (he forgot to buy tonic) and talked about Russia and the Ukraine. It feels fantastic just to be home, to be in my own bed, to have access to any food or form of entertainment I could possibly want, to have my parents here and my friends a mere same-time-zone phone call away-- animal pleasures, but things I had longed for in my darker moments in Cameroon. This month before I start my new farm job feels like the most well-earned long weekend ever.

In other ways, though, I act like someone grieving a loss; I cry spontaneously, and get pangs of longing for people and places on the other side of the world. Everyone warned me that readjusting would be hard, but it catches me off my guard in unexpected ways.  I knew to mentally prepare for the grocery store (every RPCV's first meltdown seems to happen in the shampoo aisle), so although Whole Foods was overwhelming, I maintained my composure. I burst into tears, though, when I suddenly noticed a picture in the living room of me and Amina, my five year old across-the-street neighbor, who followed me like a shadow around Mbang Mboum for months. When she visited, my mom had apparently snapped a shot of Amina beside me, fingers in her mouth, with the same bashful yet defiant look she gave me if I whirled around too fast when she was plodding along behind me. I had to put the picture face down-- it is all still too soon. In some sense I miss the way of life I had in Cameroon. The hardest loss is friends who are now practically unreachable; people I love who I have left, if not behind, than certainly elsewhere. It will take time to learn to cope.

But until I do, hey, at least I have the New York Times and cups of coffee big enough to bathe in! America.