Adulting advice from a book author

Tips on how to get your act together from a writer who has been there and done that

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margaux-bergen-book-signing

When I was in grade school, I envied my other classmates who were better off than my family. My brother and I studied in an exclusive school for boys in grade school, where many of my classmates came from well-off families. Our blue and white school uniform did not disguise the Game Boy and Nike Air Max other students brought to school. It was easy to be better off compared to our family. My parents only earned enough to meet our day-to-day needs. But there were even times they had to borrow and pool money to pay for our tuition so the school would allow us to take the quarterly periodic tests. I fantasized of being born into a different, well-off family (which reminds me of this meme). I imagined being chauffeured to and from school (we got our first family car when I was 23). During Christmas breaks, I also wanted to have travel plans, wore thick sweaters, and visit Disneyland. But the closest I got to my dreams was a visit to a local theme park with questionable safety standards and the cold AC of a shopping mall.

You’d think I would outgrow this feeling of envy as I got older, but my wants and wishes turned more elaborate yet more professional. My mom was a public school teacher, and I wished she had the right connections to set me up for any well-paying job. My father had left the country. What if they were doctors and lawyers, so choosing a career would have been as easy as taking over their practice? They let me take up a major in college that no one among us knew of the future career odds and options. I was an early version of a free-range kid out of necessity, because they didn’t have the means to put up that fence that could give me a sheltered life.

I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and neither knew the right questions much less have the gumption to ask. Unlike meals I’ve had with other families, eating on the dining table was an act of nutrition and not discussion.

When I went to grad school in my early 20’s, I realized all these fantasies and what-ifs were just that- unhealthy and irrelevant ruminations that stem from comparing my life with that of others. It’s a waste of time and energy, better harnessed for working with what my parents have been able to provide, and carving my own niche in life. We always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I’m forever grateful for that. They’re easy for me to say now in hindsight. But who’s supposed to teach us these nuggets of wisdom when we’re young? From whom, and how can we learn them sooner rather than later?

Margaux Bergen in her first book “Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me” could be that person. She addresses these thorny life questions, and so much more. I met her in person during her book reading and signing last Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Brookland. She read excerpts from her book, which dishes out lessons on school, jobs, and relationships. The book is difficult to categorize given its breadth of topic. It’s self-help, parenting, career advice, and memoir all rolled into one. The book, written over a span of ten years, was originally addressed to her daughter when she went to college, which explains the crossover themes of the book, and the tender prose and intimate voice in which it is written.

I arrived early at the book event and got the chance to chat with the Margaux. We talked a bit about her book, our love for writing, and careers. I felt an affinity for her when I learned that at one point she also worked for the World Bank, where where I work now as a consultant. Showing motherly concern, she gave me unsolicited and simple advice on how to get a staff position.

I bought a copy of Margaux’s book that I picked up right off the display showcase beside her. I asked her to sign and address the book to a friend who has been asking me for career tips, and worrying about not finding a job once she finishes grad school next year. She comes from a humble background, has paved her own career path, and is now studying on a scholarship here in the US. Hopefully she benefits a lot from the book, beyond the advice I’ve been giving her born mainly out of my own experience and decisions, some of which have not necessarily been the best I have made. I plan to give it to her as a Christmas present, although I could use one for myself. I hope she won’t notice the creased spine and the broken-in look of its edges by the time she reads it.

Returning to live in Washington, D.C.

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The National Mall taken from the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

I’m more than a month into juggling two jobs as a consultant, one at my old office doing some web and comms work, and another with the Climate Investment Funds on climate change and organizational learning. It’s amazing how things fell into place, how one lunch led to two coffee meetings, and then two contracts a couple of months later. I had an open plan when I came to the US- reconnect with family and friends, attend a writing workshop, and meet some old colleagues. If nothing came up in the work front, I was ready to pack and move on. But I only realized how much I missed the District as soon as I came back, and thought it would be nice to stay here for a while and find something to do.

“How long have you been in DC?” I often get asked when I reveal I’m not originally from the area, to which I have prepared a spiel of my DC 1.0 circa 20112013, and how I ended up again in the East Coast this time around. This bitemporal experience makes me appreciate this city all the more. I now look at the city with fresh eyes looking with delight at my old haunts, curiosity with new shops and buildings, and nostalgia with those that have closed down. Many of my fellow former JPAs have left, moving on to do their PhDs, or back home. People, just as with places, have come and gone.

Before I lived in Foggy Bottom steps from the World Bank and near the White House during DC 1.0, I’ve now moved farther to a friend’s house in the North East about half an hour’s commute downtown (that is, if the Metro is working- I’m looking at you, Red Line). But I get to work from home, or make that work from Brookland, where there are cafes and more dining options. I’ve established a daily routine: I wake up early and start working, walk to the hip neighborhood around 10 or 11 in the morning to grab an early lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon at a café at a bookstore, then try to be back home before it gets dark. Weekends are spent on more walking and exploring other nearby neighborhoods or towns.

I make it sound like I’ve got this adulting all sorted out. Yes and no, depending on how you define “sorted out”. My work is far from stable and cushy contrary to how others may perceive it. And that’s fine. With these social and professional changes also come personal ones, mostly on realizing what matters to me: going for long walks, exploring interesting neighborhoods, keeping in touch with family and friends, and defining and redefining personal values and lifestyles. Whereas I only used to treat Washington DC as the city where I lived to work, it has become a more meaningful place where I live to live.

Woah, that’s a lot of introspection. Something to get us back to reality: Donald Trump just got elected President of the United States of America.

Wash day at the wash salon

Next to the underground and city train, those automated wash salon would probably be the next place to see colorful characters.  It is my third time to go to and use one.  The first one being in Antwerp when I visited a former colleague over New Year’s 2008, and the second one in Bonn when I visited my cousin a few months ago.  Back in the Philippines, we have our own washing machine and a lavandero as well to make sure our clothes are immaculately clean.  When I was still doing my undergrad and during the times I couldn’t go home on weekends and bring my dirty laundry, I would visit a lavandera where I can leave my clothes and pick it up a couple of days later all clean, although unironed, yet neatly folded and packed in a plastic bag.

My notion of characters that go to a wash salon were mainly shaped by movies.  They are mostly those who struggle through life.   There’s a common denominator among them: they cannot afford to buy a washing machine.  Refusing to buy one for spatial or practical reasons might be an exception more than the rule.  Most flats, however small, usually have one either in the kitchen, cellar, or in the toilet.  For those living transiently in an unfurnished single-room apartment, buying one is simply impractical.  At about 400 Euros, those heavy-duty washing wonders can put a dent on the budget of the frugal.  And that includes me.

It is a bit odd that the house where I am renting a room now doesn’t have a washing machine.  It has the best of the kitchen ware and the cupboards are decked with imported herbs, ingredients, and cooking what-nots.  And I learned the washing machine is somewhere hidden in the cellar, probably collecting rust and dust.  So I searched for the nearest wash salon via Google Maps yesterday and decided to go to one last night before I ran out of clean clothes in a couple of days.  When I say nearest it is about a couple of kilometers away.  Yes, it is not that far, even by foot.  But under the weight of my dirty laundry and the rain, it seemed twice as far.

I was pampered in my dormitory in Freiburg.  The washing machines are just one floor down, and a wash token is a bargain at 1.80 Euros a piece.  We have a drying room where our clothes could dry overnight.  I would go back to my room after chucking in my clothes, throwing in the detergent, and turning the dials and pushing the power button.  After an hour, I slip them in a blue Ikea “shopping-laundry bag” (that’s its rightful purpose!), go to the adjacent drying room and hang them to dry.  Now that I have left my dorm and haven’t found a permanent place still, all those were a luxury of the past.

While it is my third time to use those automated washing machines, I still caught myself staring in confusion at the control panel full of numbered buttons, blinking lights, and LCDs.  I might have been as well staring at a mainframe computer.  I slid a 50 cent coin in the slot to buy some detergent.  And nothing happened.  I pressed the button which said ‘soap’.  Again nothing.  I pressed the ‘return money’ button.  Still nothing.  So I thought I just lost my precious 50 cents in this greedy contraption.   I made a distress call to a lady who was folding her clothes.  She must have been Mediterannean or middle-eastern.  She asked me questions on what I have done so far and analysed the situation.  I pushed some more random buttons, and the soap dispenser sputtered and gave me my 50 cents’ worth of detergent.  Ah, that’s more like it.  Once done turning my clothes inside out and putting them in and shutting the machine, what next?  The same lady saw the question in my face and dictated the next steps as writtoen in the instructions posted on the control panel.  I slipped intwo 2 Euro coins, hit some more buttons  here and there  to get back my 1 Euro change, and soon the machine started rolling.  The button-hitting reminded me of the arcade games I used to play back in high school.  This time there’s no virtual battle to fight, rather a fight against the machine with the reward of clean clothes.  I was determined to win.

Now comes the waiting.  Some people bring a book or a laptop to while away the almost one-hour wait.  One man brought his sleepiness as his head hung on one side, almost falling down from the bench.  In my case, I brought my hunger.  It was not unplanned though.  I already knew what I wanted for dinner.  I’ve been hankering for a doener since last week.  With 45 minutes to kill, I had time to look for a doener place.  My wish was right away granted.  Outside the wash salon was a Turkish snack house.  I walked  a little further to explore my other choices, where there turned out to be none.  I backtracked and ordered a Doener dueruem.  It wasn’t the best one I’ve had, but as they say in German, hunger is the best cook.  I just enjoyed my food, and the TV even if I don’t understand a thing, which has started to show an old Turkish film.

Only eight minutes were left when I went back to the wash salon.  An African guy with graying hair was waiting for his laundry to dry.  Another young guy who must have been a student was staring at one machine, mesmerised by the spinning motion and the tumbling clothes.  Soon they picked up their dry clothes and left, and I put my wet clothes in one of the dryers, did another coin-slot-button routine, and waited some more.  A rocker-looking hippie and a couple of ladies in chic gothic were my new company.  The rocker-hippie placed his soiled clothes in the machine in a calculated manner.  First he held them at two ends, folded them, and laid them in the washing machine like casting a rod to fish.  There must be some clothes-washing physics that I might be missing here.  By arranging the clothes in such order, the surface area of the clothes exposed to water, detergent, and the tumbling is optimized.  I thought it was better to leave him alone before I get into any trouble.  A pudgy man soon emerged from one of the few doors inside the wash salon.  He didn’t have any clothes to wash with him.  He turned out to be the cleaning guy.  He mopped the floor wherein a puddle has started to collect, and wiped the machines to take out the coagulated mass that has formed from the fabric and chalk.  A few words were spoken.  No one among us was a German but it was the default language of choice.   The rocker-hippie was looking for a bottle opener for his beer, and the pudgy guy was complaining about broken bottles in the city as he found some on the floor.  He went into his room with a keychain bottle opener, and handed it to rocker-hippie.  I asked the pudgy guy if he has found anything interesting in any of the dryers he was cleaning.  He said there’s none, just loose strands of fabric.  Sometimes, there’s a cent or two in the washing machines that were left unchecked in pockets.

I took out my clothes from the dryer.  They felt nice and warm as I folded them, yet some were still damp after 24 minutes of tumble-drying.  That costed a Euro.  Half as much is half as long of drying.  I didn’t want to give it another go.  I’ll just save my 50 cents, and besides, it was getting late.  I still needed to make my way back to my place.  I bade my company tschuess! and wondered who will be the next soul to use this hub.  It was still wet and a now a little more colder when as I stepped out and left the wash salon.

Living on the edge

I am at Hamburg main train station as I write this.  It is the end of my first full 24 hours in the city after arriving from Freiburg.  I didn’t know I would decisively go to Hamburg until Thursday afternoon.  This meant no hostel reservations and no notice to acquaintances that I am arriving.

I arrived yesterday and checked in a 0.5 star hotel, the nearest and cheapest one that I can afford near the train station.  As they say, you get what you pay for.  I didn’t expect five-star hotel accommodations.  To begin with, I heard sirens when I made my reservation via phone.  I did not expect that it is the same sound that would greet me as I cross the street to my hotel and that I would hear for the rest of the night.  I heard somewhere that there was a demonstration last night.  It must be that, or the police station and hospital is really near my hotel.  The street that face my window must be the route that connects the police station and the hospital to the rest of the city.  If not sirens, it’s some shouting from across the street or the zooming of cars passing by that keeps me shifting from neverland and Hamburg.  Is it for this reason they say ‘sleep sound’?

As I expected from my 0.5-star hotel, they don’t have space for me to deposit my luggage when I checked out this morning.  They must have did this on purpose because they know there is a luggage storage area at the main train station just a few steps away.  I think the same logic applies for their not having internet connection- an internet cafe is 10 steps away from their doorstep.  It was closed though the whole time I needed it.  I am now using one of those computer stations that require you to buy 2€ tickets which contain a username and password for an hour’s use of internet.

These mishaps haven’t dampened my first day in Hamburg though.  Besides, it is just my first day, and things should go better in the next six months!  Armed with my camera, a three-day ticket, and a sandwich I sneaked out during breakfast from my 0.5-star hotel, I set forth with my journey.  Just to remain consistent with the theme of this post, I have no itinerary to begin with.  I got on an U-bahn, waited for five minutes for it to leave, and got off 30 seconds later as it reached the next station- Rathaus.  As I emerged to the Rathausplatz I followed the general direction of the crowd to the Alster.   I have a surreal memory of this area.  The first time I was here, I saw pigeons walking on water.  This was last New Year’s Eve when winter was swinging high (or low).   I took a break here and tried to call prospective flats that I can visit.  Out of the three I tried to contact, all were unsuccessful.  It is either they cannot pick up the phone or refuse to reply to my SMS.  I have been warned of the difficulty to find a place to stay here in Hamburg, but not the lack of phone courtesy!

Once done with thís chore, I just started to enjoy my time and took lots of photos.  I covered by foot the half a kilometer route between the Rathaus and the Speicherstadt.  The beautiful weather was just not worth missing in the safety of a bus or a U-bahn.  And besides, I didn’t know which bus or U-bahn to take.  Speicherstadt translates to ‘warehouse’.  The brown-bricked warehouse that bound the channels of the Elbe river lend a historic feel.  Highlight this earth color with gold and bold letters of the businesses that have called Speicherstadt their home and you’ve got one of the most expensive quarters of Hamburg.  I spent a good two hours in the area, alternating walking and picture-taking.  Afterwards I met up with a guy in his flat who was advertising a room, and yes, in Speicherstadt.   He couldn’t have described his place any better.  His flat cannot get as any close to the place where I will do my internship.  It is literally beside the building where he is living.  I sounded a bit desperate while we were chatting, which is because I am desparate.  If I get to live there, it would incur me a record-breaking time of 20 second to get to the door-step of my office building, or vice-versa.

I returned to the Rathausplatz.  This time it was more alive than early this morning when I left it.  A bio-cum-sustainable expo was set up.  Bio-marmalade, bio-müsli, bio-house, err, passive house- you name it, the bio-market has it.  When I felt it was getting too healthy, I traced my step to the place where I might be spending the night, from the train, to the streets, to the location of the lifts.  In less than an hour, I will be taking the U-bahn again and dragging my at least 20-kilogram luggage and about seven-kilogram backpack, which, come to think of it, basically makes up my life.