So Much Goodness! | My 2016 Reading List

mug of tea and Ursula K. Le Guin book

In the past, I’ve gone super crazy with resolutions/learning goals for a year. And then not met them. I don’t regret it, though. At least making the resolutions and goals encouraged me to try. The half-goals I’ve achieved have still greatly enriched my life.

Last year, I scaled it back a bit and made only two resolutions: 1) to floss every day and 2) to read 52 books/one book per week. I didn’t achieve either. I certainly missed days with the floss. And I came up one book short for the year.

boston used bookstore storefront

That still makes 2016 a pretty great reading year for me.

I started the year with a bit of a random mix between memoirs, science fiction, and history. Then I started reading some specific memoirs and non-fiction in preparation for that Eurotrip I keep writing about 🙂 Things went forward again from there with a bit less direction until about October, where I started reading for an interstate book club which focused on the fiction nominees for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.

Between Me and the World Ta-Nehasi Coates
My Life On the Road Steinem, Gloria
The King in the High Castle Dick, Philip K
The Thing With Feathers Stryker, Noah
Hunger Makes Me A Modern Woman Brownstein, Carrie
Lafayette and the Somewhat United States Vowell, Sarah
M Train Smith, Patti
A Year in Provence Mayle, Peter
The Perfect Meal Baxter, John
The Basque History of the World Kurlansky, Mark
Ladies of the Grand Tour Dolan, Brian
A Room with a View Forster, EM
Under the Tuscan Sun Maybes, Francis
My Brilliant Friend Ferrante, Elena
Much Depends on Dinner Vassar, Margaret
Zadig ou La Destinée Voltaire
Hellgoing Coady, Lynn
Helping Kids Succeed Tough, Paul
La Femme du Boulanger Pagnol, Marcel
The Rum Diary Thompson, Hunter S.
A Curious Mind Grazer, Brian
Shrill West, Lindy
The Only Street in Paris Sciolino, Elaine
Modern Lovers Straub, Emma
My Beloved World Sotomayor, Sonia
Americanah Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda
The High Mountains of Portugal Martel, Yann
Only in Naples Wilson, Katherine
The Genius of Birds Ackerman, Jennifer
Sense and Sensibility Austen, jane
Why Nations Fail Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
1000 Years of the Annoying French Clark, Stephen
Another Brooklyn Woodsen, Jacqueline
My Antonia Cather, Willa
Tender is the Night Fitzgerald, France scott
La Casa en Mango Steeet Cisneros, Sandra
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life Finnegan, William
The Underground Railroad Whitehead, colson
Here I Am Safron Foyer, Jonathan
The Story of a New Name Ferrante, Elena
The Portable Veblen Mckenzie, Elizabeth
News of Other Worlds Jiles, Paulette
The Association of Small Bombs Marajan, karan
The Throwback Special Bachelder, Chris
Hot Milk Levy, Debra
The Sellout Beatty, Paul
Homegoing Gyasi, Yaa
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo Schumer, Amy
Food Rules Pollan, Michael
The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu Hammer, Joshua
Les Mouches Sartre, Jean-Paul


My favorites/main suggestions include The Sellout, Homegoing, My Antonia, Barbarian Days, Americanah, Underground Railroad, The Portable Veblen, and The Basque History of the World. None of these, not a single one, are hidden gems. But wow, these books were recognized and respected for good reason. I would have swapped out a couple books on my list, but for the most part, I read so many things that I enjoyed.

For 2017, I’m sticking with my two resolutions from 2016. And adding a couple others.* My reading resolution isn’t too focused this year either–just reach the 52 mark. That said, my sister and I are doing a mini Shakespeare reading challenge and I’m planning on working more science fiction into my reading list and participating in the interstate book club yet again.

Let me know what you’ve read in the last year!

mug of tea and Ursula K. Le Guin book

*I’m going to finally kick that habit of nail biting. And I will finish the knitting project that has been lingering since 2015!

Back from Europe | Ramblings from Our First Day Home

After a month away, we got home late last night. This morning we’re already back to our regular routine. Funny how being away makes coming home fun, too. Making coffee and breakfast in our kitchen, playing morning Jeopardy, getting back on our bikes, and walking and jogging our same ol’ routes. It all seems extra special today. I’m grateful to be home after the flight, but I’m also not quite ready to let go of our trip. Really, I have so much to share with you guys! We did one of those whirlwind style Czech Republic-to-Spain trips that people either seem to love or hate the idea of. You already know on which side I fall.


I kid you not, I am doing my best to journal the trip. I counted 86 handwritten moleskin (What? Don’t roll your eyes. Moleskin notebooks make me happy) pages and I still have a week of back-journaling that I committed to finish up in the next day or two. These doesn’t include any of my recipe notes, my art gallery and museum notes, or our hand-drawn maps.

vienna wine garden

I know that one month of vacation is supposed to make people feel relaxed. Jet lag and stiff airplane neck aside, I do feel disconnected from the weight of all the things that were unnecessarily stressing me out before we left. I feel I’ve been gone a long time. Long enough to forget what work felt like. Long enough to feel that I was really gone.

churros y chocolate

I feel like I have a renewed perspective, but I feel far from relaxed. Not because our trip was ambitious in the amount of geography covered and the number of stops. Not because traveling is always a little bit of work (Jordan is sooo over hearing me reference the etymology of the word travel).

I’m not relaxed. Instead, I’m so freakin’ inspired. My brain has been thrown into curiosity overdrive.

I came home with no fewer than nine books (mostly used 2 Euro paperbacks, but I’m still thrilled), and that was showing a lot of restraint on my part, I swear.

books french france

I ate new pastries, learned the history of chocolate-making in Bayonne, and learned where to eat the best Czech heritage beef cuts in the city of Prague.

trdlnek Czech spiral sugar pastry

I sat in on a Vivaldi, Dvorak, and Smetana concert in a Baroque hall, sipped champagne on the balcony of an opera house during the intermission, and visited Baroque libraries.

monastery library prague

I scouted markets for the best deals on truffle products and produce and I discovered new foods and experimented with them in the kitchen[s of others].

florence meal food cooking

I sipped new wines, learned the names of new-to-me varietals from several wine regions; I learned to distinguish a quality pilsner from those others. I navigated narrow city streets, changing the location twice a week or more.

le panier marseille streets france

I had frequent dates with this guy in coffeehouses, tapas bars, and bookshops. I maybe forced him to listen to my faux-Freud/Jung theory discussion in Vienna.


I filled up on that art of the Renaissance masters, freaked out at the art of Alfons Mucha and Gustav Klimt, filled pages of notes about other artists I’d not known before.

thyssen museum madrid art gallery

We got to visit the home of our friend and see her parents’ place, which means I got a sauna/natural pool experience, we ate the home cooking of a German/Italian cook, and we hopped a ferry across Lago Maggiore.


We marvelled at the crazy architecture of the Guggenheim in Bilbao and figured out the pintxo system in both the touristy and non-touristy parts of Donostia.

pintxos food molecular gastronomy spain basque

I reactivated my French, learned important phrases in Euskara from native speakers, used my podcast-learned Italian for the first time in the real world, mastered three words in Czech while consistently failing at the others, and reacquainted myself with the Spanish accent.


I learned bits of the history of the Slavic people, finally learned to distinguish my Bourbons from my Habsburgs, saw Galileo’s fingers (for real!), and toured historic cathedrals and synagogues.

notre dame de la garde marseille

There was so much packed into those 30 days. So, no, after my month of vacation (Jordan’s month of workation), neither of us are quite relaxed. My mind is reeling.

And if you want to know the honest-to-God worst of it, I have a post-trip action plan/to do list. Some goals are easy, like buying two egg cups and making soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. Some are a bit tougher, like reading all of those classics I bought. Some are even longer term; I hope to actually pick that German back up someday. Some are silly; some are serious. Some will happen; some likely will not, even though I want them to. And that’s okay. I’m still going to try, and I’m still going to milk the trip for all its worth via my silly action plan.

I feel very fortunate.  Our trip was not relaxing, but it was so, so worth it.


See you in the next few weeks with many posts about the trip. Thanks for reading!

The 2-Year Nomad | On the Move in 2016

Two years ago, we had an epic year. I wrote this post to explain that we were going on a camping trip of Gaspesie, going to explore the great state of Wisconsin for one month, go on my South Dakota safari at Jordan’s parents’ place, “move” to northern Argentina for three months and use it as a base for exploration, and finally move to Vancouver (the post in which a person told me that blind dates aren’t scary, but my style of writing is, ha). We even ended up spending nearly two weeks in California at the end of the year. Compared to many, I know it’s peanuts. But for me, it’s the kind of whirlwind six months that makes me energized about life and reminds me how much I have/want to learn about this planet!

parc national de la gaspesie mont jacques cartier

4th of july meal wisconsin

san luis argentina hike

lost coast trinidad california

And then, somewhere along the line, Vancouver started to feel a little bit like home, just as Montreal had before the previous whirlwind. We’ve found “our” spots, created our routines and found our favorite activities.

vancouver harbor

But alas, our time in Vancouver is now coming to an end.

Though we’ve been told never to mention deadlines to PhD students/candidates, one has been set. Jordan has accepted a job offer, and therefore needed to set a clear submission deadline for his dissertation. This, naturally, has set things into motion again.

Backing up a bit, though, we we’re making some plans even before our next official life step came into being.

At the end of this week, we’re boarding a plane to Prague. (Eek!) Jordan is attending a conference for the first week, but post-conference, we’ll be continuing on for three more weeks on the Continent, flying out of Madrid. For him, it’s still a working vacation, as he plans to spend quite a bit of time writing, editing, and analyzing, and even has a couple meetings set up. But hey, that’s what cafes and cute Airbnb stops are for, right?

heart coffee portland

Me? I’m planning to hit up the markets, cook with what I find in the evenings, and soak in as much architecture and art as possible.

After returning, we’ll have just over another month in Vancouver to soak in all of the great summer days this city has to offer. People, I know you think that it’s only rain in Vancouver all the time. I’m not sure how this city gets away with that reputation when the summers are as nice as they are.

vancouver seawall

Mid-July, we’re shipping out to Puerto Rico for Jordan’s sister’s wedding for a week and a half, splitting our time between Old San Juan and Vieques, a smaller island not far from the main island. We’re very much looking forward to seeing everyone while there and sneaking in a bit of snorkeling!

caracas beach vieques

Then, we return to Vancouver for one final month or two, until Jordan submits that final draft sometime in August.

Here’s where Jordan’s new supervisor is already gaining points with me 🙂 He wouldn’t even let Jordan start right away, but instead told him he had to at least take a few weeks before starting. And so we’re going to Asia. The details are still very uncertain at this point, but we know we’re going to China, and probably Vietnam and Indonesia, depending upon time.

Chinese Lanterns at Shop

Finally, Jordan will head back stateside and start that job in October. I’ll hang out somewhere until he returns to meet me for another conference in Beijing. Together, we’ll return to the next place we’ll call home, the great city of Boston, just before the start of November.

For the first time in a few moves, we’re moving to a city that both of us have actually visited before, which is a nice feeling.

boston lobster

Thinking about the year we have coming up, I alternate between freak outs of bliss and freak outs brought on by the logistical nightmares we’ll have to try and tackle. It’ll be quite a ride. I’m thankful for all of our opportunities to come, sadder than I thought I’d be to leave Vancouver (how does that happen each and every time we leave a place??), and very much looking forward to having photos are stories to e-journal here for you.

Thanks for reading and thanks for following along through all of life’s surprises.

south and central american road trip

Looking Back at 2015 Resolutions and Setting My 2016 Learning Resolutions

Looking Back at 2015

Sometimes, you have to agree with your reader comments. Sometimes, you need to admit that you maybe overstretched a bit. I had the best of intentions for 2015 and I detailed all of them in my 11 Month of Focused Learning plan. In general, I fell short, ha.


But as I always like to remind people, setting a goal and making any sort of progress toward it is its own sort of success. It’s progress that you may not have otherwise made at all. I don’t like to waste time beating myself up about what I didn’t do, as long as there was a lot of good stuff that did get done.

Despite not meeting many of my goals, I still find it useful to look back and compare how I made out in comparison to the goals I set. Here’s a quick breakdown of how I met/didn’t meet my learning goals last year.

Learn more about Canada, Vancouver, and British Columbia

Well, I certainly did, though much of this was through the sort of geographical intellectual osmosis that occurs while you’re living in a place. Earlier in the year, I read a couple great books about Canadian history, which always came in handy when people assumed I knew nothing about it. Still, I definitely meant to learn more about the province than I did. Compared to the time I spent in Quebec or Tennessee or Maryland learning about my new homes, I haven’t put in the time here.


Here’s my biggest failing. Practicing the harmonica in our tiny, thin-walled apartment wasn’t the best idea. As for the guitar, I never made this happen either. I did work my way through a classical music class on Coursera. Jazz, nope. I do really mean to focus on this more in 2017, but 2016 will not be the year of music for me either.


South China Seas Granville IslandHere, I actually stuck really close to my learning goals. My sourdough starter has died and been reborn a few times throughout the year and between teaching and working at the shop and some other projects, I didn’t do quite as much bread-baking as I’d have liked, but I still make a couple loaves a month. Is my sourdough loaf perfected? No, but I’ve definitely continued to learn about yeasts and flours through making cakes and loaves.

Pearl Project 2.0 (a month-by-month exploration of selected cuisines around the world) was pretty well followed, actually! From January through August, I stuck to my schedule, learning a ton about food. The job which I started in January last year has helped with this immensely.

I didn’t get as deep into Moroccan cuisine as I had hoped, but still managed to make a few dishes during the month. I got back into the swing of things for October and November, but then December was a bit lost, as I concentrated more on Christmas cookies, fudge, and things to take to Christmas parties 🙂 My favorite months were Thai month and Mexican month, which probably comes as no surprise to those of you who hear me talk about food regularly. We also have made Korean-style stir-fries regulars in our kitchen.


I was a little relieved looking back my reading goals. All year, I thought that my reading goal was one book per week for a total of 52 books. I ended the year with 42 completed books, so sure, I didn’t meet either of these goals, but in the end was only 3 short of the goal I originally set. If you’ve got a loose definition of a classic and include “new classics” in my count, I did have 20 on my reading list. Oddly, enough, none of the three classics I mentioned in last year’s post made their way onto the actual list.

camping breakfast with bookMy foreign language reading list goals were attained in French, and I was half a book short in Spanish (so, okay, one short). German, well, that leads me into the next section.


Hmm, I think that I probably held strong in French comprehension and well, we did have a nice boost of Spanish in the summer during our two-on-one Spanish classes. I could still use a solid boost in French to feel as comfortable speaking as I did when we left Quebec.

As for German, well, for a couple months I was DuoLingoing pretty regularly. After that, well, somehow things got away from me and my German has been all but forgotten. Mandarin? Yeah, that didn’t happen either, but…more on that in the future goals.


I kept my usual pace on projects. A couple finished, but no real pickup.


Mine crashed. I’m waiting on buying another. Even finding time to get a post up is a real challenge.

Oregon Coast Summer 2015Nature

Pretty good on these. I did sneak in the Coursera curriculum. And we did make a point to get into nature regularly 🙂 That said, my birdwatching skills pretty much stalled out.

2016 Learning Resolutions

After reading all my resolutions for last year and considering that this year will be much more hectic than 2015 (I’m sooo excited to update on what’s in store for us this year!), I decided I needed to keep things a bit simpler. Well, rather, a lot simpler.

Starting May 6, my sourdough starter will be no more. I’ll not be around long enough to water any patio garden herbs and tomatoes. I won’t have enough regularity in my life to set geographical food themes for the month. You get the idea. Alas, here are my pared down learning resolutions.

quebec city bookstoreReading

Read an Average of 1 Book per Week | This is my big goal for the year. I will hit 52 this year. Classics or restrictions on this? None at all. I did participate in a cross-continental book club at the end of the year and am hoping to do so again in 2016, but that’s about all for the planning.


I’m still hoping to/working to maintain French and Spanish at their currentish levels. I do hope to write more about how to maintain current language skills later.

Back to that Mandarin business. I have some China travel plans coming up this year, so this is going to happen. I am planning to take the Coursera Mandarin course in June, and maybe do a couple language exchanges in the month of July, just to make the travel a little more manageable. At least I hope it will help a bit!


My main goal is to get into greenspaces/beaches two times per week. This includes our Stanley Park excursions and bike rides along the seawall or picnics at city parks. Even being in nature this little bit helps me note the changes in the seasons.


crab cakes camping mealMy food goals are three-fold.

From January through May 6 this year, and then again in July and early August, my goal is to purposefully make a point to continue to challenge myself in the kitchen. When I stumble upon new ingredients, I intend to try to make a dish with them. I try to add at least one new technique/recipe/etc. into my weekly routine.

Eat new stuff. Because we’ll be doing a bit of traveling, I’m allowing myself an out. I know I won’t be cooking regularly for a few stretches this year, so I’m just want to eat new things that can give me ideas to squirrel away for later in the year.

Cook my way through Europe! From May 6 to June 6, the mister and I will be traveling. And because I suffer from want-to-see-it-all travel tendencies, we’ll be hitting about seven different regions of Europe in the month. In all but two stops on the trip, we’ll be staying in apartments with at least small kitchens, so I intend to spend much of my time going to markets in the morning, grabbing a lunch/coffee/going to museums in the afternoon, and then cooking in the apartments in the evening. Silly, maybe, but cooking while on vacation is one of my favorite activities. Eek! So excited!


Here’s kind of a weird one: I want to start purposefully curating my knickknacks. I think I am a natural-born knickknack collector. I just like them, okay? Buuuut, I would like to make some sort of effort to “curate” my collection of oddities. This plan needs to go into effect as of May 6.

TESOL Progress

In the fall of 2015, I started taking classes to receive my TESOL Certification. And though I don’t know my exact end date yet, this is something I most definitely will finish!

Vancouver Island Beach in rain———————

That’s it! That’s all I’ve got!

It feels like a freeing list compared to last year. And it feels much more manageable. So far, I’m nearly on track with all and don’t see anything in the future that would prevent these from progressing.

How did you manage with your learning resolutions for last year? Did you make any for this year?

My 2015 Learning Roadmap | 11 Months of Focused Learning

gaspesie road trip Hey! Long time, no post see.

Maybe you don’t need a plan to learn. Much of learning comes through living. I get that. There are, however, a lot of things I’d like to learn that I know I will not simply pick up without making a point to. Living in Montreal for two years and thinking it’d be great to learn French does not a French speaker make.

Learning often takes intention and planning.

Thus, I plan. Better late than never.

I started November 2014 with the best of intentions. Of course, my problem (like so many others) is not a lack of intention, but never moving beyond those intentions. In November, I was focused on finding a place to live and reviewing that resume I had buried in my computer’s files. These are very valid concerns, might I add. December was filled with unpacking things into that apartment that we found, planning our serendipitous trip to California, and sending out that resume. The New Year came and went. January was here, and I still hadn’t taken any time to plan or think about what I really wanted to learn in this year. Then I found some work, started looking for volunteering positions, and getting used to the city I am calling home for the year being.

Here’s the thing. You can still be intentional, even if you missed the January 1 mark. I missed it, but still want to be make the intellectual most of my free time in 2015, allowing time for binge watching House of Cards and keeping up on The Mindy Project, of course.

This is what I plan to learn in 2015.

Be Here Now

vancouver seawall1. Learn about Canada

I’m not sure how long I’ll be in Canada, but I know that after living a minimum of four years in the country, I ought to be able to tell you some basic facts. I’ve got a handle on Québecois history, but as for anglophone Canada, I’ve got work to do.

2. Go Local: British Columbia and Vancouver

Same idea as above. I’m a firm believer that if you try and understand the history and culture of the place you live, you’ll find the experience to be much more rewarding.


We all need music in our lives, even if we aren’t the ones making it. I want to make just a little, but mostly learn how to better appreciate it. I think my music goals are pretty self-explanatory.

music1. Master 6 Songs on the Harmonica

2. Learn 3 Campfire Songs on the Guitar

3. Complete the Readings and Video Lectures for a Classical Music Course*

4. Complete a Course on Jazz*

5. Learn a Dance. Any dance.


sourdough xmas tree1. Perfect my Sourdough

Our west coast sourdough starter has already been producing some decent loaves, but I feel each time I bake, things happen just a little differently. This is fun, but I’d like a little more quality control over my loaves.

2. The Pearl Project 2.0

A couple years ago, I had this other blog. Go figure. I was trying my hand at recipes from cuisines from all countries around the world. I stopped and don’t plan to resurrect the project per se (to give one day to Indian Cuisine in an entire year is not only superficial but also far from cost-efficient), but am still inspired to keep exploring global cuisine in a focused way. My at-home meals each month will focus on the following cuisines:

hmong foodFebruary: Japanese
March: Thai
April: Chinese
May: Indian
June: Mexican
July: Korean
August: Moroccan
September: OFF (probably, but we’ll see)
October: Indonesian
November: Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian
December: Malaysian and Singaporean

I know, there’s quite a focus on one continent. This is partially because I want to take advantage of having access to Asian food products in Vancouver and partially because I’d like to use my cooking to help familiarize myself with some of the products where I work. And before you call me out on cheating later, I’m not planning to stick to each cuisine for every meal in the entire month, because, frankly, there are times when I need grilled cheese.**


quebec city bookstore1. 45 Books

Really, my reading goal is to hit 45 books in the calendar year, including the lost month of January. But I’d be lying if I said my reading goals weren’t a bit more specific than this.

2. Beef Up on Some Classics (20 of them, to be exact)

While you had an English teacher that made you read My Antonia, Moby Dick, and Brave New World, I had an English teacher that told us many of the classics were too hard to read, so we could watch the movies instead. (This was the English teacher I had for three of my four high school years, and thanks to the Heavens, he is no longer employed as a teacher). In college, I only took one literature class (of the science fiction variety), so any classics I have read came in that one year of high school or on my own. I’m catching up, mind you, but want to make a point to finally read some of the books to which Rory Gilmore and Dan Humphrey make reference after reference.

3. Read Stuff Not in English

I’d like to read at least three books in French (YA level or higher), two of the same in Spanish, and one in German. Naturally, I’m including them in my overall total, though honestly, they should count triple 🙂


Speaking of that non-English business–

French Grammar1. Not Get Worse in French and Spanish

I’m really, truly not going to be as strict as I should be on this. If I was being honest with myself, I’d like to be at a C1 level in both of these languages and never slip back. That said, I also know that French, Spanish, and I have a long road ahead of us. We’ll never be separated. So, if 2015 isn’t the year I pass (or even take) a C1 test, that’s okay. My goal is to maintain my French and improve my Spanish. Not exactly quantifiable, I know. My plan is to practice with people in each language for two conversations a month or so, read articles and books, and work on listening comprehension.

2. Read German by the End of the Year

Is it weird that I don’t think this will be super hard? Yeah, it’d be great to speak it if I ever make my way to Germany, and let’s hope that at least a few words would come out of my mouth if a German emergency required it, but speaking isn’t really my goal. Reading bread recipes and appreciating the flexibility of German vocabulary is. By the end of the year, I’d like to be able to read the average newspaper article and understand what it said.

3. Finish an Intro to Mandarin Course

This goal clearly isn’t about attaining a certain level in the language. It’s about making a point to start it and become interested in the culture. And if it means I happen to catch a label or two at work, that’s nice, too.


crafts 051 (500x336)1. Knitting and Crocheting

I can crochet in a circle. I can knit scarves and hats. 2015 is the year I branch out. The year I complete two new crafting projects of each kind.

2. Sewing

I have a sewing machine. I can sew in a straight line–sort of. I cannot keep moving this heavy thing around without being able to make better use of it. In 2015, I will complete four sewing projects that are not pillows.


1. Brush up on HTML and CSS

Sure, I remember some of what I learned in school and have been using a bit of HTML and CSS on the blog, but I’d like to feel a bit more comfortable with it all.

2. Usurp Husband’s Coding Knowledge

My husband is fluent in the language of Python. I have no desire to reach his level and usurp all that knowledge, but it sure would be handy to know how to automate the renaming of files or other tedious tasks.


garden 043 (500x336)1. Improve Birding Skills

Nerdy? Maybe, but color me inspired by our Chaco trips and walks along the Stanley Park seawall. I’ve already got a bit of start on this!

2. Grow a Patio Garden

Save for a few nearby trips, I plan to be around for the entire growing season. And I have a beautiful little balcony. So why not?

3. Complete a Course in Sustainability*

4. Complete the Planet Earth Course*

5. Get into Nature at Least Once per Month

Even if it’s just an escape onto the North Shore or making a point to spend a full afternoon crisscrossing through the tall trees of Stanley Park, it has got to happen.

Learn Just Enough About Stuff Not on the List to Make a New List Next Year

Learning anything about anything always teaches me how little I know about so many things. Like every good road map, mine has its limitations. Sometimes the best road trip stops are unplanned; the same thing goes for learning. I want so many new things to be on my radar by the end of December 2015. By then, I’ll want to learn about things I don’t even know exist at this point. Can’t wait!

Did you set any learning resolutions this year? Tell me, tell me!


*These courses are open courseware offerings, often from Coursera or MIT Open Courseware.

**Calling me out on cheating would be mean. Okay, not mean, but pointless for both of us. I’d just be cheating myself, and you’d be wasting your time. I reserve the right to not make every goal on this list. I reserve the right to change it. The goal of my goals is to learn as much as I can about the things I want to without feeling trapped by them. I don’t mean to make myself an expert or imply others should want to learn the same things. I just want people to be excited about learning. Anything.

I Didn’t Become Fluent in Spanish and Here’s Why I Don’t Feel Bad About It

I just returned from a nearly three-month trip in South America. It was the stuff dreams and dinner party anecdotes are made of.

quebrada de cafayate

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we found our way off of the Gringo Trail, excepting the touristy stops on our trip, at least for quite a while. Once we even heard someone say, “We never see gringos on this trail” as we hiked by a group of Argentinos.

DSC_1335 (2)

I returned to North America with a deeper understanding of biology, a greater appreciation for the creatures that share this planet with us, a solid grasp on Argentine wines, and a love/fearful respect relationship for the Chaco region. And a newfound respect for the accordian. I got a lot out of the trip.

But did I return to North America as a fluent Spanish speaker? Am I wowing everyone with my near perfect Argentine accent?

Oh, heavens no.

Yeah, I could be a bit disappointed in myself. I can’t even understand entire movies without subtitles, especially if it’s coming to us from Buenos Aires or Chile (¿Jaja?) My Spanish-language exchanges still tend to be halting, awkward as often as not, and there’s a whole lot of “¿Cómo?” coming from both sides. So, there you are. I’m proof that just being in a place where people speak a language isn’t enough. It’s not a simple osmosis thing.* It’s not magic. Learning a language still has to be intentional.

Why didn’t we reach fluency? Why am I not disappointed in myself? That wasn’t our goal.

We never set out to learn Spanish to the point of fluency on this trip. In fact, we never set actual goals for attaining a specific level of Spanish. Sounds awful? Maybe, but read on.
For neither the husband nor I, improving our Spanish wasn’t the primary purpose of the trip. He was there to get into the field, concentrate on a paper he’s working on, and work with research collaborators. I, on the other hand, went with the intention of writing (eek, could have done more), reading to my heart’s content, assisting in his research (I am queen of the GPS now), eating empanadas like crazy, and improving my Spanish. Learning Spanish wasn’t the only reason we were there and we never made a point to decide what level of Spanish we wished to obtain before leaving. When your objective is as vague as “improving my Spanish,” it’s hard to measure and certainly not conducive to obtaining fluency.

We also didn’t purposely seek out in-depth language practice. Other than walking to the lab for internet and ping pong and going on research trips (and a wee bit of vacation), we only left our hermitage once per week. I am only a little bit sorry about this. When your hermitage is a gorgeous park with hiking trails and new flora and fauna, it’s hard to justifying leaving it too often. If I’d been more ambitious, I could have taken the bus into town, paid for classes, or tried to set up some sort of language exchange around our trip schedule.** But that would have changed the entire nature of our trip.

No, I’m not fluent in Spanish. Still, my Spanish most definitely improved.

How do I know?

Let’s travel through time about ten months to a Montreal cafe. I was trying to deoxidize my nine-year-old Spanish in a conversation with a Spanish-speaking friend. This friend (with whom I normally spoke in French) laughed and told me I sound “funny” in Spanish. Later, he admitted to Jordan what he meant by “funny.” Apparently, I sounded like a robot when I tried to speak. A really, really slow one. I was pretty bad.

Fast forward a bit. On the flight to Argentina, I really strained to grab words from the flight attendants’ announcements. On the return flight, that same seemingly incomprehensible announcement was pretty manageable.

Reading articles doesn’t seem painful anymore. Sure, I look words up. But a news article no longer takes 30 minutes—only 10. 🙂

Last night, I chatted with that same Spanish-speaking friend who said I sound like a robot. My words seemed to come easily. He noted it early on in the conversation, saying that he could tell I had learned a lot (and this was unprompted…promise I didn’t fish!).

Finally, I type this from a Vancouver cafe (not the trendy, hipster one your picturing—bring your expectations down a bit). Guilty as usually charged, I’m eavesdropping on approximately four conversations at one time. One of these happens to be one-side of a Spanish-language Skype call. I certainly am not understanding everything (he’s speaking pretty quickly), but I’m able to understand the overall subject of his call, can seize some details, and picked out his accent.

I don’t want you getting the wrong idea. Even these improvements didn’t come easily or automatically.

Improving took work, intention, and awkwardness.

I wasn’t intentional about leveling up in a language. Instead, I was intentional about practicing a little every day.

My goal was a process goal, not a product goal.

When out and about, we often were left with no choice but to speak Spanish with vendors or locals. On our trips with other researchers, I made a point to speak at least a little amount each day and listened to their exchanges with intent. From these conversations and I scrawled down new vocabulary words to practice later, plugged them into my Anki (flashcard review) sets, and reviewed when home.

While tucked away in Horco Molle (the aforementioned hermitage), I still fulfilled my commitment to practice a little per day. A little per day probably averaged around fifteen active minutes. I reviewed grammar lessons at least two times per week, logged in for a DuoLingo session a couple times per month, and listened to podcasts for Spanish learners. We watched some movies in Spanish during our stay. I read from YA books or articles in magazine a couple times a week. Sometimes, I even squeezed tiny five minutes conversations in with others.

These three months taught me that learning a language isn’t the same for everyone. And that’s great. If you’re goal is about leveling up and you’ve got a test to pass, by all means, strive for the next level, strive to pass. Please do. Let’s remember, though, that focusing on results might not be the only way to improve. I found focusing on the process way less intimidating and way more inviting.

I focused on the habit, not my level or how to label it. Worry about your level and fluency if you need to or really want to.

When I was really in the throes of French learning, I was constantly stressing about my level. It was easy to succumb to this pressure when my main motivation for learning French was to put it on my CV and find work. Was I maintaining? Was I improving? In a moment of frustration, I told a friend I felt like I was actually digressing. Her response would become my language learning mantra:

If you’re practicing and really making an effort, you can only get better.

I’ve come to find that to be true. Sure, you might be able to be more efficient. But if you’re putting in time and keep challenging yourself, you will get better.

For me, right now, that’s the goal. Move ahead a little bit each day and occasionally look back to see how far I’ve come.

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina



*I know, you’re thinking about how children “are like sponges” and just absorb language. Except that your mom probably spent precious time with you pointing out colors, shapes, and playing games that make you repeat words over and over.

**Skype lessons weren’t exactly easily feasible either. We had no internet in the house. When I went to the lab for internet, it was shared internet with people who needed it to work, and there wasn’t a place to Skype that wouldn’t disturb others.

What’s All this Lifelong Learning Hubaloo About, Anyway?

www.therestoflhistoire.comHey, guys and gals. Today’s post still comes to you from Argentina. Canada, we’ll see you so soon. Now, on to the subject at hand.

In case you’re new to this term “lifelong learning” that I keep throwing around on the blog, I wanted to elaborate a bit.

What Do You Mean by Lifelong Learning?

Part of me (probably the wiser part of me), wants to simply write:

Let’s not complicate things, folks. “Lifelong learning” is exactly what it sounds like. It is when a person learns throughout his or her entire life. It’s everything you learn from “cradle to grave.” And if you’re not interested in the semantics any further, then that definition is probably fine for you. Go ahead, just skip to part two to see why I keep rambling on about something that seems so incredibly simple and straightforward.

For those of you who want to hold on with me through the nitty gritty, I’ve got more up my sleeve.

A Definition

There are, of course, a number of formal definitions. These definitions vary, but here’s a good, working definition. According to the Commission of the European Communities,

[Lifelong learning is] all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective.

The concept can be traced backed to the 1920s to the writings of Basil Yeaxlee and Eduard Lindeman (source). The term “lifelong learning” itself became popular in the 1970s (source) and has increased in usage since. It’s seen all over the place in reports, policy justification, and on formal educational websites.

Knowing this and seeing this is great, but still, that’s pretty close to the easy definition above. I wanted to write a little more about how I, personally, see lifelong learning.

My Definition

learningFirst, a quick note about what is not meant by the term lifelong learning on this blog.

Lifelong learning doesn’t have to be expensive, is not (and should not be) elitist, and doesn’t require you to get an advanced degree (but by all means, get one if you want one and it’s right for you!).

On to the good stuff. Here’s what lifelong learning is to me:

Lifelong learning is intentional.
Lifelong learning is an endless cycle of curiosity.
Lifelong learning is asking why and how.
Lifelong learning is ferreting out the rest of the story and creating the rest of yours.
Lifelong learning is challenging yourself, finding yourself in situations that make you feel uncomfortable so that you can be a smarter version of you.
Lifelong learning is informal education.
Lifelong learning is formal education—if you want it to be.
Lifelong learning is personal. It is also community.
Lifelong learning is a mindset.
Lifelong learning is a commitment (Wait? When exactly did I get married to learning?).
Lifelong learning is tapping into the potential that YOU already have.
Lifelong learning is everyday.
Lifelong learning is for everyone.

Whew, that was fun to type! I may have been slightly caffeinated.

Okay, So Why Do I Keep Rambling on About It?

In short: It’s good for you. And I want good things for you.

In long: Lifelong learning has benefits beyond our wildest imaginations. There are entire academic journal articles dedicated to exactly how lifelong learn affects people for the better. One of these, in particular, put together a nice summary for us. From this article, I’m summarizing.

Lifelong learning:

  • Keeps you sharp and could ward off dementia.
  • Makes you more confident.
  • Makes you better at socializing.
  • Often provides better career opportunities.
  • Cuts down on neighborhood crime.
  • Means higher levels of civil engagement.
  • Helps you develop into the more awesome you (yes, that’s some serious paraphrasing, but “developing natural abilities” means the same thing, right?).

So forgive me if I can’t help but talk about it and share my learning experiences. I want people to know that they can learn what they want to and to feel empowered to do so. I want people to live lives enriched by curiosity.

I promise, if you commit to lifelong learning, you will be a better version of you. You will be the version of you that God/your community/the world* needs you to be.

What you could be is what you should be.**

So, keep learning.



*Choose the one that best suits you. Personally, I believe in God, but recognize that not all do.

**A man named Tom Staman told me this when I was about 10 years old. Don’t think I’ll be forgetting it anytime soon.