An ordinary day- October 27 2010

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I can hear the slapping sound of rubber tyres on the wet road. The realization that it’s rainy helps me push the snooze button an extra time. Again I think- winter will be tough for me.

I shower in the dark because the light annoys me. From the shower recess, I stare out the window in the unconsciousness between asleep and awake. The pavement is darker from the rain and the window is speckled with water, but the sky is a clear grey.

Despite a late night chicken soup cookfest the previous evening, the pot sits on the stove as I walk out the door. I realize on the landing of the stairs to the subway station. I stop. Do I go back or give up? The crowd squeezes up and swears at me as the flow of human traffic is impeded. As I don’t actually need to be at the office early, I opt for a retrieval. More complaints from my fellow subway riders as I try to navigate back through the peak hour flow.

There is an old man cleaning the entrance hall and stairwells. He is hunched over the mop and watches the residents trek through his cleaning with a quasimodo-like turn of the head. Clearly a glutton for punishment given that it’s wet outside.

The subway this morning doesn’t require us to hunch our shoulders for protection or hug our bags to our body. The advantage of a later departure I suppose. I finish my book-‘Brisbane’. Paul has left it for me from his visit. Originally a present intended for someone else, I managed to inherit it. I receive lots of thing by default rather than intention…. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Guess I am lucky. Yes, that’s the interpretation I am going to add to that one.

The exit from the subway train is an absolute crush. I’ve managed to be very close to the exit as I depart the train and immediately feel crowded. I walk with very tiny steps and notice the multiple women climbing stairs.

This is a city full of beautiful women people tell me. But I ride the train every day, and I don’t see them. There is an endless array of very confident women. Women in leggings with bums I should not have to witness. Hip-shaking walks that beg for attention. T-shirts that don’t actually fit. Stilt-like stilettos with casual outfits. Mini-skirts and plunging necklines on the coldest of days. I feel like I should drop some business cards for Trinny and Susannah. Except I would get punched I am sure.

On all levels it would seem the city is tough, and the women competitive. The dress code is just one display of this.

I ride the escalator in my ‘artist-smock shirt’ and my black pants, watching my feet to avoid the procession of ‘oh-so-short’ skirts scaling the other side of the escalator. I don’t need to see people’s breakfasts.

Maybe these supposedly beautiful women are all taking taxis.


Who’s writing? 20 Oct 2010 part 2

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Tonight I go to a writers’ workshop. A free event offered by one of the writing schools here in the city. A taste test you might call it- about developing characters.

Held in a 5 floor bookstore I need to coach myself to the event room. ‘No Nina. Just go to the workshop’. Very dangerous territory for a financially conscious intern.

When I find I am 10 minutes early I go in search of a makeshift diary. New York life is getting a little chaotic trying to juggle all the A4 printed flyers I find on line to support my interests and the little scraps of paper with suggestions from hallway conversations.  I buy a bright orange ruled paper notebook made from recycled rubber- partly because it looks fun, and partly for the green value. It’s blank rather than dated so I can create my life planner however I wish.

Our workshop leader is the head of the school. He lets us know right away they we will be writing tonight, not listening. I am both excited and intimidated. I can feel the stomach churn in anticipation.

Reflecting on my life over the last 12 months I am overwhelmed by the possibilities confronting me. I resist the temptation to base a character on my mother- both the most complex and simplest character in my life. I resist writing about anyone I know well. Too awkward I decide.

We write and share, write and share. I don’t share. Usually at these things I am one of the first to speak- mostly because nobody else wants to. I always feel a social obligation to get the ball rolling. Maybe it’s the trainer in me. Or an eldest child thing. Or simply a desire to have things work.

But this is New York. Everybody wants their time in the spotlight. No problems with volunteers here.

The workshop is a small microcosm of the book world. I listen attentively to April interrupting a couple’s private moment, to Dimitri lost in his world of dungeons and dragons, and Jose running and hiding from an unknown attacker. We also watch as two participants re-enact a scene from body heat. Not sure how that adds to our learning, but it sure is entertaining. And makes me think I should probably see Body Heat. Kathleen Turner talked about it at her public lecture the other week.

I come home feeling a little inspired. But also wondering how I reconcile my desire to soak up as much NYC as possible- and to lock myself away to write. If I can sort that one out, I’ll be a very happy woman.

Political Event

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Somehow I am first here. Right at the front of the line. I am early by 5 minutes actually. I changed at work and came straight to the event. Quite funny really given that I don’t have a ticket. Tickets are considered contributions and as a non-resident it is illegal to contribute. Luckily Tom suggested I come anyway.

I needn’t have changed into jeans though. Everyone is dressed in their suits. Kids playing politics. It’s cute. In the corner is a curvaceous young woman with a figure-hugging dress, a tiara and strings of pearls. She is already teetering slightly. I watch her glass being waved around in the air and wonder how long the dress will remain unblemished. ‘Who’s the girl in the tiara?’ I ask the latest random I’m chatting with. ‘Dunno. Self-appointed queen I guess’. I snicker a little and scan the room.

The room itself looks to be a very cool club. The walls are padded with leather. There is a small bar near the entrance and a long unattended bar at the back of the room. There are booths along the walls. And a stage positioned near the middle. There is a steady stream of young liberals pushing through the narrow entrance. They find people they know and don’t make it down to the other areas. The entrance is getting very crowded.

It’s actually inspiring to see a room full of ‘twenty-something’s all so empassioned. Tom who has invited me here takes the stage. He’s a young Asian-American I met at the previous gathering. His family is originally from China, but I think that was a few generations ago now. He’s from downstate (though I don’t actually know where that refers to). I’m assuming that means he doesn’t live in NYC but is happy to take the money from the Manhattan residents.

Given that the first hour was an open bar, I think he’s a brave man to take the stage. The room may be full of committed political activists, but it would appear most are also committed drinkers.

Tom is definitely a politician in the making. He captures the attentions of a room full of drunkards. Of course he’s talking to a room full of friends. As one of the organizers, we all have a connection to him in some way.  The words wash over me, but he is impactful, considered and warm in his delivery. His timing is impecible; including his exit and request for the next speaker. People are starting to get restless.

His replacement on stage is a rotund black guy dressed in a waistcoat and fedora. He’s loud and funny. For a moment I think he’s the comedian but no. I realize he’s stalling for the big-wig politician. The congressman is meant to be here to give a speech, and the boys are trying to buy some time. He’s up there for about 15 minutes. Eventually realizing he’s lost the attentions of the audience he waddles down the stairs and is replaced by Jamie- a small weedy guy who has been introduced to me early.

His act is a little vulgar. He talks about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How Obama promised to get their troops out, and hasn’t yet. He talks about gay rights and marriage opportunities. But his examples include explicit descriptions about gay sex acts. Some of the older women in the room are wide eyed. They guffaw frequently throughout the act, and eventually leave. I peruse the room to see how others are responding. There are only a few actively listening, and they seem to be listening out of politeness. Others are having their own conversations and occasionally looking toward the comedian with some annoyance.

Half way through he thinks people can’t hear him. I think not listening and not hearing are two very different things. The in-house audio engineer says that he has turned the volume down. ‘Oh my god, I’m being censored by the sound guy at a politic gig, for a party that doesn’t support censorship’. He starts a tirade directed towards the sound guy- who hilariously, mostly just looks bored by the whole conversation.

I’m finding his speech fascinating, but I’ve probably only laughed twice. Doesn’t that make it a monologue rather than a comedy piece? He has misread his audience. Or perhaps it’s intentional. Maybe he has chosen to push his own political agenda while he has the opportunity, and ignored the need for humour.

Or maybe he just hasn’t mastered his comedic skills and timing yet.

The band comes on not long after him. They open their set with a screeching guitar solo complete with high-pitched feedback pumping out the speakers. Then they descend into something that sounds a little Pink Floyd like. I give them the benefit of the doubt and decide to stay for one more song.

I perch myself on a couch to the side of the stage. I’ve given up working the room, mostly because I am tired of putting myself out there. As usual the women are concerned about new women speaking to their men. The girls, being the good social climbers of New York, are artificially friendly staying for a few moments to exchange pleasantries and then making their excuses to ‘bee-line’ for the most popular or powerful in the room. I have also given up working the room because most of the conversations, despite being at a political gathering, have been boring small talk. (Note to self- need to manage that better next time).

I’m watching the happenings and feeling quite comfortable when Tom arrives. ‘Everybody is leaving’ he says concerned. I agree with him. We have lost most of the 300 or so who had crowded the room initially. But I remind him that it’s about the quality of the experience. People had a great time while they were here. And they met their target of $10000 raised in one night. He doesn’t look persuaded, and wanders off.

The music from our Pink Floyd ‘wannabes’ does improve, and then gets worse, and then improves again. Within 20 minutes I’m wanting to leave as well. I say goodbye and give Tom a hug as I walk out the door. I’m feeling a little ‘teetery’ myself now, so I’m glad when I realize my subway station is less than a block away. On the subway, I take out my trusty mobile phone, older than anything a New Yorker would have, and start a tetris game. Before I know it I’m home, and greeted by my housemate/landlord who’s getting ready for bed. I know I am drunk when I realize I am talking more than her. As the Puerto Rican version of the Nanny, that never happens.




Getting back on track- 13 Oct 2010


This morning the sun is shining. From my window I look across the back of the building to the blue sky. Looks like a nice day. I google ‘new york city weather’ just to be sure. 65 high 45 low. That’s sounds pretty good I think. Then I step outside. It’s only October and I can already feel the bite in the air. I don’t realise that 65 is about 18 degrees.

I haven’t been at work long when my office phone rings. It never rings. I answer with a cheery ‘Alliance of Civilizations, Nina speaking’. It sounds so weird to be so ‘up’ with such a weighty title. The other person doesn’t answer and I wonder if they are also thinking how strange that sounded. Then I hear Paul’s voice. Oh thank god! I sent him an email yesterday complaining about having a bad day, feeling like a failure, and generally beating up on myself…. mostly exacerbated by not being able to pick up the phone in that moment and speak to a friend who has known me for more than 5 minutes. We talk for about 30 minutes.

When he asks me what is new I tell him all the bad stuff- housemate horrors, work disappointments etc etc. Then as the conversation is winding down I go, but I think I’m going to Serbia. ‘Oh nothing big’ he mocks me. ‘Just going to Serbia’. There is a meeting that has been organised and there is a high possibility of me going. Guess I’m pretty hard to please sometimes.

While I am on the phone I receive an email with photos of me and the CEO. The head shots have been taken to attach to the piece I wrote for a coffee table book for the Queen of Oman. They are literally life size, and as I see every pore , wrinkle and grey hair looking back at me, I need to coach myself to remember that nobody else will be looking at the photo that closely and the photo will be shrunk down to size anyway. Thank god, cause I can still see the pasta sauce in the corner of my mouth and something caught in my teeth. Real classy!

Tonight I go with Beth and our Office Manager to see Budrus. It’s the story of a Palestinian town that fights against the building of the wall through the town. An inspiring story of courage and the complex Israeli-Palestinian relationship. I decide I have to know more about the history of this conflict. Beth suggests we buy one of our colleagues lunch.

I have so many moments like this. Every day I marvel at how little I know about the world. Today I printed out some world maps to try and memorize geography. It’s not easy I tell you.

Every day I’m fascinated, overwhelmed but so motivated. I may not be doing the most exciting work, but the environment and the potential of the people and the organisation is so inspiring, my resilience is magnified tenfold. New York is tough, the UN tougher, and I still wouldn’t be anywhere else right now even if you paid me.

A Rollercoaster of a Day- 12 October 2010

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My supervisor has already read my email from yesterday when she arrives. ‘So she gave you the cold shoulder eh?’ she says repeating my email. ‘Yes, she was very uncomfortable around me, that’s why I think I haven’t been shortlisted’. Beth agrees saying that the manager concerned is very transparent. If that’s how she looked, then that’s probably the case. It’s only during lunch when everybody has left (or is too absorbed in what they are doing to notice it’s lunch time) that I allow myself to feel upset. I really thought that was my window. I want to call a friend but it’s the middle of the night in Oz. I hate time zones! Instead I suck it up and go to my meeting.

Beth’s back is getting worse. I see her getting stiffer and more uncomfortable throughout the staff meeting. And I don’t think it’s the financial report that’s bothering her. We’ve organised to go to the film screening ‘children of war’ at headquarters tonight, but she can’t even tilt her head back. I know she is in more pain than she is willing to let on. She excuses herself. I understand, even though I think we need a staff member with us to get into the screening. Interns have no rights.

I say I’m probably not up for going on my own. I’ve spent most of my time on my own on the weekend. And with my housemates evicted, I’m kinda looking for company. Not that I will find that in my empty apartment.

Luckily I remember that one of the other interns has signed up for the showing too. She looks at me with compassion (or is that pity) when I confess- today is a bad day.

We ride the art deco wood-panelled elevators- that I don’t really notice any more, walk through the electronic barriers and exit onto Lexington. After 6 pm the other exits are closed. It still seems insane to me as almost nobody in the building finishes work before 6.

We wander through the ever persistent smattering of interns outside the gates. They are waiting for other companions. We try to take the staff entrance and avoid security and we are told we can’t go that way. I realize I am adjusting, because for the first time I challenge a security guard. Why? I simply ask. His reply is also simple. Because you are an intern.

Interns and delegates have red letters on their passes. The scarlett letter identifies to security that we are not as ‘kosher’ as the rest. We need to be consistently screened and monitored.

Never the less I drag my friend around to the staff side of the security entrance. I’m sure not waiting in the massive line that has formed. There has to be some advantages for god sake! And it works. I feel like a bully skipping to the front of the line, but remind myself that a healthy dose of ‘American’ works a treat in New York.

There is some debate about where this event is being held. To my surprise, it’s being held in the General Assembly Hall. Yes the actual chamber!! Up in the elevator we are directed to particular doors, and then we get to walk around the floor to find our seats. My friend wants to sit in Switzerland’s seat. That’s where her family are from even though she’s been schooled in London. Unfortunately there are people already at Switzerland, and Australia is home to the audio engineer. That’d be right!

The previous Foreign Minister of Tanzania takes the floor to introduce the movie. We lean back in the second row seats behind the Yemen sign. Good seats we decide, as the screens are mounted on the wall, almost to the roof. As the lights dim at the front of the building, the back of the hall where most of the audience are seated, seems to get brighter. Maybe it’s a good thing. It helps me not to sob my way through the film.

The movie follows a centre for de-programming child soldiers in Uganda.  Abducted from their homes, they have been trained by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army to kill or be killed. The film is a series of interviews from counselling sessions, cut with staff perspectives on what is occurring. It is fascinating, heart-wrenching and horrifying all at the same time. And I have a moment to wonder what I am doing. We skip out before the after-film talk fest. My friend is tired and I am hungry.

On the way home I stop at the 24hr supermarket on the corner. Gotta love the 24/7 city. I just want some cous cous to go with my dahl- cooked on the weekend knowing I never get time on weeknights.

In my building, I emerge from the elevator on the 4th floor and am confronted by a giant plastic skull face protruding from the wall. I suppose it is about the time for Halloween decorations. I find them creepy. I’m wondering how I can get out of participating. Maybe I just need to join the massive party that apparently happens in the village. Sounds like a great excuse for me. If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.

New York, New York- 17 September 2010

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I will go back to writing about Gandoca- but the end of project got a little exhausting and my blogging started deteriorating……

Friday I’m sitting on the S shuttle travelling between Times Square and Grand Central station. My landlord has asked for rent in a money order and I’m thinking about the logistics of that. I also begin to realize that I should’ve been getting the shuttle all week and not the 7 train. It’s less walking and no stops.

With an awareness that I am learning how to navigate this enormous city, it suddenly hits me. I’m living in New York. I can feel tears stinging my eyes. Tears of joy, tears of relief, tears of pride. It’s been tough work getting here. Visas, flights, insurance, health checks, academic requirement and of course the seemingly endless search for housing.

I’ve been sleeping on Suz’s couch in West New York, New Jersey. Starting as acquaintances I can firmly say now I have a friend in New York. Suz and I met in Costa Rica- for a total of one night. She stayed in the hostel in San Jose while I was trying to work out if I needed a visa. We hit it off straight away. When she offered her couch as first contact point, I told her I would probably take her up on that offer, and if she didn’t really mean it she should retract it there and then. She didn’t retract it. And when I eventually emailed to say when I was coming, she was accommodating and enthusiastic. Even when my flights was delayed and I arrived at her place at 1.45 in the morning……. she was either going to love or hate me. Glad it was the former.

So now I have an apartment, I’m actually sad about leaving her, despite the couch as my bed.

House hunting in New York is an absolute nightmare.

Actual statements in ads for share housing include:

  • I would prefer someone that wasn’t here much.
  • Room for rent. No cooking.
  • We don’t have guests, overnight or otherwise and we expect the same for you.
  • There is a train stop right next to the window, but it’s not that bad really.
  • Must be 420 friendly… (google it)

Norv says that it’s a city that will chew you up and spit you out if you let it. After a week I’m happy but exhausted and hoping it starts to feel a bit easier….

Letting our hair down-25 July 2010

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Saturday we break the rules. We have a party. With alcohol. I haven’t organised it, but I’m happy when I find out. We are past the half way point of the project, and as yet, I’m the only one who has even had a beer. The group have proven they are very responsible and willing to do whatever it takes to work well with the community. They deserve a night off.

Charlie has skipped his studies and stayed with us this weekend. I’m not sure if it’s because Seattle is here, or because we are having a party. I’m pretty sure it’s one of those reasons though. If the group is drinking, one of the leaders needs to remain sober in case there is an accident of some description. He volunteers to not drink, and I happily accept.

None of the community are invited to our party. We make our sarongs into screens across the open air garage and set up the table on the other side. The girls make up a ‘punch’ from soft drink, ‘tang’ and vodka, and we begin to get into our costumes. We all have completely inane superhero names. I am ‘need a knife Nina’. I dress in leggings with my undies on the outside. I tape butter knives all over my outfit and tie my long scarf into a cape.

Someone has pencils taped to them. Billy has first aid supplies stuffed down his pants. Someone has blown up gloves strapped to their head in a rooster fashion. Audrey and Penelope have made black zorro style masks from old leggings. Some people have toiletries taped to them, including tampons behind the ears and pads used as ‘wonder woman style’ wrist and ankle bands. It’s a sight that immediately creates hilarity without needing any alcohol.

At the end of the first drink, we already have a sugar high. We pose in the doorway for individual photos, akin to a wacky year 12 formal entrance. The first drinking game is animal poses and progresses quickly to include noises also. Sonia is instantly transformed to the most extreme kind of actress. Every action she makes is so over the top that we are not very successful in keeping up with her. When the next drinking game requires an action for a sex act, she is most definitely the most enthusiastic. And it’s her that adds the noises to every action around the table.

Half way through Charlie and Seattle return. It is clear that Charlie is stoned. When Seattle begins to get very paranoid about being seen by the community, it becomes obvious she is stoned too. Ordinarily I would be very upset. Clearly however I am already intoxicated, because despite thinking that we really need a team leader who is not off their face, I continue drinking.

Kings starts the revealing conversations with ‘never have I ever’ and it quickly degenerates into telling stories rather than drinking games. It’s a much nicer vibe. Of course I am quickly on trial now people have the opportunity to find out more. I try and answer enough questions to ensure they are satisfied, but not so many that I will be uncomfortable in the morning.

Charlie has disappeared for a shower. Half way through our game we are aware of Charlie and Seattle are having a conversation. When I go up to check things out, she is going to the toilet, while he is showering- in the same room. Penelope coaches me not to say anything. It’s just a shock tactic she reminds me. She is looking for attention.

Luckily I also have an escape hatch to the drinking and the conversations. I am on dinner duty. I try reheating food for dinner. Half way through I am interrupted by the interpretative dance being created and performed on the front deck. It’s a ‘dance of the turtles’. I watch as one of the girls writhes around in a mock egg laying. One of them is the leader- dancing around the turtle collecting eggs. The other two are ‘tortugitas’- slowly crawling out of their eggs to the surface of the sand. The leader comes and helps them into the ocean. They dance/swim around in delight.

It has all of us in stitches. I am taking video footage on my camera but there are no lights on the deck and it’s really hard to see.

Shortly after 8, Lucho shows up. By now we are all quite drunk. While I am concerned about him being there, I don’t want to turn him away either. He says the bar is closed and proceeds to sit at our table. I dismiss the suggestion of the sex positions drinking game. That would just be too provocative. It’s simply not appropriate for community members in a developing, mostly catholic, and rural community.

By about 9.30 the party winds down but some of us are still wanting more. Luckliy for us though, everything is closed. EVERYTHING. I can’t believe it’s Saturday night and everything is closed. I don’t understand but figure it’s probably for the better.

Charlie on the other hand- despite saying he would be our responsible person on duty- has been in bed for the last 4 hours.

In the morning we are summoned to Gladys’ house. I’m concerned she knows about our party, but it has nothing to do with the party.

I am not really part of the conversation. Charlie has been invited and takes me along for security. Because of this, I am unsure about my role in the meeting. However like many conversations, what starts as direct feedback, turns into a much broader conversation about the group and the project. But Charlie isn’t translating for me, and they are speaking really fast. I try to catch their attention on a number of occasions but they are on a roll. Being tired, I get progressively more grumpy and start fantasising about just getting up and leaving.

Deciding that would be incredibly unprofessional, I stay. However I continue to be unsuccessful in requesting information. At the end of the conversation he has consented to leading the construction project and to no longer have meetings with the association. I am more than a little angry. And I haven’t even had a conversation about drug use yet.

It seems that the group are suspicious of his behaviour, not being very consultative in his approach and asking for a lot of information… he’s put the group off-side. I could wring his neck- but decide that is probably not helpful for group harmony…..

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