Tag Archives: Interiors Project

Interiors Project: Peter and Ali Cuthbert in Singapore

Welcome to the seventh issue of The Interiors Project which takes us inside the Singapore home of the Cuthberts – Pete and Ali and their sons, Miles and Theo. I have known Pete for more than a decade; we met first as chaperones at a middle school writing conference in Monterrey, Mexico. Pete and Ali have built a gorgeous life together filled with family adventures, travel, a love of learning, a commitment to serving others and a brilliant new business. When we left Mexico, I felt regret that we had not spent more time with Pete and Ali but we have continued to meet up virtually and on the road.

“What’s your road, man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.” ~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll

In a way, the road has become home. Passengers on certain legs of the journey become neighbors. Colleagues connect like an extended family. Dwellings become shelters from the storms and provide the calm eye of the hurricane in a fast-paced Asian city; a space to unwind when time allows. Leaving the spinning blur at bay behind draped windows and beneath the tranquil hum of air conditioning.

Ali and I met in Monterrey, Mexico and we like to think that we carry a little piece of each place we’ve been with us. A bit like taking a little page from each person who shares their story with you, and adding it to your own interwoven tale. Because it was our first shared experience together and because that is where we first fell in love, Monterrey will always be nostalgically invincible. The allure of the unknown is a pretty big draw and over the years ties that bind you to an experience and a place begin to snap like weathered rubber bands. The act of leaving is never part of the decision, by that point it is too late and the open road has magnetically pulled you forth.

Living internationally is a gift we unwrap everyday and one that we do not take for granted. That being said, it is only fantastic if you absolutely love this sort of thing. It also takes a constant amount of effort and time depending on your location and your personality. We’re in Singapore (aka “Asia Light”) and thus we are far from roughing it. If anything, it is this comfort and ease that will one day be the reasons why we get back on the highway in search of an exit a little dustier, a little less signposted and one that might require four-wheel drive at times.

I have had an interesting mix of events over the past few months that have led to some raw understandings and reflections on what home is for me, and how it has changed so dramatically and so quickly for us. We are about to close on a small parcel of land in Central Otago NZ, that we discovered when we were looking for a vineyard property over our Christmas holiday. Part of us being pragmatic and diversifying our future investments, the other part playing out a romantic dream of living on our own vineyard, with silver hair, and our own wines in the cellar. To think about spending a significant chunk of time outside of Canada each year when we are no longer teaching was the first realization that “home” was not Canada like it once was. Home seems to have become an unfixed place that will allow us to live out our dreams with family and like-minded people who will make it a richer experience by sharing it with us.

The second experience was living here on my own last month when Ali, Miles, Theo and our nanny, Rebecca, flew to Canada for a family visit. It was the longest time I have been on my own in years and a shock to the system to be the one left behind in a silent condo. I’m sure it would have been easier on me to be away for a month, than be left for a month. Our small 151 sq. meter, 3-bedroom ground floor condo became huge, cavernous and void of the chaotically fun energy a three year old and a fourteen month old kick up every waking moment. This did not feel like home – and so I filled it with 55 cases of wine from the warehouse and got selling before I became the next Willy Loman. We run our own wine company, The Odd Bottle, here in Singapore for fun as we are passionate about wine and bringing people together. When Ali and our boys returned the other week, I realized that this condo would never be home without them in it.

The latest reflective moment was taking 22 grade 8 students to Cambodia to build houses in a rural village just outside Phnom Penh with Tabitha Singapore. This was the 5th year I’ve run this trip and it is my favorite weekend of each year. It is an experience that gives our students such unparalleled perspective and pause. We work hard building ten houses and as our vans pull down the red dirt road after a blistering hot day in the sun, we can see in the rear view mirrors the families carrying their belongings up into their new abodes for their first night under a tin roof and above floorboards. As you can see, the timing of this opportunity to wax poetic about the notion of home is rather serendipitous.

We are fortunate to have called Monterrey home. We are fortunate to call our lake house on the shores of Lake Huron home. We are fortunate to currently call Singapore home. We are fortunate to have the option to call Lowburn, NZ home one day. For some, home is more of a physical address than it is an environment, and for others it is an open road weaving into the distance. For us, home is where you are able to make your dreams happen with the people you love.

Hope to meet you on the road.

Peter, Ali, Miles and Theo
Cuthberts On the Road

You are invited to leave a note for Pete and Ali in the comments section.

Interiors Project: Karen Fish in Mumbai, India

Welcome to Issue 6 of the Interiors Project. Today we are at home with Karen Fish in Mumbai, India. Karen and I became friends at our school in Bangkok and I am one of the lucky people who inherited some of her good stuff when she made the move from Bangkok to Mumbai. Karen is an art teacher who approaches everything with grace and compassion whether she’s helping the counselors with an art exhibit, facilitating community service or decorating her gorgeous home(s). Thanks, Karen! Enjoy the tour.

I think if I were an animal I would be a turtle.

With a surname like mine, Fish, being a turtle is not too big of a leap. I love the ocean, I like to dig my toes into the sand and my Facebook profile picture says it all; I would always rather be at the beach! Beyond the beach obsession I would be a turtle because my home comes with me wherever I go. I firmly believe in supporting international removal companies, so wherever I go, “my stuff” goes too. Five international moves and many thousands of dollars later I have come to realize that I am a highly skilled nester. Maybe when I make my next move I should start my resume with, “Highly skilled nester who can also teach art.” What do you think, will I get the job?

My current home is in Mumbai aka Bombay, India. The Mumbai Bombay thing had me tricked at first. What should I call my new home? My solution is I just switch back and forth. Originally from Sydney I’ve lived and taught in Albury in rural Australia,  Penang in Malaysia, Sydney, Hong Kong, Bangkok in Thailand, and now Bombay in “Incredible India”! Whoever came up with that slogan really was a genius because it really, truly, is incredible.

Mumbai… before the shipment arrived:

Here is the “interesting” ASB furniture including what I liked to call the “Out of Africa” tiger stripes and all dining room set…. all now thankfully in storage!

My apartment
I’ve lived in teeny tiny apartments and huge rambling places with more bathrooms and wardrobes than anyone could possibly need. This sixth floor apartment is on the smaller side but I have managed to fit all my worldly possessions into my roughly 50 square meters of space. Yes I did have to measure; all I knew was it is small but luckily it’s basically a square so it wasn’t too hard. It took a bit of downsizing from my 145 square meter apartment in Bangkok so, if you are reading this and you helped me out by giving one of my treasures a new home, I thank you!

Home means…
My definition of home? I seem to have two homes, Bombay where all “my stuff” lives and Sydney which is where “my people”, my family and many friends live. Whenever I am in one place I always seem to refer to the other as “home”. My family is really important to me and I keep them close by having lots of favorite photos around my Bombay apartment. One thing I know for sure, for the period that my worldly goods are in a shipping container sailing across the high seas I feel a deep sense of unease. When it all arrives “home” I breathe again! My nest has returned.

What’s first to be unpacked?
What do I unpack first – my great grandmother’s clock, my antique Chinese cupboard and a very precious painting given to me by my dear friend Katrina just before I left Sydney in 1992. She arrived with it on top of her car and I had to call the removals and add just one more thing; a rather large, 120cm x 200 cm painting on wood. They laughed and arrived with a perfect wooden crate into which it just safely slipped ready for its journey across the globe.

The collections
Wherever I go I collect. Over my 23 years teaching abroad I have collected paintings, sculpture, furniture, carpets, masks, cushions and way too many decorator items. Each and every one of them has their own story. Like my indigo blue Chinese carpet bought in a dark and dingy Beijing Hutong practically sight unseen, well at least sort of,  I could see it was a carpet, I could scrape enough mud away from the surface to work out it was blue but that was about it.  I have Modigliani sculpture. OK that’s not quite true – I have a reproduction from the Louvre bought on my first art history school trip to Paris. I was there with a wonderful group of students who kindly helped me lug it home to Hong Kong. I love it as an image and for the memories it evokes. Another piece in my art collection is a painting from Hanoi that hangs over my sofa. The image just spoke to me from the moment I first saw it. “Buy me…buy me…you know you love me!” Over three days I bartered with the gallery and finally the artist himself but in truth it was all a game because I knew that it was mine.

My favorite things…
My favorite thing about my current home is the light. It’s the beach things again – light, sun water. When people ask why I love India one of my first reasons I give is the golden light. It brings such warmth to everything and my large windows let it fill my apartment especially in the early morning. I also love the view from my windows, past my Bali sculpture into the tree tops of Bandra. When I tell people I live in Mumbai I’m sure it’s an image of Slumdog Millionaire and not an image of trees that comes to their mind, but Mumbai is a city of trees. I have no idea what kind of trees they are but one thing is for sure, they are gorgeous. Sadly those same trees are home to the thing I like least about Mumbai; noisy squawking, horrible, scavenging crows. No wonder Hitchcock made them the villains in his movie, “The Birds” – they are nasty creatures. They are the grumpiest birds, always bullying the pigeons and making a racket.

Some of my other favorite things are books, including my latest additions to my library – two new books on Indian contemporary art, my latest obsession. I love cushions of all shapes and sizes from camel bags to Thai silk lovelies and collections of everything from mirrors to little Rajasthani dolls. Writing this article and taking the photos led me to a realization: I have a favorite number. It’s three. I own so many things in sets of three it’s kinda weird. Finally fresh flowers are a favorite Friday afternoon buy on my way home from school so I can enjoy them all weekend long.

I don’t really have a favorite place that I’ve lived; they’ve all been great in their own way. I certainly loved Hong Kong and the school where I worked. That’s why I stayed so long but now I am really enjoying India. I love the people, the food, the palpable spirituality, the light, the colors and the unpredictability. You never really know what you will see next or what might be happening just around the next corner. I need the security of my nest but I am energized by the adventure of the city I live in. For me living in Mumbai is the perfect mix.

On being an international teacher
One of the greatest aspects to this nomadic life is the people you get to meet. I really have been blessed with working with some amazing people and have made some incredible, loyal and loving friends who are now scattered all over the globe. That just gives me the excuse to look at my bank account balance in terms of potential airline tickets and not the number of $. Where can I go next? On a rough count I think I have been to 37 countries and as far as continents go there’s only Antarctica left, but as I hate being cold, it’s not too likely!

With the advent of social media it’s now so much easier to stay connected with all my friends who are stretched around the globe. I am strong believer in the theory of six degrees of separation. Once you’ve spent a while on this wild roller coaster of international teaching you know it’s true too. Wherever I go I seem to meet someone, who knows someone that I know…if you know what I mean.

Like a certain author, my three favorite places in the world are Italy, India and Bali, after all what’s not to like?  As for favorite meals, there’re two.  The first, summer on the Cinque Terre in Italy with my best travelling partner, my sister Narelle. A long hike across vineyards, along rocky cliffs and meandering through small picturesque towns led to a recommended restaurant in yet another picturesque town.  A last climb to the top of a tower was rewarded with a freezing cold Peroni beer accompanied by pesto lasagna. Mmm mmm delicious.  That led to seafood then wine followed by tiramisu and coffee and not surprisingly, the ferry home. While I don’t have the recipe, this one looks pretty darn close. Just remember, to really enjoy it you need to be tired, hot and perched above the ocean in Italy. Oh and don’t forget the Peroni!

A more recent delicious meal, again on a journey with Narelle was in Kerala. It was a celebratory Diwali lunch for the Hindu festival of lights, on our Houseboat in the Kerala Backwaters. Our cook prepared an amazing array of southern Indian cooking in his tiny kitchen at the back of the boat. It was a veritable feast of delicious spicy flavors and cooling coconut smabal.

How do I know when it’s time to leave?
In the end it’s easy because I just do. I might have been thinking about it for a while but then I just know that my time in this place is ended and it’s the right thing for me to go and start again in a new place. I have never regretted moving on; while the leap might be scary, the landing sometimes bumpy, the journey is always rewarding.

Saying that, it’s time to leave right now! Congrats if you have made it this far. You never know, our paths may cross one day soon because those six degrees are all that separate us!


You are invited to leave little love notes and questions for Karen in the comments section below.

Interiors Project: Kathy Manu in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Issue five of the Interiors Project features the Buenos Aires home of international school counselor Kathy Manu. Kathy and I became friends when we were both counselors at a little international school in Barcelona and, even after we no longer worked at the school, we’ve continued, each summer, to find each other somewhere in the world (Barcelona or New York City). She is a good friend, a kindred spirit and her thoughts about home have made me very happy. Enjoy!

About my home
My apartment is 86 square meters including my balcony…I think I have 72 square meters of actual indoor space. I have two bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms, a living/dining area, a kitchen, a “dependencia”, and a long beloved hallway.

Favorite thing(s) about my current space
There are many things I love about my apartment – I love that there is natural light somewhere, all day (I have windows in every room and I live in a north-east corner, on the 12th floor, so, yes, light, light, light!) I also love my balcony even though it is small, and I particularly love my balcony on a Saturday morning when I can sunbathe outside with a coffee and book in hand while reclining in my plastic easy chair. My balcony has also been revamped with tiki torches that make for a pretty romantic dinner for two.

{The table on the balcony is the site of my “Friday night/date night” dinners in the summer.}

I suppose “favorite” does not imply “long list of things I love about my space”, but I have to add one more: I love the juxtaposition of things here – it is so quiet because I am high up, but I am in the middle of a neighborhood that must be the home to millions of people. I have photos and framed posters and “things” everywhere, but it feels cozy rather than cluttered. I have privacy, but I also know my neighbors. I can go out and easily walk to any number of beautiful places, or I can stay here, open a bottle of wine, watch the sunset and feel perfectly and completely content. I love finding contradiction. What can I say, I’m nuanced ☺!

As an aside, I asked Igor (my partner) what his favorite thing about his current space is (which is the same space as mine) and he said “you”. Apparently I’m not the sentimental one in this relationship!{This is Igor making fun of my “typical weekend morning” position in my easy chair.  Except he is not wearing a bathing suit.  Or drinking coffee.}

Defining home
Home is where I can unpack. It is where I can wander aimlessly, while talking on the phone and not get lost (and in fact end up at my destination of choice, however unconscious I was of how I got there). Home is my mom’s condo in Connecticut. Where there is a wonderful chair I sit in to watch TV. Home is Buenos Aires fused with Barcelona fused with Budapest and Paris. Home is Europe. Home is my pillow that I’ve had since I was two (and that I put in the freezer during the summer so it is nice and cold when I am ready for bed. You are right to assume that I don’t have air conditioning). Home is my things, all in one space…Home is snuggling on a rainy Sunday. Home is within me and the people, images and memories that make up the energy around me.

{The vase holding the white flowers was a Christmas gift courtesy of a lovely afternoon at the MOMA on New Years Eve.}

Countries I have called home 
I have lived in France, Hungary, Spain, Argentina and the United States.

{Dog-walking is serious business here.  Dog-walkers take 15-25 dogs with them in what look like precarious situations, more often than not.  This was the first time I saw a dog-walker with many of the same dog – I couldn’t resist!}

The cities to which I would return
I think the answer to this question will probably change over the course of my life, but right now, I would whole-heartedly live again in Budapest, in Paris, or even in Barcelona. All three are cities in which I feel alive and content in a way that is almost poetic. Budapest and Paris are particularly cities whose chapters have not yet been fully written for me, and I always told myself that I wanted to live in both of the cities again, when I was different, when my life was different than it was when I was 24 and single. And now that I, and my life are different, I feel more compelled than ever to begin an “adult relationship” with these two cherished places.


{At Monet’s house in Giverny, France}

I definitely consider myself to be a risk-taker. More with age. I love that nervous feeling of doing something I’ve never done before. Of exploring a neighborhood without a map and only a vague sense of where I should be going. I love observing strangers. I love trying new things. This being said, I am often afraid to take risks about very specific things. I am not to most adventurous eater (I like to be able to tell what I am eating, for the most part) and I am continuously working on taking risks in terms of honest communication with colleagues and friends. Sometimes I am so concerned with making others feel comfortable, that I don’t voice my own thoughts. I am getting better at this though, as I realize more and more that I would rather regret action than regret silence.

When to leave an international school/city
When deciding when to leave, or rather, if I should leave, I try to examine different types of equilibrium. Do I love my job? Do I feel professionally challenged? Do I have close friends? Do I love my personal life? Do I feel like I have outlets that are meaningful and interesting? Am I bored? Am I lonely? When I was living in Budapest and I decided to leave, the pressing reason was personal – it was not enough to love the place I was, I needed to love my life in that place. When I left Barcelona (earlier than expected) the pressing reason was that, while there was no reason to leave, there was also no reason to stay, if that makes sense. As far as leaving Buenos Aires, I don’t know what the pressing reason will be. I fear stagnancy, I want to remain challenged and seeking change and redefinition, but I also like feeling at “home”, it’s nice to not be overwhelmed and to be able to enjoy small moments. Often it is only after I have left that I am certain it was the right decision. And thankfully, thus far, it has always felt like the right decision. This being said, I recently read “The Rules Of Civility” by Amor Towles, where the following quote made me pause – “I know that the right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss”. How true.

{This park, just down the street from my apartment, is called Barrancas del Belgrano. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night old people dance the tango here.}

Finding my current home
With hours of frustration, weekends visiting apartments, anxiety, stress, and doubt! Finding an apartment in Buenos Aires is no easy task! I must have visited over 40 apartments over the course of 2.5 months before I finally found my place. What is written in a description of an apartment is often nowhere close to what it is actually like (the description is usually much kinder than the reality) and price does not reflect quality. I was looking for many things and when I found “my place” in the newspaper, the description sounded too good to be true. I was pessimistic making the appointment. I didn’t think it was going to be what I wanted it to be. And then, on that Saturday afternoon, I walked in, the family living here was packing, the afternoon light was shining in and I walked on the balcony and saw the sea of trees, and I looked at my friend who was accompanying me and I said, “this is it, isn’t it”. And she said, “if you don’t take it, I will!” And often, I think to myself, this is one of those apartments that I will always talk about and dream about long after I don’t live here anymore. It is one of the apartments I wish I could duplicate and have in New York or Paris or Barcelona. It is one of the reasons why leaving, whenever that is, will be difficult!

{The photos of the trees from my balcony is the “sea of trees” I described falling for when I was found my apartment.}

Making a place “home”
One of my superpowers is packing/unpacking. I am quite anal about it. While some people have boxes and suitcases for weeks in their homes, I will stay awake until everything is completely unpacked and put away. This includes when I move. Boxes make me feel stressed. I always pack, in my suitcase that I will open first, hangers for clothes, a hammer, and nails. Having photos on the walls makes a place feel more like home immediately, which is important to me because when I move I am alone and I need that sense of home. I also always pack in my suitcase (and not in a shipment) my duvet and pillows, and at least one set of sheets. Also a towel, bath mats, a favorite mug for coffee. And coffee and a coffee maker for the stove. I pack books to put on the bookshelf right away. One of my first purchases will usually be a DVD player/TV. One of the first people in my apartment will be the man I hire to drill holes in the walls to hang my posters/framed goods (the ones that I can’t hammer in place myself). The other things, the rugs and bits of furniture, lamps – those come with some more time. I will however usually have a home that feels cozy and lived in within 2 weeks. It’s just my nature.

{I love scarves and as such have many.}

{I also love jewelry. So does my cleaning lady. She spends quite a bit of time organizing this area (however unnecessarily).}

{I love white sunglasses.}

My approach to packing
As I mentioned before, I am a master packer. I can pack for any length of a trip in less than 30 minutes. I make a list before I start packing of the things I want to remember not to forget. Book. Camera charger. Umbrella. Advil. Then, I approach my closet. This usually happens at dusk. Don’t ask me why. I begin taking things out of my closet and putting them on my bed. It is maniacally efficient. With the pile on my bed, I peruse. I discard about five tops, maybe two dresses. I add one pair of shoes. One more pairs of pants. I separate what I will put in my carry-on (always at least two full days worth of clothes/undergarments/pajamas). And then I bust out the suitcase (which are, fortunately for me, quite large), and get to business. Putting the clothes on my bed into the suitcase takes me about 15 minutes. It is quite remarkable actually, if I do say so myself. Usually people assume I have forgotten something. But I don’t!

{The abundance of closet space is another reason I chose this apartment. I kind of have a thing for clothes. Especially dresses.}

Future travels
Certain trips in 2012:
o Quito, Ecuador (for a conference)
o Mendoza, Argentina
o San Francisco/ Carmel, CA (wedding of a college friend)
o Portugal (with my Mom)
o Corsica, France
o NYC/Martha’s Vineyard, CT

Desired Trips:
o Atacama Desert/Bolivian salt flats
o Cuba (maybe January 2013)
o Cartagena, Colombia
o Brazil… anytime, any year!

Beyond 2012:
o South Africa
o Tanzania
o Cambodia (Angkor Wat)
o India
o Japan
o St. Petersburg/Helsinki/Moscow

How living overseas has changed my eating habits and preferences
Living abroad has changed my relationship with food more than anything else. This began when I lived in Paris for six months, where the quality of food is famously excellent and more importantly people love to eat, and have long meals with conversation and wine. This was the beginning of a love affair of mine with dining. And lovely dining experiences. And given my past antagonistic relationship with food and my body, this was a big deal. Over the past few years I find myself more inclined to eat locally grown produce, Spain introduced me to the joys of excessive use of olive oil, and Argentina has reminded me that meat smells damn good (and tastes good once in a while too). I become more and more of a wine aficionado as the years go by, and I also find myself being more mindful of what I am putting into my body. I miss the ability to eat spicy, ethnic food. I miss the bubble gum that comes out of machines in the United States. But I decidedly do not miss people talking about food all the time and the barrage of images and messages that discourage the lovely dining experiences I have come to enjoy so much.

{I also really love hunting down urban art.  It is by far one of my favorite things about Buenos Aires, and one of the best ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.}

What excites me about being a counselor
My principal (a former counselor himself) and I always say that we are so fortunate to be counselors. I think being a counselor is one of the most wonderful and simultaneously challenging jobs around. What excites me about my work ebbs and flows over time. Some days it is a student who I find inspiringly resilient and insightful. Some days it is a colleague who is genuine and interested in working as a team. Some days it is a group of parents, supporting each other in one of my workshops. Often it is the fundamental belief in the possibility each child possesses. It is the belief that all parents and all teachers are doing what they think is best. It is the belief in the power of human connection, in relationships mattering…it is big ideas changing lives. It is small moments, a warm embrace, a knowing glance making the difference. It is all those things and all the many things that may happen that make excited to do what I do. That makes me excited to be a part of a field as dynamic as education and amongst peers who are as passionate and talented as some of my compatriots are.

{Travelling requires an array of bags…which I have joy collecting. The large colorful bag is a recent purchase from Hoi An, Vietnam. I love when my travels become infused with my daily life. It makes vacations never end!}

You are invited to leave little love notes for Kathy in the comments section below.

Interiors Project: Jodie Thiel in Beirut, Lebanon

This week’s issue of the Interiors Project features the Beirut home of American Counselor Jodie Thiel whom I met at a conference in Lisbon in November. Jodie attended my presentation and, afterwards, she approached me to introduce herself. (She also thanked me which was very sweet!.) We got to know each other a bit during conference sessions and I was consistently impressed with the quality of Jodie’s comments and questions; she is wise beyond her years! I have also been following Jodie’s lovely blog Small Corner Perspective.

First off a massive “thank you!” to Monna for dreaming up and organizing this neat project! As one who loves and very much needs the personal-ity and haven of a home-space, and is infatuated with design and spacial configurations, it has been fantastic to get a glimpse of how others create their spaces as well as share my own.

An Oregon native, I presently work at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. This is my first international posting and (paid) job in my field of school counseling. On my second year, I’m half way through what has morphed into a three year commitment, and this year so appreciative of a good space to retreat to (last year’s left something to be desired…) Said space is roughly 98 square meters, comprised of two bedrooms, two and a half baths (yes, I too wonder why there are more bathrooms than bedrooms…), a kitchen, and a living/dining space. Additionally, I am fortunate to have a massive terrace, a rare commodity in Beirut.

{I live in a somewhat eclectic neighborhood where new architecture rubs shoulders with that of a bygone era. Graffiti art is commonplace, and the Mediterranean is a block away.}

{Foyer // A collection of favorite things including: an Oregon road map, photos from New Orleans, Oregon, and of my fantastic family and friends, a screen print bird found at the Alberta Street Fair in Portland, nick knacks I have had since childhood (the First Aid box, Chinese tea cup, marbles, and the like), and an odd assortment of books and journals.}

{I love the light in my apartment, and the somewhat open, flowing floor plan.}

On living abroad…
// In what countries have you lived? To what place would you most like to return?
While this is my first international job, I have been fortunate to have traveled a decent amount in my life, primarily in Europe, as well as to have lived in stunning New Zealand as an exchange student when I was 16. I think for most anyone who chooses international work, part of the allure is the possibility to move around the globe and experience new cultures and vistas; definitely this is true for me. While my heart will always feel most at home in my native Pacific Northwest but I’m also keen to eventually get back to the New Zealand/Australia area. There’s something about the hospitality and practicality of the culture and people that is captivating, not to mention the breathtaking beauty of the physical land/oceanscapes.

{Living RoomFoyer // Though there’s not much in this space, it still feels full and lived in. Somewhat boxy furniture is constantly being rearranged and an assortment of photos and unique finds or creations offer color and personality.}

{I found a piece of bright green raw silk that became a pillow case; the yellow case was an Ikea find.}

{The apartment came with several so-so lamps. A tall shade constructed from thick packing paper makes for a great effect and hides the mediocre design. The sea urchin fossil I found at a junk shop and I made the candle holder from a piece of cedar wood. The candles didn’t hold up well in the summer heat but I liked the effect so haven!t changed them out yet.}

{ I tend to live in piles.}

{A vintage camera and flash, both thrift store finds, favorite prints re-framed by yours truly, antique cup and vintage frame, and rocks picked up here and there (Lebanon, Prague, New Zealand, and Paris)}

{The paper lanterns help the dining space to feel a little more defined.}

{Again, a self-framing project encasing favorite photos. The candle stands are Ikea.}


{Kitchen: The spice rack is a more recent design project and the owl wine stopper was a gift from my sister and brother-in-law. I try to use reusable bags whenever possible; the Lebanese shop keepers are amused by this. Favorite people and places. An old bluing bottle is perfect storage for matches and a small rock serves as flint.}

{A simple, cheerful calender and a print from the MET in NYC- a silly note penned by Proust.}

{The small laundry porch is also home to the garden bench though the AC unit directly above makes setting out seedlings a little difficult.}

{Master Bedroom // I took the large photo at a favorite place in Eastern Oregon and the smaller ones are vintage photos taken by my grandfather in the 1950s. The pillow cases are Ecot from Istanbul and a colleague brought me the pashmina thrown from Nepal.
The bed linen is from Ikea and the paper covered lamps are yet again hiding mediocre design.

{Spare Bedroom // I covered an ugly mirror frame with packing paper and the dresser has become a staging area for various projects. The pillow cases were summer projects and lend some color to the room.}

// Have you ever been evacuated?
No, but living and working in a place where this has occurred before, the question of “What would that mean for me?” has been and continues to be a part of my process. I have found the possibility has influenced micro-decisions such as what I brought with me (heirlooms that I love did not make the final packing cut in part because I’d rather do without them then potentially lose them all together) and elicited a personal tension of sorts with being part of a largely local-hire staff; it’s unsettling to consider that while I would likely be able to leave in the event of conflict, many friends and colleagues would be stuck.

// How do you know when to leave?
Having just re-signed for a third year, this is a really thought provoking and raw question… As cliche as it sounds, I think for most of us we just know, and often cannot reasonably verbalize that to others no matter how hard we try. Personally, I have to know that I have left a dynamic better than I found it and that I am leaving it “well”.

The life of an international educator is pretty sexy at the day’s end; sure we put in long hours and blunder through countless cultural faux pas but we do so in the context of great locations and generally with a lot of implicit social privilege. In that can be the temptation to be on the move every two years, “contract hopping” if you will. I have to continually remind myself of why I’m in education in the first place, and make my decisions to stay on or exit from that place, not the allure of the unknown, or a better salary package. If it’s a fit to leave after two years, okay. But if me being able to leave a place “well” means I stay for longer, that’s what I need to do. And when I’m no longer able to make decisions from the place of a genuine love of education in all its beauty and mess, when I’m only motivated by the next location, it’ll be time to get out altogether.

// What do your friends and family members think/feel about you working overseas?
I think unwittingly I’ve made any location after Lebanon a shoe in… No, really, I am fortunate to have a fantastic, and massive, support system of family and friends, none of whom were surprised that this was the route I chose. Specifically with my current location there were many questions about safety but in the same breath was the encouragement to go for it. I don’t think that there was an opinion to change about me working overseas – it’s a fit for this season of my life – but what has changed are their opinions about the Middle East and Lebanon. I’ve really appreciated the humility of many people in my social and familial spheres who have owned having gross misconceptions about this part of the world, and then continued to ask great questions to understand it better. I’m lucky.

On creating a home-space…
// How did you find your current home?
Part of the ACS contract for foreign hires is housing. We’re spread throughout the neighborhoods around the school and I was fortunate this year to get into an all-ACS building in a quieter neighborhood. I’m grateful to have housing as a part of my contract as my limited Arabic and complete ignorance of Lebanese housing law makes me nervous about how successful I would have been in finding a good situation on my own near work.

{What I love most about my house is the outdoor space and its potential // Grand planting plans for the terrace and the largest of my summer projects: making pillow cases and procuring pillows to create an additional seating space. I!m envisioning outdoor movies, late, laughter filled evenings, and many a book read in the sunshine.}

// When you move to a new country, what kinds of things do you do/find/purchase to make that place home?
Without fail, I seek out good coffee shops and bakeries. These are PNW mainstays and being able to have a favorite place to enjoy a cup of coffee helps a place to feel a little more like home. I also try as much as I can to get into whatever wilderness can be found, preferably mountains and hiking trails.

// What do you always unpack first?
Nothing in particular, more so I unpack it all in one fell swoop. I like having bags empty and things at least in the areas they belong in before spending my first night in a place. Sometimes that has meant very late nights but there’s something settling about it for me that outweighs the lost sleep.

On traveling…
// How many countries have you travelled to?
16: England, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Scotland, Cambodia, Lebanon, Jordan, Portugal, and Turkey.

{Winter Mountains}

{Qadisha Valley}

{New Zealand}

{Masaya Vineyard}

// What do you like to buy when you are traveling?
I’m a sucker for small unique items, the kinds of things you would come across at flea markets, or textiles. In any place I travel to, I’m most keen to visit markets and always have an eye out for something small to bring home. In Cambodia last spring I picked up two large pieces of silk (I have no idea what I’ll do with them but the colors are gorgeous) and a small ceramic pot while my find in a recent trip to Turkey was Ecot textiles. I am a minimalist at heart so any purchase is governed by two principles:
1) If I don’t love it, I don’t buy it.
2) Hesitancy means sleeping on it, returning the next day if the allure remains, and if it’s not there, it wasn’t meant to be.
Usually my travel purchases are gifts for others. That plus the minimalism has helped keep my bags light when I’m moving to a new location.

// Where will you travel next?
Spring hols are coming up in mid-April and I’m weighing options. The most appealing is somewhere warm and “beachy”, which might translate to a venture to Jordan (Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea) with a few colleagues.

// What secrets have you learned to make your travels more enjoyable?
Pack light, and then pack lighter. It’s a personal challenge to get my bag as light as I can when traveling. Especially because my current flight pattern home is three flights and 17 hours, the last thing I want to deal with is a heavy bag upon arrival. And usually so many things are unnecessary. The same goes for my carry on. I also take an empty water bottle in my carry on and then have it filled at a cafe once I’m through security, always pack some sort of fruit in my carry on (it’s usually what is most lacking in flight meals), have a lot of reading material on hand, and splurge on coffee or tea as I please (so comforting during a layover of any length….). I think though the most important thing is remembering to be patient and kind to those I interact with; a smile or offering to help someone by grabbing a bag or opening a door really goes a long way in the zaniness of travel.

// Do you ever get tired of traveling?
Yes. Don’t get me wrong, I do love to travel, and very intentionally try to stay in B&Bs or hostels so as to interact with a range of people (I really am not keen on hotels at all…) but I also love to be in my own space. I find that after several consecutive trips I’m craving my home-space, a good book, and the ease of routine.

On food…
// Has living overseas changed your eating habits, diet or food preferences? How?
I thought it would more than it has. If anything, it’s been easier to eat the way I prefer in Lebanon due to the abundance of inexpensive fruits and vegetables and local foods being based on legumes. I find I don’t eat meat as much as I used to, but this is more practicality than preference; I eat at home the majority of the time and cooking meat for one person is a pain. The biggest change has been consuming less chocolate products. I try to be mindful of what my purchases communicate and the reality is that a lot of mainstream chocolate products are produced without much care for farmers and workers. When I’m state-side I buy Fair Trade products whenever I can, specifically chocolate. While I can find some organic food in Lebanon, Fair Trade is impossible. So I stock up when I’m home, and ration my stash.

On education…
/// What makes you excited about being an educator? And what is the same about kids all over the world?
There is something amazing about helping shape a young person; every now and then the full scope of what I get to do for a job hits me and I just sit for a minute, taking in the weight and beauty of it. Time and again I come back to the old Greek proverb “I am planting trees under whose shade I will never sit” as it really sums up how I see my work; I get to invest in students, and while I never know the full outcome, I can say that I have done my best to be a positive, honest, supportive adult in a student’s life.

Working with high school students, I feel as though I am perpetually shaking my head with a smile playing at the corner of my mouth. Sure they are each very individual in so many ways, but at the core they are also each trying to sort out life and how to become an adult. So far, regardless of students’ cultural layers differentiating from their parents, wrestling with the ageless question of “Who am I?”, and navigating social angst are common threads. And Chuck Taylors, Birkenstocks, American Eagle jeans, and North Face backpacks also seem to cross cultural divides.

Please leave your love notes for Jodie in the comments section below.

What I believe about Interiors

In November I did my first Pecha Kucha talk.
It was called Interiors.
I wrote about it here.
You can see the video here.

The more I reflect on this talk, the more clearly I see that “Interiors” was a kind of manifesto… what I believe to be true about decorating. It is in that spirit that I am sharing the slides and text today.

On Wednesday January 25th, The Interiors Project begins here.  Stay tuned.

Interiors: Tonight I’m going to talk about my passion for interior design and about the home as an expression of who we are – our passions, preferences and world view. (I also need to confess that for a few months now I have been calling this event “Pecha chuga” which sounds a lot like the Spanish word for breast. Sorry about that!)

At Monna University, I’m enrolled in a life-long design course and my texts are design books and blogs. When I watch movies, I analyse both the plot and the interiors. My favourites are from films directed by Woody Allen, James L. Brooks & Nancy Meyers. The glass houses in “A Single Man” and “The Tree of Life” make my heart explode.

Gorgeous Interiors: Good interior design is one of the things I believe in – along with choosing your partner well, being kind, having the backbone to stand up for yourself, and always getting the best haircut you can afford. You think I’m joking about the hair… but I’m really not.

Metaphors: What does my love of interiors tell me about myself? Here are two metaphors:
First, I like the insides of things: emotions, relationships, indoors, the truth.
Second, I believe it’s never too late to change your life or your home.

23 is the number of dorm rooms, apartments and houses I have lived in since I went to university at 18. My passion for interior design makes it easier for me to move countries – it gives me another opportunity to create the “perfect” home. (It might also be the reason Damien eventually stops moving countries)

Minimalism: Visiting Japan in April made us realize that we would have to sell Damien’s teak table and that made him sad. This proves that even extreme minimalists fall in love with things sometimes. Note: Damien is an untidy minimalist but a minimalist just the same. I am not; I am opposed to minimalism on principle. I believe in abundance.

Undecorate: Recently, I read a story about a woman whose home was decorated by a very famous designer and the vibe was so wrong for her family, she finally just sold the house and moved. I don’t believe in decorating rules… so here are my undecorating principles.

Gracious Living: When I was at university, every time we did something small to make our dorm rooms look a little nicer, my friend Carrie would say, “Gracious Living”. I still think about this idea every day and encourage myself to have tea in the afternoon… buy sheets with a high thread count… eat brie with French bread.

If you have a big butt, don’t buy tiny chairs: You may think I’m trying to be funny but, as a person with a relatively big butt, I am completely serious. I enthusiastically reject the current trend towards Paris Cafe chic and tiny, little chairs. I think we need to make ourselves comfortable and that home is meant to be a sanctuary.

Mix and match: This is our dining room with the teak table small enough to make it to Japan… along with white plastic chairs from Ikea – perfect for big butts. On the table is a white ceramic sheep. Go ahead – I dare you to mix and match furniture and eras. Jonathan Adler believes that there is no such thing as colours that don’t match.

Art is good. More art is better. Choose art that engages you. We started collecting art in Mexico & bought many pieces in Bangkok. Recently, I’ve discovered that you can buy paintings on ebay & the artist will mail them to you.

Damien is a talented photographer and he made this collage from his photographs of train stations in Paris and Tokyo. This slide is my argument for taking a risk and hanging your own framed art in your home or office.

Think Posh: I was raised on a farm in the Ottawa Valley by very practical parents and my response to this childhood was to become incredibly posh. I believe that rugs and gorgeous lighting – including chandeliers – make a space look warm and infinitely more interesting.

Dream Sofa: When it comes to the big furniture, I believe it’s worthwhile to spend some time and money finding the perfect pieces. These two black leather couches make me ridiculously happy. I heard that Richard Welk took 3 months to find the perfect couch; this means we are kindred spirits.

Living things: Fill your home with living things. Beloved people, pets, fresh cut flowers and plants. Every Friday afternoon Jacquie Pender buys fresh flowers for her apartment at a florist shop beside Don Quixote. This is such a lovely ritual.

Room with a view: What I’d really like is a yard with trees and a huge wooden table for dining outdoors but I think that yard is actually in Italy. Although we don’t have a great outdoor space in Yokohama, we chose a 22nd floor apartment with an amazing Fuji view. And sunlight… because it’s good for us.

Not in the bedroom: Take your television, computers and cell phones out of your bedroom. Now you have 10 seconds to think about why that’s a good idea.

Collections: We collect ceramic bowls from Europe; singing bowls from Asia, little elephants and a lot of art. So what do you collect and how can you display these items in your home? Some decorators believe that groupings of three are best… I say whatever! Break the rules.

A place for everything: This one’s not very sexy but it’s no less true. I learned the wisdom of “a place for everything and everything in its place” from my practical mother and, when you live in 80 square metres, this philosophy is essential. Our home feels more comfortable to me when it’s tidy & I can find the stuff I need.

Dwell: I’ve been blogging since 2006 and my blog has become a kind of home. What I’m dreaming of now is publishing a weekly feature in which I showcase one lovely expat and photos of his or her living space. Please let me know if you are interested in participating. Thank you for listening.

Photo Credits:
Slide 2, 7, 12, 15, 19 and 20: Damien Pitter
Slide 3: From Cote de Texas
Slide 4: New York Apt by Emma Efmorfidi
Slide 8: Girl & roses by Ale Bernal
Slide 9: tiny chair by Caren Parmelee
Slide 17: Television by USB