Is Beauty Color-coded?

In March I went on an “Artist Trek to India,” with a team of musicians, writers, visual artists, photographers and a dancer. We visited a high school one day and each of us was immediately surrounded by dozens of students. They asked us questions, wanted to feel our skin and hair, and requested that we take pictures of them.

One of these girls grabbed my hand and said, “beautiful” as she stroked it. I took her hand and said, “YOU are beautiful!” She responded, “No. Black!” And she frowned. My heart sank but I looked at her again in the eyes and said, “You are so beautiful. It’s true!”

Another day, in the city of Vijayawada, a couple of girls came running up to me and another team member. “Photo please!” They asked while giggling and posing next to us as their friends stole some photos with their phones.

Um, hello?

But they didn’t care to get our names, they only wanted our pictures. And then they were off as quickly as they had come, not giving us a chance to ask for their names, either.

My team and I attended a relief meeting for Indian people suffering from AIDS. We packed bags of food for them and then introduced ourselves during a short service of singing, a message and prayer. The majority of those in attendance were women, who had most likely contracted this disease from their husbands. The men don’t come because they are too embarrassed. The women come because they are in desperate need of help for themselves and their families.

I finished my introduction by saying, “You are beautiful.” My words fell upon blank faces, but as soon as the translation was pronounced, their reaction was anything but neutral. Some snickered, others shook their heads.

The younger girls received my words with less disdain and rejection. When I grabbed their hand or touched their face or pulled them in for a hug and said, “YOU are beautiful,” it came from the very depths of my being, a message shared in complete sincerity. I wished I could gather all of the women, teenagers and young girls into a big group hug and describe to them more of what I see.

Because truly, these women are stunning!

I returned to Paris and saw the color of humanity like I had never seen it before. Caucasian people seemed especially pale. Oh, right. I’m Caucasian, too. Suddenly for me, human colors were more defined but not in a categorical “white” and “black” way. I find the variety of human color to be beautiful and something that ought to be celebrated.

I wish we could do away with the stereotypes that our world places upon people. Of course, I have also been personally influenced by the way media dictates what makes a woman beautiful. When an ideal is out of my reach, it can be hurtful. And I hate that feeling of not measuring up. But to recognize that I was born to privilege simply because of my skin color makes me uncomfortable. I see it more clearly now than before, and it bothers me deeply. I don’t really know what to do about it. I just know that it is there.

Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 2)

The half-marathon mark was quickly approaching. Only half-way? You have got to be kidding me. I wasn’t in pain yet physically, just tired and not caring. I searched inside of me for something profound to drive me on. Nothing came. I’m in trouble, I thought.

So, since I couldn’t pull it together, I reached for some outside inspiration. I remembered the words of the man from Portland. I recalled what my doctor had told me. I thought of what friends have been telling me all my life. Basically, if you don’t slow down and start enjoying life, you’re just going to drive yourself to the ground.

That’s right, and sometimes we do go through life running even when we would rather be walking. We can get so focused on the goal that we miss everything we pass along the way. Oh, another thing my doctor said? That I needed a week-long vacation, away from the pressures of life and work. I haven’t taken more than a weekend away this year. Still, it seems impossible. I don’t have time! Truly, there are things we learn about ourselves during a marathon that we don’t learn anywhere else. There are things that confront us during those hours that we cannot escape.

So this was all starting to feel quite negative, and I still had half a marathon to finish! At this point, my pace was still on track for the time I wanted, but the thought of keeping it up seemed impossible. The initial excitement seemed to have died down a bit around me as well. I was passing people who were already walking. I found my earphones and put them in. The music gave me a little boost. I thought, what the heck, I’m just going to enjoy this marathon like everyone seems to say I should.

I didn’t care about time anymore, I decided to just to glide through to 30k. I wasn’t going to use any more mental energy to calculate my pace and my predicted pace. I even started to walk through the refreshment stations and enjoy a cup of hot sweet tea instead of simply spilling it all over myself. I was still mentally a bit checked-out, and occasionally I had extreme thoughts like, “I have six hours to finish this thing, I wonder if I would still make it in time even if I walked the rest of the way?”

After 30k, I started taking short walking breaks (1-2 minutes) every 10 minutes. Whatever, I didn’t care. Then, something crazy happened. I realized I was at 33k already and I looked at my watch again. It seemed that even with a conservative pace from there on out, I might still be able to finish a few minutes faster than I had in May. This gave me a slight bit of motivation, and although I continued to take walking breaks, I was more motivated to keep a good pace for 8-9 minutes at a time.

Finally, I reached 39k and mustered the strength for a little pep talk that consisted of one word, “BURN!!!!” So I did, I started running again and didn’t stop until I reached the finish line. I passed so many people who were walking during these last kilometers, including the four men in purple shirts, who were clearly struggling by this point. I was glad I still had something left to give, even though perhaps earlier I hadn’t given all I could. Then I started counting down the minutes to myself, knowing when I had only 14 minutes left, ten, five, two… From kilometer 40, I knew when I would finish, and I came in right on the money. WAAM! Five minutes faster than in May! How did that happen??

And then it wasn’t pretty. My head was not happy. I started walking again and realized I had a debilitating pain in my right hip, so instead of walking I was limping. I very nearly burst into tears, but then again, I didn’t care enough, even to cry. I mostly just felt awful. I wanted to get back to my room. I had to get there. The sooner, the better.

My French friends finished before me, but waited in the arrival area for me to show up. I was so touched by this gesture! We were all happy to be done, and we all felt completely spent. We parted ways and I had to find the bag that I had checked earlier. I asked someone and he pointed to some tents that I could barely see. “500 meters,” he said. “No!!! I mean… thanks.” And I limped over there, stopped to take a couple of pictures and then collected my bag.

The next mission was to find a taxi. I didn’t care how frivolous it was at this point, I knew I needed to get back as soon as possible. And by now my hotel was another 2.5 kilometers away. I spent about 10 minutes trying to communicate with Italian volunteers about how to get a taxi. Apparently, it was all very complicated because so many roads were still blocked off for the race. I was getting nowhere. Walking to an accessible taxi station would have meant walking too far for comfort in the other direction. The streets were also packed with people, so I wasn’t sure how a taxi would get through. My head started to swim. I stopped and leaned against a post. Then I heard someone next to me saying, “tutto bene?” I nodded my head, I shook my head, and then I signaled that I was dizzy. Finally, someone said my best bet was to just walk to my hotel. But I caaaan’t!!!!

Still, I did. I limped all the way back. And yes, it took forever. I was hungry. I was tired. I was hurting. I was also nauseated. I arrived next door to my hotel and knew that once I went up I might not be down again for a while. I needed some kind of fuel, so I stepped into a gelato store for their “Thanksgiving” special (pumpkin-flavored gelato), one of the few things that was at all appealing in that moment. They served me, congratulated me on the race, and then I sat down for a few minutes. I enjoyed a little bit of the gelato, but then I started seeing zigzagged lights, and knew I had to get to my room subito. I took the migraine medication that I had with me, threw out the rest of the gelato and hurried on to my hotel. But the time I reached my room, I couldn’t see clearly anymore. I was conscious enough to change into dry clothes but the next few hours were a blur. To be honest, it was also a little scary.

So, this one didn’t end so well. Maybe I’m not made for marathons? Maybe not, who knows. But I can’t imagine that I will stop here, especially since I’m already registered for the Paris Marathon in April. If I’m going to quit, I simply have to quit on a better note than this.

Post-race, is it possible to still be thankful? Yes, I believe so, if I choose to be. I’m thankful I made it to the start. I’m thankful for my French friends, for my running group in Paris, for the spectators, the volunteers. I’m thankful for the journey. This difficult experience reminded me of more difficult things that I have suffered in the past. I’m thankful to have finished, to have made it back to my hotel safely. I’m thankful for the reminder of the fragility of life. I later learned that a 38-year-old man had collapsed and died one kilometer before the finish line. When a fellow runner dies in a race like this, it affects all the rest of us, too. We can’t help but think, “that could have been me.” I hurt for his family. And I am thankful for life.

Still, I do need to cool it now for a while. And as a friend corrected me, “you must not just try to rest, you must actually rest!”

Well, at this point, I’m so shot that by default I have no other choice!

2014-11-30 20.07.08

Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 1)

My choice of the Florence marathon was inspired in part by someone I met after my last marathon in May. Having traveled to Europe all the way from Portland, he remarked that I could access so many amazing marathons relatively inexpensively from Paris. He had already run 42 marathons, but emphasized experience over time as his main goal. He said, “I figure that if I just keep going I’ll eventually get faster and stronger. I just don’t want to push myself so hard that I stop enjoying it.”

I thought about that. A lot. And I figured, if I can do two marathons, I can certainly do three. And why not hop over to another country for the experience?

So, this was the first time I traveled internationally for a race and also the first time to race in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

I had never been to Florence, but I already knew that I love Italy. And what better place to carb-load for a marathon? Furthermore, the marathon fell over Thanksgiving weekend, so I was happy for the distraction from the fact that I was far from my family and their traditional celebrations. I made the arrangements five months in advance, which meant I got a great deal on travel, registration and accommodation.

However, it’s been a hard year for me physically and that put a damper on my excitement for this race. Once again, my body shut down a few weeks before D-day. I went to see my doctor and at the first meeting, he said it might not be a good idea for me to run this time. In fact, he didn’t want to renew my medical certificate (required for European races). That was only ten days out and I wasn’t feeling well, so I figured if I didn’t run in the end it wouldn’t be so great a loss. I didn’t feel up to it anyway.

He ran some blood tests and a week later gave me the clearance to go ahead but not without a word of caution: “Just take it easy, whatever you do, don’t go out there and give it your hardest effort. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy Florence.” But when is it ever possible to “take it easy” during a marathon?

I walked away thinking, so I’m really doing this thing? I knew I wasn’t physically in top form, but I wasn’t mentally prepared either. I had burnt out a bit, lost motivation. Hopefully the excitement of it all would give me some energy?

The weekend was nice. I relaxed and strolled around the city. Saturday night I met up with some new friends from Paris. During a training run in Paris a few weeks earlier, we had realized that we were running the same race in Florence. It was fun to have dinner together and talk about the race. I followed their lead for gelato afterwards, although I wouldn’t have done so on my own.

By the time I went to bed, I was getting a bad headache. I tried a hot shower, some standard pain meds, and stretching but nothing was helping. Afraid I would wake up with a migraine, I decided to take my migraine medication as a preventative measure to kill the headache, hoping that the resulting drowsiness wouldn’t get me down too much the next day.

I got a decent night of sleep and was in good spirits in the morning. As much as I try to have things planned out in advance, I left my hotel not quite knowing how to get to the start line, which was 2 km away. I had walked all over the city the last two days, but I just wasn’t convinced that I wanted to tag two more kilometers onto the front end of 42.195, especially since I was already a bit groggy. I thought about getting a cab, but it seemed a bit frivolous. The man at the front desk said I could walk across the street to find a special marathon bus that would take me to the start. Brilliant!

I crossed and saw runners walking this way and that, but no bus and no group of people waiting for a bus. So I asked a couple of runners if they knew where the bus was. “No, we’re taking a taxi!” they said. “Oh, can I share it with you then?” I asked. “Sure!” So I jumped in with them. They were a lovely couple from Austria and this would be their 13th marathon. The taxi dropped us a short walk from the start and the 9€ fare split three ways felt good to me, only that the couple wouldn’t let me pay! So sweet. We walked together and chatted on the way to the start area.

In the starting corral, I met with my French friends and together the time passed quickly as we waited for 9:15 am to arrive. I was a little concerned that I was feeling a bit fuzzy as I waited, but figured it was the effect of the medication and that it would pass. It only took minutes for the 1100+ runners to cross the start line. Yet just after we started our watches, the road got so congested that we had to come to a dead stop two or three times within the first few hundred meters! That was unfortunate. I would have rather waited an extra minute before starting than having that minute on the clock! Finally we were rolling, but as we had decided to join a pacing group, we were elbow to elbow for a while.

The ambiance was fantastic in those first kilometers. The pacers were a bit crazy, yelling and cheering in Italian and even though I didn’t understand a whole lot, they had me smiling and laughing, too. I also quickly picked up on the Italian word, “dai,” which means “come on!” But it sounds like “die,” and later in the race, I wanted to yell back, “Yes, I’m dying!!”

Usually the pace would have been fine for me for a long time, but by 10k, I realized that my heart rate was higher than it should have been and so I started to slow a bit and over the next 10k watched the pacer balloons, along with my French companions, slowly fade away in front of me. I was still in the company of four men who were obviously employing the Jeff Galloway method of running/walking. They were in purple shirts and kept passing me, and then falling behind again when they took their walking intervals. I wondered how this method would work out for them. Eventually they plowed ahead.

I also realized by 10k that I was pretty tired. I shouldn’t be tired already at that pace, or this early in the race. Yet I managed to stay quite steady until 20k. By 15k, I was tired of circling parks and while they were pretty and all, I wanted to be back in the city with more excitement, crowds, etc. When is the party starting? I wondered. I thought they were supposed to have a clap competition here. I don’t see anyone clapping! Maybe they only clapped for the elite runners.

I also realized that I was a bit checked-out mentally. That lack of motivation I mentioned earlier? It was only getting worse. What am I doing here anyway? Whose grand idea was this? Maybe I’m not cut out to run marathons. Maybe I should stick to shorter races. I may have a point there. In any distance up to a half marathon, I can usually predict my finish time within a minute. With marathons, I can be accurate only when predicting within a 30-40 minute window!

I tried to assess where my head was, how I could get rid of the negative thoughts and motivate myself to push forward, or if I even wanted to. And I realized that I wasn’t all there. Still moving, but mentally drifting. It wasn’t like what I had experienced during my first or second marathon, when I was present from beginning to end. It was different, and it wasn’t looking good. I simply didn’t care enough. Oh no, what to do?

Top Ten Things to do in Paris from a Local!

People often ask me what they should see when they come to Paris. Truth is, I feel incompetent to respond as my daily life here is far from the world of tourism, except for being annoyed with tourists ignoring the bike lanes! (Please, watch where you are walking!) 🙂 So I tend to think that people are better off doing a quick Google search for the top ten attractions to make the best use of their vacation time here. Although I have seen many of the touristic sights (mostly before I lived here), “what to see” really depends on your personal interests. There is so much to discover!

However, because some have insisted, here is my own list. If you shadow me for a few days, these are the activities you might find me doing, although some only on a rare occasion. But here’s a disclaimer: these activities are very specific to my life and interests! So they may or may not appeal to you. Also, since I have to live modestly in an expensive city, all of these activities are either free or quite affordable (10€ or less). I hope you will find something useful here.

  1. Go for a run (or walk or bike ride) in the Bois de Vincennes (or Bois de Boulogne)

2014-01-03 16.44.40It’s incredible that you can step just outside of the city and get lost in a 2500-acre park. Year round, I love running in the Bois de Vincennes. There are lakes, paths that stretch on for miles, plenty of trees, a castle, a floral garden, and a hippodrome. It’s a great place to go for a walk, run, bike ride, picnic, etc. In the summer, you can also catch free concerts in the Parc Floral (5€ to get in, then the concert is free). You can access the Bois de Vincennes from Metro line 1 (Chateau de Vincennes) or line 8 (Porte Dorée, Liberté).

However, I would recommend staying out of the park when it’s dark. The streets of both Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne are lined with prostitute caravans at night and this of course significantly changes the atmosphere from of a place of light, families and athletic energy in the daytime to a place of darkness and illegal activity at night.

  1. Stroll through the Belleville open market on a Tuesday or Friday morning

This is the market where I used to buy fresh produce almost weekly. It’s a bit of a jog from where I live but I took the time to go there because it seems to be the cheapest market in Paris. I could fill my caddy with fresh fruits and veggies for a mere 20€ – a real steal! It is also interesting culturally. Step inside and you will find yourself surrounded by Asians at one end and Arabs at the other, complete with multiple languages and clothing styles. Hold onto your wallet and be prepared to be shoved around a bit as you make your way through the crowd. While the prices are fixed, you would be wise to pick your own fruit, as sometimes the quality is less than desirable, especially when the merchants try to convince you of what to buy. If you exit the metro at Belleville (line 2 or 11) or Couronnes (line 2) on a Tuesday or Friday morning, you will find yourself in the market.

In my continued effort to “go green,” I now prefer the market at Bastille because there is an organic vendor where I can even find kale! More expensive yes, but for my health it’s worth it! Located near Metro Bastille, this market is open on Thursday and Sunday mornings.

  1. Rent a bike for a day

The Paris city bikes (Velib) are my primary means of transportation. For a resident, it’s super easy. You pay 39€ for the year and have 45 minutes free every time you check out a bike. The concept is brilliant: take a bike from one station, ride to your destination and return it to another station. So you never have to worry about your bike getting stolen and if a pedal falls off or a tire goes flat or if it starts down-pouring (I speak from experience!), you can simply park it at the nearest station and move on with another means of transportation. The downside to this system is that there is not always a bike or a free spot available when you need it. However, since there are stations all over the city, you can often find another one within a five-minute walk. A new option allows visitors to purchase short-term passes online in advance.

I should caution visitors to be careful while biking in Paris because traffic can be crazy, especially in the roundabouts. There are a lot of bike lanes, but pedestrians are often in the way and much of the time, you have to share a lane with the city busses, which aren’t very considerate at times. 😦 Because of this, there are certain streets that I try to avoid when on a bike, and I always expect that I’m invisible to most of the traffic out there. I now know Paris quite well and can get around easily on a bike. However, I got lost a lot in the beginning. It’s hard to navigate the streets with a map and still be cautious of the traffic. Getting around on the metro is much easier and straightforward for visitors.

However, biking is a great way to see the city if you’re up for the challenge. Guided bike tours are another good option. Check out Bike About Tours and Fat Tire Bike Tours. I have never used these services, but when I see people on the tours, they seem to be enjoying themselves!

  1. Visit a French church

If you’re in Paris on a Sunday and would like to experience a thriving French church, consider attending one of the services at the Eglise Protestante Unie du Marais at 17, rue Saint-Antoine in the 4th arrondissement (in-between Metro stops Bastille and Saint-Paul). The Sunday services are at 10:30am, 5:30pm and 7:30pm. You can try out your French here, but you will be sure to find some English speakers as well.

  1. Have a picnic in one of the beautiful parks in Paris

You can easily stop in a grocery store and pick up cheese, wine, fruits and veggies and some bread from a bakery (boulangerie) for a simple picnic in a park. Some of my favorite picnic spots are: Luxembourg, Buttes Chaumont, and Champs de Mars. On July 14 (the France national holiday) and on New Year’s Eve you can also see fireworks at the Eiffel Tower.

  1. Have a tea or coffee at the top of the Montparnasse Tower

Most tourists go up the Eiffel tower for the view, but if you would like a more classy experience with a panoramic view of the city, I recommend the Ciel de Paris restaurant, at the top of the Montparnasse Tower. It’s free to access the restaurant, but the service is expensive. So on occasion, I’ll go up at around 3pm (when it’s not too busy) and order a tea. It will be pricey, but if it’s clear out, you’ll have a great view! And it’s still less than a ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower. It reminds me of the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, which I always suggested as an alternative to the Sears Tower (sorry, I still can’t refer to it by that other silly name).

  1. Visit the Pavé d’Orsay

A little art gallery on a side street in a chic quarter, the Pavé d’Orsay hosts art showings, concerts, acting workshops, and other events to promote emerging artists. Check out what’s on and stop in for a visit, especially if you’re in the area visiting the Musée d’Orsay or the Louvre.

  1. Explore the Paris cemeteries

2013-01-02 13.16.40The cemeteries in Paris can redefine an American’s concept of a graveyard. You can almost get lost amidst the tombstones. Whenever I stroll through one of these cemeteries, I always discover so many interesting things, from the old sculptures to the recent pictures and inscriptions. You can also find the graves of many famous people in Paris.

  1. Attend a concert or opera

Catching a concert or opera will take some planning in advance (if you want to get a ticket for a decent price), but most tickets you can buy online and then print out, so it’s simple to do from a distance. There are two opera houses, the old famous one (Garnier) and the newer one (Bastille). The latter hosts most of the opera productions and the older one is where ballets generally take place. For shows at either location, check out the Paris opera website. Ticket sales open on a specific day for each production and if you reserve the same day, you can get tickets for as little as 5€ (although you may have an obstructed view at this price). For orchestral and other classical music, check out these two concert halls: Theatre des Champs-Elysees and Salle Pleyel. And for a vast array of concerts and other shows in Paris, look for tickets at this site.

  1. Get a falafel in the Marais

It’s a bit hidden away, but it’s definitely worth finding for an excellent falafel. You can sit in or pay less for take-away. It’s called “L’As du Fallafel” and is located at 34, rue des Rosiers, 75004, Paris. The closest metro stop is Saint Paul on line 1.

Now for the more touristic things to do in Paris, please ask google!

Human

This song has a redemptive message for me. It speaks to my tendency to be a workaholic, to the drive that doesn’t know when to stop and the obligation I feel to “be there” for everyone at all times.

But even more specifically, it proclaimed a specific rebuttal to a message that was spoken to me almost a decade ago.

I have never worked myself as hard as I did when I was in college. I regularly worked graveyard shifts at a residence hall desk during which time I completed my homework, and then when I got off, sometimes I would go running or to class. At one point I was taking both sleeping pills and caffeine pills to survive. And then I was starting to prepare for graduate school auditions. So I would lock myself away for hours and get lost in my repertoire.

On one of those days, a friend called and asked me to leave the practice room to go hang out with friends that evening. That was a lot to ask, but after a bit of persuasion I agreed, “just for an hour.” I started to get stressed out when an hour turned into two, and then three. Finally I insisted on resuming my practice. As we walked back to campus together, he asked me how I am able to keep going at the pace that I do. I was annoyed by the challenge, and tried to explain that I was just doing what I needed to do. Maybe he was annoyed with me as well, or just wanted to make a point when he said,

“You’re more like a machine that keeps producing and producing and producing than you are a human being.”

Ouch.

No one wants to be called a machine, no matter how much they act like one.

Those words have echoed through my head ever since.

A few weeks after this scene, I was rushed to the emergency room in the middle of the night, and then transferred by ambulance to another hospital. The machine had reached its limit.

I’m only human, and I bleed when I fall down.
I’m only human, and I crash and I break down.

I’m not a machine, and in her single hit, Christina Perri voices both sides of this struggle that many of us face. For me, the imagery of a machine in the music video was especially powerful.

Of course, “only human” isn’t the complete picture. I believe that being human is also something to be celebrated. It’s amazing what humans can do. I added this song to my running playlist and when it started playing during an 18-mile marathon training run the other day, I realized what a bad idea that was. I started seeing images of myself tripping over a pebble and crashing to the ground, knees scraped and bleeding. That’s not the way to get through a difficult workout. In some moments, we do well to celebrate the extraordinary capabilities of humanity.

But as humans, we also have limitations, and as someone who constantly struggles to respect my own limits, this is something I need to hear from time to time. Although I hate falling down, I’m thankful for the reminder that I am not a machine.

Qatar

When buying an airplane ticket to India a few months ago, I had a difficult decision to make: should I pay $200 less and endure an 8-hour layover at the Doha airport on my return? Normally, it wouldn’t be worth it. But I was tempted by the location of my layover, and the idea of getting out of the airport and exploring a new country during that time. After all, Qatar isn’t a place I frequent regularly, nor one I anticipate visiting anytime soon.

I conducted some preliminary research on possibilities. Would I even be able to leave the airport? I learned that visitors could buy a visa at the airport upon arrival and it seemed that the city center wasn’t too far.

So in the name of “saving money,” I took the ticket with a long layover, even though I knew I might end up spending what I saved on financing my little adventure. A few days before leaving for India, I searched some more, and I made a plan. I would buy a visa upon my early morning arrival, take a taxi to the city center, get breakfast somewhere (hopefully along the coast), take the Doha hop on/hop off bus around the city, and then get a taxi back to the airport. I started to add up the costs and realized that the expense was getting more extravagant than I had anticipated. And yet since I was carrying my violin and laptop, I knew I wouldn’t want to roam the city on foot for hours. So the day before leaving India for my return flight, I decided to google “Doha city tours” just to see if I might come up with a better option. The result was an unexpected surprise: Qatar Airways offers Free City Tours to Transit Passengers.

It looked too good to be true. And why didn’t I see it earlier? Aha – the article was published just last week, when I was already on my way to India. I found the press release on the website of Qatar Airlines but there wasn’t a whole lot of information there. What time were the tours? Would I still have to buy a visa? Was it really free? I figured that it was worth a try. This service appeared to be new, and it seemed official enough.

I was pleasantly surprised on all accounts. I arrived in Doha at 6:30am and quickly found the “Qatar Airways Doha City Tours” counter. They took my passport and boarding pass, registered my information and told me to be back at 7am for a 7:15 departure. Just enough time to use the restroom and get a little cash out of an ATM.

There were only eight of us taking the tour on this cool morning and we were shuttled to the arrivals terminal and given a card to present at immigration. There our passports were stamped with a 24-hour visa and we paid nothing. Then we were escorted out to a comfy mini-bus where we had more than enough room to spread out. We were told we could leave our carry-on items on the bus whenever we stopped; they would be looked after.

An English-speaking guide led us through the city on a nearly 3-hour tour, and in the end we took the same route as the hop on/hop off bus that would have cost me $50 for a one-day pass. We stopped many times along the route to take pictures and walk around. The brisk morning air and opportunity to walk without carrying my luggage helped to combat the fatigue I was feeling from losing a night of sleep. They even provided us with cold bottles of water. Extra points, Qatar Airways!

Doha was impressive. Most of the city has been built in the last couple of decades and the architecture is fascinating. It’s the most modern Arabic country I’ve seen. At the end of the tour, we had 25 minutes to explore the souk (market), which I found to be very chic compared to what I have seen elsewhere. Also more expensive. The dress is different here, too, with men wearing a white thobe (a long white gown) and the women in all black, sporting a shayla (headdress) and abayha (long dress). The coast was especially beautiful, and when I saw people out running it made me feel nostalgic for the Chicago lakefront. Our tour guide also told us that 75 percent of the population in Qatar is made up of ex-pats that have come to work, and only 25 percent is women.

He also told me that these special transit tours have only been operating for a month, and that sometimes no one shows up. However, even if only one person signs up they will run the tour. The most they have had so far is 22 people at a time. They are hoping that it generates more interest. Other passengers told me that they had discovered the tour by chance, as they wandered the airport trying to kill time. I think that Qatar airlines needs to increase their publicity for this service, both on their website and in-flight. Maybe that’s coming. The press release was already a good move, but not everyone researches things like I do.

So, hats off to Qatar Airlines. This tour was perfectly planned for transit passengers with a 5-12 hour layover at the Doha airport. The convenience and ease that they offered would have totally been worth a fee of $50 or more. I felt like a VIP customer when in reality the free tour was available to me because I opted for the ticket that saved me $200. After the tour, I was happy to settle down for two more hours at a coffee shop where I took advantage of the airport’s free Wifi.

If you ever have the opportunity, don’t miss this experience! Thank you Qatar Airways!

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Serbia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy trip to Serbia in July 2010 is easy to write about because to date, it represents the quickest visit that I’ve made to a country.

However, let me inject here that in order to count a country on my list of countries visited, there are certain conditions that need to be fulfilled. For example, an airport stopover doesn’t count unless I actually leave the airport.

My mother and I have an ongoing country-visiting competition between us. She is ahead, but of course, she also has 30 years on me. But a few years ago she was visiting me in Romania and we spent a day in Oradea with my colleagues. When one of my colleagues mentioned that we were only miles away from the Hungary border, my mom got all giddy about the possibility of adding another country to her list. My colleague was all too happy to drive to the border, get our passports stamped, and continue on for about five minutes on a narrow road in Hungary and then turn around.

For me, that’s pushing the rules a bit. It doesn’t really count. At least one purchase needs to be made, and at least some contact with the locals.

But perhaps I’m hypocritical in this assessment because I felt the same giddiness when staying with a friend in Romania very close to the Serbian border. “Can we go to Serbia?” I asked. “Why?” My friend replied. “There’s nothing to see there.” “Just because,” I replied. “I want to see anyway!”

Thankfully, she was up for a quick adventure. We decided to try to squeeze in a visit before I needed to catch a train back to Cluj. So we set out and thankfully, we got through the border with little drama. We spent about a half-hour there before turning around. But, to make the visit authentic, we did two important things: we took a picture at the border and we made a purchase. It was hot at the time, so we bought and ate ice cream. It wasn’t great ice cream, certainly not something to go back for, but I guess you could say we tasted something of the local cuisine.

The most memorable part of the visit, however, was when we got back to the border. On the Serbian side, there was a long wait to get through customs and back into Romania. I have no idea why. But we had a great conversation while waiting, discussing our futures and faith and big decisions. In the end, we waited for about two hours, and, consequently, I missed my train back to Cluj. Oh well, it was worth it!

Countries Visited

From the age of eight, I have found myself traveling internationally. I love to travel and I appreciate the many opportunities that I have had to grow by discovering a variety of places, cultures, and people.

I also like to keep track of where I’ve been. Someone encouraged me recently to start writing about all the countries I’ve been to and so I decided to make it a part of my blog. Yikes, this will be a big project! Here I’ve listed the countries I’ve visited by category, and I will continue to update this post as I write about each country and perhaps add more to the list.

Countries lived in for at least a year
U.S.A.
England
France
Romania
Germany

Countries visited 5+ times
Austria
Hungary
Morocco
The Netherlands
Italy
Spain

Countries visited 2-4 times
Belgium
Canada
Czech Republic
Denmark
Japan
Luxembourg
Madagascar
Norway
Poland
Russia
Scotland
Sweden
Switzerland

Countries visited once
Bulgaria
Cayman Islands
Croatia
Estonia
Finland
Greece
Haiti
Iceland
India
Ireland
Israel
Jamaica
Latvia
Lebanon
Liechtenstein
Mexico
Portugal
Qatar
Serbia
South Korea
Thailand
Turkey
Vatican City
Wales

Stress Fracture

It’s Monday night and I’ve been sitting on my couch most of the day. Back when my life was normal, Mondays meant running early in the morning, working at home for several hours, then biking across Paris to teach, biking to another neighborhood to continue teaching, and then often biking somewhere else for an evening event before biking home. So usually one hour of running and then two hours of biking on a typical Monday.

So it felt really strange to sit on my couch all day. 😦

A week ago I finally had an MRI of my pelvis to see why the “adductor tendonitis” wasn’t going away after 10 weeks of rest and therapy. “Know why you’ve been in pain?” The doctor asked as she looked at my results. “You have a stress fracture.”

Crap. When I first got injured and diagnosed, I said, “well at least it’s not a stress fracture! That would mean crutches…”

Instead I continued to walk, bike and occasionally try to run on it for 10+ weeks, thinking it was tendonitis. I did often wonder if it was a stress fracture, based on my symptoms and internet research. I should have gone back to the doctor sooner than I did. I should have trusted my gut, even though I really didn’t want it to be a stress fracture.

Now I’ve been on crutches for six days. I’ve been forced to slow down my pace of life. I can handle about one outing a day. Today I went to get a blood test, but when I arrived they told me I had to wait three hours after eating to take the test and I had eaten two hours earlier (my doctor should have clarified this). It was too much of a pain to go home and then come back, so I slowly made my way to the post office to buy stamps and then stopped at a cafe for a drink while waiting for the hour to pass.

The first couple of days, my forearms were bruised and my armpits and torso were really sore. Today my wrists are in pain from the crutches. I have to take it easy as I’m getting used to the crutches or I will end up injured elsewhere.

The prognosis? Well, in order for the fracture to heal correctly, I cannot bear weight on it for a while. Pain will be my main indicator, said the doctor and several websites. So I will probably be on crutches for a few weeks, or until I am able to walk without pain. But even then, I will have to limit how much I walk. When I can swim/waterjog and bike without pain, I can resume those activities. Already the pain is lessening, although it is definitely not gone yet. But during the whole ten weeks, walking hurt MORE than biking or swimming, so I am hopeful that I will be able to resume these activities soon. I think I will try to make it to the pool later this week.

My doctor said no running until September. I’m really not happy about that because I’m registered for the Chicago Half Marathon on September 8. I’m hopeful that maybe I can start running a little sooner and at least complete the 5k race that is part of the same event. I’ve never run a 5k before.

Well, even though this diagnosis isn’t pleasant, it is more hopeful than just not getting better for no reason. So, one day at a time and I’m believing that I will come out stronger and smarter in the end. Although at this point, I think it might take a lot longer to heal mentally to the point of re-training for a marathon. This experience may continue to haunt me for a while.

The Marathon I Didn’t Run

In the fall of 2012, I returned to Paris feeling energetic and positive after a much needed time of retreat in the States. I was glad to return home, and feeling better than I had felt in a very long time. I resumed my running schedule and to my pleasant surprise, I found myself logging hundreds of miles migraine-free. That was another first-in-a-long-time.

I registered for the Paris half and full marathons the day registration opened. I was so pumped! My goal and dream was to assemble a team to run in support of As Our Own in India, but alas, the spring enthusiasm of my friends had died away by autumn and I set out on the journey alone.

My 19-week training program started officially in December, but I was building up miles all throughout the fall. I was following a program of running five times plus 4-5 hours of biking every week. For the first 17 weeks, the training went well physically. There were aches and pains here and there, but nothing that really got me down. I did start to get worried when during my two 20-mile runs, my right ankle was in quite a bit of pain. The first run of this distance was hard to finish and I was limping for the rest of the weekend. During the second run, the pain was present but not as severe. There was also the day when, almost two miles into my run, I tripped and fell flat on the ground. I got up quickly and tried to catch my breath and assess my situation. My knees were scraped up and my palms were stinging, but nothing seemed to be broken, so I finished the 5 miles. The last time I had fallen like that was probably ten years ago at a time when I was overly fatigued. I realized that I needed to focus on getting better sleep for the next few days.

There were a lot more mental challenges during this time. For one, it was a daily challenge to wake up and face the cold first thing in the morning. I prefer to run at dawn, but sometimes had to complete my entire run in the dark. I’m not sure if the snow classifies as a mental or physical challenge, perhaps it was some of both. It was also challenging to get up early and run in an unfamiliar place during my travels, when I had to spend a good amount of energy remembering how to get back. Over Christmas, I was in the Loire and thus had to train in the mountains. That was a challenge and made Paris feel flat afterwards. I also traveled to a place where it was not safe to run outside and for a week had to complete all of my training on a treadmill. Five miles was okay, but 12 miles was the ultimate killer. It’s mentally challenging to run for two hours and not go anywhere… I shouldn’t complain though, at least it wasn’t 20 miles!

Then there were all the hard calls along the way, when you have to make a decision regarding your training in light of your physical health. I occasionally took a day off if something was hurting, but usually made up for it another day. Often I asked myself, “should I run on the snow/ice?” Could have been disastrous if I had slipped out there, but I survived about a dozen runs in these conditions, including a 15-mile run on several inches of snow. I definitely need to get the right equipment for such weather by next winter. Then one night I was coming down with a sore throat and I needed to run 17 miles in the morning before catching a train to Nancy. I really didn’t feel up to it, but did it anyway. Interestingly, I felt better afterwards. I guess all that sweating did something for shooing away the virus! The days before the half marathon, I came down with a cold. I had to travel by air twice during that time, which didn’t help me feel better. On Saturday night I was feeling feverish and not sure if I would run on Sunday, nor if I would finish even if I tried. But I decided to give it my best shot and I finished within my goal time (2:14:24). However, I felt even worse afterwards and although I wasn’t terribly sore, my head hurt and I couldn’t stop coughing. I just wanted to curl up in bed for the rest of the day. So running doesn’t always cure a cold. 😦

My last hard decision came two weeks before the marathon. The hard-core training phase was over and my miles were decreasing for the last three weeks. In all that time, I had only missed 1½ runs due to being sick or needing extra rest for my ankle. So I was feeling strong and confident about the marathon in two weeks and was focusing on preparing myself mentally. I was also looking forward to doing a four-mile run the following week after running no less than five miles at a time for over a month. On Wednesday, I had run five miles and had noticed a pain in my inner thigh for the first time. I didn’t run the next day and hoped that it would be better by Friday morning when I needed to put in 12 miles. I woke up early that day because I needed to be somewhere by mid-morning. I remember feeling especially tired and wondered if I could post-pone my run for the afternoon (something I rarely did). I also wondered if it was wise to run with the pain. I paced my apartment for a few seconds debating whether to go or not. Then my inner coach said, “Stop thinking about it. Get out there. Get it done.” This was sound advice on most other days when I was simply lacking motivation, but next time I’m in this situation, I will certainly argue back.

I completed the twelve miles in pain, thinking, “I’ll go a little easier today, and maybe it will loosen things up.” By the end of the run, I was in so much pain that I was losing my stride. It hurt to put weight on it, to stand, to walk. But I thought that like my ankle, a couple of days of rest would make it all go away and I would still be able to do my four easy miles a few days later.

It didn’t go away. It was painful throughout the weekend. And it started to scare me. According to my online research, it could be a stress facture, a pulled muscle, tendonitis or a hernia. On Monday, I called a sports doctor but only got an appointment for Tuesday. When I saw him, he stretched my legs in a lot of different ways and diagnosed me with adductor tendonitis. No running for at least a week, he said, plus anti-inflammatory medication and sessions with a sports physiotherapist. “So what about the marathon,” I asked in a low voice. He shook his head and said… “Well, IF the pain is gone in a week, you can go out and run for an hour. “ If there is no pain during the run, you can compete in the marathon. Otherwise, don’t do it. You’ll be miserable and you’ll damage yourself further. I walked away with Cinderella-type hope, but now I think he may have been as confident in his “IF” as her evil stepmother. 😦

Still, I did everything possible during the following week, holding on to the possibility of “if.” Physiotherapy, medication, rest from running, stretches, ice and heat treatments, pool running, swimming, etc. But no matter how much or how little physical activity I did, the pain did not ease up. I saw my physiotherapist on Tuesday and he said to try to run the next day just to see what happens. I knew it wouldn’t be possible, but I geared up and hit the road anyway. It was even more painful than my 12-mile run and I was sort of half-running and half-limping. I lasted five minutes and then walked back home. And at that moment, it hit me. I’m not running this marathon. I can’t. I think I knew this already by Sunday, but it only hit me then when I realized that my body had shut down on me. And that was hard to swallow.

Not being able to run the 2013 Paris Marathon is a huge disappointment, but I must admit that it isn’t the first time I’ve been hindered from running a race because of injury. In 2007, I had registered and trained for the Chicago Half Marathon. Less than one week out, I walked into a pole and hit my forehead/face so hard that it was bruised and bleeding. A couple of days later, I decided I had better see a doctor about it. He ordered an X-ray. On Friday, I called to get the results and they said they wouldn’t be in until the following Monday. So I asked if it would still be okay to run on Sunday. “You have a head injury that may be serious. It would be very unwise to run a half-marathon before knowing the results.” So I sat it out and learned on Monday that I was fine. Brilliant. Also, two years ago I was registered for the Paris Marathon but got a bad case of sinus infection early in the year, which lasted over a month. I fell too far behind in my training to be able to compete in the race.

But this one is the biggest disappointment yet because I trained so hard for it! At the same time, this strength was also my weakness, and my body maxed out two weeks too early. A couple of months ago, I stopped at a bakery after a 13-mile training run. There was a man there who said he was a running coach. He started asking me questions about my running and when I said I was training five days a week, he said, “It’s too much, you should rest more.” Whatever, I thought, loads of people train this much. Then, ten days ago in the doctor’s office, I received the same verdict: you pushed yourself too hard. Humph. I had given 110% to my training regime, which pushed me over the edge two weeks too soon. I should have done more like 90-100%. I hope that my inner coach has learned a lesson from pushing me too hard all this time.

Well, I’m not going to sit around and mope. I’ve been spending a lot of time biking and swimming since I haven’t been running. These activities are easier on the joints and actually hurt less than walking at this point. I’ve wanted to incorporate more swimming (and even deep water jogging) into my exercise routine, and now is the perfect time to build up my strength and endurance in these cross-training activities. I’ll turn my focus and energy to preparing for my next goal, which I hope will be the Caen Marathon on June 16. I’ve almost reached my goal for As Our Own, but this will give me a little more time to reach, and hopefully surpass it

As for today, a friend and I met up and cheered for the entire crowd of runners as they passed in front of our church in the Marais  – from the wheelchair competitors to the very last ones were struggling already at three miles. It seemed that there was no one else cheering on the street, so we yelled out names and good wishes until our voices were horse. I’ve never watched a marathon from beginning to end like that, and I found it to be very moving. It’s amazing how encouraged people are by a random high five or a stranger cheering for them by name. It was great to participate even though I wasn’t running.2013-04-07 09.41.43