Life’s Churlish Disappointments

It seems to me that when one sets off on an adventure, life ought to accommodate that quest joyfully and should suit itself to one’s sense of excitement.  It should bask in that frisson of anticipation that good things are to come.  But sometimes life doesn’t.  Sometimes it steadfastly refuses to become adventurous, and instead wallows in the mundane slog of life.  Otherwise stated, sometimes life is riddled with churlish disappointments.

One of my LinkedIn pals wrote a comment awhile back, observing that my life has certainly been an adventure.  When I read her post, I felt like I was harboring a dirty little secret.  Because the truth is that, in fact, my life, much like yours no doubt, has actually been long slogs of unremarkable life, punctuated by the occasional — and thus all the more memorable — fun adventure.

I’m luckier than many in the adventures I have had.  They have been numerous and they were terrific fun.  But adventures are often little more than an upbeat attitude cloaked around a life passage, rendering it remarkable, uplifting, inspirational, or just downright fun!

So perhaps what is striking me now as a Churlish Disappointment is little more than February doldrums dressed up as seasonal affective disorder.  Unfortunately, however, this Churlish Disappointment has an air of finality, not seasonality, to it.

We are all, of course, accustomed to Life’s Little Disappointments.  They pepper our days, and we shake them off like a dog scatters raindrops off its back after a recent inclement sortie.  Then we move on purposefully about our business.  Life’s Little Disappointments are eminently forgettable.

dog shaking off water
Shaking off life’s little disappointments.

On the other end of the spectrum are Life Regrets.  They are the big ticket items — the things we thought we would never experience or would never miss experiencing, but somehow we did and suddenly it’s too late reasonably to believe that the missed opportunity will present itself again.  Or it will forever be impossible to undo the magnitude of the experience one regrets having had.  Life Regrets are things like never getting that hoped-for college degree, never having children, losing a child, getting a divorce, or perhaps not getting a divorce.

Churlish Disappointments are midway along the ‘life sometimes stinks’ spectrum, although perhaps leaning closer in towards the Life Regrets end.  Webster’s dictionary says that churlish suggests “surliness, unresponsiveness, and ungraciousness,” as in churlish remarks.  And that’s the way I feel about the Churlish Disappointment of which I write.

Life Sometimes Stinks
The Life Sometimes Stinks Spectrum

Life turned downright surly, unresponsive, and ungracious on me as I moved forward on my adventure to transition from a career as an erstwhile civil rights and employment lawyer/HR consultant to the life of a wildlife/ecosystem conservation professional.  My hopes were high, my network has been both informative and facilitative, and my enthusiasm burned hot.  So what happened?  Or rather, perhaps, what did not?

Regular readers will recall that this adventure was the driving force behind this blog, which was to chronicle the unlikely but enthusiastically undertaken career transformation.  It’s fair to say that over this four month quest, what happened is simple.  Life happened.  The slog of life.  The reality of life.  The adventure led to certain inescapable conclusions which follow and which qualify regrettably more as ‘slog of life’ reasons than as ‘snippets of glorious adventure’ reasons.  (Like I said earlier, my life, no doubt like yours, is often an unremarkable long and lonely slog.)

uphill slog
Life is sometimes an uphill slog.

The realities are that it’s hard to change careers when one can offer only transferable skills, rather than a skill set in the chosen career path.  Other realities abound.  Opportunities are few and far between in the conservation/ecosystem space, and the competition is fierce, especially among those with the proper skill set.  Folks like myself are viewed as well meaning, but better suited to board posts or volunteer activities.

The gig is not completely up.  I have a few remaining irons in the fire, and a dynamite new network of incredibly talented wildlife, animal care and protection, and ecosystem professionals whose work literally may mean the difference between the continued existence of some species we hold dear (elephants and lions, to name but two) and others you may never have heard of, such as the little known pangolin, About the Pangolin, the world’s most heavily trafficked creature.  Yet, the dye is likely cast.  This particular adventure may be morphing into a more modest undertaking of volunteer proportions.

I prefer to look at this endeavor as one that is not over, rather as one that requires a lot longer time horizon than I anticipated or could sustain for near-term employability purposes.  I will continue my volunteer efforts and hope that this will provide a path to more sustained involvement in wildlife conservation efforts.  In other words, the slog of life continues without the romance of adventure for the moment.

Fortunately, as one door closes another opens, and my search for a position in the Human Resources compliance arena (which is congruent with my past work experience) has gained early and strong traction.

The blog too will continue as that is the essence of life.  Whether it relates to a blog or a journey, one continues on even as the adventure fades, and the purposeful stride settles into a less ambitious slog.  Either way, you’re covering the territory in front of you and sometimes, on a bitter cold, sunlight-slighted February day, that’s all you can hope for as you move forward, putting yet another Churlish Disappointment resolutely behind you.

hiking a snowy mountain as sun sets
Putting one foot in front of the other on a sunlight-slighted day.
open door
As one door closes, another opens.  Onward and upward!

A Travel Love Affair, Born on the Paoli Local

After my last post on traveling, I got to thinking about various forms of travel.  There’s really no easy answer to the question, “What is my favorite form of transportation?”  Each one has much to recommend itself.

I think my all around favorite form of travel is on my own two feet.  I love the nearness of nature when I’m walking about with birdsong in my ears, and the crunch of dirt beneath my feet.  The sky’s magnificent sunset settles on your shoulders when you’re walking, fog makes for an impromptu moisturizing facial as you stride along, and your heart and lungs settle into a rhythmic beat that’s at once calming and energizing.

But what of going greater distances in less time?  Is a car your best bet, a bus perhaps, filled with its wonderful motley crew of humanity, a train maybe, or a jet plane for covering the greatest distances in the least possible time?  Which is best, I wonder.  Which do you prefer?

After reflection, I have to say for me it is train travel, hands down.  There is nothing like boarding a train and surrendering to the rhythmic clickety clack of iron wheels churning out the miles on  lengths of perfectly spaced, symmetrical track.

Railroad tracks

My favorite trains are European ones.  I love the cozy compartments where one sits facing  fellow travelers, permitting discreet observations of one’s traveling companions.  Closer to home, however, I have to say the good old ‘Paoli local’ is a childhood sweetheart to whom my heart still holds true.

European train compartment

The Paoli local is a creature of the Philadelphia region’s SEPTA rail system.  I’m not sure anyone even uses the term ‘Paoli local’ anymore.  Nowadays it is called the R5, a truly sanitized and unglamorous term if ever there were one.  The route used to extend from Center City Philadelphia to Paoli (and later Malvern), the western-most terminus of the fabled and moneyed Main Line.  Nowadays, it extends beyond the Main Line as construction crawl and suburban spread has morphed westward to towns like Exton, Downingtown, and Thorndale.

SEPTA train

These later stops used to be country outposts, unencumbered with train stations, and harboring few signs of habitation other than large farms.  Exton, for instance, was a place simply to stop for ice cream at the old Guernsey Cow.  One motored through by car, on business route 30, passing the white stucco buildings of the Church Farm School where fatherless boys boarded and learned to farm.  It was a town to travel through, before the 30 Bypass and 202 South sliced south and west and laid the groundwork for new developments, shopping malls, schools, and houses of worship that crowd out the old corn fields and stands of sycamores now.

cows_on_the_loose-500the guernsey cow, exton pa

Beginning at age 7 or 8, I was deposited by our mother, with the rest of her passel of uniformed kids, at the Wayne train station where we would board the Paoli local inbound, heading for the stops along the way that would disgorge us near our schools.

Wayne train station
Wayne train station

Wayne train station sign

Serious business men (in those days it was only business men) sat in their spit and polished shoes and sensible overcoats, engrossed in The Wall Street Journal or The Philadelphia Inquirer.  Conversation was held to a minimum.  The dominant sound was the singsong strain of the wheels going clickety clack while the cars rocked gently back and forth, swaying languorously across the tracks below.

We knew the conductors on sight.  We didn’t know their names, but we knew their distinctive ticket punches.  Each punch was as unique as a fingerprint.  Every conductor (and in those days it was only male conductors) had his own ticket punch, and each punch left a tiny cut out on your ticket of a distinctive size and shape, personal to that particular conductor.  We knew that ticket punch as well as we knew the hair color and build of the conductor to whom it belonged.  Tiny colored chads littered the floors of the trains like small bits of confetti, and the distinctive chads marked the locale of that particular conductor’s hole punching territory.

Distinctive ticket punch

We shared a bond with the conductors, knowing them well as they worked the trains we  took to and from school.  It was an interesting relationship.  The conductors neither considered themselves nor acted as babysitters to their young charges.  Oh, they might grab you by the scruff of the neck if you were about to leave behind a lunch box or a scarf for sure.  But that was done dismissively, as if you had violated (as indeed you had) the basic premise of train travel — taking responsibility for your own surroundings and belongings, including that valuable weekly or monthly ticket that would get you to school the next day and the day after that.

The conductors affected a firm, slightly distant manner although a few favorites were more friendly. They had a job to do — collecting and punching tickets, and they did not fancy themselves hall monitors of the various uniformed masses that squirmed in and out of the banquette seats,  shoving over-packed book bags underneath the Naugahyde seats.  (Backpacks had not yet been popularized, and we used canvas book bags with heavily reinforced handles that yielded not a centimeter under the welterweight of notebooks, textbooks, pens, pencils, protractors, and slide rules that jammed the book bags to near bursting.)

older conductor


Come summer, we bid goodbye to the avuncular ones, steady in the knowledge that they would greet us on the platforms as we boarded when September rolled around again.  We said a more measured, formal farewell to the other conductors who might be a tad less friendly but were nevertheless co-inhabitants of our traveling, train universe.

two old fashioned looking conductors

Our early years as travelers on the Paoli local prepped us artfully for later years of more adventuresome travel.  We learned, for instance, that conductors were trustworthy fonts of information about connecting trains, express trains, and how long until the next train would come along if you missed your stop and had to go back a station or two.

We likewise learned that no matter how similar their duties appeared from man to man, each conductor was an individual as distinct as his hallmarked ticket punch.  And each unique ticket punch belonged to a distinctive, deep voice that declared, “Express to Center City; next stop 30th Street!” or “Watch your step!  Watch your step!”

Whether due to the unique ticket punch, a booming baritone, or the no-nonsense approach to train travel, the conductors ensured that our slice of youthful train travel was safe and routine.  Yet it held the whisper of adventure, a soupçon of the delectably ‘inconnu.”  It was, after all, the essence of train travel writ small — with the promise of delightful discoveries yet to come.

So it was on the modest Paoli local that my love of train travel was born.  There too the seed of wanderlust — that hunger for travel — was sown.  It was a seed that would germinate into a lifelong love of travel, whether on foot, by bus or plane, or via the soothing lullaby of train travel’s clickety-clack and the swaying cradle of train cars eating up the miles beneath the rails.

sample ticket punchers
Conductors’ ticket punchers

Are We Ambassadors or Just Traveling Through?

When traveling, are you an ambassador or do you just travel through?  More importantly, have I been an ambassador or have I just traveled through the many glorious villages, towns, and countries I have been blessed to visit?  I started to wonder about this as my niece, Charlotte, prepared for her long-anticipated semester abroad in Granada, Spain.

US Passports

I got to thinking about what has made for all my fantastically memorable travels over the years.  In sum, I think it’s because I travelled — unwittingly at first, but later as I got the knack, more consciously — or perhaps I should say more conscientiously — as an ambassador rather than as just a traveler passing through.  While true ambassadors have many formal duties, we traveling ambassadors du jour have a somewhat simpler task, and that is to accept graciously the gifts that come our way as we travel through parts unknown.  This means having the power of discernment, the ability to perceive as special gifts the experiences that masquerade as everyday fare.

I realized what made my own travels great had a lot less to do with me and what I did, than what others did, expressed, or offered me and how I received these delectable offerings.  In short, what attitude did I bring to this ‘moveable feast,’  to borrow Hemingway’s phrase?

For instance, I think of the gift (a double edged sword, perhaps) given to me the very first day I landed in Paris with 16 year old school chums bound for a summer with French families. Much of our group had collapsed to rest at our youth hotel after the overnight flight, but Polly Stowe and I were too excited with our arrival in Paris, so we set off to walk the environs of the fourth arrondisement –back then a sleepy quarter with an open air market.

map of 4th arrondisement
Paris’s 4th Arrondisement & St. Paul where the market and our lettuce vendor plied their wares

Somehow, we wound up in avid conversation with a Tunisian lettuce vendor — our French fractured, his fluent, languid, and flirty.   We — reluctantly — turned down an invitation to “boire un coup,” or have a drink, since we were due back at the youth hotel for dinner with the group.  By the time we got back, the orientation talk was well underway and was, at that very moment, cautioning us to be wary of North African men flirting with young American women as they could be purveyors of Paris’s white slave trade.

Polly and I exchanged wide-eyed looks.  Who knew that contemplating the chance to “boire un coup” could have actually meant our “coup de grâce” at the hands of a slave trader!

How then was this brush with disaster a gift, you ask?  Oh, my gosh.  Incalculable!  Polly Stowe was a tall, lithe, long haired beauty, yet the Tunisian lettuce vendor had improbably flirted with me!

Do you think I cared that he was perhaps the 4th arrondisement’s  ringleader of the white slave trade?  Not on your life!  I was thrilled that the white slave trade had targeted me, not Polly. More accurately, I had been flirted with by a Parisian!  My time in Paris was as yet too brief for me to know that a bona fide Parisian would have considered a North African Arab as little better than a pied noir — or beneath contempt.   As far as I was concerned, I had been flirted with by someone in Paris which made him a Parisian, and which made me a goddess of newly minted proportions!

Then there was the summer I spent in Jordan.  I was showered with gifts as the Jordanians are an exceedingly generous people — so much so that I quickly learned not to express too much admiration for anything in a Jordanian’s home, because they would insist you take it as a gift.  The Jordanians I met lived simple lives — we would call them poor, although the generosity of their spirit gave them the graciousness of old-moneyed millionaires.  So the many gifts I am referring to here were the gifts of friendship manifested in so many smiles, so many opportunities not usually made available to any women, least of all a Western woman , so many gifts of goodwill from the heart.

There were breakfasts taken seated in the tents of the moktars, or village elders, whose own wives would never have breached the tent flap to enter in.  Yet there I sat, eating breakfast with them from communal plates delivered by their wives, using our fingers as utensils.  There were mansafs or ceremonial dinners that again, no women were permitted to attend.  Yet there I stood, helping myself to handfuls of succulent lamb drenched in yoghurt, laced with pine nuts.  There were wild, galloping rides on Arabian horses with bit-less bridles in pink sandstone Petra, camel races in Amman, and shopping expeditions with locals.  All these experiential gifts were conveyed to me by generous Jordanians for no other reason than they liked my ambassadorial attitude.

Traveling as an ambassador is simple, really, if one affects the proper attitude.  An ambassadorial attitude is one of curiosity, good manners, a sense of humor, and an openness to new experiences.

I found a ready smile to be a more marketable currency than any dinar, franc, drachma or deutschmark in my travels, and the exchange rate on a smile and twinkling eye never weakened, no matter the fluctuations of world currency markets.

A firm handshake and a consciousness of local customs transformed good manners into great ones, and often replaced tortured foreign phrases that were not getting their meaning across into eloquent understandings brokered by body language alone.

And while my ear for languages stood me in good stead in Romance language countries, I was sorely stumped by Serbo-Croatian, got by gamely with a bit of Greek, and gave classical Arabic my very best shot.  The point is, no matter how hard the language, you must try.  This is indeed an area where “A for effort” is the name of the game.  It matters little how well you acquit yourself in a foreign language, but there is absolutely no excuse in my Baedeker book of Travel Do’s and Don’ts, for not learning a few simple words in the language of your host country without fail.  “Please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” are the bare minimum, and learning to say, “That is so beautiful,” will open many hearts and doors to you as you travel the world.

baedeker book
A Baedeker Guide to Great Britain

That said, you must also be prepared for your linguistic efforts to go occasionally awry … like the time I thought I was telling a liquored-up, very large Russian a firm “good night!” when I later learned I was actually telling him “good evening,” which likely accounted for the foot he had  planted in my bedroom door.  Then there was the time I nearly precipitated an international incident ordering a peach in a Serbian deli, not realizing as I cast about unsuccessfully for the Serb word for ‘peach,’ and hence just saying ‘peach,’ that this was a slang term for a part of the female anatomy, quite vulgar in derivation, and definitely not the type of thing to order in a deli, jam-packed with Yugoslavs seeking lunch.

Suffice to say that when, as ambassador du jour, you deliver a monumental faux pas, the diplomatic thing to do is to wallow in contrition, apologize profusely, and never return to the scene of your ambassadorial boo boo again.  It’s about all you can do.  Well, that and learn the Serbo-Croatian word for “peach,” or order an orange instead.

Peaches — or at least what I had in mind when I ordered a peach in fractured Serbo-Croatian.

One last tip for memorable travel.  Try everything and anything as long as it’s not too dangerous.  Looking back, though, I realize that this caution is one I sometimes ignored.  I personally, however, draw the line at bungee jumping.  Others think bungee jumping is a lark.  So, as you can see, there’s wiggle room on what is and is not ‘too’ dangerous. Me, I’d rather swim in croc infested waters than throw myself into a ravine attached to a glorified rubber band!

The “try everything and anything” dictate is especially true for local food.  The delicacies you will discover are a pleasure to the palate.  The best food I had in the Dominican Republic was bought for me by a local from tiny street stands, and to this day, I have no idea what I was eating.  Timid travelers tend to avoid such experiences for fear of stomach woes, but their experience is the lesser for it.

Once I set off for a dinner with Arab pals in Paris to a favorite haunt of theirs known for grilled meats, and I happily left it to my Lebanese friends to order.  The mixed grill was delicious, but nothing was as superb as a grilled delicacy, small and round, totally tender and mildly sweet.  After scarfing several down, I finally asked what the delicacy was and was surprised to find that I had fallen for grilled lamb testicles.  Delicious!

mixed grill
A mixed grill

I do draw the line at horsemeat, although candor compels me to admit that this line got drawn some time after I had ‘seconds’ of what I thought was roast beef at a French friend’s Sunday dinner table.  That realization went down hard as I am a great fan of horses on the living hoof.

So when packing your passport for travel abroad, tuck in a few additional items to ensure a memorable, indeed ambassadorial-quality, sojourn:  a ready smile, a twinkling eye, a firm handshake, a trove of linguistically-correct local phrases, and an appetite — indeed a craving — for adventure!

Your weltanschauung, or to put it auf Englisch fur die dummkopfen amongst my less traveled readers — your world view — will be the richer for it.  More importantly, the lives you touch will have precious memories of the joy you bestow as a veritable ambassador — a bearer of good will, traveling through.  Happy travels!

Bon voyage 2