Mary and Mary…taking on the world one country at a time

While I wouldn’t say that I am particularly “well traveled,” I have had the opportunity to venture to a few foreign countries over my last couple decades. I’ve been to Chile (this only slightly counts since I was far too young to remember, but I heard stories), England, France (x2), Italy and now Australia. I think my European adventures have given me a good start, but I have a feeling I will be adding quite a few stamps to my passport over the next few years.

Perhaps what is more interesting than the number of countries I’ve visited (because, admittedly, it’s a relatively short list), is the people I’ve visited them with, or rather, the two people I’ve visited the most of them with.

My Nana and Papi always loved traveling. Ever since I can remember, they were always planning these grand adventures to new cities, states and countries. At one point or another, they stepped foot on all 7 continents and over 60 countries. Their travel stories and pictures are absolutely incredible. And what’s even more amazing was their passion for sharing the experience.

My first trip abroad (not counting Chile when I was only 2years old) was when I was 13 years old. My Nana and Papi had a plan to take each of their grandchildren in pairs to any two foreign cities of their choice for a week each (European ones preferably). My cousin Alex and I were the first up for the trip abroad, and I must say, I think it’s pretty incredible that my Nana and Papi kept their promise to the other grandchildren after dealing with two teenage girls for two straight weeks in foreign countries. Picking perhaps the most predictable, tourist-ridden destinations, my cousin and I ended up in London and Paris for our two weeks.

The trip was filled with inside jokes, laughter, whining, SO MANY photos, at least two crepes a day (in Paris), and memories that will last a lifetime. We returned to the states boasting to our fellow cousins about how there was no way they could ever top our trip. Afterall, we were the FIRST.

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While I wouldn’t say any of my cousins topped our trip, every adventure my Nana and Papi took the grandchildren on had its own special meaning to the travelers. There was another visit to Paris, along with a river cruise to Amsterdam, a flight to the Galapagos islands, and a couple other countries I can’t remember off the top of my head.

Beyond this initial trip to France with my Nana and Papi, I somehow convinced my Nana to be my travel buddy on a vacation to Italy one summer when I was in college. We spent months planning out our dream Italian adventure, and my Papi decided to let us ladies make the trip solo. We flew into Venice, travelled around Rome, and took a cruise along the Amalfi coast of Italy. On board we wined and dined (thanks Europe for that young drinking age), made friends, did daily tours through Sorrento, Positano, Pompeii, and I even became a certified scuba diver. Another amazing adventure with my Nana by my side.

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My other European travel experience was with my small family unit. My parents planned a month long vacation in France where we did all the non-touristy things by staying in two small towns in Southern Provence. We even rented homes within the towns, and spent our days amongst the locals, and our nights eating bread, olive oil and fresh meats. We traveled all around the South of France for two weeks. Surrounded by people whose English was only marginally better (sometimes) than our French, we endeavored (well, my dad and I did anyway) to speak only French. Since we had all studied French as our second language, having the opportunity to put this learning to use was an amazing experience. A couple weeks into our French adventure, my Nana (of course) and one of my cousins joined the family. We enjoyed another week and a half in France, hitting up Paris for my second time because, well, why not?

So you see, I have been very blessed with my travels. While each trip was uniquely special, every single one had one thing in common….or rather, one person in common. My Nana. Every country I’ve ever set foot in, she’s been there beside me.

Well, every country but one.

Australia has been my first trip abroad without any family, and perhaps more significantly, it is my first trip abroad without my Nana. Thankfully, however, our travel streak will soon be back to perfect. My Nana is due into Sydney Australia September 25th of this year, and I cannot wait.

Ever since I learned Australia was a possibility, my Nana and Papi had been planning to arrange a visit. My Nana’s “mum” was a native Aussie who moved to California for love early on in life, but left behind all her siblings in Sydney, Melbourne, and Tassie. While the older generation has passed on, my Nana has many cousins (my cousins twice removed) who now have children who all live in Australia. So me possibly moving to Australia gave my grandparents yet ANOTHER excuse to hop a flight to Oz. Unfortunately, my Papi passed away shortly after I finalized my decision to move here last year. He was so proud of my decision to pursue a PhD and even more so that I had chosen to earn it while living abroad. While I wish more than anything he was here to make the trip to Australia, I know he’d be so happy knowing my Nana and I are adding another country to our buddy travel check list.

Living abroad is an exciting adventure. It is a learning experience I wouldn’t trade for anything…but on those days when the homesickness hits a little harder than usual, it’s nice to know I only have a few more weeks before I will see someone who encompasses all that my home really is. We have conquered five countries together (counting the US, because, why shouldn’t that count?), and I am so excited to add my new home country, Australia, to that shared list. My friends think they’ve had enough to handle with this American Mary….wait ‘til they meet the American I’m named after!

25 days and counting until the Marys take on Australia. See you soon Nana

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Winter Summerland

Over the past 6 months temperatures have slowly taken on a new meaning to me. I’ve adjusted my Fahrenheit brain to recognizing 30 as hot and 20 as a lovely day. I’ve learned a Melbourne 3 feels a heck of a lot like a North Carolina 15, and anything below zero here might as well be frozen tundra weather because I will NOT be going out in it. While I’ve finally learned the Celsius scale, and even swapped my iphone to the new system, I’ve recently started to take notice of a much more mentally taxing weather woe of Melbourne-the seasons here are completely and utterly flipped.

Ok, before you go off at me for stating the obvious, and discovering a “known” fact, hear me out. Before I came to Australia, I obviously knew the seasons here were reversed as compared to the states. I’d heard of “Christmas in July,” and I knew that come December I’d be trading my usual white Christmas for a very sunny, sandy one. However, knowing this and experiencing it are two very different things.

Being an international also poses its own unique challenges in relation to this topsy-turvy weather. Whilst I experience frigid winds, gloomy drizzles and overcast skies in my Melbourne winter, my friends and family back home are cheerfully posing in their bikinis whilst lounging beach-side with fruity umbrella drinks. So strong is my weather envy that I’ve joked on more than one occassion about avoiding social media through my winter months.

Taken my weather-induced trauma a step further is that while I expected the switcheroo for my winter and summer seasons, and even came here thinking a sunny sandy Christmas could be good fun, I didn’t even consider the months in-between. The end of August, for me, has always marked the start of cooling Fall weather. The transition into September was welcomed cheerfully as North Carolina summers could be quite brutal with intense heat waves lasting for weeks at a time. Besides, it’s no secret that Fall is one of my favorite seasons. Septembers, Octobers and Novembers back home were full of red and orange leaves taking over the trees, bonfires, pumpkin flavored everything, hoodies, state fairs, haunted mazes, jack-o-laterns and Thanksgiving turkeys. I loved hitting up the local market to find cinnamon scented broomsticks to fill my apartment with the “smell” of fall, and my table was always adorned with at least 2-3 pumpkins by the time October rolled around.

I imagine everyone has these types of emotional ties to certain times of the year. I guess on some level I knew of my attachment to fall, but now that I’ve “lost” that season, it’s taken on a much deeper meaning. Ok, I know that I haven’t actually lost the season. Obviously in the most literal sense, Fall still exists, it’s just been misplaced at the start of the year. So I may not have lost the season, but I did lose the connection between the season and the time of the year. I also more recently made the horrifying discovery that Halloween is not a “thing” here…And when you talk about pumpkin carving you are met with “she’s a crazy person” stares.

While these realizations have obviously been quite a shock to my system, I’ve accepted them as a challenge. I may not be able to find the giant perfect-for-carving pumpkin on a pumpkin patch hayride like when I was back home, but I can surely find A pumpkin somewhere in this country that I can slice and dice into a makeshift sort of jack-o-lantern. I may not be able to show everyone in Australia the amazingness that is a proper Halloween themed party, but I can surely convince some friends to dress up, eat good food, and enjoy some Halloween festivities. And I definitely won’t be sitting at home surrounded by my family for Thanksgiving (a holiday I have never missed), but I can surely round a few people together for a friendsgiving to share some delicious, homey, American dishes (who doesn’t love a good pumpkin or apple pie?).

There are many days here when I completely forget that I am in Australia because life here is just, well, life. But then there are those days when you realize the things you have always just accepted as givens, are no longer givens. The norms are not the norms. Your life becomes a constant state of adjusting to a new normal. And as with most things in life, you have two choices. You can choose to be bogged down by the differences and overwhelmed by the unknown, or you can take it as a challenge. Sure, my home country had holidays and traditions that have always and will always have a special meaning to me, but that doesn’t mean that what I have here will be any less. Every day, every month, every holiday, tradition and norm will be redefined and reshaped by my experiences here. I’m not losing something by being here and not home. I’m adding a whole new layer of depth to how I have always experienced my holidays and seasons.

The holidays away from home will be hard. I know they will be, even though I am months away from facing the reality. I hope when the time comes that I can keep my same big picture perspective that I am preaching now, but who knows. For now though, I’m choosing to look at it as an adventure. I won’t be bogged down by the differences. So go on and keep posting those August summer pictures my friends, because come December I will happily be sharing beautiful pictures of my Melbourne Winter Summerland.

PhD Students…we run the world

It’s hard to explain what being a PhD student is like because every experience is so unique. While success in the endeavor requires all aspiring students to possess a few standard qualities such as self-motivation, determination, and a certain level of intellectual curiosity, the journey one takes toward the finish line is a very personal one. Two students setting out on the same path, even in the same field of study, would have vastly different experiences based on how they choose to approach their research, who their supervisors are, the environment they are working in, and their own personal motivation and drive.

I knew coming into this PhD program that there would be long hours. I knew that this was a marathon, not a sprint, and I knew I had a LOT to learn….what I didn’t know, however, was how quickly I would become invested in my project and how simultaneously lost and found I would become in my research. Obviously prior to starting the candidature process I had a passion for clinical exercise physiology, but my path to a PhD started long before I knew anything about the clinical realm.

Like most people in the sports science field, my passion for exercise science began from my obsession with athletics. As a lifelong athlete, when I found out that I could major in “Sports” at college, I was immediately won over. What could be better than working with high performance athletes? Forever driven by my competitive nature, I knew working with other athletes was my dream job. I very quickly learned, however, that of all the students who endeavor to work professionally with athletes, maybe only about 10% actually make it. Undeterred, and knowing I needed something better than a bachelor’s degree to “make it” in the field, I progressed to a masters in Exercise Physiology.

It was in my masters program that I was first introduced to clinical research studies and the exercise is medicine movement. A shift was happening whereby exercise training was becoming more mainstream and starting to be recognized as a medical intervention to aid in both treatment and prevention of diseases. How cool. I mean, obviously we all intuitively KNOW exercise is good for our health, but gosh it’s just so much work to wake up early to get in a workout before work. But what if you knew that just 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week can dramatically improve your health outcomes. What if you knew that regular exercise could combat high blood pressure in similar magnitudes as some medications?

This exercise is medicine movement is what first sparked my interest in clinical exercise physiology. I loved the idea that exercise could act as a treatment in lieu of medications, and, in some cases, actually be MORE effective. Over the next few years my interest in clinical populations slowly became a focus…and before I knew it these patients were my passion. As cliché as it may sound, I found myself finally feeling like I was truly making a difference in my little niche area of research. I was working with patients who could hardly walk 10 meters. Three months of an exercise intervention later and they were bragging to anyone who would stand still long enough about how they had walked all the way from their car without stopping, or how they did their grocery shopping with a cart instead of a scooter. I had one participant explain that for the first time they were able to get down on the ground to play with their grandkids, without worrying about how they would stand back up. Hearing all these stories made me realize that this is the type of research I want to be involved in. I was making a measurable, significant and quantifiable difference in the every day lives of these patients.

My PhD project differs slightly from my previous clinical work in that I have shifted to working with patients with heart failure. I have no prior experience in this population, but I have spent the last 6 months learning everything I can about the disease pathology, progression and prognosis. I will be working with some of the most fragile clinical patients, which is both exciting and daunting. Exciting because these are the people who need interventions the most, but daunting because they are typically very physically compromised. While I won’t be incorporating an exercise intervention in my project (while 3.5 years seems a long time for a PhD, it’s actually quite short for a clinical trial), I will be testing the effects of a natural dietary intervention (yay beetroot juice) on exercise tolerance in heart failure patients. Before you scoff at the idea of beet juice, go Google some articles on exercise performance following beet juice supplementation. There is some pretty cool data. I won’t go all science-nerdy on you just yet (I’ll save that for when I reach expert status in my PhD process), but I will say that there has been promising data from both healthy people and clinical patients demonstrating the benefits of beet juice on exercise performance.

So for me, my PhD journey started a long time ago. My project is now set. I know what I am working towards. Pieces may be tweaked, but the overall concept is pretty much in place. Even so, this process leaves me in a constant state of learning, development, and self-reflection. Working on a PhD is unlike any other degree. You are truly in charge of your own education, and while homeschooling for most of my life definitely taught me the power of independent learning, this level of studying is a whole new extreme. Some days I literally get lost in the literature, only to emerge hours later wondering where the daylight went. But I truly wouldn’t have it any other way. I am being paid to learn everything I possibly can. I have been given 3.5 years to focus on one area of a field that I have a deep passion for. Three and a half years to make some meaningful contribution to the study of a disease plaguing millions of people worldwide. And, on a more self-indulgent level, I have been given 3.5 years to build myself into the strong, independent, confident researcher I’ve always wanted to be.

Everyone’s journey is unique. This is simply my story. Hopefully this gives a small insight into my motivation and passion for my chosen field. One of the things I value most about this experience is sharing it with other students who are equally as passionate and motivated as I am, but in a completely different focus area. While we can’t always help or advise each other on methodologies or recent articles, we can share in the experience of taking an idea, formulating a hypothesis, and changing the world, one dissertation at a time. Ok, fine…maybe we won’t all change the WORLD, but if my research somehow made a difference in the life of even just one person, that would be good enough for me.

On that note, I’ll share a piece of writing I particularly identify with…a poem I discovered many years ago at a LeaderShape conference (spoiler alert, it’s the one in the featured image of this post, so if you read it there, feel free to disregard the following):

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Happy 6 months!

I’ve been in this relationship 6 months now, and I think things are getting pretty serious. I know it’s still too early to make a long term commitment, but I think this could be the real thing. I see this lasting for at least four years. Sure, it has had its ups and downs, but what relationship doesn’t? We have our misunderstandings, but we are slowly working towards a mutual appreciation of our differences. Bottom line, Australia and I have hit our 6 month-a-versary, and I’d say for the most part, we are still in our honeymoon phase.

I know, I know, it was a bit of a “cheeky” start to a blog post, but how else do you blog about this kind of milestone. Maybe most people wouldn’t consider it a milestone…but for me, this is pretty big. Sure, I’ve traveled–I’ve been around the states a bit and over to Europe a couple times—but I’ve never LIVED in a different country. So living here for 6 months seems pretty big.

I’ve finally switched to quantifying my time here in months. For a while there I was treating this Australia move like new moms treat their baby’s age. You know what I’m talking about. When the baby is born it is one month old, 3 months old, 9months old, etc etc. Then they hit 1 year, but after that the om’s go back to months again. “How old is your baby?” “Oh 18 months.” What? I was always that person who wanted to just say NO. Your baby is one and a half YEARS. Move on! Why do moms do that? Do they think that somehow using the smaller unit makes the time seem more significant? Does it make the baby seem younger? Well, I can no longer judge these moms because this smallest unit of time description is EXACTLY what I did when I first got to Australia. At first it was days, and then weeks, and then for some inexplicable reason it stayed weeks well beyond 1 month, 2 month, etc. “How long have you been here?” “oh you know, like 12 weeks?” WHAT? Why am I saying this? I think it was because 1 month seemed like too long and 4 weeks felt like it more adequately described how new this life still felt. When I heard myself say 12 weeks out loud though, I realized I needed to suck it up and accept the fact that my move was no longer “new news.”

Still, I wouldn’t say Australia feels like “old news” to me just yet. It does, however, feel a bit like a home. It’s funny because I don’t feel like home here replaces home back in the states….I just feel like I now have two homes. When I went to the states in June, I was “going home” and when I came back to Oz, I was “coming home.” Home to me is where I can feel settled, safe, and at ease. While I never felt completely lost here, even when I first arrived, it’s not been until recently that I’ve actually felt settled.

You see, I’ve finally pieced together an every day norm here and it’s such a relief. I’ve made great friends, found a nice apartment, and I don’t actually need my google maps on 24/7. Don’t get me wrong, I do still miss pieces of home. Aside from the obvious family and friends aspect, I miss having people around me that just know the culture I grew up in. The people that know my state, my town, the weekend haunts, college sports….well, they are all thousands of miles away.I knew coming here that I was an international student (my acceptance letter clearly stated this), but I don’t think I truly understood what that meant until I arrived.

Being an international student, even in a country with the same language, is a challenge. It’s a fantastic, life altering, self-discovering adventure….but a challenge nonetheless. There you are seeing a country and its people for the first time, and you can’t help but to question every little saying, tradition, and norm because it’s all so new and different. No matter how “similar” countries are said to be, believe you me, when you get there you can’t help but to see the differences. While noticing the differences is beneficial and helps foster understanding of cultural variations, adapting and settling into a new country requires that you notice, but then look beyond them. Sure things aren’t the same as “home,” but does that actually make them worse? Or better? Or just….not what you’re used to. It’s all a matter of perspective really.

What is funny is that I’m not just gaining a new perspective on Australia. This experience has given me the opportunity to see my own country and culture through the eyes of non-Americans….and, to say it is enlightening would be a huge understatement. I won’t go into all of that in this post, as I will save that topic for its own post. For now I’ll leave this point by saying that I am very thankful to have found friends here who are open-minded enough to have real conversations about cultural diversities in a respectful manner that allows all sides to break through the pre-conceived notions we have of people from other countries.

So yeah. Australia and I are pretty serious. But I’ve got some budding relationships on the side with France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and the UK….Maybe I need some time to play the field. Maybe I’m just not a one-country kind of girl? Who knows what the future holds. All I can say for now is that this American girl has gone international. And she’s loving it.