thoughts on food, culture, and community

The Art and Addiction of Escape: Explaining the Explorer

The following reflection is written by my cousin, Wesley Troost, of Kampen, the Netherlands. He grew up on a dairy farm but began guiding outdoor adventures and participating in extreme sports when he was 17. While searching for what this means professionally, Wesley has traveled extensively as a guide, explorer, and soul-searcher, including a trip around the world in 2010-2011. His greatest victories range from graduating from a year of schooling on personal growth to jumping off a 59-foot cliff into the Vorderer Gosausee, a lake in Austria. Challenges yet to accomplish include solo skydiving and creating a successful company of his own.

Pokhara, Nepal

Pokhara, Nepal


Isn’t it strange how we all fight almost day and night for a secure, settled life but still admire a traveler?

I used to work as an outdoor sports instructor for months in a row. But I knew that I loved, and still love, the thrill of excitement and the satisfaction of feeling alive after completing an awesome trip. This motivated me to search for more mountains and more adventures. As the Netherlands doesn’t have any mountains at all, it forced me to travel. Not a bad thing, you could say. And it wasn’t!

For at least five years in row, I have spent more nights in a tent then I’ve spent at home. On a good night, I’d have a real roof over my head; on other nights, the stars were my roof. But most of the time a couple of framed poles and a sheet of fabric were what I called my home. And every day was a new adventure. I could go on and on about all the stories, but that’s not my point today (although sometimes it is).

Wesley on a night train through India (2010-2011)

Night train through India

The adventures triggered me to keep going and keep searching. And I kept on learning, exploring, laughing, and making friends. But in between all of this I longed for a warm shower in a warm bathroom! I longed for a couch that I could call my couch where I could rest my head, for food that I didn’t have yesterday or the day before, for a closet that I could open with all of my clothes in it, for a heater that could be turned up or down according to my will, for chocolate sprinkles on fresh Dutch bread, for all the friends I left behind, for a house that I could call home.

A couple of years ago I decided to travel the world. After my work season finished in Europe, I packed a bag with the goal of seeing as many countries as I had dreamed of before the next work season would start. I kept a blog about all the great adventures and the beautiful landscapes. Nepal, India, Thailand, New Zealand… I have never felt more alive. If you have ever taken the gamble of going wherever you felt like going — without a plan, without limits — you too know the addiction of freedom. It doesn’t stop until time or money runs out.

People admire the courage. The courage to put your will ahead of the risks.

Jodhpur, India (the blue city) (2010-2011)

Jodhpur, India, the Blue City

But only three weeks into my trip I found myself stunned. It was at a busy train station in Varanassi, India, where I watched backpackers leaving the station, one after the other. Every single one of them held a worried gaze in their searching eyes. Overwhelmed by the culture and the question, now what? As if they had all forgotten why they left their steady homes and everything they had known to live among the complete opposite. Their eyes stunned me with the question: Why had I?

The question left me with only answers that didn’t satisfy. Not only for that day or that month but for a couple of years. Until now.

Agra, India; home of the Taj Mahal (2010-2011)

Agra, India, home of the Taj Mahal

I haven’t traveled a lot lately. But if my bank account will allow me to, I’ll be gone to discover and explore the many more countries that I dream of. Why? To get a break from life. To escape from the pressure of every day. A day in Western culture causes a human more struggle then finding food, shelter, and happiness in a place where we are total strangers. Let me rephrase that: at times I would rather leave my culture, friends, family, and all the comforts of my home to release myself from the world that I wake up to every morning. Sounds a bit alarming, doesn’t it? But it’s the world we created by ourselves. We have so many balls in the air that we sometimes feel like running away for them not to come down on us.

That is why sometimes I choose cold showers. I choose hiking while my feet hurt. For food that is so spicy that it hurts going in as well as going out. For trusting people I have just met. For traveling 33 hours non-stop. For a bed so hard an elephant couldn’t dent it. While in the meantime I enjoy the world’s most beautiful sunsets. I enjoy nature’s prettiest sceneries and all the thrilling activities it can provide. I enjoy all the cultures. All the people and the stories they carry. I enjoy the pure freedom of deciding whatever I want to do the next day. And I enjoy learning more than any other time of my life. With a searching gaze in my eyes.

Varanassi, India

Varanassi, India

30×30: Lesson 30: Conclusion: Always keep learning

The illusion of these blog posts is their finality. Here, as in all areas of my life, if I am capable of writing a problem down, it already feels halfway concluded. When numbered, written, and entitled, each lesson on this blog seems to indicate that it is a problem that has already been fixed.

The final lesson to this series is that this is not the case.

When I was a teenager, I thought I would know (most) everything I needed to know by the time that I left college. (I also thought I would stop needing to write because there’d be nothing left to figure out.) Not so.

Instead, the questions I’ve had about life have multiplied, flowered out. Some aspects of my life have become a lot more clear, but other areas of my life have simply become more humbling. I love academia because it reminds me daily to not settle into familiar paths (Lesson 10): there are so many more places to travel (Lesson 25), so many more books to read, so many more languages to learn. I cannot get through a day in grad school without being inspired by people, globally and locally (Lesson 26); when I teach, I am reminded daily that I’m only as old as I believe I am (Lesson 22).

I was disappointed this summer in Nantes because I thought that, after fifteen years of studying French, I would probably stop feeling occasionally out of place due to my language (wrong). But my French, like everything written here, are works in progress.

The reoccurring themes about control — learning to let go (Lesson 1), learning to wait (Lesson 9) — reveal my weakness for wanting to know the end of the story when in reality it is I who will write it. It’s taken me an incredibly long time to find myself — my voice (Lesson 8), my path (Lesson 7), and my self confidence (Lesson 28) — and I sense that this process has only just started. Breaking down barriers and blurring categories (Lesson 24) brings me incredible freedom (on the days that I can remember to think this way). And above all, the loyalty and love of my family and friends — and even strangers — are gifts that carry me forward, gifts that I desire to pass on.

But this is just the beginning.

What is life, in the end, other than a series of endlessly-moving destinations?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 29: Beautiful when crying

It is possible to feel beautiful when crying. For me, it’s when the tears emerge without sobs and roll hot and drop off a determined, uplifted chin. When the emotion is safe and cleansing, an expression of freedom as beautiful as music. As long as I am able to put into words my love and frustration with certainty and with dignity, I find I am able to cry without shame.

Unfortunately, this does not happen often.

I constantly wish that I were unable to feel. I’ve tried to talk myself out of fear — one while lying on a hospital bed before my blood was drawn — to determine whether or not being strong is simply a choice (it kind of is and kind of isn’t). I’ve tried to ignore anger when it’s become too complicated to deal with, half as a survival mechanism and half to avoid confronting truth at all. I am exhausted by sadness that doesn’t correspond to logic, by frustration even when I know it’s temporary, and by discouragement in situations which may not even matter in the long run.

I hate being a woman who cries in a society that sees tears as a mark of weakness. And inferiority.

However, this entire series has reminded me that being able to feel is to possess a different strength.

Without empathy and interest for every one of my students, I could not teach because I simply would not care. Without seeing the details in the world around me, I would not be able to write — or, at least not in the same soul-searching, passionate, and honest way that I tend to.

Many of you have shared reactions to this series, which has been really helpful to me — not only to hear who you are but to understand that these reflections have not just been for me. They’ve been for you, too. Knitting us together, and showing all of us where our strengths have their place.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 28: The language of self-erasure

Students in Paris, June 2014

Students in Paris, June 2014

When I was teaching French this summer in Nantes, France, my students made one mistake above almost any other: when in French to say “I’m sorry.” Rather than expressing empathy (“I’m so sorry for your loss!”) or shame (“I entirely regret my actions!”), my students were constantly attempting to use the French phrase Je suis désolé to express something else.

Sometimes they wished to say politely, “You’re blocking the Monoprix grocery aisle with your cart; could you please move?” Other times, they had just interrupted a stranger to ask them the directions to the Place du Cirque. In both circumstances, Excusez-moi or Pardon would best expressed their desire to briefly assert themselves into the life of someone whom they did not know.

But instead, from my students’ lips escaped — as we do in American English — the same words that connote deep apologetic shame: sorry, sorry, sorry.

Especially the female students.


What are the implications of a language that allows its speakers to merge the usage of such an intimate, humbling phrase as “I’m sorry” with other, more public phrases? It’s a phrase that has become coded as respectful (“I’m sorry to interrupt”) but hides a quiet self-erasure, a removal of one’s importance. I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’m sorry because you are somehow the most important.

Another example is the word “just.” Rather than summarizing (“I just want you to be happy”), the word diminishes the meaning of everything that has previously been said.

On the sidewalk in Pittsburgh, I’ve begun refusing to say “I’m sorry” simply if I am taking up too much space (I opt for “Excuse me”). I also delete “I’m sorry” from all the emails that I write that are suggestions and not apologies. When summing up my day with Jon with the phrase “I’m just… frustrated,” I now try my best to remove the “just.” I’m frustrated. Period.

My body belongs on the sidewalk, my apology can be heard without groveling, and I have feelings. “I’m sorry” is a phrase that should be reserved only for moments of sincere empathy or deep shame.

Using words wisely is a simple way to respect those around me and believe in my own strength.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 27: Stand by me

September 2014

September 2014

It isn’t a coincidence that “Stand By Me” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” are two of my favorite songs, not necessarily for their musicality but for their meaning. Both speak of loyalty. I grew to love the second song sometime after I moved to Harrisburg and decided that my sister Andrea was one of the single-most important people in my life. The first song, I dedicate to my boyfriend Jon.

During the decade (123 months) that I have dated Jon (if I’ve calculated correctly), we’ve spent more than 1/3 of our relationship apart. 17 months have been spent on separate continents. 33 months in different cities. Two months or so in different states.

During those 123 months, I’ve been a deli worker, an undergraduate student, a high school English teacher, a freelance journalist, a grad student, and a college French instructor. Jon has studied politics, worked night shifts in warehouses, worked days in manufacturing, and sold craft beer for two different companies.

Of all people, Jon has endured me at my worst: when I’ve been huddled over tea while wrecked with the flu. When I called from France and forgot his birthday. When I come home from Pittsburgh after not having seen him in weeks and talk only about the work I should be doing. When I’m crying too hard to speak for reasons that I don’t even know. My moments of least triumph.

But Jon has also been there for my last ballet performance and my first academic conference. He was there in Trinidad when I learned I was white, in Belgium when I tasted my first lambic. Jon asked me to have a voice and was there when I gained it. He loved me with make-up with without it, with curves and without them. He taught me to find the beauty in otherness.

I owe so much of these lessons to him.

What astonishes me about the song “Stand By Me” is more than just this loyalty. It’s also the equality of it. The lyrics ask that one stand — there’s such a tallness and pride in this word — by — not behind or before — the other person. It’s a song of asking. It’s a song of vulnerability.

In the past 147 months, Jon and I have cooked together, grown together, laughed hysterically together, and grieved together. I look for Jon’s face in every crowd on every continent. I see Jon’s smile after getting off of every plane.

Jon’s taught me what it’s like to be accepted without deserving it. To be loved without having earned it. And the lesson of my life is to love that way in return.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 26: The goodness of strangers

I was robbed on a crisp December morning in Strasbourg, France, after I had bought hot roasted chestnuts on the Place de la Cathédrale and decided that I needed to change my world.

Growing up, I had unconsciously divided all people into those who were “safe” (extended family, church friends, my ballet teacher) and those who were not (people who drank beer, stayed out late, and swore). This division did not affect my actions, for I knew better than to condemn people openly; instead, this manner of thinking crowded the corners of my mind and divided concepts into hard-lined truths and lies. Such lines made life more clean-cut, less troubling. It allowed me to refuse to deeply listen to those who were not like me.

That day in Strasbourg, I had resolved to cross that mental line and buy lunch for a homeless woman named Romina, for she, too, was alone and frightened in France. We left the square together. Then my purse disappeared. Then Romina vanished. Snow fell. For a long time after that, I looked the other way when the homeless extended their hands. But strangely, my faith in humanity was only beginning.


I’m well aware that I am writing this post from a certain amount of privilege related to time, place, financial status, and race. I do not have a history of personal trauma due to others’ verbal or physical abuse. When I approach strangers for directions when traveling, I do not (usually) have a face that provokes suspicion, fear, or hatred. When I am stranded in airports or cities in Europe, I always have a savings account that I can draw from, a safe hotel room that I can buy, a warm meal that can bring me comfort.

But I’m writing still because, despite this, seeing the humanity in the difference of others had to be learned before it was felt.

I was humbled by it when I stood teary-eyed in the Greyhound parking lot in Harrisburg, PA, two minutes too late for my bus, and another driver, already at the wheel of a second bus, jerked his thumb toward his empty seats. “Climb on in,” he said. “I’m headed that way, too.”

I was inspired by it with Xavier, the director of the local opera in Nantes, France, who stood on an enormous stage in front of the Opéra Graslin to direct a singalong of 2,000 people for France’s National Music Day. When I ran up to him in the crowds afterwards to thank him for his work, he said, “You can’t leave the city without seeing the opéra perform” and gave me his personal comp ticket for the next show.

And then there’s the family of the Chesnie farm who picked me up at the bus station near Vay, France, and allowed me to work with them and their cows for a day, without us ever having met before.

And then there was that baker in Basel, Switzerland, in 2005, who gave me and four friends an armful of day-old bread when we had no money left to spend and pushed us out the door before we could attempt to pay.

I strongly believe that, in this world, there is horror, but there is also peace. I have been loved by strangers without reason and aided by them without compensation. And beyond the differences I once saw in people there are also similarities — homes, fears, joys, expressions, dreams — that frame our daily lives.

Is it too optimistic to think that I can be the change that I want to see in the world?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 25: The world is big, and life is long

From the airplane, 2014

Leaving Pennsylvania, 2014

Every time I climb into a plane to leave Europe, I’m filled not with regret but with longing. I was abroad last summer for seven weeks, but I did not manage to see my friend Abdel in Metz nor my former roommate Tobias who just had a baby. I had tried to go to Morocco to see my friend Jen but didn’t make it — too expensive, not enough time. I’ve never seen Rome, never been to Spain, never made it to Berlin. I just backed out on an opportunity to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro (again, finances, time) despite my extremely strong belief in the importance of spending time in a place that’s neither Western nor developed.

When I first began to travel, I was told, “Life is short. Go now, or else you never will.” On some level, this is true. Traveling is aided by the certain freedom that comes from not having a mortgage or a typical job, by the open mentality that is most often cultivated when the soil of your day is never packed and firm. One never knows, either, at what point his access to travel will close, or if/when his body will fail.

But as I kissed my teary-eyed host mom goodbye in Nantes, when I think about the book that I want to write, when I imagine owning a piano in a house in which I live for more than two weeks at a time, I have to believe that life is also long. This is not an excuse to endlessly defer dreams but simply to admit that no one can have it all — at least, not at the same time.

Believing that life is long requires a different type of openness than does taking the plunge. A belief that life is long is a subdued pressing-back against time, a stubborn belief that many things remain possible if you don’t stand in your own way, a gracious placement of faith beyond yourself.

Believing that life is long is a patient bravery that discerns between which choices are not in your power — as well as which choices are.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 24: Wavy hair, curved hips

Dedicated to Emily Orner.

I didn’t believe that life was black and white, but I did prefer it black and grey. When going shopping for dorm room supplies the summer before I began at Susquehanna University, I picked out a set of storage cubbies made of white wire, a black and silver phone, a silver laptop, and a black and white poster of the Eiffel Tower in the rain. After furrowing my brow at the dull colors stacked neatly in my shopping cart, I wheeled back to the bedding section of Bed, Bath, and Beyond and thoughtfully added a moss-green comforter. Black and silver (okay, and green) felt simple, chic. Probably even safe.

For the majority of college, I loved lines. College-ruled notebook paper, books stacked horizontally, the glossy straight hair in the Pantene Pro-V commercials. As a ballet dancer, I wanted the perfect grand jeté where the dancer’s legs extended a flawless 180 degrees mid-air; I wanted a straight-edged body without muscles, curves, thighs, or hips. I respected the hierarchy of freshmen below sophomores, the ordering of the cafeteria lines, the borders between ideas. The only concepts that I needed to challenge were those that claimed there were no right answers: I would somehow agree with that this was true without believing a single word.

Over the years, my straight-lined world crumbled slowly, breaking off in chunks and smoothing into powder. And I, too, crumbled at the edges, not know how to face a life so unclearly defined, so concrete-rough.

My senior year, two-cups-of-coffee dazed into my day, I was at the Kind Café in Selinsgrove where I wrote all my papers before I graduated, staring into the darkness of my third refill. Into my coffee, I poured a dash of cream. In caffeinated slow motion, the white entered the coffee, hit the bottom of the porcelain cup, billowed up. It swirled and knitted into an enormous set of wispy curls. As I watched, the cream faded into the coffee, leaving it a smoky, gorgeous, comforting brown.

Later that afternoon, I ran into my friend Rachel Fetrow in the basement of Degenstein Hall. Still caffeinated, I seized her. “Rachel — life is a Van Gogh painting. I get it. There are no borders. It’s amazing. It was in the coffee.

For who else could I be but a woman with wavy hair and curved hips and wild passions and an open mind? The unstraightened is sometimes not meant to be smoothed. Beauty can be found in the unvarnished. I can maybe even accept the chaos that is mine.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 23: Just go back to France


Paris, 2014

Paris, 2014

It was 2008. I was a college graduate with a degree in creative writing who had just gotten back from my second extended period of time living in France — this time, spent teaching English to high school students. For the hundredth time I had taken back up the apron at Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg, PA, where I was charged in particular with delivering food and staffing events at the local Volvo Construction Equipment plant.

This afternoon in particular, I was manning a daylong series of meetings that involved me keeping assorted cookies and canned sodas stocked from a tiny in-house kitchenette. I had brought a French novel to read in the moments when I wasn’t fanning out stacks of navy blue cocktail napkins. And I was sitting on top of an overturned milk crate, knees to my chin, whenever my friend Conrad Jackson appeared.

I don’t remember what we talked about. He most likely asked me, as a fair amount of people did, why I was back here, meaning in Shippensburg, working three minutes from where I grew up. (It was a question I hated; I was in Shippensburg because I wanted to be.) I would have answered with some bitterness — half because of his question, half because I didn’t have an idea about where I wanted my life to go — that I didn’t have anywhere else to be yet. I believe he then questioned whether or not I wanted to go back to France, and I sighed with deep, romantic sighs, and told him that it was impossible because I had obligations and life and family and college loans and a cat who would miss me.

And Conrad looked at me with a very funny gaze and said, “Just go back to France. Stop standing here and telling me all the reasons why you can’t.”

I opened my mouth and shut it. I firmly believed (and still do) in the validity of my family and college loans and cat. But I heard him more deeply than I knew at the time: sometimes the only thing standing between you and your life is you.


Sometimes choices don’t exist. Sometimes decisions are made for us — sometimes made long before us — and we have no option but to follow them. Sometimes we lack power and possibility for multiple reasons — money, situation, time. However, I am pretty sure that many of us have more power than we think.

I have never been one to say “I can’t,” but I have certainly believed myself to be incapable. I may want something deeply, but I am not always able to see a pathway. For the best of us, a solid life is hedged up by an enormous amount of structures — family expectations, financial constraints, solid logic, personal obligations, logic, conflicting dreams, the desire to not hurt feelings, and fear of speaking up — but most of these structures can bend if we are willing to lean into them.

The phrase “why not?” does not just convey careless indifference; it is a legitimate question that I sometimes have a good answer to and often don’t, a question that Jon Hoey asks me often. Why not spend extra on a good meal for the two of us? Why not take an extra day explaining that concept to my French 2 students, even though the syllabus doesn’t say so? Why not be honest when I actually don’t have time to do what people have asked me to do?

What really is standing between me and the rest of my life — even if it’s only my attitude — that is causing me to believe that the possible is impossible?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 22: Age of the heart

Loire Valley, France, 2014

Château de Chenonceau, France, 2014

A long time ago I vowed never to be someone who would wince when asked how old she was. When I was younger, I often asked people their age out of pure curiosity, and I found it troubling when I hit a nerve. Maybe because I didn’t like to feel guilty for a question that I had so innocently posed. Maybe because I didn’t like seeing people cringe about a detail that didn’t matter to me.

As I’ve grown older, I have lied about my age — once. I was barely 23 and teaching in Talange, France, for students with a range of ages that could have matched mine. On the first day of class, terrified, I told them in English that I was 54, which turned out to be a great lesson about numbers.

But in general, why be ashamed of what you’ve earned?

On some levels, it’s not that simple, but on other levels, it is.


“Quel âge avez-vous?” How old are you?

The question had sprung up as I plunged into an introduction dialogue with my French 2 students at the University of Pittsburgh. Despite my resolutions, I had to will myself not to hesitate.

“J’ai vingt-neuf ans,” I responded: I’m twenty-nine. I smiled, but the dialogue continued in my mind: I’m, like, a decade older than you. Please don’t reject me.

An advanced student named Haby (age 19) burst out laughing. “Ah bon?” she said. “You can’t at all tell.

I grinned nervously and gave her a high-five. “Merci?” I answered.

What it is that makes age a shaming tool in our culture? It’s got to be just more than fine lines and going gray. For the younger generation, is aging a negative process due to the belief that added years force you to no longer be interesting, creative, engaging, and fun? For the aging generation, is age painful when you look in the mirror and think about all the opportunities you have lost? Is my own hopefulness about turning 30 just blind optimism that all I still wish for will be able to happen?

I like to think of age as a muscle. As long as I am still willing to climb trees at sunset by the Susquehanna River when my siblings Andrea and Jordan kidnap me from my apartment in Harrisburg (true story), I will be able to climb trees (until my hips fall off). As long as I am still willing to listen to hear out my students about the joys and concerns that are unique to them, I will still be able to connect to them.

And equally — as long as I am still able to laugh with those both older and younger than me and to find common ground among us; as long as I refuse to take myself too seriously; as long as my life decisions are made sincerely enough that I don’t regret them; as long as I am still willing to take the risks to maybe gain the reward — I think I will be able to remain the best version of myself.

Or at least, I plan to try.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

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