On Balance

Spoiler alert: I’m a libra.

I’m always happiest and healthiest when I’m eating food that I enjoy. Sounds simple enough. But this pleasure is derived from many different things apart from the food itself, which can make things more complicated.

For example, I love eating food that I’ve made myself, that taught me a new skill, that I can be proud of. I enjoy food best when I’m eating outside on my porch waving bugs off my plate or under an umbrella at a cafe on a busy street or on a blanket in the park with the sun shining through tall trees all around me. I enjoy food that fades into the background during a good conversation with someone who puts me at ease. I enjoy food that has a story to tell, because eating it feels like I’m reaching my fork back to a time and place that I might not know how to access otherwise. I enjoy food that makes my body run smoothly, so that when I go to bed at night I feel like all the puzzle pieces inside me are in the right places. I enjoy food that reminds me of my grandmothers, that’s regional and seasonal, that connects me to someone or something, that’s more than the sum of its parts.

When I’m happiest and healthiest, I’m making decisions about food based on the above factors and many others. For this reason, I’ve never been big on counting calories. I can’t boil down the experience of eating to numbers in and numbers out. It’s not because I’ve always been perfectly happy with my weight or because I don’t feel like I need to be concerned with what I eat. I’m not one of those genetically endowed humans with sky-high metabolisms. Dieting and counting calories simply doesn’t work for me (and in my experience, which started in about 5th grade, it’s actually counterproductive). It does not compute.

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Coming out of the holiday season like…

This is because my brain doesn’t handle scarcity well. By that I mean my brain handles scarcity, as brains have evolved to do, by trying to prevent it. The Ben&Jerry’s at the corner store that I’d never even notice otherwise becomes a taunting temptation when I make the switch to strictly moderating my diet. My brain doesn’t want a nutritionally perfect energy-enhancing body-sculpting meal-replacement milkshake. It doesn’t believe your clever marketing anyway. It wants something colorful and new and exciting.

While I like to pretend I’m above the many sadistic societal demands that we all absorb and allow, sometimes unknowingly, to shape the way we eat, the truth is I haven’t escaped the repercussions of diet mentality (does anyone?). Labelling food as “good” and “bad,” then feeling guilty/morally inferior and internally chastising myself for eating the “bad” ones (re: corner store B&J’s). Punishing over-eating with under-eating or excessive exercise. Comparing my food to other people’s and worrying about what they think of mine. I am continuously unlearning these behaviors.

Last year, for the first time in my memory, the turmoil and the tug-of-war around food had stopped. I felt at peace and in control. The puzzle pieces were all in their places.

During that year between graduating from college and moving my life to Spain, I was living in my hometown with my parents. I was working with farmers every day. I took home fresh veggies for free during the summers and turned them into delicious meals. I went to the gym nearly every evening and I read every night (my social life was underwhelming at best). I had a vegetable garden and picked flowers and made arrangements for the dining room table. I made breakfasts and baked with eggs from our chickens. I tried new recipes and introduced my family to new food. I enjoyed the food I ate because it was fresh, homemade, and beautiful. I went out for ice cream with my family and had movie theater popcorn on occasion because it was more about the experience anyway, and I didn’t lose sleep over it. It was honestly really foreign, sometimes surreal, to feel so content. To feel full but not too full. I had finally found the equilibrium I was looking for, the balance I had been waiting for forever to reach.

After about a year of this stability, I rather impulsively embraced chaos. I found a way to move to Europe and experience an entirely different way of life. It was so enticing and romantic, starkly contrasting the familiarity of living at home. It was a chance to learn and grow in new ways. I leapt across the Atlantic knowing fully that landing there would throw me off balance. But I had found my center, so I thought I’d have no problem finding it again.

Noshing some STUPID delicious Bulgarian street food during my first month in Europe.

The first few months were pure magic. I was trying new food almost every day, drinking my favorite wine for dinner, meeting up with friends on rooftop bars and spending time in the park on sunny days. I read on the balcony of my apartment. I encountered bakeries and fruit stands on every corner. The weather was impossible to beat. The world was green and lush around me. I went to the mountains and saw waterfalls. I hosted dinner parties and cooked for my friends. It was the perfect honeymoon.

Now, I didn’t intend for this post to be about culture shock. In fact, I hadn’t actually considered the idea until I started writing this. I didn’t want to acknowledge that I could be the privileged American who had the opportunity to experience the world and ended up wishing things were the same as in the US. I thought culture shock would manifest in more explicit ways, that it would be easier to identify and shield myself from. I thought I was immune. What I didn’t realize was the subtleness of it. It’s the change in circadian rhythm of your day, making everything feel slightly off. It’s never feeling quite at home or being able to sleep deeply. It’s not feeling challenged at my job. It’s finding comfort in a bubble of American friends, then feeling guilty about only having American friends in a foreign country.

Upon some reflection, though, I realized it’s impossible to remove my experience with food from my struggles to adjust to this new place that I had romanticized so thoroughly for so long. All honeymoon phases come to an end, and mine with Spain ended the first week of October. I’d gotten my work schedule and realized that my job would be nothing like I had imagined. My phone was stolen (on my birthday) so I needed to dish out a lot of my savings for a replacement. I was having issues with my landlord and had started to feel uncomfortable in the apartment where I was living. It was a reality check that was as unwelcome as it was necessary.

I handled these and other challenges, which culminated into what I can finally label as culture shock, with varying degrees of grace. In those first couple of weeks, I thought that rebuilding some traces of my old routine would help. I joined a gym (an expensive one…) that offered a wide variety of classes like yoga, pilates, and dance in addition to the weights and cardio machines. I was ready for something familiar, something concrete that I could do a few days a week to de-stress and make me feel more myself. The dance lessons would be something new to try and everything would be in Spanish, so I’d be practicing the language. Win, win, win.

This plan ultimately backfired. The weight/cardio room was small and full and HOT. The yoga teacher was condescending and more physical than I had ever experienced; he pushed down hard on my body in ways that made my muscles ache for weeks. The pilates instructor joked about sleeping with his students and then stopped the class to teach me pelvic floor exercises in front of everyone. Mortified and embarrassed and hardly able to communicate with the teachers or the staff or the guy who snagged my machine while I was getting water, I gave up before trying any of the dance classes and settled for running in the park to get my exercise.

The park’s a million times prettier anyway. Picture from The Culture Map.

It soon became apparent that struggling to settle into a new routine was also taking a toll on my once peaceful relationship with food. I’d wake up and have breakfast around 6:30 am, catch a 50-minute bus to school, work until 2:15 with no lunch break, take the bus home, and finally start making my lunch between 3:00 and 3:30 in the afternoon. Even if I brought fruit or snacks to munch on during the day, my brain and body were not accustomed to going 9 hours without a meal.

I’d arrive home utterly ravenous, so the meals I made for myself soon became the fastest, cheapest, and not necessarily the healthiest. I began fearing hunger and making sure I had food on me whenever possible, which essentially translated to eating entire meals directly out of plastic packaging. Highly processed white bread and Nutella, pasta with sugary tomato sauce, frozen pizza, and pastries became routine. I started having carb cravings like never before. I was indistinguishable from the cookie monster, only instead of cookies it was chocolate croissants. I was eating without thinking, tasting, or enjoying.

The consequences of these changes were not surprising. My body protested and I went to bed at night feeling like the puzzle pieces had been forcefully jammed into places they didn’t belong. Exercising became more difficult and less rewarding. I gained weight and launched back into the cycle of diet mentality I thought I’d finally overcome. I was furious with myself and frustrated that the solution was not immediately apparent. There were many aspects of my new situation, it seemed, that I couldn’t change. For a time, I had accepted this powerlessness and resolved to simply survive the rest of the year.

I wanted to write about this not because I believe I’ve found a foolproof strategy for defending myself against the effects of culture shock, or because I’ve overcome it. I certainly haven’t reached the level of peace I had found before coming here. Diet mentality and its corresponding negativity towards food still follow me around. As I mentioned earlier, it’s something I’m unlearning every day with every meal. However, acknowledging the impact of culture shock on my eating habits and attitude towards food has helped me rethink my ideas of what balance means and looks like. (Side note, I also think/hope this means I’m in the process of transitioning to the “Adjustment” phase of culture shock. Fingers crossed…).

First of all, and this is so painfully obvious that I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out, whatever balance I do find here will look nothing like what it used to in my previous situation. I won’t reach the balance I crave by trying to replicate my old schedule or by spending any extra money I can scrape together on a gym membership. Balance isn’t a number on a scale and it looks and feels different under different circumstances. How do we know when we’ve reached it? In my case, I know I will have found a new balance when I start to enjoy my food again, when I’m energetic and enthusiastic about my work, and when the puzzle pieces are all in their place. While it might take some trial and error to figure out, it’s worth every effort.

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Second of all, I believe balance (and life in general) is all about trade-offs. In my opinion, trade-offs have less to do with sacrificing and more to do with prioritizing. As I discussed earlier, my brain doesn’t handle scarcity, especially in a place like this that’s rich with new experiences. It would be unbearable to have to miss out. So, I try to make sure to splurge on the things that I really want, things that make me feel full in the figurative sense of the word. I’ll buy a nice bar of chocolate (currently obsessed with Vivani chocolate), and I’ll enjoy it slowly piece by piece as I’m reading a book rather than buy a box of chocolate croissants and inhale them on my way to the metro. When I was in Prague recently, I had a couple of chimney cakes because I’d seen them in pictures and had been looking forward to trying one since I planned the trip back in October. I indulged in something that was meaningful and memorable and I didn’t miss whatever other snacks or sweets that I might have otherwise had throughout the day. This outlook means that I take the time to identify what brings me the most joy (re: the first paragraph of this post) and prioritize my indulgences so that I never feel as though I’m missing out.

Finally, at the risk of sounding cliché, this experience has been an incredible opportunity and I’m so fortunate to have been able to do this. But many days it feels like an exercise in relinquishing power and control to the universe. I’m the kind of person who likes planning and structure and clear answers. I like staying busy and I like having control, or at least feeling some sense of autonomy. It was this aspect of the culture shock, the loss of control when moving to a new city in a new country where I don’t know the lay of the land, that was the most frustrating for me. This was especially difficult when I found that I didn’t even have control over what I was eating.

But at this point in my journey, I’ve accepted that I’m not always going to be in control of my surroundings. I’ve let go of the many things that I can’t control and I’ve put that energy elsewhere. This has meant trying to understand how and why things are different here while also being okay with the fact that I may never fully know. It has meant making time to cook for myself, take breaks, and reflect. Embracing newness and unfamiliarity is a laborious but worthy act, and I’ve come to realize that it has made me more flexible, more self-aware, and more resilient. Moving to Spain may have knocked me off balance, but I believe that finding my way back to the happiest and healthiest version of myself can and will be rewarding as well.

*Flexing arm emoji*

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