Monday, March 23, 2015

Traveling Outside the Comfort Zone

The yellow glow of dimmed lights gives the illusion of a film or photo shot in a bygone era. The mysterious automatic door to my right suggests a ghost roams during these hours when most humans have abandonned the station. And the infrequent passersby just accentuate my own aloneness, with only you dear reader and the security camera for company. I write this on a Saturday night from a quiet train station in northern France. It has been a rather unexceptional few days, until I consider what it is the I have done during those days. This lengthy séjour while waiting for le Megabus has also provide an extraordinary time to reflect and process, so I'll make a valiant effort to download some of that here.

First off, what exactly have I been doing? Well, I signed up to present at a small conference in Paris on gender, agriculture, and climate change. It seemed like a shame to forgo an extra couple of days in France - to translate in 'Rachel speak' this means I walked nearly uninterupted for 8 hours a day, just enjoying the ability to move, enjoy the outdoors, and perhaps peek into a museum or church. So this trip was unexceptional in that the plan was status-quo, including the stupidly uncomfortable travel plans (8-hour bus including border control & ferry + 3 hour 'layover' in London + 2 hour bus). Some magic day I'll grow up and take the slightly pricier train!

But what I wanted to talk about here is travel food, priviledge, and sustainability. While this excursion may have been unexceptional for me, it is attainable or one-in-a-lifetime for many others. After spending a day listening to and talking about all the elements that contribute to inequity and marginalization (our favourite topics in gender discussions...), I felt the luxury of just wandering for two days straight accutely. The minimal work I did after my presentation just augmented this (ok, in my defense I did spend a few hours at la bibliothèque commune d'Amiens). Sore feet and a dreaded coach trip ahead, and yet I still feel immensely fortunate and grateful.

One of several Saturday markets in Amiens, France.
This leads into the second topic: food (and a bit on sustainability). Travel, no matter how short of a trip, for some reason elevates my perception of food footprints. As a destitute graduate student, the sustainability of my budget is a key factor in food-related decisions, and so meals tend to be fresh bread and hummus, and maybe some fruit or veg if there are open markets (definitely the highlight of Amiens...). But traveling also means breaking many of my budgetary and environmental rules - not buying in bulk or unpackaged; using 'take-away' containers; not cooking; and buying coffee at the train station out of a machine! Alas for plastic cups, but the dangerous possibility of falling asleep and missing my 12:35am bus was too terrifying.

While travel eating almost innevitably costs more than home cooking, for me it is one more piece of evidence in the priviledge pool. While wandering around Amiens, I had at least half a dozen people ask me for change in order to buy food. Despite the self-imposed stringent food budget, these interactions made me feel the luxury inherent in my ability to buy food if need be. Perhaps this is because traveling takes one out of the library, office, etc. People always say that traveling provides important perspectives by confronting new cultures, but I wonder if this distracts from the more important service travelling provides. It doesn't need to be voluntourism building schools or anywhere exotique, but rather merely needs to push our comfort boundaries just a bit, taking us out of a daily routine so it's possible to actually notice something. 

Three hours in London = overpriced soy capuccino + work
From wandering aimlessly in a new city to sitting idly in a train station when there is nowhere else to go, breaking out of the bubble suddenly changes the interactions likely to occur under 'normal' circumstances. I like to think of travelling as weathering (oh dear ...) - a pebble suddenly exposed to the elements of rain, wind, waves, etc. changes, often drammatically. So maybe this analogy breaks down a bit when we think about what happens when the pebble is put back into the sheltered environment from whence it came; for many of us it is easy to fall back into an old routine and forget that we ever even left. 

If anything has come from this post, it is that you now have been subjected to a stream-of-consciousness post rather than my usual better organized and researched entries. The result of late-hour, cold train station circumstances. Hopefully, I have not been a frightful bore and instead given you something to mull over. One month until Live Below the Line!

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