Les Gilets Jaunes

My first weekend in Paris, I marched with the Gilets Jaunes. It started by accident. I’m sympathetic with anyone who’s frustrated by the unholy marriage of wealth and politics anywhere in the world, but I hadn’t set out to march with them. I hadn’t even known they were marching. I’m in Paris right now to work on my research at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, and I was taking my Saturday to visit the Musée d’Art Moderne.

But as I approached the Quai Saint-Michel in front of Notre Dame, I met with a line of yellow-vested protesters. I’d read about the Gilets Jaunes in the news. I’d discussed them with my friends in the anthropology department. I’d even seen some of the damage they’d caused when I celebrated New Year’s Eve at the Champs Elysée. Somehow, it never occurred to me that I might actually run into them. But here I was, watching the march go by.

The January 5 march crosses the Pont Saint-Michel.

I joined for several reasons. First, it seemed convenient. They were going my way –  following the route along the Seine that I was taking to the art museum. I could have crossed the river or taken the metro, but I joined because I was curious. I wanted to do more than glance at their signs as they walked by. I wanted first-hand knowledge of what it was all about, to read the messages on their hand-decorated vests, to eavesdrop on their conversations. As an anthropologist, I study humans. As an archaeologist, my work is full of the power dynamics of the past. How could I not at least observe?

Later, I read more about those marches. I read about a ministry break-in and vehicles, dumpsters, and a river barge burned. I can’t speak to any of that, because I didn’t see it. All I can do is tell what I saw.

A personified France takes the tape from her mouth.

What I saw was a very different picture from what I’d seen in the news before arriving in Paris. The atmosphere among the group I joined was defiant – chants of “Macron démission!” (Macron resignation) sprang up frequently – but it wasn’t violent. The protesters were of all ages. Many seemed to be alone, some were in small groups that chatted between chants. Some were parents marching with their young children. Many had decorated their yellow vests with drawings and slogans, some quite artistic, many poignant. People identified themselves as retired, as fathers, as women, as religious – the unifying thread was anger at runaway greed that would blithely harm others to further its own ends and at a government perceived to be complicit.

I saw no violence that was started by the protestors, though there could have been some that was out of my line of sight. I did see a few young men wearing masks – a gold Guy Fawkes mask sticks out in my mind as overly Hollywood – but I never saw them do anything. Many shops along the route had been closed, and some anxious proprietors stood at their doors and watched, but I saw no windows smashed or property destroyed. What I saw was a peaceful protest.

“All Together: Retirement, Salaries, Employment. Everyone needs to live.”

We were getting close to the Musée d’Orsay when I decided I had seen enough and was ready to head on to the art museum. I started to speed up to break through the crowd when I noticed smoke on the bridge up ahead. The crowd was getting thicker. I kept pushing until there were too many people to push through, which was when I realized we were blocked. A line of police in riot gear blocked the bridge, and I assume there was one in front of us blocking the Quai Anatole-France. This is also when I realized the smoke was tear gas. The police on the bridge had already used a canister or two and were now deploying several more. The marchers called for the protestors on the front line to push. They did. The police used their batons.

A cloud of tear gas came toward those of us who were backed up against the wall surrounding the Grande chancellerie de l’ordre de la Légion d’honneur. It wasn’t bad where I was, but it was at this moment that I realized why several people had been marching in surgical masks. I turned away from the cloud and noticed a small woman in her sixties pressing into the wall with her eyes squinted and her glove to her face. I had nothing to offer her, and I felt foolish and unprepared.

Smoke over the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor turned out to be tear gas.

My own glove over my face, I decided it was time to turn back. I retreated to the Musée d’Orsay, where police stood ready to block the protestors who would inevitably come that way. It was disconcerting to see the shields and helmets and batons lined up outside that elegant building with its trove of Monets and Van Goghs. I didn’t stay to contemplate, however; the marchers were already coming my way and I was quite satisfied with my first experience of tear gas. I politely asked the police if I could pass. I spoke in French, but with my American accent and lack of a yellow vest, they barely looked at me as they waved me through.

Politicians are confounded by the Gilets Jaunes because they have no real leaders and no clear demands, but that makes sense to me. How can you list your demands when it isn’t a single policy, but an entire system you feel has failed you? Why should there be a leader when it isn’t one person’s agenda but a whole people’s frustration that’s being expressed? I said I joined the march because it happened to be going my way. The phrase sticks with me, and I wonder how true it might be.

“‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ It’s just at the top of city hall, but now it needs to apply to everyone.”


A Conspiracy in Paris

There’s a conspiracy in Paris, and a lot of the major museums are in on it. I didn’t recognize it at first, but it’s real, and – like The Da Vinci Code (which, full disclosure, I have not actually read) – I found an important clue in the Louvre.

The Louvre was the first museum I visited on this trip to Paris. A friend offered me a free ticket, so how could I resist? But I’ve been before, so the question was – what to see? I followed signs for the Ancient Mediterranean without a clear plan, stopping at a case of prehistoric Cypriot ceramics. Beautiful, but I’ve seen artifacts like these many times. I walked further in, looking for something new, and caught site of a doorway offering to usher me into the world of Islamic art. Now this – to me at least – was new.

A 16th century illuminated Islamic novel

The Islamic wing was the main section I visited that day, utterly absorbed by the elegance, gorgeousness, and minute craftsmanship of the objects on display. The exhibition covers centuries of artistic development from across the Muslim world, and I found myself drawn especially to the examples of writing as art and writing in art. Favorites were a lavishly illuminated novel that showcased the owner’s wealth, taste, and education even across the time and culture gap, and a vibrant set of tiles depicting a poetry competition. I left the Louvre delighted, but completely unaware that a conspiracy was afoot.

I still didn’t catch on when I visited the Musée du Quai Branly. The Quai Branly houses the ethnographic collections of Jacques Chirac, and – as an anthropologist – it was a must-see. I reveled in the power and clarity of these impressive artistic traditions, and I was especially interested to see that the museum was hosting a special exhibition on the long history of engagement between Africa and Europe*. African materials, techniques, inventions, and artistic influences were traced through exchange contacts and their subsequent effects.

The uniquely human musculature of the butt

I was still oblivious when I visited the Musée de l’Homme. Another must for the anthropologist, the Musée de l’Homme proposes to tackle the very stuff of human existence: who are we, how did we get here, and where are we going? The museum’s impressive exhibits do just that, encouraging visitors to confront the wealth of human variety while always bringing us back to our human commonalities. I was delighted by the display that explains, in dispassionate detail, why humans are the only species to have a butt. The butt is a complex musculature developed to support specialized bipedal locomotion, and if the fact that everyone has a butt isn’t proof that we’re all the same deep down, I don’t know what is.

But the Musée de l’Homme didn’t stop with butts. There was a dedicated special exhibit deconstructing racism. As if the entire story of shared human evolution wasn’t sufficient, here was a whole space devoted to helping visitors understand why “race” doesn’t really divide us, and why we often believe it does. This is where I finally caught on.

So I wasn’t surprised when, on a visit to the Musée de l’Orangerie, home to Monet’s monumental water lilies, I discovered a special exhibit devoted to the influence of non-Western and especially African art on Dada. The Dada movement, a rejection of the anti-human horrors of WWI, was a major beginning of modernism in Western art, and it drew a huge amount of inspiration from non-Western aesthetics. We can – and should – debate the ways in which these aesthetics were appropriated and reproduced, but the point remains that in a moment of cultural crisis, Western artists looked for inspiration outside the West – as they had been doing for centuries.

My conspiracy theory drew some amusement when I shared it with Dr. Stephanie Nadalo*, a brilliant art historian who is also the friend who gave me my Louvre ticket. She describes this “conspiracy” – much more accurately – as “an organized and well publicized effort to decolonize art history.” After all, the founding mission of the Quai Branly museum, which was conceived in 1996 and opened in 2006, is to “encourage original dialogue between the cultures of four continents.” The Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre was founded in 2003 and the galleries opened in 2012, financed in large part by donations from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia and the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, Kuwait, and Azerbaijan in the wake of 9/11.

A 19th century skull figure from Cameroon at the Quai Branly

But what struck me about this effort to decolonize art history wasn’t just the shift in perspective of the permanent collections, but also the timeliness of the temporary exhibitions. The idea is out there that there is some such thing as a Europe or a “West” that is independent from what is non-Europe and non-West. This idea has gained particular visibility over the past several months in the backlash against eminent scholars discussing ethnic diversity in Roman and medieval Europe. As an anthropologist, I have concerns with some of the museums I’ve mentioned in this post, concerns with both their pasts and their presents*. But even so, I want to recognize these museums for their efforts to present more of the complete story of the so-called West. The complete story needs to be told, now, in as many venues as possible, and museums are perceived as presenting the “canon” whether they mean to or not. The West is and always has been multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious. Thank you to the museums of Paris for showing it.


* The temporary exhibition “L’Afrique des Routes” closed on November 12.

* You can follow Dr. Nadalo on Twitter (@postmodernclio) and Instagram (postmodernclio)

* For an example of scholarship discussing such issues, see A. Martin. 2011. Quai Branly Museum and the Aesthetic of Otherness. St Andrews Journal of Art History and Museum Studies 15: 53-63.

The Story of Meat Puck

Let me tell you the story of meat puck. The story begins the summer after I started my PhD program. I traveled to Italy for the first time to join an excavation in central Sicily. We were a large team, and the project hired two Sicilian cooks to keep us fed – a Herculean task given that we were dozens of twenty-somethings doing eight hours of manual labor. The project in Sicily was my introduction to authentic Italian food. I savored classics like pesto and caprese and sampled Sicilian specialties like arancini – balls of risotto that are stuffed with various fillings and then fried. Meals were delightful, eye-opening, and washed down with generous glasses of local wine and more than a few limoncellos.

Delicious as dinner was, the main fare was pasta, and night after night of carbohydrates can leave you wanting if your American vision of dinner includes a slab of meat. So there was one particular dish that was greeted with roaring enthusiasm every time it appeared. That dish was meat puck.

Meat puck is basically a large meatball that has been squashed, dusted with flour, and fried in olive oil, like a nugget of Italian meatloaf. The first time the team got meat puck, a light appeared in the eyes of every student who had worked on the project the year before. Knives and forks were seized with uncommon energy, even for that hungry crew.

“Meat puck!” they cried almost in unison, and dug in.

I spoke no Italian at the time, so I couldn’t ask what region of Italy meat puck came from, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that meat puck was tasty, hearty, and a glorious dose of protein. We got two per serving, and we loved it.

You can imagine my delight when I discovered that meat puck – like pesto and caprese – was pan-Italian. Five years after the project in Sicily, I partnered with an Italian colleague to run a small excavation in Sardinia as my dissertation project. A handful of students volunteered to work with us, and our tiny team bought lunches from a local couple who also catered for the town elementary school. Just a few days into the project, we opened our lunch boxes to find:

“Meat puck!” I cried.

“Meat puck?” my students asked, eyebrows raised. I laughed.

“I don’t know what it’s called in Italian, but we got it on a project I did in Sicily and we called it meat puck. It’s yummy.”

My students agreed. From that day forward, meat puck in our lunches was cause for celebration. It was the cherry on top of a day gone well, the saving grace of a day of disasters. And it made me happy, in a circle-of-life kind of way, to introduce a new crop of American students to this delightful Italian classic, as I had been introduced to it five years before.

But Americans are spoiled for choice. I grew up in a Midwestern town that was far from an exemplar of internationalism, and I still had access to Chinese, Thai, and Mexican in addition to the usual restaurant chains. During grad school, when my friends and I would take a break from our studies to get lunch, we first had to decide what kind of lunch we wanted: sushi? Indian? Latin fusion? Maybe try the new vegan place? Americans prize the opportunity to decide what we want, and choosing foods is no small part of this enjoyment. And why not? Even the best cuisines can become repetitive. I admit, after weeks of eating Italian every day in the field, my students and I were starting to wish for variety.

It was a great day, then, when one of the Sardinian workers told me: “you must be excited, you’re getting American food today!”

We were? How did she know? It turned out that the caterers provided a lunch schedule for the parents of children at the elementary school. My students and I spent the morning in rabid anticipation of this unexpected treat. What kind of American food would it be? I closed my eyes and wished that it might, just might, be barbecue. When lunchtime arrived, we threw the boxes on the table, ripped open the lids, and:

“Meat puck…?”

There was a stunned silence as we looked at the little fried meatloaves.

“But…” someone stuttered plaintively “meat puck isn’t American…”

The silence lengthened. It took us time to put it together. Slowly, unwilling to believe, we realized:

“Meat… pucks… are… hamburgers.”

There it was. The terrible truth stared up at us from a thin pool of olive oil. In a second of disillusionment, meat puck went from a beloved Italian specialty to a sadly inaccurate American one. Where was the cheese? The lettuce? The tomato? What about ketchup and mustard? Where was the bun?

It’s funny how expectation changes everything. I didn’t stop enjoying meat pucks once I realized they were hamburgers, but my enthusiasm lost its edge. The concept of Italian-American food was familiar to me, but I had never considered the possibility of American-Italian food. I had never imagined how it would taste to eat one of my national dishes after it had been translated for a different palate. I thought of the Chinese, Thai, and Mexican restaurants I had grown up with, and wondered how deeply those dishes were doctored so they would sell to a bunch of Ohioans.

I can’t deny that the story of meat puck has a kernel of disappointment. But I like to think it’s really a story of hope. A story of cultural exchanges waiting to happen, of important culinary bridges remaining to be built. The story of meat puck is a call to introduce Italians to the fresh, smoky, succulent flavors of the genuine American classic. And with this sacred duty in mind, I squared my shoulders and walked through a crisp fall evening to my friends’ house to cook them hamburgers. On a grill. With cheese. Without olive oil.


And Then It Rained

Yesterday, it rained. Not a hard rain, but a steady one. The clouds rolled in, set up shop, and kept at it all day, though they did take some coffee breaks and a pretty long lunch. It rained until dinner – a soft patter punctuated by the songs of the more courageous birds – and then began again during the night. I woke up this morning to a misty sky and wet pavement.

The mood in the bar yesterday was one of subdued relief. People were quieter than usual, listening to the rain outside. As I sipped my morning cappuccino, one of my friends said: “watch, the whole landscape will change.”

Like most of the Mediterranean, Sardinia has been going through a severe drought. I ask how long it’s been since there was rain. Six months? Longer, they tell me. The news is full of statistics on the drop in agricultural production. Unripe pomegranates hang broken on the trees, their skins split by the arid winds. The blackberries on the plateau are shrunken and juiceless, so dry they break if I squeeze them. All this year’s fruit is smaller, and less. The figs are tiny. The vines bear fewer grapes, fewer tomatoes, fewer melons. The almonds are shriveled in their shells.

But yesterday, it rained. By mid-morning, a smell of warm clay filled the streets as water soaked into the hard-baked dust. By afternoon, the smell was of living soil with all its tiny life waking up and cautiously carrying on. And by evening, as I walked home from the little town library, the breeze carried a scent of keen freshness, like cutting into a watermelon that’s still a little green.

This rain came too late for the summer fruit. Most of what produce there is has already been gathered. But I’m looking forward to my next long walk in the fields or up on the plateau. I’m looking forward to watching the landscape change – if we’re lucky – just in time to plant the winter grains.

A steady rain over the town of Siddi

In Quest of a Tweet

I’ve been in Sardinia less than two weeks, and I’ve been called out twice for not doing enough to share my research in Italian. It’s a fair criticism. I gave a well-attended public lecture in Italian at the end of the excavation I co-directed with Dott. Mauro Perra in 2009-2011, but since then I’ve done very little. The reasons are complex, and I did offer to give five weeks of public lectures on local archaeology in the summer of 2014, but it was eventually decided that English lessons would be a bigger draw (and I have to say, I delivered my English lessons to a packed house, and many Siddesi still greet me on the street with an accented “how are you”).

But the criticism stands, and the fact is archaeologists face a variety of challenges that can discourage us from speaking directly to the communities where we work. Combatting this issue is one of the missions of Public Scholar Outreach, a non-profit organization that two colleagues and I founded this year. It’s also the reason why the book I’m preparing with Dott. Perra to publish the results of our excavation will have summaries of each of the chapters in Italian. But the book won’t be out for a couple of years, and that’s too long to wait to start redressing this problem.

On my way to Sa Fogaia

Which is why I found myself trekking through Siddi’s countryside at sunset in search of tweet-worthy images of local archaeology. Italy celebrates European Heritage Days this month (September 23/24), and so in honor of Sardinian heritage, Public Scholar Outreach is featuring a full month of bilingual tweets and Facebook posts celebrating the archaeology and history of this beautiful island (follow us @ScholarOutreach).

I set off just after 6pm, phone in hand, to capture the fading light at one of my favorite monuments: the corridor nuraghe Sa Fogaia. Corridor nuraghi date to the early development of the Nuragic Culture during the Sardinian Middle Bronze Age (c. 1700-1365 BCE). They don’t reach the impressive heights of the later tholos nuraghi, but many – including Sa Fogaia – are complex structures with several chambers, multiple stories, and architectural features that suggest successive building episodes. Corridor nuraghi are often treated briefly in the scholarly literature. Few have been well excavated and even fewer published, and in many corridor nuraghi, later reuse destroyed the early Nuragic deposits, so even careful excavation may result in limited new information.

Because the corridor nuraghi are less frequently excavated and their deposits often damaged, our understanding of the early development of the Nuragic Culture is limited. Raising interest in these structures is one way to encourage more research to get done. So I walk. The most direct path to Sa Fogaia climbs a few gentle hills and then rises steeply up the side of the Siddi Plateau, the site of an important Middle Bronze Age settlement system of which Sa Fogaia is only one part. I pass a shepherd and his flock, and we exchange a few words about the coolness of the evening after the painfully hot day. He’s not someone I know, and he seems pleased that a foreigner is on her way to see the nuraghe. “There are lots on the plateau,” he tells me. I nod.


The last few meters up the wooded sides of the plateau

It’s a sweaty climb to the top, but the view, as always, is worth it. Sa Fogaia glows in the slanting sunlight and I get several good photos for Facebook and Twitter. Turning these photos into informative posts and tweets that will encourage people to engage with Sardinian archaeology is a whole other challenge, of course, but tonight I’ve taken an important first step.

Made it!




Yesterday was my first day back in the deposito, and I was delighted to find it in great shape: everything where I left it, the electronic equipment still working, no mold anywhere. There was barely a spider that had set up a web among the bags of pottery. While I’ve been away, the Comune even came and attached the plumbing, so whereas last year we constantly carried equipment to an outdoor tap to wash it, this year I have a functioning sink right in the lab. (Tante grazie al Comune di Siddi!)

There was one negative surprise, however. It turns out that the bones I was convinced were stored in the deposito are currently housed in a museum in another town about 5 km away. These bones are, of course, precisely the materials I came here to study.

It isn’t a major problem, and if it’s the worst thing that happens during the study, I’ll be in great shape. Still, archaeology is surrounded by bureaucracy in almost any country, and Italy is not an exception. Taking those four crates of bones, putting them in a vehicle, and driving them 5 km to the deposito will take days. There will be permit applications, calls to the Soprintendenza, organizing a day when we can use the Comune’s truck…

So when a friend asked me if I wanted to spend this morning helping him harvest his vineyard, I said sure!

In the vineyard before the sun, the heat… and the wasps

I got up at 6am and dressed for fieldwork – my Northface pants, a long-sleeved shirt with a high spf rating, hiking boots, work gloves, sunscreen, a hat. Then we drove to the vineyard – a short distance outside the town – where we met five friends who were also lending a hand.

Bunches of bovale wrapped around the wire trellises

It’s a small vineyard divided between two Sardinian grapes – bovale and monica – with a row of table grapes as well. We started with the bovale, which was difficult to harvest. The grapes are small and the clusters grow in tangles with themselves, the branches of the vine, the wire trellises the vines are tied to, really anything they can wrap a tendril around. It was hard work just figuring out where to cut, and even then we had to untangle the grapes before they would fall into our large plastic baskets.

The monica was simpler. The grapes are slightly larger and the clusters tend to hang down one by one. It was easier to see the stems, to insert our shears among the leaves and branches, to gather the clusters once they were cut. All in all, the seven of us made short work of the harvest. We finished before 9am, when the air was still too cool for the wasps to come out, but late enough that we could tell today was going to break 37°C (100°F) again. Another hot day in a series of hot days in a series of dry weeks stretching back for months. The effect of the drought was clearly visible in the grapes, some of which appeared to be drying on the vine before they had even fully ripened.

The crusher made short work of separating the grapes from the stems

The wine production takes places in my friend’s garage, and the first step was to turn our fresh grapes into must. We slowly poured each basket into an electric crusher, which spat out the stems – or most of them – and dropped the juice and crushed grapes into large plastic vats below. At the end, the vat of bovale was knee-high, and the vat of monica was only slightly lower. They told me it wasn’t much this year because of the drought, but it still looked impressive to me.

The must has to stand for a week to let the fermentation begin. We’ll go stir it a few times, then press it and bottle it. It seems almost too simple to result in the excellent wine I’m used to drinking at my friend’s table.

“È tutto?” I ask in some disbelief.

“È tutto,” they assure me.

We can’t resist tasting our work before we go. There’s a fine screen we press down on the must to let just the juice through, then we scoop up the juice in a plastic cup. Both are delicious. The bovale is intensely sweet and rich tasting, the monica slightly less sweet with a flavor closer to table grapes. Some complain that it’s too sweet, but it seems the intense sugar is expected in a drought year. Drought years produce little wine, they tell me, but the wine you get is very good. I’ll have to return next summer and see.

Sweet, delicious, fresh-squeezed juice



Sea and Sardegna

Vacation has come to an end. Tomorrow I go to the Comune to request keys for the deposito where the artifacts are stored. I start designing a database to record the bones in my zooarchaeological study. I buy a good desk lamp. I park myself in the Biblioteca Comunale and take advantage of the free wifi to answer a long list of emails. I go through the proofs for my edited volume.

But this week of vacation has been glorious, spent relaxing with friends on several of Sardinia’s beaches, and Sardinia’s beaches are gems. They tend to be small – narrow strips of sand caught between junipers and jutting rocks – reached only after turning off the road and driving several minutes down a dirt trail.

There’s often a kiosk selling coffee and gelato, maybe a simple restaurant, and that’s generally it in terms of services: most beaches are minimally “improved.” The ideal of the wild beach, sometimes reached only after leaving the car in an unpaved parking lot and hiking an hour down a dry riverbed, is one many Sardinians hold dear.

I have to agree with them. The beaches I saw this week weren’t even among the really wild, and they were stunning in their natural beauty. It’s hard to describe them without sounding cliché. The water deepens from aqua to almost purple as you look toward the horizon. It’s so clear I often watched my shadow on the rippled sand below me as I swam. Rising behind the beaches are slopes of rock and evergreen maquis broken only by occasional clumps of houses. Even these houses are the source of some complaint – my friends love to recount how, a few decades ago, there weren’t so many houses and the beaches were truly wild.

I find myself torn between wishing more people knew about the beauty of Sardinia and fearing that one day they will. That one day, not only the Costa Smeralda but also the Costa Rei will be covered with slick palazzi and high-end boutiques. That the Costa Verde will turn from a wildlife refuge to a stretch of strip malls. Most Sardinians show admirable stewardship of their lovely beaches: they don’t take the sand or rocks or shells, they do take all their garbage. I just hope further development will be in this same Sardinian spirit.

Cala Pira
The crystal waters of Cala Pira, near Costa Rei
The soft sands of Chia, in the south
Near Chia
Following the coast from Chia
A pebble beach near Capo d’Orso, in the north

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.