Afros & Hippos - Getting Back to My Roots

For the past few years, I’ve been contemplating breaking my addition to the “creamy crack”. (For full disclosure, I had no idea what that term referred to until I watched Chris Rock’s “Good Hair.”)

I’ve been getting my hair chemically relaxed since I was in 7th grade. Before then, my mother would plait my hair every morning with pretty clips and bows. For special occasions like Easter or my birthday, I might get a hot comb treatment. I was always amazed by how different my hair felt and looked when it was straightened. My hair would actually blow in the wind and do all the sorts of things I felt that “good hair” would do. I can’t say that my mother taught me the idea of “good hair” as my mother has had an afro since the early 1970s. So, I’d assume my understanding of “good hair” was the product of the attitudes of my school friends and my own comparison of my Barbie’s straight blonde locks and my own “nappy” mane.

The summer before I started junior high, my mother agreed that it was time to start getting my hair relaxed so that I could pursue all the styles I wanted without her having to deal with pressing my hair (only to have me ruin it in the shower, when exercising, or in the rain). I loved getting my hair relaxed. But I don’t think I was ever truly satisfied with chemically straightened hair, and that was probably because until recently, I didn’t know much about the process of chemically straightening hair and the importance of a specialized regime to ensure that your treated hair remains healthy. So, I even then I normally sported a ponytail or bun. It was easy and got my hair out of the way—and now it is my signature look.

I do wish that I had chosen to not go relaxed at 13, but then, I don’t know how I would have coped with being the only natural-haired Black girl at school. A lot has changed over the years. Natural hairstyles are much more mainstream and so many women have learned to embraces their natural curls.

So, this brings me to my latest bright idea. I want to grow out my hair. This desire stems from environmental, spiritual, and even financial reasons. Whereas I used to abhor any new growth, I now rejoice in seeing and feeling its texture and curl. I want to experience having a whole head of texture and curl—something I haven’t had in over 15 years.

Back when I was applying to Peace Corps, I figured that I would go natural before my departure. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to maintain my relaxer routine if I lived in a remote village, and I figured it would be the perfect way to transition from relaxed to natural without having to deal with the reaction of people who are used by my “straightened and pulled-back” style.

Doing it now frightens me. I worry about the reaction of my friends, my coworkers, and guys. I wonder if I will be perceived as attractive to men sporting a ‘fro—particularly men who aren’t African American (you know that I always find myself attracted to Latinos and White men). Will those men find me attractive or will they be put-off by a natural style? But then, would I want to date that sort of guy anyway? And I wonder how it will change other people’s perception of me in the workplace—especially as I seek to pursue fellowships, internships, and other professional opportunities abroad.

So the reaction of others definitely worries me. But I don’t think that is enough as the only reaction that matters is my own. I’m not really afraid of the actual change in hair texture and style. I have my mother to thank for that. Plus, cutting my hair off and sporting a funky ‘fro shouldn’t be that much of a change given that I don’t rely on my hair in framing my face and my hair has never really defined my style—it’s always just sorta there.

So, how soon until my “Big Chop”? My vote is for a few months of transitioning (i.e., letting my natural hair grow out) before getting it cut and styled into a funky ‘fro. I plan on consulting with a trusted stylist who sports a natural do this weekend. I look forward to hearing what she recommends and then, asking my mother for her blessing (as is required for all major life decisions).

Oui, c’est possible: A hippo with an afro in 2011.


My Plan of Attack

During the past week, I’ve shared my dreams of going abroad with a number of friends. Everyone is very supportive but interestingly, they are surprised to learn that I am actively pursuing this goal (i.e., drafting a personal statement for one application, meeting with people, learning French at home, etc). It is true that, in the past, I’ve talked about doing a lot of things that never panned out. But this time, I am not following some random, bright idea, but the voice of the “little girl” inside of me who always longed to live abroad and be immersed in the French and Spanish language and culture. It’s the voice that I tried to follow back when I applied to Peace Corps. And then, my life on the Hill and the allure of being settled in DC distracted me. Now, I’m back on track.

So here is my plan for achieving my goal. This will probably change as I learn about additional programs (gotta network, network, network!!) or realize that I actually don’t want to live abroad (I can’t imagine that would ever happen, but who knows…). I've included links for those of you who are interested in the same sort of thing.

1) Tell My Boss
This actually wasn’t supposed to happen for a few more weeks, but Monday I found myself in the curious position of having a heart-to-heart with my boss about my plans. She was very supportive, which is great—especially as I’ll be asking her for recommendations. But it is intimidating to put an official marker out there saying that you intend to do something. It makes it all real and increases the pressure not to fail.

2) Learn French
Today, I forked over a month’s worth of rent for two French classes at the Alliance Fran├žaise in DC. Hopefully, my language acquisition via AF is much better than my Spanish review at ILI. Regardless, I am striving to reach a level of proficiency sufficient to successfully compete for the Teaching Assistant Program in France through the French Embassy. Based on the information I’ve read online, it seems like I have a chance to earn a spot as long as I turn my application in during the first deadline, am profuse about my interest in teaching in France, and hire a French tutor to help me advance quicker and to write a recommendation for the program.

Signing up for a year of group and private classes will be a major financial investment for a program that I very well may not get into, yet I want to learn French and AF is definitely much cheaper than classes at my beloved alma mater ($1,500+ per credit hour!). And, even if I don’t make it into the program, taking the classes will give me the rudimentary understanding of French that I want to have before I return to France to visit or to enroll in an immersion language course.

3) Learn German
I am really excited about the possibility of the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program. No, it isn’t France but the program would arrange for me to learn German before the program starts, and I would be able to spend several months in Germany gaining professional experience in my field. And that could be just the launching pad I need to find a job that will enable me to live and work abroad long-term.

4) Re-learn Spanish
If the programs in France and Germany don’t work out, and I’m still in D.C. (and antsy for international experience), I’ll apply to the North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain program through the Government of Spain. The requirements are similar to the France program but you can be a little older. I’ll get a Spanish tutor to improve my Spanish and apply for the 2012-2013 school year.

5) Deplete “Gotta Go to France” Savings Fund
If none of the above options pan out and I don’t find any other alternatives, I’ll follow this woman's advice and take classes next fall to acquire a TEFL certificate, get a 3-month visa, and book a flight to Paris for January 2012. I’ll spend one week applying to English teaching jobs at private language institutes in Paris while taking French classes (so that I can get the reality check of a miserably wet and cold Paris winter). And if no one hires me, I’ll just do the same thing in two or more other cities I want to visit in France (Lyon, Nice, Marseille, Strasbourg, Lyon, etc). And if after all of that I still don’t have any success, I’ll try out wwoofing, volunteering, paying to teach english (our intern recommended The Language House TEF), enroll in more more French language and cultural classes, or some other random experience (e.g., La Giraudiere) until I deplete my “Gotta Go to France” savings fund. Then, I'll return home and either get ready for the program in Spain or just return to my old political staffer life in DC.

So, yes, I do have a plan. A-M called me a dreamer. I guess I am. But I am also an avid planner. And once I am inspired to achieve something, I will devote all my energy into it. It is quite possible that I will drop this whole scheme in favor of a new job opportunity (if the Administration came-a-knocking, I would drop this in a heartbeat). Or maybe something else happens (love, family, etc) that leads me to make the conscious decision to settle-down in my career and in DC.

Life is all about dreaming, making plans, and then, readjusting those plans based on the curveballs that life sends your way. Regardless, I’m going to do my best to implement this plan of attack so that when I am 80 and I can look back and at least say that I tried.


A Countdown

So I think I’m really going to do it.

I’m giving myself until the end of February 2011 to get everything in order.

That gives me a full two years in my current office. I do have some misgivings given the career future and financial stability I would be leaving. But then I remember that I am in the exact same place I was two years ago when I was getting ready to leave for the Peace Corps. I moved into a shared house to save money, got rid of half of my possessions to make for an easier move, started taking a Spanish classes, and went to work on the Hill because I couldn’t imagine leaving DC without having that experience. It was never meant to be for more than six months. But I fell in love with the Hill’s energy, and it treated me well. My only sadness about taking a break from that career path will be to leave (and possibly never return) without having had a Senate-side or Administration experience. But I have had a few experiences that most politicos would envy.

My February deadline also gives me a little over 6 months to save as much money as I can, learn French phrases, and do lots of research into different program options. Floyd recommends that I find a way to have an experience abroad that helps to further my career so that it isn’t a random gap in employment that I’ll have to explain when I return. I am reluctant to enroll in graduate school. But I am interested in a political position abroad. I don’t have the connections to become a political appointee in the US embassy in France. But maybe that is something I can work on during the upcoming 6 months. Or at least I hope to find contacts that could be helpful for a long-term move in the future (once I've become fluent in French).

What I’d really love to do is find a legislative exchange/fellowship program that would enable me, as a Hill staffer, to work in a legislative body in France, Spain, and/or the UK. Now that would add something to my resume--while allowing me to experience living and working abroad. So far, I haven’t had any luck finding such a program. But I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and keep talking to people.

My backup plan is to apply for a 3-month visa and enroll in a French immersion program for a bit and then a Teaching English program. Then, I’ll try for the same in Spain before a bit of random travel to England and Scotland to visit friends and maybe Italy, Greece, and wherever else the wind and my wallet takes me. All that before returning to the US to live in my mother’s basement as an unemployed, broke 31 year old (with a lot of great and/or awful stories).

I think my biggest fear is having to reestablish myself in my career and in my networking circles when I return. I don’t look forward to explaining my work hiatus (as a 29/30 year old) to a potential employer. But to bring it back to how it would have been if I had gone to Peace Corps, I would probably be in a similar sort of boat of starting over with lots of uncertainty.

For those of you in the know, this plan is not about my French soulmate--though the men I saw in France would make any straight woman want to return for a longer stay... For the past year, I’ve been talking to my mother about moving to NYC in 2011. Now I'm seeking her blessing for France. So this is just a simple upgrade. And for the record, France is my soulmate or at least she is the one I need to have an ill-fated, torrid love affair with before I settle down.


Dreaming of France

I am now back in the U.S. of A. Although it is great to be back at home and sleeping in my own bed, it has been a little rough to adjust to the time difference, pace, and lifestyle of D.C. I was truly out of it at work yesterday after my body woke me up at 4 AM—ready for breakfast and to start the day. The day was all downhill after that. Today things are much better and I should be back at 100 percent for work on Monday.

The trip to France was amazing. And I fell in love with the country. So much in fact that I am now scheming to return for a longer stay. Ideally, I would go live in Paris for six months and take a French class or perhaps enroll in some graduate classes. If I was very lucky, I’d find a job. While there, I would definitely visit my college roommate and her sister in England and Scotland and perhaps, visit some of the other cities on my list. Then, I would switch gears and spend 6 months learning Spanish in Spain---or just move out of Paris and experience a long-term stay in Provence. This would enable me to knock out four of my bucket list items—living abroad, traveling alone, and becoming fluent in French and Spanish.

I do have some misgivings about such a scheme—mainly the fact that I’d be leaving behind a very comfortable lifestyle and career path for the unknown, unemployment, and debt. Without a doubt, I can see a fulfilling future for myself here in DC and on the Hill. I could buy a house, find a husband, and start having babies—and be very happy indeed!

Yet, I think that I might regret not taking a chance on living abroad on my own terms—while I still can. I don’t have any obligations—financial, romantic, familial, or otherwise—right now and that may change in the future. It is a selfish desire, but no more selfish than my desire to live in NYC. But living in Paris trumps living in NYC on so many levels. And it is just as expensive.

My crush on Paris that began 3 years ago has grown to a love of France as a result of my latest trip. I long to know and understand France—the language, the culture, the politics, the history, the landscapes, the food, the men... For so long, I was fascinated by Spanish and Spanish-speaking countries that it seems a little odd that France has moved me so. And as my friends say, how can I have fallen in love with France when I haven’t really been anywhere else? Am I only in love with it because it is a known?

I don’t think so. First, there aren’t many places in the world where I can achieve the lifestyle that desire. In the US, it is only NYC, DC, and Chicago and abroad, it is similarly only the large cities that can give me the sort of diversity, energy, opportunity, culture, and stimulation that I need to be happy. I’m not meant for the suburbs or rural life, at least not at my age. And I lean toward Europe because it is industrialized and secure. I love France because it is beautiful and I respect the French way of life. Yes, you are correct if you sense that my goal is stay longer than a year. I want to stay until the money runs out--whether that takes one year or 10. A job always awaits me in DC and if all else fails, my mother would welcome me back home.

In truth, there is nothing really holding me back from following my dreams--but my own fears of failure and the judgement of my peers. And that's not enough. I only desire my mother's blessing and a financial plan, and I can go.

So I’m going to spend the rest of the year teaching myself basic French, saving money, and figuring out how to make this pipe dream a reality. Who knows, maybe next year you'll read a depressing blog post about how moving to France was the worst decision of my life. Or maybe, my blog posts next year will instead detail how my decision to settledown in DC lead to the house, family, and career of my dreams. Who knows?! Life is all about curveballs. You have to dream, prepare, and simply, eventually, go for it.