I taught my students the words ‘suicide bombing’ on Saturday

I taught my students the words ‘suicide bombing’ on Saturday.

The news from Paris broke just as I was waking up in Shanghai. On Saturday mornings I have to drag myself out of bed at 6:30, a feat which has grown infinitely harder now that the weather is cold. I have a habit of checking the news in the morning to help me wake up, and I almost always listen to All Things Considered from NPR.

Scanning headlines. Not much, not much, not much…60 dead? Paris? I immediately thought of our family and friends in London, only two hours away from that Grande Ville. I sent several messages with our mobile numbers in case anyone needed to get in touch quickly.

As the day unfolded, I was in classes. I teach English, but my highest-level classes are more like a combination of Language Arts, Civics, History, and current affairs rolled into one. I push my students hard, and they are old enough to benefit from intense discussions as well as witticisms (mostly on their part, as I am old and lame 🙂 ).

In my afternoon class, filled with 13-15 year olds, we had a great discussion. We joke a lot during our two hours together, and my segue into a serious discussion was preceded by exclamations of ‘Oh my Lady Gaga!’ and copious fart jokes. They have been my students for six months now, and they trust me. I lowered my voice and asked them to talk with me about something serious.

I put the BBC live updates up on our interactive board. I asked if they had heard of big news.

‘Terrorists,’ said Jerry.

‘Yes, where?’


‘Yes. What do you know about it?’

I try to use the Socratic method in my classes as much as possible. I cycle through endless questions, hardly ever giving a direct answer. I ask, ‘Why? Why? Why? Ok, Why?’ like a suddenly-conscious three year old.

They gave details. We read the summary on the live feed. 160 feared dead (at the time). Concert hall attacked. Stade de France. My notes were in red by accident, but it seemed somehow appropriate. I wrote the words ‘suicide bombing’ on the board and asked what they meant.

They looked confused.

‘Ok, break it down into smaller parts. Just like always.’

I drew parentheses around ‘sui’ and ‘cide’.

‘You know the word bomb, yes?’ Nodding heads.

‘Ok, so what does ‘cide’ mean?’ I asked. ‘Have you heard the word genocide before?’ Utter confusion. No nodding heads.

‘Ok, how about homicide?’

Michael pipes up: ‘Yes, but I don’t know what it means.’

‘Ok, well ‘homi’ means human. ‘Cide’ means….’ I mimed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Jerry: ‘Strong? Muscle?’

Me: ‘Kill.’

All the girls’ eyes widened, and I knew they knew what the words meant already. I wrote ‘kill’ above ‘cide’ on the board.

‘Who is ‘sui,’ then?’

Jeffery, who is very good at guessing the meanings of words, says very quietly, ‘Self.’

‘A little louder, Jeffery!’


The realisation of what those two words meant was palpable in the room. All the students were suddenly really paying attention. I explained that a suicide bomber is someone who straps a bomb to their body and blows themselves up in order to kill other people.

‘Crazy,’ said Jerry.

I wrote 7/7 on the board.

‘Do you know this?’ No nodding heads. ‘Jerry, what year were you born in?’


‘Oh my Lady Gaga, I’m so ollllld!’ They all laughed.

I explained that this was the date of another terrorist attack, in London. I wrote 9/11 on the board. Lambert, the eldest, spoke through chewing his t-shirt to bits. Interestingly, he looks like my teeniest preschoolers when he does that. They eat their clothes out of anxiety, too. I asked what happened on 9/11/2001.

Silence for a little while. Most of them were not even born. It’s like asking me to remember my own experience of the Berlin Wall falling as a toddler. I don’t remember it, except through history class.

‘But you have studied US History!!!’ Jerry pleaded with Lambert. ‘We haven’t yet!’

‘Some planes caught on fire,’ Lambert said.

‘No, they did not catch on fire.’

Jerry: ‘They, uh, exploded?’

‘Not exactly.’

Through his t-shirt, Lambert: ‘They were hijacked.’

The students know that word, probably from video games.

‘The were! Very good. People took four planes full of people and flew them into buildings on purpose.’

Their eyes were so wide. Terrorist attacks sound crazy in simplified English, stripped as they appear when layers of euphemism are thus removed. They all confirmed with me again, ‘On purpose?’

‘On purpose.’

I wrote Charlie Hebdo on the board, and asked if they knew about the previous attacks this year in Paris. I brought the discussion back to Friday’s attacks by asking who did this.

‘IS,’ said Lambert through his t-shirt.

‘Maybe,’ I said (it was not confirmed at the time). ‘But we don’t call them that, because it seems to give them legitimacy. We call them Daesh (I wrote it on the board), because it insults them. Who did these?’ I pointed to the other attacks.

Jerry: ‘The same?’

‘Sort of.’ A necessary oversimplification, for the purposes of an ESL classroom. I added Al Qaeda. They all attempted, and failed, to pronounce it. I drew a massive pink circle connecting the attacks.

‘They are all connected. But now what is happening with these two groups?’

‘They are fighting!’ jokes Lambert, removing the tee from his teeth temporarily. Everyone laughed. How ridiculous.

‘They are! They are fighting!’ I drew a black explosion between the two on the board.

‘WHAAAAT?’ They all said.

Every week, we take the BBC’s 7 Days, 7 Questions news quiz. They work in teams and can bet fake money on the answers. Most of the time, the quiz has bizarre, funny, or obscure news. We always talk about current affairs before the game. I asked them why we always do the news quiz, taking a seat for once in an empty desk. They shrug, still laughing about how two terrorist groups could declare war on one another.

‘This is why. Does anyone know someone in Paris? One of the teachers here has a friend who could hear the gunfire from her hotel room.’ I pointed to the board. ‘Imagine if this were Shanghai.’

All the air suddenly went out of the laughs. They looked at me with genuine concern and sadness, in that typical way of teens who just realised how serious a situation would be. Suddenly it was real to them.

‘Would we be in class?’


‘Would we all be safe?’


‘Maybe. But maybe not.’


‘This is why we do the news quiz. This is why you must pay attention to the news,’ I said. ‘Because something like this could reach into our lives without warning, and change everything. You have to pay attention to what is happening in the world. It is important. Does anyone have any questions I can answer?’ A pause.

‘Are you all ok?’ Nodding heads.

‘Oh, it’s break time. Thank you for the great talk, guys. See you in 15 minutes.’

Women Must Travel Alone

soloI am a female traveler. This is a key distinction and it isn’t. Sometimes it feels as though my femininity is a raging purple elephant in the room, like the other night in the Gok when a budding ajoessi spoke entirely to my boyfriend about me, in front of me. Oh, very pretty. Oh, when will you get married? Sometimes it feels like a pass to places forbidden to men. Sometimes it feels like it’s not even present. Sometimes it feels like I can’t shake it for the life of me.

I am a solo female traveler. I’ve visited so many countries in the past five years that the Indian Embassy’s website cut me off on my visa application. I’ve moved to three different countries in that time span, and each time I went alone. I’ve logged literally thousands of miles of solo travel, most of it out of my own country.

I’m also a feminist. This is not a dirty word.

Assisi, 2009

Assisi, 2009

There’s your background on myself, for context. In a few places online, the last week brought a torrent of comments about solo female travelers. Due to the tragic death of a woman traveling alone in Turkey this month, some are saying that women have no business traveling alone. Especially if they happen to be a mother. Especially in the so-called Muslim World. Especially “third world” countries. Some choice comments:

  • “Another Darwin award winner. Young female traveling alone in the Islamic world. And a mother of two at that. What was she thinking?”
  • “Forget about the mother,why did the husband let his wife travel ALONE!Foolish as hell.Dumbmove”
  • “I don’t think women ought to travel alone period, mothers or not.Specially not to 3rd world Islamic countries, where we all know they have little regard for women’s lives.”
  • ” I think maybe it’s a good idea for any women wishing to travel alone be required to call in to a loved once an hour during the time she’s away so everyone knows she’s safe.”
  • “Her passion for photography ended her life. It’s unfortunate but you never know how things work in other countries; no matter how much research you do. It’s not like the US, people have their own agendas, and how dare us come to these countries as tourists, naive and trusting. It’s just a setup for a bad outcome.”
  • “If the companion for this lady traveler (my emphasis) canceled, sadly, this was the signal that this woman should have canceled the entire travel plan.”

Mothers should never travel. Women should have permission of their husband to travel. Women should never travel unaccompanied. Women should not even have passions like photography. Well, helllooooo, Saudi Arabia! I didn’t realize that the US had imported your views on women’s mobility! It’s codswolloppy victim-blaming at its finest.

Swiss Alps, 2009

Swiss Alps, 2009

To be a traveler, as I define it, is to put up with everyone insisting they know better than you. People inevitably tell you to avoid the country to which you are moving at all costs. They think it’s their business to butt into your bathroom habits and tell you just how little toilet paper they found in Korea. They tie up a Skype conversation by asking when you will “get a real job” and “get serious.” They tell you that the food sucks. They tell you you’ll get robbed. They tell you to stop looking for yourself and settle down.

As tragic as the situation for Sarai Sierra and her family, I really didn’t need an extra reason for people to criticize my lifestyle. Whenever I am back home for an extended period of time, the subject comes up and someone gets a case of the can’t-shut-ups about traveling alone as a woman.

I remember the very first time that I ever traveled alone. I was 19, and I lost my lunch into the bin just out of sight of security after saying goodbye to my parents in DIA. I forgot my favorite belt of all time in the process. But I’ve come a long way since then. Here are my best pieces of advice and stories from the solo female traveler road.

Stolen seat on an Eurostar train, 2009

Stolen seat on an Eurostar train, 2009

Ignore Ignore Ignore Ignore

Is someone speaking to you on the street? Ignore. In English? Ignore more. Pretend you’re deaf and keep your face neutral. I lived in the heartland of the catcall (Italy) as a 6-foot-tall, blonde haired, blue-eyed woman with considerable, um…assets. I don’t think I even made it out of the US before I got my first Italian whistle getting on the plane. I accepted the constant chatter so well that by the time I made it back to the US I became depressed after nary a “ciao bella!” in a week of walking around Boulder.

I’ve also had the second tier of street harassment. If someone grabs you, calmly slip away. Avoid confrontation. Resist the urge to slap him and plant a “Motherfucking cocksucker!” on him at top volume, especially if he has buddies around him. Once a man grabbed me by the braid in front of the Napoli train station. He turned my head toward him and caressed my cheek. I avoided eye contact, calmly removed his hand, and walked away without a word. I could hear his friends laughing at my rejection, but I was safer than if I’d tried to start a fight.

Yes, it's 11,000,000 degrees and 1000% humidity. But my shoulders and neck are covered. --2012

Yes, it’s 11,000,000 degrees and 1000% humidity. But my shoulders and neck are covered. –2012


In certain situations, a bit of separation can do you good. I often wear sunglasses when walking about alone abroad, because they pull triple duty obscuring my face, covering my blue eyes, and making my expressions hard to read. In Bologna I was desperately lost in the summer of 2010, and I wandered into an underpass in the city frequented by heroin addicts. My sunglasses kept me covered and separated, and no one could see my tears of frustration and fear.

Another blogger recently said that when abroad, she dresses to observe rather than to be observed. Better advice about dressing might not be possible, but I also add that I tend to wear neutral colors and baggy clothing. Modesty is important. You may believe, as I certainly do, that a woman’s body is hers to do whatever she wants with. You may believe that men do not have a right to harass women who don’t dress modestly. You may believe that a woman in the 21st century should be able to show as much skin as she wants. Hard truth: you’re not liberating anyone by breaking rules in a society that is not yours to “liberate.” You aren’t doing yourself any favors, either.

Whenever I travel to a new country, I observe the women keenly and adopt a lot of their customs when it comes to dressing and acting. If women in Korea never show more than an inch of their necks (even in 35 degree heat), neither do I. If Chilean women insist on absolutely no wrinkles in clothing, so do I. If Italian women wear knee-length skirts and cover their shoulders, me too. I am about to travel to India, and I intend to dress as Indian women do (and probably die of heat). The illusion of propriety does wonders.

Geneva, 2009 (The WHO declared a global pandemic of H1N1 that morning!)

Geneva, 2009 (The WHO declared a global pandemic of H1N1 that morning!)

Get a buddy 

I often began the journey alone. I almost never ended it that way. Finding people to travel with is one of the best tactics of solo travelers. You have to have a certain amount of faith in the human race combined with an equal amount of faith in yourself to choose the right people. A few times, I made friends in hostels and went places that I wouldn’t have walked to alone. I reached out to friends and pulled them into my travels. I found companions, male and female, with whom I remain close to this day.

Russell is also a traveler and he said that he attracted a fair share of solo female travel buddies as a generally non-offensive and non-creepy man who also happened to be traveling alone in South America. Being tall and a jiu jitsu practitioner probably also helped his case, and I certainly feel a bit more comfortable traveling to India with him.

Let me be clear. I’m not calling for chaperones, male protectors, or saying that women should never travel without a buddy. Almost any buddy, male or female, will help watch your back and give you confidence. This is a bonus, not an essential.

Santiago de Chile, 2011

Santiago de Chile, 2011

Be aware

“It’s fine now, but when the shit goes down, I’ll tell you,” says the man with the biggest scars I’ve ever laid eyes on, a minute after I mmm-mmm’ed a response to drinks against my lips.  From heroin addicts.  In Santiago de Chile. At about 11 o’clock at night.

Yeah, I’m not certain how exactly I allowed myself into that situation. It was sketchy enough before the obviously-doctored drinks because of an open-air heroin deal right next to us a few minutes before. My companions were two other Americans, seemingly oblivious to the sketchface situation unraveling around us.

October 2011

October 2011

Don’t ignore the feeling that you should leave, especially in favor of an “authentic” experience. I got up to leave two minutes later, having heard enough from my kind scar-faced friend. Travel buddies? They were dancing and leaving their purses out. I’d already been robbed once that week, and I wasn’t looking to be drugged and god-knows-what-ed. I bolted. They whined. We got home unrobbed and unraped.

This awareness goes for national and international news as well. Try to read the local news as much as possible, and stay up to date on the goings on of the world. Political demonstrations are a no no, and certain sporting events can be a bit more dangerous for women due to the gender ratio (at times 10 or even 50 to 1). Know where to avoid, and keep your wits on you at all times.

Atrani, 2010

Atrani, 2010

If I’d never traveled alone, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. It’s given me confidence, skills, and languages that would have been completely out of reach. If I was hung up on always having someone to tag along with, I’d have never been on the trip to Seoraksan last May that led to me meeting Russell. If I had lacked independence, we’d have never ended up sitting next to one another on that bus ride and falling for one another over copious soju.

Women can travel alone, that’s certain. I take it one step further.

Women should travel alone.

Nothing that someone spouts on a soap-box commenting forum will ever deter me. May it be the same for you.

My Moveable Feast

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Ernest Hemingway

This weekend was Paris, seule. I boarded a train so motherf***ing nice that I felt compelled to swear in describing it on Friday afternoon and tore across the countryside at 200 km an hour, reading and brooding over the meaning of Paris.

So many great writers, great personalities, and great events passed through and in and under and above this ancient and sprawling metropolis. I had few plans, not being very motivated to push a whirlwind tour of all the biggest sites possible, wanting instead to wander and hopefully get lost. Wandering may reveal sweet secrets and even grand sights, but rushing incessantly from museum to tour to eglise and back again is certain to preclude some of the smaller discoveries.

To be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced that I would even like Paris. I have a general aversion to the crushing crowds juxtaposed with crushing isolation in big cities. Their stinky and claustrophobic metros. Their tendency to bring out the very worst and best in everyone, often simultaneously.

"Use guidebooks to identify spots frequented by tourists, and then go in the opposite direction." -The Tao of Travel

But I had a beautiful time in the city of light. I wandered alone across the whole city  Saturday morning, and achieved my sole goal of the weekend: seeing as much of the Louvre as possible. My meandering walk made me get there at about noon, and it was already a crazy hive of activity inside. It was far more overwhelming than even the Uffizi in Firenze, both in sheer size and richness of art. I couldn’t help but think that Napoleon stole a great deal of the works and set them up in his personal collection after ravaging much of Europe, and I admit that I felt a little indignant looking at some of the great Italian works in France. Especially the ones I knew were stolen from Ferrara, my adoptive Italian home.

I like looking for weirdnesses in fine art...their facial expressions are priceless (Jesus: Come on, dude, help! Other guy: *Sigh* All Right...but just this once)

I skipped lunch in favor of art, skipped breakfast in favor of sleep. I did not skip apèritif, nor the cognac digestif at the end of my one meal.

I’ve never gotten so lost, so quickly as in Paris. Not even in Venezia. I swear that the path changed and shifted seamlessly, becoming untraceable within seconds. The metro stations have the dizzying effect of an MC Esher painting, weaving their staircases in so many directions that I regularly questioned whether I was now walking on what had before been the ceiling.

For this and other reasons, I was glad I went alone.

When I’m alone and lost, I can feel stressed but often a zen-like sense of calm washes over me. I know that I have no one else to rely on and that anything but calm, assertive action will probably only work against me. I feel no frustration or anger brought on by reliance on others to get out of a strange situation. If only I could have the same mentality when I’m traveling with others, or indeed in my “real” life.

Someday I may really miss solitary travel. It’s a whole other can of worms with one baby crying in the stroller and the other strapped to your chest.

The weekend passed quickly, and almost in complete observational silence on my part. That made it a little lonely, and it was wrapped in the tangle of thoughts circling and repeating, alternately annoying and enlightening me. I woke up Sunday morning and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror of the hostel bathroom, struck by how different I look. Also by how cute. I’ll need a photo of myself at the beginning and one at the end of the year to display the change wrought on my face and body by the year that changed even my handwriting.

It turned out that I loved Paris. It was chaotic and multicultural in a true sense of the word, with many converging beliefs and races and even children who are growing up with interracial gay parents. Even with the issues brought on in a post-colonial republic, and even with the slight aftertaste of forced assimilation (“franciation,” and yes, that is the real French term), it’s a beautiful place.

But it will never be the Paris that exists only in the imaginary. The Paris of a remarkably uniform fashion sense amongst tourists who obviously believe that Paris is fashionable and therefore break out all manner of ungodly floral patterns that they would otherwise never be caught dead in (one hopes). The Paris of novels, of the Moulin Rouge, of the Belle Epoche, of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. The city itself is lovely enough that one doesn’t need the imaginaire…but people want it.

I'm not going to go up in the Tour unless I free-climb it myself.

I’ll confess that, given my current Moveable Feast-esque period in my life (by which I mean, I bought books today in lieu of buying lunch) I wanted to pay homage to one of my favorite books and dress in my best clothes, go to a cafe, and order a drink that I could barely pay for…just to coax Paris as it once was for Hemingway to come alive a little. Just to catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of the Paris that once was.

And when I did, I swear that the lights burned a little bit brighter in the city named after them.