Our friend Will Tottle, who shared a post with us on the emotional benefits that dogs can provide, has written another great piece on how music helps with mental health. You can read his comprehensive article here.
Author Shelly Biswell and her husband, Ken, at one of the many train stations they’ve passed through.
It’s been just over a month since we began using our Eurail Global Passes. At this point “global” is a stretch, as we’ve found it hard to leave each country – let alone each village and city we’ve been to. Seriously. Ken laughs because each place we have landed I’ve said, “I don’t think it could get any better”.
This has meant that our travelling has transitioned from “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” to “How about a week in______ (name some smallish town in Europe – we chose Camogli, Italy, and Annecy, France, for our extended stays)?”
I’ve learned on this journey that while it’s important to read and learn about a place, a language, and a people before you arrive, it’s equally important to put that information in context. For example, I’d heard from many people (personal experiences included) that Barcelona has a significant problem with pickpocketing. However, it’s not something we experienced or witnessed there. In fact, the only place that someone half-heartedly attempted to get inside my bag was at the train station in Basel, Switzerland (yes, the country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world). I say “half-heartedly”, because my would-be pickpocketer sidled up to me and started to unzip my bag. When I asked what he was doing, he looked me in the eye and casually walked off.
I’ve loved travelling by train and would take waiting in a train station any day over waiting in an airport. The stations we’ve been in have been safe, clean, and well-staffed. As a cultural crossroads, however, train stations often seem to be places where tourists can be at their most demanding. I admit to a few moments of cultural cringe, such as waiting in line behind the extremely loud and insistent English-speaking couple who had Canada flag patches prominently displayed on their backpacks (just saying, not fooling anyone).
Train stations are also where I have felt the most obvious and, at times, vulnerable as a tourist: “No thank you, we don’t need a ride or three-day sightseeing package.” “Wonder why there are suddenly so many gendarmeries here?” “Wait, did they just change our platform?”
We were in the small train station in Arles, France, and blithely showed up for our early morning train only to discover there was a rail strike. This was our own fault, as the days of the strike had been publicised in advance. There were two workers at the station – a cleaner and a staff person who had the unenviable job of explaining to tourists like us (all the locals had wisely made other travel arrangements) that we would not be catching our train as planned. Yet, this worker – who spoke just a hint more English than our limited French – found us a route using alternative means of public transportation to our next destination. On a day when most of his colleagues were on strike, it would have been so easy, and even reasonable, for him to shrug and point to the split-flap display that showed all the annulé trains. But he didn’t.
One important note about this interaction: Ken has been good about learning and using the language basics for the countries we have travelled in. Thanks to our eldest daughter, Haley, I’ve been practising French and Spanish using the Duolingo app. Admittedly, my thick tongue and pronunciations sound horrible even to me, but I’ve been attempting to at least start a conversation in the main language of the country we’re in.
At the Arles train station, you could see the staff person’s shoulders relax as Ken used his rudimentary French. Not to question the wisdom of Master Yoda and his sage advice, “Do; or do not; there is no try,” but in the case of speaking a foreign language, our lesson has been that it’s better to try, even if we have a shocking accent or don’t know all the right words.
In the scheme of things, perhaps our experience at the Arles train station seems of small consequence, but to me it symbolises the way so many people are willing to give their knowledge, their skills, their resources, and their time to help others – day in, day out. It is humbling.
I’ve just finished Elizabeth Strout’s thought-provoking book My Name is Lucy Barton. In it, her main character muses, “I have sometimes been sad that Tennessee Williams wrote that line for Blanche DuBois, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ Many of us have been saved by the kindness of strangers, but after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that’s what makes me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.”
I agree. This journey has reminded me to appreciate and pass on that kindness.
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand. You can follow her on Instagram (shellybiswell).
Author Shelly Biswell and her husband, Ken, on a “less-travelled” street in Madrid, Spain.
Over the last couple of months, I have attempted to replace “should have” with “next time” in my language. So, instead of saying, “I should have planned my visit to Segovia so that I could attend Titirimundi (the International Puppet Theatre Festival)”, I try to say, “The next time I’m in Segovia…”
It’s subtle, but “should haves” keep me up at night, and somehow “next times” just heighten my excitement for the days ahead. One represents duty, the other represents possibility.
The poet Robert Frost was right, of course, “way often leads on to way”, so I may never get back to places, but the spirit behind our overseas experience is to live life with fewer checklists. To appreciate where we are and not focus so much on what’s to come.
As part of that, we’ve also learned that instead of trying to hit all the must-sees, it’s better to take a more indirect approach to learning about a place. Unintentionally, house-sitting has helped hone this skill, as the homes we stay in are usually far from well-known destinations. If anyone needs suggestions on what to do with 10 days to spare in Hatfield, England, for example, drop me an email and I’ll fill you in.
Even in places like Paris or Dublin we’ve found that just taking a side street can make a remarkable difference. In Dublin, we dutifully bought our Book of Kells tickets online because next to the Guinness Storehouse (which we didn’t do) that’s where tourists seem to flock. As the line weaved its way around Trinity College’s Old Library and tour bus after tour bus unloaded, we started to wonder if we’d made the right decision. We hadn’t. Whatever awe-inspiring experience we would have had seeing the 9th century manuscript was counteracted by being jostled from one room to the next with dozens of other people.
On the other hand, a local friend recommended a trip to Marsh’s Library, which turned out to be an amazing experience. Aside from a few researchers, we had Ireland’s first public library, which opened to the public in 1707, to ourselves. On top of that, a very knowledgeable librarian generously gave us a “private” tour.
Aside from our own personal fulfilment, there’s also the reality that we tourists are loving many cultural and environmental wonders to death. Ken and I have attempted to operate in a low-impact and respectful way, but I recognise that our mere presence at many sites means we can easily become part of the problem, especially during peak tourism times.
Sidebar: As I write this, Aotearoa New Zealand is considering a tourism tax. I know it will take time to get it right, but it’s a good first step in raising funds to offset some of the costs associated with tourism, as well as reminding people that they are accountable to protect and value the sites they come to see. A tax is something I would gladly pay as we travel from country to country.
For our trip, research and talking with people who know an area has helped us plan more creative excursions. I’ve also learned that I need to let go of my inner twenty-something self (fear of missing out) when it comes to must-sees. Sites such as the Eiffel Tower or the Matterhorn rightly serve as international shorthand for what’s amazing about this world, but they only hint at the depth and beauty of our planet. One really doesn’t know what’s around the corner. Although, as Robert Frost wrote:
“…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
-The Road Not Taken
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand. You can follow her on Instagram (shellybiswell).
Shelly Biswell continues on her amazing journey. Thanks so much for sharing your OE with our readers.
In April, we went to Scotland. It was a family trip that included a visit to see our elder daughter, Haley, at the University of Edinburgh. From there we travelled to the northwestern Highlands to see the Farr Stone, which was the one thing our younger daughter, Piper, wanted to do when she came to visit the UK.
My mother has travelled in Scotland quite a bit, and she counselled me before we left that “the farther north you go, the happier you will be”. Or as an old colleague who returned to Scotland said to me, “From my perspective, a day not spent in the Highlands is a day misspent”.
Since Farr is my surname by birth, it seemed right that our daughters and I should venture to the parish of Farr where the River Naver meets the sea. Within the parish is the small village of Bettyhill, where the Farr Stone with its ringed cross sits unobtrusively in a cemetery. From an archaeologist’s perspective, it’s a Class II Pictish Symbol Stone that probably dates 800 to 850 AD. From my perspective, it’s a talisman that has an unclear association with our family tree.
In Scottish-Gaelic, “a’ dol dhachaigh” roughly translates to “going home”, which is what Haley, Piper, and I felt as we stood in front of the Farr Stone. I can’t explain it, but even now a sense of serenity comes over me when I think of that windswept place.
On our way north, we stayed in Inverness and took the six-hour “passion” tour of Loch Ness. As we were in search of a mythical creature, I was expecting slightly hokey (yes, there were moments of that, but mostly with tongue firmly in cheek). What I hadn’t bargained on was the amazing scenery and the history lesson our excellent tour guide, Allan, imparted (Loch Ness by Jacobite tours). The first stop on our tour was a Pictish burial mound. The mound sits on a working farm, but Allan explained how we can visit the site, in part, because of Scotland’s “freedom to roam” ethos.
The Scottish take this centuries-old freedom seriously enough that their government passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. The law came into force in 2005 and gives everyone the right to access land and inland water (with some exceptions spelled out in the act), if they act responsibly.
What does “responsible” mean? According to the Scottish Rights of Way & Access Society, it means “acting lawfully and reasonably and not causing unreasonable interference with the rights and interests of others”. A Scottish Outdoor Access Code has been developed to provide guidance for abiding by the law. The code is based on three principles: “respect the interests of other people, care for the environment, and take responsibility for your own actions”.
In the shadow of Brexit and the general discourse on immigration across the world, it’s hard not to think that freedom to roam and its associated responsibilities should be part of a wider discussion.
When we arrived at Bettyhill, these thoughts were swirling in my head. I let the waves lap at my legs in Farr Bay and wondered what my ancestors’ lives must have been like here. What sent them from this part of the world? Was it freedom, necessity, or something else altogether that drove them to roam?
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand. You can follow her on Instagram (shellybiswell).
Here are a few travel tips from our friend Shelly Biswell, who continues her overseas experience in the UK.
In March we visited York (Jorvik), which was like a walking history lesson. Eric Bloodaxe’s reign! How did I miss that in Dr Newell’s English history course?
At York Minster, they have a thought-provoking exhibition on what it means to take a pilgrimage. At the beginning of the exhibition they ask visitors whether they are pilgrims, travellers, or tourists. It got me thinking: can the journey change you over time? Perhaps you start as a tourist and end as a pilgrim, or the other way around.
What I do know is that after a few months of travelling I’ve learned some things that have made our trip easier and richer. I’ve also included some of Ken’s top travel tips, which are more technology oriented (big surprise).
If you’re a globetrotter, this isn’t meant to tell you how to suck eggs, but here’s a list of some of the things I’ve learned—in no specific order.
What are your top tips for travelling? Let me know in the comments section below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll share some of your ideas (with credits) in a future blog post.
Guest blogger Hollie Grimaldi-Flores warns about the dangers of too much giving, which can lead to burnout.
Many years ago, when I joined a service club for the first time, one of the members warned me to be careful about taking on too much, lest I burn out. At the time, I could not even imagine what she was talking about. How does one burn out from socializing in the name of community service? Frankly, my membership in the service club was my social life. It took more than twenty years, but I now see she had a valid point. Too much giving, without enough getting, leads to burnout. It is true in the workplace, as well.
According to psychologytoday.com, “Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” Each of these stages comes with its own set of symptoms, including fatigue, insomnia, loss of enjoyment, pessimism, detachment, feelings of apathy, and increased irritability.
These symptoms arise from caring too much, which is part of the problem. The article goes on to state, “Because high-achievers are often so passionate about what they do, they tend to ignore the fact that they’re working exceptionally long hours, taking on exceedingly heavy workloads, and putting enormous pressure on themselves to excel”—all behaviors that can cause burnout.
I used to call it the “east coast work ethic,” because many of the people who felt the way I did were also from the east. Surely it was the way we were brought up—to work hard and not complain. But now I see it all around me, with coastal upbringing a non sequitur. There are always people in any group who are the doers, just as there are those who are happy to let the doers take on all the work.
I worked for years in a place that gladly let me log as many hours as I possibly could, usually without extra pay. Once the workday was over, a few of my co-workers and I would represent our place of employment by engaging in community events—bowling or running for a cause, emceeing fundraisers, and attending numerous meetings. We did it with pride for the organization and for the pure joy of helping others. But it took its toll—on time away from family and on our own well-being.
I burned out, and I have no one to blame but myself. Because I didn’t recognize the symptoms, I didn’t see it coming. It’s likely that I never would have stopped if my body hadn’t held a mutiny. I was forced to surrender.
These days when I say yes, I do so gladly. I learned a valuable lesson and intend not to repeat my mistakes.
To those who do too much, I advise you to keep the risk of burnout in mind to protect your health and well-being. To those who are not quick to give, I encourage you to consider stepping up to the plate, at least occasionally. Find the cause that brings you joy or concern. Be part of the solution by giving your time, energy, or resources to the extent that you are able. That might just be the fan needed to keep the flame from burning out.
In honor of Mother’s Day this Sunday, guest blogger Hollie Grimaldi-Flores reminisces about her own mother.
“Who were you before you were a mother?”
“As a young girl, what did you dream of doing with your life?”
“Did your life turn out at all like you had planned?”
“What were your high points? What were the lows?”
These are just a few of the questions I wish I could ask my mother.
Having recently passed the five-year anniversary of her death, I still find myself with so many questions. I know some of the answers through family lore, but when I had the opportunity to ask firsthand, I did not take it. The older I get, the more I wish I had paid attention to her and all she sacrificed to raise my siblings and me. I wish we had spent more time in meaningful conversation and doing the things she enjoyed.
I never really thought much about her being a daughter, a sister, a wife, or a friend. In fact, I didn’t even consider that she might have had other aspirations until I was well into my thirties. By then, I was a mother myself, and I understood the selflessness that comes with parenting.
I found myself quickly forgetting about my own dreams as I did whatever it took to raise my children and give them the lives they deserve. Providing them with the security I did not have became a priority. Looking back, it’s safe to say that my mom spent her years making sure she gave me a life better than the one she had, as well.
As the eldest daughter in a family of seven children, she was forced to leave school to help raise her younger siblings when her father became ill and her mother needed to enter the workforce. She was married at nineteen and had her first child at twenty-one. She spent twenty-five years in a difficult marriage, raising seven children of her own. I know she worked in retail for most of her career, but she sometimes cleaned houses for extra income. I know she spent most of her life just making ends meet, and she never traveled outside of the United States. “Vacations” were limited to visiting her children, whether to my sisters in Nebraska or Arizona or to me in California.
When I left home and moved across the country, with not so much as a backward glance in her direction, I didn’t give a lot of thought to how it would make her feel. I just told her I had decided to leave the East Coast for the West, sight unseen. We spoke on the phone on Sunday evenings after the long-distance rates went down, but rarely beyond that. I would occasionally call for family recipes when I was homesick or to clarify a recollection I was having trouble with. She would call if someone was sick or a relative had passed. Our conversations were largely about other family members’ health and well-being and the weather. Pretty simple stuff. It sure would be nice to be able to pick up the phone and ask about any one of them today.
She watched me go out and struggle in the world as she had with each of my other siblings. We floundered. We failed. We regrouped. We succeeded. Twice she suffered through the agony of losing two sons unexpectedly—her firstborn to an auto accident, and her youngest to a rare virus—and she never fully recovered. Alternatively, she celebrated the births of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The circle of life in full view.
As my children enter the world of adulthood, I find myself thinking back to who I was when I was their age. What my life was like and how I hoped it would be. It can be difficult to hold on to those aspirations when the more natural path is to put it all aside in the name of parenting. Who has time to think about much of anything when the day-to-day joy (and sometimes grind) of parenting takes all you’ve got—and then some?
I have no doubt that my mother knew she was loved by my siblings and me. I think she understood I didn’t give her enough of my time, because I always thought there would be time for her later, but I was wrong. Given the opportunity, I would ask about the girl who became the woman who became my mother. I bet she would have a lot to say.
Observations on friendship by guest blogger Hollie Grimaldi-Flores.
There was a time when, if you had a few true friends, you would consider yourself lucky. It seems that Facebook has taken the word and somehow redefined it. Minimized it, if you will. I have more than 1,000 Facebook “friends.” Daily, I see the lives and times—both good and bad—of many people I don’t really know. My newsfeed seems to be filled with faces and names that are familiar only in passing.
I was talking with my brother recently about a post I saw from our aunt—only to find out this woman is not our aunt at all. I had the wrong Sue. Good thing I didn’t show up for the reunion! The photos looked fun, and I am certain I recognized a family member or two. Hmmmm.
I feel bad about blocking perfectly nice people, but the truth is I don’t necessarily care about their dinner plans, politics, or Pinterests. I really want to have my feed filled with the people I care about and am genuinely interested in. However, I find myself checking out vacation photos from more than one person I do not have a personal relationship with at all.
More and more often I find myself alarmed by the inappropriate posts and shares I see in my feed. I keep yelling at my computer screen: “This is too much information! Keep it off social media! It’s none of my business!” And I am sad to see longtime friendships ending over political and social differences. But I also see how this part of our culture helps the lonely feel less alone and the socially awkward more engaged.
I admit I am getting to know quite a lot about people I would never have considered inviting into my life without Facebook. But the bigger question is: do I really need to? Isn’t that what high school reunions are for? The wondering whatever happened to that boy from freshman English has gone out the door. Unless he is of the (seeming) minority who cannot be bothered or does not want to be found, I already know what he is doing.
Last week, I was in my hometown to meet up with some friends for a newly formed annual get-together. One lives in Indiana, another in North Carolina, and I’m in California. After mentioning the trip on social media, we were told that a few of our former classmates would be gathering at a local watering hole while we were in town, and we were invited to stop by.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by no less than fifteen alumni. I did not recognize at least three of them, but felt I had come to know another half dozen simply from our posts on Facebook. There were a few people who are not part of the FB community, and it was a genuine treat to catch up with them and find out about their families, interests, and career choices. There were also a few who were not friends in either real life or online, but we have since made a social media connection.
During the evening, many of us played twenty questions to fill in the decades that had passed since we graduated and went our separate ways. It is amazing how many times we passed each other in the halls without a sideways glance. But now, given the advances of modern technology, we share activities, successes, and even failures with abandon. I have found myself finding kinship with people I would not have otherwise given a second thought—and that is a good thing.
Also at this gathering were some of my faithful friends—longtime confidants and partners in crime who know and love me through and through. We don’t need computer applications to keep track of our comings and goings, but it does make it easier to keep up.
I have a close friend who just doesn’t get it. Why are we all so fascinated with the lives of people we would otherwise not spend a moment getting to know? My former classmates are all fine people, but the truth is, without social media I would have long forgotten many of them. I would know nothing of their whereabouts, offspring, or recent vacations.
While it is interesting and does give a sense of belonging, these people are not among those I would call in an emergency. This new brand of relationship is a long way from friendship. Might it be more adequately described as acquaintance, or something even more casual, like a passing interest or simply voyeurism? Still, my sense of empathy has me sending condolences to someone I went to school with nearly forty years ago whose dog lost its fight to cancer. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
The truth is, I know who my real friends are. The ones I would call in a crisis. Those I turn to first, in celebration and in sorrow. There are a scant few I know I could call in the middle of the night for help, knowing they would come to the rescue—no questions asked. I know the ones who would probably be in the cell beside me should we find ourselves in real trouble. That kind of friend is sacred. It’s important to be able to make this distinction.
We’re now on our fifth housesitting job – experienced pros. It’s an interesting way to see a country. For the most part, we’ve wandered off the main tourist tracks. We probably wouldn’t have made special trips to the Headington Shark, or Ashdown Forest (100 Acre Wood), or opening weekend at Hatfield House complete with French Market. We certainly wouldn’t have met so many locals and hung out in so many proper pubs – and our journey would have been the poorer for missing out on them.
Even in places we would have visited, such as Stonehenge and Beachy Head, we have a more nuanced appreciation for what we’ve seen, where we’ve been.
All have been lovely, like bed and breakfasts with dogs, but there have been a couple of locations where the word “bleak” comes too easily to the lips. “Greater” London seems like a misnomer in some of the towns we’ve found ourselves in. It’s been a reminder that we’re travelling, which feels different from going on holiday.
We realised quickly that you need to look at housesitting as a part-time job, which is only fair as you’re getting board in return for watching people’s pets and homes. The easiest part of the job has been taking care of people’s pets – dogs, cats, rabbits, and fish so far. Without the busyness of home, we spend our days walking through neighbourhoods, hanging out with pets, and checking out the local sights. We have found a nice rhythm (a word that I return to again and again on this journey).
All this housesitting has made me think about what “home” means to me. My attachment to stuff has gone quite quickly, although I bet it will return as soon as I don’t need to pack up every few days. I miss easy conversations with family and friends and walking with my dog, but I haven’t missed our house or my creature comforts yet.
My first summer as a park ranger at Mt Rainier, I remember a conversation I had with a veteran of the National Park Service life. For years she’d gone from seasonal job to seasonal job in the national park system, with travel abroad in the shoulder seasons when work was lean. But when I met her, she was completing her last stint as a ranger and going back home to take a permanent job. I remember thinking she was crazy. Her life seemed so amazing to me, but she said she had grown tired of “always looking in”. I get that. While I’m still enjoying the journey, I get how the need for a sense of place will always lead you home or at least make you want to create a home where you are.
In our current housesit, I’ve taken to picking up rubbish on my morning walks with the dog we’re caring for. I’m amazed at how just that one small active commitment to a place changes my whole perspective. It makes it feel like I’m where I belong – at least for now.
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand.
Another gem from guest blogger Hollie Grimaldi Flores.
I often hear people say that parenting is the toughest job there is. I tend to agree, but I can’t help but think—is it really a job? There are no vacation days. You can’t accrue sick time. The hours are horrendous. It’s not like you get to quit being a parent, or simply stop showing up. Well, maybe… technically…you can, but that is depressing to think about.
In my opinion, being a good parent is the toughest job there is. Still, there is no pay, no cost of living increase, no retirement package. It is often thankless and fraught with decades of worry and angst. I have wondered, more than once, why people continue to do it. Why do people continue to procreate?
The reality is that even being a good parent does not come with any guarantees. In fact, I know plenty of parents who read the books, did the work, showed up, cared for, attended, coached, and supported their child to the very best of their ability, and still the child grew up to be not so great. All those years of thoughtful child-rearing still led to stress, heartbreak, and disappointment. The hopes and dreams for the baby they once held in their arms, shattered.
On the flip side, I hear stories of young people who had parents who were barely present beyond conception—who did not do the work, were not there, did not care for, attend, coach, or support. In many cases, they were actually a hindrance to their children’s upbringing, yet the kids turned out to be great humans. They excelled in school, were active in the community, and strived for greatness in spite of the lack of parental guidance. It almost feels like a roll of the dice.
I was talking to a woman recently who said she is not a parent on purpose. In reply, I shared that I am a parent by accident. She thought that was sad. This is not a secret in our family. I never really thought I would be a parent (for a number of reasons), but once the shock of the surprise wore off, I never looked back. I loved every bit of it—so much so that I opted for a second round. I was (and still am) fully devoted to raising my children. But they could not be more different.
My son and I often discuss the debate regarding nature and nurture. According to explorable.com, “One of the oldest arguments in the history of psychology is the Nature vs Nurture debate. Each of these sides [has] good points, [so] it’s really hard to decide whether a person’s development is predisposed in his DNA, or [if] a majority of it is influenced by his life experiences and his environment.”
Aside from gender, the differences I see in my offspring are hard to explain. The two of them are, and always have been, of a different disposition—with different interests, approaches to life, aspirations, and coping skills. I believe they came into the world this way—as part of their DNA (nature). But I realize their environment and experiences (nurture) have also played a part in who they are today.
When I remarried , I entered another realm of parenting. The role of step-parent ranks pretty high on the toughest-job-there-is scale. It is hard enough to love and raise your own offspring, but it takes a special kind of patience and devotion to raise the children of others. Sharing the children with another adult or set of adults comes with a breeding ground of difficulty. I see many people do it seemingly effortlessly, and I admire and applaud them. I was not those people. I admittedly struggled. I showed favoritism. I tried to overcompensate.
They are all grown now. Despite my shortcomings, they are, for the most part, doing just fine. Ultimately, we did the best we could with what we had. And I think most parents do the same. The reality is that when a child grows up to become a good and decent productive adult, it is not necessarily a reflection on the parenting they received. And visa versa. That is a hard pill to swallow.
We can only do our best and hope for the best. The adult children make their own decisions.