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A Valentine’s Gone Sour at $1.20 per Hour

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“Prepared I was not for such a business; therefore am I found so much unsettled…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, II, v)  

I’ve traveled the earth and survived for long periods in very remote places few people have ever heard of.  I worked hard over many years to earn multiple university degrees.  I’ve endured my share of bad bosses, bad jobs and bad relationships and learned many life lessons from all of them.

So it makes me very frustrated, after all that worldly learning over all those years, to end up in a situation where I find myself taken advantage of because of my own naivety.

But that’s what happened, and I blame mostly myself.  Two months ago, I had the thought of doing a Valentine’s Day pop-up shop for my floral business.  I don’t have a shop of my own, and just work out of my home for the most part, so I thought I’d hold temporary shop inside another existing business.  I started brainstorming possible locations, and reached out to a coffee shop that I’d visited a few times in the past few years to ask if they’d be interested in hosting my pop-up.  (I won’t name them here in this post but many of you already know who they are.)  They replied yes, they’d be very interested, and we set up an initial meeting for a few days later.

Mistake #1: I waited too late to start all of this.  Valentine’s Day is of course the biggest holiday of the year for florists, which means that we have to place our flower orders with our wholesalers several weeks ahead of time in order to get “pre-book” (lower) prices.  We had the initial planning meeting at the coffee shop on a Thursday, and my floral wholesale order was due the next day.  I therefore felt a lot of pressure to come to an agreement so I could get my order in.  I was so worried about booking a host location that I didn’t listen to my internal voice of concern when the owner proposed they take a 25% cut of the sale price of each floral arrangement in exchange for providing me a corner of space to sell.  I didn’t figure out until after I said “yes” that 25% of the sale price worked out to be almost 60% of the actual profit, once I factored in my costs of making everything.

I placed my wholesale order the next day for over $1,000 in flowers, but couldn’t stop thinking about that profit margin.  It seemed exorbitant to me, so I suggested in an email that we work on making the split more fair to me, since I’d be putting in most of the labor for the pop-up shop to make over 60 arrangements and to prep/de-thorn/wrap 150 single long-stemmed roses (that the shop had ordered).  I proposed sale price points that I thought were extremely reasonable for Valentine’s Day, that would help to sell the arrangements, and that would still leave us both with some reasonable profit.  The coffee shop countered with a payout offer that, based on the sale prices I had suggested, would decrease their share of the profits on the arrangements to 47%, but would still give them 64% of the profits on the single-stemmed roses.  I accepted their offer.

I’ve always considered myself to be relatively book-smart; I did well in school, placed high in my classes, and enjoyed learning.  But I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never had much of what they call “street smarts” – it’s hard for me to tell sometimes when someone’s taking advantage of me, or not giving me the whole story.  I don’t “get the joke” until it’s too late usually.

So I accepted their offer even though I still didn’t feel good about it.  I felt like I had to, I guess – I’d already ordered the flowers, and they had made what appeared to be at least somewhat of a good faith offer in reducing their profit margin to be more fair to me.  They were providing the space, and some marketing, and staff time to ring up sales (they made a specific point of telling me that they would make the sales at their registers, and then the customer would show me a ticket stub they’d been given – not their receipt – in order to pick up their flowers at my table).  But I still felt like I was going to be doing, by far, most of the work, for barely over half the profits.  I began to get upset and dejected, but I also tried to be positive, telling myself that if we sold everything, we’d both still end up with a tidy sum and that it was good exposure for my business – and so I began investing time and flowers into creating sample floral arrangements for their publicity efforts and to take into the coffee shop to display to customers two weeks before the holiday.

My flower studio at full capacity.

My flower studio at full capacity for the pop-up shop.

(Mistake #2 – all of these business arrangements were made via email and not, as I now know I should have done, in a signed contract by both parties with all the terms explicitly spelled out.)

I had agreed to make even more samples to try to sell during a six-hour pre-order time block at the coffee shop one week ahead, on the Saturday before Valentine’s.  I had also printed up some price signs to put on the table so it would be clear to customers how much to pay for the different arrangements (we had two different sizes).  This is when things really took a turn for the worse:  I had set up my table upon arriving that morning and had just put out the price signs, when the manager came over and seemed very surprised I had made my own signs, saying “Oh, that’s wrong – those aren’t the correct prices,” and took the sign out of the plastic holder.

I was confused and surprised – “What do you mean? Those are the prices we agreed to in our email,” I said.  She then told me that they had decided to raise the prices of the arrangements – of my product – in order to give themselves a “more even share of the profits.”  They had decided – without consulting, asking, or telling me – to raise the prices of the arrangements by 33% and 20% each, essentially giving them a much higher percentage of the profit margin than me.  She said she would re-print the signs with the correct prices, and disappeared into the back workroom, leaving me standing there in shock.  What had just happened?

I quickly did some math, figured out they were going to be taking well over 60% of the overall profits on everything, and my head pretty much exploded.  I stepped outside the shop and made some very heated phone calls to some family members to vent my frustration; the manager came back after quite a lengthy absence, and I noticed she had just slightly reduced the prices of the arrangements from what she had told me earlier (perhaps she had seen me through the window in head-explosion mode on my calls outside), but they were still higher than our originally agreed-upon prices (and still gave them over half the profits). Furthermore, I suspect they intended their price increase and higher profits to remain undiscovered by me – perhaps that was the reason for the ticket system (rather than me seeing customer receipts), and they hadn’t counted on me bringing my own price signs.

I was angry at what they’d done, but I was also suddenly very worried that this price increase would mean unsold stock for me; their new increased price points were not customer-friendly in my opinion for the arrangements we were offering.  I was now stressed that this pop-up shop would not only not be profitable, but that it would end up costing me money, perhaps a considerable amount.  I made no secret of the fact that I was very upset at this unexpected turn of events.  Someone that day told me “now Kristi, don’t have a bad attitude about this.”  That just made me even more angry – don’t have a bad attitude about someone raising the price of my product without consulting me, disrespecting me and my business, and putting my earning potential into possible jeopardy?  They were already going to make a huge percentage of the profits, but that wasn’t enough for them, they had to have more and potentially cost us both business?  I didn’t want to overreact, but yes, I felt I was allowed to have at least a little bit of a bad attitude about this.

That day, a week before Valentine’s, I took 20 arrangements to the shop and only five sold (that was Mistake #3 on my part, they had asked me to bring “several samples” and I ordered too many flowers, so ended up making 20…which no one wanted to buy a week ahead of Valentine’s & it cost me).  Only two people placed a pre-order for the following week, which also really concerned me.  The manager later agreed that perhaps we should have seen if they would sell at the lower original prices, especially since it wasn’t Valentine’s yet, but she never did lower the prices.

So what happened next?  I’d already agreed to exclusivity and that I wouldn’t have any other pop-ups for Valentine’s in any other competing establishments (so no coffee shops or restaurants), so I felt I couldn’t start approaching other venues to sell there instead.  And despite their (in my eyes) very dishonorable actions, I felt like I had to do the honorable thing on my part and follow-through with doing the shop on Fri 2/13 and Sat 2/14 as we’d agreed.  I spent 83 hours in total labor on doing all the arrangements and flower work, and my mom graciously also put in many hours to help me.  I made 63 arrangements in total, and we spent hours prepping all those single long-stemmed roses.

Roses getting ready for their big day.

Roses getting ready for their big day.

(Mistake #4: I ordered pre-book lots with the wholesaler, which means that for a reduced price, you get the types of flowers you want but you don’t get to pick your colors.  You do get to specify a “wish list” and I stated all Valentine’s colors, but that’s not what I got – the wholesaler sent me a lot of yellows and oranges and whites, more so than reds, pinks and purples…very spring-like but not very Valentine’s-y.  Mistake #5:  I should have used at least half of those long-stemmed roses to make all-rose arrangements instead of mixed-flower arrangements [which did include roses but also four other types of flowers]; people want roses on Valentine’s, and I messed up by not having all roses all the time, but I was trying to keep prices low.  Mistake #6: It’s WAY too hot inside a coffee shop for flowers, they immediately lost days of vase life in just a few hours.)

What I should have made for every arrangement (that I made for a family member's order).

What I should have made for every arrangement (that I made for a family member’s order).

Thank goodness I was rescued by family, friends, and coworkers who ordered and bought arrangements in advance of the coffee shop sales.  I took 41 arrangements (and all the single roses) to the coffee shop on Valentine’s Day.  Only 19 of them sold, so I left with 22 unsold arrangements.  And I think they probably only sold about 20 long-stemmed roses the entire weekend from behind the register.  About halfway through my 8-hour stint at the coffee shop, I discussed with the manager reducing the prices on the arrangements to try to sell more; she said she’d consider it but then disappeared and never came back (and never reduced the prices).

I think there were many factors for why so many of the arrangements went unsold: the price points, the rose and color factors, the weather and very low customer turnout (75 degrees in February probably lured people to go outside instead of hole up in a coffee shop), and lack of signage and marketing.  (My brother and nephew even showed up with a sign to hold out on the sidewalk to tell people Valentine’s flowers were for sale there, I really appreciated that; I also was very touched by all the friends and family that stopped by the shop to show their support.)  I didn’t lose money on the whole thing as I’d feared, but for the entire venture, I only made about $100 profit – which comes out to a whopping $1.20 per hour for my 83 hours of labor.  Which is so sad it’s actually funny.

Thinking back on the whole experience, I’m mostly angry with myself; right after I’d found out the coffee shop increased the prices, a friend of mine and I were talking about it and she told me “Just stand up for yourself!”  I guess I don’t feel like I did that, and I’m not sure why, but it makes me feel ashamed; I felt intimidated for some reason, and scared by the financial risk factor.  I was disappointed that something I really should have been able to enjoy and look forward to, instead turned out to be something I dreaded and didn’t enjoy at all.  I began to doubt my abilities.  I was cranky and pretty much intolerable that entire week, which I’m also not proud of.  And I was unsettled by how much greed comes into play for some people when it comes to business.  This was my first time doing a shop like this, and I certainly learned many – MANY – lessons for the future if I do one again. 

So…it wasn’t the greatest Valentine’s Day, but I’m sure other people had days worse than mine, so I try to keep that in perspective.  (And at least there were no overwrapped bricks of cheese this year, read that story here.)  I was pretty discouraged after I came home that day; I didn’t think I even wanted to look at another flower for a while after that.  And yet the next morning, the first thing I thought of when I woke up was the bucket of leftover withering flowers sitting in my workroom, and I felt bad that I’d neglected them.  Out came the clippers and I found myself working those stragglers into vases and their own arrangements before I’d even had breakfast.  

I have a lot of thinking to do now about future directions and next steps.  Stay tuned.

 À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Four Mistakes and A Blue Chair

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“I cannot give thee less, to be call’d grateful: Thou thought’st to help me; and such thanks I give as one near death to those that wish him live…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, II, i)

The holiday of Thanksgiving holds some pretty significant memories and anniversaries for me.  Of course the day itself conjures up remembrances of huge family get-togethers in drafty west Texas garages when I was little, and then later, taste memories of my favorite foods that my Mom would cook each year as we grew up (her dressing could seriously win awards).  But it’s actually the day before Thanksgiving as well as the day after it that now both occupy the forefront of my mind when I think of this particular holiday.

Last year at this time I wrote a post about the rainy day I moved to Austin, which was the day before Thanksgiving, five years ago now.  (Read that post here if you missed it.)  It’s hard to believe I’ve been here five whole years now already.  The past year has actually been pretty steady and consistent, which has been a welcome change after the many tumultuous years prior to that.  I’m thankful to have a job that I like, and a business that I’m enjoying building piece by piece, a nice little roof over my head, and of course a family that is both near and dear.  I’ll always remember the day before Thanksgiving as the day I moved to where my family was waiting for me.

The day after Thanksgiving holds a different kind of memory for me, and in fact, part of it holds no memory at all.  It happened in a city with a crazy name – Ouagadougou, when I was about three-quarters of the way through my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African country of Burkina Faso from 1999-2001.  Most of us had traveled from our villages into Ouaga (the capital) at the invitation of the US Ambassador, who hosted an incredible Thanksgiving feast for us at his residence.  Our eyes popped out of our heads at the multiple tables heaving with actual American Thanksgiving food, and, after months of having eaten only tiresome rice and millet porridge, we gorged ourselves silly until we were literally sick (or at least I did).

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

The next morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I woke up and made plans for the day – first on my list was to head to the main post office in the middle of the city so that I could 1) pick up my monthly living allowance stipend and 2) mail my brother an African poster I’d gotten for him at a recent local art festival.  I felt good, the weather was great, and I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend at the American Embassy rec center.  I had no idea as my taxi dropped me off at the post office that I was about to experience one of the worst and most traumatic days of my life.

I waited patiently in the crowded customer area of the post office until it was finally my turn to withdraw my money from my account there, and then stuffed the poster into a cardboard tube and covered it with stamps to mail it.  I put most of my money into a small pouch that I wore hidden under my shirt.  Then I put just a few CFA (Burkina money), enough for a taxi, into a larger purse-type bag that I wore slung around one shoulder.  This bag was worn on the outside and was visible – Mistake #1.

I exited the post office onto a very busy roundabout traffic circle and waited several minutes for a taxi to stop at my signal, but none would.  I was trying to get to the Embassy, which was about a mile away from the post office.  It was 12:00 noon at this time & I was looking forward to a milkshake and maybe some pizza from the Rec Center cafe.  After several more minutes I got impatient of waiting for a taxi and decided to just walk to the Embassy – Mistake #2.  And, I was alone – Mistake #3.

The walk to the Embassy was almost a straight shot – mostly down a long, very busy boulevard, then turn left onto a side street, cross a bridge over a large and deep ravine, then take a right for about a block, and then another left, at which point you’d be there.  I’d walked it before with other Volunteers, so it was a familiar route.  It was broad daylight.  I’d been in the country for about a year and a half by this time, so I felt confident and reassured of doing things on my own.  I was an independent woman.

And then I wasn’t.

I’d just taken that first left turn and noticed several vendor stalls set back from the street on my left, merchants selling their wares.  I saw the bridge just ahead of me, with silver railings on each side and a narrow dirt walkway bordering the pavement.  It happened extremely fast.  I heard him before I saw him – running footsteps on the gravely dirt behind me and his rapid breathing, and then confusion and shock as he grabbed my bag that was slung around my shoulder and across my chest.  He jerked downwards, thinking it would just come off, but it didn’t – it had a thick strap, and I instinctively grabbed onto the bag and fought for it – Mistake #4.

He was Burkinabe, but other than that I don’t know what he looked like.  I do remember screaming – in English, not French, I guess I was too panicked – at the top of my lungs toward the nearby vendor stalls “help me help me help me help me!”  And then, everything just went black.  The next several minutes have been – I hope permanently – wiped from my memory.

I woke up at the bottom of the deep ravine under the bridge.  It was a sewage ditch with running water and raw waste that ran through the city, and I estimate that it was about a 16-foot fall.  I was lying on my back and face up in mud and water and waste and weeds, and the first thing I saw was my attacker’s face as he stood over me.  I would be told later from bystander witnesses that once the thief saw I wouldn’t give up my bag, he pushed me over the side of the ditch that was just before the protective railing, and then he ran to the opposite bank and sidestepped his way down to the bottom of the ravine where I was.  As I lay there stunned, he pulled my bag over my head, or maybe he cut it off, I don’t really remember, but I do remember turning my head to watch him then run with it down a huge round metal tunnel.  I remember several other men were yelling at him and had also jumped down into the ditch and ran after him to try to catch him.  They wouldn’t.

I tried to sit up, and fire ripped through my shoulder.  I remember being very worried for some reason about trying to find my flip-flops, which had fallen off.  I looked up toward the sky, I heard yelling – the vendors had rushed over to the side and were yelling at me to hurry up and climb up the dirt bank.  Their arms were outreached toward me, waving encouragement.  I was able to stand up, but when I tried to lift my left arm to reach toward them, I almost fainted from the pain and stumbled backwards.  I used my right arm and hand to grab handfuls of dirt to climb up the side of the ditch.  I finally was able to grab the hand of a man who pulled me the rest of the way up.  I yelled at him to not touch my other arm.

I asked my helpers to get a taxi to take me to the Embassy.  They frantically flagged one down and told the driver what had happened – he stared at me through the window, and what a sight I must have been.  He drove me the two minutes around the corner and I apologized profusely that I couldn’t pay him…”my money was just stolen, I’m so sorry”…I’d forgotten I had my other bag under my clothing.  He waved me out of the taxi and I stumbled up to the armed guard at the gate – I told him simply “I’ve been attacked, I’ve been attacked, please help me.”  It couldn’t have been later than 12:30 PM by this time – and everyone in the Peace Corps office was out to lunch.

The guard half-carried me inside and the only other person there was a cleaning lady, she was pushing a yellow mop bucket around.  He barked something at her and she ran to meet me with a rolling desk chair.  They eased me down into the chair and while they started making frantic phone calls to try to get the medical team back to the office, I sat there on that blue chair, waiting, shivering from shock, crying.  I remember that I slowly realized I was having trouble breathing – I was taking deep gasping breaths in, but feeling like I was suffocating.  I croaked to the mop bucket lady that I couldn’t breathe, please help me.  Hang on, hang on, she said, they’re on their way, just hang on a little longer.  She asked me if I wanted something to drink; I shook my head no.

The Peace Corps medical officer (MO) would tell me later that when she got word at the restaurant what had happened, that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been attacked and was seriously injured, she literally leapt up from the table and drove back to the Embassy faster than she’d ever driven in the city before.  I was still sitting in that blue chair when she and her assistant burst through the door and into action, asking me questions and taking my vitals and making more urgent phone calls.

I told her I couldn’t breathe, but the pulse oximeter they had on me showed I was getting adequate oxygen.  Eventually she told me she needed me to get up from the chair and into the exam room.  I tried, but I couldn’t get up – I cried out in pain as every muscle and ligament in my back felt like they had been ripped apart (they had).  I couldn’t stand up; she lifted me out of the chair, apologizing for the pain it was causing me, and they shuffled me to the exam room and up onto a table/bed.  It was only at this point that I noticed I was trailing blood from a mangled big toe. It didn’t even hurt, which I thought was weird.  (Adrenaline is an amazing thing.)

The MO told me an ambulance was on the way so they could take me to the hospital for x-rays; while we waited, she started cleaning up my toe and other skin abrasions that I didn’t even know I had.  She took the hair clip out of my hair and brushed it, smoothing it down…a very kind gesture that I only appreciated much later.  (She would tell me later that before she did that, I looked like one of those pencil troll dolls whose hair sticks straight up.)  I remember Ambassador Kolker came to see me while I was in that room waiting, he’d been informed of what happened and he rushed over to see if I was ok – and to tell me they’d do whatever they could to catch and prosecute my attacker.  I think I cried on his suit jacket when he gave me a hug.

Getting into that ambulance was probably the most physically painful experience of my life – every step was excruciating, and then having to climb up into the back of it and into a chair seat…I was sobbing out in pain and I didn’t even care who saw me or heard me.  A few minutes later we arrived at the back door of the x-ray facility, and then more pain as I was manipulated into unending different x-ray positions.  We were pretty sure at that point that my collar-bone was broken, and I know the MO was also worried about my back and my ankle (I had a pretty bad limp by this point).

The damage tally once it was all determined:  a shattered left clavicle (collar-bone), two broken ribs, a fractured ankle bone, a chipped tooth, the previously-mentioned mangled toe, and severe muscle and ligament damage in my back (which is what had been causing the labored breathing).  The ambulance brought me back to the Embassy, and a few hours later I was then transported to a private French medical clinic for three days of initial treatment.  The MO needed to consult with Peace Corps medical headquarters in Washington, show them the x-rays, etc…and they eventually decided to fly me back to Washington DC for surgery on my shoulder.

But I was to remain in Burkina for five days before my flight out.  Those three days in the clinic are a haze; I remember several Volunteers coming to visit me…one of them, Cristina (a certified RN and an angel), even helped me to use a bedpan on that first day because I couldn’t get out of the bed due to my back injuries – talk about going above and beyond.  I was so grateful for her help and her professionalism.  I remember the French nurses being mean and unfeeling the next day, telling me that if I wanted to go to the bathroom, I needed to get myself up and down to the bathroom without their help; I cried as I slowly inched my way out of the bed and wheeled my IV stand down the hall.  My Burkinabe colleagues came all the way from the village to visit me on my third day there, after I’d made an emotional phone call to them the day before to tell them what had happened.  They held back tears and clasped my hands, these people who had adopted me into their families and village, as we said goodbye – we all knew it might be the last time we ever saw each other if I wasn’t able to recuperate fully enough to come back and finish the last seven months of my service.

On the third day, I was discharged to spend my last night at the Peace Corps house and pack my things for my medical evacuation back to America.  On the ride from the clinic, the MO agreed to stop the van at the site of the incident – I gingerly climbed out of the van and walked over to where I’d gone over the edge.  The police had put up orange barrier tape after the incident report had been filed.  The van driver held my arm as I peered over the tape down into the ditch below; it took my breath away how far down it was.  The MO gazed down as well and then turned to me with a shocked look – she was thinking the same thing as me: I was lucky to be alive and not more seriously injured.  It was the closest thing to a miracle that I personally have ever been a part of.  The vendors from the street side stalls slowly approached us as we stood there – they recognized me and offered their well wishes.  One of them apologized, saying he wished he could’ve done more.  Another said that if the thief was seen again and caught, he’d likely be killed by those chasing him down. 

(They never did catch him, but they did find my bag later that day, emptied of its contents and discarded outside one of the well-known expensive French ex-pat hotels; he’d left my Peace Corps ID as the only remaining item inside.)

I was so grateful that Peace Corps approved and paid for Cristina to accompany me back on the flight, since I couldn’t carry my own bags and was still pretty doped up on pain meds.  The day before I left, I finally called my family from the MO office to let them know that I’d been hurt and was heading back to the States for treatment.  It’s a bit mind-boggling to me now that I waited that long to call them, and when I did, I didn’t tell them what had really happened; instead, I told them I’d been injured in a bike accident.  It’s a long story, but I legitimately feared that if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t let me (a grown 30-year-old woman) go back, and I wanted to go back if at all possible.  I told them the truth years later of what really happened as part of my ongoing therapy to deal with the PTSD issues.

Cristina and I started the long trek home, flying through Paris (in business class no less, so I would have more room for my injured shoulder) and arriving in a freezing cold and snowy DC on the evening of November 29th.  I remember the customs officer who searched our bags laughing at us in our tank tops and flip-flops, no coats, completely unprepared for the subfreezing weather – he correctly guessed we were Peace Corps Volunteers. We were then shuttled to the Peace Corps hotel where all the medical evacs stay – a surreal place of walking wounded, both physical and psychological.  We were thrilled to raid the Peace Corps headquarters travel closet to borrow appropriate winter gear the next day.

The next morning I made my way to the orthopedic surgeon’s office (who by the way was Wayne Gretsky’s surgeon also, he had several signed jerseys on his walls) for an evaluation; he took more x-rays and immediately bumped me to first on the surgery schedule for the following morning at George Washington hospital.  Up until then, my shoulder had just been taped to try to stabilize the bones and injury, but as you can imagine it was very uncomfortable.  On the morning of December 1 – one week after it happened – he opened up my shoulder and put back together the multiple pieces of my clavicle, wrapping them all up neatly with a stainless steel bow that I carry in there to this day (along with its 6-inch scar).  I spent one night in the hospital and was discharged the next day back to Hotel Sickie.  I had a bad reaction to the pain meds and that’s when I broke down and called my Dad to come help me – which he did, arriving that night in heroic Dad fashion to help nurse me back to health.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

When you’re medically evacuated in Peace Corps, you’re usually allowed a total of five weeks for treatment and recuperation.  If you’re not healed by that time and cleared for service, you don’t go back to country and your service is terminated.  I was determined not to let that happen; I wanted to get back to Burkina.  I did all of my exercises and followed doctor’s instructions exactly (and got plenty of physical activity exploring snowy Washington every day for several weeks), and on the very last day of those five weeks, I met my doctor in his office and stared him in the eyes to tell him in no uncertain terms that I was ready.  He stared back at me for a long time, finally looking down to sign the clearance forms on his desk.  A few days later I was back on a plane to Africa; my arm was in a sling and my startle reflex was on high alert, but I was back.  I finished my service, and it made me a stronger person to face what had happened and try to overcome it.

So…that’s my day-after-Thanksgiving story.  I’ve second-guessed myself hundreds of times around the whole thing: if only I’d stayed in my village and not traveled into Ouaga for the holiday; if only I’d been more patient to wait for a taxi at the post office; if only I’d been smarter and not worn my bag where it was visible; if only I’d not been by myself.  I know what happened wasn’t my fault, but I am also not blameless.  I also know how lucky I am that I did not die that day – I could have landed on my neck, or broken my back, or hit my head.  I don’t remember anything at all of the fall itself, and when I explored this issue during subsequent therapy, I was told I probably never will; certain brain chemistry happens during such a trauma in order to help the body physically survive, but in the process wipes out memory aspects.  And that’s ok by me.  And despite what happened, I also don’t regret my decision to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer – the good memories outweigh the bad, and in my book, that’s a success.

Just typing the account of this story, I was shaking all over again.  It’s the first time I’ve ever put it all down on paper.  I hardly ever think about that day now, 14 years later – except around this time of the year.  I may not remember the fall, but the vivid clarity with which I can remember everything else that followed that day is astounding to me.  I think that blue rolling office chair sticks in my mind more than anything else – for a time, I really believed I was going to die in that chair.  I was fixated on hanging onto the sides of it, as if I were literally hanging on for dear life.  As I waited there, alone, gasping for breath for what seemed like forever, I focused on the color of the chair, the threads in the cushion, the height of it that left my toes grazing the floor.  That chair is a part of me forever now.  I’m grateful for it, as I’m so very grateful for everyone that day that helped me in all those different ways – the man who pulled me out of the ditch, the taxi driver who got me to the Embassy, the guard that helped me inside, the medical team that took care of me, the friends and family who helped me through the aftermath.  And the mop bucket lady who gave me a chair to sit in. 

I have a lot to be thankful for every Thanksgiving when I think of them.  Thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but I do, I thank you.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

“Alone or Not, You Gotta Walk Ahead”

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 “…the time of life is short…” ~William Shakespeare (I Henry IV, V, ii)

“The thing to remember is, if we’re all alone, then we’re all together in that too.”  Any fellow romantic comedy fans out there recognize this (and the title phrase) from one of the classics?  Yes, it’s from 2007’s “P.S. I Love You,” which I just finished watching for about the twelfth time.  I don’t even like Hilary Swank all that much but I do like this film, mostly because of all the Ireland scenes; Kathy Bates was great in it too.  (And of course Jeffrey Dean Morgan, holy hotcakes.)

I’m headed back to Ireland’s neighbor next week for another solo UK trip.  For my trip in 2012 just prior to the London Olympics, I had basically decided on a whim to go when I found a really good airfare deal about six weeks prior (yes that’s a whim amount of time for me).  And then I quickly planned every detail literally down to the minute for the 9 days I was there.  It was a great vacation but exhausting, as I tried to pack in every single sightseeing occasion as if I’d never return.

But I am returning, and for this trip, I decided about a year ago that I would head back with the impetus of wanting to see the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in England’s Yorkshire region.  The kickoff will take place over the first three days of the Tour before the teams head back across the Channel to mainland France to continue the race.  I was also lucky enough to be able to use my frequent flier miles to get a “free” airline ticket this time (not really free because I still had to spend lots of money to get all those credit card miles and still had to pay the hefty taxes & fees for the ticket, but it still feels almost free).

I had hoped to be a Tour volunteer as part of the organization in charge of the kickoff, and was actually accepted through the application process, but had to drop out due to not being able to be there in time for the required in-person training sessions.  I’ll still be in Leeds and York to cheer the riders on as each of those first two stages set out, and might be able to also get to Harrogate to see the finish of Stage 1 on the first day.

In addition to the Tour in Yorkshire, I’ll be making a tour of my own to several other parts of the sceptered isle.  I’ll start off in Windsor to walk off my jet lag by visiting the Queen’s weekend home at the castle for a day, and then head to Surrey county south of London to meet up with a distant family relation and explore the area from where my ancestors hail (near Godalming).  Then I’m off to Bath for a few days in Jane Austen country before heading up north to see the Tour.

After Yorkshire, I’ll head back south, stopping over in Nottingham for a day before continuing back to the boats (see blog header picture above) and onto familiar territory in Stratford-upon-Avon to get my fill of all things Shakespeare again.  I hope to explore the Cotswalds a bit and do some real relaxing before heading into London for the final few days of the trip.  I’m really looking forward to visiting the famous New Covent Garden flower market in London this time, as well as a day of catching up with an old college friend who lives just outside the city.

It may sound all planned out, but really it’s just the itinerary of where and when, and I do of course have my accommodations all reserved.  But beyond that, I’m leaving things a little more up in the air this time in terms of how I’ll spend my time in each place.  If I’m being honest, I’m also a little more apprehensive this trip about traveling solo, and I’m not entirely sure why.

I’ve been trying to figure it out, and it just seems that as I get older, there are more things to worry about in terms of health and safety and the unknown.  Issues which appear magnified when I travel alone.  I know I’m strong and independent and resourceful, and capable of handling problems if they do come up, but I guess it’s just the worrier in me that’s got me feeling a little anxious.  I should be used to being alone and walking ahead on my own by now, but sometimes it’s just a little disconcerting and leaves me feeling vulnerable.

On the other hand, I know I should feel lucky and grateful to be taking such a trip, and I do.  A family member of mine lost a close friend this past week at a very young age and to tragic circumstances; it was a heart-wrenching loss for those left behind who cared about him.  It’s got all of us thinking about the fragility of life and how none of it makes sense sometimes.

At the end of “P.S. I Love You,” the main character Holly says “This is my one and only life, and it’s a great and terrible and short and endless thing, and none of us come out of it alive.”  Great and terrible, short and endless.  I guess that’s why I continue to go on these big solo trips, as I have now every two years since 2010.  As daunting as it can be to spend a lot of money and go out there in the world to explore unfamiliar places on your own, it’s empowering at the same time.  It’s a reminder that I’m alive and able to experience new things during this short and endless thing we call life.  I’m not sure how long I can continue this tradition I’ve started, but will at least give it one more whirl this time around.

©operationUNunhappy

©operationUNunhappy

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Growing Your Wings After You Jump

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“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie…” ~ William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, I, i)

Welcome to a rare Friday post of operationUNunhappy.  I usually only publish on Mondays, but I wanted to recognize this specific day with a few thoughts.  It’s a special anniversary:  one year ago today was my last day at my misery-filled, soul-sucking, toxicity-laden city government job.  And it was a glorious day indeed! 

I had made the decision to finally cut myself loose from a bizarro world of constant negativity, mind-numbing repetitive tasks, and maddening bureaucratic nonsensical red tape.  Why did I wait so long??  It was one of the best days – and decisions – of my life.

(If you’re a fairly new reader of this blog and want to read more about how I quit that job, click here.)

I didn’t have another job lined up when I quit.  I was giving up an extremely comfortable income, high-level health & dental benefits, and a nice little retirement nest egg.  I own a home, and have bills to pay like anyone else.  I have aspirations and dreams, many of which require a significant source of funding. 

And yet I had no doubt I was doing the right thing by walking away. 

You know that little voice deep inside of your gut that tells you what to do, but much of the time you don’t listen?  Well I listened that day, and I got out.  For my own sanity, for my mental and physical health, for my future – I jumped off the edge of the known into the unknown.

“Sometimes you just have to jump and grow your wings on the way down.” ~ Les Brown

I love that quote by motivational speaker Les Brown (the husband of Gladys Knight).  Some might interpret it as a message of impending doom: that if you jump without wings – without having a plan – your only directional option is down (and then the unavoidable *splat*). 

I think it’s the opposite: if you have the courage and confidence to leave the negative behind, as scary as the unknown future is, your reward can be a pair of anti-splat wings to help you get to where you are really supposed to be.

There was another day, in what seems like another lifetime, that I listened to the urgent voice inside me, so I recognized it this time when it showed up again.  Completely different situations, the two, but similar in the debilitating effect they had on me – and that I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. 

The day before the one-year anniversary of my first marriage, my husband (and I use that term very lightly) yelled curses at me and called me names on his way out the door to work, telling me to not wait up and that he had no idea when he would be home, if ever.  This was not a new trend.  He’d only recently come back to our apartment after a 3-week booze-filled “break.”  And he’d already put a hole in the wall with his fist during an earlier fight we’d had, showing his true colors.

As he slammed the door behind him that morning, I stared at it through tears of anger, hands clenched into tightly-balled fists.  I shook with rage, and slid down against the wall onto the floor.  Then something happened that I’ll never forget: a voice inside me – soft but clear, faint but insistent – said “GET OUT. NOW.” 

And so I did.  I jumped that day.  I grew wings, and they took me and everything I owned out of that apartment in a matter of hours.  I was on a mission, getting on the phone to friends and family, and they came through for me with flying colors.   With all my stuff packed and in storage, family having flown into town on a moment’s notice to protect me, and a safe place to stay, he came home to an empty apartment.  And I started over.

It’s possible.  Excruciating sometimes, yes, but possible.  Screw that courage to the sticking-place already; chances are, you won’t regret it.  I don’t.  (Now go back and read the quote at the very top of this article, including the name of the play.)

In the past year, I’ve had many ups and downs but the positives have far outweighed the negatives.  I started my own business – it’s been a little slow-going so far and there’s still so much I don’t know, but it’s mine (www.MuchAdoAboutFlowers.com).  I found a part-time job that I truly enjoy with kind and competent managers and people who are nice to work with – with no benefits and only earning 30% of what I did before.  I’ve had more time to spend with family and on de-perfectionizing myself.  None of which would have been possible if I’d stayed in that dead-end job.

I started this blog just two weeks after that last day on the job a year ago, so on the approach of my blogiversary, I’d like to say thanks for sticking with me through 45 posts so far!  Thanks for reading and the positive comments and the support.  My wings are stronger because of all of you.

Wings

©operationUNunhappy

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Memories Light the Corners of My Mud Brick Hut

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“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry V, IV, iii)

Bowel habits, big bugs, and blistering heat…tales of long bus trips and cracked, dirty feet.  These are just a few of the favorite things that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers love to talk about.  Spend any real time around one and eventually the conversation will take a turn down a foreign road beginning with “This one time when I was in Peace Corps…”  Get a bunch of returned volunteers together in one room and the most commonly-heard story starter is “In my country…” (talking of the country where we served).

In order to save our friends and family members from that perpetual glassy-eyed haze that comes from listening to yet one more excerpt of Peace Corps nostalgia, we have our own memory outlet in the form of a weekly Twitter online chat group, called #RPCVchat.  It’s a one-hour discussion that’s been hosted by the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) in Washington DC since June 2011, and it’s open to all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and currently-serving PCVs around the world.  For a short time most Fridays, we tune in from states and countries near and far to remember, honor, laugh, commiserate, brainstorm, theorize and advocate.  A big thank you to NPCA for tirelessly hosting this weekly chat session for almost 3 years now already!

I’ve been participating in the chats on a pretty regular basis for over two years now, and I really look forward to these sessions each time they’re held.  Even though the actual “chat” is not verbal at all, but rather silent on my part as I read and respond from my computer or phone, I still feel part of a welcoming community of like-minded people, and that’s comforting.  Recently some of the topics of our more popular chats have been:

  • Peace Corps & Technology (so much to discuss it had to be a two-parter!)
  • Valentine’s Day Edition: Love & Romance in the Peace Corps
  • The Peace Corps Commemorative Act (three words: bronzed flip-flops)
  • Gift-Giving & Holiday Traditions during Peace Corps
  • Leadership & the Peace Corps
  • Day of the Girl & Gender Roles in the Peace Corps
  • Favorite Foods while in the Peace Corps
  • Toilets & Bathrooms in Peace Corps (brought about by “poopular” demand in honor of World Toilet Day back in November)

The most recent #RPCVchat focused on the issue of happiness during our service (as it did fall on International Day of Happiness).  (There truly is a “day” for every little thing now on the calendar, but why only one lonely day for happiness I wonder?  Shouldn’t it warrant a month, or a quarter at least?)  This being a blog dedicated to the idea and pursuit of being UNunhappy, I felt it warranted not only a mention but a brief expounding as well.

Our moderator started things off by asking “what was your happiest day in the Peace Corps, and what made it so happy?”  This is actually a pretty difficult question and made me really think.  I get this inquiry quite a lot actually although sometimes it comes in the form of “what was the best part of your whole Peace Corps service?”  (I get the opposite question just as much, asking me what the worst part was…which is even more difficult to answer diplomatically!)

Just like life here in America, life during Peace Corps in a foreign country has its ups and downs and my experience was no different.  I did have plenty of not-so-great days, whether it was because of personal or personnel issues where I lived and worked, or consistent gastrointestinal woes brought about by my puny resistance to street food pathogens.  I can’t ever forget the serious injuries I sustained during a security incident and the resulting long recovery road (both physical and mental).  But things were far from all bad; once I started thinking about all the good days during my service, the days that I remember as being truly happy and satisfying, it was easy to come up with many examples:

  • International Women’s Day during my second year, when we held the first-ever all-girls soccer match in front of the entire village, chief elders included.  It wasn’t even related to my primary job assignment, but this secondary project of pulling together girls’ soccer teams and helping to organize the match is one of my proudest accomplishments of my service.
  • The day I figured out I could use my rudimentary Dutch oven to bake an actual chocolate cake – which I then shared with neighbors who had never tasted such a thing, which made it all the sweeter.  This was only possible when I could find eggs, which for some reason was next to impossible where I lived.  Also related: when I could obtain fresh baguette bread, which wasn’t very often in my village, I would toast it in my Dutch oven and slather it with local fresh peanut butter for the perfect breakfast.  This would set my happiness quotient at a very high bar for the rest of the day.
  • Any day during mango season – I fondly remember many, many days when I would eat nothing but mangoes and freshly-roasted peanuts for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even dinner.  The mangoes and peanuts were that good, that I never got tired of them.
  • About halfway through my service, our tiny two-room health clinic obtained a generator-powered refrigerator to be able to keep vaccines in cold storage.  But my clinic colleagues and I also would take the liberty from time to time of using any extra room and shelf space to store liquid libations that were MUCH better cold: for me, that usually meant either Kool-Aid or Gatorade…for my colleagues, it meant bottles of beer, Coke and Fanta.  Days with ice-cold Kool-Aid = extreme happiness for a Peace Corps Volunteer used to drinking only warm and hot water for months on end in a village with no electricity and equator-sizzling temps.
  • Days I received mail, and especially care packages, were always very happy ones for me.  The care packages usually contained chocolatey Clif Bars and other treats, which I hoarded and rationed out over weeks to make the happiness last as long as possible.  The words on the paper bringing news from home of family, friends, and my dog were just as treasured.
  • I remember being very happy to be included in the tea-making ritual that would take place amongst friends and coworkers in my village almost every afternoon.  It’s an elaborate, social activity culminating in teeny tiny portions of brewed tea in small shot glasses that pack a powerful caffeine punch despite their size.  The tea was good (especially with those roasted peanuts), but it was the social aspect of the discussion and friendship that was the happiest part of it for me.  A fellow Burkina PCV wrote an excellent blog post in 2013 about making tea in Burkina, which you can read here.
  • Straying from the food & drink theme (which if you haven’t figured out by now are forefront interests for all PCVs!), I also remember being extremely happy on the day I rode my bike to a neighboring village to pick out and adopt the (almost) cutest tiny little African puppy you’ve ever seen (second only to a little Foxy red poodle I once knew).  I strapped him into a cardboard box onto the back of my bike and all the way back along the red dirt road to my mud-brick hut, he kept poking his little head out to see what was going on.  Little Mulder quickly became Very Big Mulder as he was the best-fed dog in the village, and a very important part of my Peace Corps life.
  • Lying in my hammock in my courtyard during the cool rainy season while listening to BBC on my shortwave radio – those simplistic little experiences make for long-lasting happy memories.
hammock time

Hammock Time

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Puppy Mulder

I’ve been looking through some of my letters I wrote to family & friends during Peace Corps, and thought I’d note here a few other examples of times I mentioned being or feeling happy:

  • “Health is good today except for alligator-dry skin; but the tradeoff is no acne so I’m pretty darn happy about that.”
  • “I feel part of something bigger & better than I have in a long time; I’m sure a lot of it is the elation of the day and the facts that I went swimming after the ceremony and found actual sour cream & onion potato chips to eat (!) – but nevertheless I feel sound at heart tonight and proud of myself.”  (Written on the day we were sworn in as PCVs at the Embassy after 3 months of training.)
  • “Today someone complimented me on my French…so that made me feel pretty good. I love the reactions I’m getting from the local women when I say hello to them in Djoula [their local native language] – they go from frowns to all grins and giggles. They say to each other ‘She understands Djoula!’ Which I don’t very well, but what they don’t know…”

I don’t want to sugar-coat my time in Burkina Faso: life there, in one of the world’s poorest countries, is hard.  Very hard.  (I loved and laughed at a fellow RPCV’s tweet the other day that said “Every time someone asks me what the Peace Corps was really like I think, ‘You can’t handle the truth!‘”)  Quite honestly, one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of as a Peace Corps Volunteer having served there is simply that I survived and actually finished my two-year term.  Some members of my family didn’t think I would stay or finish because of the rough conditions…and there were times I almost didn’t.  But I’m glad and proud that I stuck it out, finished my projects, and hopefully made a positive impact in some way.  And I like remembering the positive and happy times like the ones mentioned above.  It doesn’t negate or erase the challenging times, but it feels good to think of what was good about my time there.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers share an unspoken bond, knowing that we’ve challenged ourselves to extreme limits by going to the far corners of the world in hopes of helping others, promoting world peace and friendship, and discovering more about our own selves in the process.  Through forums like #RPCVchat and involvement in our local returned volunteers associations where we live, we are free to tell as many latrine, bus and village stories as we want without fear of judgement or drowsiness.  It’s a nice group to be a part of.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Forays and Flowers in Fourteen

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“How joyful I am made by this contract!” ~William Shakespeare (Henry VI Part 1, III, i)

I hope this post finds each of you at least a little recovered from the whirlwind holiday season, with all of its chocolatey temptations, superfun family time, and shocking credit card statements.  Back to reality we go now in the new year – a depressing letdown for some, but a chance at new starts and a fresh slate – a blank contract – for others. I don’t make resolutions anymore, but I do make plans – and I have a brainful of blueprints that are itching to be put into action.

I actually really enjoy taking down all the Christmas decorations each year and getting back to the minimalistic, uncluttered normalcy of things again.  It feels refreshing, like when you have a big garage sale and get rid of some of the extemporaneous stuff that seemed nice at the time but now you can’t figure out why you hung onto it for so long.

For me, 2014 will bring some big changes and exciting voyages that I’m really looking forward to.  Things are so different for me now than they were a year ago at this time; a year ago, I was sick as a dog (in urgent care on Christmas morning actually) from my germ-laden job and saw no hope in anything that the immediate future held, professionally or personally.  The new year brought no joy, only more resentment and desperation at having to return to a workplace I despised and job duties that were literally sucking the life out of me.

I started this blog six months ago at the end of June as a way to document my journey towards a less miserable (UNunhappy) existence.  And one month before that, I finally quite that horrible job as the first concrete step on that path.  Since then, I feel a little like I’ve been speedwalking in slow motion – I have so many ideas and so much I want to do (and write), but I’m purposefully taking it slow so that I don’t get overwhelmed and burned out before I even really begin.  I have pages and pages of to-do lists, but instead of burning through them at record speed, I’m allowing myself the time to appreciate each accomplishment as it happens.

I have two main focuses (foci?) this coming year: one will be the launch of my new floral design business, which I have aptly named (drum roll please) “Much Ado About Flowers.” Its namesake play (Much Ado About Nothing) is one of my Bard favorites and considered by many one of his best, and it just felt right to name my business after something I’ve also held dear for so many years. I filed all the necessary contract and business/license/permit fees with the city, county and state a few months ago and finally have it all in working order to be able to officially do actual business. I’ve established accounts with all of the floral wholesalers in town and am establishing networking contacts.  Yes it’s terrifying and I feel like I’m stepping off a cliff sometimes, but I’ve decided it’s better than feeling dead inside.

I will still keep my part-time job at the university, but will spend a good amount of my remaining time on building up my supply and workspace inventory, developing online and social media resources, learning about how to run a small business, and expanding my knowledge of all things flower-related.  I do have some ideas in mind for how I would like to see things develop, but I’m also open to new and different opportunities along the way. I’m leaving the definition of “success” for this business open for now, and not boxing myself into any pre-set expectations or obligations.

Untitled

Click on the photo to be taken to the Facebook page for
Much Ado About Flowers.  Please “Like” if so inclined!

For about a month between November and December, I watched in awe as my handyman (also known by the clever alias of Dad) gutted and converted the small storage shed in my backyard into a walk-in flower cool room.  The boardwalk was put into place first so that feet won’t be muddied as trips are traipsed back and forth:

IMG_0081IMG_0236Then he basically turned the inside of the shed into a super-sized foam-insulated cooler (literally, there are huge sheets of Styrofoam between the insulation and the finished walls), complete with electricity, A/C unit, work bench and sink with running water:

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One step, board, and floor tile at a time, I’m getting closer to another realization.  (My handyman got paid by the way in many thank yous and several loaves of pumpkin bread, and I hope he knows how grateful I am for his help).  I’m pretty intimidated by how much I still don’t know, and by how long of a road I have ahead of me, but at least I feel that I’m on the right road for a change.

And speaking of roads, the other focus of 2014 for me will be getting back out on the road and across the pond to take England by storm again.  I was there in 2012 (right before the Olympics) for the World Shakespeare Festival, and had a great experience.  This time, I’ll be volunteering for the organizing group of the Grand Depart of the 2014 Tour de France!  This is a huge deal for the UK & Yorkshire, with 3 days of racing in England before they head back to France to continue the Tour.  I’ll be in Leeds and York for the first two stages, but that’s just one part of my trip. I’m hoping to also get to several other corners of the country that I missed last time.

Tour-de-France-2014-map

I love planning a trip like this, and I’m in the thick of it right now; for me it’s half the fun.  The challenge and satisfaction of finding just the right little B&B within my budget; the process of mapping out my itinerary along the maze of train tracks and bus routes that crisscross the countryside; and the anticipation of real life forays into the places I’ve read about and seen in my favorite legends, movies and TV shows.

Although I have big aspirations of ogling a whole slew of sights during this trip, I’m also determined to try to enjoy it more than the crazed pace I set for myself last time.  I want to slow down, spend more than one night in most places, and really let myself relax into the English way of life if possible (while still hitting the highlights, of course). 

In addition to travels to new towns, I look forward to going back to Shakespeare country for the historic 450th anniversary celebrations of his birth this year, as well as hopefully meeting a few new Twitter friends I’ve made since my last trip there.  I’ll be avoiding London during the pricey time of Wimbledon, but will manage to spend some time there before I leave.  I will no doubt rack up a pretty penny of debt with this adventure, but what’s that saying about not being able to take it with you once you’re gone…

So those are my blueprints for now.  No big deal.  Just completely changing course in life and taking leaps that may or may not work out.  Thanks for continuing to read along as the path winds through it all.  Here’s to a great Fourteen for all of us.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Lost in Austin (But Finding My Way)

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“Come, thou shalt go home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome.” ~William Shakespeare (Pericles, II, i)

As I sit in front of a warm fireplace on a cold, rainy November night, I’m reflecting on the fact that it was four years ago this week, the day before Thanksgiving 2009, that I moved from Albuquerque NM to Austin.  The day I arrived was also cold and rainy, and we unloaded much of the moving van in a drizzly haze.  My Dad and I had caravaned in my car and the moving van over two days time to break up the trip.

It was not the best time for me, which had precipitated much of my decision to move.  I was still heartbroken and reeling from a recent divorce, and had decided to leave my anxiety-ridden job of 7 years at a disease management company that was itself crumbling.  It was not an easy decision to leave the city in which I’d spent most of my life, but it seemed a logical one.  My family had been in Austin for almost twenty years by that point; it had taken me two decades to finally follow them.

On that rainy night of my arrival, I moved into a depressing duplex on a dismal street filled with struggling families and broken down cars.  But my family did their best to dress it up and give me the warmest welcome possible.  I was grateful to finally just be here, among them, no matter what the circumstances.  Moving is a big risk at any time, for anyone.  I didn’t exactly outrun my depressing circumstances, and it was quite a struggle to find a decent job in the middle of the worst economic recession in modern history, but I was here, and that was the goal.

A lot has happened in those four years since.  Births and deaths, finding jobs and quitting jobs, leaving that depressing duplex for a new home, stress and setbacks, risk and realizations.  I’ve been privileged to travel during that time to see sights I’d always wanted to see.  I’ve been lucky to make one or two new friends in four years, which may not seem like a lot, but one of the facts I’ve come to realize (and accept) about myself is that I’m not one that makes friends (real friends) easily.  So I’m grateful for that too.

Four years still doesn’t seem like enough time to consider myself an Austinite though.  I still get lost all the time; if it weren’t for my iPhone, I’d have no idea where I’m going in the hilly streets of this city (with no reference points to guide me).  And whether you’re lost or not, Austin’s traffic woes will drive you mad.  The extreme heat and the humidity and the ever-present mosquitoes have been hard to get used to (I’m not sure I ever will) and make outside activities pretty undesirable for me.  I miss the perfect weather and seasons of Albuquerque and the striking beauty of New Mexico landscapes and sunsets.  In four years, I haven’t been able to find a decent Sunday morning breakfast spot like I had in Albuquerque.  The cost of living here in Austin is about double what it was in NM, and I still have to remind myself to call them breakfast tacos instead of breakfast burritos.

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The pink Sandia Mountains lit by an Albuquerque sunset.
I miss you Q.

But there’s one overriding factor that validates all those drawbacks (which are relatively minor), and it’s a pretty powerful one: family.  Every time over the past four years that I’ve been asked why I moved to Austin, I’ve always responded with the same answer: it’s where my family was.  It may not sound like much, but it’s pretty much everything.  It’s hard to beat being near your family.  It hasn’t been perfect, and there have been ups and downs, but we’re here if we need each other, and I’m thankful for that.

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So during this week of Thanksgiving, I’m thinking of how grateful I am for each one of my family members: their love, their health, their support, their proximity, and their help.  Thank you for bringing me here.  Thank you for putting up with my mood swings and fluctuating aspirations.  Thank you for all the car battery jump starts, free handyman repairs, midnight urgent care trips, family dinners and home-cooked meals, babysitting advice, leanable shoulders and listening ears.  I don’t say it enough, but I love you all and appreciate each one of you.  And – you’re lucky you live in Austin, because it’s the only city in Texas I would’ve moved to (it is pretty cool here, in a hot, humid, Austin-weird way).  Thank you for helping me find my way (whatever that may turn out to be).

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Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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