31 October 2010

20 year anniversary: for my mother

Every year around this time, the anniversary of my mother’s death weighs heavily on my mind. Some years are easier than others. This is not an easy one. Even though next Monday marks the 20th anniversary of her death, I can still remember every day-by-day detail of her bout with lung cancer from diagnosis (August 31) to death (November 8) like it was yesterday. It's a burden I wish like hell I didn't have, yet I'm terrified to forget a single detail, because it would mean giving up some part, no matter ugly and awful, of my brief time with her.

My mother, Christine Ayn (Ehrensberger) Pfeuffer passed away when she was 38 years old. She’d been diagnosed with lung cancer less than three months before her death. I was a senior in high school and had cut school that day (as I frequently did in the ‘My mom is dying and you can’t make me come to school’ era). As I tooled around Berwyn, Pennsylvania in my mother’s, then mine by default, Chevy Blazer, I knew she died the minute Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” come on the radio. You see, this song came on the radio at several pivotal moments during my mother’s sickness, and well, when it came on at 10:38 a.m. the day after I said a pre-emptive good-bye the night before at Fox Chase Cancer Center, I just knew. I knew.

Operating strictly on adrenaline-fueled emotional auto-pilot, I drove to Conestoga High School, because I knew people would be looking for me. I parked my car in my designated parking space and walked toward the school where my douchebag vice principal, David Cowburn was already waiting for me on the front steps. He tried to break the news and offer some condolences, but I already knew, and pushed past him to find my boyfriend, Marc. I barged into Marc’s (I forget what) class and broke the news.

From there, I raced over to the middle school to tell my younger sister, who handled the news by breaking into hysterics at her locker, claiming no one told her “she was going to die.” Fuck. That may be the pivotal moment when my life changed forevermore in ways I never imagined possible.

You see everyone deals with death differently, and believe me, everyone in my family did. As for me, I’ve see-sawed with depression and trust issues for decades as a result of my mother’s death. I have a hard time with love and tend to sabotage relationships. As a result, I have no intention of ever getting married or having children.

Truthfully, if you asked me 20 years ago, I never thought I’d live to be 40 years old. I don’t really know why, but for some reason, that always seemed like a reasonable expiration date and that I'd be able to accomplish everything I wanted to do with my life within this window of time.  And as I near my 38th birthday, the same age my mother was when she died, my head spins with weighty state of affairs thoughts and reassessments of my priorities. Rest assured, she didn’t just leave me with a therapy-worthy load of emotional baggage – I also walked away some positive lessons that have stuck with me over the years.

Two weeks before she died, I asked her if she had any regrets (pretty insightful for a 17-year-old in retrospect). She replied, “I never went to Europe…and I can never have sex again.” Her words have inspired me to travel and live a life with purpose, intention and without regret. I’ve also made it a point to never hold back from having really good sex.

My mother is the reason why I wanderlust, the reason I volunteer and give back and the reason I live large and out loud and like every day is my last. One lesson I’ve learned is that you can love someone completely and unconditionally and they can be gone the next day. Without running the risk of sounding too Oprah, my advice is to love and live like there is no tomorrow, because you never fucking know. Even 20 years later, I think about this loss every single day. It’s not easy, but it’s part of who I am and as this big round number anniversary nears within sniffing distance, I want to honor my mother for being a big part of my life for 17, too brief years on this planet, and every day beyond. I miss you.

Christine Ayn (Ehrensberger) Pfeuffer 1952-1991

23 October 2010

americans are not the most popular people on the planet (the golden rule is in effect)

Traveling abroad during a recent presidential administration required making a lot of apologies. People would frequently criticize our government and policies, and frankly, I didn’t blame them. I tried to put my best American face forward to convince other global citizens that not everyone subscribed to a certain leader’s school of thought. Once Obama was sworn into office, I thought our public perception would improve – slowly – but was met with a lot of skepticism about what would happen next. I still encounter a lot of doubts (albeit a lot less angry), but find when you strip away all of perceptions about our government and foreign policies, a lot of people just aren't all that enthralled with Americans.

At least that’s the message that comes through loud and clear as I volunteer abroad. I guess I got spoiled traveling the world primarily with travel writers over the past several years. No matter where these writers hailed from, there was for the most part, unspoken open-mindedness and cultural compassion. Five volunteer projects into The Global Citizen Project, I find that our public perception on the global scale isn’t all that endearing and that I have to try extra hard to win people over the minute they find out where I’m from.

Far and wide, people seem to peg the stereotypical American something like this: We talk ten decibels louder than anyone else, dominate conversations, rudely interrupt and think we know it all. Unfortunately, this sounds spot on when I think of several of the Americans I’d volunteered with along the way. Sure, every single one of us is raised to think we’re the world’s almightiest super power, but have we taken our go-team-go mentality to narcissistic extremes on the worldwide travel playground? It stings to hear what other travelers' perceptions, but there are some truths to their words, and I am glad I can (hopefully) show them that not all Americans are alike. Some of us, dare I say, a lot of us, travel to learn from others.

These perceptions rolled around in my mind the morning I left my volunteer project in Ecuador. As my plane taxied to the runway, we were forced to turn back to the gate because an American passenger refused to turn his cell phone off. On the second leg of my flight itinerary, another American insisted on using his BlackBerry during take-off. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t so important that whatever message he had to send couldn’t wait the short two hour flight. The more I looked, the more I saw the ugly, “me first” mentality my international friends pointed out. Rude people come from all places, but still, it wasn’t pretty.

America may be the superpower of the world, but that doesn’t it make it okay to journey through the world thinking every interaction is all about us. We’re lucky to live in the U.S. (more than most people will ever know), but that doesn’t mean we have all the answers or that we’re always right. There’s a lot to learn from other countries and cultures, but as travelers, we need to shut up, practice some compassion and listen. I don’t know about you, but I don’t wish to be called out for my fellow American travelers’ bad behavior, because I know that is not what our country is all about. We’re just one piece in the grandmaster puzzle of this globe.

22 October 2010

november project preview: fuck cancer | vancouver, bc | canada

Where: Fuck Cancer started as a T-shirt movement, but quickly evolved into a movement to change how cancer is perceived and diagnosed in our society, and how cancer survivors perceive themselves. It’s about early detection and treatment. It’s about fighting back and regaining control. It’s about sharing the stories and spreading the word. When I lost my mother to cancer nearly two decades ago, she was frustrated by the lack of information available, communication within the medical system and not having a platform for her voice to be heard. I think it’s important to give cancer victims the permission and power to battle their disease head on.

Significance: This project is slated for November to coincide with the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death to cancer (November 8th, to be exact). My former volunteer coordinator at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center and dear friend, Tammy Dyson, also resides in Vancouver, B.C., which further adds to its time and place significance.

media mention: ragan.com

Yours truly, a.k.a. "influential blogger" and "@global_gourmet" is mentioned in today's feature on ragan.com, Four Seasons keeps it personal via social media.  Thank you, Matt Wilson for including me!

quinta das abelhas: more small farms means more locally produced food, which makes the planet happy

As a food and travel writer, I firmly believe if you’re going to blog or write about restaurants, you need to spend some time working in one to fully understand how the business works. It’s one thing to sit at your perfectly set table on the receiving end of (hopefully) delicious food and fine tuned service, but an entirely different thing to understand how many hands are involved in making that meal appear in the minutes after you say, “I’d like the steak, please - medium rare.”

After my first week at Quinta Das Abelhas, I feel that anyone who eats – period – should spend some time WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), or at the very least, on a small, organic farm. I’ve volunteered in Seattle at Marra Farm, a four acre plot within the city limits that produces more than 16,000 pounds of food for the local community. But dropping by to play urban farmer for an afternoon is drastically different from living the day-to-day reality of what goes into making a self-sufficient farm function.

My duties at Quinta Das Abelhas ran the gamut from harvesting basketfuls of vegetables from the gardens and readying beds for the winter with fertilizer and seeds to making quince jelly with fresh picked fruit, helping to remove mud from a trench after a heavy rainfall to building a stone wall. After more than a decade of declaring defeat when working with yeast, Sophie even helped me bake my first successful loaf of bread. The list of what I’m learning about self-sufficiency is endless. The beauty of volunteering in this kind of environment is that there is always something to do, the work is rarely repetitive and it’s fun. I love, love, love being here.

I decided to WWOOF with Quinta Das Abelhas because I try to eat locally and seasonally whenever possible and take great interest in knowing where food comes from. Portugal is a far distance from Seattle (5,836 miles each way to be exact – I have a lot of carbon footprint making up to do), it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and got a really good feeling about Andy and Sophie from their website and blog. (I also saw a photo of a gigantic zucchini a friend’s father in Lisbon had grown and had a feeling that people around these parts knew a thing or two about farming.) My gut was spot on. I know a lot of people who’d pay large sums of money for this kind of experience and to achieve the peace I’ve experienced here.

For starters, the property is stunningly beautiful. So even when you’re shoveling manure, you can’t help but have repeated “ah ha” moments. I’m no skilled farm hand, but even so, you feel like you’re playing some small part in the success of a small, family run operation and that feels good. It takes a lot of hands, heart and sweat to make this place run. For all of your hard work, volunteers are rewarded with amazing meals made by Andy and some of the sweetest slumbers ever – I’ve made no secret about how much I love living in my comfy, cozy yurt. After volunteering with four other organizations over the past four months, working for kind people who truly care makes a huge difference. (That’s probably the number one thing I’m grateful for.) Living at Quinta Das Abelhas is a simpler way of life than I’m accustomed to, but it imparts such incredible feelings of calm and satisfaction, that I’m already scheming ways to adopt some of these aspects when I resume my usual urban routine.

My time at Quinta Das Abelhas reiterated something I feel strongly about: More small farms means more locally produced food, which makes the planet happy. Would you rather be on a first name basis with the farmers who grow your food or do you prefer food that has wracked up thousands of airline miles to make it to your plate? A silly question, really. In a perfect world, less people would eat food produced in massive industrial farms and far off places and more would support the individual people who put so much care into making sure our food is safe, healthy and delicious. WWOOF and you’ll understand why.