It's 9:30 on a Weds night and I've just put up a large pot of meatballs in tomato sauce that now have to simmer for two hours -- timing is everything in life, eh? I'm cooking now though because I have a business trip next week and I need to leave food behind in the freezer for my daughter and the wonderful woman who stays with her while I'm out of the country. Something about rolling meatballs allowed my mind to wander -- back to the very first international trip I made with ExxonMobil in 1997 or so, to Azerbaijan. It was very surreal eating caviar in the first class section of the Lufthansa flight and then landing at an airport that, at the time, looked like the left over hulk of the Death Star, with old wrecks of planes, good only for spare parts, littered down the length of the runway.
We were in Baku to do some field work and to teach a class on sequence stratigraphy to geologists trained in the old Soviet Union. The class went fine . . . it was the celebration dinner that started rolling around in my mind as I rolled meatballs this evening. First, I remember I guessed wrong on the outfit and was dressed inappropriately. I'd been wearing suits with little bow ties all week in class and figured that dinner around the pool was casual. I wore black jeans and a t-shirt. My mistake. Dinner out at a nice hotel was an Event and our students all showed up in their nicest outfits. I was the only ExxonMobil person sitting at our table, so I was the 'host.' I nervously lifted the lids on steaming pots trying to figure out what was inside (water -- it was to keep the food that hadn't shown up yet, warm ). Eventually, I was able to start chatting with one of the other women at the table. She asked me what I did on weekends. She clearly expected the 'rich' American geologist to describe something exotic -- country homes or country clubs or trips to the country. I don't know. My answer surprised her. I had two young children at home at the time. I did laundry; I cleaned house; I cooked for the week; I helped my kids do school work. She looked at me and smiled and said, "I do the same thing." And there it was -- after I had spent several days feeling very alien and very out of place, we had found the thing we had in common, the thing that allowed us to relate to each other -- being parents, caring for our children and our families. Twenty years later, that lesson is still vivid in my mind.
But the thing that I've discovered in the intervening 20 years that made me want to sit down and write this evening (well, alright -- besides the fact that the meatballs are going to take another hour to cook), is that references to family are universal as a touch point in relating to people across different cultures. As women, we often complain about sports analogies used by our male leaders. Or military analogies or war analogies. But those analogies probably don't work for anyone, male or female, from a non-US culture. The one set of analogies that I find typically does work, across gender, age, or national cultural gaps are the ideas of family and of parenting. Even if the people we're addressing don't have children themselves, they have parents. So if we can frame a discussion in terms of family or parenting, rather than 'scoring touchdowns' or 'leading the charge,' I think we're better be able to meaningfully communicate. Hmm -- posting a blog about lessons I've learned traveling is like leaving a pot of meatballs behind to nourish my daughter -- food for thought instead of food for bellies.