Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Looking Back on New Orleans

This is a two-page piece I wrote for my "Writing Journeys" class. The prompt was "write about a travel experience that defines your personality." I like how it summarizes the significance of my summer, so I thought I'd share it here.

“Making groceries,” they say in New Orleans. You don’t just shop for groceries in the Crescent City, you make them. Selecting the ingredients for your food is a crucial step in a process this city takes very seriously. It’s the first step in cooking, which is relished here. New Orleans, more than any city I know, values “slow food.” People from New Orleans savor their food and cooking in a way that most people in this fast-food nation simply don’t. But it goes beyond that. New Orleans is a place where everyday life is celebrated with an enthusiasm that sets it apart. An enthusiasm that I was lucky enough to share in for one treasured summer.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked as an intern for a nonprofit called that runs Crescent City Farmers Market. I fell in love with food and food culture, particularly New Orleans food and food culture. Spending every day with major foodies who came to work recounting in detail their dinners from the night before, at a nonprofit founded on the value of community built around food, all in a city that takes food more seriously than perhaps anything else… I realized early on in that if I didn’t gain weight that summer I was doing it wrong.

And I embraced it. I sought to make the most of my eight short weeks there. Having grown up in a small town in rural eastern North Carolina, I was thrilled by the prospect of spending a summer in a “big city.” I did everything I could to prepare: networking by asking everyone I knew for recommendations; researching not just places to eat but all points of interest and special events in the city; making note of every festival, concert, museum, park and, of course, restaurant. I had a continuously growing bucket list that I referred to throughout the day, and I was always excited to mark something off. By the end of the summer I only had a few things left on the list, things I knew I’d try or see or do in subsequent visits to the city — because there was no doubt I was coming back.

I loved New Orleans. I loved the flavor of the city, the unique culture. The ubiquitous creativity, the unabashed rowdiness, the devotion to basic pleasures like eating and drinking and dancing. New Orleans is a city that loves to live, and I loved living there. The city inspired me and energized me. I lived more fully, more deliberately, more delightedly, in those eight weeks than I ever have before. I loved who I was in New Orleans, loved being an active part of that spectacular city. It brought out the best in me. Every day I acted on my spirit of adventure and love of learning, reveling in being in a city that shared my natural happiness for simply being alive.

And I hope to always keep that with me. I wear a ring now, a small silver ring shaped in the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of New Orleans. It’s a token of that summer, a reminder of my time in a city that embraced me and still calls for me to go back. In a city so genuine, a city that so highly values authenticity, I found my best self. In a city where people “make groceries” with the same care that they make their meals, with the same enthusiasm that they live every day, I felt like I belonged. I was only a part of New Orleans for eight short weeks, but I know New Orleans will always be a part of me.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Healing Power of Two Hummuses

Yesterday as I was walking from my car to my dorm after work, I felt antsy. The sunset was turning the sky cotton candy pinks and blues, and the air was pleasant, and I was craving a run. So I went straight to my room, changed into workout clothes, and headed out.

But after half a mile, an ache in my left knee reduced me to a pathetic limping hobble. I stopped, stretched, and started running again, but after just a few steps the pain cut me down again. I have no idea why. Nothing happened to injure my knee; this ache seems completely spontaneous. It's incredibly frustrating because I hate the gym.

I tried going at that point, because I was determined to burn the pent-up energy I had. But as soon as I walked in, I felt smothered. The heavy, humid air and the masses of strangers moving in place on these tight rows of machines... It all feels so artificial and suffocating to me. I told myself I had to stay on the elliptical for at least 15 minutes so my (100% disinterested) elliptical neighbors wouldn't judge me, but I quickly reduced my set minimum to 10 minutes. I literally counted down every second. Running outside is exhilarating and energizing to me. I realized last night that most of the appeal is in the fresh air, the solitude, and the changing scenery— three crucial factors that are glaringly missing from the gym.

So I made myself suffer through exactly 10 minutes of gym time before rewarding myself with $5 of fresh cut mango and kiwi from the fruit bar: the gym's single redeeming quality.

The fruit consoled my frustrations at not being able to run, but to really bring my mood back up I knew I needed an especially excellent dinner. I wandered unhopefully to the Great Hall. Just as I stepped through the door, I spun back around on a whim and headed for the Greek food stand just outside. The man was already closing up, but when he saw me approaching he stepped back behind the counter.

"Now I don't have much left," he said apologetically.

"That's okay," I responded. "Tell me what you do have."

He dug through some aluminum-wrapped gyros, calling out what he found, but as a vegetarian I opted for the hummus.

"Here, I'll give you two," he said as he filled my bag. "Two hummuses and two pita breads."

"Oh, I only need one!" I said quickly. "I'm not very hungry."

"No, no, I'm only charging you for one," he said cheerfully as he handed me the bag. "I'm done for the day anyway."

It was the highlight of my night. How often are people that nice?? And what excellent hummus it was, too. (I currently have three kinds of hummus in my fridge.) The pita bread was soft and warm, the hummus was thick and perfectly garlicky, and the best part was that I had two of each!! Back in my room, I dug out my grapes and feasted on fruit, hummus, and pita.

Needless to say, my mysteriously aching knee seemed much less dire with that sort of food in front of me. But as the food is now gone and the ache remains, I welcome any suggestions for a longer-term solution...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Better Shade of Blue?

Numerous sports commentators have declared UNC-Duke the biggest and best sports rivalry in America. (For example,

From what I can tell, it's mostly because of the two schools' a) proximity and b) comparable success. Last year I wrote an article about the history of the rivalry for my school newspaper. But — in its most elemental and intense form — I experienced this rivalry for myself for the first time this week: in the student section of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

After weeks of camping out, I proudly wore the plastic wristband that guaranteed me entry to the game. I lined up with my (now dear to me) tent group in our well-earned spot #46, three hours before tip-off. Everyone was using the time to paint up: many people painted their arms, legs and chests as well as faces. I did my best to avoid the dark blue paint all around me but in the end got attacked by my friend Ryan, who successfully painted my right eye, the corner of my mouth, and an obscure spot along my hairline. I tolerated it because I felt it would be clear to my UNC friends that the paint was involuntarily applied, while the presence of dark blue color on my face would be enough for my Duke friends to stop pressuring me to paint up.

Finally it was our turn to rush into the stadium and be forcibly packed together by the line monitors on Cameron's rickety student risers. The energy was contagious, and I enthusiastically joined in with any cheers and song that weren't anti-UNC. That is, until the game started. When the teams actually started playing, I realized how deeply my allegiance to UNC runs. With UNC in the lead the entire first half, I was flipping out. I could barely contain myself, quivering at the thought of jumping in my car immediately after the game to drive straight to Franklin Street and join in the mad festivities when we won. There it was: that small but hugely telling word "we." Even when trying to fit in at Duke, when trying to assimilate entirely, I still couldn't let go of my original position in this "us vs. them" dichotomy.

I've never been more invested in any sporting event in my entire life. I've watched games I care about, I've played in games I care about, but never has it seemed to matter so much to me personally. Despite my white t-shirt proclaiming neutrality, I struggled to muffle my moans and cheers in favor of the Heels. "You're giving yourself away," scolded my friend Tori, who stood next to me during the game.

But then, of course, Duke gained the lead and the Heels couldn't get it back. At the end I didn't feel happy for the Duke victory the way I thought I might. Despite my new fondness for this school, I had no wish to celebrate. I trudged back to my room to write a paper I had previously hoped I might have an excuse to put off.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Every frozen second in that tent, every miserable early-morning tent check, every inconvenient shift I covered: It was worth it without a question. Not only did I love the novel experience of Kville tenting, I loved getting to know and becoming friends with my tentmates. And being at that game—potentially the most-watched game in college basketball—in the middle of the infamous Cameron Crazies, was more fun than I had ever imagined a basketball game could be. The entire epic experience is something I am infinitely glad I chose to do, something I could see myself telling my kids about.

I like to imagine there is no better shade of blue, because the challenge is what makes the rivalry fun. It's incredible that I've been able to experience it on both sides— behind enemy lines, indeed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ay Que Fabuloso!

Voy a Buenos Aires este verano! The founder of the start-up I might work with told me in my interview that they want me to blog for them in both English and Spanish. So to practice I'm going to do all my blog posts in Spanish from now on.

... Yeah not happening. I'm struggling enough studying for my Spanish 204 exam this afternoon, for which I have diligently memorized all the conjugations and their exceptions. I can write out all of them on command, but I am entirely unable to use them in conversation. I have 3.5 months to get fluent. Ready set go!

(But actually, vuelvo a mis estudios ahora.)

Stay tuned for a basketball game post soon.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Tent Commandments

More on tenting.

Tenting, I have come to find, is a unique and bizarre subculture here at Duke. It is a self-selected group of students who all have some combination of a zeal for Duke basketball, a tolerance for physical discomfort, a flexible schedule/blocks of free time, and enough of a sense of responsibility that they're on time for their shifts and won't let their group down by missing a tent check. Let me tell you, it's intense.

I'd say the sense of responsibility and commitment to the group is the most important requirement. My boyfriend's tent had two members who failed their entire group because they lacked that responsibility: both of them, on separate occasions, missed a tent check (meaning, they weren't present to represent the group when the line monitors called a check during their shift). The consequence of missing two tent checks is that your entire group loses its place in line. So this particular group (12 people), after weeks of camping out, is now at the bottom of the wait list.

I would argue that the second most important requirement for tenting is tolerance for physical discomfort. The tenting rules (explained in detail on Duke's website at allow grace for weather below 25 degrees Fahrenheit — which, let me remind you, is well below freezing. So K-ville tenters spend an unhealthy amount of time in very cold weather. Additionally, tent checks are usually called periodically throughout the night. The last time I slept out, there was a check every two hours. So I slept (on the cold ground, mind you) for less than five hours, in much-too-brief segments disjointed by that awful siren and the great trial of dragging myself out of my sleeping bag, out of the tent, into my boots, and to the center of camp to report to authority. Whenever I sleep out on weekends I wake up right at 7am, which is when the night shift ends, and return directly to my dorm room for a few hours of quality sleep. I have a theory that this entire thing is a conspiracy to trick Duke students into thinking their dorm beds are the most comfortable beds in the world. It totally works, I can tell you from experience.

The zeal for Duke basketball, I would say, is nonessential. Especially considering I am a enthusiastic and devoted tenter who completely lacks in zeal for Duke basketball. I conclude that basketball zeal can easily be replaced with a zeal for friends, which I have in plenty. I like the sense of community that comes with tenting. The people, not the game, is one of my main motivators for doing this.

And so far it has turned out to be a blast. Last night, for example, I was responsible for the 11pm-1am shift. The seniors in the group had gathered in the tent around 10pm to pregame before going out to a bar, and I expected them to leave about the time I got there. But instead of going out, everyone hung around for a solid three or four hours, and my shift was full of good company and conversation and laughter. Just another moment that makes me love being here.

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Note: The title of this post is inspired by the name of my tent group, The Tent Kommandments.