Hello, Akko

I arrived in Akko (Akka? Acre? It all depends…) at 4:30 am last Monday morning after a grueling series of three flights, a train, and finally a cab ride in which my lack of both Hebrew and Arabic proved problematic – especially on next-to-no sleep. I fell into my bed at the Nautical Academy for two hours, then got back up at 6:30 and navigated a full day of introductions and orientations on adrenaline-fueled enthusiasm that lasted until dinner. After dinner came the crash, a night of real sleep (I still woke up at 3 am, but – hey – that meant time for yoga), and then a second full day of site tours, lab set-up, database manipulations, staff meetings, and lectures.

It’s now after dinner on my third day on the Tel Akko project. My lab is set up, my database is running, I’ve begun recording bone identifications – I even started my morning with a jog along the sea. It’s been a productive start, jet lag notwithstanding, and I can finally take time to soak in the evening breeze and the call to prayer and say hello to Akko.

This is my first time in Israel – my first time in the Middle East – but much of what surrounds me is familiar and pan-Mediterranean: the glossy orange trees, the tall cypresses, the blazing daytime heat that turns 85°F into a cool evening, even the lean cats stalking the garbage and ignoring my calls. Other things I encounter are quite different from my experience further west – most of my Italian friends would be horrified by eggs and olives and raw tomatoes for breakfast – but they aren’t totally unfamiliar due to a few brief visits to Turkey. Some things, of course, are wholly new, and I admit to feeling destabilized confronting dual-language signs in Hebrew and Arabic, both unfamiliar alphabets. I got used to speaking Italian, to guessing at French, to at least sounding out Greek. With Hebrew and Arabic, I’m starting at zero.

But starting at zero makes for the best adventure, and I’m looking forward to the next four weeks living, learning, and working in this new country.  I’m feeling especially relaxed about it because I’ve already encountered another important characteristic shared across the Mediterranean: warm and immediate hospitality.

Packing and De-Packing

When I leave Corvallis, I’ll leave with a suitcase, a carry-on, and a computer bag. Every other possession that sits in my apartment must be disposed of – either sent to limbo in my mom’s basement, given to friends, donated to charity, or thrown away. Figuring out what to do with everything that can’t come with me is a stressful process, far worse than figuring out what to take. Packing is full of delicious anticipation – I love imagining the potential surprises of my next adventure. De-packing, on the other hand, is awful.

The worst thing about de-packing is that it’s full of guilt. For example: in the corner of my apartment sits a rescue bike I pulled off a curb the night before a city-wide junk pickup. The bike is in fine condition except that the tires are flat and the seat is missing a clamp to secure it. These are easy fixes, and shortly after I rescued the bike, I joined a bike collective where I had the necessary space and equipment. But that, my friends, is the end of the story of the bike. I never did those fixes, even though having a bike would have been pretty helpful. I could claim I’ve been too busy, but I’m suspicious when I use that excuse. Probably I was intimidated, probably I’m just lazy, probably I lack motivation… And so on chants the internal chorus of self-recrimination.

I confront many such failures when I’m de-packing. Most are banal: I arrived in Corvallis with three rolls of specially engineered dental floss, and I will leave with two-point-five (as well as insufficiently flossed teeth, apparently). When not displaying my failures, de-packing highlights my foibles: my skin is never so pampered as in the last weeks before a journey, as I frantically use up the pile of bath products I’ve amassed and won’t throw away.

But there is a silver lining to this painful process. Over repeated iterations of de-packing, the things I own become an ever-more-curated collection of the Absolutely Necessary and the Much Beloved. I learn more about who I am every time I de-pack because I’m forced to refine the everyday tools of being me. While there are many possessions I like, there are few possessions that actually enable me to be myself, and that’s the ultimate test. Shoes may be pretty, but if they aren’t comfortable after twelve hours of walking around a city, they won’t make the cut, even if they’re new.

De-packing is arduous but essential – the equivalent of molting for travelers. I’m pretty broken up that I’m finally donating an adored blazer I’ve carried on every adventure since I bought it in Paris in 2010. On the other hand, I’m pleased that a cocktail strainer I was given when a Corvallis restaurant closed will allow me to share my love of American mixology with my international colleagues at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Every time I de-pack, it strips me of a crust of accumulated stuff that has started to prevent the life it was originally meant to enable. I emerge from the molting feeling squishy, wide-eyed, and a little shocked, but also stronger – and ready to take on something new.

A girl and her boots

I don’t own boots. The making of this travesty is complex, but I do not currently own hiking boots. An archaeologist without boots is like a sad knight from Arthurian legend who’s lost his sword and wanders the countryside lamenting to passers-by. An archaeologist without boots upends some kind of natural order.

I remember my boots. I got my first pair in high school: a basic pair of ankle-high Nikes that lasted all the way through college. I wore them until the soles split and the leather cracked at the toes. They were fine boots.

My next pair were mid-high Keens that I got for free because I was working at an outdoor outfitter. They were perfect – comfortable, light, flexible in the sole but supportive around the ankle. They saw me through my dissertation research and beyond, but eventually they, too, succumbed to the tolls of fieldwork. As with my first boots, I retired them by tying their laces together and hanging them high in a tree. I think of it as Viking burial for shoes.

In the background of this story, I confess, lurks a pair of Bad Boots – the source of my current predicament. To be fair, probably the boots weren’t really Bad. Probably they just weren’t right for me, an ill-fated boot-girl pairing that, once done, was hard to undo. The boots were all-leather Scarpas – rigid soles, rigid uppers. I bought them before leaving to study abroad at University College Cork, where I had every intention of joining the Hillwalkers Society.

I’ll take my share of the blame. I didn’t break the boots in properly before I left, and my very first trek with the Hillwalkers destroyed my ankles so badly it was also my last. The boots were relegated to the back of my Irish closet and I bitterly lamented leaving my good old Nikes at home.

But Scarpas are Expensive, so though I didn’t wear them again for years, I couldn’t quite get rid of them. They moved with me in boxes and bags through a series of grad school apartments. They survived a terrible basement flood that corroded the eyelets so badly that one of them simply snapped off. But still I kept the Scarpas, and after I had sent my Keens to the Great Excavation in the Sky, the Scarpas were the only boots left to accompany this impoverished postdoc on her year in Paris.

I tried to make it work, really I did. I wore the Scarpas while I did fieldwork in Sardinia, but since my “fieldwork” was basically all lab work that summer, my tenuous relationship with the boots was able to survive. We fell back on the rocks in September when I took them to Lozère on a hiking trip with a friend. I never let on, but my feet were hurting terribly midway through a four-hour hike along a trail of menhirs on the Cham de Bondons. The last straw came on a hike to the Cascade de Runes. It was more of a walk than a hike. There was an actual trail with a guide rail and everything. But the path was pretty steep and it was broken by a lot of large cobbles – my inflexible Scarpas tore my ankles apart as I tried to navigate the uneven terrain. It was so bad that I walked back in the water shoes I had brought for splashing in the falls.

It’s probably not their fault, but the Scarpas did not earn tree burial. When I left Paris, I chucked them in a donation bin across from the Jardin des Plantes, and may they be exactly what someone else needs. As for me, I’m going to Peak Sports to check out the newest mid-high Keens. I bet I will find love.

Leaving

I’m leaving again. My destination this time is Acre, Israel, where I will spend five weeks working as the zooarchaeologist on Penn State’s Tel Akko project.

I’ve learned that eight months is how long it takes me to acclimate to a new place. The first month is for locking down the basics. I figure out where the grocery store is. I get a job if I need one. I find the laundromat. I set up internet. I get a library card. I’m lonely, so I join a club. Or several clubs.

Months two and three are for figuring out logistics and making panicked adjustments. Where’s the doctor’s office? What about the optometrist’s? Can I walk there or should I figure out the bus schedule? I can’t afford half the groceries I’m buying: better figure out what’s actually in my budget.

Months four-through-seven are for fine-tuning. Maybe my job isn’t great. Maybe I’m not as close to some people as I thought I’d be. I find a new job, explore new friendships, try new coffee shops, look for better parks. There are always hiccups and false starts.

By month eight, things have fallen into place. I’ve settled into my job. I know the fastest route from my gym to my workplace. I know the most scenic route, too, for days when I have more time. I have a set of foods that I both enjoy and can afford. I have a favorite restaurant, a coffee shop with that precise, productive blend of ambient noise, a bar with a mean craft cocktail and a good crowd. I’ve made a real friend. If I’m lucky, I’ve made a few.

It takes me eight months to acclimate. That makes month nine the hardest time to leave.

I wasn’t destined to love Corvallis, but I didn’t know that when I decided to move here after Paris. I was excited to spend time with my best friend, and my head was full of visions of Portlandia – I arrived in Corvallis fully prepared to love my left coast, hipster hometown.

I didn’t. Corvallis lacks certain things I’ve discovered are important to my happiness: an art museum, for example. And an airport. Nothing about living in Corvallis has made me feel quite so isolated as being two hours from the nearest real airport. The smallest city is made global by an airport: the entire rest of the world is only as far away as the other side of the security line.

Still, it’s month nine, and I’ve put down enough roots to feel them getting torn up. I have a job I enjoy. I have friends. I have a French conversation group that I meet with when I can and a tenuous-but-growing connection to the university. I’ve started falling into the kind of spontaneous adventures that I love – just last week, a wine tasting with my friend Ana ended with the pair of us serving as social media models for Grochau Cellars.

Month nine is when I start seeing what life would look like if I stayed in a place, and despite being lived in the allergy capital of the US (who knew?), life in Corvallis would have its perks.

But archaeology is an itinerant profession, at least for many of us, and it’s the profession I love despite all the sacrifices it asks for. So I’m leaving again: already missing the friends I’ve made but looking forward to the broad horizon on the other side of security.