in Chile

How baking and water polo—two obsessions of 16-year-old me—have kept me sane lately

I hope you’ve had a fabulous Thanksgiving. We celebrated here in Chile with an international potluck, with adobo, borgoña, clafouti, olive cake, pisco sours, and friends from all over the world.

Before I get started with today’s post, I’d like to welcome all the new readers who have come to my site in the last few weeks, especially through How to Create Your International Career. I want to thank all of you who have written to me with your stories and questions. You’ve inspired me to write more concrete tips and share more links.

I think personal stories like this one are just as important in building an international life as resume tips or networking tactics. A lot of my experience in China and in Chile has been about creating stability while far from home, especially since my work is always in flux.

The last few months have been trampoline-like, with a steep learning curve. In other words: stressful.

But two activities, specific skills I cultivated way back in high school, have helped keep me sane. And for these, I am thankful.

1. Baking. 

When I was a sophomore in high school, I did a big project for chemistry class on baking. I created an experiment: study the properties of baking powder, baking soda, various types of flour, eggs, sugar, and more; then bake cakes by intentionally ignoring printed recipes, but measuring everything, and tracking (and tasting) the results.

I baked about 30 different cakes. As I recall my parents were less-than-thrilled with this experiment, since I went through tons of groceries and may have been less-than-diligent about cleaning up.

But I remember more specifics from that project than just about anything else in high school. And that has served me well today.

My first recent experiment with baking was driven by nostalgia and illness. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, but this year I had just been diagnosed with bronchitis and was on three kinds of strong medicine. So I couldn’t go out and celebrate.

But I couldn’t bear to let my favorite holiday go by uncelebrated. So I made pumpkin bread (following Elise’s recipe. 16-year-old me might be appalled that I didn’t use measuring spoons! The horror!) And I dusted off last year’s devil wig.  


I’ve since recovered from bronchitis, and have baked a bunch of other breads. Banana bread with strawberries and walnuts. Zucchini bread (though with cilantro rather than rosemary, since that’s what I had on hand.) And more.

Baking reminds me to slow down, to focus, to wait. It reminds me that I can transform simple ingredients into something special. And for that, I am thankful.

2. Treading Water. 

At the same time I was experimenting with recipe-less cakes, water polo was my sport of choice. My chosen position? Goalie. Every afternoon, for most of the year, I jumped towards the corners of the cage, and did all kinds of drills, all while treading water.

Here’s a team photo from those days. I’m in the front row, third from the left. I think this photo still hangs in the halls of Menlo-Atherton High School. Go Bears!

(Thanks Dad for the picture.) Though I haven’t played water polo in more than ten years, I’ve just rediscovered the magic of treading water.

I’ve been going to the pool alone, in the mornings before the shadow rolls in.

Here’s our apartment building’s pool, as seen from the balcony.

the pool. as seen from my apartment.

I tread water. I kick. I stretch. I keep my head out, just as I did in water polo practice, all those years ago. But now, there’s no racing, timing, coaching, or anything like that. The hips and pelvis tend to be tight with emotion,  as I learned from this article by Diana Antholis, and treading water releases this tension.

Thank you, 16-year-old me, for focusing on baking chemistry and water polo practice. 12 years later and thousands of miles away, these bring me joy.

I’m curious: Do you have an activity that you loved many years ago, and have since rediscovered? I’d love to hear about it. 

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  1. Hi Leslie,
    Isn’t baking comforting? I still treasure my favorite recipes from when I was a teenager. Chocolate zucchini cake was the one for me. And my grandmother’s oatmeal raisin cookies. How wonderful it is that our activities from that time appear like gifts today.
    Now the question is, what are you doing today that will be a gift to your future self?

  2. Hi Elise,

    Yes, baking is so comforting! And I appreciate how your recipes help me avoid making the chalky, valley-shaped, and otherwise less-than-successful cakes that I made in that chemistry class experiment. But my expectations are also realistic, since I can appreciate the chemistry.

    What am I doing today that will be a gift to my future self? That is a really good question, one that has been on my mind for the past few days. I think the biggest thing I’m doing today that will be a gift to my future self is continually switching things up to figure out what best suits me. I like to think that this experimentation will help me throughout my life, even as my interests and necessities change over time.

    Hugs to you!

  3. Hi Leslie! So glad treading water is helping you release the tension in your hips. I’d love to swim more often.

    I also love to bake! Your chemistry experiment sounds amazing!

  4. Hi Diana!

    Yes, it’s been amazing. It’s cold and foggy today but hopefully it will be warm again this weekend so I can head to the pool again.

    Haha, what I didn’t mention in this post is that my chemistry experiment involved at least 15 or 20 nasty cakes – with chalky powder inside, or way too much min extract, or a huge valley in the middle instead of a smooth arc. It gave me a lot of respect for well-written recipes and measuring spoons!


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